“But first they must catch you.” The Darkest Minds (film review) and Barn Theatre’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.” Richard Adams, Watership Down

When even our escapist entertainment reminds us of the dystopia in which we are currently living as Americans, you know things are dire indeed. This weekend we took in a Saturday night production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by our talented pals at Augusta, Michigan’s Barn Theatre and a Sunday matinee of the film adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel The Darkest Minds. Both were engaging diversions, and, yet, as I sat through both, I was reminded repeatedly of how disconcertingly life imitates art.

If there were ever a tale as old as time that functions as a parable of toxic masculinity, it is Disney’s take on Beauty and the Beast, adapted from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale first as an Academy Award-winning animated musical in 1991, then as a Broadway stage show in 1994, and finally as a live action film musical in 2017. And it’s made boatloads of cash in each iteration.

Andrea Arvanigian as Belle and Charlie King as Maurice in “Beauty and the Beast” at Barn Theatre.

Let’s see. Belle, a bookish beauty, is caught between two brutes: 1) a misogynistic and vainglorious hunter (Gaston) who sees her as a trophy to be bullied and berated into submission and 2) a literal beast of a man who forces an exchange of her imprisonment for her father’s freedom and locks her in his castle until she succumbs to his “charms.” It may as well be renamed “#MeToo: The Musical.”

As always, the Barn wows with their stagecraft, turning around a technically complex show with barely a week of rehearsal, all the while smiling and parking cars and mowing lawns and serving drinks and selling souvenirs. Be our guest, indeed!

I’d never seen the stage iteration, and I admit to having some difficulty with the first act which pads out the narrative with some forgettable numbers and comic bits and belabors the Beast’s darker impulses to the point that we  begin to lose the sense of isolation and loneliness that humanizes him in the films (not Alan Menken’s and Tim Rice’s finest work – Rice took over for the late Howard Ashman for the Broadway adaptation’s additional material). I now understand why Disney went back to the drawing board with last year’s live action flick, rather than adapt the stage version.

Swiped from Jamey’s Facebook page … sorry (not sorry)!

That said, Jamey Grisham as the titular beast does a lovely job working around those limitations and giving us a Beast who is more of a woebegone man-child than an outright Stanley Kowalski caveman. As I said to him following last night’s performance, his Beast was like a misunderstood pit bull who’d been left at the shelter too long. He looked at me quizzically, but, believe me, for an animal lover like me, that’s high praise. Jamey has the voice of an angel and moves beautifully, but arguably his finest moment is his quietest: when Belle reads King Arthur aloud to the admittedly illiterate Beast. The tender poignancy of Andrea Arvanigian’s Belle sharing a beloved tome with a creature who has never received the most basic of kindnesses is palpable. And the subtle canine physicality that Grisham brings to the scene (how does a Beast sit in a chair, anyway?) is heartwarmingly whimsical.

Albert Nelthropp as Gaston in Barn Theatre’s “Beauty and Beast.”

Albert Nelthropp has a true gift for balancing the cartoonish and the menacing as Gaston. He never misses a comic beat, has a voice (and articulation) that fills the cavernous Barn space, and possesses that rare ability to be likable without losing the utter despicability of his character. Penelope Alex is a lovely and warm Mrs. Potts, delivering the title tune in a soft and lullaby-like manner.

And Hans Friedrichs is having the time of his life as Maurice Chevalier-inspired major domo Lumiere. Few performers could be as elegantly hysterical with (basically) a flashlight strapped to the end of each arm. He and Samantha Rickard as his paramour-turned-feather-duster Babette are a hoot.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through August 10, with tickets available at www.barntheatreschool.org

Be sure to stick around for the Bar Show, a Barn Theatre tradition where the apprentices take over the Rehearsal Shed post-performance to deliver a kooky comic cabaret with polish and panache. Grisham directs and choreographs (is there anything this man can’t do?) with a zippy but inclusive efficiency.

Bar Show

The Disney theme continues with numbers from Coco, The Aristocats, and The Lion King, plus the lost number “Disneyland” from Marvin Hamlisch’s and Howard Ashman’s musicalization of Smile and a pretty epic opener “The Greatest Show” from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul‘s The Greatest Showman (which, for all intents and purposes, should be a Disney musical … but isn’t).

