Count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. Fox’s #GreaseLive!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like Grease (in any of its musical forms – Broadway, film, community theatre, drunken karaoke). And I ain’t never gonna like Grease. There are some catchy songs, and Rizzo is pretty much a Teflon-plated hoot no matter who is applying Stockard Channing’s time-tested performance template (even if Channing herself seemed like a 45-year-old playing that role). Yet, the book (in its countless revisions) can’t decide if it wants to be corny, contrived, plastic sock-hop nostalgia or crude, crass, grimy locker room ick. The character development rarely rises above that of an Archie comic – an uneasy mix of satire, camp, and canonization. And the climactic message of “be yourself … no, wait, don’t be yourself … tease, your hair, slap on Spandex pants, and strut around like an inebriated race horse” (which could describe Danny’s arc as much as it does Sandy’s) is, shall we say, problematic?

So, I came at Sunday’s Grease Live! – Fox’s gambit in the ever-escalating live televised musical arms race – with a bit of trepidation and a whole heap of hate-watching ire in my arsenal. Said arsenal remains unused this Monday morning. The show was actually kind of … good? Maybe I can deploy my ire for the Iowa caucus?

As in the days following NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!, and The Wiz Live! (think we could retire the “live” and the exclamation marks, folks?), there will be a lot of digital “ink” spilled and memes/GIFs posted, some fawning, some hypercritical, but one can’t deny that this new genre – that is neither really live (Live!) nor filmed, neither organic/authentic nor polished/accomplished, neither bad nor good – is a happening that energizes viewers, inspires conversation, and piques our collective cultural interest in stage musicals again.

Let it be said that none of the musicals performed to date are anything I would have chosen to perform or to see, left to my own devices. To me, these shows are all tired, shopworn, and clichéd. All have been filmed and/or performed live on television before, and, with the exception of The Wiz, those prior adaptations were more or less already considered definitive. The next wave of shows coming down the pike – Hairspray (?!) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – just affirms that conclusion, though Rocky Horror’s casting – gender-bending an already bent show – may prove intriguing.

For all intents and purposes, these shows are less theatre, more stunt spectacle, as if a monster truck rally and a high school theatre department collaborated for a production that none of us really want to see again but can’t not watch. NBC/Fox could give a fig what theatre snobs think. These shows are a throwback to a time when The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind aired annually on network television, when people didn’t think twice when three (!) different television adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella aired over the years, or when plays like Twelve Angry Men could hit Broadway and be a live television event and a major motion picture in rapid succession. It’s called event programming – it’s always existed, it’s always drawn eyeballs and made money for the networks, it’s always had corporate sponsors (Alcoa! Coca-Cola! Frigidaire!) …  and viewers have always said their era was better than the one in which we find ourselves now.

Grease Live! had the spectacle part down pat. There were clever fourth-wall-breaking behind-the-scenes commercial breaks and scene transitions (grimacing host Mario Lopez and those runaway golf carts notwithstanding). The film-worthy indoor/outdoor sets and the acres of Warner Brothers’ backlot dedicated to the production, including a full-fledged amusement park, were incredible (rainstorms notwithstanding). I would love to know how they accomplished the seamlessly gliding transitions from one fully-realized location to the next – notably the transitions from Rizzo’s Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom to a glitzy USO stage and back (Keke Palmer’s star turn on forgotten number “Freddy My Love”) or from gleaming 360 degree art deco diner to “Teen Angel” heaven (Carly Rae Jepsen’s otherwise forgettable new tune “All I Need Is An Angel” and BoyzIIMen’s shaky “Beauty School Dropout”).

Hamilton helmer Thomas Kail’s direction of all the musical numbers (aided and abetted beautifully by Glee alum Zach Woodlee’s loving choreography) was sharp, purposeful, and epic, furthering the narrative in clever ways (Jordan Fisher’s “Those Magic Changes” an early delight, detailing Danny Zukko’s failed efforts to “fit in”) and providing flashy, eye-popping showstoppers (“Summer Lovin’,” “Greased Lightnin’,” “Born to Hand Jive,” and the finale “You’re the One That I Want/We Go Together” all crackled with a frenetic music video energy … and that’s a good thing). And the costumes (and instantaneous costume changes)?  To die for.  Frothy, cute, and kinetic.

The cast – made up of Disney Channel refugees, Grease movie alumni, and a handful of legit stage stars – wasn’t always able to match the technical prowess, and I suspect Kail was wisely hedging his bets by layering on the gloss and the wow, so we didn’t notice (or care) when a cast member hit a sour note (rarely) or performed their dialogue like they were reading the side of a cereal box (often). Vanessa Hudgens’ Rizzo was the star of the night. Her Rizzo may have lacked pathos, but she added a layer of heartbroken outsider sweetness (not unlike what Laura Benanti brought to Sound of Music’s “Baroness”) that was an appealing counterpoint to all the gum-cracking sass. She infused “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” with a welcome playfulness that kept the song from devolving into sheer meanness (as it often does).

