“Ain’t nothing like a little fear to make a paper man crumble.” It (2017)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like clowns. Never have. I trace it back to being unable to escape the ubiquitous, harlequin-gaze of shock-glam rock group KISS, leering from their album covers while my parents shopped for jazz and show tunes in record stores in the 70s. Gene Simmons and Ace Frehley are to blame for my aversion to Bozo and Ronald McDonald, apparently.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, by the time the first film adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling 1986 novel It rolled around, as a 1990 ABC-TV miniseries featuring a gleefully sadistic Tim Curry in the titular role as homicidal, otherworldly “Pennywise the Dancing Clown,” this high school senior had a stockpile of around 15  years of greasepaint-smeared nightmares with which to contend. The miniseries, which also featured a Love Boat-load of d-list celebrities like Richard Thomas, Annettee O’Toole, and that Venus Fly-Trap guy from WKRP in Cincinnati, is controversial among King fans who thought it deviated too much from the source text and diluted the book’s iconic scares to adhere to the rigors of commercial TV (nearly 30! years ago).

I don’t care. It was plenty unnerving to me. I admit that the miniseries’ second half, wherein Thomas and company step to the forefront as adult versions of the bullied “Losers Club” whom Pennywise (and others) tortured as children is a drag. However, the first half is a tour de force for Curry who needs nary a pixel of CGI to let his freakiest flag fly as an unearthly creature in clown form who quite literally feeds off the terror he engenders in the small-minded small town of Derry, Maine.

I wasn’t sure I needed to ever sit through this tale again. Why do that to myself, spending another two hours watching an unhinged clown steer headlong into the coulrophobia curve that had plagued me for years. Yet, like some kind of perverse immersion therapy, I found myself in a movie theatre watching Warner Brothers’ R-rated big-screen remake.

Director Andy Muschietti brings the same gothic Brothers Grimm fractured fairy tale approach he applied to the inferior Mamaand it works here, particularly given the familiarity many viewers will already have with the material. The film plays out more like a foul-mouthed Hansel and Gretel than Nightmare on Elm Street.

There is a picaresque quality to the narrative as It traces the summer-long adventures of seven young misfits, all marginalized in different ways under the weight of living in an insular community rotting to its core. The children all are haunted by debilitating fears, made manifest through a series of bogeymen and disturbing visions, and, over time, they come to realize there is a supernatural through-line (namely Pennywise) uniting them all. Bill, the ringleader of this poignant but scrappy band has lost his little brother the year prior in an unsolved kidnapping (we viewers know that Pennywise actually dragged the poor lad down a sewer drain from the troubling but elegantly framed prologue which opens the film), and Bill’s unrelenting drive to discover the truth of his sibling’s disappearance galvanizes the group, ultimately uniting them to vanquish Pennywise (or do they?).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I didn’t find the film particularly frightening or disturbing, which is either a sign of me aging out of my phobias or of a film that plays more like a spiritual sequel to The Goonies than a horror-fest. There are plenty of jump scares, jarring sound effects, and other conventions of the genre, and Bill Skarsgard (son of Stellan) does a perfectly fine job rendering a souped up Pennywise for the Millennial era, as informed by the apparitions of the Harry Potter films as anything in Stephen King’s canon, but none of it gave me the heebie jeebies.

In fact, Muschietti’s film plays out like an extended love letter to everything Spielberg. The potty-mouthed kids’ hard scrabble reality is played for laughs and poignancy. The late 80s setting (updated from the book’s 1950s era) allows for a number of film and pop culture references (a la Gremlins or Poltergeist) and a generally scruffier “lost generation” quality adds a heartbreaking layer of disposability to the Losers Club.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The kids themselves (Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer) are the film’s best special effect, with a refreshing authenticity, yearning, and lack of “cute child actor” pretense. They are fighting an uphill battle against an insidious enemy – the town in which they live – and anyone who has ever suffered the relentless, bullying pressures of provincialism will find themselves projecting their experiences onto these tender souls. Although, I admit I wearied after a point of the movie’s “look how crude and rude children are and isn’t it funny to hear them say really naughty things” shtick. That annoyed me from Spielberg in his trying-too-hard moments, and it still annoys me here.

