“Are you an Avenger?” “…Yeah … basically.” Spider-Man: Homecoming

[Image source: Wikipedia]

“Spider-Man,  Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can. Spins a web, any size. Catches thieves, just like flies. Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man.” …So opened the ridiculously ear-wormy theme song to the classic animated Spider-Man TV show from 1967.

And in the past two decades, indeed, here came all the Spider-Men, an army of cinematic treatments and a revolving door cast that rivaled only the Batman and James Bond franchises for the head-spinning number of changes over the years.

Tobey Maguire helped usher in this modern age of comic book blockbuster as Peter Parker in Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy in the early 2000s. While we finally had Marvel movies worthy in scope of that storied company’s impressive legacy, I always found Maguire’s take a bit insipid, whiny and cloying. Yet, Rosemary Harris as Aunt May, Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben, James Franco as Harry Osborn, JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, and Alfred Molina (!) as Doctor Octopus? Sheer perfection.

 

Then, Andrew Garfield swung into the scene as Peter with Emma Stone in tow as Gwen Stacy in Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man pair of films. I thought we’d found our perfect duo, as this real-life/onscreen couple brought a shambling, bumbling, shoe-gazing charm that got us closer to Peter’s time-tested place as the “never can win” anti-Archie Andrews of teen comicdom. The only problem was Garfield and Stone looked like 30-year-olds playing 16 again. We did get another great Aunt May and Uncle Ben in Sally Field and Martin Sheen respectively – I’m sensing a theme here. Maybe those are the roles to play!

Yowza, though, the latest incarnation Spider-Man: Homecoming – directed with gleeful anarchic surety by Jon Watts – gets it just right!  The film stars a Peter Parker for the ages – British actor Tom Holland (Billy Elliot the Musical) – in a pitch perfect blend of winsome geekiness, outer New York boroughs cockiness, and sparkling Broadway dancer agility. This movie is an utter gem.

(What is happening Hollywood? Are you finally hitting your stride with these superhero flicks? Between this latest installment and June’s Wonder Woman, comic book movies have truly found their groove, embracing character and humor and fully leveraging the allegorical nature of these icons to celebrate our common humanity and to explore the dire need for compassion and heart in this little world of ours. And both Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming feel like movies about, dare I say it, real people! I’ll take it.)

For years, the Spider-Man franchise was under sole license to Sony Pictures (in a deal struck in the late 90s before Marvel Studios as we know it now existed). The magic minds at Disney’s Marvel (chiefly president and creative visionary Kevin Feige) couldn’t get their hands on the web-slinger for their “shared universe” of movies that began with the crackerjack first Iron Man film. Oh, how times change. With the ongoing runaway success of Marvel Studios (and the relative box office disappointment of Andrew Garfield’s Amazing Spider-Man series), the suits got to talking, a deal was struck, and Spidey made his first showstopping appearance in Captain America: Civil War. Holland’s brief screen time in that flick all but assured us fanboys that Hollywood finally was getting Ol’ Webhead completely right.

And they sure did. Spider-Man: Homecoming sets the bulk of its action in and around Peter’s unashamedly nerdy high school (Midtown School of Science and Technology) and his shaggy band of friends whose brains are their super power and for whom discovery and analysis and LEGOs and adventure and academic decathlons are waaaay cooler than football games and proms.

The film wisely eschews yet another retelling of Peter’s transformation origin story, and just dives right into the action with a quick recap (no pun intended) of Spider-Man’s involvement in the superhero tensions of Civil War, told of course from a starstruck Millennial’s POV as captured in shaky, grainy video snippets on Peter’s cell phone.

As sunny sweet as Peter’s world is, this is still a planet in pain, suffering the everyday strife of  uncertainty that a costumed crusader battle won’t erupt overhead (nearly as worrisome as what a real-life president may Tweet at any given moment). And just as in our society, there are those who see opportunity in other’s distress.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes (“The Vulture”) whose failure as a legit contractor turns around when he starts stealing and repurposing debris from these superhero battles on the black market. His animosity (and covetousness) toward the one-percenters of the world is evident when he sneers at Robert Downey, Jr.’s visage on a TV screen, “A$$holes who made this mess [Stark’s Avengers] get paid to clean it up [Stark Enterprises’ subsidiary Damage Control].” No one does sad-sack country club-wannabe bitter middle-aged male contempt like Keaton, and this former Batman/Birdman (meta casting if there ever was any) is brilliant in this role.  Oh, and, by the way, Keaton sports big scary robot wings … but this is a Marvel movie after all.

Inevitably, Spider-Man and the Vulture cross paths (and again … and again), with a number of dizzying aerial battles for the action junkies in the crowd. However, what makes their tension work is that both characters are outsiders, scrambling to prove their respective worth to a society that sees them as invisible. (Not to mention a final act twist that I did not see coming and that raises the stakes – and connection – between these two characters exponentially.)