The aforementioned Keke Palmer brought presence and poise to her Marty, quietly driving every scene in which she appeared, and Jepsen was appealingly forlorn as pink-haired loser Frenchy. The Pink Ladies, generally, kept the enterprise afloat, with a loveable sauciness that unfortunately was unmatched by the rather forgettable T-Birds. Not a moment stood out for the greasers, though Aaron Tveit’s Danny Zuko was a singing/dancing marvel. He is arguably the most accomplished musical vet of the cast (Next to Normal, Les Miserables), and it showed, in both good and bad ways. He hit every mark, sang like an angel, and nailed every move and gesture and pose … but he didn’t seem to be having one darn bit of fun. He lacked an impish sparkle that would have sold the performance for the ages, which is a shame, as he did bring a hunky empathy and kindness that actors typically don’t give the role, distracted as they often are with the pompadour and the leather jacket and the cars and the mythically phony “50s-ishness” of it all.

Julianne Hough is not my cup of tea. Never has been. Like Tveit, she has the technical know-how (particularly where movement is concerned) but she has this inherent bland unlikeability that I can’t ever quite get past. Yet, in the case of this production, that quality served her and the show well (to a degree). I’ve never understood why Rizzo, in particular, hates Sandy so much, so quickly. The nebulously defined rivalry over Danny just never works (and is too sexist anyway). So, having a lightly annoying Sandy to motivate a less bullying Rizzo worked for me, whether that was intentional or just a happy accident of chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Saturday Night Live’s Ana Gasteyer was stoic perfection, as the malaprop-spewing Rydell High principal, and Wendell Pierce was fun as an archetypically pompous and inept coach/gym teacher. Didi Conn (Frenchy in the original film) and Eve Plumb (“Jan Brady”) offered spry cameo turns, and Jessie J (England’s answer to P!nk) did a serviceable job performing the iconic “Grease (Is the Word)” over the opening credits – a tune originally sung by Frankie Valli and written by Barry Gibb for the 1978 film. Never mind that the lyrics to “Grease (Is the Word)” make absolutely no sense (the term “word salad” springs to mind) nor do they have any discernible connection to the plot; the tune’s catchy, we all know it, and it’s perfectly marketable as a pop single. Money, money, money!

In the end, that’s all Grease Live! was every really about anyway. This isn’t great art. This isn’t Great Performances. (Hell,  that high-minded PBS program is underwritten by the Koch Brothers now, isn’t it?) These “live” musicals are an exercise in commerce with a light veneer of artistic pretense. Take some songs you know and a premise you vaguely recall from your youth, mix in a Fantasy Island’s gaggle of dubious “talents,” layer on some high-paying sponsors, promote the sh*t out of it, and count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. #Captalism_Live!

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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.

“Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” The Hateful Eight and The Revenant

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A bleaker afternoon at the movies I don’t think I’ve ever spent. Get this for a double feature: The Hateful Eight AND The Revenant. Back-to-back. Six hours straight. Gruesome violence, rampant misogyny, flippant sociopathy, and snow … lots and lots of snow.

Fun.

I’m not averse to revenge fantasy as a narrative arc. We all get to channel the murky, marginalized, pre-pubescent rage of our middle school years watching some big-screen hooligan seeking sweet justice. Yet, how many movies like this do we really need?

(Having just completed a brief, shining stint on jury duty this morning, I’m even more averse to cinematic celebrations of vigilantism at the present.)

The Hateful Eight is quintessential Quentin Tarantino – which means it is as artistic and provocative as it is juvenile and misanthropic. Tarantino, in his novelistic and verbose style, turns cowboy romanticism on its head, telling the sordid tale of eight (seems more like nine or ten, but whatever) fugitives (literal and/or emotional) who converge on a general store (the comically named “Minnie’s Haberdashery”) amidst a teeth-rattling blizzard. The MacGuffin animating the plot is actually a person not a thing – though the way murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh as the MacGuffin in question) is disturbingly manhandled through the film makes that distinction debatable. Domergue is a bloody Raggedy Ann doll, banjo-eyed and tragicomic, two-parts Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and one-part Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie.” She’s one of the best things in a film that otherwise can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s a testosterone fever dream or an epic indictment of male ego. Leigh’s droll turn coupled with Ennio Morricone’s throbbingly beautiful horror show score save the film for me.

