“Someone left the cake out in the rain.” Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Every day in America.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again
Oh, no
MacArthur Park” (Jimmy Webb)

We live in uneasy times. I am beginning to suspect we always have. Maybe it comes with getting older, or maybe it’s the all-consuming nature of modern media, but I now question the golden hue surrounding historical violence for noble causes which we all once read about in our history classes. I fear waking up every morning for what the headlines may bring with my breakfast cereal.

Friday night, my parents and I saw Quentin Tarantino‘s latest auteur epic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Saturday, we woke up to news that another in an apparently endless series of twenty-something, white male gunmen had taken it upon himself to drive from Dallas to El Paso to enact a hate-filled, murderous killing spree. Sunday, we woke up to news that a seemingly similar individual decided to do the same thing in Dayton, Ohio. Both men arguably were informed by a steady diet of anger and violence, entitlement and disenfranchisement: all-reaching toxic masculinity. Now, we find ourselves in another mind-numbing news cycle of finger-pointing and empty talking points, American flag lapel pins and “thoughts and prayers,” which will all be quickly forgotten days from now when a royal family member has a baby or a sitting president stirs his simmering pot of Twitter-fied bile.

The sobering theme throughout is that all those deserving blame abdicate any and all responsibility. Hollywood and video game makers say art doesn’t influence people, but merely reflects our present reality. Gun manufacturers say guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Politicians say it is a “complicated” issue and they are looking into it, often blaming a nonexistent mental health safety net they effectively dismantled years ago (through de-funding) and turning a blind eye to the campaign donations they’ve greedily accepted from pro-gun lobbyists and voters. Motivating it all? Myopic self-preservation and a willful desire to keep the gravy train of capitalism rolling along.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In essence, it is this blood-sticky mess that Tarantino seems to be directly addressing with his film. Tarantino’s own relationship with cinematic violence has seemingly transitioned from sophomoric glee about how low he could go to a genuine conflict over entertainment’s role in fueling our revenge fantasy culture.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an elegiac picaresque tale of a California that may only exist in the mind’s eye: 1969, when Hollywood, and by extension America, was at odds with itself, some of us still clinging to the antiseptic safety of Eisenhower dreams against a countervailing influence of angry young people dissatisfied with a military/industrial complex that generates nothing but hardware and heartache.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A wonderfully world-weary Leonardo DiCaprio as failing TV Western star Rick Dalton finds himself increasingly marginalized, relegated to guest star villainous turns on turgid nightly dramas. The active rejection of the Western as metaphor for American moxie was ramping up, replaced by crime dramas and superhero shows, equally as violent and just as superficial.

At Rick’s side is his stunt double Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, oh-so-charming and oh-so-casually malevolent – a beach bum Marlboro man with a secret history of true-life violence ever percolating under his gleaming exterior as he saunters through the chintzy, cardboard back lots of Tinseltown.  “More than a brother, just short of a wife,” Kurt Russell’s omniscient narrator observes about the duo, characters based in part on the legendary real-life bromance of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham.

The pair move together in tandem in uncertain waters, a couple of aging sharks whose hollow, posturing machismo is perhaps going out of fashion. The film industry is beginning to embrace a new kind of shallow, in fact: talking a good game about “method acting,” as represented in a crucial scene between DiCaprio and a wise-beyond-her years eight-year-old female actor (“NOT actress … that is a ridiculous term,” she observes) – a scene-stealing performance by Julia Butters. Next door to Rick’s groovy Hollywood Hills home resides a couple symbolic with this sea change, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, the latter played with angelic puckishness by Margot Robbie. (I admit Quentin’s filmic attitude toward women remains a bit of a problematic cipher for me, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, for now, in great part due to Kill Bill.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Anyone who hid a copy of Helter Skelter behind their eighth grade history textbooks to avoid lectures about the great violence that begat this country, only to marinate in the prurient details of the Manson Family, may guess what happens next. The La Cielo Drive home and Sharon Tate herself are synonymous with the sickening nexus of celebrity and serial murder, Hollywood and true crime. Tate is remembered not for her film work, but the gruesome way her life met its untimely end. Well, you may think you know what is going to happen, but Tarantino, in his inimitable fashion as filmdom’s resident juvenile delinquent, is going to toy with your expectations, all the while commenting mercilessly, if somehow also affectionately, on the utter superficiality of men playing cowboy in the backyard.

