“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.

_______________________________

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.

“Life doesn’t give you seat belts.” The LEGO Batman Movie

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Everything is (almost) awesome” in The LEGO Batman Movie, a spinoff from the 2014 surprise critical and box office hit The LEGO Movie. While LEGO Batman never quite achieves the warmhearted, dizzyingly progressive whimsy of its predecessor, it compensates with a bonkers absurdity that wouldn’t have been misplaced in a Road Runner cartoon.

Will Arnett returns to gravelly-voice the titular anti-hero, a Trump-esque (by way of Alec Baldwin) billionaire egomaniac whose idea of a good time is fighting (alone) an endlessly looped (and loopy) war on crime where the criminals never actually get locked up and the Batman soaks up a debatably earned shower of community accolades.

Arnett is a one-note hoot, and the filmmakers (director Chris McKay working with a mixed grab-bag of screenwriters Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington) wisely supplement his singular focus with a sweet-natured supply of supporting characters.

Cast MVPs include a sparklingly feminist Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon (later dubbed “Batgirl,” who quips to Arnett, “Does that make you BatBOY, then?”), a gleefully earnest and utterly over-caffeinated Michael Cera as Dick Grayson (relishing every glimmering, discofied sequin of his admittedly peculiar but comic book accurate “Robin” costume), and a dry-as-a-martini Ralph Fiennes as Bruce Wayne/Batman’s dutiful, shaken-but-not-stirred majordomo Alfred Pennyworth.

Like The LEGO Movie (and just about any children’s movie made. ever.), The LEGO Batman Movie posits a primary thesis that family is everything, even if that family is made up of a collection of well-intentioned, mentally-suspect oddballs (so it’s a fact-based film). Arnett’s Batman comically resists any and all overtures by his friends (and enemies) to connect, collaborate, and love, driven in part by a lightly-touched-upon reference to Batman’s origins losing both of his parents to a gun-toting mugger in Gotham City’s aptly named “Crime Alley.” Alfred cautions Master Bruce, “You can’t be a hero if you only care about yourself.”

This sets up a tortured bromance between Batman and his (sometimes) chief nemesis The Joker, voiced with consummate crazed sweetness by an unrecognizable Zach Galifianakis. The Joker just wants Batman to acknowledge that they have a special bond, but the Dark Knight’s cuddly sociopathy prevents him from admitting that they truly need each other. “I don’t currently have a bad guy. I’m fighting a few different people. I like to fight around,” Batman dismisses a lip-quivering, weepy-eyed Joker.

The Joker then sets on a path to flip this script, bringing a spilled toybox rogues’ gallery of delightfully random villains (King Kong, Harry Potter‘s Voldemort, The Wicked Witch of the West and her Flying Monkeys, The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Dr. Who‘s Daleks, Clash of the Titans‘ Medusa and Kraken, Jurassic Park‘s velociraptors, Dracula, Joe Dante’s cinematic Gremlins, and a bunch of glowing skeletons) to destroy Gotham City, reclaim Batman’s attention, and re-establish their dotingly dysfunctional affection for one another.

What made The LEGO Movie such fun was its childlike ability to (s)mash-up incongruous genres (and intellectual properties), much like little boys and girls do with their actual toy collections, wherein it might not be uncommon for Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, and Barbie to team up against Captain America, He-Man, and Papa Smurf. It was nice to see this bit of anarchic, cross-promotional foolishness continue from one film to another.

For middle-aged comic books buffs, there are Easter Eggs galore. We get obscure Batman villains rarely seen in print, let alone film (Calendar Man? Crazy Quilt? Zebra-Man?!). There is a SuperFriends house party, hosted by Superman (Channing Tatum’s adorably frat boy-ish take on the character continued from The LEGO Movie) at his “Fortress of (Not-So) Solitude” complete with a DJ-ing Wonder Dog, a groovy Martian “Dance”-hunter, and an “It’s a Small World”-esque conga line of Apache Chief, Black Vulcan, El Dorado, Samurai, and the Wonder Twins. Perhaps most impressively, The LEGO Batman Movie manages to telescope nearly 80 years of Bat-history (comics, television, film) into a handful of nifty and very funny montages, simultaneously justifying LEGO’s iconically cracked take on the character while honoring all that has come before.

Upon Robin’s first joy ride in a hot rod-drawn-on-the-back-of-a-Trapper-Keeper version of The Batmobile, Batman turns to him, with his nails-on-a-chalkboard growl, and warns, “Life doesn’t give you seat belts.” And that is likely the most important message in these LEGO movies. Life is going to hand you a lot of lemons, so use your imagination and your inherent sense of joy to keep things fulfillingly messy … and, along the way, feel free to pour lemonade over the heads of anyone who tries to make you follow their arbitrary rules. Make your own rules, and break them freely and often.

