“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.

“If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Florence Foster Jenkins

[Image Source: WIkipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Sometimes Hollywood just makes sweet movies. Not often. Just sometimes. These are the movies that you remember from your youth, not completely great films, but kind-hearted ones where people’s common humanity is celebrated, where decency is rewarded, and where foibles are accepted and embraced, not pilloried in some sort of zero-sum football match – loving, slightly creaky movies you would have discovered at the far end of the television dial, some weekday afternoon, when you were home from school sick with the flu.

Two such movies are rolling through your local cineplexes now, quietly charming audiences in the shadow of more cynical, merchandisable fare like Suicide Squad. I happened to catch Florence Foster Jenkins and Pete’s Dragon in a double feature on a warm summer weekday afternoon, no flu required, and I’m glad I did.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pete’s Dragon is the much stronger film. The original 1977 Disney film combined one-dimensional animation, even more one-dimensional performances (who thought Helen Reddy was a good idea?), and treacly songs (“Candle on the Water,” anyone? nah, I didn’t think so) into a forgettable diversion consistent with the Mouse House’s lousy Me Decade offerings (Apple Dumpling Gang … blech).

The new Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery wisely jettisons everything from the original flick, save the boy and his dog … er … dragon conceit, giving us a smart and deeply affecting parable on ecology, tolerance, and the healing power of companionship. Pete (played with a feral wariness by Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in an unidentified Pacific Northwest woods when his parents run the family station wagon off the road to avoid hitting a deer (Bambi’s revenge?). Pete is discovered by large, green, furry, canine-like dragon whom Pete quickly names Elliot, after a puppy in a beloved book Elliot Gets Lost. (I said the movie was good; I didn’t say it was subtle.)

Years pass, and Pete and Elliot carve out a pastoral existence, spending their days at play in the woods, sheltered at night in a cave filled with the discarded refuse of humanity (think The Black Stallion meets The Goonies). However, this wouldn’t be a summer movie without some narrative tension, and it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some wholesome, well-intentioned, plucky, small-town intervention narrative tension. Along comes Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, a forest ranger, instantly more believable than the thousand false notes she played as an opportunistic theme park executive in Jurassic World, fighting a losing battle against the foresting company owned by her own fiance Jack (American Horror Story‘s Wes Bentley – about as creepily cardboard as he always is). Pete’s curiosity about these Disneyfied people gets the better of him, he reveals himself, and, in a series of predictable plot points, Pete and Elliot are separated by (in order) hospital rooms, child protective services, and Jack’s skeezy, gun-loving brother Gavin (Star Trek‘s sparkling Karl Urban, who knows how to play a ridiculous cad without chewing too much scenery).

Lowery borrows liberally from the Spielberg school of mid-80s family film-making, and Spielberg himself was beholden to an encyclopedic obsession with films of his youth. One might argue that every Spielberg children’s movie seems to be trying to right any emotional damage that Old Yeller may have caused a young Steven. Lowery even wisely sets Pete’s Dragon in a pre-cell-phone late 70s/early 80s (never completely defined), when a child would see nature with wonder and not as a backdrop by which to catch the latest Pokemon Go creature.

Elliot, the dragon, is a marvel of movie design and animation, rarely exhibiting any of the jarring disconnects from reality CGI can sometimes cause – the work here is fluid and warm and fantastic and heartbreaking. Elliot never speaks and relays sensitivities the way a dog or cat might, through undulating body language and heavy sighs, sideways glances and guttural noises. Elliot is at once the film’s center and periphery, a guide and a protector yet also a victim of the cruel whims of serendipity and fate … which is pretty consistent with how humans treat any and all animals, in fact.

And that is likely Lowery’s point. Robert Redford is cast as Grace’s father Meacham, the town eccentric whose claims of meeting a dragon in the woods decades prior have fueled a host of urban legends and have alienated him from all but the town’s youngest denizens. Early in the film, Meacham foreshadows what is yet to come with the line, “If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Toward the film’s conclusion, when it’s pretty damn evident there is a dragon living in the woods, Grace asks her father to tell her what really happened all those years ago. Meacham looks at Grace (after relating how Elliot hates guns … thank you!) and says, “I looked at that dragon. And he looked at me. And we were at peace. Something changed in me that day, and I could never look at you or any other creature the same way again.” Yeah, I cried buckets.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Florence Foster Jenkins on the other hand may change the way any of us ever look at amateur singers or any other aspiring creative type again. Or not. Long before American Idol, people in this country treated singing competitions like gladiator sport. We applaud and cheer the Susan Boyles or the Kelly Clarksons who may defy our expectations with voices like angels, but we guffaw and leer at the William Hungs or Sanjaya Malakars for whom “pitchy” is the best compliment anyone can muster. We can be exceedingly cruel as a culture; the dark side of our Horatio Alger tendencies.

The film, directed in workmanlike fashion by Stephen Frears (The QueenPhilomena), is a wartime snapshot of the title character’s days and nights as a wealthy patron of the musical arts in New York City and as a woefully untalented vocalist with a shockingly tin ear. Alas, as portrayed by Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash, Into the Woods), Jenkins comes off (no pun intended) as rather one-note. Not unlike an episode of the aforementioned American Idol, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are making fun of Jenkins or celebrating her unabashed moxie. Maybe I’m a bit simplistic, but trying to have it both ways with a character who cuts a more tragic than comic figure could be mistaken for cruelty.

In fact, Florence, (spoiler alert) on her deathbed, asks her dutiful (yet dubiously motivated) husband St. Clair (portrayed with surprising nuance by Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant) if all this time everyone has been laughing at her. It’s intended to be a devastating self-realization. In fact, everyone has been laughing at her, including us. The film takes comic glee is showing how Jenkins’ simian-like vocalizations send audiences into apoplexy, so it’s a bit tough (akin to emotional whiplash) to suddenly invoke our sympathy after indulging our baser instincts.