The strongest Stephen King adaptations – The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Shining, Carrie, Misery, Dolores Claiborne – posit that the worst horrors are not supernatural at all but rather man’s inhumanity to man. That is also where It derives strength as a film. The adult residents of Derry all reflect the indifference and neglectfulness of a self-absorbed society that has turned on itself, an ourobouros eating its own tail. As one father hisses to his son in the film, “Ain’t nothing like a little fear to make a paper man crumble.” And clowns be damned, that is the worst horror of all.

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Yours truly with Jim and Rob before watching Stephen King’s It


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.

Talk of the Town features Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Thanks to Jennifer Romano and Talk of the Town! Read here. Quote from yours truly: “As my blog rolls into another year of entertainment, rife with comic book adaptations, sequels, Oscar bait, arena shows, and theatrical productions big and small, sometimes I wonder if I am choking the life right from this hobby of mine. Can you imagine if every time you saw a film that your OCD tendencies forced you to rush home, throw some quippy hoo-ha on the internet, and wait eagerly for 3.5 comments to appear? Ah, well, it’s still too much fun to stop now—anticipate Volume THREE Roy’s Movie Migraine shortly.”

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

BONUS: Enjoy this fabulous new blog entry from my mom Susie Duncan Sexton – provocative and fun! Read “Got (almond) milk? Books, movies, politics, culture, and AGRIganda” by clicking here.

Excerpt: “Regarding BUT HAVE YOU READ THE BOOK jazz, my mother ALWAYS asked that question. Guess what? She very seldom had actually read the books herself; I preferred to write my book reports based on the more enjoyable movie versions!”

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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.

Day I read a book … The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report

Freak Foundation Operatives ReportYou know what question I’m tired of hearing? “Did you read the book?”

I get asked this repeatedly when I see a movie based on a piece of literature (sometimes using that term very loosely), if I dare to have some issue with the film: its narrative structure, character choices, execution, blah, blah, blah. The questioner always seems to imply that my review is somehow thereby deficient, that I didn’t do my homework.

This scrutiny arose when I found the Twilight movies a tedious bore, when I thought Hunger Games was overrated nonsense, when I dubbed Mortal Instruments insipid idiocy, when I felt American Sniper was dangerous propaganda, and when I perceived Wild to be self-aggrandizing tell-all myth-making. I didn’t read any of these uber-popular tomes – I only saw the film treatments. And I’m not going to read the books. Stop asking me. Please.

(In my defense, I loved the films of Divergent and The Fault In Our Stars, without perusing the best-sellers on which they were based.)

Here’s the thing. I don’t want to have to read the book to understand and enjoy the movie. A good movie adaptation will anchor the narrative pulse points in a novel or biography and add visual flair to make the piece cinematic, comprehensible, and it’s own entity. Think Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Black Stallion, The Godfather, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Foxcatcher. Hell, think Gone Girl.

If it’s that imperative to read the book and see the movie to get the complete entertainment value, well, I just won’t. To me, that’s lazy film-making, and that’s coming from someone too lazy to read the books. So there.

“Day I Read a Book” – Jimmy Durante

 

But, guess what? I read a book – my pal Tom Joyce’s engaging The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report … and I liked it! To paraphrase Super Bowl halftime superstar Katy Perry: “I read a book … and I liked it!”

If Kurt Vonnegut and Janet Evanovich had a baby whose doting uncles were Raymond Carver, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Mickey Spillane, that baby very well might be Tom Joyce. The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report relates the sordid and satirical tale of Batley, a small post-industrial town in Central Pennsylvania, a burg terrorized by a nasty group of thugs (“The Slain”) and populated with a carnival tent full of freaks and weirdos (and that’s just the City Council). The central mystery (and it’s a compelling one) is why this town has been targeted, who’s pulling the strings, and why.

I won’t spoil any of the surprises, but the book is a zippy page-turner with just the right balance of mirth and mayhem to engage the most jaded of readers (me).

