“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” Marvel’s Black Panther

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Wow. I think we are truly in a Golden Age of superhero cinema, wherein technology and talent and investment have converged to create engaging spectacles that not only sell a sh*t-ton of action figures but, y’know, have something to say.

Wonder Woman. Logan. Captain America: Winter Soldier. Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thor: Ragnarok. Deadpool.

And, now, arguably the best of them all: Marvel’s/Disney’s Black Panther.

Classic comic book creators like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore long ago tapped into the allegorical power of superheroes as a lens to assess our present reality and to give us hope … or a dose of hard medicine.

It took Tinseltown decades – with a number of promising starts and soul-crushing stops – to wake up to the fact that, while, yes, these movies cost a lot of money, they will make a lot more if they aren’t dumbed down and focus-grouped past all recognition. Give us relatable figures in a heightened environment, thereby offering commentary and guidance on surviving this tumultuous human condition.

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Think Shakespeare … with capes … and slightly easier to follow. Or Aesop’s Fables … in Spandex. The messages in these films are essential and timely and healing, but, even more importantly (and perhaps sadly so), these messages are making money, which is, alas, the only language that sometimes brings actual change in this country. Nonetheless, I’ll take it.

Black Panther is a superhero fable our stormy times need. If Wonder Woman helped soothe hearts broken over Hillary Clinton’s defeat – anticipating the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement – in an escapist adventure celebrating the strength and power of women, Black Panther offers a fist-raising rallying cry for those in pain over the institutional racism and politicized xenophobia which always existed but has come roaring to the fore since November 2016.

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Imagine an African nation, with limitless natural resources, that developed, unmolested by Western colonization, to its truest societal, cultural, intellectual, industrial, and technological potential. This is Wakanda, the fictional setting of the latest offering from Marvel Studios.

Directed with verve and sensitivity by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) from his own screenplay, Black Panther takes a smidge of Hamlet, a bit of Richard III, maybe some Henry IV, a lot of Alex Haley, some Suzan-Lori Parks and James Baldwin, with a sprinkling of Disney’s own The Lion King and throws it all in a blender, yielding magic.

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Prince T’Challa (a haunted and haunting Chadwick Boseman with enough leonine presence to command the screen and enough emotional uncertainty to allow us all to project our own anxieties and dreams onto him) returns to a kingdom in turmoil after the assassination of his father.

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His mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett who really just has to be Angela Bassett here … her and her cheekbones … and that’s just fine) is preparing for her son’s coronation. T’Challa’s sister and Wakanda’s tech wizard Shuri (a gleefully scene-stealing Letitia Wright) impishly ensures her brother’s swaggering male ego doesn’t run off the rails. T’Challa is challenged for the throne, first by competing tribal leader M’Baku (an imposing yet delightfully comic turn by Winston Duke) and later by interloping American Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (a beautifully nuanced Michael B. Jordan).

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I won’t spoil some fairly significant “palace intrigue” twists, but suffice it say Jordan delivers one of Marvel’s strongest villains to date (watch out Cate Blanchett’s “Hela” and Ian McKellen’s/Michael Fassbender’s “Magneto“). This isn’t your standard-issue “I’m going to take over the WORLD” baddie.

Nope, Killmonger is a disruptive demogogue whose power-to-the-people shtick is motivated by anger and frustration that Wakandan isolationism has deprived generations of displaced African descendants the resources and aid that would have transformed their lives and leveled the playing field. Who’s the villain, and who’s the hero here? Pretty heady stuff for a superhero fantasy, and  Jordan doesn’t miss a beat.

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Coogler wisely frames the film with sequences set in Oakland, California, depicting the hardscrabble conditions facing too many African-Americans today.  (People vs. OJ Simpson’s Sterling K. Brown puts in a brief but effective, narratively significant appearance here.) The juxtaposition of our reality with the “Emerald City”-escapist beauty of Wakanda is sobering and revelatory.

Reflecting on a hard lesson learned through soul-crushing circumstances, Boseman’s T’Challa observes in the film’s final scene (before the United Nations, no less): “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” (Yeah, tell me that isn’t some overt shade-throwing to our present administration. Swoon!)

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We also have damn fine character turns by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the chrome-domed head of Wakanda’s all-female army Dora Milaje, and by Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, first and foremost Wakanda’s chief foreign intelligence agent and only secondarily T’Challa’s on-again-off-again love interest. The women are anything but damsels-in-distress in this flick; they are a**-kicking-take-names-later warriors who more than hold their own onscreen with our titular hero.