________________________________

From my personal collection. Yes, I’m nuts.

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).

____________________

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

____________________

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.

My kind of movie star: Drew Barrymore’s Wildflower book tour at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater

Drew and Drew

Drew and Drew

Drew Barrymore is a special creation. The scion of an American acting dynasty as renowned for their craft as for their addictions. A Gen X phoenix who climbed from the ashes of a pre-TMZ/Perez Hilton (thank goodness) cocaine/disco-fueled death spiral to become America’s pop culture sweetheart.

A hippie goddess whose love of animals, the environment, and a Free to be You and Me socialist aesthetic she has magically transmuted into a flower power capitalist multimedia empire that includes films, cosmetics, books, and, yes, WalMart eyeglasses.

Oh, and she’s Steven Spielberg’s goddaughter.

Somehow it all makes perfect sense. Like an interesting second cousin you don’t actually know very well but whose life you’ve followed in an endless series of Christmas letters – a relative who seems older than their actual years because of the passing, near-mythic familiarity you have and whose every action seems simultaneously fascinating and mundane.

DrewI’ve had two occasions now to be in the divine Ms. Barrymore’s luminous presence. I was an extra for one marathon day of shooting on her Detroit-filmed 2009 directorial debut Whip It (a charming slice of roller derby women’s empowerment, criminally remembered only as a box office disappointment).

I was fortunate enough to land on the day Barrymore filmed the climactic roller derby battle, and every cast member (and what a cast!) was present: Ellen Page, Jimmy Fallon, Eve, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Daniel Stern, and, yes, Juliette Lewis (who ended up being the sweetest, most generous of the bunch – who knew?). I was struck by Barrymore’s warmth and exuberance so late in a filming schedule.

Outside the Michigan

Outside the Michigan

She was as accommodating to us lowly extras as she was to her co-stars, and the esprit de corps was infectious, even when the carny band launched into an impromptu wrap party at 2 am. I was pretty spent at that point and wandered quietly away with fond yet foggy memories of a clutch of Hollywood movers and shakers who made Southeast Michigan their home for a summer.

(I did get a shout out from one of Whip It‘s producers tonight in the Michigan Theater lobby for wearing my well-loved/well-worn/dingy Whip It t-shirt. He exclaimed, “I didn’t even get one of those! Thanks for helping us out.” My pleasure!)

And tonight, six years later, Barrymore returned to the scene, reading from her new book of “stories” (autobiographical essays) Wildflower on the renowned Michigan Theater stage in Ann Arbor.

Wildflower ... autographed

Wildflower … autographed

Interviewed by a fellow “Drew” (Ann Arbor’s Drew Waller), Barrymore really needed no introduction or guide. Her boundless presence was a tonic – the word “authentic” was bandied nearly to the point of cliche … if it hadn’t been so darn true.

Her casual Cali vibe infused every anecdote and reading, but a steely tinge of “little girl lost” regret has always been a welcome counterpoint to her “Rainbow Bright” stage presence. It was evident tonight as well.

She spoke at length about the adoration and respect she has for longtime business partner Nan Juvonen (Jimmy Fallon’s wife and, for all intents, Barrymore’s surrogate mom).

She offered a glimpse of the wistful gratitude she has for her unconventional, tortured, charmed childhood; the topsy-turvy upbringing her sometimes-estranged mother Jaid gave Barrymore in a West Hollywood walk-up with only a sole avocado tree as her backyard.

Barrymore then gave us a quintessentially left-of-center take on her own parenting of daughters Olive and Frankie; she admitted a refreshing aversion to the other Hollywood mommies who sniff in her direction when not every meal she makes is “organic.”

Drew and Drew 2She confessed that she adores Adam Sandler (someone should … and he is at his best when he shares the screen with her, IMHO).

But she was at her most affecting when she described her lifelong love of animals – from the pack of three rescue dogs who lived with her through her tumultuous 20s and into her 30s (all passing relatively recently to much heartbreak in the Barrymore home) to her current canine adoptees Lucy and Douglas, a couple of characters who clearly bring great light to her life. She gushed that animals have taught her to love, unconditionally. When she looks in an animal’s eyes, she knows what true love can be.

Barrymore’s mantra? Live in the moment. Be kind. Be real.

Roy and John at Drew

Roy and John (and random friend)

And where was this most apparent? At least for us? When my cold-afflicted husband John, caught in a sneezing fit, received a very gracious “bless you” from a concerned Ms. Barrymore. She turned in her chair, looked lovingly in his general direction, and, with great concern, said, “I hope you feel better.” Later, when I was hustled through the manic autograph queue (seriously, she barely had time to look up at any of us – Motor City assembly line bench-marking?), she shouted after me, “Don’t worry about it! I’m covered in snot all day, every day.”

