“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.

“What’s there tells a story, if you read between the lines.” Hidden Figures

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The human mind. Regardless the gender, race, age, creed, ethnicity of the physical form carrying that brain around, intellect can be the great unifier, driving humanity’s greatest contributions to this planet. Sadly and too often, our simplistic yet unrelenting cultural need to categorize and compartmentalize makes us lock away – belittling, ignoring, neglecting – the contents of brilliant minds in a vault of misogyny, prejudice, fear, and hate.

Hidden Figures is more than a film about how endemic institutional sexism and racism nearly derailed the American space program – a program so often held, perhaps erroneously, as the beaming example of progress and inclusion, inspiring multicultural fables from Star Trek to EPCOT Center.

Hidden Figures, based on the nonfiction bestseller by Margot Lee Shetterly, is a heartbreaking yet inspiring, trenchant yet forgiving, tear-jerking yet intellectual, timebound yet timeless allegory/cautionary tale for the mistakes we Americans are doomed to repeat when we let our baser, viler instincts cloud our appreciation for how diversity – the essential fabric of the much-vaunted U.S. of A. experience – enriches/enhances/enables our collective ability to problem-solve, defy the odds, and dream huge.

This movie got to me. Bigly.

The film’s marketing campaign – effective as it has been (giving Rogue One a run for its money at this weekend’s box office) – gives the impression of yet another in a too-long line of Lifetime-telefilm-meets-Oscar-bait-lets-wrap-American-racism-in-the-golden-hued-bubble-wrap-of-safe-historical-distance flicks. And, yes, the selfsame gorgeous cinematography, the jewel-toned zing of too-crisp-1960s fashion and decor and cars, the winking let-us-take-a-breather comic relief, the anachronistic pop music score (Pharrell Williams doing double duty as the film’s producer and composer) are all there.

Don’t be fooled. There is a stronger, more cutting message at play here than, say, in DreamWorks’ similarly positioned, cozy race fairy tale The Help. Whether Hollywood realizes it or not, too often big budget films dealing with race and gender bias unintentionally perpetuate the very bias they are attempting to decry. The persecuted class is too often “rescued” by someone (usually a pleasant, conflicted, well-heeled white person, male or female) who steps outside the cultural norms of the persecutors to pave the way for social justice. You know what? That’s an annoying trope that needs to retired. Doesn’t mean it’s untrue, but we’ve seen it. A lot. And whether we accept it or not, said trope seems engineered to let everyone off the hook, selling tickets because we all leave the theatre feeling good with our heads still buried in the sand.

Hidden Figures is slyer work, and I, for one, am grateful for that fact. You do leave the theatre “feeling good,” but for a different reason – one you may not see for days or even weeks. Crackerjack Taraji P. Henson (Emmy-nominee and Golden Globe-winner for Empire, Oscar-nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ) portrays one of NASA’s resident human “computers” Katherine Johnson. She states, while faced with a particularly vexing mathematical problem, “What’s there tells a story if you read between the lines.” Amen. The protagonists of Hidden Figures – African-American women thinking and feeling in an era, not unlike the present one, where their thoughts and emotions are not only unappreciated but vigorously unwanted – do not need a rescuer or a hero. They save themselves – not to mention the space program and American pride – with their wits and their will and their very American drive to realize their own ambitions.

The film in its entirety is perfection, but Henson is the rocket fuel that keeps the enterprise propelled. She is a star, eminently watchable, with a character actor’s gift for definition, nuance, and differentiation. She inhabits and frames every scene with such spark and such drive, with such believable caution and frustration, with such compassion and inquisitiveness that you never want her to leave the screen. Henson rarely overplays any moment – there are very few over-the-top snippets where you say, “Oh, that’s the clip they will play at the Oscars.” The few outsized aspects to the performance are so righteously earned that they land like the perfect punctuational flourishes in a fine symphony. I wonder if I would have enjoyed this film nearly as much with anyone else in the role.