The rest of the cast includes Samuel L. Jackson becoming even more of a Cheshire Cat-caricature of himself as a Civil War veteran and bounty hunter who magically always seems to be 17 steps ahead of any other character; Kurt Russell as an Old West Remington Painting Cossack who speaks with John Wayne’s wiggly weird voice; Tim Roth in the Christoph Waltz role as an oily, glib, bespoke-dressed hangman; Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen basically playing Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen in Reconstruction Era clothing; Demian Bechir giving us yet another in a shamefully long line of stereotypically duplicitous Latinos; and Walton Goggins as a gummy, big-toothed take on the sweaty, nervous, hair-trigger, hammy loon that always pops up in a movie like this. Oh, Channing Tatum, burying any sparkle he has under a mound of Dippity Do, slides in at the three-quarters mark in one of those chronological misdirects that Tarantino employs … to the point of cliché. How many hateful people is that now? 62?

Did I hate The Hateful Eight? No. Yet, I’m struggling to discern why mid-career Tarantino flicks like Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds – equally violent and similarly reckless in their disregard for our common humanity as Hateful Eight is – resonate with me so much more profoundly. Recent efforts like Eight and Django Unchained leave me a bit cold (and a lot worried). Some of it could be my age, and some of it could be that the real world is ever more perilously resembling the fictitious community of Red Apple cigarette smoking fiends that Tarantino gleefully depicts.

However, I also hypothesize that Bill and Basterds both reveal an empathy for the underdog and have a kind of constrained feminism/humanism at their core. Django and Eight – as beautifully as they are filmed (Eight especially with its sumptuous Panavision vistas and claustrophobic production design) – have a caustic ugliness in their DNA that belies the apparent intent behind Tarantino’s cartoonishly extreme brutality. He always seems to be suggesting to certain members of his audience, “Oh, you like guns? Oh, you hate [insert race/gender/faith/ethnicity here]? Oh, you like throwing around sexual grotesqueries for comic effect to create discomfort? … Well, here’s what that really looks like. Still interested in carrying that behavior into daily life?” Yet, with The Hateful Eight, I am not sure where pornography ends and social critique begins.

That said, The Hateful Eight entertained me. I could not take my eyes away for a second … which is saying something, especially in its grinding last 45 minutes. The Revenant, on the other hand, is a high-minded bore that had me checking my watch every twenty minutes. (In its defense, I did see it after spending three hours in Tarantino-ville.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Like The Hateful Eight, The Revenant is a retro trip into frontier vengeance with a heaping helping of postmodern enlightenment. Whereas Eight wears its aspirational abhorrence on its bloody sleeve, The Revenant, directed by Birdman’s Alejandro Inarritu and starring Leonard DiCaprio as fur-trapper Hugh Glass, plays its politics a little closer to the buckskin vest. As viewers, we enter the film, keenly aware of DiCaprio’s ecological advocacy, so it is unsurprising that the film takes a hardline on “you mess with the planet … the planet messes back.”

Yet, unlike Tarantino’s drama, there are no obvious black hats. One can even argue that Tom Hardy’s antagonist John Fitzgerald – who (spoiler alert) actually buries DiCaprio’s character alive shortly before slaughtering DiCaprio’s son – is no more evil than any other European-American in the film, motivated as they all are by the seemingly limitless money they hope to reap at the expense of the land and its inhabitants. These fools simply do not know any better, so why is it such a leap of logic that Hardy’s character goes from killing animals and Native Americans at a whim to extending those same courtesies to his fellow fur-traders? And that may in fact be the film’s thesis … or I may be projecting, as the film is so frustratingly artistic (read: obtuse) that I wasn’t always sure what I was even watching. Ah, an Ansel Adams winter sky here. A glistening tree branch there. A floating shaman. A pyramid of bleached skulls. WTF?

For those of you out there who loved this film – be you survivalist or nature-lover – please don’t hate me for rooting for the bear, but I found myself slapping my knee in delight as Leo was tossed around like a chew toy by a mother bear protecting her cubs. Of course (another spoiler alert, essential for my animal-loving buddies out there) the CGI bear is killed, which squelched my buzz for the rest of the picture.

It is this mauling and Leo’s subsequent “Hey, I ain’t dead yet!” burial that sets up the vision quest/hero’s journey as DiCaprio crawls through the muck, grunting out all manner of guttural protestations, to stake his revenge on the man who done him wrong (Hardy). If chapped lips, broken appendages, greasy hair, and frost-bitten noses are your thing, then this is the film for you. I found it an interminable slog, with a concept that might have made a fabulous short-film but felt woefully padded at nearly two hours and forty minutes.

