“Dog Almighty.” A Thanksgiving analysis of the films Boy Erased, The Front Runner, and Isle of Dogs

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There is no question that this world feels more than a bit broken these days. Over this Thanksgiving holiday, we took in three films that all deal with our shared past, present, future imperfect in poignant, heartrending, riotous, and allegorical ways: Boy Erased, The Front Runner, and Isle of Dogs. In essence, all three deal with the fact that our world is governed by people who don’t always have our best interests at heart … nor, in fact, have any interests but their own in mind.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley‘s best-selling memoir, is a gut punch with a surprisingly light touch – as much about family, faith, being true to one’s own self, and integrity as it is about the horrors of gay conversion therapy. Directed with a balanced and nuanced approach by Joel Edgerton (who also plays the head conversion “therapist” with a refreshing lack of Snidely Whiplash-ism), the film withholds judgment on well-meaning parents whose hearts are in the right place even if their actions couldn’t be more out-of-touch. Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe are absolute magic as an Arkansas couple whose capital-C Christianity defines every square inch of their lives. He is a pastor AND runs a Ford dealership where the salespeople begin each day with a group prayer. Ah, the American Southland. Am I being judgy? Ah well.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Lucas Hedges ably portrays their prototypical all-American golden boy Jared – a basketball-playing, cheerleader-dating, Mustang-driving alpha-male-in-training. Except, he isn’t. He’s a sensitive and dutiful son following the recipe-for-life set before him by his noble if misguided parents, still striving to define himself in a world far too ready to box him in with hetero-normative conventions. The irony is that Jared is the purest soul, lost amidst elders who purport purity yet are more obsessed with human sexuality than the supposed “deviants” they seek to condemn. The textbook definition of “thou dost protest too much.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The chief strength of the film is how believably this trio of acting pros – Kidman, Crowe, and Hedges – weaves together a family dynamic that is sad and warm and funny and never melodramatic. This is an essential film and must be viewed by everyone, particularly those arrogant and hypocritical enough to weigh in on social issues that they lack the empathy to fully comprehend.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What is it about Australians – like Crowe and Kidman – that they are capable of translating the American experience to film better than most Americans? And here we have fellow Aussie Hugh Jackman offering a pensive, detailed, reserved, dynamite turn as 1988 presidential hopeful Gary Hart in director Jason Reitman’s stellar flick The Front Runner. Jackman is aided and abetted by the always magnificent Vera Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering but never victimized wife. Jackman and Farmiga are a formidable acting combination, and I would love to see them do something again soon.

Jackman has always been a twinkling presence (a true blue Greatest Showman) – sometimes even a glowering, steroidal, twinkling presence  (Wolverine … and Jean Valjean) – but I had my doubts that he had the chops to be unapproachable and unlikable yet still admirable in a ripped-from-the-headlines character role like this. I was wrong. (I do think his hair and makeup people should be fired, though, for the weird dusty mop they plopped on his noggin in the film.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reitman has surrounded his leads with a fantastic supporting cast – including exceptional JK Simmons and Alfred Molina as two sides of the same benevolent puppet-master coin, the first as Hart’s campaign manager and the latter as The Washington Post’s editor. Furthermore, Reitman uses the controversy surrounding Hart’s infidelity which derails his campaign as a sharp-eyed allegory on today’s contentious and never-ending donnybrook between politicians and news media.

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Is a public figure’s personal life fair game for the media? Is a private transgression a worthy public measure of integrity? Do people care, or do they only care when it benefits their party of affiliation? And what of the ongoing invisibility and disposability of women in said process, be they spouse or mistress or aide or voter?

The film raises all of these questions in the context of what once seemed a charmingly bygone era, yet offers us, today, no easy answers. Significantly, Reitman turns the mirror on ourselves, challenging the viewer to assess his or her own culpability in perpetuating this madness, and that is a marvelous hat trick.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

But would you believe me when I said that the best and most pointed analysis of our current milieu comes from what is ostensibly a children’s animated film about dogs banished to a garbage heap island by a Japanese magistrate who prefers cats over canines? I predict masters theses will be written about Isle of Dogs at liberal arts colleges and universities all over the land 20 years from now.

I’m not crazy about director Wes Anderson. Twee sarcasm is not usually something that screams “great night at the movies” to me. His Isle of Dogs (now on home video), blessedly, is anything but.