That said, the film is a pleasant lark with more sweet than sour at its core. Like the BBC production it is, the film is a clutch of fussy mannerisms and pop-eyed reaction shots. Streep is as hammy as we’ve seen her in years, if her Julia Child from Julie and Julia had spent a long afternoon with her Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. Grant does a fine job complementing and contextualizing Streep’s performance (partly it’s the design of his role as Florence’s major domo and consigliere), and there is a lot of joy in watching him out of love, sweetness, and survival clear one hurdle after another, shielding Florence from the worst of her detractors and hangers on. In hiring a new accompanist for his tone-deaf wife, St. Clair delineates to Cosme McMoon (a pleasantly neurotic Simon Helberg, playing a soft-spoken variation on his Big Bang Theory‘s Howard Wolowitz) some of the more eccentric rules of the house: “The chairs are not for practical use. They honor those who died in them. Are you fond of sandwiches? And potato salad? We have mountains of the stuff.” Grant’s delivery, a perfect blend of pragmatism, wonder, and self-interest, should have been the tone the entire film took.

Regardless, if you are seeking solace from a summer move season filled with smart aleck mutants and half-baked sequels, frat boy comedies and nihilistic explosions, go check out the dragon  (and Robert Redford) and stay for the potato salad (and Hugh Grant).

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Bonus: If you missed this summer’s production of Xanadu, enjoy this video footage!

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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.

“It’s hard to feel grounded when even the gravity is artificial.” Captain Kirk, sweetie, darling: Star Trek Beyond and Absolutely Fabulous the Movie

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Turning a beloved television series into a motion picture event and expanding the small screen confines to cinematic vistas can yield remarkable results (The Untouchables, Addams Family Values, 21 Jump Street, Charlie’s Angels, Sex and the City) or abysmal ones (Coneheads, Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Wild Wild West, Sex and the City 2). Admittedly, it’s a tricky gambit, balancing the crushing demands of commerce and misplaced nostalgia with heightened expectations of scale and postmodern reinvention. There is bound to be disappointment.

So color me refreshed that two TV-based film reboots Star Trek Beyond and Absolutely Fabulous the Movie (viewed this weekend after finally digging out from a month or so of Xanadu preparation and performance) achieved more right than wrong on the big screen. Obviously, Trek has been at this movie blockbuster game longer than our intrepid British boozehound fashionistas Patsy Stone and Edina Monsoon, but, in both instances, the films translate all the character beats and shenanigans expected while sufficiently bringing our heroes into larger-than-boob-tube-life environs.

Star Trek Beyond continues the sleek, comic, well-acted renaissance begun by J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) with Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. Beyond copious lens flares and consummate 1960s-mod-for-21st-Century-millennials art direction, Abrams’ best contribution to the franchise has been a beautifully curated cast of actors (Into the Woods‘ Chris Pine, American Horror Story‘s Zachary Quinto, Harold and Kumar‘s John Cho, Dredd‘s Karl Urban, Paul‘s Simon Pegg, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Zoe Saldana, and the late Anton Yelchin of Fright Night) who leverage the iconic DNA of those d-list actors who came before (respectively, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, DeForrest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig), adding irreverent sparkle and authentic character development to give us a Trek with appeal that extends far beyond the madding comic-con crowd.

This latest installment, ably directed by The Fast and the Furious-franchise vet Justin Lin with a seamless stylistic transition from Abrams’ offerings, is all-popcorn all the time with one dizzying set piece after another. In fact, the first act firefight between The Enterprise and the swarm-like armada of Krall is so manic the audience is likely in need of Dramamine for the rest of the picture. A strange hybrid of Darth Vader and The Beast from Beauty and the Beast, Krall is played adequately by an unrecognizable Idris Alba (Luther) … continuing the regrettable habit of the Abrams-era Trek films wasting fabulous actors – Eric Bana, Benedict Cumberbatch – as half-baked, forgettable villains.  Krall is after some cosmic doodad so he can destroy a Federation space station called Yorktown (if MC Escher had designed the Death Star in partnership with the Wizard of Oz and The United Colors of Benetton). Y’see, Krall hates the Federation for, in essence, stealing a plot point from the movie Event Horizon (kidding, sort of), and his scheme to destroy them borrows heavily from Return of the Jedi‘s Moon of Endor sequence with a sprinkling of Avatar‘s don’t trust anyone/unity vs. divisiveness narrative polemic. I admit that last bit resonated a bit more than it probably should have, given the GOP’s national mob rally … er … convention this past week.

To be honest, the plot doesn’t matter (in a good way) as the film borrows its retro structure from classic Trek episodes when the core crew gets split up planet-side and pairs off in unconventional ways to defeat the big bad wolf and demonstrate how diversity brings strength, ingenuity, and great one-liners. We get a fun new character in Kingsman‘s Sofia Boutella (“Jaylah”), a resourceful ghost-faced alien/feminist warrior with an affinity for gangster rap (“classical music” to the rest of the crew, or, as she states, “I like the beat and the yelling”) who, more or less solves every crisis single-handedly. And probably deserves her own film (#ImWithAlienHer).

absolutely-fabulous-the-movie-poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of an inconsequential plot, Absolutely Fabulous the Movie is as fizzy as a freshly opened bottle of Bollinger champagne and with just as little nutritional value. Like Chris Pine’s Kirk and company, Jennifer Saunders’ Eddy and Joanna Lumley’s Patsy wink at the camera, knowing full well the audience is as interested in how they ridicule the source material as celebrate it. AbFab ran in the early-to-mid 90s on the BBC and on Comedy Central (with a few additional seasons and TV movies for good measure into the 2000s). The series relentlessly skewered celebrity-culture well before it was such. a. thing. (Thanks, TMZ and Perez Hilton and Kardashians … for nothing.) And Patsy and Edina with their chemically-altered lives and propensity for fashion-victimhood anticipated the solipsism of shallow, egomaniacal dunderheads like The Real Housewives, Sarah Palin, The Bachelor, Justin Bieber, and, um, Donald Trump. (I’d vote for Joanna Lumley any day – her Botoxed ire for any who dare ask her to smoke outside is worth the price of admission alone.)

This Abbott and Costello for the Reality TV age couldn’t have re-emerged at a better moment. Their bewilderment over and preoccupation with a world that values youth and shiny objects over pretty much anything/anyone with even the slightest shred of substance is as timely an allegory as we can get. The film relates Eddy’s desperate need to right her PR career (“I do PR, darling. Lots of PR things.”), leading her to a series of random celebrity encounters, like an R-rated Muppet Movie, with Jon Hamm, Joan Collins, Dame Edna, Graham Norton, Chris Colfer, Emma Bunton, Lulu, Gwendolyn Christie, and a bunch of other celebs vaguely familiar if you’ve ever spent any time on BBC America. Eventually, her spiraling hysteria results in model Kate Moss falling off a balcony and disappearing into the Thames (don’t ask), and Eddy finds herself on the wrong-end of a media maelstrom for the catwalk siren’s possible “murder.”