Nonetheless, Henson is aided and abetted by strong turns from Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) as data expert Dorothy Vaughan in another derivation of Spencer’s trademark world-weary “take no mess” tenacity and Grammy-nominated R&B wunderkind Janelle Monae (Moonlight) as engineering savant Mary Jackson whose peppery perspective gleefully, warily challenges the status quo at every fork in the road (“Civil rights ain’t always civil“).

Oscar-winner Kevin Costner was born to play 1960s sad-sack, pocket-protected, horn-rimmed, progressive misanthropes slogging through government jobs, searching for one bright spot in a sea of bureaucrats (see JFK and about half of his filmography). As space program director Al Harrison, Costner’s scenes with Henson crackle at the heart of the film: two human beings, neither of whom could really give two damns about race or gender, in love with the idea of solving big problems but burdened by a corporate culture (and society writ large), cutting off its collective nose to spite its collective face so threatened by authentic wit and wisdom, consumed by petty jealousy, and immobilized by resentment. Costner ruefully intones at one point, “We can’t justify a space program that doesn’t put anything into space.”

Golden Globe-winner Kirsten Dunst (Fargo) is also great as a mid-level NASA manager who inadvertently blocks progress at every turn, dutifully following a governmental system rigged against forward-thinking yet somehow intended to land a man on the moon. Dunst is so underrated; I wasn’t even sure it was her until I looked up the cast list on my phone halfway through the film (with apologies to my movie-seat neighbors). Dunst rejects the indulgence of playing juicy, stereotypical “racist villain” notes in the film, presenting instead a believably bedraggled functionary who knows her paycheck is contingent upon her being a rule-following twit.

Less successful in that regard, Jim Parsons (Emmy-winner for The Big Bang Theory) is underwhelming in his role as Henson’s rival and nemesis Paul Stafford. Without Sheldon Cooper’s OCD-nerd-centric tics, Parsons just comes off as a dull, hateful milquetoast. That may have been by design on the part of director Theodore Melfi but could have been accomplished more effectively and interestingly with a lesser-known actor.  On the other end of the spectrum, Glen Powell is a bit too twinkle-eyed in his “Prince Charming buying the world a Coke” portrayal of astronaut John Glenn. To his credit (and the film’s detriment), Powell leaps off the screen every time he appears – like Ed Norton’s prettier, caramel-dipped brother – but he is just “too-too” for me, disrupting the workaday credibility of the film’s depiction of NASA.

However, these are minor quibbles, made more obvious when the film surrounding them is so good. Film’s about the space program (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Gravity) always use America’s race to the stars as a metaphor for human progress but frequently get side-tracked by the technical mumbo jumbo and with countless shots of retro Americans slack-jawed and gawking at the sky. Hidden Figures isn’t that movie, with the exception of a few corny shots of retro Americans slack jawed and gawking at the sky as Glenn makes his nail-biting return to earth in the film’s final moments. Hidden Figures is a movie about brilliant minds, unfairly marginalized by American superficiality, for whom mathematics is a language unto itself (the film runs rings around A Brilliant Mind in that regard). That language presents a path whereby three transcendent voices cut through the crap and the clutter of America’s sad “traditions” of sexism and racism. Hidden Figures is the movie America needs right now.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

“There’s a problem on the horizon. … There is no horizon.” Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“You’re confusing peace with terror.” – reluctant Death Star engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen)

“Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.” – power-hungry Imperial overlord Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)

It’s December again. And in the new merchandise-mad, money-hungry cycle that Lucasfilm’s corporate parent Disney has established, it’s new Star Wars movie time too. May is now Marvel’s month, and that makes me a little sad. Summer was Star Wars season when I was a kid, so I equate that long-stretch of warm weather as the period you escaped the rigid confines of public school and caught up with Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, Darth, and friends, reenacting big screen adventures in the backyard or poolside. Unless we all plan to ride Tauntauns across Hoth’s frozen tundra (#nerdjoke), ain’t too much role play happening in the backyard this holiday season.