Joyce employs a rotating cast of narrators, including a hard-boiled and hard-drinking gumshoe; a universally reviled local journalist (named, oddly enough, “Tom”); and assorted colorful characters, including, among others, a foul-mouthed little person who runs a road-side freak show, a confidence man who grows increasingly less confident in his choice of allies, and a huckster demonologist/psychologist with a heart of gold.

Joyce has a great pulpy literary voice, informed with a cheeky sensibility, a knowing cynicism about the uniquely American ability to wave the flag while we stab each other in the back, and a genuine flair for marrying creeping crud, visceral thrills, and rich Mayberry-quirk  characterization. This book is naturally cinematic in its execution, cable-ready for HBO or AMC or (likely) FX to develop a raw, ribald anthology series from the frothy material.

The novel is composed of a series of journal entries, letters, documents, and reports (via the various narrators delineated above) offering the cumulative effect that we, as readers, are suddenly privy to a hotbed of small-town intrigue as the mystery unfolds through hearsay, redirects, and anecdotes (see Carrie, The Color Purple, or even The Sound and the Fury for other examples of this technique). This, coupled with Joyce’s pragmatic, glib, and witty writing style, makes for an adventurous reading experience – Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew for adults.

Here’s looking forward to big screen (or small screen) adaptation, wherein I can finally ask others, “Did you read the book?”

You can order at Tom Joyce’s The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report by visiting his free-wheeling blog here.

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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.

“We love a good ghost story. How about you?” Never Can Say Good-bye film in development PLUS Slipstream Theatre event AND Shih Tzu res-cue!

Never Can Say Goodbye

Never Can Say Goodbye

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (particularly for those provincial social media naysayers … who aren’t listening anyway), the internet brings the world together in fun and surprising and interesting ways, breaking down geographic boundaries and uniting people by affinity (as opposed to arbitrary constructs of place and time). Read The World is Flat. No, really. Go read it.

Writing this blog has introduced me to a documentary filmmaker in Toronto (click here) and allowed me to review a short film by an animal advocate whom I’ve never met but feel as though I have (click here). It has helped me connect with and learn from fellow bloggers (click here) and has given me the opportunity to assess the work of local theatre groups (click here). I even got a shout out from JB Bernstein, the subject of the Disney film Million Dollar Arm, over my review of that fabulous flick: “It means a lot to hear a review like this. This was a very personal story, and to know that I was able to reach even one person with our message it was worth all the work.”

Ok … enough patting myself on the back …

My downright caustic review of the latest Transformers installment caught the attention of Traverse City-based independent filmmaker Theresa Chaze (click here for her website). She is also a published author, experienced video producer, and accomplished communications professional, and she is hard at work launching her new film Never Can Say Good-bye. I was honored when she asked if I would read her script and offer my thoughts.

(And the animal lover in me adores this part of her impressive bio: “As the media specialist for Angel Protectors of Animals and Wildlife, she produced several public service announcements and micro-documentaries. The messages remained informative and promoted positive action to save our nation’s wildlife.” Yes! Another of her potential projects is a TV show about equine therapy for veterans – Horses and Heroes.)

Theresa Chaze

Theresa Chaze

Never Can Say Good-bye reinvents the reincarnation conceit (Christopher Reeve’s/Jane Seymour’s 1980 film Somewhere in Time, Ellen Burstyn’s 1980 film Resurrection) in the guise of gothic paranormal psychodrama (Nicole Kidman’s 2001 film The Others, Julie Harris’ 1963 film The Haunting, Deborah Kerr’s 1961 film The Innocents). The plot concerns two families united by a doomed marriage in the 1950s and explores the dissonant legacy that familial discord has had on subsequent generations. (See the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County for another take on this thematic concept.)

I finished reading the script earlier this week. It is so well done and layered and clever. I love the notion of turning a ghost story on its head through the lens of reincarnation. I thought the characters were all clearly and thoughtfully drawn, and the script is definitely a page turner in the best sense. The disparate threads cohere in a denouement that is both chilling and poignant. The dialogue is believable, and the insular college-town setting (somewhere in northern Michigan, I believe) lends a nice chilly, hierarchical vibe.