Peter spends most of the film trying to reclaim Tony Stark’s attention, pretending to his fellow students that he has an “internship” with the famed entrepreneur when in reality he spends every night waiting by the phone in the hopes of getting “the call” to join Stark’s Avengers squad permanently. When his buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalan, an utter joy as Peter’s hyperventilating wingman) discovers Peter’s secret identity, he breathlessly inquires, “Are you an AVENGER?” Peter looks aside, with sadness in his eyes and embarrassment in his heart, replying, “Yeah … basically …” The film is rife with punchy/poignant character moments like that.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

So, when The Vulture and Spidey clash, it is from a narrative-driven conflict of needs and philosophies. Keaton’s Vulture keeps his criminal enterprise going to “stick it to the man,” to fund the lavish lifestyle to which he’s now become accustomed, and, thereby, to remind the world he is a force to be reckoned with – not to be tossed aside like the refuse he salvages.

Spider-Man, on the other hand, is certain that by stopping these schemes in their tracks, he will finally get the adulation and validation he desperately craves from Tony Stark and the mainstream superhero community. Each fight between The Vulture and Spider-Man is truly a fight for their lives.

That dramatic tension between Keaton and Holland powers the film but never overwhelms it. Admittedly, most of their fight sequences could have been trimmed by three-to-five minutes each, and the film would have been all the stronger for the cuts.

Ultimately, however, the heart and soul of the film is Peter Parker and his love of family and friends.

Marisa Tomei is dynamite as Aunt May (there we go again), never a victim but always cautious that New York isn’t the limitless playground Peter perceives it to be. Her crack comic timing wrapped in a gauze of May’s world-weary worry is the film’s most essential special effect.  Anyone who still thinks her Oscar for My Counsin Vinny was in error can go take a long leap off a short pier.

Disney Channel alum Zendaya is a revelation as Peter’s acerbic pal Michelle, who sees through the gangly immaturity of her fellow academic decathletes to the potential greatness they offer. Michelle has never met a social cause she didn’t embrace. Her teacher/coach says to her, when she refuses to enter the Washington Monument because it was built by slaves, “Protesting is patriotic.” Damn straight.

And we get great character turns by Tyne Daly as a tough bureaucrat with a decent heart, Donald Glover as a tough hoodlum with an even kinder heart, and Tony Revolori (Grand Budapest Hotel) as a not-so-tough bully with pretty much no heart at all. Revolori, in particular, is fun casting as Parker’s legendary rival Flash Thompson, typically depicted as a Nordic bruiser of a football player. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, he is portrayed by an actor of Guatemalan descent and serves as Parker’s chief competition on the academic decathlon team. Nice.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is, ultimately, a love letter to the American “melting pot.” All shapes and sizes – and ethnicities and races and ages and genders – of humanity are proudly on display, relentlessly pursuing their dreams and proudly challenging the status quo. That is what makes America great. And always has.

Oh, and this is a movie that makes a point to show Spider-Man going back to rescue a cat from a blazing convenience store. And to have Chris Evans channeling his adorably goofy comic side as a Captain America who makes earnest public service announcements against bullying in public schools. That’s my kind of America.

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[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.

 

“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.

Let this be a lesson to comic book nerds everywhere: Marvel Universe Live! at the Palace of Auburn Hills

The Hulk, looking like a big Muppet.

The Hulk, looking like a big Muppet

The Palace

The Palace

Let this be a lesson to comic book nerds everywhere: don’t buy tickets to some superhero extravaganza 18 months in advance on the promise of a state-of-the-art immersive experience in the four-color world of funny book lore.

The stage

The stage

‘Cause a year and a half later, that magical cape-and-spandex fever dream to be? It’s basically Spider-Man Ice Capades … without the ice.

That about sums up the arena-touring Marvel Universe Live! which we had the misfortune of taking in this afternoon at The Palace of Auburn Hills, alongside a lot of gobsmacked kids and their grimacing mothers and fathers.

Captain American arguing with Iron Man about who has the worst lines

Captain American arguing with Iron Man about who has the worst lines

Seriously, if we escape this experience unscathed from the stomach flu or an ear infection, it will be a minor miracle.

The show runs under two hours, including an interminable 25 minute intermission, designed chiefly for parents to empty their wallets at the carny-esque merchandise carts clogging nearly every aisle. It is a Disney enterprise after all.

Oh, what have we done ...

Oh, what have we done …

The plot, or what passes for one, is a hodgepodge of elements cribbed from a decade’s worth of Marvel movies (Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) and a bit or two from the comics (those characters like X-Men or Spider-Man for whom Disney doesn’t necessarily hold the movie rights in Mickey’s four-fingered paw).