My kind of movie star.

______________________________

Roy at DrewReel 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.

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!

____________________________

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.

“To a canary, a cat is a monster. We are just used to being the cat.” Jurassic World

"Jurassic World poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jurassic_World_poster.jpg#/media/File:Jurassic_World_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Regarding this weekend’s big summer blockbuster release Jurassic World, my animal advocate mom posted this on my Facebook wall earlier today: “But are they mean to dinosaurs? Are the dinosaurs the villains? Is it a glorified hunting movie? Inquiring minds want to know these things? Would Sarah Palin approve and reignite girls to wear clean sportsy clothes and hiking boots? Posing with bears and rabbits and deer and giraffes pretending they killed them? Because if so, my friend… ha!”

I can pretty safely say that it’s not a glorified hunting movie, and I don’t think the Sarah Palin-types would like it, as most of their stand-ins in the film get eaten pretty quickly by roaring, teeth-gnashing dinos. However, the film is a typically schizophrenic Steven Spielberg production (he executive produced this installment but directed the original Jurassic Park way back in 1993). Is the film making a satiric point about how horrible humans are to the environment, how we reap what we sow, and how we deserve any and all climate change payback which results from our rampant over-development of land, air, and sea? Or is Jurassic World just more yuppie disaster porn designed to sell Happy Meal toys, glistening Jeeps, and Patagonia safari gear? I’m still scratching my head. I just don’t know.

When you look at Spielberg’s filmography, as both director and producer, from Jaws to Close Encounters, E.T. to Gremlins, Poltergeist to, yes, Jurassic Park, he returns time and again to themes of man’s infinite ineptitude and limitless arrogance in the face of a planet, nay universe, full of mystery, wonder, and violent counterbalance. For Spielberg, karma is a four-color funny – build a beach home, destroy a burial ground, feed a cooing creature after midnight, genetically modify a reptile for an overpriced amusement park? You’re gonna get sliced, diced, and eviscerated, all to the strains of a symphonic John Williams score.

And you know what? That is ok by me!

The problem with Spielberg’s films is he wants to have his sardonic cake and eat it too. Spielberg’s movies are expensive and they make a lot of money; whether directed by Spielberg or under the auspices of Amblin Entertainment or DreamWorks, these big budget boogers are sold to every demographic quadrant an army of polished marketers can dream up, so ultimately the flicks dare not go too far. We don’t want to alienate any viewer, slurping over their Mr. Pibb and Kit Kat bites (yeah, that’s what I had today), and, consequently, any unique and incisive POV gets diluted in a gauzy haze of product placement, no matter how postmodern and ironic said placement may be.

No, Spielberg did not direct Jurassic World. Those honors (?) go to Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), but Spielbergian DNA is all over this sucker. Sorry, Colin. I can only imagine this must have been like being hired for a dream design job at Apple, only to find they really just want you to arrange, into artful displays, the new Apple Watches when they arrive in stores.

Jurassic World does its job efficiently and effectively. It entertains, and it will make a mint … but it has no real raison d’etre. (Yeah, I got all fancy. It doesn’t need to exist.) It basically lifts the very plot from the first film, but this time we get Bryce Dallas Howard (how is this mugging, one-note actor still making movies? oh, right, Ron Howard’s kid) instead of Richard Attenborough and Chris Pratt instead of Sam Neill. Jeff Goldblum is now Irrfan Khan, and Wayne Knight is now Vincent D’Onfrio. B.D. Wong? Still B.D. Wong – that man must be an automaton as he hasn’t aged one freaking bit.

Seriously, these actors may be playing different characters (obvi) twenty-some years later (natch) but their narrative functions are still the same.

Portraying a grizzled velociraptor trainer (and apologist), Pratt is the best thing in the film by far. Wearing a steady exasperation that seems to suggest he wishes he had a better script with which to work, Pratt does a fine job channeling Neill’s gravitas: just because you can make a dinosaur does mean you should make a dinosaur. Pratt is a delight, one of the few actors in the film who seems to believe where he is and what is doing and who has a genuine affection for the misunderstood creatures in this world (dino or otherwise).

Howard fares less favorably as the Isla Nubar theme park’s chief executive who in sexist Hollywood shorthand is an out-of-touch, controlling, insecure ninny with a severe bob, impractical shoes, and an ever present iPhone. Ugh. It doesn’t help that her emotions range from sweaty to panicked to rigid to … sweaty.