Early in The Hateful Eight, Tim Roth’s character observes, “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” Both film’s wrestle with this idea to varying degrees of success, ultimately losing the delicacy of this concept in self-indulgent largesse. The problem with Eight is that there may have been too much hot-blooded passion in Tarantino’s execution, drowning his critique of our white-washed conception of the Old West in a tsunami of Karo Syrup. And The Revenant remains too icily remote, enamored of its own gunmetal haze at the expense of visceral investment.

Somebody wake me when Oscar season is over.

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img_3692-1Reel 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 barely even know what to order for lunch.” Carol (2015)

"Carol (film) POSTER" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Carol_(film)_POSTER.jpg#/media/File:Carol_(film)_POSTER.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Director Todd Haynes (he of artisanally crafted, spotlessly curated, hermetically sealed art-house fare like Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, and Safe) and Cate Blanchett (she of Oscar-winning, delicately-nuanced, steely, and cat-like turns in Blue Jasmine, Notes on a Scandal, Oscar and Lucinda, and Elizabeth) would seem to be a match made in cinematic heaven. In fact, they have worked together once before on the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There in which Blanchett was acclaimed for her portrayal of Dylan. (That film is an ensemble effort in which a number of actors play allegorical aspects of the famed troubadour at different stages of his life…at least that’s the simplest explanation I can give of that knotty flick.)

Haynes and Blanchett collaborate again on Carol, a film treatment of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (a much more interesting title if you ask me). Interestingly, Blanchett entered the popular consciousness in another Highsmith adaptation, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Blanchett had already been nominated for the Academy Award for Elizabeth when she appeared as the memorably nosy Meredith in Ripley, but Ripley is likely the first time mainstream audiences sat up and took notice of her crackerjack blend of Golden Age moxie and arch feminism.

Ripley is a Hitchcockian potboiler (akin to Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, which was adapted by Hitchcock) and translates mid-century Freudian psychosexual turmoil into high-crime intrigue; conversely, Carol keeps its heartache and indiscretions grounded in the crushing civility of Atomic Age Americana.

Blanchett’s Carol Aird is a moneyed Manhattan suburbanite, married to a doting and suffocating husband, Harge (Super 8‘s Kyle Chandler, an Arrow Collar/James Garner-paper doll of a fellow). However, she worships their only daughter, Rindy. (Yes, this is the kind of movie where characters have names like Harge and Rindy, smoke cigarettes from silver cases, drink martinis at lunch, and wear driving gloves. all. the. time.)

We learn that Carol has recently had an affair with childhood friend (and Rindy’s godmother) Abby (an ever-luminous Sarah Paulson – 12 Years a Slave, American Horror Story), a fling that has sent Harge into a male ego death spiral, even though the relationship is over and Abby has transitioned from paramour back to confidante. This sets the stage for Carol, while purchasing a Christmas present for her daughter, to “meet cute” with a darling department store clerk (and amateur photographer) Therese Belivet (deftly portrayed by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Rooney Mara – imagine an alternate universe where Audrey Hepburn plays a Sapphic “Rory Gilmore” who happens to work at Bloomingdale’s and is partial to wearing multi-colored tam hats).

What the film delivers is a claustrophobic yet sophisticated era, in which decorum rules the day to the detriment of one’s soul. The film moves at a glacial pace, which I suspect is entirely by design, as these two women circle each other, transfixed by their forbidden attraction.

I will add, though, that I had zero understanding of why these women loved one another, other than that the film’s narrative required it. Both Blanchett and Mara have such delicious presence, but neither of them seem to be having one damn bit of fun. There is just no joy here. Again, maybe that’s the point, but rounding into the second hour when this dynamic duo launches into an aimless road trip (that ends up in Waterloo, Iowa, of all places), I just didn’t feel the spark.

The love Carol has for daughter Rindy is palpable (I dare you to keep a dry eye when Chandler and Blanchett have a pas de deux in their lawyers’ office over custody of the child), but I was ambivalent about the connection between Carol and Therese.

Haynes’ films are chilly and soapy. That’s part of his Douglas Sirk schtick, and he uses that retro frame as postmodern commentary on what we have gained and what we have lost as a society. In Haynes’ world, there is always a price for liberty, but, part of the issue with Carol, is that I never found myself invested enough in the main characters to feel their pain.

Blanchett and Mara are doing great actorly work, particularly in their early scenes. Blanchett strikes a delicate balance of detached heartache and predatory lust, while Mara offers a loving portrayal of a kid coming to grips with her place in a world that can be devastatingly cruel to women of any stripe. Yet, I never totally buy them as people. The first lunch date between Carol and Therese is a hoot; Carol confidently orders creamed spinach, poached eggs, and a dry martini, and Therese blankly looks at the server as says, “I’ll have the same,” later wailing, “I barely even know what to order for lunch!” as a comic indicator of the deep waters in which she now finds herself.