The Avengers, or a loose confederation of badly costumed heroes bearing a passing resemblance to said superhero team, are chasing down bits of that damned Tesseract (“Cosmic Cube”) – the boring MacGuffin that has dominated Disney/Marvel’s film output: a glowing device that gets chopped up in a million bits which, if brought back together, will let any number of bad-deed-doers take over the world, monologue an lot, and shake their scaly fists at the sky.

Motorcycles. Lots of motorcycles.

Motorcycles. Lots of motorcycles.

Woo boy.

The show is an enterprise intended for kids, so I should just stop being a jackass and note that, for any child under 10, it will be the. best. freaking. thing. they. have. ever. seen. (I was heartened to see as many girls as boys in the audience, possibly indicating a break in the Disney Princess stranglehold on post-millennial prepubescent gender identity? We can only hope.)

There are motorcycle and aerial stunts aplenty with enough pyrotechnics to make a vintage Van Halen fan weep. The dialogue (the program actually lists a team of writers on this thing, and surprisingly not 18 monkeys in a room of keyboards) is phoned in from somewhere left of the moon, as the poor souls playing these comic book icons are required to lip sync every line. And I thought Britney Spears had it bad … and that ain’t good.

Loki and his vacuum/fish bowls of death

Loki and his vacuum/fish bowls of death

The costumes are pretty hit or miss. Some folks, like big bad Asgardian Loki, are almost note-perfect, while others, like Wolverine, look like they were garbed in leftovers fished from the remainder bin at Halloween City.

Believe it or not, the show has its standout performers (though for all intents and purposes, the actors remain nameless/faceless entities).

Spider-Man is a hoot, assigned the zippiest quips (not saying much) and imbued with an acrobatic whimsy that comes as a welcome relief from all the paper-doll posturing on-stage. Captain America is a delight as well, with some great stunt work and a bit of the light comedy his eponymous films wring from Cap’s anachronistic circumstances.

Spider-Man hitching a ride from his buddy Green Goblin

Spider-Man hitching a ride from his buddy Green Goblin

The backdrop

The backdrop

For the true comic nerds in audience? For middle-aged people, like yours truly, who have no business going to a show like this, at least without the cover-story of dragging a niece or nephew or random neighbor kid grudgingly along?

Finale ... thank heavens

Finale … thank heavens

Well, for geeks like us, the joys are limited. You get to see some random fan-favorite characters like Captain Marvel, Black Cat, assorted AIM Agents (with those silly beekeeper outfits), and Madame Hydra in the flesh, and there are some nifty items in the merchandise booth (the program with commemorative comic book and a few of the shirts are keepers). Otherwise, just stay home, save your moolah, and revisit your old super-favorites the way we always have … by reading.

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Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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.

San Diego, Part the Second: San Diego Zoo, Jimmy Kimmel, Disneyland, La Jolla seals, Hollywood … and dirty jokes

1 Zoo Kids2 Zoo Kids 2Earlier this week, I gave you a glimpse into my “professional” side (or as professional as I ever get), sharing some material from my presence at the 30th annual Legal Marketing Association national conference in San Diego.

5 PandasBut I also promised I would share some of the tacky tourist-y stuff ‘cause if there’s anything this blog does well, it’s tacky! (Loads of photos documenting these adventures can be found here.)

3 Zoo Kids 3During some rare downtime at the conference, my talented, silly, kind-hearted, slightly nutty pals Lindsay Griffiths, Gail Lamarche, Nancy Myrland, and Laura and Josh Toledo (along with yours truly) spent an afternoon at the internationally renowned San Diego Zoo. (Remember watching the zoo’s countless animal ambassadors as some of Johnny Carson’s most memorable guests on The Tonight Show throughout the 70s and 80s? I sure do.)

Now, as a pretty vocal animal rights proponent, I’m not generally a fan of zoos, circuses, animal-centered theme parks, aquariums, or any place where animals are used (incarcerated?) for entertainment, amusement, revenue, or souvenir sales.

4 Arctic WolfHowever, my buddies made the wise choice to sign up for the Backstage Pass tour, which not only offers the ability to get up close and personal with animals as diverse as a rhinoceros and a cheetah, flamingos and an arctic wolf (the latter of which brought me to happy tears), but also provides a thoughtful review of the zoo’s ecological mission to educate and protect. Much information was provided to attendees about what products to buy (and not buy) that will protect these animals’ native habitats (e.g. sustainable harvesting of palm oil) as well as what we as individuals can do to save these beautiful creatures from extinction. I was also struck by the deep-feeling, kind-hearted animal handlers who had such obvious kinship with these exquisite animals. That cross-species bond is powerful and moving to observe.