As always, Tarantino’s cinematography and overall framing is perfection, the movie a loving homage to buddy comedies of the late 60s and 70s, yet with a very dark undercurrent. No detail is left unturned, and it is the kind of movie which film geeks could watch forty times and still miss layers of winking commentary buried in a radio ad or billboard or prop in the background. This may be the director’s most carefully curated film ever. I particularly took note of how the soundtrack is peppered with popular ditties of the era but covered by out-of-fashion pop performers trying to stay relevant in a hippie dippy age (e.g. Robert Goulet doing his best Richard Harris on “MacArthur Park”).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Even in casting, Tarantino is commenting on the ephemeral nature of the entertainment enterprise (beautiful Brad Pitt as reasonably attractive Leonardo DiCaprio‘s stunt double?!) as well as the ever elusive desire by performers to leave a legacy.  Andie MacDowell’s daughter Margaret Qualley plays a free-spirited ragdoll of a Manson family member. Bruce Dern, a counterculture figure in and of himself, pops up in a pivotal scene as the notorious Spahn Movie Ranch’s decrepit owner, unknowingly housing an army of leering Manson acolytes whose sole desire is to take down the very establishment once central to the ranch’s Western film output. Al Pacino, another actor associated with the dramatic transformation in cinema in the 1970s, plays a maneuvering and cynical agent who lays bare the ugly truths of commerce driving the money-mad, fame-seeking inhumanity in Hollywood. Everyone is pretty damn terrific, and whether they are in on the joke or not is uncertain.

As self-serious as my analysis appears to be, the movie is a hell of a lot of fun. It is meandering, episodic, sometimes maddening to follow, Tarantino continuing to tell stories as a nesting series of parentheticals. It is both nostalgic and critical, transporting you to another era, well aware of the insidious influence that that time continues to have on us all. Tarantino’s Hollywood is populated with lost souls – TV actors on the decline, movie stars on the ascent, and serial killers on the prowl – for whom celebrity-seeking and name-making is job one, regardless what that task does to themselves, their souls, or anyone surrounding them.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I can’t reveal a thing about the ending, without spoiling a twist that is both telegraphed and unexpected. Let me say that the fairy tale allusion in the title as well as its direct reference to Sergio Leone’s blood-soaked epic Once Upon a Time in America are intentional. The film offers us a happy ending of sorts, while graphically depicting the reality of the cartoon violence Rick Dalton and his contemporaries once promulgated via black-and-white television sets. This film is both Tarantino‘s least violent film and his most. The film’s ambling pace lulls the audience into complacency, so the carnage when it comes – fast, furious, and brutal – is that much more disarming.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is at once a love letter to another time and a cautionary tale, with a chillingly implied postscript that history does indeed repeat itself. And that all of us are too vain to ever really do anything to stop it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Everybody knows the damn truth
Our nation lied, we lost respect
When we wake up, what can we do?
Get the kids ready, take them to school
Everybody knows they don’t have a chance
To get a decent job, to have a normal life
When they talk reforms, it makes me laugh
They pretend to help, it makes me laugh
I think I understand why people get a gun
I think I understand why we all give up
Every day they have a kind of victory
Blood of innocence, spread everywhere
They say that we need love
But we need more than this
– “God Control” (Madonna)

___________________

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 only see the world as it should be.” Murder On The Orient Express (2017) AND Daddy’s Home 2

Hollywood gets a lot of flak, much of it deserved, but the crime perpetrated by Tinseltown that may bother me the most is when a talented cast is completely squandered in servitude to a lame script and lousy direction.

The Thanksgiving movie offerings this year all have left something to be desired, but we were misfortunate enough to see two of the worst offenders back to back last night. Murder on the Orient Express and Daddy’s Home 2. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. We paid money to see these two movies in sequence. Maybe the problem is with us.

The first is an unnecessary remake of a far superior Sydney Lumet film, based on the original Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie. It is yet another self-serious, self-satisfied confectionery indulgence from director/star Kenneth Branagh, who fancies himself the poor man’s Laurence Olivier, when he, in reality, may be the poor man’s Benny Hill.