I wish Haynes had the willingness to give us more of that movie, one in which two humans find a confidence and a comfort through the wit and humor of shared experience and mutual anxiety. As it is, Carol feels a bit like a film trapped in the amber of nostalgic male panic.

NERD

NERD

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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.

“Adversaries in commerce” – Joy and The Big Short

"Joyfilmposter" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Joyfilmposter.jpg#/media/File:Joyfilmposter.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Adversaries in commerce” is a phrase as recurrent in David O. Russell’s latest opus Joy as the falling snow from the film’s advertising materials (posters, trailers, promotional clips – see, left, over there?). The film, which offers an allegorically fictionalized take on the biography of “Miracle Mop” inventor and QVC/Home Shopping Network luminary Joy Mangano, wears a comfortable Dickensian/It’s a Wonderful Life vibe, subtly marrying the holiday-centric themes of merchandise-obsessed America, familial love as rampant dysfunction, and the ebb and flow of seasonally-induced introspection.

Joy details the trials and tribulations of its titular hero, a person with an agile and inventive mind, finding herself stymied by a motley assemblage of “adversaries” (and allies) in “commerce,” many of whom arrive in the guise of earnest or envious (or both) family members. Joy sees commercial opportunities in the mundane – a reflective, choke-free flea-collar here, a hands-free mop there – but the patriarchal world she inhabits marginalizes her gifts while simultaneously pirating her ingenuity. Tale as old as time …

Jennifer Lawrence, joining Russell for their third collaboration after her Oscar win in his Silver Linings Playbook and her nomination for his American Hustle, is utterly transfixing in her most believable turn to date. The film’s and Lawrence’s chief gift is how normal all the abnormal seems; Lawrence (and, by extension, the audience) lives Joy’s life, finding laughter and poignancy and tears where all of us find those things:  family gatherings, business meetings, arguments with spouses, reading a story to our children, trying to convince a stranger to take a chance on an idea.

Some may (and will) argue with me, but this is the most feminist set of cinematic ideas to come down the pike in a while. Yes, Joy is inventing a mop, a symbol to some of domestic oppression, but, in the act of transforming its utility, she reclaims this symbol as her own. Her journey to get her thoughtfully designed functionality in the hands of other like-minded consumers becomes a hero’s quest, tilting at male-dominated windmills of finance, retail, media, manufacturing, and legal contracts. It’s not a showy role. Her turns in Silver Linings or American Hustle gave her many more cracked P.O.V. tics with which to play, but, in this film, Lawrence is all the better for Joy’s absence of quirk.

The surety with which Joy moves through life can seem nebulous at times. We are introduced to her as a little girl who empirically states that “I don’t need a prince.” That is the constant in her life, but she isn’t a volatile trail blazer either. She is a Valedictorian with a caretaker’s spirit, leveraging the strength (and madness) of the family and friends and opposition around her, quietly and calmly observing the world as it is and periodically dashing forth to change how it could be. It’s a masterful, nuanced performance.

Lawrence is aided and abetted by what is quickly becoming Russell’s version of Orson Welles’ Mercury Players, a stellar repertory supporting cast that includes Russell vets Robert DeNiro as Joy’s time-warped fiend of a father, Bradley Cooper as a slick television producer with a heart of gold, and Elisabeth Rohm as Joy’s meddlesome sibling rival, alongside newcomers Virginia Madsen as Joy’s sparkling kook of a soap opera obsessed mom, Diane Ladd as Joy’s fairy godmother/grandmother, Isabella Rossellini as DeNiro’s moneyed girlfriend and Joy’s snake-skinned benefactor, Dascha Polanco as Joy’s steadfast pal and confidante, and Edgar Ramirez as Joy’s charming ex-husband and trusted consigliere. Susan Lucci and Donna Mills even pop up in a couple of brilliantly gaga cameos.

My husband John says that his test of a good film is if it “takes him somewhere” and makes him feel as if he is there in that place and time, living the moments with the characters onscreen. I mentioned this to my parents as we were leaving the theatre, and we all agreed that, by that criteria, this is a perfect film.

"The Big Short teaser poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Big_Short_teaser_poster.jpg#/media/File:The_Big_Short_teaser_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Alas, we were less enamored of Joy‘s Christmas 2015 box office “adversary in commerce” The Big Short, equally an ensemble piece packed with star power but falling far short (pun intended) of Joy‘s exquisite music box pathos. The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) from the book by Michael Lewis, fancies itself a bold hybrid of Ocean’s Eleven‘s ring-a-ding boy band swagger and Michael Moore’s progressively incendiary documentarian instincts.