6 Zoo KidsAs for the park itself, it is beautifully done, if veering dangerously close to a theme park’s epic scope and merchandising mania. I might have been less inclined to forgive that excess had we not attended the tour, so I highly recommend the add-on if you plan to visit the zoo, particularly if you are bringing kids (of all ages).

But, word to the wise, don’t even attempt to follow the zoo’s colorfully muddled maps. We got lost about 18 times, having to pass through the aviary about 12 of those 18 times and seemingly walking up (steep) hills everywhere. In fact, I can’t recall us ever walking downhill. It’s like being immersed in an MC Escher painting.

At the conclusion of the conference, John and I headed to Hollywood, baby. And Hollywood is gross.

8 JimmyAfter scoring tickets to a taping (yes, taping) of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live (which ain’t so live … spoiler alert), we headed to a pre-show lunch at amazing vegetarian chain VeggieGrill. How are these not all over the country yet? With an astounding array of choices, breezy décor, fabulous staff, and just the right amount of corporate polish, this was easily my favorite food stop of the trip. And others seemed to concur as the line to get in (you order at a counter and they bring you your food when ready) extended outside the building, the patrons being a glorious collection of hipsters, studio employees, computer programmers, blue-haired genre geeks, and regular joes. I loved it.

7 MarioKimmel’s studio is smack dab on Hollywood Boulevard, with patiently waiting audience members queuing across the starry Walk of Fame (I’m pretty sure I stood atop Mario Lanza for about 45 minutes) and facing the Hollywood & Highland mall complex which houses the Oscar Awards venue The Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theatre.

The process of getting into Kimmel’s eponymous show? Not so great. Unless you enjoy standing for a couple hours in the hot California sun while skeezily assertive street performers dressed like Spider-Man, Minnie Mouse, and Don King (!) accost you for photo ops … and for your wallet.

9 Jimmy 2Once inside (Kimmel tapes in a former Masonic Temple), you are struck by how small the studio is. If you ever visited a local TV station newsroom, it’s not much bigger, but darn is Kimmel’s floor SHINY! I think it was mopped half a dozen times while we sat patiently waiting for Kimmel to arrive.

And once Kimmel arrived, things got all kinds of crazy? Right? Wrong.

Sadly, Kimmel in person seems like a cipher on his own program. The sweet, sparkly production assistant who got all of us situated in our seats had more zip and personality (and likely should have his own show). Kimmel wasn’t bad but he didn’t do a heckuva lot to engage his audience (creating even more irony around that “live” descriptor). When the cameras were on or guests would arrive, Kimmel lit up, but the minute cameras went dark, he would hang in a gloomy corner, looking downward at that eerily glistening floor. Perhaps that is just his process to retain his focus, but it stood in stark relief to the impish Kimmel persona that has been burnished over the years by the Mouse House.

10 Jamie FoxxAs for Kimmel’s guests, we were treated to two musical performances by and an interview with Jamie Foxx (on hand to launch his new album, oddly enough titled Hollywood) and an appearance by legendary Betty White. It was the latter guest that got the biggest response from us (and the entire audience for that matter). She was as charming and sly, sweet and gracious as you might expect. And Foxx, of course, was a live wire, exuding charm and energy. (Though at times he seemed like that show choir kid you hated in high school … you know the one, right? Look at me! Look at me!)

11 DickyI also had a special treat in meeting Dicky Barrett, Kimmel’s announcer and the lead singer for a college favorite band of mine The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. He was warm and funny and an absolute pleasure, kindly accepting copies of my books as a gift to him and to the show. (I hope they don’t mind my snark in the preceding paragraphs. That’s just how I roll.)

I should add that I was going through my own personal hell watching the show unfold. I had told everyone (including my parents) to watch the broadcast that evening and to look for us in the audience, only to feel totally mortified by how “blue” the humor skewed that particular episode. I’m no prude, but you know that particular phenomenon you feel as an adult watching something a little risqué in the company of your parents? That hot, clammy, bottom-fell-out-of-the-elevator feeling that creeps over you? Well, the minute Foxx launched into his musical interpretation of sundry Tinder (!) profiles, I thought I might die. (If you didn’t see the show, just let your mind wander … and then go a little filthier than that.)

And the next day we went to Disneyland …

12 Cali DreaminSpecifically, Disney’s California Adventure, which holds the dubious distinction of being a theme park in California dedicated to attractions about California that you could basically drive an hour or two in any direction in California and see in person in California. It wins the prize for one-stop shopping, and, to its credit, no one gropes you, picks your pockets, or tells a naughty joke!

16 Chip n DaleIn all seriousness, it is a beautiful park and, like Epcot, ideal for a meandering stroll. The actual rides seem few and far between, a fact which, as I plummet through middle age, was fine by me. From a vintage boardwalk (replete with Ferris wheel, carny games, and a truly terrifying roller coaster) to a quaint wharf district to chilled out wine country, there’s a “land” for every taste.