There are endless opportunities for materialistic sight-gags as heinous fashion is celebrated as high art, and Lumley regularly steals the show, particularly when she dresses up as a man – a swaggering Tom Selleck with a blonde pony-tail, eviscerating insufferable machismo –  to woo a dowager empress on the French Riviera. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, anyone? All the series favorites return, including Julia Sawalha as Eddy’s long-suffering/happily martyred daughter Saffron (who has a number of surprisingly delicate character turns as she wrestles with her own aging and her complicated familial relations), Jane Horrocks (Little Voice) as Eddy’s craftily inept assistant “Bubble,” Celia Imrie (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) as Eddy’s frosty rival Claudia Bing, June Whitfield as Eddy’s exasperated/instigating mother, and Mo Gaffney as Saffron/Saffy’s myopically liberal step-mother Bo.

The film, like the original series, is cluttered with indecipherable in-jokes, though the movie blessedly cuts down on TV AbFab‘s tendency toward sloppy ad libs and muttered asides that could occasionally make for a frustrating (American, that is) viewing experience. Regardless, the film succeeds beautifully on multiple levels: reinvigorating our interest in Patsy and Eddy as a sozzled Didi and Gogo for our self-obsessed internet days, eviscerating a 1%-er culture that sacrifices humanity for Chanel, and, most surprisingly, layering in a tender and poignant assessment of society’s tendency to pillory those who fall at the crossroads of age and gender (#ImWithHerAndPatsyAndEddy).

As Chris Pine’s Kirk intones at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond, “It’s hard to feel grounded when even the gravity is artificial.” Well, said, Kirk, sweetie, darling. Well said.

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5 Sebastian Gerstner Jenna Pittman Kristin McSweeney Logan Balcom Paige Martin as Muses and KiraReel 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.

“Just because you see me on TV, doesn’t mean I’m more enlightened than you.” Shatner’s World … We Just Live In It! at MotorCity Casino’s SoundBoard (Detroit)

William ShatnerLast night we saw William Shatner. Yes, THAT William Shatner. Priceline Negotiator. Denny Crane. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Captain Kirk. Cringe-worthy purveyor of spoken word psychedelia. He offered his one-man show Shatner’s World … We Just Live In It (originally presented in a limited run at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre) at Motor City Casino’s SoundBoard venue.

When I went to bed last night, visions of this D-level A-lister dancing around in my head, I was ready to write a snotty piece, dismissing his overeager schtick, rampant hamminess, cloddish sexism, sweaty egomania, and twitchy insecurity.

In the cold, hard light of this January day, I think, “Who am I to make fun of 84-year-old Hollywood legend William Shatner?! Granted he’s far from my favorite starship “Captain.” Patrick Stewart, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula, and Chris Pine are all far ahead in that line-up.

Shatner's WorldPlus, I’ve always found Shatner a rather desperate presence, sharing the same kind of icky balsa wood machismo that plagued contemporaries like Burt Reynolds, Robert Conrad, and Lee Majors throughout the 70s and 80s. Regardless, he’s sustained an acting career across stage and screen for sixty years; he’s a best-selling author; and he’s an icon. That is something to celebrate; yet, all that “Shatnerism” gets in the way of respecting his work and always has.

I was curious to see if Shatner’s World would allay or compound that conundrum. The answer, quite honestly, is that it did both. Whereas a Star Trek alum like George Takei has revealed a comic impishness and a (more or less) refreshing layer of self-mocking irreverence in the latter years of his career, Shatner has gleefully become more bloated, arrogant, and self-mythologizing as the years have passed. He capitalized on this to greatest effect as bloviating Denny Crane in Boston Legal, but he was aided in that enterprise by co-star James Spader (who could make an avocado interesting) and to some degree by Candice Bergen (whom one could argue is kind of the female Shatner when it comes to smart aleck self-absorption). His quirky Priceline “Negotiator” persona is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of Denny with a teaspoon of mannered Kirk-isms and a healthy portion of “drunk uncle at your family reunion.”

IMG_3769(My favorite Shatner moment remains The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” wherein his character is convinced that gremlins – which only he can see – are dismantling a plane in mid-flight. If there ever was a place for Shatner’s hyperventilating hyperbole and pop-eyed claustrophobia, it was the black-and-white world of Rod Serling.)

Shatner’s World – the show – is like a cocktail party guest who lingers about 45 minutes too long. The first hour is fun, frothy, and full of empty calories. Shatner, with his squatty shenanigans, fancies himself a raconteur – the dirty-joke-telling kind who went out of style when they retired Johnny Carson’s guest couch. For precisely sixty minutes, Shatner’s creative retelling of an upbringing with a loving, middle-class, Jewish family in Montreal is engaging. He uses slide projections, video clips, and an office chair in rather ingenious and theatrical ways to illustrate key moments (e.g. the office chair doubles as a motorcycle and a horse at various points in the show).

IMG_3754His sentimental, albeit self-aggrandizing, descriptions of his early days in the entertainment industry are captivating, damn funny, and, I suspect, patently false: he worked with good buddy Christopher Plummer (who knew?) at Stratford (Canada), and supposedly saved the day once as Plummer’s understudy in Henry V; he, in his estimation, single-handedly turned Broadway bomb The World of Suzie Wong into a long-running comic hit; he, according to Shatner, gave an Emmy-caliber performance in an unnamed Playhouse 90 episode until legendary co-star Lon Chaney, Jr., started rattling off stage directions as if they were dialogue; Shatner discovered the glories of leadership and horsemanship starring as Alexander the Great (!) in a film none of us had ever heard of.