Unfortunately, it’s neither. Jennifer Lawrence has more swagger in one confrontation with some misogynistic QVC middle managers, than Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock, or John Magaro manage collectively against monolithic Wall Street through the entirety of The Big Short. (Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, and Jeremy Strong as Carell’s bullpen of hedge-fund managing second bananas do have some firecracker moments, but they are few and far between.) Melissa Leo puts in a sharp appearance as a ratings agency employee who happily, if improbably, exposes the game afoot when even the guardians at the gate will play for pay.

The film attempts to explicate for us common folk the ins and outs of the housing market collapse in 2008. McKay has been on record as saying this is the most important story of our time and that his film will make crystal clear the who, what, how, and why so that any audience member will understand what transpired. Wrong.

McKay, alongside co-screenwriter Charles Randolph, has given us Wolf of Wall Street-lite, with a mess of characters messily drawn, offering the sketchiest of backgrounds. Hey, Christian Bale’s former MD Michael Burry is a financial savant. Know why? ‘Cause he wears no shoes and plays the air drums while listening to death metal in his rent-by-the-hour office. Oh, Steve Carell’s Mark Baum lost a brother to suicide so he’s all angst-ridden now, wanting to topple the very financial system that still provides his daily income … so he’s noble, but broken. Get it? Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert gave up this seedy Wall Street live for the noble world of organic gardening – see, he’s going to make something … from the earth. And on and on.

Each character shows up like they are going to enter the road race from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World without any of the wit, the charm, or, heaven help us, the plot.

McKay does little to ground us in why we should care about any of this, other then some clunky asides that are meant to be Funny or Die! camp, randomly inserting celebrities like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath (fire your agent, Robbie!), Anthony Bourdain making fish chowder, or Selena Gomez at a roulette wheel. In that, “aren’t we in-crowd cute?” way, these Fantasy Island castaways turn to the camera, ostensibly simplify some complex economic concept (which ends up more confusing than ever), wink, and then turn back to whatever insipid task before them. It just doesn’t work. And it’s annoying. McKay seems to want it both ways: take this topic very seriously, but don’t mind while we make fun of said topic like sophomoric smart asses.

There was an interesting film here. This isn’t it. I’m not sure McKay’s politics got in the way of making a focused, coherent film, as I’m not sure after watching The Big Short what those politics might even be. Only Ryan Gosling and, to a lesser degree, Christian Bale escape unscathed.

Gosling and Bale seem like they are in another movie entirely (probably once they realized the script was an incoherent mess, they started dog paddling for any port in the storm). Gosling sparkles as the film’s narrator, embracing his fourth-wall-breaking conceit with wry, near-Shakespearean aplomb. He’s a hoot to watch. Bale is less delightful but an oddly thundering presence, a man-child thumbing his nose at a financial system (and likely a film) that ultimately doesn’t appreciate (nor deserve) his superhuman talents.

Like Joy, there was something to be said in The Big Short about a society that worships the almighty dollar above integrity, kindness, and humanity. Where Joy weaves an inspiring yet delicate fable of victory over a cruel and unkind system, The Big Short becomes mired in its own smug condescension, victim to the very machine it aims to skewer.

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Enjoy these cards (handmade by my dad Don Sexton) and these photos of us enjoying the whimsical presents given by my mom Susie Sexton. We had such a wonderful holiday weekend – I hope you did too!

1075482_1101630499869874_3458523668734951867_o 10347247_1101631396536451_578452272789064074_n 10460737_1101631099869814_5795612932819823792_n 10603827_1101631383203119_8882361360287717151_o 10636580_1101630736536517_1679035790844459402_o 10644666_1101630606536530_3271507750315325249_o 12401895_1101631633203094_4161663296750666007_o Roy Card 1 Roy Card 2

 

 

 

 

Card by Don Sexton

Card by Don Sexton

 

 

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.

Roy Card 5


12 Days of Social Media: Yours Truly

NERD Roy UpdateThanks to Gail Lamarche and the Legal Marketing Association‘s Social Media Special Interest Group for including me in their series of interviews this month “12 Days of Social Media.” Gail writes (very kindly, I might add): “I’m thrilled to participate today and share insights from a great in-house friend from the Motor City, Roy Sexton from Trott Law, PC. I first met Roy at a LMA National Conference in Orlando a couple years ago when he attended the Social Media SIG’s Tweet-up. Since then, Roy is quickly becoming an integral part of the LMA community and currently serves as a board member-at-large for the Midwest Chapter.”  You can read the original post here.

 

1. What’s the next big thing in social media marketing for law firms in 2016?

I think the next big thing remains the last big thing. And it’s not some kind of zippy technology or shiny new platform. It remains the ever-elusive crossroads of great content and authentic engagement. I had a relative give me grief once, querying “How can you have so many friends?” with a particularly sniffy emphasis on the word friends. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to reply, “How can you not?”