The latest entry in the series is being dubbed a standalone “Star Wars story” in that it is not tied into any particular trilogy of films. Rogue One fleshes out a throwaway reference in the original 1977 film (now known as A New Hope), explicating how the plans for the original “Death Star” make their way from Imperial architects to the shiny dome of one bee-booping droid R2-D2.

It’s a clever (and wisely capitalistic) conceit, and, for the most part, the film satisfies the inquisitive fifth-grader in us all, acting out a scenario many may have tried to imagine 30-some years ago using piles of Kenner action figures.

Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have concocted a blockbuster that is one part The Guns of Navarone with a sprinkling of Saving Private Ryan and one part The Wizard of Oz with a dollop of Little Orphan Annie, blended with a whole heaping helping of deep geek references to the infrastructure and mythology of the original Star Wars films – heavier on the 70s/80s entries, but not entirely neglecting the better parts of thee 90s/00s flicks. Rogue One is a darker journey (in a-not-terribly-shocking SPOILER alert, let’s just say things don’t end particularly well for the new characters), exploring the bowels of the Star Wars universe and setting up the oppressively fascistic milieu of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. I mean the Rebel Alliance has to rebel against something, right?

Much has been made in the news (well, FoxNews … ironic, since Fox used to own the franchise) about the filmmakers’ social media critique of President-elect Donald Trump and of their allusions to the frightening similarities between the fantasy world concocted by George Lucas and the hateful xenophobic power-grabbing of our real-world politicians. Let it be said that there is nothing in this film that satirizes directly the shenanigans of this past fall as we head toward January’s inauguration. How could there be? The film was shot in 2015, with a mountain of special effects to achieve in post-production until now. However, in these fraught days of dubiously motivated cabinet appointees, tumultuous international relations, heartbreaking Middle East conflict, and cyber-attacks of an unprecedented (NOT “unpresidented”) scale, I found it difficult to enjoy the escapist “fun” of a band of scruffy rebels fighting unscrupulous bureaucrats, planet-hopping at a dizzying pace, engaging in bloody street battles across crowded and dusty marketplaces, and hacking into monolithic computer systems to release state secrets. But maybe that’s just me.

Rogue One is entertaining and gives us longtime fans a lot of intriguing backstory upon which to chew for months to come. I fear that the casual viewer will find it too talky and somber by half, waiting for the trademark space dogfights to kick in. And they do – the last 45 minutes are a doozy. For us Star Wars nuts, the “palace intrigue” will be a hoot, albeit a bleak hoot, with effective reappearances by Darth Vader (voiced again by James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin (creepily CGI-reincarnated Peter Cushing, looking like a refugee from The Polar Express).

The series newcomers blend in well, if not leaving any lasting impressions. Felicity Jones, so good in The Theory of Everything,  is haunting if a bit dour throughout as protagonist Jyn Erso. She is yet another in the long line of Star Wars orphans, abandoned by parents more invested in political statements than child-rearing; consequently, she has a reason to be rather glum. Like The Force Awakens‘ Rey (Daisy Ridley), she is a welcome addition to a series that hasn’t always celebrated strong, independent, adventuring women. Her father Galen Erso (a soulful Mads Mikkelsen) is the chief designer of the much-vaunted Death Star, and his change of heart puts both him and his family at great peril when he flees the project, hiding out as a moisture farmer on some forgotten planet. (The Roy of 30+ years ago would have been able to remember all of the planets named/visited in Rogue One. Present-day Roy? No clue. Nor do I care.) The Empire, led by Orson Krennic (a rather forgettable Ben Mendelsohn in a stiff, starchy, heavily-creased white cape that implies there are neither fashion designers nor irons in space) tracks Galen down and drags him back to work, leaving Jyn effectively orphaned for a really long time.