The second is an unnecessary sequel to an unnecessary broad farce, holding a far too indulgent and yuppified mirror to the mixed up sociopolitical and familial dynamics in modern middle-class America. It stars Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as an ex-husband/father and new husband/stepfather, respectively, whose own fathers John Lithgow and Mel Gibson, also respectively, crash Christmas and demonstrate that they are as boneheaded and as consumed with unflattering male ego as their sires.

NOTE: the movie isn’t smart enough to actually do anything with that premise, and it’s too frightened of its Trump-triggered audience demographic to actually skewer these idiotic men.

Both films favor set decoration and bleak whimsy over script and character development. Orient Express pursues arch tedium over anything resembling flesh and blood characterization, fetishizing starched linens and glistening martini glasses and anthropomorphizing its titular train to the point one wonders if Branagh is simply trying to capture the imaginations of too many young adults weened on the also creepy and tedious Polar Express.

Daddy’s Home conversely, is the kind of film that seems to hold National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation as a kind of high art that could only be improved if the “Nancy Meyers’ school of filmmaking” (middle-class characters living amidst-Better Homes and Gardens residential-porn they couldn’t actually afford in real life) had installed a Sub Zero fridge in Randy Quaid’s “the-sh*tter’s-full” Winnebago. Daddy’s Home is the kind of movie where a character cuts down a cell phone tower, thinking it is a Christmas tree, and gets charged $20,000, and everyone just laughs and shrugs and says, “Now, who is going to pay for that?” This inane, unrelatable incident occurs after the cast has engaged in an interminable sequence where they decorate – top-to-bottom, inside-and-out – a vacation home they are RENTING for the holidays. Who does that? In real life, this family would be trying to figure out how to pay the credit card bills they ran up to buy presents nobody actually wants and would end up in both divorce and bankruptcy courts when slapped with a $20,000 bill for destruction of public property. Or maybe they would be in jail. Fa la la la.

Orient Express is the kind of film where all of the characters have less depth than those found in a Clue board game, but lounge around all casual-cool-dramatic in beautifully appointed train cars (which seem much larger than humanly possible) as if they are posing for a Vanity Fair cover. It is the kind of film where people spout portentous philosophy (“I can only see the world as it should be.” – Poirot) and glower at each other across petits fours. Whodunnit? Who cares?

When one film (Orient Express) offers the best Johnny Depp performance in years (not saying much … and, by the way, spoiler alert, he is the titular murder) and the other (Daddy’s Home) makes John Cena as its final act complication seem practically Oscar-worthy, something ain’t right in the mix.

NOTE: Kenneth, a mustache that covers half your face and renders your speech incomprehensible is not character development. You are no Wes Anderson. And I don’t like Wes Anderson.

NOTE: Mel, swaggering around like an aging muscle man whose tummy has become a beach ball and who believes FOXNews offers great lessons in parenting and social graces is not character development. That is just you. And we don’t like you.

To the rest of the luminaries who collected a paycheck to appear in these movies – John Lithgow, Linda Cardellini, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem DaFoe, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, I’m looking at you – you all know better. Next time an easy payday comes along, please just say no.

Finally, I want to correct the statement with which I began this piece. The worst crime Hollywood commits is hypocrisy. Women are not disposable commodities. Violence is not comedy. Respect for each other, for our individuality, for our unique spirit is essential.

Daddy’s Home 2 is by far the bigger offender because jokes about kissing/spanking little girls or about men “just being men” in Las Vegas or about fathers hitting on the mothers of their sons’ classmates are not funny. They are gross.

Hollywood, if you want us to buy the rhetoric that you are rejecting the worst offenders in your midst, make better movies. More responsible movies. Movies that don’t joke out of both sides of their mouths where animal rights or gun control or human equality are concerned. Stop trying to cater to every demographic. That lack of moral compass is the antithesis of what these holidays are truly about.

Rant over.

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.