Dammit. I’ve fallen into making fun of him. I said I wouldn’t. Yet, that’s part of Shatner’s studied charm. He knows you want to mock him, so he does it first, but then he twists every anecdote into a celebration of self, of the sheer force of will that has allowed him to transform marginal talent and blandly handsome features into more success and longevity than any of his detractors have or ever could achieve. It’s rather fascinating in fact – like a piece of performance art or a social experiment to which we’ve all been subjected yet remain unaware of its grand design. In this day of virulent social media and steroidal self-promotion, is Shatner any worse than the rest of us? Or was he simply our forebear? A pop culture Thomas Edison to Kim Kardashian’s Steve Jobs?

IMG_3743As Shatner’s World proceeds into its second hour, the focus grows more diffuse and the self-celebration harder to take. He glosses over his Star Trek years, oddly enough, dedicating as much (if not more) time to his dubious career as a recording artist. This turns out to be a canny decision, though, as it allows Shatner to end the show (and reconnect with his flagging audience) with a “song” titled “Real,” co-written with country star Brad Paisley. It’s a pretty tune (spoken word overlay notwithstanding) and offers Shatner a chance to encapsulate his raison d’etre as vainglorious underdog, aptly noting: “Just because you see me on TV doesn’t mean I’m more enlightened than you.”

It is this struggle with external perception and internal reality that brings much-needed (and sometimes head-scratching) pathos to the evening. He owns the fact that he can be a lousy husband and a half-assed father, sharing anecdotes that are equal parts aspiration and humiliation – a little Father Knows Best, a little Honeymooners, and a little War of the Roses. He acknowledges that he isn’t always beloved by his co-stars, with a riotous bit where he allows Takei to call Shatner a sh*t while simultaneously suggesting Takei might not be all the sweetness and light he wants us to believe. Brilliant. He isn’t afraid to show us his infamous struggles with money either, the kind of struggles that led him back to Star Trek (films) in the 70s (when sci fi nostalgia wasn’t the sure thing it is today), to an endless stream of comic book convention appearances, and to doing casino gigs like the very one witnessed at SoundBoard last night.

IMG_3761Finally, the aspect of Shatner’s life that surprised and troubled me most was (is) Shatner’s adoration of animals. Complete shock to me. Images of Shatner with his beloved dogs, horses, and other creatures fill his slide show and his repartee, and the joy in his eyes is palpable. He speaks meaningfully about the special language and kinship one can only feel with and for animals and how they can tell us all we need to know if we’d only listen. Yet, he then talks about how he “studs” his prize pets (equine and canine) to this day, going into great detail about all the awards he’s received and money he has made from the practice. He also relays a lengthy anecdote about the “horse of a lifetime” – his spirit animal, if you will – whose existence he ruined by breeding, the creature consigned to unending days of isolation and misery as a result. Shatner seems to indicate deep regret, and he expresses hope that the horse, in his final moments, forgave Shatner; but he follows this heartbreaking moment by regaling us with tales of the horse’s award-winning progeny.

Is Shatner looking for redemption or rationalization? This horse tale is arguably the most unintentionally revealing moment in the evening. A sensitive and empathic soul may lurk beneath all that Shatner bravado, but he is so preoccupied by a maddeningly retro belief in what he thinks we expect of masculinity that he can’t quite let that soul breathe and evolve and teach. He wants to embrace his mistakes, but he is too afraid that those mistakes, if authentically understood, will make him less compelling. It’s a shame. Those mistakes make him more compelling. Maybe when he’s 94 years old, we’ll get that show. He’ll still be going strong, kept aloft by a self-sustaining gale of monomania.

IMG_3745_______________

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.

Star Trek: Live in Concert with the Grand Rapids Symphony … one part Marx Brothers, one part Royal Shakespeare Company, one part Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon.

12079688_10206862455778854_5846344351949275749_nI wasn’t sure what to think of the proposition of watching the Grand Rapids Symphony performing the soundtrack to J.J. Abram’s 2009 Star Trek reboot live while the film played on a screen above. The idea sounded intriguing, but it also sounded like it had the potential for a nerd-centric train wreck. (Star Trek: Live in Concert was the October 17 installment in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Symphonicboom Series at DeVos Performance Hall.)

DeVos Performance Hall ... or the U.S.S. Enterprise?

DeVos Performance Hall … or the U.S.S. Enterprise?

Conservative, yuppified Grand Rapids is one of those places that, in my head, is the antithesis of anything a Ann Arbor liberal like me would, could or should enjoy (totally closed-minded of me … I get it).

Yet, when you’re there, it’s all gleaming spires, clean streets, pleasant people (saw a LOT of “Ready for Hillary” and “Feel the Bern” buttons and bumper stickers, so I suspect my prejudices about the region are all kinds of wrong), and well-curated on-street art installations. It’s actually a very nice town.

And the joy of watching a woman dressed in full Klingon regalia sitting right beside a snooty, Eileen Fisher-garbed symphony patron pleased every ounce of my soul.

Chris Pine at James T. Kirk

Chris Pine at James T. Kirk

The performance itself was an amazing experience. For anyone who loves movies and music and appreciates the alchemic power when those two worlds collide, this presentation style is pretty epic and completely moving.

The Grand Rapids Symphony exhibited a precision and a coherence akin to the finest symphony orchestras (not that I’ve heard that many, but these guys are on point). In fact, I rapidly forgot there was even an orchestra on stage (strange praise, I realize), as their fine work blended so seamlessly with the images and dialogue being projected on the screen. Likely, this kind of production is the closest any of us will come to watching an orchestra actually record the soundtrack for a blockbuster film.

Star Trek‘s director J.J. Abrams, much like his inspirations George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and their legendary cinematic partnership with John Williams, has hitched his directorial star to a singular composer: Michael Giacchino. Smart fellow. Giacchino’s fusion of jazz-style sketches and orchestral bombast is as distinctive as it is compelling, an approach that lovingly augments and accentuates Abrams’ reverence for all the Gen X sci fi classics.

Zachary Quinto as Spock ... Winona Ryder as his mom?

Zachary Quinto as Spock … Winona Ryder as his mom?

I had always had an appreciation for Giacchino’s work (The Incredibles soundtrack is a particular favorite), but, hearing his Star Trek score performed live, I was able to grasp more of its thematic nuance and playful fun (lots of great homages to the classic Star Trek Theme and other incidental cues).

With the benefit of a live orchestra, there were colors and light between the notes that one fails to appreciate seeing the film in its original state. The copious talent of this symphony, guest-conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulus, coupled with their evident respect and delight for Giacchino’s sprightly work, made for a transporting experience.