14 CozyMy favorite, hand’s down, was the recently added “Cars Land,” a pitch perfect recreation of the settings from Pixar’s critically-reviled but wildly popular Cars movie franchise.

13 McQueenThe utter immersion in a world populated by life-size, anthropomorphic autos is an intoxicating fever dream (and I don’t think it’s because I was hopped up on DayQuil from my unsurprising “oh, I’ve been on a plane and at a conference and now I have a cold” cold). Even if you hated the films (and a lot of adults seem to – I don’t), you will be floored when Doc Hudson or Lightning McQueen roll by and offer you a pleasant salutation. Well played, Imagineeers!

15 CarsSpecial thanks to my longtime pal (and fellow Deloitte Consulting alum) Ratana Therakulsathit, now a happy Angelino and successful actress and voiceover artist, for being our expert Disney tour guide. We’d still be wandering lost around the ticketing area if not for her. Please check out her website, including samples of her exceptional work, here.17 Beauty Beast

We rounded out our trip to California with a stop in La Jolla, a place that is not only vegetarian friendly (I felt like we were back in Ann Arbor, only with better climate, exceptional views, and prettier people) but also seal and sea lion friendly.

18 SealsLocals and tourists alike share La Jolla’s sandy beaches with a playful and relaxed population of seals and sea lions. Live and let live, dude. I could get used to that.

19 SealThere are plenty of signs that caution you not to touch or approach the animals as they will become understandably territorial, but a resident told us that if you swim in the water and let the seals just be, well, seals, they will come up to you and want to play. Now that is my idea of the perfect vacation!

(Photos throughout by Lindsay Griffiths, Gail Lamarche, Nancy Myrland, Laura and Josh Toledo, Ratana Therakulsathit, John Mola, and yours truly.)

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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 you satisfied with your care? That’ll do, Bay. That’ll do. Big Hero 6

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]

When I heard that Disney was going to start mining its ownership of Marvel for future animated properties, I admit my blood (unnecessarily) ran to ice water. This corporate marriage of Mouse House and House of Ideas has yielded a remarkable run of quirky and thrilling and poignant live-action cinematic blockbusters, rife with whimsy and adventure. However, the idea of Spider-Man potentially swinging his way through a princess fairytale musical extravaganza gave me pause.

I should’ve known better. These guys aren’t messing around.

Big Hero 6, Disney Animation’s latest offering, based on an obscure Marvel comic about teenagers saving the world in some indeterminate polyglot future world, absolutely sparkles. I was a lone-dissenting voice in my distaste for Frozen, and, while I enjoyed Wreck-It Ralph, I thought it got rather lazy in its final act. However, Big Hero 6 is perfection.

This latest addition to the Disney canon has its feet planted firmly in the superhero genre, and, while comfortably familiar (it is Disney/Marvel after all), it takes the conceit to new humanistic heights. The tried-and-true Disney themes of family and acceptance and kindness and altruism and championing the underdog are all gloriously on display, but they are infused with a hyper-charged cheekiness that we typically only see over at corporate cousin Pixar.

The story relates the life of two loving brothers, who having lost their parents, now live with their aunt (voiced warmly by Maya Rudolph) above a bakery in San Fransokyo. One can only presume at some point in the near future, the Pacific Ocean dries up, with Tokyo and San Francisco inevitably meeting “urban spawl cute” somewhere in the middle. Or something.

Older brother Tadashi is a robotics expert at the local university, and his younger brother, Hiro, equally bright, aspires to join him. They are surrounded by a colorful and sweet group of friends, a United Colors of Benetton with brains and self-awareness. These are misfits for our modern age, open-hearted kids who embrace their intelligence, see the world as a playground of opportunity, and wear the term “nerd “as a badge of honor.

It wouldn’t be a Disney movie, if there were not some tragic death that prompts the narrative to action. Someday someone needs to write a thesis on that inherent dark heart in all the Disney “magic.” Tadashi and his beloved professor Callaghan (voiced perfectly by the always dependable James Cromwell) disappear in a tragic accident, and Hiro and his pals must band together to solve the mystery (and thereby overcome their heartache … paging Joseph Campbell).

And, like any Disney or Marvel film, we are introduced to an instantly unforgettable character – the kind of character who should have absolutely no appeal but who, though the power of design, voice, and script, somehow enters the halls of classic animated sidekicks the moment he steps on screen.