Countdown: The Guilt Trip

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 17 days until the release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Here’s what Roy thought about The Guilt Trip: “The film blessedly avoids slapstick predictability and deftly sidesteps Freudian mama-bashing. The dynamic between the two actors is that of mother and son, a delicate spider web of love and generosity and aggravation and pride, and they deliver it with aplomb. I really loved this movie, and I hope, with time, people will discover and enjoy it for the kind-hearted enterprise that it is.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Countdown: The Dark Knight Rises

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 22 days until release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Here’s a snippet of Roy’s review of The Dark Knight Rises: “I will offer that all the players are saddled with way too many ominous, cryptic monologues. At times, the film is almost tediously Shakespearean in its speechifyin’—makes you wonder how these characters would, say, order a sandwich. It wouldn’t be quick, that’s for certain.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html

How I spent my Christmas vacation…Les Miz, Django, and Babs

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One of the things I look forward to most every holiday season is the movie marathon I share with my parents. Hollywood back-loads all their great Oscar bait films from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, and every year my parents and I try to cram in as many as we can in a three-to-four day period. Invariably, we have a number of disappointments along the way.

Let me be clear, sometimes we do all of this in a single day. I think our record may be four movies in one twenty-four hour period…but that was also a day where we got so intoxicated by movie magic and stale popcorn that we saw anything with the right start time that allowed us to go from one movie right into the next (tickets purchased for all, of course). I believe on that auspicious occasion, in our weakness, we saw The Golden Compass…I think we were the only three people in America who ever saw The Golden Compass. It was pretty turgid.

So what cinematic treasures did Santa leave in our collective stocking this year? Three super-hyped, market-saturating, blockbuster-hopefuls: Les Miserables, Django Unchained, and The Guilt Trip. You know what? All three were perfection – that has never happened in the brief history of the Sexton Family’s Hide-from-the-Bothersome-Relatives-Holiday-Film-Fest.

Les Miserables ran the risk of not meeting the breathless anticipation whipped up through its ubiquitous and compelling advertising campaign. Happily, it far exceeded our expectations in every way. Much has been written about Tom Hooper’s decision to have his actors act and sing the challenging music live, as opposed to recording in a studio weeks before filming, only to lip sync before the cameras. It works and works well.

We listened to the soundtrack album the night before seeing the movie, and I’m still not sure if that was a good or bad idea. The CD is not exactly fun listening. Yet, it did prepare us for the vocal stylings of the key performers, and, as viewers, we were perhaps better equipped to appreciate the film as narrative. My mom said it best, “It’s like watching a film with sub-titles…you just get used to the singing and after a point forget you are even watching a musical…in a good way.”

I enjoyed every performer in the film, and any flaws, in my estimation, are inherent in the source material. For instance, I don’t much care for the young lovers storyline, and the nefarious Dickensian innkeepers even less so. Regardless, everyone in the ensemble – notably Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Eddie Redmayne – executes their piece in Victor Hugo’s ever-unfolding diorama of some French Revolution (I’m still not sure which one) breathtakingly. I cried countless times. Darn, this movie is cathartic.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t much want to get into a debate about the merits of Russell Crowe’s performance as Inspector Javert. People are hung up on his singing style – which I for one thought was just fine, though we did have our doubts when listening to the CD before seeing the film. What I ask is that you view his performance as that of a consummate actor in service to story in a cinematic way. He could play the role as Snidely Whiplash. He doesn’t. He underplays to great effect, against the overall hammy-ness of the show’s origins, offering a stolid, pedantic take on his character’s rigid moral code. I liked him a lot. ‘Nuff said.

Django Unchained is pure Tarantino in form and style and exceptionally crafted in every way. Strangely, both Django and Les Miz (I sort of hate that nickname by the way), released together on Christmas Dayexplore themes of persecution, faith, oppression, and the redeeming hope of friendship and love. Who’d-a-thunk?

In Django’s case, a lot of ink has been spilled already about the violence, gunplay, and prodigious use of the “N-word” (another diminutive that always bugs me). Do I admit to feeling a bit squeamish at times during the film for these reasons? You betcha. Was I more bothered that some thuggish teenagers in the Midwestern audience with me were laughing un-ironically at these elements? God, yes. Is that Tarantino’s fault? Emphatically, no.