Different actors are reported to have been attached at various points, including Lauren Holly, Bill Hayes, and Dyan Cannon. Stanley Livingston is connected to direct. Obviously, “name” performers would bring added attention to the project, but I daresay a cast of unknowns would keep audience attention focused on the narrative and the dense web of challenging relationships therein.

And, as in seemingly all creative efforts these days, there is a crowd-source funding campaign afoot through Indiegogo – you can donate here. From the campaign’s page …

We love a good ghost story. How about you? We are not talking about films that gross out the audience or are so dependent of special effects that the producers forgot to give the characters personalities or have plots that are based on clichés or simply don’t make any sense. Much like Dark Shadows, Never Can Say Good-bye is based on suspense and plot twists that will scare the socks off the audience and make them suspicious of the dust bunnies under their beds.

Best of luck, Theresa – hope this script makes it to the silver screen soon – it’s a keeper!

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Slipstream LogoMy pal Bailey Boudreau (with whom I appeared in Farmington Players’ production of Legally Blonde the Musical last year) has launched the Slipstream Theatre Initiative here in Metro Detroit, and they have a fun event this weekend. Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

Slipstream Theatre Initiative is proud to present a one-weekend staged reading festival of new, local works! The festival is a fundraiser for both Slipstream Theatre Initiative and Two Muses Theatre, and promises to provide non-stop entertainment.

Slipstream

Slipstream

Featuring new short plays by Playwrights Cara Trautman, Bailey Boudreau, Emilio Rodriguez, Kim Carney, Emily Fishman, Barry Germansky, Margaret Edwartowski, Katherine Nelson, Lori Reece and Josie Kirsch, this two day event offers a wide variety of material and subject matter.

Bailey Boudreau

Bailey Boudreau

The actors include Scott Romstadt, Steve Xander Carson, Miles Bond, Cara Trautman, Jennifer Jolliffe, Cindi Brody, Katie Terpstra, Alexander Henderson Trice, Claire Jolliffe, Maxim Vinogradav, Nick Kisse, Joshua Daniel Palmer, Josie Kirsch and Bailey Boudreau.

All proceeds will go to the 2014-2015 seasons of Slipstream Theatre Initiative and Two Muses Theatre, both non-profit organizations.

  • What: Original Works Weekend
  • When: Saturday July 19th, 7:30 pm & Sunday July 20th, 5:00 p.m.
  • Where: Two Muses Theatre inside the West Bloomfield Barnes and Noble
  • How Much: $10, additional donations accepted (tax-deductible)
  • Contact: InsideTheSlipstream@gmail.com , www.SlipstreamTI.com

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And this is just something that I needed to capture – and why not put it in this particular crazy quilt of a blog entry …

Shih TzuSo, I’m going to lunch yesterday with my colleagues Mike and Jan and I see a Shih Tzu or something (no tags, but a collar) running about the busy traffic on Middlebelt. We lure the dog into a yard with a rattle-y container of gum, and the people who live in the house say, “We saw him running around.”

Really? And you didn’t do anything?

They give us some twine which we fashion into a leash. I wander about this neighborhood while Jan and Mike go to the drugstore to get a real leash (which of course they don’t carry – my mom always says, “Always have a leash in your car.” I will now).

As I stumble around using this dog like a divining rod to see if he will lead me to his home (he didn’t – he was kind of a cute dingbat), up rolls from within the neighborhood a Grand Marquis painted an ugly orange red and on tires the size of small boulders. The gentleman driving the car, not saying “thank you,” grumbles, “My dog.” I say, “What’s his name?” Surly reply, “Bear.” (Really, a Shih Tzu named “Bear”?) The dog did indeed reply to the name, at which time the man got out of the car, lifted the dog roughly by the collar, smacked it on its side, and said, “We’re goin’ home.”

So, who wants to kidnap a Shih Tzu with me? Yes, we drove back through the neighborhood to confirm that he and “Bear” do live there. And, after work yesterday, I drove by the house again where the dog lives, and I met the teenage boy who clearly loves him very much. Let’s hope for the best.

If you want to know where I got this love for all creatures great and small, please check out my mom’s latest wonderful blog entry “that is my medicine” here.

And read about friend Beth Kennedy’s adoption of “Nacho the Cat” here!

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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.