Before his disappearance, Tadashi had invented a medical robot named Baymax, a large squishy creature, one part marshmallow, one part Michelin Man, and one part unadulterated love. Baymax lives to heal, having been designed as a one-stop walking/talking urgent care facility, and his life’s work becomes the central metaphor throughout the entire film … in a way, rather ingeniously undermining the genre. So many of these movies use violence to bring peace, but in Baymax’s case,  his very design (and every intention) is to use peace and love to end violence and heartache.

The film is most enjoyable in its first half, as it establishes the relationships among these thoughtfully drawn characters. It is a rich and diverse cast, and I applaud that the filmmakers are able to offer us nuance and depth for each and every member of the cast in the film’s lean 90-minute running time (with nary a fart joke to be had).

The film also looks gorgeous. As I said, it quite literally sparkles. I don’t know that I have ever seen an animated film, to this date, in our computer-generated era, that is so immersive and so beautiful and so fluid. It is a treat to watch, and likely will benefit from repeated viewings.

AND, don’t miss the lovely animated short that precedes it, Feast (from the same team that crafted the glorious Paperman) – an affectionate ode to animal rescue, the joys of food, and the ability of one little dog to bring a family together.

One of Baymax’s signature lines is the query, “Are you satisfied with your care?” Indeed, this evening at the movies fit the bill. That’ll do, Bay. That’ll do.

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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.

Guest “Homeward Angle” column – Don Draper redeemed … Million Dollar Arm (redux)

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]

My mom’s latest Homeward Angle column is actually written by yours truly – as she notes here

“I’m turning my column this month over to my kid Roy ‘Inky’ Sexton (www.reelroyreviews.com). I was so taken by the message in this review he did of a movie I absolutely loved – Million Dollar Arm – that I wanted to share it with you. The concepts of appreciation and of kindness, of living in the moment and of acknowledging the contributions of others are so crucial, no matter your background or philosophy. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did! … and I am Don Draper’s and Jerry Van Dyke’s love child, I figured out! You can read his original post here.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Below is the scanned copy of the column … enjoy! Find out more about my mom, her books, columns, and other writing at www.susieduncansexton.com – I’m very proud of her!

For those of you in the Fort Wayne, Indiana-area, save the date as she filmed an episode of the “Patty’s Page” talk show with wonderful Patty Hunter. The show will air Saturday, June 7, 5:30 pm and Sunday, June 8, 9:30 am on 55 (comcast) and 25 (frontier). For those not in Northeast Indiana, the show will also be posted by Patty on YouTube shortly following the broadcast.

Million Dollar Arm Column

Here’s an excerpt from the column: “No one can play an admirable cad quite like Hamm, and, as noted above, he is subtle perfection, no easy feat in a Disney summer blockbuster. His transformation from a machine who views his fellow man as ‘investments’ to someone who appreciates the heart and soul, fears and hopes intrinsic in us all is more inspiring than any slow-mo, symphonic-scored baseball-pitching at the film’s conclusion.”

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]

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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.

Don Draper redeemed: Disney’s Million Dollar Arm

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]

Everything in life is a transaction. Success of any kind – be it in love, in wealth, or in notoriety – comes with a price. This was certainly the central theme of last winter’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and it’s the key message of the decidedly more humane and lovable summer Disney flick Million Dollar Arm, starring Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm.

Yes, snooty cineastes, I just compared a feel-good Mouse House sports movie to a Scorsese-helmed orgy of sex, drugs, and Leo DiCaprio. Like it or lump it.

I loved every minute of Million Dollar Arm, which, like Wolf, offers us a predatory anti-hero whose adoration of a life fueled by supermodels, million dollar paychecks, sleek Porsches and swanky mid-century Eames chairs gives him license to try one get-richer scheme after another. Unlike Wolf, however, when our hero J.B. Bernstein (Hamm) hits bottom, he doesn’t double down and snort a yacht-ful of cocaine; rather, he finds the joy of unconventional family, risks his pristine world for the future success of others, and rediscovers his soul. Don Draper redeemed.

(Don’t get me wrong, I was a big fan of The Wolf of Wall Street as well – see here – and I suspect no one else in their right mind would compare the two … but I’ve never claimed normality.)

My parents were gaga over Million Dollar Arm too, with my mother emailing me, “An exceptional low-key film concentrating on human beings … happens to deal with sports incidentally, else I would not have loved it so! Hamm blends in and does not play ‘leading man’! Terrific film undeniably!” I couldn’t agree more with that succinct and apt assessment.

I’m not a sports fan either, but Disney has a marvelous track record for co-opting sports (MiracleGlory Road, The RookieInvincibleRemember the Titans, to name a few of my favorites) as tear-jerking, heart-tugging metaphors for underdogs overcoming daunting adversity – ageism, racism, xenophobia, socioeconomic disparity, classism, sexism … heck, even species-ism (yup, Air Bud, I’m talking about you and all your countless direct-to-video sequels and spin-offs). Million Dollar Arm is no exception, and likely is my favorite one to date.