The reality is that we and our colleagues, as professionals (and, cough, being of a certain age) have accumulated hundreds, nay, thousands of connections in our lives. Some stronger than others, obviously, but social media in all its permutations offers us the ultimate efficiency machine in drawing all the threads of our respective lives in a one-stop shop. The problem therein is in the authenticity of those relationships as evidenced by the time we do – or even can – spend developing them, and perhaps that was the heart of my cousin’s question (though I rather doubt the inquiry was that nuanced).

lgfmlwmcYou can’t just gather up an army of digital acolytes and hope something magical happens in order to promote your service or to achieve your desired business outcomes. You have to engage these people in meaningful ways that add value to their daily lives. As in life, a social media relationship is a transaction. It can be small – making sure you acknowledge a client/co-worker/colleague birthday – or big – writing a killer blog post that gives great analysis on a developing legislative issue or case victory.

The point is this: figure out the recipe that brings you success in your in-person relationships and apply that to the digital world. And, if you figure that out for yourself, you will be able to work wonders for your attorneys or your clients. You will be bringing them value and insight personally, and you will also be able to provide coaching and mentoring to help them do the same for their own networks. It’s been said before, but don’t approach social media as a task or as a campaign tactic (even if that is basically what it is), but rather position social media as a key component of your (and your organization’s) daily voice, both personally and professionally.

 

2. Who do you see doing social media marketing right, and what can others learn from them?

I get frustrated when I see us only look at what other law firms are doing in this space. Competitive benchmarking is important, of course, but I think the biggest innovation and the best work is happening in other industries or even in the white hot glare of celebrity culture.

How many marketers fit in an elevator?

Take Disney for example. None of us will ever have the budgets (or the legion of marketing minions) that the Mouse House has at its white-gloved disposal. However, you can still learn from what they are doing well, even if it borders on market saturation. With the launch of a new tent-pole like Avengers: Age of Ultron or the ubiquitous Star Wars: The Force Awakens, they have successfully leveraged the personal appeal of the professionals involved (the film stars), encouraging (and likely requiring) them to tweet, post, kvetch about their respective films in their own inimitable voices. Carrie Fisher alone, with her mix of cheek and charm, has been doing yeoman’s work singlehandedly making every Baby Boomer want to see a film about which they might have been otherwise indifferent. Disney has also supplied content across all levels of potential engagement – scientists to fanboys – in an endless series of articles, seriously journalistic and seriously not, using that old standby SEO to have a new wave of clickbait waiting on your device every time you log on.

I also look at celebrities – like Felicia Day (The Guild) or Katy Perry or even, heaven help us, Miley Cyrus and some of our politicians – who have used a digital space to expand their brand, personally and professionally, creating the very real illusion that they are interacting meaningfully with those who buy their stuff and sharing TMI as a channel for launching a new book/download/video. It’s the old Johnny Carson/Barbara Walters-confessional on steroids … but utterly controlled by the confessor.

2 Zoo Kids 2

So what? Why should we as legal marketers care? Because this is what we ourselves consume in our downtime and this is increasingly how the world expects to interact with its stars, its service providers, its industry, its government, and so on. No attorney should ever mimic Miley in their social media protocols. Ever. Yet, the days where you could legitimately say “Well, I use LinkedIn for professional contacts and Facebook for personal” are over. Social media is the new golf course or cocktail party where a conversation can flow naturally from the personal to the professional and back again. It doesn’t replace in-person interaction but it sure as heck enhances it.

And one final note – benchmark within LMA and look at your fellow members who do such a great job of branding themselves as individuals and as key members of their respective organizations: Nancy Myrland, Lindsay Griffiths, Heather Morse-Geller, Laura Toledo, Jonathan Fitzgarrald, Gail Lamarche, Tim Corcoran, Catherine MacDonagh, Lance Godard, Adrian Lurssen, Gina Rubel, Darryl Cross, and many others I’m leaving out so I don’t sound like a total sycophant.

Check out their pages – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and their blogs – study how they glide between humor and insight, poignancy and camp, silliness and impressive data-driven analysis. Benchmark that and see what lessons you can import to the good work you do for yourself and your firm.

 

3. What’s the biggest challenge for law firms trying to be active in the social media space, and how can they overcome it?

I just hate that occasionally we still find ourselves in the defensive position of talking colleagues off a ledge about social media, but it is the reality we will always face. And, honestly, I think it’s a healthy tension to have. Marketers, (no offense, as I include myself in this) tend to get giddy about a glittering new creative idea, so having a countervailing force in our lives asking “Why, how much, what will be achieved, and what are the risks?” is really important. We may ask ourselves those questions, but, if we are already smitten with the idea, we may not be as objectively agnostic as warranted. Well-navigated pressure refines an idea and strengthens resolve. Use it to your advantage.