Video clips at the bottom of this post.

From musicalized misogyny on Saturday to a sci fi fable on Sunday about children locked in cages by the government, forcibly separated from their parents –  The Darkest Minds … I told you our entertainment choices this weekend seemed oddly ripped from today’s headlines. Or I just spend way to much time trolling CNN’s and MSNBC’s websites.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Darkest Minds has been unfairly pilloried by critics. It’s not awful. It’s not great either. The cinematic universe is now littered with Ray Bradbury-esque young adult future-shock franchises that aspired to the box office glory of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games but never quite made it past the starting gate: The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson, Divergent, I Am Number Four, and so on. Judging by ticket sales this past weekend, Darkest Minds will be in the trash heap of failed young adult film series as well.

That’s a bit of a shame, as I found its depressing and ominous qualities oddly … refreshing (?). It is necessarily discomforting in today’s world to watch a piece of popcorn entertainment depict young children forcibly ripped from their parents’ arms and sent to internment camps for being “different” (albeit in this instance for having super powers). Yes, we’ve covered this territory a lot; hell, it’s basically the same premise Marvel’s X-Men have been milking for nearly sixty years. Yet, it remains timely. Sadly timely.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film probably would have worked better as a bleak TV series – something you watch on NetFlix on a grey Sunday afternoon, while still in your pajamas and eating an entire box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In her first live action film (after Kung Fu Panda), Jennifer Yuh Nelson has assembled a capable and transfixing cast, even if they are in servitude to a fairly pedestrian and episodic script. A luminous and haunting Amandla Stenberg (Rue from the original Hunger Games) plays telepathically gifted Ruby Daly – as in all of these sorts of films, she is the Christ/Skywalker/Superman-like “one who will save us all.”

Stenberg is a star in the making, so her mere presence makes the film far more interesting to watch than it should be. A la Dorothy in Oz, she has a band of scruffy friends – Harris Dickinson as dreamy love interest Liam, Skylan Brooks as cerebral Chubbs, Miya Cech as mute Zu – who aid and abet her adventures. The foursome are by far the best thing in the film with a chemistry that deserves a far better vehicle to showcase it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

They are on the run from a rather confusing collection of government entities and rebel factions that have sprung up in the wake of a nationwide virus that has killed 90% of America’s children and left the remaining 10% with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Uplifting, eh?

Of course, all the adults – well-meaning and earnest Mandy Moore (that’s pretty much her range right there), glowering Gwendoline Christie (sadly sans her shiny Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet), and West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford being all West Wing-y as, yes, the President – are on a mission to collect the super kids to do … well … something? Take over the world? Kill the remaining kids? Clean boots and grow vegetables? Heck, I have no idea.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Arguably, the best outcome for the tens of people who will have walked past Mission: Impossible or Mamma Mia! to go see The Darkest Minds is that some of them might be inspired to pick up the far superior Watership Down by Richard Adams and give it a spin.

Ruby improbably finds a paperback copy in an abandoned shopping mall, reads it to her compatriots, and then repeats ad nauseum Adams’ narrator’s memorable caution to “Prince Rabbit” that “all the world will be your enemy.”

Sadly, these days, those words seem more prescient than ever. So much for escapist entertainment.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

 

 

“You want out of the hole? You should put down the shovel.” Incredibles 2

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Disney Pixar’s Incredibles 2, picking up 14 years (!) after the last film hit theatres, is about as subversive as a movie full of pixelated superheroes can be. This is the film our country needs right now. People will flock to this – Blue States on the coasts and Red States in the middle – and none will be the wiser that directing wunderkind Brad Bird has given us the ultimate Ray Bradburdy-esque allegory for our topsy turvy political times.

For instance, Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl – offered a Faustian contract by media-hack Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) to publicly redeem superheroes who have been outlawed in the Incredibles’ flawlessly production-designed mid-century moment – queries, “To help my family I have to leave it. To fix the law, I have to break it.” Does that sound familiar … or what?! (I won’t even get into our present debate over the horror of separating immigrant families from their children at the border … oh, Elastigirl, how we need you right now.)