In short, Hamm plays a Jerry Maguire-esque sports agent whose days are numbered. He loses a key client that could have turned his fortunes around, and, in a very funny twist of remote control fate, he finds himself inspired by late-night channel-surfing between Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed a Dream” and an Indian cricket tournament. He heads to India to scout out potential cricket players whom he can transform via American Idol-style pageantry into star American baseball pitchers. It is his last hope to reignite his sputtering career.

No one can play an admirable cad quite like Hamm, and, as noted above, he is subtle perfection, no easy feat in a Disney summer blockbuster. His transformation from a machine who views his fellow man as “investments” to someone who appreciates the heart and soul, fears and hopes intrinsic in us all is more inspiring than any slow-mo, symphonic-scored baseball-pitching at the film’s conclusion.

Hamm’s Bernsetin does find two potential baseball stars in Dinesh Patel (portrayed by a transfixing Madhur Mittal of Slumdog Millionaire) and Rinku Singh (played by Life of Pi‘s Suraj Sharma, also very affecting). He brings the two young men back to America, after a moving sequence where the boys’ families bid farewell with a heady mix of anxiety and aspiration. Dinesh and Rinku are accompanied by a manager of sorts, the very funny and very sweet Amit Rohan, portrayed by Pitobash. There are ups and downs as Dinesh and Madhur make their way to the inevitably uplifting conclusion, and, while some of the narrative is unsurprisingly predictable (it is a Disney movie, after all), the warmth and the humanity of all involved help keep the enterprise fresh and engaging.

The remaining cast members are all gems as well: Lake Bell’s sunny-but-pragmatic “Ms. Brenda” who rents Bernstein’s guest house and breaks into everyone’s heart; Bill Paxton’s left-of-center coach Tom House who cares as much if not more about heart and mind as he does body; Alan Arkin doing that same old (but still delightful) Alan Arkin-thing as Ray, a scout who assists Bernstein in India; Aasif Mandvi bringing light comic relief as Bernstein’s exasperated business partner; and Allyn Rachel as Bernstein’s helium-voiced assistant.

In a summer filled with mutants and dinosaurs and robots and spider-men (all of which I do indeed cherish myself), Million Dollar Arm is a welcome respite. It’s nice to spend two hours with human beings struggling as we all do with this human condition and how to make it through life without having a nervous breakdown. Million Dollar Arm is indeed a quiet film, albeit burnished in Disney gold, quietly inspiring in its message that no matter how preoccupied we may become with the material trappings of life, we can still stop, do the right thing, and appreciate those people who need us and love us.

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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.

If Ernest Borgnine had been dropped in a vat of angry electric eels: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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]

Between the ubiquitous marketing onslaught, the gaggle of colorful villains, the four-quadrant prestige casting, and the manically overeager trailers, I walked into summer 2014’s kick-off blockbuster The Amazing Spider-Man 2 dreading an overstuffed, overbaked, underdeveloped camp-fest like Batman & Robin or X-Men Origins: Wolverine or … The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Just kidding on that last reference, though I really did hate that movie.)

Color me surprised (sort of).

I adored the 2012 reboot starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. I thought director Marc Webb hit all the right notes of scruffy young angst, of familial love and resentment, and of just making ends meet and getting through a day … let alone having your life extra-complicated after having been bitten by a radioactive spider. The Sam Raimi films with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, while zippy and fun, just never really felt that grounded to me.

Blessedly, those relatable elements remain, though they are buried under a mountain of back-story and subplots. Garfield is winsome and charming as Peter Parker/Spider-Man – imagine if Anthony Perkins grew up a Millennial hipster and played a haunted spandex-ed superhero who hid his pain under glib one-liners and silly puns. And Stone as girlfriend Gwen Stacy is the perfect foil, more than holding her own amongst car crashes and emo dates alike. I will admit to finding their snappy teen repartee a bit cloying at times, but generally they remain the heart and soul of this series.

Sally Field also returns as Peter’s Aunt May, bringing free-floating yet fiercely protective anxiety and determined iron will to the role. She has one scene (as Field seems to in every movie in which she appears) that brought me to tears while I cheered her on – a quiet scene where she asserts once and for all that while she may not be Peter’s mother, she raised him and is the only family that counts.

Other cast members include Jamie Foxx as nebbish-turned-power-mad-demigod Max Dillon/Electro, Dane DeHaan as Parker’s childhood-pal-turned-chief nemesis Harry Osborn/Green Goblin, and a criminally underutilized Paul Giamatti (though if he’d been used properly, the movie would have been four hours long, instead of two and a half) as a scenery-chewing (literally) Russian-mobster-turned-mechanical Rhino.