Funky college professors who change your life … The Carolina Chocolate Drops with Grace & Tony at Ann Arbor’s The Ark

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Carolina Chocolate Drops [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Effervescent. Witty. Intelligent. … Force of nature! These are the best words I can devise to describe Carolina Chocolate Drops’ performance Wednesday night at Ann Arbor’s The Ark.

If you aren’t familiar with this group, stop reading this right now, go to YouTube and check out their stuff. I have never seen so raucous a crowd at The Ark as I did last night, jubilant and joyous and energized by the band’s world-class musicianship and delightfully irreverent intellectualism.

This group of multi-hyphenate performers have mined hundreds of years of musical history: folk, roots, hip-hop, spiritual, blues, country, bluegrass, and even Celtic rhythms to create an intoxicating brew of acoustic, string driven, pop delights.

The drum!

The drum!

While the lineup of the group has undergone some changes in recent years, lead singer Rhiannon Giddens is a mainstay. (One of the night’s biggest laughs came when she stated, “A certain pop star came on the scene a few years back [the similarly named Rihanna] … and pretty much ruined my life … I wear clothes, though.”

Giddens is a marvel. As much accomplished actress as she is exceptional vocalist and amazing instrumentalist, she breathes life into songs that veer wildly from a 200 A.D. war chant to Blu Cantrell’s one-hit-wonder “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops).” She makes every song her own. With wide-eyed wonder, heartfelt intelligence and charm, and an impish smile, she delivers raw roots vocals with operatic technique, all while playing nearly every stringed instrument on stage from mandolin to banjo. Many of last night’s selections focused on the mistreatment of women through the ages and the essential reclamation of female power. That may sound stuffy. It ain’t.

The band!

The band!

The talents of this quartet cannot be overstated. The Chocolate Drops’ nearly two hour set flew by. Opening with the propulsive and gripping “Country Girl” through their encore “Cornbread and Butterbeans” (which was aggressively  – and quite humorously – requested all night long by one notably vocal fan), the set was a dynamic and earthy array of the group’s best work with a handful of undiscovered gems tossed in for good measure.

I felt like I was at a fabulous party that I never wanted to end. The Chocolate Drops were relaxed and authentic, gracious and inclusive. Their repartee between songs (and during!) was both instructive and hysterically funny, like that of funky college professors whom you adore for making you laugh … and changing your life.

(The Chocolate Drops also gave some local dancers the opportunity to hit the stage and interpret their music as they were playing it. If there ever was a textbook definition of a “happening,” this was it.)

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.

Grace & Tony [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Opening act, alt-country/folk/steampunk husband/wife duo Grace & Tony may have been an acquired taste for some. I loved them! By the time they played their last number, they had completely won me over. (I listened to their CD November in the car today on my way to work, and I highly recommend it – ethereal, zany, and compelling.)

Tony White (brother of The Civil Wars’ John Paul White) knows how to work his hipster winsome charm in service to songs inspired by such diverse topics as Stephen King’s book Salem’s Lot, Frankenstein’s monster, and a couple of serial killers who sold cadavers to universities in the 1800s. These topics sound ghoulish, but Tony (and Grace!) sold these cracked ditties with such saucy glee that the audience was in the palm their hands by the time the Chocolate Drops took the stage.

Thanks to our dear pal Rachel Murphy who introduced all of us to the Carolina Chocolate Drops music. And I, in turn, hooked my parents on the group and have given several copies of their spectacular CDs as gifts.

A plug for The Ark: this is a fabulous, nonprofit venue staffed by volunteers, bringing in internationally known performers many times a week. Definitely check out their schedule, and take in a show there first chance you get!

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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.

Rich people problems: Endless Love (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I had low expectations going into the 2014 remake of Endless Love, the 1981 original of which I had never seen nor ever cared to see and which had a title song that always made my scalp itch.

(Seriously, Brooke Shields, who starred in the first film, made her career on one boringly naughty movie after another. Why is it that she now hates on young up-and-comers who have swiped and amped-up her career-making playbook in their own ironically postmodern way? I suspect I just answered my own question.)