(No, I’m not going to make a stupid “Beam me up, Scotty” teleporter joke here. Nope. Though I will admit that the performance left me quite “energized” … see what I did there?)

Eric Bana as Nero

Eric Bana as Nero

Oh, and the movie itself? That ain’t bad either.

It’s been quite a while since I revisited this particular Star Trek installment, and, much like when I caught The Wizard of Oz again on the big screen at the Michigan Theatre a few years ago, I had an entirely different appreciation.

Not unlike that 1939 classic, this film stands on its own, not just as fantasy, but also as a really funny, super-clever, swashbuckling comedy. Abrams and his exceptional cast appropriately genuflect before their source material but aren’t afraid to work in some winking criticism of the franchise’s cornier, paste-board legacy.

Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), and Karl Urban (Bones) channel the hammier tics of their forebears, while bringing a rich inner life that their respective characters never enjoyed until this point. One part Marx Brothers, one part Royal Shakespeare Company, one part Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon. And it works beautifully.

12122656_10206862538300917_654733001025449790_nWatching the film again and enjoying Abrams’ kicky reinvention of these campy icons, I am now even more intrigued to see what he does with this December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens re-launch.

In fact, I was struck by how his Star Trek is a delightfully shameless swipe of Star Wars: A New Hope: a galactic madman (Darth Vader or Nero?) roaming the galaxy, astride a planet-destroying machine (Death Star or Narada?), while a rogues’ gallery of rebellious do-gooders – sparky farm boy (Luke Skywalker or James T. Kirk?), smart-mouthed neo-feminist (Princess Leia or Uhura?), coolly logical mentor (Obi-Wan Kenobi or Spock?), long-in-the-tooth scalawag (Han Solo or Bones McCoy?) – and their various comic sidekicks assemble to destroy the Big Bad and save the day.

12072661_10206862455618850_6847623126827410694_nThrow in a very Star Trek time travel conundrum, – that has the side benefit of literally rebooting an infinitely marketable, utterly toyetic franchise – and you have a super-sized sci fi Star Wars-ish blockbuster. My comparison may be stretched a bit, and the Star Trek vs. Star Wars people will have all kinds of minutiae upon which they’ll feel the need to correct me, but I think I’m on to something. 🙂

J.J. Abrams’ take on the socially conscious Star Trek mythos is much more Buck Rogers-esque escape than Communist Manifesto-commentary. And that may be why I enjoy it so much, so his version of Star Wars has my curiosity piqued indeed.

Thanks to Lori Rundall for her thoughtful wedding gift of the tickets to see this provocative meld of cinema and live music. If you get a chance to take in such a show, I highly recommend it, regardless the film or the composer or the venue!

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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.

“Look at us! We’re all losers … well, I mean we’ve all lost something.” Guardians of the Galaxy

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel Studios (and, of course parent company Disney) seem to understand key principles of comic book film-making (or any film-making for that matter) infinitely better than rival DC Comics (and their owner Warner Brothers): make it fun, make it light, give it heart.

I was always a DC over Marvel fan. To me, Superman and his pals have richer history and greater visual interest, but, more often than not, DC’s flicks (Man of SteelGreen Lantern – blech.) are self-serious, ponderous, deadly dull (narratively and chromatically) while Marvel zips past on a celluloid sleigh made of gumdrops and cheekiness (Captain America, Thor).

Yes, Christopher Nolan’s Bat-films are great and artistic and DEEP! but they ain’t much fun, and I don’t see myself re-watching any of them when I’m bored on a Saturday afternoon. Iron Man or The Avengers on the other hand …

Please don’t mistake this as saying Marvel has no depth. They do – see Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They just don’t think a message has to be stultifying to be taken seriously. And, yes, they’ve had their share of missteps – notably Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2. I may have been the only person who enjoyed Edward Norton’s Incredible Hulk as well.

My apologies for the by-way into the always-inconsequential “DC vs. Marvel” debate, about which only we fanboy nerds ever seem to care, but I was reminded yet again this afternoon of just how well Marvel gets it while watching the delightful Guardians of the Galaxy.

Whether or not you know that Guardians is based on a comic book (it is – a really irreverent and subversive one), you will have a great time with the movie. Director James Gunn (Super, Slither) and the Marvel production team (thank you, Kevin Feige) know that, for an adaptation to work it has to understand what makes cinema (particularly in the summer) sing: pithy dialogue, solid character development, sympathetic underdogs in improbably silly circumstances, poignant back-story, Keystone Cops-meet-Paul Greengrass action sequences, and comedy arising naturally from absurd situations.

The Guardians are comprised of the following oddballs:

  • “Star Lord,” a wiseacre space cowboy (expertly played by Parks and Recreation and Everwood TV veteran Chris Pratt), masking his man-with-no-family sadness with a reckless joie de vivre and a love of bad 70s “AM Gold” pop rock
  • “Gamora,” a deadly assassin (a smooth and witty Zoe Saldana of Avatar, Star Trek, and the recent Rosemary’s Baby remake) who may or may not be interested in saving the universe while burying her accidental teammates
  • “Drax the Destroyer,” a heartbroken tattooed thug (a surprisingly soulful, deftly comic portrayal by WWE wrestler Dave Bautista) seeking vengeance for his lost wife and daughter
  • “Groot,” a walking tree (voiced with one singular, repeated phrase “I am Groot” by Vin Diesel) and one half of the film’s comedy duo, stealing the spotlight with Looney Tunes anarchy and gleeful mayhem
  • And (my favorite) “Rocket,” the other half of said duo, a rat-a-tat 40s gangster trapped in the body of an adorable (and deadly) anthropomorphic raccoon (voiced hysterically by an unrecognizable Bradley Cooper)

These characters are tossed together by a slapstick prison break on their way to pursuing some galaxy-destroying bauble called an Infinity Gem (ok, it is a comic book movie after all). They are chased by assorted creepy baddies like Lee Pace’s nightmare-inducing genocidal maniac “Ronan the Accuser” and Michael Rooker’s dentally-challenged space pirate “Yondu.”