The first Incredibles surprised us all, billed as it was as a four-color throwback to superhero shenanigans of movie matinee yore. Yet, in reality, it was a brilliantly executed existential treatise on surviving in a world of ageist disposability and politically charged hypocrisy. In both films, Bird uses the titular Spandex’d family (homage as they are to Marvel’s own Fantastic Four) to explore thorny issues of identity politics, socioeconomic disparity, and xenophobia. (For those of you rolling your eyes, watch the first film again and tell me I’m wrong. In fact, I would argue that, taken together, The Incredibles are a far better “spiritual adaptation” of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ seminal Watchmen than Zack Snyder’s slavishly literal 2009 film treatment of said graphic novel.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Bird has woven into both films an infectious love of 60s caper-television fare a la Mission: Impossible, The Man from UNCLE, and Jonny Quest, aided and abetted by his pitch-perfect musical soundtrack partner Michael Giacchino, whose shameless worship of Lalo Schifrin, John Barry, and Herbie Hancock is as obvious as the “i” on Mr. Incredible’s Buick-sized chest.

Of all Pixar’s storied output, The Incredibles films go the greatest distance, creating a self-contained universe of exceptional design and unimpeachable character and holding an outsized mirror to the heartbreaking flaws in our present reality.

Incredibles 2 is one of those rare sequels that meets if not exceeds its predecessor. This may be the Godfather 2 of Pixar flicks.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The first film debuted before Marvel Studios’ ascent to cinematic glory, not to mention Marvel’s subsequent acquisition by Disney, and this sequel appears after the first major chapter of Marvel’s meteoric rise comes to a close with Avengers: Infinity War. Not sure what to make of that, but The Incredibles‘ wry, relatable commentary is arguably far more sophisticated than that of any other superhero flicks we have seen … or likely ever will. (I’m pretty sure this is the only superhero movie, let alone animated film, I’ve ever seen that has used the word “conflate” in a line of dialogue.)

We meet our heroes, one day following the events of the first film, as they continue to bump along in life – Olympian gods suffering through the mundanities of middle American subsistence. The super-family’s well-intentioned intervention of a bank heist goes awry, and they find themselves in the slammer and without the aid of their super-handler Rick Dicker, who has decided a life of retirement is preferable to one of damage control for a family of super-powered freaks. He observes ruefully, “You want out of the hole? You should put down the shovel.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In Dicker’s absence, PR maven Winston Deavor steps forward with a scheme to celebrate Elastigirl and thereby rehabilitate the negative image “supers” have suffered in The Incredibles-universe for years. Mr. Incredible (with heart-breaking comic voice work by Craig T. Nelson) is left at home with a super-powered infant Jack-Jack (whose anarchic impulses yield increasingly zany and haunting consequences) as well as two angsty tweens: the invisible Violet and the speedster Dash. Oh, and Deavor’s sister Evelyn (a delightfully sardonic Catherine Keener) may or may not be on the side of the angels. TBD.

The movie touches on just about every zeitgeist issue hitting today’s headlines: women who have lived far too long in the shadows of men; the dilemma of finally finding one’s “moment” when the obligations of daily life make it impossible to actually enjoy it; a fear-mongering government whose reach far exceeds its grasp; and the unerring need of the media and elected officials to scapegoat the marginalized for all of society’s failings. Not incidentally, Incredibles 2 is a funny-as-hell, fizzy-a$$ bottle-rocket of entertainment.

Yes, fan-favorites Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson, all wisenheimer perfection) and Edna Mode (director Brad Bird doing double-duty as the voice of the fussy Edith Head-inspired “capes and cowls” designer) make their triumphant returns. Mode particularly enjoys a delightful sequence where her take-no-prisoners approach to fashion ends up yielding exceptional parenting tips to Mr. Incredible: “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film’s antagonist declares in the movie’s final act that “superheroes make us weak,” asserting that our reliance on escapist fare prevents us from living our most authentic lives.

It’s a twisty and cynical bit of meta-commentary, embedded as it is in a film produced by a media empire (Disney’s) raking in billions from our foolhardy fantasies that Captain America will somehow save our hides from the real-life fascists ruining our country. Fair enough.