Thematically, the film turns on a central concept of “being seen.” Gwen Stacy wants to know she has true value in Peter’s life. Aunt May wants Peter to know the sacrifices she has made to protect him at much cost to her own happiness. Osborn wants to redeem himself in the eyes of an industrialist father (Chris Cooper) who shipped him off to boarding schools like he was disposing of a pest.

And most overtly, Max/Electro wants the world to acknowledge his presence and his contributions in the moment, not to steal his ideas, and to simply remember his name. Some may find Jamie Foxx’s performance hammy (it is just shy of Jim Carrey’s Riddler in Batman Forever); I found it compelling. To me, Foxx walks a fine line between comic book silliness and heartfelt poignancy, giving us a Marty-style loser … that is if Ernest Borgnine had been dropped in a vat of angry electric eels and garnered lightning powers as a result.

I enjoyed this film a lot, but it is way too long and tries to accomplish too much. Yes, comic book fanboys, like yours truly, love to see all manner of minutiae from fifty years of four-color canon honored (and reinvented) on the big screen. But, we also like to see compelling movies well-made that tell a story efficiently, effectively, and seemingly effortlessly.

Unfortunately, I could feel the gears grinding together a few too many times in Amazing Spider-Man 2 as Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci labored to stitch together countless disparate threads. I also could feel the Sony studio heads rubbing their hands together with money-grubbing glee as they planned out the multitude of spin-offs and sequels that this flick might generate.

Regardless, the movie is an exceptionally entertaining enterprise, and that is chiefly due to a crackerjack cast that imbues the material with generous spirit, empathetic soul, sparkling wit, and loving heart.

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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.

This isn’t Disney’s first dance in Oz: Oz the Great and Powerful

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So I have always loved The Wizard of Oz. Not just the 1939 MGM classic film, but all of the books and the various spin-offs/prequels/sequels/reboots/homages/ rip-offs over the years. I even adore Sidney Lumet’s infamous box office disaster The Wiz.

And, now, we have the latest in a long line: Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful. This isn’t Disney’s first dance in Oz. The company, including Walt himself, has rather famously circled the property since the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Most notably, Disney tried to create a movie Oz franchise nearly 30 years ago with the dark and kinda creepy Return to Oz, a movie I also really liked, given its thematic commitment to L. Frank Baum’s original books. But it too was box office poison. (In fact, if I recall, the original Wizard of Oz was pretty tepidly received in its day.)

So how will this James Franco tentpole fair? Disney seems to have its marketing machine in high gear (though that didn’t much help last year’s John Carter) and the subject matter and approach align well with other recent hits like Tim Burton’s bloated-but-uber-successful Alice in Wonderland. I’m guessing this may be the first Oz film to be an unequivocal box office smash in its original run.

Too bad it’s just not a better film.

I enjoyed a lot of it, but the whole thing feels trapped in a CGI/soundstage bubble. There’s just not enough genuine humor, wit, or tension to make it feel like anything but a mammoth cash grab from the Disney empire.

(Note: theme park competitor Universal owns the rights to Broadway musical Wicked, which takes a similar “what happened before Dorothy got there approach.” I couldn’t help reflecting that this was Disney’s attempt to get their version of the story told first, make buckets o’ cash, and then get cracking on some new animatronic theme park attractions before Universal even leaves the starting blocks. Hmmmm…)

Rachel Weisz as one of the three witches of Oz is the only one who seems to be having any fun at all. I’m not a fan, but she gives her Evanora a nice zippy crackle that the rest of the film lacks. James Franco is in fully charmy/smarmy “Franco!” mode, and he’s perfectly serviceable. Mila Kunis alas seems to sleepwalk through her rather pivotal turn as Evanora’s sister – I won’t spoil the surprise, though I understand the merchandise from the Disney Store already has. And Michelle Williams as Glinda has a cute moment or two but mostly seems to be channeling a fluffier version of her uncanny Marilyn Monroe impersonation from My Week with Marilyn.

That is a whole mess of Oscar winners/nominees for this enterprise to be as flat as it is. However, there are a couple of reasonably cute CGI sidekicks – China Girl and a flying monkey named Fenley. They get the best lines but unfortunately seem like refugees from the inevitable Wii U video game to come.

Director Sam Raimi, unfortunately left most traces of his adventurous and sardonic wit with the Spider-Man franchise, and this overly long film suffers for it.  Seriously, cut 20 minutes from this behemoth and there would have been a really good Wonderful World of Disney TV movie in there. Somewhere.

Yes, the movie will make a lot of moolah. Some people may even enjoy it…I will say the exciting conclusion almost made me forget how bored I was by the first 90 minutes of set up. And I daresay we won’t have to wait another 30 years for Disney’s next bite at the Oz apple. Sigh.