Eventually, the nascent Rebel Alliance seek the adult Jyn out. Jyn is now a felon, living the Lucasfilm equivalent of Orange is the New Black after being raised by cyborg Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker in his typical scene-killing-ham mode). You see, the Rebels want Jyn to help them find her pa, get the plans for whatever the Empire is cooking up (“That’s no moon!”), and save the day. Along the way, Jyn meets cute with Cassian Andor (a pleasant but uncharismatic Diego Luna) and his comically nihilistic robot buddy K-2S0 (voiced delightfully by Alan Tudyk, proving that he is always the MVP of any movie in which he – or his pipes – appear). The trio collect a band of good-hearted and refreshingly diverse misfits (actors Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen – all turning in credible, nuanced character turns) on their way to the inevitable denouement, setting up neatly the opening sequence of A New Hope.

Rogue One is stingier with the whimsy than other Star Wars films. The humor is sardonic, not Saturday Matinee side-splitting. As the Death Star baddies use their new toy for target practice, noble Cassian scans the incoming cloud of debris and destruction and mutters, “There’s a problem on the horizon. … There is no horizon.” It gets a laugh, but not a hearty one. Perhaps, we in the audience are just a bit too worried about our own horizon these days to find the humor any more.

Maybe I will go play with my old Kenner toys in the backyard, frostbite be damned. I need the escape.

“It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.” – Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) when asked how can she live in a world where Imperial flags oppressively dominate the landscape

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

“Surrounded by the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is to the “Harry Potter” cinematic universe what Captain America: The First Avenger is to the “Marvel” one. Bear with me here. In the obvious, both films are set in a golden-hued America of yesteryear where art deco glitter and workaday charm belie a dark societal underbelly of xenophobic, segregated bullying. In a more esoteric way, both films are surprising throwbacks to a slower paced, quieter, more subdued (escapist fantasy and overindulgent special effects notwithstanding) kind of film-making, where whimsy and poignancy meet and where heartbroken underdogs have their day.

I like cinema like that – Frank Capra, The Wizard of Oz, Howard Hawks, Saturday matinee cliffhangers, and so on, and even latter day homages like The Rocketeer or Dick Tracy. Modern audiences aren’t always sprung on this kind of retro storytelling – though Fantastic Beasts‘ box office returns seem to buck that trend.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series (and the movie adaptations) focused, in a Brit boarding school milieu, on young wizarding students overcoming adversity, championing inclusion, and saving the day. Goodbye, Mr. Chips meets The Once and Future KingA Separate Peace meets Bewitched. Directed by longtime series helmer David Yates, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – a Harry Potter prequel of sorts that explores the American side of this magical world, nearly a century earlier (1926 to be exact) – is a different animal altogether (pun intended).

Newt Scamander (portrayed by Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne with the same shaggy-dog, twitchy, social misfit schtick he employed in The Theory of Everything) is a Hogwarts dropout who has dedicated himself to rescuing, rehabilitating, and protecting the mythical, magical animals of this world, woebegone creatures that neither muggle nor wizard seem to treat with honor or respect. He ventures across the pond for mysterious reasons, and some of his furry and feathered friends escape his watchful eye to frolic in a Jazz Age Manhattan. Spirited hijinks ensue, with surprisingly genuine peril and minimal lowest-common-denominator slapstick. In fact, Redmayne frets that these runaway critters are now “surrounded by the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” If Al Gore and PETA collaborated on a Harry Potter backstory, I suspect it wouldn’t be too different from the screenplay J.K. Rowling crafted here. Again: ok by me.