But all hail Pixar for yet again offering us – under the deceptive and intoxicating guise of family friendly entertainment – a healthy dose of philosophical medicine just when we desperately need it … a big gulp of fortifying spinach to counteract the real-life Krytonite sapping our spirits on a daily basis. (Yes, I just mixed my Popeye and Superman metaphors. Go sue me, Lex Luthor.)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“I don’t recognize this world.” “I don’t have to recognize it. Just save it.” Justice League

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Justice League isn’t getting a fair shake. At all. Was there far too much hype, including an insane amount of expectation put on this film to be DC’s answer to the cinematic superhero genre’s watershed Avengers? Indubitably. Did DC dig its own grave by playing coy about reviews and critical response in advance of Justice League‘s pre-Thanksgiving release? Yep. Is the critical backlash reflective of years of pent-up frustration that producer/director Zack Snyder continues to crank out one  overindulgent, sophomoric, bleak video-game-by-Abercrombie-&-Fitch-esque flick after another? Darn tootin’.

And that’s a shame.

Justice League is a lot of fun with a crackerjack cast and a ton of lovely character beats (no doubt courtesy of co-director/screenwriter Joss Whedon – Avengers, Buffy – who stepped in when Snyder left the production after a family tragedy). A few years ago, this film would have been a critical and popular blockbuster, but in a year that brought us smarter, savvier, and edgier comic book fare like Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming,Logan, and DC’s own Wonder Woman, Justice League pales in comparison as it pretty much aims for the Saturday matinee crowd and succeeds on those popcorn terms.

The plot is more or less lifted from The Avengers … and any superhero movie of the 80s or 90s. There is a rather forgettable villain in the form of Steppenwolf (part of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World/New Gods saga), a tragically Shakespearean character in print, rendered CGI-mundane and unrecognizable (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) in the film. He journeys to Earth to conquer our planet and thereby reclaim his place in the royal family of his intergalactic despot nephew Darkseid. The “MacGuffins” (a la Marvel’s “infinity stones”) are three “Mother Boxes” that have been hidden on Earth thousands of years ago by the Amazons, Atlanteans, and mankind and that, when united, will create some globby-swirly-Jackson-Pollock-looking “engine of destruction” to wipe all of us from the globe. Steppenwolf is aided by an army of screeching bug-warriors called Parademons who primarily serve the purpose of letting our Super Friend heroes bash and smash in a fairly bloodless PG-friendly way.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Now that you’ve read that byzantine description, please note that none of that matters. What does matter is the delightful dynamic created among luminous a$$-kicker Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and DC Universe newcomers Ezra Miller as a delightfully manic and winsome Flash and Jason Momoa as a brash and swaggering yet completely adorable Aquaman. The bit with Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s “lasso of truth” is particularly priceless.

Ben Affleck seems to be running on vapors at this point as Batman, but his sullen exhaustion just accentuates the sparkling character work of Gadot, Miller, and Momoa. The trio also brings out the best in Henry Cavill, who heretofore seems to have struggled with the balance of homespun charm and godlike awe required of Superman. We even get to see Superman crack a joke or two and … wait for it …smile!

(Spoiler alert: surprising no one, Cavill, whose character died in the previous Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justicelord, THAT TITLE?!?! – is brought back to life in a fairly convoluted but nonetheless poignant sequence that evokes as much of Joss Whedon’s own Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it does DC’s classic Death of Superman comics event.)

Rounding out the League is Ray Fisher’s Cyborg (who in the comics actually started his career as a Teen Titan but was upgraded to League founding member in one of DC Comics’ never-ending and exhausting universe reboots a few years ago). Fisher is saddled with a burdensome CGI “costume” that only affords him about 1/3 of his face with which to turn in any kind of performance. Alas, he gets a bit lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, I thought he did credible work conveying the Frankenstein’s monster dilemma of having remarkable powers (in this case, 90% of his body being replaced with robot parts) at the expense of losing his humanity and any kind of so-called “normal” life.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There are a number of fun turns in the supporting cast from Jeremy Irons’ acerbic Alfred Pennyworth to JK Simmons’ hard-boiled yet hopeful Commissioner James Gordon. Amy Adams does her best with a handful of underwritten Lois Lane-in-mopey-mourning scenes, and Diane Lane continues to breathe feisty life into Superman’s Ma Kent. Billy Crudup (once Doctor Manhattan in Zack Snyder’s overbaked Watchmen) is heartbreaking as Barry Allen’s/The Flash’s falsely incarcerated papa. Amber Heard’s Mera (eventually Aquaman’s wife) looks the part but has far too little to do, and the same can be said for Connie Nielsen’s Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, regrettably downgraded to mere cannon fodder.