Imagine Richard Adams’ novel Plague Dogs or George Orwell‘s Animal Farm adapted to film by Quentin Tarantino, using Manga-stylized puppets and stop-motion animation. Isle of Dogs is sweet-natured yet caustic, escapist yet blisteringly critical, whimsical yet horrifying. If there is a movie that pushes and explores and avails itself of every inch and vista what the artsy fartsies call “cinema,” this is it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The script is layered and thoughtful and addresses everything from animal rights to totalitarianism to the twin toxicities of apathy and wishful thinking. The film’s core message, beyond that we should be kind to animals and to each other and that tolerance and inclusion heal? It’s this: if you want this damn world to change, get in there and change it. Anderson seems to be directly addressing any children watching his film that if you see oppression or evil, take it upon yourselves to stop it. Adults are too fat and lazy to care. The young human protagonists in this film are heroic in a way that goes beyond the fantasy role-playing of, say, Dorothy Gale or Katniss Everdeen, presenting young audience members with salient and actionable examples to follow.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Oh, and the voice cast is to die for, including Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, and, yes, Yoko Ono. The titular dogs are, yes, adorable but with agency and surety and never one moment of infantilism.

Hot damn!

Thanksgiving is a time of reflection and appreciation. It’s also a time to think about what’s next and where you want to go. This seemingly serendipitous combination of films does indeed add up to a pretty important road map. One worth following. For that, I am thankful.

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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.

like osage county only with males, males, males: Guest review of The Judge (2014)

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The Judge

I received the following email from my mom Susie Duncan Sexton last night, and I thought it was pretty funny, succinct, and spot on … and definitely worth sharing here (especially since it saves me from having to see this one, which from the trailers looked a bit too Hallmark Hall-of-Fame/Lifetime TV-movie for me). Here comes … The Judge!

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From: Susie Sexton

Sent: Monday, October 13, 2014, 1:14 AM

To: Roy Sexton

Subject: not good

not worth bothering with…like osage county only with males, males, males…and that love interest sure looks like william macy’s wife…thought it was her through entire film…but this girl was in UP IN THE AIR and the stupid PSYCHO series on tv…only went for billy bob who has not much on-screen time.

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postscript (added by my mom in the comments section below … )

oddly, today, I began to extol bobby “sarah-palin-loving-conservative-tango-expert” duvall…he avoided SANTINI-esqueness, no doubt so that he can do the santini sequel itself about next. shining through some ooky clichés, like chatting at urinals and in contrived dives and on front porches, appeared some pretty cleverly packaged backstories to bring us up to speed as it were? even 8 MM home-made films to let us better understand a deceased mom’s loving parenting skills? else the film would have required serialization.

I am guessing that reviewers should wait one full day to critique because GONE GIRL I fell out of love with in 24 hours…THE JUDGE I began to reconsider. but where was it filmed???? …not MY Indiana…some other Indiana…the tornado has received disses as a tired metaphor for family strife…but the tornado was maybe the ONLY hoosier touch…or at least that business of retiring to the basement jazz that we still think about doing in hoosier-ville. but the bit-o-honey BIT I myself dissed everytime it showed up! probably have spiked your interest now? c’mon, admit it!

post-postscript

googled, and the danged thing was filmed all over MASSACHUSETTS??????? and I read a review criticizing the backstory provided between dueling pop and sonny boy via the gimmickry of screaming expository material (highlighting past events) at each other every so often…I love that description! yep, no mountains or rolling hills or slick scenery in the whole (hole) of Indiana! told ya!

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Susie and Bobby

Susie and Bobby (Kennedy)

So, there you have it, neither Robert Downey, Jr., nor Robert Duvall, and certainly not Vera Farmiga (let alone “Mr. Cellophane” Billy Bob Thornton) can save this train-wreck of a film. (Well, Duvall might have redeemed himself a bit upon reconsideration of the film.)

Skip it, and go see Gone Girl (maybe?) or stay home and watch PBS’ The Roosevelts instead. Or hope that the next Downey film features Felicity Huffman!

And be sure to check out my mom’s funny, provocative, educational, and interesting blog by clicking here – topics include animal rights, culture, movies, nostalgia, equality, and other progressive causes. She is a monthly columnist in Indiana who has published two books Secrets of an Old Typewriter and its follow-up More Secrets of an Old Typewriter: Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels (click the titles to order). And you can find out more about her, read her columns, and view photos at her website www.susieduncansexton.com.

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Tomfoolery

Tomfoolery

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! 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.