The plot really doesn’t much matter as it is there chiefly in service to one whimsical set-piece after another. What gives the movie heart is the sheer broken-ness of each hero. At one point, Pratt observes, in one of his character’s many earnest but misguided Yogi Berra-esque “inspirational” moments, “I look around and I see losers. We’re all losers … well, I mean we’ve all lost something.” We laugh but we know exactly what he means.

(Not surprising to anyone in my immediate circle, but I was moved to tears when an inconsolable “Rocket,” after a drunken brawl, laments how soul-crushing it is when people call him “vermin” or “rodent,” not understanding the pain he has experienced in his short life. Said pain is in fact quite literal as his very existence is a result of invasive and cruel experimentation. I assume that’s a thread future films may explore, but, for this animal rights and comic book nut, it was a touch that I appreciated.)

As testament to the power of Marvel Studios, a myriad of heavy hitters show up for (and have a ball with) tiny supporting roles: John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin. If the Harry Potter movie series was the place where BBC and Royal Shakespeare Company-British actors could get their genre ya-yas out, then Marvel now must  serve that same purpose for their Academy Award-winning/nominated American contemporaries.

In a summer 2014 movie season that has given us high quality (generally) but little joy, Guardians of the Galaxy is a welcome throwback to hot-weather film fun of another era … well, my 1980s era, when Lucas and Spielberg reigned supreme. It’s a sparkling Valentine to all us misfits. Don’t miss it.

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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.

“Ah, what the heck! I’ll just raise my li’l Beelzebub. Rockabye, babeeee….” Rosemary’s Baby (2014 NBC mini-series)

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

Is anyone else’s DVR a graveyard of shows and movies you’ve saved, thinking you should watch them, but when it comes down to actually committing the time to a given program, you just keep deferring it?

The last three episodes of this season’s Glee remain (gleefully?) unwatched, as does the second half of The Maya Rudolph Show, the otherwise super-talented comedienne’s clunky attempt at a Sonny and Cher meets The Carol Burnett Show variety romp. And we skipped about half a dozen episodes of Arrow, just to view the finale in head-scratching befuddlement.

However, we did clear one lingering mini-series from the queue last night: NBC’s recent “reimagining” (what does that even mean? what happened to the term “remake”?) of Rosemary’s Baby.

Originally a novel by Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby was first made into a film by Roman Polanski in 1968, starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon (who won an Oscar for her work), Ralph Bellamy, Patsy Kelly, and Charles Grodin (!). Polanski’s screenplay was also nominated for the Academy Award, though it didn’t win.

The plot at this point is legendary (if not a bit dorky). Young couple (Farrow and Cassavetes) moves into apartment, befriends strangely overeager neighbors, and gets pregnant; husband (literally) makes deal with the devil; spooky doings ensue; child of Satan gets born; Farrow freaks out (justifiably) but then decides, “Ah, what the heck! I’ll just raise my li’l Beelzebub myself. Rockabye, babeeee….”

(Sort of sounds like some of Farrow’s recent interactions with ex-Woody Allen, come to think of it. What? Too soon?)

The recent NBC “movie event” adaptation, starring Zoe Saldana in the Farrow role, stretches this rather thin narrative from two hours to four and seems to exist primarily as a showcase for Saldana’s ability to cry, smile, cry, mope, cry, scream, and cry.

Don’t get me wrong. I really like Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek, upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy). She’s like a less manic Thandie Newton. She does her level best to keep the sloooooowly paced proceedings (transplanted to Paris from New York for no discernible reason) interesting.

She craftily cribs from the Audrey Hepburn Wait Until Dark school of worried pixie-cut acting, painting a compelling picture of a sweet soul trying to please everyone but herself and getting in deeper and deeper. Heck, Saldana’s Rosemary even has an adorable pet feline named “No-Name” (a la Breakfast at Tiffany‘s “Cat … poor slob without a name”).

It’s just that this story does. not. need. four hours. to be told.

There probably is a really crackerjack 90-minute telefilm in there, but I just kept forgetting why I was supposed to care. And, most surprising, the more interesting half of the mini-series is the first night which is all creepy, Hitchockian set up; the second night’s pay-off of gothic carnage and cuckoo witchery is a flat-out bore … by the time we finally get there.

The supporting cast is wildly uneven, with only Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, Harry Potter) rising above the fray as the smoothly cavalier, devil-worshipping neighbor/landlord. (Isaacs is just such a presence, as if Daniel Craig and Patrick Stewart had a really pretty son.)

Carole Bouquet as Isaac’s equally nefarious wife, is okay but not great, saddled as she is with the chief responsibility of making Saldana drink (over and over) some really gross-looking, moss-green smoothies made from some witch-y herbs in her fabulous botanical garden. (Yeah, you read that right.) Bouquet’s idea of setting a spooky tone is giving a lot of sidelong glances and delivering her oddball earth-mother-from-Pluto dialogue with Pepe le Pew “Frenchy-ness.” (She kind of sounds like a Martin Short character most of the time).

Patrick J. Adams (Suits) is a dull milquetoast of a husband, and Christina Cole as Rosemary’s Brit pal Julie is on hand primarily to bring the exposition every 10 minutes or so.

It’s a shame. In this postmodern, American Horror Story, “let’s use scare-fest genre tropes as metaphors for social ills” era, there was great potential for this new Rosemary’s Baby to say something interesting about gender politics, class warfare, race issues, and the increasingly slippery definition of “family.” Alas, no, the devil was not in these details. Better luck on the inevitable third time around for this tired tale.

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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.

Shiny pop metaphor for how much harm we do ourselves through inaction and anxiety … X-Men: Days of Future Past

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

How many Oscar winners and nominees does it take to put together a successful comic book adaptation? Apparently, a boatload.

The per capita of Academy Awards/nominations among the cast in X-Men: Days of Future Past is astounding: Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Ellen Page, Michael Fassbender … not to mention talented folks like Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy, Evan Peters, and even director Bryan Singer who likely may find themselves on the receiving end of a nod or a statuette of their own one day.

As comic book adaptations go, this is about as good as they get, marrying a bit of the self-serious sermonizing of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films with the gee whiz ironic whimsy of Jon Favreau’s and Shane Black’s respective Iron Man movies.