The film’s color palette is brighter than anything we’ve seen in the DC oeuvre to date (save Wonder Woman), replacing the sepia tones of Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad or Man of Steel with some pops of four-color glory, especially as the film barrels toward its denouement. Danny Elfman’s score is also notable in that it boldly incorporates themes from previously “out of continuity” DC films like the original Superman and Batman movies, sonically (at least) indicating that maybe DC learned a lesson from the success of the humane and witty Wonder Woman and is allowing a little life and joy into the larger franchise.

Justice League seems to offer a message of transition, ending on an optimistic note of friendship and collaboration, family and hope. We haven’t seen too much of that in DC’s films since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the “official” kick-off of DC’s extended cinematic universe Man of Steel. That lack of joy has hobbled these films to date (again, save Wonder Woman). I can only wish that audiences ignore Justice League‘s critical drubbing and give the frisky if simplistic adaptation a chance and reward the filmmakers for this much-needed course correction.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Irons’ Alfred reflects to Affleck’s Bruce Wayne early in the film, “I don’t recognize this world.” Bruce replies, “I don’t have to recognize it. Just save it.” Amen. DC did just that with Justice League, IMHO.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Be careful in the world of men, Diana, for they do not deserve you.” Wonder Woman (2017)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I loved Wonder Woman as a little kid – the escapist kitsch of the Lynda Carter TV version with the spinning costume changes and the disco theme song and that Pepsodent-grinning Lyle Waggoner.

As I entered adolescence, the DC Comics version went through her own renaissance, led in great part by one of my favorite writers/artists George Perez (and later advanced in equal measure by Phil Jimenez and Greg Rucka). Diana, Amazonian princess, rediscovered her mythic Greek roots, fully embracing all of the soapy sudsy sturm-und-drang that being the daughter of Zeus and Hyppolyta can bring with a whole heaping helping of jealous demi-god cousins, stepmothers, and half-siblings biting at her heels. Those stories were great fun (for the reader … not so much for Diana herself.)

I’m happy to report that the new (and first?!) cinematic treatment of Wonder Woman honors all that has come before, even incorporating a bit of original creator William Moulton Marston’s skeezy blend of feminist kink (see: Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor exiting an Amazonian glowing warm springs hot tub while Diana’s gaze sizes him up – literally – but she is ultimately more interested in his wristwatch than anything else.)

Whether or not Wonder Woman finally breaks the Zack Snyder-invoked curse of stinkeroo movie-making that has blighted DC Comics’ cinematic output to date or is merely the brilliant exception that proves the rule remains to be seen. Nonetheless, director Patty Jenkins (Monster) working from a script by Allan Heinberg (who rocked the comics world over ten years ago with the similarly humanistic Young Avengers) gives us a return to form for classically majestic comic book movie making (Richard Donner’s Superman, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy) with a nod toward Marvel’s postmodern humane whimsy (Captain America, Ant-Man) but with a surety of voice and purpose that is wholly its own.

Is it feminist? Of course it is! Unapologetically and utterly inclusively so.

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” Diana, as portrayed with warmth and fire and wit and steel by Gal Gadot, is a stranger in a strange land to whom all creatures (man, woman, child, animal) deserve respect and love … and if you are incapable of showing that love, she’ll unequivocally kick your ass.

Making the interesting choice to set the action during WWI (Wonder Woman has traditionally been more associated with WWII), Jenkins and Heinberg make absolute hay with a setting where war was arguably at its peak of muddy, bloody brutality and where the nascent suffrage movement continued to make waves (pro and con) for women in society.