How is this latest unnecessary remake of a 1980s film that already lives in perpetuity through the HBO/VHS generation onto the YouTube/Netflix era? Not bad, actually.

The story is Romeo and Juliet if it were written by Nicholas Sparks and directed by Douglas Sirk. It’s a hot mess melodrama replete with all kinds of rich people problems – including but certainly not limited to …

  • Mysterious death of a high school football star son on-track to attend an Ivy League school and whose memory is preserved by his vintage Mercedes left rotting exquisitely in the exquisitely landscaped driveway
  • Lonely youngest daughter who tries to honor her OCD heart-surgeon daddy by following in her dead brother’s Ivy League-bound footsteps which apparently means looking and acting like Taylor Swift’s fabulous trust-fund cousin yet having no friends whatsoever
  • Prized daughter disappointing her papa by falling for the sheepish bad boy slab of beef with a heart of gold whose sheer inappropriateness is represented by his love of flannel shirts and by his decorating his bedroom walls with license plates
  • A mother whose writing career was derailed by familial tragedy (and possibly a preoccupation with decor from Pottery Barn) but who rediscovers her inner muse when this saucy lad turns her family’s WASPy world right ’round, baby, ‘right round like a record, baby
  • And, finally, a twiggy middle brother who disappoints his stern father at every turn by declaring his college major as “communications” (apparently a dirty word in this rarefied air), by listening to his dead brother’s vinyl (!) records and not putting them back in their sleeves, and likely also by constantly rocking a Bermuda shorts/blazer/sockless loafer sartorial combo.

All that aside, director Shana Feste, who approaches the material in a workmanlike After-School Special way, wisely stacks her cast with pros who treat the hyperbolic material with as much nuance and heart as they can muster. Leading the way (and arguably saving the film) is Bruce Greenwood as the aforementioned patriarch. He recycles the wounded well-heeled-dad-calcified-by-familial-tragedy routine he applied so remarkably to last fall’s Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing derivative in his performance here. He offers just the right gravitas and stays within a razor’s edge of Snidely Whiplash territory, giving the film just the perfect amount of tension, discomfort, and propulsion.

By his side in the acting department is the underrated Joely Richardson as his wife. She takes what could have otherwise been a thankless role as the pampered “lady who lunches” and conveys (primarily with those eyes of hers) a world of hurt, confusion, and misplaced optimism.

As the third parent of the piece, Robert Patrick is perfectly fine as the requisite single-father-of-the-boy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks. Patrick has left his Terminator 2 days far behind him and has evolved into a decent character actor. And, of course, the film in its sloppy shorthand has him run a gas station/garage … which, if you’ve ever paid for a car repair, means he should be as wealthy as anybody in that d*mn town on whatever Hollywood-planet this movie takes place.

The kids around whom the narrative revolves are fine as well. Apparently, those best-suited to play American teenagers are British actors in their mid-to-late-20s, but Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike, I Am Number Four) and Gabriella Wilde (who played the Amy Irving role in last fall’s Carrie remake – virtually the same character as this… hairstyle, wardrobe, mannerisms, and all) acquit themselves quite well.

I’m not one for movies depicting young love – all those dappled-sunlit montages of two beautiful people doing beautiful people fun things like swimming in lakes, setting off fireworks, riding around in art-designed dilapidated pick-up trucks, or going to rock concerts in the rain.

However, Pettyfer particularly rises above these cliches (if not always rising above his own vanity – you can tell the dude loves the way he looks). He brings a subtle quality of menace and obsession to his role. It is nicely disarming. You aren’t quite sure if Greenwood isn’t kinda sorta right to throw one Wile E. Coyote speed-trap after another in Pettyfer’s unyielding path to wooing/stealing his daughter away.

I enjoyed myself much more than I thought I should, and this one is worth catching at the dollar theatre or on TV, if for no other reason than seeing some well-trained actors traffic in some sudsy melodrama. And, blessedly, that sappy title song is nowhere to be found. Sorry Ms. Ross and Mr. Richie, but color me relieved.

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.