Redmayne is joined by a fabulous rogues’ gallery of character actors:

  • Katherine Waterston, suggesting Maura Tierney’s introspective authority as a low-level American wizard cop;
  • Dan Fogler, the Putnam County Spelling Bee-Tony winner bringing limited comic relief as a sadsack “Non-Maj” and wannabe baker along for the ride;
  • Alison Sudol, breathily transfixing – a Marilyn Monroe with Jessica Chastain’s flint – as Waterston’s mind-reading sis;
  • Ezra Miller, delivering the film’s most refreshingly unsettling moments as a glowering, abused Jimmy Fallon doppelganger (with an Oliver Cromwell haircuit) concealing a deep, dark secret;
  • Samantha Morton, always so ethereally captivating, this time as an ominous, muckraking evangelical;
  • Jon Voight, another great presence, when not getting tripped up by his own politics, ironically cast as a William Randolph Hearst-ish proto-Trump;
  • Carmen Ejogo, stately and evocative as the president of American wizarding society, tangled  in her own bureaucratic machinations;
  • Ron Perlman, nearly unrecognizable as an  Edward G. Robinson-ish mobster troll (literally, a troll), who runs muscle and intel from the murky corners of a Grimms’ fairy tale speakeasy;
  • And Colin Farrell, arguably the best of the bunch, having an understated field day, full of stylish gravitas, as Newt’s chief nemesis, maneuvering chess pieces to ignite a race war between wizards and humans.

Unlike other entries in the Harry Potter canon, Fantastic Beasts unfolds less like a picaresque and more like a candy-colored potboiler. (Technicolor noir?) Why is Newt in America? What is the political endgame for the various players introduced? Why is there such loathing and fear for these beautiful, mischievous creatures Newt hides and hauls around in a battered brown suitcase, a valise that magically hides a portal to Rowling’s version of the world’s grooviest “no-kill” shelter? By the film’s predictably cacophonous denouement (my only criticism), many answers are provided, but enough dangling threads are left to tee up (no doubt) another (very profitable) series of films. I think I’ll be packing my suitcase to tag along.

___________________

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

“I can do this all day!” Captain America: Civil War

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel’s latest offering Captain America: Civil War made me a bit cranky. The film is perfectly fine – good-to-great, in fact. So, why do I feel bowed and broken by the 2.5 hour superhero slugfest?

Returning to this fan-favorite character – after their exceptional work raising the genre to dizzying, political potboiling heights with Captain America: The Winter Soldier director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo now take on the unenviable task of adapting a year-long Marvel Comics event (2006’s Civil War) that encompassed hundreds of characters and decades of lore and centered on a contentious feud between Captain America and Iron Man over the very civil liberties that are sliding off the rails in the present-day 2016 presidential election.

Importing this plot, that benefited extensively from comic readers’ knowledge of Marvel Comics’ 50+ years of canon, into a popcorn blockbuster cinematic universe still in its infancy is no mean feat.

More or less, the Russos succeed brilliantly. The directors deftly juggle a baker’s dozen of colorfully clad Avengers, throwing some new ones into the mix (Marvel has to set up Phase 27 of this merchandising empire, naturally!), yet somehow still retaining focus on the character (Chris Evans’ Captain America) around whom the film ostensibly revolves.

Thank heavens for THREE factors which prevent the enterprise from becoming the kind of overpopulated, unholy, confusing movie slog we tend to associate with Marvel’s Distinguished Competition: 1) the Russos balance their reverence for the comics source material with a surgical ability to excise the nerd-centric minutiae, capturing the essence of this allegorical battle for the soul of America; 2) the filmmakers smartly realize Captain America works well onscreen as a sweet-natured, noble everyman whose motivation will always be, first and foremost, that of a 98-pound weakling out-of-touch with the ways of the modern world yet not giving one damn if his desire to put down bullies of every stripe sets him at odds with current mores; and 3) Chris Evans.

Yes, Robert Downey, Jr.’s motormouth Tony Stark (Iron Man), whose oily hustle as a Tin Woodman on steroids is all sparkle and no soul, slapped the verve into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the first place. (He is dynamite, and, while his rust is starting to show, it plays well through that character’s arc as the cynical pragmatist of The Avengers.) However, my money for the heart and soul of these films is and always will be on Evans’ Captain America.