In Wonder Woman, Gadot fulfills the promise of her all-too-brief screen time in the comparatively glum and humorless (and horrifically titled) Batman v. Superman: Dawn of  Justice, delivering a star turn for the ages. It is not a showy performance (ironic, I know, since she is wearing a glittering metallic bathing suit, wielding a mammoth sword, deflecting lightning bolts with her bracelets, and, you know, flying) but is layered with beautiful notes of heartache, ironic detachment, utter bemusement, and complete bewilderment over a world designed chiefly to destroy.

She is joined by a stellar supporting cast – the aforementioned Pine who turns his character actor good looks into matinee idol charm as mansplaining sidekick Steve Trevor, glowering Danny Huston as a German warmonger, David Thewlis as a British idealogue whose rhetoric seems to urge a quick and speedy armistice, Elena Anaya as a bruised soul whose distaste for humanity leads her to develop poisonous gasses of mass destruction, and Lucy Davis stealing every scene as bantering “secretary” Etta Candy whose delight at being in the presence of a woman (Diana), who could give two whits about societal decorum, is utterly infectious.

The film is at its most thrilling when Diana leads a ragtag band of adorably mismatched soldiers across the Western Front, herself marching directly through the battle lines, armed only with her wits, her magic bracelets, and her righteous indignation over the horrors she has just witnessed befalling everyday families (and horses). I may have cried a little (a lot) during that sequence.

Wonder Woman‘s only misstep is in its length. At nearly 2.5 hours, the film’s running time strains audience patience. Though beautiful and transporting, the movie’s opening third, set in Diana’s home Themiscyra or “Paradise Island” amidst a utopia of warrior women, is, well, kind of a bore. While it is essential to show Amazonian society, which is designed through reason and equality, contrasted with man’s ugly world, locked as it is in the plague of war, we could have used about 20 fewer minutes of pristine beaches, jewel-hued skies, horseback-riding, and Queen Hyppolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her dutiful General Antiope (Robin Wright) stumbling to mimic Gadot’s irrepressibly undefinable accent. (At times, I wondered if the Amazon nation settled off Greece by way of Transylvania.)

Hyppolyta warns Diana early in the film, in a line that foreshadows thematically all that is to come, “Be careful in the world of men, Diana, for they do not deserve you.” Indeed, we do not deserve Wonder Woman, but we do need her and her message of inclusion and peace, tolerance and integrity  … now, more than ever.

P.S. And, rest in peace, to that other superhero icon of my youth, Adam West, whose Batman introduced me to a universe of colorful characters that I still love to this day.

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Thank you to Rose McInerney of WomanScape​ for her kind words and for referencing the above Wonder Woman​ review in her fabulous site’s latest and greatest. Rose writes, “So, while Wonder Woman is undoubtedly good storytelling with a sizable marketing budget, its success is also explained by key factors in our changing world. The first of these is the growing number of men like movie reviewer Roy Sexton who are joining with women to help promote the Diana-like warriors in our world. Roy lends his unabashed support and writing talents advocating for feminism and equal rights.” Read here.

 

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“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.

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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.

“True what they say of little boys … born without the inclination to share.” Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

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At the mid-point of Zack Snyder’s action figure fever dream Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (holy bejeezus do I still hate that title!), Diana Prince (a.k.a. Wonder Woman) sizes up a surly, grizzled, poster-child-of-arrested-development Bruce Wayne and posits, “True what they say of little boys … born without the inclination to share.”

That cutting insight could describe our current presidential primary carnival as much as it does the central conflict in DC Comics’ latest cinematic opus. Delivered as it is by one of the most compelling characters in the film (a sleek yet playful Gal Gadot), it becomes the closest thing Dawn of Justice has to a thesis statement.

Picking up where the financially successful but emotionally hollow Man of Steel ended, Dawn of Justice attempts to rationalize the rampant, inane video game violence which concluded the earlier film by doubling down (hate that expression) on that narrative misstep. Whereas Man of Steel started compellingly but quickly devolved into a scrap pile of muddy fight scenes, jarring explosions, and broken toys, Dawn of Justice attempts to rationalize such lazy film-making by leveraging it to create character motivation. In short, Superman knocked down one of Batman’s buildings, and the Dark Knight is pissed.