Martin Freeman is a twitchy, breezy delight as government handler Everett K. Ross, and Andy Serkis is great, scenery-chewing fun as sonically-super-powered smuggler Ulysses Klaue. Even Forest Whitaker as Wakandan elder Zuri with the same old tired, hammy, pontificating performance which he always delivers can’t bring this intoxicating wild ride to a screeching halt.

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It’s a Marvel movie, so, yes, there are spaceships and car chases and explosions aplenty, nail-biting races-against-the-clock, and more references to fictitious ore “Vibranium” than you could shake a graphic novel at. The design-work in this film is beyond extraordinary, importing Jack Kirby’s original comic book concepts but infusing them with an African authenticity and a breath-taking, jewel-toned aesthetic. But Coogler knows that none of that matters a damn if we aren’t invested in character, plot, and message. This is a remarkable film.

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It’s time for change. For women. For people of color. For the LGBTQ community. For those of us growing older. For the differently-abled. For humanity. Between seeing this film this weekend, and watching those beautiful and brave teenagers from Parkland, Florida, publicly calling out the complacency, corruption, and culpability in our national leaders, I – for the first time in a while – have (a glimmer of) hope.


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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.

Thank you to sweet friend Victoria Nampiima, an upcoming Ugandan fashion designer, for sending these beautiful threads this week!

“How many lives is one man-cub worth?” Disney’s The Jungle Book (2016)

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46830494

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been adapted by Hollywood a lot. In the next two years alone, we have two live action adaptations on the way, including Disney’s just-released remake of its own 1960s animated offering. There were versions made in the 1940s, 1980s, 1990s, on television, live-action, animated, on and on. Even characters like Tarzan (and those countless adaptations and homages and rip-offs – hello, “George of the Jungle”) likely owe a debt to Kipling’s seminal work about a “man-cub” named Mowgli who is raised by wolves and finds himself at the crossroads of an animal culture war over who the true “king of the jungle” should be.

Like Kipling’s Just So Stories (which I actually prefer), the original format of The Jungle Book (and its sequel) is a series of allegorical tales, recounting Mowgli’s adventures, with anthropomorphic animals serving as avatars for the highs and lows of human culture (e.g. greed, pride, sloth, bravery, compassion, etc.). It is unsurprising, then, that the Mouse House, with its long history of invoking the innocence of our animal friends to teach kid life lessons (see: Bambi, Dumbo, The Lion King, Finding Nemo) would return to Kipling’s rich well time and again. (And the merchandising possibilities ain’t half bad either.)

I have to admit that I’m one of few people on the planet who just isn’t that terribly gaga over the Disney animated classic. The Sherman Brothers’ score isn’t as iconic as you might think – really, can you remember more than 2.5 songs from it? “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” and … maybe “Trust In Me” (the latter standing out mostly because of Sterling Holloway’s trademark lateral lisp sibilant “ess” sounds). The animation is that regrettably flat Hanna-Barbera-esque style into which Disney fell from the late 60s to the early 80s. And the whole enterprise just seems clunkily episodic and ends on a weirdly dour and kinda creepy note about Mowgli’s burgeoning sexuality. Ewww.

That said, I’m happy to note that director Jon Favreau (Iron Man), while treating the source material and the beloved animated film with reverence, deftly course-corrects for a modern audience. The look of this remake is beyond lush. Building upon the remarkable CGI animal work of The Life of Pi, Favreau’s team gives us a fully realized jungle, teeming with gorgeously rendered, remarkably expressive creatures. He pulls shy of the kind of pandering “kid humor” we typically see in children’s films these days, though I got weary of hearing the word “cool” bandied about, as it was more jarring than inclusive. (Sorry, I can be a snob about stuff like that.)

I’ve been hot and cold over the wave of Disney live action remakes/reimaginings to date (Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent, Cinderella), but this one gets it right. To this point, there has been a strange reticence to fully embrace the classic musical numbers associated with these films’ animated inspirations. Favreau cleverly sidesteps that issue, incorporating the aforementioned three numbers (the ones we actually remember) as spoken/sung interludes that flow naturally from the character set-ups and ditching the remaining numbers that would just be goofy and forced. As Baloo is about to launch into signature ditty “Bare Necessities,” he takes a meta-swipe at Mowgli’s assertion that a pledge chanted by the wolves earlier in the film was music: “That’s not a song. That’s propaganda.”