The best bits of the extended Marvel television universe (Agent Carter, later seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) took root in the Captain America films, and the strongest humor and the most heart-tugging pathos have always centered around the character. Captain America: The First Avenger is as kind, humane, and inspiring a film as Marvel has produced, and Winter Soldier was a crackling spin on America’s obsession with a stalwart greatness we’ve never actually possessed.

So why am I a bit crabby this afternoon after viewing Civil War? Maybe it’s just because the pollen count is woefully high here in Michigan. Or the fact that summer is suddenly barreling down upon us, with the idea of five months of yard work less-than-thrilling.

It’s certainly not because there are any issues with Civil War‘s cast, a collection of champs as fine as they come: Scarlett Johansson (bringing Black Widow new levels of compelling internal conflict), Sebastian Stan (a haunted, hulking Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (his gleaming loyalty cut with a sly anxiety as Falcon), Jeremy Renner (a world-weary Hawkeye), Don Cheadle (a world-wearier War Machine), Paul Bettany (with a nice touch of metallic angst as The Vision), Paul Rudd (welcome comic relief as Ant-Man), Elizabeth Olsen (dodgy Slavic accent notwithstanding as the tortured Scarlet Witch), newcomers Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland (a glowering, intense Black Panther and a cagey yet-wheeling Spider-Man respectively) and a whole busload of “non-supers” caught in (or causing) the cross-fire (William Hurt, Emily VanCamp, Martin Freeman, Daniel Bruhl, John Slattery, Alfre Woodward, Marisa Tomei, Hope Davis).

There is not one false note among them – which is remarkable given that many of these pros receive mere minutes (if not seconds) of screen time. They all make the most of every moment, neither chewing the scenery nor fading into the background amidst all the pyrotechnics. That is a testament as much to the Russos’ direction as it is to the respective actors’ abilities.

I guess I’m a bit sour because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has started to feel like all work, no play. (And we know what effect that had on Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Not good.) The early films were rife with a joy of discovery and a whimsy that is starting to dissipate around the edges. The evolution of this vast Marvel machinery – all the cogs and spokes and wheels and widgets from the movies to the ABC shows to the NetFlix series to the tie-in books and cartoons and merchandise – is a wonder to behold but can also seem stiflingly corporate. It’s become terribly self-serious, all gravity, no air – each Marvel film trailer now peppered with phrases like “nothing will ever be the same,” “forget everything you know,” “this is the moment everything changes.”

The unrelenting bigness seems antithetical to the “little guy taking on the world” joie de vivre that makes Captain America such a special and uniquely American creation. As Evans’ Cap often declares in these films, to comic effect under the most dire of circumstances, “I can do this all day!” Unfortunately, where the Marvel empire is concerned, that sounds like more of a menacing declaration of war than a scrappy assertion of hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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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.

“We may be evolved, but down deep we’re still animals.” Disney’s Zootopia

Zootopia

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This political season is arguably the most distressingly fascinating one I can ever recall. Whether #ImWithHer or #FeelingTheBern or #MakingAmericaGreatAgain or #DumpingTrump, the vitriol and shenanigans, the dramatic tension and circus-world comedy, and the reality-television-fueled debasement of what it even means to be “presidential” are as titillating and train-wreck exhilarating as they are shocking and horrifyingly confounding.

Into this topsy-turvy world, where GOP elephants compare “hand”-sizes and Dem donkeys trade an endless stream of cocktail napkin memes, comes a funny little kids’ movie from Disney, an animated fable with mobster rodents and badge-wearing rabbits, hustling foxes and pencil-pushing sheep (who may or may not be political wolves). Disney’s latest effort Zootopia may very well be the allegory for our times, a medicinally incisive piece of camp that pierces the heart of our political juvenilia, not as a heavy-handed polemic but as a frothy noir merringue that still manages to offer timely (and timeless) critique of our national propensity toward ugliness, be it in the form of sexism, racial profiling, class distinctions, ageism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, crass marketing, leveraging abject fear to erode any and all civil liberties, or, yes, speciesism.