What Tarantino has been doing to great effect through his last several films – the Kill Bill two-parter, Inglourious Basterds, and now Django – is put our societal propensity for violence, pettiness, ugliness under a tight microscope. He directs particular ire at our American condition to view the different with derision and hate and anger. With Django, he may as well throw battery acid on the Southland, exposing the inherent hypocrisy of good Christians whose economic standing was achieved on the bloody backs of far too many African-Americans.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

If nothing else, go see this one for Leonardo DiCaprio’s bravura turn as the well-heeled owner of a plantation cheekily named Candyland. He is a whirlwind of oily smiles, fey mannerisms, and unbridled bile. I adored watching him in the film. Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx more than hold their own, but the film springs fully to life when DiCaprio joins the proceedings. Pay close attention when he brings his doctor’s bag into the dining room – that scene alone is Oscar-worthy. Not the time you want to take a potty break.

Finally, The Guilt Trip … if one of these things is not like the others, I suppose it is this film, but it is no less perfection in my eyes. I am astounded at the negative reviews I have read on this one. I suspect the film is a victim of its holiday timing and its star power (Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen). If it had been quietly released in March or some other time, perhaps viewers would give it a fair chance…or maybe not.

Regardless, this is a gem of a little film. As actors, both Streisand and Rogen can be undermined by their own excesses (see Prince of Tides and The Green Hornet respectively). Yet, in this film, they are authentic, subtle (or at least what passes for subtlety for either), and thoroughly charming as a mother and son trapped in one tiny car together on a cross-country road trip.

The film blessedly avoids slapstick predictability and deftly sidesteps Freudian mama-bashing. The dynamic between the two actors is that of mother and son, a delicate spiderweb of love and generosity and aggravation and pride, and they deliver it with aplomb. I really loved this movie, and I hope, with time, people will discover and enjoy it for the kind-hearted enterprise that it is.

That’s it folks…and if you see three people next Christmas Day schlepping a monster-size bucket of popcorn from one Fort Wayne, Indiana-theatre to the next, give us a wave…and discourage us from seeing another Golden Compass.

A somber summer epic worth seeing: The Dark Knight Rises

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

A satisfying conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s powerful, earnest, at times too self-important take on the Batman mythos, the final film in his trilogy “Dark Knight Rises” is a somber summer epic. Will the movie find its way past the tragic circumstances surrounding its debut? Almost impossible to predict. But there is something strange that happens watching this film in light of that context: what was intended, no doubt, as an allegorical take on post-9/11 America with our nation’s rampant paranoia and wildly divisive political machinations, now becomes a rumination on violence begetting violence.

All the returning players bring an almost-PBS-miniseries gravitas to the proceedings – Oscar nominees/winners all, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman are all a pleasure to watch. (Freeman and Oldman lead the pack, with Freeman providing the too-few moments of levity.) I will offer that ALL the players are saddled with way too many ominous, cryptic monologues. At times, the film is almost tediously Shakespearean in its speechifyin’ – makes you wonder how these characters would, say, order a sandwich…it wouldn’t be quick, that’s for certain.

New additions Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Tom Hardy as Bane, Marion Cotillard as a mysterious investor, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an eager young cop all turn in credible, engaging performances. Much has been written about Hardy’s Sean Connery-meets-Darth Vader vocal delivery, and, I may be in the minority, but I liked his villainous turn a great deal, almost as much as I liked Heather Ledger’s Joker.  The difference being that Hardy had, in reality, the harder row to hoe, saddled with that godawful mask, and conveying a great deal of anger and angst through only his eyes and physicality. I found Hathaway’s Catwoman a slinky, sly, snarky delight – the film brightens a bit every time she is on-screen. Gordon-Levitt, for once, is not doing his winky, dimpled, charming thing but gives a deep-feeling, humane grounding to the often over-the-top proceedings.

Yes, the film, like so many comic book adaptations, wraps up with a save-the-world-nuclear-doomsday scenario. That bit is beyond tired. Yet, I found fascinating the villains’ “Tale of Two Cities” plans (until that point) to foment a people’s revolution in the midst of an increasingly self-absorbed, detached society. At times, the film falls under the weight of its own lofty pretensions, and a bit more fun here and there couldn’t have hurt it. All in all, it is well worth seeing and should be applauded for trying to say something a bit deeper and more profound. These are messages we as a society are well past needing to learn – whether or not a movie of this ilk will accomplish that as we continue to skid off the rails is, as I said earlier, impossible to predict.