(The three songs – “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” “Trust In Me” – also make repeat appearances during one of the most intricate and beautiful end-credits sequences I can recall in ages. You must stick around for them – highly entertaining and a lovely recap celebration of the film you’ve just viewed. Good for Favreau – that is a lost art in Hollywood these days.)

The voice casting is spot on with Bill Murray (a lower-key “Baloo” than Phil Silvers’), Ben Kingsley (his “Bagheera”sounding more Daniel-Craig-tough-guy than a typical Kingsley performance), Idris Elba (a hauntingly ominous “Shere Khan”), Lupita Nyong’o (deeply affecting as Mowgli’s wolf mother “Raksha”), Scarlett Johansson (an ethereal “Kaa”), Giancarlo Esposito (a militant “Akela”) and Christopher Walken (being full-creepy-a**-Walken as “King Louie”). Newcomer Neel Sethi is decent as Mowgli, mostly avoiding the adorable ragamuffin traps of the role but totally missing any of the feral survivalism that could have made for a truly transformative experience. Favreau does such a fabulous job immersing his audience in a layered world where wild kingdom danger lurks around every corner that Sethi’s day-at-the-mall pluck just didn’t quite complete the cinematic thought.

Favreau uses The Jungle Book‘s allegorical roots as a means of combating bullying in all its modern day forms. We live in a world where wannabe statesmen wag fingers, brutishly bloviate, and compare hand sizes; where school children bring semi-automatic rifles into the cafeteria and politicians fall all over themselves defending that “right” (such a funny choice of word); where gender, age, race, sexuality, class, species become an open invitation for hate and derision and alienation, wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross (with apologies to Sinclair Lewis). Favreau’s film is much less overtly political than those words might suggest, but just as Kipling used his stories to teach children lessons of kindness and acceptance, bravery and tolerance, Favreau (like Disney’s recent hit Zootopia) is challenging the kids (and parents)  in his audience to question their preconceptions and break apart the artificial boundaries separating us.

To that end, Favreau jettisons the original ending of Disney’s animated version (no doe-eyed potential paramour carrying a bucket of water this time), offering instead a tableau of an animal kingdom united against their oppressor(s). Early in the film, Akela asks, “How many lives is one man-cub worth?” How many indeed.


LMA 16 3Reel 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.

…and I got a pretty nifty t-shirt too: The Book of Mormon … Detroit engagement

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This isn’t going to be an honest-to-goodness, legitimate theatre review per se. Heck, I bought a bag of t-shirts and three magnets at the “Shop of Mormon,” for heaven’s sake, so you know I am not playing the dispassionate critic here.

Nonetheless, we saw the musical The Book of Mormon this afternoon at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre…and we loved it.

Crude? Yes. Offensive? Maybe. Catchy? You bet. Heartwarming? Indubitably.

The show, written by South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q‘s Robert Lopez, is a loony melange with Forbidden Broadway, The Producers, The Lion King, and (oddly) The King and I in its Great White Way-loving DNA.

The performers all acquitted themselves beautifully in the well-oiled, pneumatic, theme park way that merchandise-pushing, cash cow national Broadway tours nowadays achieve effortlessly. The first act was a bit sluggish which was partly an issue with the book and partly the consequence of it being a matinee show at the end of a long run. Christopher John O’Neill as schlubby, screw-up Elder Cunningham was the standout among an exceptional cast, giving a lovable, transcendent performance in what could have been a shrill, one-note role.

As you may already know, the show is about two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Africa to teach the people there about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and “golden plates.” Things go awry for the duo almost immediately, and the resulting misadventures – an uneasy, yet thrilling mix of satire and homage – call into question the very nature of faith itself.

Much mock disdain may come in these twitchy, thin-skinned times of the creators setting organized religion in their snark-filled sights. Those uptight twits are missing the point. The show has a clear and refreshing point of view. Okay, there is no “one true” religion and all religious texts are inherently goofy if you think about any of their myth-filled contents too much. However, faith in something – a book, a higher power, one’s own imagination, Orlando, frogs, each other, whatever – can inspire and helps us grow, providing fulfillment and evolution.

My favorite numbers of the show – “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and “Joseph Smith American Moses” – highlighted this perspective with zany aplomb. Blind adherence to some notion of divine reward/punishment saps one’s spirit. Faith in ourselves and in our ability to do the right thing here and now is key to an authentic existence.

Who’d a thunk the South Park guys would turn in such an empowering, humanistic treatise disguised as a scatalogical, sophomoric romp? …and I got a pretty nifty t-shirt too!