If George Orwell’s Animal Farm had been reimagined by Bugs Bunny‘s Chuck Jones, you’d have Zootopia, as close to classic Looney Tunes‘ satirical irreverence as middle-class-family-friendly Disney may ever get. 

“Zootopia” (the place) is an urbane promised land where anthropomorphic animals of all species coexist amicably – think Richard Scarry’s Busytown on steroids or Watership Down, Jr., with predator and prey working and playing side-by-side and setting a far better example than humans can ever seem to manage. Zootopia is a Manhattan-esque place, brimming with hustle and bustle, composed of boroughs distinguished by their unique climates (e.g. polar, rainforest, desert, etc.)

Judy Hopps (effervescently voiced by Once Upon a Time‘s Ginnifer Goodwin) is a brave bunny who defies her expected station (as a carrot farmer) to become a cop (a role typically taken by larger, more aggressive male creatures, like cheetahs and buffalo). As in human life, Hopps is quickly marginalized (for her gender and her size) by her co-workers, assigned the menial task of traffic duty.

Yet, something dire is afoot in this magical land, and the balance of animalia power is challenged as traditional “predator” animals revert to more violent ways of the past. (This is still a Disney movie, so that basically means angry eyes and lots and lots of snarling.) Lt. Hopps seizes the moment, and, with the aid of a con man fox named Nick Wilde (Bad Words‘ Jason Bateman, finding his animated doppelganger), cracks the case.

Or do they? That‘s really where the cheeky fun begins as the third act of the film inverts all of our notions of Zootopia, landing a stinging indictment of how society offers a phony face of inclusion and acceptance as long as things run smoothly with safety, security, and prosperity ostensibly guaranteed for all.  The minute the “natural order” (which we mindlessly take for granted) is revealed as the wobbly house of cards it actually can be, all bets are off, and life starts to resemble a Trump rally or a Promise Keepers meeting or Hitler’s Nuremberg, with fiery, fearful rhetoric of us-versus-them, boundary walls, torture, and police states. Zootopia – accidentally or intentionally or both – holds a mirror to this truth and presents its audience, young and old, a cautionary hopefulness that we can still pull ourselves from the mire.

Yet, the magic of this film (not unlike similarly smart animated fare like The Lego Movie, Inside Out, or Wall*E) is that the message never comes at the expense of entertainment  (maximizing impact and influence). This picture is just so. much. fun. In addition to Goodwin and Bates, there is sparkling voice work from Thor‘s Idris Elba (Police Chief Bogo, a blustering water buffalo), Whiplash‘s J.K. Simmons (Mayor Lionheart, a scheming king of the jungle), Jenny Slate (Bellwether, the mayor’s browbeaten lamb assistant … lion and the lamb, get it?), Nate Torrence (Officer Clawhauser, a dispatch policeman cheetah for whom food is quite literally love), and Alan Tudyk (Duke Weaselton, a shifty little informant weasel). Uni-named pop star Shakira rounds out the cast playing uni-named pop star Gazelle, nailing some witty moments as a well-intentioned if misguided celebrity trying to bring cross-cultural unity through superficial lip-service. (Sounds like some recent Oscar speeches, eh?)

Zootopia is a visually stunning film throughout, and one viewing will unlikely do justice to the rich detail (and hidden references) of this animal planet. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) have realized a sumptuously immersive world here that is simultaneously transporting and sobering. Mayor Lionheart exclaims, “We may be evolved, but deep down we’re still animals.” These words (other than the disparaging implication of “animal”) are as true (if not truer) of we humans, struggling through as fractious an historical moment as many of us may see in our lifetimes. Zootopia may just be the tonic we all have needed. Lt. Hopps notes repeatedly through the film – as much warning as mantra: “Zootopia … where anyone can be anything!” Maybe we Americans should give that idea a shot again? What do you think?

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img_0083Enjoy this recent radio show, featuring The Penny Seats (and yours truly!) … “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris: Feelings that Connect Us All” – https://t.co/E9YMfoZN0C

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.