Having Singer return to the franchise (he rather unsuccessfully left to direct the bloated Superman Returns) is a stroke of much-needed genius. Other than last summer’s quietly effective The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold, or the zippy promise of Matthew Vaughn’s retro romp X-Men: First Class (Vaughn gets a writing credit on Days of Future Past), the series had started to lose its way with over-marketed, under-delivering, freakishly-merchandised failures like X-Men: The Last Stand (yeah, I’m a Brett Ratner hater too) or clunkily titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine (directed by Gavin Hood who went from Tsotsi and Rendition to X-Men Origins: Wolverine … wtf?)

Singer, not unlike J.J. Abrams with his seamless Star Trek reboot, brings us quite literally full-circle, mining all that has come before and brilliantly weaving the series’ best and crispest elements into a crackerjack narrative. The plot is a riff on Chris Claremont’s/John Byrne’s iconic “Days of Future Past” comics storyline from the early 80s. It details Wolverine’s mind-bending time travel leap from a dark dystopian future full of death and pain and murky CGI to a swinging 1970s full of death and pain and cheesy poly blends, all to avert a handful of historical moments that spark the creation of mutant-murdering robot Sentinels whose nefarious deeds bring about that nasty future everyone wants to avoid.

Clear as mud? It doesn’t matter ’cause the ride is a helluva lot of fun. The film isn’t perfect. I found this grim future-shock framing set-up with its overbaked Holocaust allusions, its bleak visuals, and its mopey characters and their endlessly ominous pronouncements rather tedious. Halle Berry (so miscast from the very first film) as weather-manipulating Storm still seems like she’s phoning her performance in from some all-inclusive Caribbean resort where they supply her an infinite series of bad white/gray wigs. And as much as I love McKellen and his comrade-in-arms Patrick Stewart as Magneto and Professor Charles Xavier respectively, they both appear to be marking time and collecting a paycheck (albeit a pretty hefty one).

However – and this is so key – all that Charles Dickens-meets-Philip K. Dick dreariness is essential to the fun once our time traveling mutant everyman (that would be Jackman with a crackling world-weary wit as Wolverine) hits the Me Decade. Everything comes alive.

McAvoy is so good – funny and haunting – as the young Xavier who has let his life (and fabulous mansion/school) go to seed. Fassbender (young Magneto) as the chillingly beautiful Malcolm X yin to McAvoy’s Martin Luther King yang is sharp as ever. The film smartly returns to Singer’s core hook: that mutant persecution is a righteous summer-blockbuster allegory for all the -isms/-phobias that plague our society and for the tension that always has and always will exist between the philosophies of blending/integration and of fighting/individualism.

All the players in the 1970s portion of the film acquit themselves nicely, from Lawrence’s fiery person-on-a-mission Mystique to Hoult’s worried caretaker Beast to Dinklage’s well-intentioned, quite-misguided military industrialist Trask.

The film’s best moments come from Evan Peters’ much-too-brief screen-time as speedster Quicksilver. He rocks every single freaking moment he has, like nothing I’ve ever seen in one of these tentpole epics. He wrings comic gold out of one word (“whiplash”) and has an absolute Bugs Bunny-esque ball torturing a gaggle of Pentagon guards, all set to the strain’s of Jim Croce’s time-warped classic “Time in a Bottle.” Give this character/actor his own movie. Now.

The smartest move of all in this very smart film? There is no villain. There is no mustache-twirling, blow-up-the-world, video-game-destructo fool in a cape leading us to a predictably cacophonous denouement. Nope. Everyone is their own worst enemy in this movie. Just like life. Fear and hate, self-loathing and prejudice those are the villains in this film, a movie which serves as a shiny pop metaphor for how much harm we do ourselves through inaction and anxiety.

Most importantly, X-Men: Days of Future Past leaves us with hope. No situation and no person are ever beyond redemption, as Stewart tells McAvoy in one of the film’s trippiest and most heartfelt moments. Amen to that.

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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.

Haunting truths – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate

Me with my mom Susie Duncan Sexton at Grand Wayne Center prior to performance [Image by author]

When you visit your childhood home, you can’t help but feel like a kid again. You may be careening past 40 years of age, but one look at a stuffed animal you used to cuddle or a board game you used to play and you’re 12 again. I cherish my visits with my parents in Indiana as we always have laughter and thoughtful conversations and adventures and movies. And I always feel blissfully childlike.

Cover of Duncan Sexton’s second book, now available
[Image Source: Open Books]

It is with this deep-feeling and introspective state-of-mind – impacted also by the impending, always ethereal Halloween holiday and by a couple of manic weeks helping my mom shepherd her second book Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels to print (order it here – sorry, can’t help myself … but seriously, it is amazing!) – that I approached one of our family’s signature movie (and in this instance also theatre) marathon weekends.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What did we see? What didn’t we see! Thursday night, we found ourselves at Fort Wayne, Indiana’s gloriously preserved Embassy Theatre with the John Mellencamp/ Stephen King/T-Bone Burnett horror musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County making a stop on its trial tour of the Midwest. The show is told in old-fashioned radio drama style with actors and musicians on stage the entire performance and with minimal props and a vintage microphone in the middle of the stage (though that last bit is mostly for show as all the players also wear those Britney Spears/McDonald’s drive-thru/Time-Life operator headset things).

The spartan approach works generally well, at least during the first act, as the spooky tale unfurls of two feuding brothers, their bloody end, and the generational impact their war eventually would have on the nephews they would never have a chance to meet. The show stars Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, Thirteen Days) and Emily Skinner (Tony-nominee for Side Show) as the family’s world-weary patriarch and matriarch (respectively) who want desperately for the current generation to just get the heck along.

Ghost Brothers cast at curtain call [Image by author]

Greenwood and Skinner and Mellencamp’s rockabilly/ bluegrass score are the assets of an otherwise uneven show. With a more-than-adequate supporting cast, the show rumbles through a strong first act exploring the corrosive effects that lies and jealousy and stubborn misunderstanding can have on every branch of a family tree.