Yet, here’s the thing, Dawn of Justice, unlike Man of Steel, ends up being more than just the sum of its testosterone addled parts. It’s actually rather good and kind of fun, and, accidentally or on purpose, it is the ideal allegory for a year (make that an era) in which we as a nation are much too cynical to accept whatever good comes our way (or that others do on our behalf), hellbent as we are to turn every moment, every accomplishment, every person into a chance to rip at the seams of our own cultural fabric – where “culture wars” play out across keyboards and cable TV erupting in violence in shopping malls and school cafeterias.

I know I’m in the minority on this film. Yet, the way we as a nation all have fallen all over ourselves (like lemmings?) decrying Dawn of Justice since its debut – that the film is some colossal cinematic f*ck-up the likes of which we haven’t seen since Liz Taylor thought that a lot of eyeliner would make her suitably Egyptian in Cleopatra –  exemplifies how breathlessly hyperbolic we’ve all become. I hypothesize, in fact, that may be what this film is trying to say to us: that we are a nation of provincial villagers wielding pitchforks and torches, ever-ready to tear apart our would-be heroes and saviors.

Maybe that’s why no one likes this flick?

The physical showdown between Batman and Superman serves as the centerpiece of the film’s marketing, but I think that sales job does a disservice to the actual battle that grounds the film: a philosophical one. Admittedly, Snyder is not as nuanced a hand as, say, Christopher Nolan, and said philosophical debate (self-determination vs. paternalism; agnosticism vs. faith; xenophobia vs. inclusion; aggression vs. hope) gets bogged down pretty quickly in soap opera theatrics and stunning but emtpy-calorie IMAX compositions. Regardless, I applaud Snyder for trying and for giving us a film with more layers than its current audience may be willing to see.

Hey, this is saying something coming from me because, heretofore, I’ve seen Snyder as a hack, and I know I’m swimming upstream given the critical and popular vitriol Dawn of Justice has received. The film is not without its problems – it’s too long by 30 minutes, fight scenes are about as cluttered as a utility room junk drawer, the plot tries to be All the President’s Men meets The French Connection using Tinker Toys and Silly Putty, and the proceedings are just way too darn earnest and self-serious. However, for a film the conception of which is just a step or two above a Saturday morning cartoon (seriously, any movie that uses “versus” in the title has two strikes going in the door), I was pleasantly surprised by how entertained I was, by the thoughts the film generated, and by the performances therein.

As noted, Gadot brings a joyous fire to her regrettably limited screen-time. (If nothing else, Dawn of Justice should have us all pretty geeked for Wonder Woman next year – I predict it will be the Captain America of the DC Cinematic Universe, emotionally resonant and full of heart and wit. At least, I hope so. Warner Brothers has a rare gift for squelching a good thing.) Ben Affleck is a strong presence as well, marrying his innately louche bearing with an expressively sad anger. He is by far the most physically imposing Batman we’ve ever seen on film, at times dwarfing Henry Cavill’s Brylcreem’d Superman. Cavill always looks like he stepped from a comic book page, though it’s obvious he struggles mightily to overcome the darkness of the material to give Kal-El his requisite homespun nobility. The glimmers of kindness and of regret which Cavill ekes out are a tonic, and one can only hope the stifling gloom of Dawn of Justice and Man of Steel relents in future installments, and we get to see a more joyous (and jocular) Superman in action.

The supporting cast is a galaxy of pros from Amy Adams’ plucky if kinda dour Lois Lane to Laurence Fishburne’s blessedly lively Perry White (one zinger: “The American conscience died with Robert, Martin, and John.”) to Jeremy Irons’ perpetually (and comically) perturbed Alfred Pennyworth. Irons deserves a medal for wringing the film’s very few laugh-out-loud moments from his second banana asides with Bruce Wayne. Snyder should go back and study those scenes which deftly balance the “end-is-nigh” gravitas he so loves with a world-weary-wit that the audience desperately needs. Diane Lane does her worried best with a thankless damsel-in-distress turn as Superman’s ma Martha Kent, and Holly Hunter is constipated fun as a Washington bureaucrat who can’t decide if Superman is an angel from heaven or a devil in spandex.