Raw nerves and open wounds: Carrie (2013 remake)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Perhaps it is because I feel particularly overloaded at this moment, having reached my fill of bullying, condescension, and passive aggression in this world. Maybe it is the power of an iconic horror story that owes more to Grimms’ fairy tales than it does to schlock like Friday the 13th. Regardless, I found the current cinematic update of Stephen King’s Carrie deeply affecting. I even shed a tear or two … but I am known to cry at really weird things.

We all know this story of a young, introverted, bullied telekinetic with a religious fanatic mother and a passel of snotty classmates who would just as soon throw toiletries at the girl as provide her any comfort. Oh, and there’s a well-meaning gym teacher who is more narrative device than character. And a prom in a cafegymatorium (do they still have those?) with a precariously positioned (and quite literal) bucket o’ blood. You know the rest.

Brian DePalma directed the original film which starred a preternatural Sissy Spacek as the titular anti-heroine and an operatically epic Piper Laurie as her wild-haired ma Margaret White who seemingly settled into her spooky Maine town by way of some long-lost Tennessee Williams’ purple-prose drama.

The original film had a truly dumb “sequel” in the late 90s about a girl who wasn’t named Carrie, had better hair, but also was treated shabbily and went gonzo at the film’s end, blowing up goth teens and super-chic glass houses with her frontal lobe. And there was an equally forgettable TV adaptation about ten years ago. Oh, and a disastrous (but unlike Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark … what does that title even mean?) commercial bomb of a Broadway musical, recently revived off-Broadway. (It should be noted that the show has a beautiful score by Michael – brother of “It’s My Party” Lesley – Gore.)

And now this take on the tale. It does seem to have become Gen X’s twisted version of the oft-adapted Cinderella story.

This time around, talented director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry, Stop-Loss) swaps out DePalma’s twitchy edge and campy Hitchcockian homage to emphasize the tortured familial love of a mother and daughter, collectively haunted and tortured by a world not of their making.  By bringing in a postmodern eye toward gender and class politics, Peirce takes what is basically a pretty slight story and creates a heartbreaking allegory of cruelty begetting cruelty, violence begetting violence.

Julianne Moore, unlike Piper Laurie, is an understated marvel as Margaret White. Moore always does tightly coiled rage really well.  (She looks like her very teeth hurt). She takes this character from what could have been a kitschy harridan and makes her a relatable portrait of fearful parental intention that has LOST (!) its way. She gives us a Margaret whose deep despair over an unkind world has led her to use religious fervor as both sword and shield, inadvertently abusing her own daughter in her attempts to protect Carrie.

Chloe Grace Moretz, who clearly has a long and interesting career ahead, is quite good as Carrie, though she is at her finest in those scenes where she has a stronger acting partner, like Moore or the underrated Judy Greer as gym teacher Miss Desjardin. Moretz stumbles a bit at the beginning, overdoing the feral wild-eyed/shrugged-shoulders bit. The pivotal (and just plain weird) scene in the girls’ locker room just comes off sillier than ever.

However, once the film heads down its inevitable track toward the Prom from Hell (which I secretly have always loved ’cause the concept of “prom” is so goony to me), she is wonderful. She brings a sweetness and assuredness to the characterization that I haven’t seen in any of the other adaptations, and it works really quite well. As a result, when the bad stuff (I mean, really bad stuff) happens to her, I felt my stomach in knots as tears welled up in my eyes. Say what you will, but I’ve never cried before when that damn bucket dumps its Karo Syrupy contents all over the poor lass’ noggin.

The rest of the cast is ok, but a bit like they just escaped from a shiny new teen drama on The CW. Lone standout Portia Doubleday as the vile little ringleader Chris Hargensen did give me the heebie jeebies. She is fun (?) to watch, and you are truly galvanized and relieved by the humiliating mutilation Carrie hands her at the film’s blazing conclusion. It is a clever (and sadly timely) touch to have Hargensen use social media to further her abuse of poor Carrie White.

The original film was a reflection of its scruffy, counterculture-addled times depicting a generation of lost, out-of-control  juvenile delinquents who have proceeded in turn to raise their own progeny. Sadly, this second decade of the 21st century reminds me of those years, though the media resources teens use to devour their own have changed dramatically. Why remake Carrie right now? Why the hell not?