The second act, however, doesn’t fare nearly as well. Logic, sensible chronology, and audience sympathies are all tossed out the window for a muddled, hasty denouement riddled with carnage and too many smart aleck remarks. The latter are delivered nonetheless with aplomb by the ever-present “Shape” – played by a firecracker Jake LaBotz – who lurks behind all the players encouraging bad deeds and ill intent. Other standouts are Kylie Brown wringing every last bit of malicious glee from her role as the resident temptress Anna (she’s one to watch!) and Jesse Lenat doing triple duty as narrator, guitarist, and angelic yin to LaBotz’s yang.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Next up on our tour of cynical debauchery was Ridley Scott’s new film The Counselor. Script problems would plague pretty much every selection of the weekend, and this one was no exception. The first 30 minutes of the film are cringe-worthy with Scott’s trademark cinematic fetishization of sleek mid-century furnishings, gleaming sports cars, and objects otherwise found in lost issues of the J. Peterman catalog completely unchecked. Eventually, however, the film clicks into high-gear and these initial missteps are quickly forgotten (and one might argue seem intentional: rampant, glib superficiality in stark contrast to the soul-crushing darkness that follows).

Michael Fassbender stars as the never-named, vacuous, materialistic title character whose love of self and stuff leads him to make some dodgy deals with fabulously attired, endlessly entertaining, totally skeezy drug dealers. The latter are portrayed by the always dependable Javier Bardem as well as Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, turning in frothy/smarmy/delightful performances. There are a host of fun cameos that I don’t want to spoil, but let’s just say this is a cast to die for. And pretty much every one of them does.

The Counselor is a Trojan Horse of a movie. It seems to be escapist fantasy – a Vanity Fair photo-expose of the rich and powerful, tacky and corrupt, brought to burnished, big screen life. Yet, the real agenda of screenwriter Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) in his first piece written directly for the movies is to taunt us with the trappings of wealth and then peel back every sordid layer of the blood, pain, and (literal) human filth underpinning these lavish, undeserved lifestyles.

Much ink may be spilled about Diaz’s … er.. relations with a yellow Ferrari in the film, but that scene (notably Bardem’s exasperated monologue, Diaz’s keen power-play, and Bardem’s and Fassbender’s wry facial expressions) is dynamite – funny, distressing, horrifying. It is a perfect snapshot of the scuzzy glitz personified by these Machiavelli-meets-Jersey Shore super-thugs.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Finally, we made our way to Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, a film unfairly painted with the broad brush of box office failure. Yes, it has a script that devolves into train wreck – the final act squanders the spidery intrigue of the film’s first two-thirds with some US-government silliness led by the otherwise reliable Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci. However, Benedict Cumberbatch sparkles as Julian Assange, whose controversial website WikiLeaks is the film’s chief subject matter.

Condon takes his time tracing the rise of WikiLeaks, a website that effectively shielded a whole host of geopolitical and corporate whistle-blowers from those powerful enough to otherwise bully them into submission. Condon doesn’t lose his audience in cyberpunkery and technobabble; rather, he delivers strong characters in an easy-to-follow (if at times unconventional) entrepreneurial narrative, highlighted by quick edits, blessedly appreciated subtitles, hyperconscious symbolism and theatricality, and a great Daft Punk-meets-Kraftwerk-meets-Blondie score.

Assange, who in real life famously disparaged Cumberbatch and his performance and the film itself, actually comes off a sympathetic character. Assange’s chronic disappointment with the world and its inhabitants has turned him into the ultimate underdog, railing against a crushingly capitalistic infrastructure that espouses free speech while secretly depriving it at every turn.

Perhaps it is my predilection as fall edges closer to winter to turn inward and seek patterns where they may or may not exist, but, to my mind, all three pieces – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate – centered on a singular theme: that the choices we make to seek, reveal, or bury the truth – any truth – affect our futures irrevocably.

At some point, in all three pieces, some character ruminates on the pointless energy of grief and regret and that, once the decision is made to lie or to tell the truth, events are set in motion that can never be undone. The heroes and anti-heroes of these works are all haunted by truth – revealing it, hiding it, weaponizing it – and, as a consequence, we audience members depart the darkened theatre wrestling with the specters created by our own life choices, from childhood to the present.

Yes, I cried in a Star Trek movie: Star Trek Into Darkness

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yes, I cried in a Star Trek movie. First time for everything.

I’m not exactly a Trekkie – before this J.J. Abrams-led reinvention of “Wagon Train in Space,” the only entry in the canon I truly loved was Star Trek IV (or as I always call it in our house: “the one with the whales”).

Like the recent craftily re-engineered James Bond (thank you, Daniel Craig and Judi Dench) and Batman (yup, you are ok by me, Christopher Nolan) franchises, 2009’s Star Trek and this new sequel Star Trek Into Darkness mine and refine the source material as if the filmmakers are re-staging one of Shakespeare’s famous “problem plays” to appeal to modern sensibilities.

Notably, Chris Pine as Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Mister Spock eliminate the pork from their hammy forebears’ performances (William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy respectively) while keeping the trademarked tics (goony alpha male swagger and goonier pointy ears also respectively). What both do so smartly (and what brought me to tears at a significant twist in the film’s final act) is give these iconic characters vulnerability and flawed humanity. No offense Mr. Priceline Negotiator Shatner, but I will take Pine’s wounded-little-boy-compensating-for-his-deep-seated-insecurity-by-affecting-a-swaggering-prick persona over, well, your swaggering-prick-persona any day of the week.

The film wisely stocks its other iconic roles with a bevy of gifted character actors: Karl Urban (my personal favorite as the crusty, twinkle-eyed, metaphor-spewing Dr. Bones), Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Peter Weller, and the always phenomenal Bruce Greenwood. The ensemble work in these films is feisty, zippy, and fun and should be used as a case study in acting schools everywhere: how to engage your audience and create a credibly warm ensemble dynamic in the midst of rampant CGI, deafening explosions, tilt-a-whirl camera angles, and spoof-worthy use of lighting flares.

I will close on this point. Bar none the canniest thing Abrams does (similar to the casting of Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley in that other summer tent pole, a little movie called Iron Man 3) is select Sherlock‘s and War Horse‘s Benedict Cumberbatch (what a name!) as the film’s main big bad. He is a marvel, commanding every minute of screen time with his handsome yet slightly space alien visage and basso profondo voice. He almost seems bored with EVERYONE around him and, given his sociopathic mission in the film, that works swimmingly. With his nuanced menace, he joins the ranks of Heath Ledger’s Joker, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, and Javier Bardem’s Silva in the rogue’s gallery of perfect post-modern, post-millennial popcorn film villains.