D’Onofrio is a kick in an underwritten role as a nebulous InGen contractor who wants to use these “assets” (that’s how mean people refer to animals in this cardboard world) for military purposes. Boo hiss. Blessedly, he has the chops to fill in the mile-wide gaps the script allows. He exudes the oily opportunism of those post-millennial types who see our natural resources simply as walking/breathing/pooping dollar signs. He may as well have had Monsanto painted on his backside.

At one point, Wong’s character (you may recall he is the ethically-dubious geneticist who figured out how to fabricate dinos from whole cloth in the first place) intones what passes for a philosophical thesis in the film: “To a canary, a cat is a monster. We are just used to being the cat.” Yup, amen to that.

There is a perverse joy in seeing blank-faced, cornfed tourists hoisted by their own petards, tossed like beach balls from one pteranodon to another above Jurassic World‘s Starbucks/Margaritaville/Pandora encrusted main street. I also loved the jab at Sea World with a dino sea creature (mosaurus?) that grudgingly entertains a nautical football-arena-size stadium of onlookers but gets the last laugh when he/she gobbles a few vacationers down.

Ultimately, by the final act, when the Frankenstein’s monster dino “Indominus Rex” (cooked up by Howard and Wong to sell more t-shirts and key chains) has shredded the park top to bottom and is now fighting a pack of velociraptors and a t-rex for no real explainable reason, I was in a Mr. Pibb/Kit Kat coma. I just didn’t care.

And the adult in me kept thinking … Who is going to put these dinos back in their paddocks? Is the Hilton corporation going to rebuild their opulent hotel on Isla Nubar for future product placement? Who is going to clean up this mess, and will Starbucks return to sell more mocha-choca-lattes? And why didn’t the dinos just finish off all the humans? That’s a movie I’d pay $10 more bucks to see.

____________________________

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.

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

________________

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.

Deja vu all over again: Lincoln

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Whether or not Steven Spielberg intended his latest film Lincoln to serve as a finely crafted allegory for our contentiously political times, it very much is one. The movie succeeds on multiple levels, not only allegorical but also as instructively engaging historical psychodrama and crackerjack cinematic entertainment.

Daniel Day-Lewis as the titular American president is warm yet flinty and infinitely watchable in yet another amazingly chameleonic performance in his long and storied career. He manages to evade the trap of most historical biopics – he is neither overly reverential nor artistically self-indulgent. And he is most assuredly not some wax figure in Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.”

Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln is a fully realized, at times lovable, always affecting flesh-and-blood creation. I challenge anyone to read about Lincoln after watching this movie and NOT hear Day-Lewis’ voice in your head or visualize the mischievous, twinkly fire in his eyes.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Civil War (no shock there) and focuses on the political machinations required to have the 13th Amendment pass the House of Representatives, where it has been stuck for the better part of a year. Lincoln realizes that, if the Civil War ends before the Amendment’s passage, he might not ever amend the Constitution to prevent slavery forevermore.

Needless to say, Beltway (was it called the “Beltway” in those days?) backstabbing and hijinks ensue, and anyone who has lived in America in the past twelve years will reflect  “the more things change…the more they stay the same.” Neither Spielberg nor screenwriter Tony Kushner proselytize (though there is speechifyin’-a-plenty) but the ugliness of watching entitled white dudes debating the finer points of social issues for which they have no real skin in the game is like deja vu all over again.

The supporting cast is a who’s who of America’s finest players, from always delightful David Strathairn to a gonzo-fun James Spader who seems to be channeling Robert Downey, Jr., at his most drug-addled. Lee Pace of ABC’s short-lived Pushing Daisies is fun as a posturing, preening Congressman opposed to the Amendment, and Jackie Earle Haley continues his run of great late-career performances as the peace-seeking Confederate Veep, literally left cooling his heals on a riverboat as Lincoln pushes the Amendment through.

Sally Field as Mary Todd-Lincoln is adequate, and I’m not sure if her part was a bit underwritten or if I have just seen her return to the same actorly well a few too many times. Kushner seems to be channeling a postmodern perspective on the Lincolns’ marriage/family through every bit of Field’s dialogue, and she does yeoman’s work making it sound natural but at times it still seems stilted.

The film also suffers from about four endings too many. We know what happens to Lincoln in the weeks and months following the Amendment’s passage, and, trying to cram all of that detail into what is more-or-less an extended diorama-like montage at the film’s conclusion detracts. And, of course, Spielberg can’t help but include his trademark fairy tale mythologizing here and there – it is ok, but the film is so strong otherwise that I could have done without those vintage touches.

But the best moments of the film come at the hands of two old pros who don’t share a minute of screen time: Tommy Lee Jones as Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Both bring gravitas and pixie dust to their roles, more than holding their own with Day-Lewis. Their characters leap from the pages of history books and very quickly feel like people you have known personally for years. Absolutely remarkable work here.