Jesse Isenberg’s Lex Luthor is the controversial flash point in this production. Either you love him or you hate him. I suspected I would want to throw my popcorn every time his smug rictus graced the screen. In fact, the opposite was true. I never found him “ha-ha” funny for a moment (not sure if I was supposed to), but I thought he ably balanced layers of disconcerting smarm and sociopathic guile like a malevolent, drunken pledge-master at a fraternity rush party. His performance is polarizing, but it worked for me, in a film that seemed as much a critique of destructive male ego run amok as it was itself a filmic artifact of destructive male ego run amok.

I’m giving Snyder more credit than he likely deserves. I’ve seen little evidence in any of his other movies of any kind of sincere feminist impulse, but somehow (inadvertently?) in Dawn of Justice he has given us a superhero film that skewers the wanton recklessness of male posturing. As Diana (Gadot) somberly observes at the film’s conclusion, “Man made a world where standing together is impossible.” Now, if the filmmakers could just let Wonder Woman wear something other than a star-spangled bathing suit, we’d be getting somewhere …

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img_4560Reel 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.

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

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guardians are comprised of the following oddballs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

In the nick of time: Argo

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

When did Ben Affleck get interesting? Somewhere around his indie turn in the film Hollywoodland, about George Reeves, the ill-fated star of Golden Age TV’s Superman? Or was it when The Town demonstrated he could act and direct? Prior to that, I wasn’t sure he could do either, and colossal turkeys like Pearl Harbor or his fling with Jennifer Lopez didn’t help matters. Honestly, he always seemed like a posturing, stiff, preening phony to me.

But interesting he is now, and further evidence arrived this fall in the form of Argo, again directed by and starring Affleck.

Not sure why it took us over two months to finally see this film, but I’m glad we did…and in the perfect setting, actually. Ann Arbor’s State Theatre looks like it last saw a decorator (and possibly cleaning crew) around the era in which the film is set, so let me say, I felt totally immersed in a grungy, claustrophobic 1970s vibe.

Affleck, a fellow Gen X survivor, nails the Me Decade’s ugly, clunky, chunky style and twitchy social anxiety. I haven’t felt this nerve-wracked in a film about strangers in a strange land since Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek’s Missing over 30 years ago.

As most of you already know, the film, set during the Iran hostage crisis, tracks an ultimately successful CIA operation to smuggle out six Americans, purporting to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars rip-off.

I can vividly recall watching the release of the other 44 hostages on the TV in our upstairs bedroom when I was a kid. I can still see the grainy footage in my mind’s eye as I barely could comprehend what those people had gone through for nearly a year and a half.

Affleck must have been watching too because he expertly captures that free-floating anxiety of lives in peril, but balanced with a more postmodern understanding that Americans aren’t always the heroes in every story. A thoughtfully done prologue makes quite clear that we created much of the mess in the first place.

Affleck is great as the purposeful ringleader of the operation and is buoyed up by great character turns from Alan Arkin and John Goodman as the film’s sole comic relief, a couple of charmingly smarmy Hollywood types in on the game. Also, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, and Kyle Chandler deliver credible and at times compelling depictions of well-meaning folks caught up in the intrigue, be they CIA, Canadian diplomat, hostage, or state department.

My only quibbles are with a few of the actors portraying the six Americans in hiding – actors who just didn’t seem too darn convincing, despite their corduroy jackets, over-sized glasses, and unconditioned ’70s ‘dos. At some level, we as audience should worry about them through some self-identification, but the actors here seemed neither terribly distraught nor for that matter very likable…so I kinda forgot that I was supposed to care about them every now and again.

I will also say that I wasn’t too invested in Affleck’s conflicted-near-divorce-loving-father subplot. The kid was cute and his movie wife seemed nice, but it all just felt a bit too trite and conventional, in the midst of an otherwise propulsive and substantial film.

Regardless, the machine of the film and the story of the folks doing the rescuing carry the day. Even knowing how the story turns out, Affleck’s expert pacing makes this one a true nail-biter.  Yup, Ben, you are officially interesting…congratulations!