My fellow panelists

Beyond that, I think another hurdle is in creating crisp clarity of voice. The trick is creating a social media profile for our firms that has a collective consistency while still allowing the wonderful and accomplished individuals within those firms to shine through. There can be a tendency toward marketing homogenization where the writing all sounds like it is coming from a machine. You have to fight that, and create messaging that seems to be coming from real people. How do you do that? Well, let real people do the writing, and create the guidance/parameters for both marketing pieces and individual attorney efforts that will provide solace to managing partners who fear (rightly so) any erosion of client privilege or a glib post that devolves into a PR crisis.

Walking that high-wire act between inspiring creativity and controlling outcomes is the biggest challenge in this sphere, and I don’t think there is an easy answer. You have to look honestly at your own skills and deficiencies as a leader, to review opportunistically what are assets and what are limitations in your respective firm cultures, to gauge what your clients will accept/appreciate and how they themselves are interacting with their clients and business partners, and to be crystal clear about what is proper practice in the legal industry (regional/state/national). Once you’ve done that work – with integrity and enthusiasm – then you can properly achieve the right consensus that will engage your colleagues and help them connect with your clients.Me with Gail, Josh, Laura, Lindsay, Nancy


Connect with Roy …

 

Roy Sexton serves as Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Trott Law, P.C., a Metro Detroit law firm specializing in all facets of real estate finance legal work, including litigation, bankruptcy, eviction, REO and default servicing – www.trottlaw.com. In addition to leading Trott Law’s marketing and strategic planning, Sexton is responsible for the overall organizational and cultural communication and change, business development, service line planning, facility planning and support, and other administrative oversight.

Prior to joining Trott Law, Roy spent 10 years in various planning and communications roles at Oakwood Healthcare System, serving as the corporate director of strategic communications and planning. In this role he led a staff of 20 marketing professionals and developed the strategic direction for the $1 billion health care system. He also worked at Deloitte Consulting.

Keep CalmRoy earned his Bachelor’s degree from Wabash College in 1995 and is a 1997 graduate of The Ohio State University, where he earned his Master’s degree in Theatre. In 2007, Roy graduated with his MBA from the University of Michigan. He is a graduate of Leadership Detroit and Leadership A2Y, is a governor-appointed member of the Michigan Council of Labor and Economic Growth and was appointed to the Michigan Mortgage Lenders Association Board of Governors (local and now state) in 2012. Roy has been involved on the following nonprofit boards and committees: First Step, Michigan Quality Council, National MS Society, ASPCA, Wabash College Southeast Michigan Alumni Association, Penny Seats Theatre Company and the Spotlight Players. He is a published author with two books Reel Roy Reviews, Volumes 1 & 2 (based on his blog of the same name – www.reelroyreviews.com). He is a board member-at-large for the Midwest Chapter of LMA.

Whip and nae nae, compassion and inclusion. A beautifully revitalized The Wiz (Live!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ve always been an Oz-nut for as long as I can remember. Oh, the annual viewings of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz every holiday season (pre-VCR/DVD/YouTube era, you got one shot, once a year!). I read the books backwards and forwards and mentally catalogued all the fantastic creatures, political intrigue, and oddball illustrations. (“Dorothy Gale” was my “Harry Potter.”) Occasionally, I would delve into other adjacent fantasy lands like Narnia or Wonderland when I needed to cleanse my palate. I devoured any and all minutiae about what motivated L. Frank Baum to write the series (hint: he was pretty irritated with scandal-ridden American politics … go figure).

Championing Gregory Maguire’s postmodern, animal-rights-skewing reimagining of the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I eventually viewed that recent stage musical adaptation twice (though I think it misses the mark when it comes to Maguire’s prescient political allegory). I obsessed over all the trivia I could find on the various cinematic and stage and television journeys over the rainbow and across the Yellow Brick Road. I even love The Boy from Oz – apropos of nothing.

Oh, did I collect STUFF! Stuff upon stuff always competing for space with my ever-growing piles of Star Wars and comic book ephemera as well. Oz has generated mountains of merchandise in the past 100+ years: toys, dolls, figurines, posters, and, yes, those ubiquitous-in-the-1980s Franklin Mint plates. I have a couple of those hand-painted platters (thanks to my gracious parents) … but where and what was the “Franklin Mint” exactly? Does anyone really know? Was it just in some dude’s basement and his name was Franklin?

However, if pressed to pick one corner of Oz-mania that is my absolute fave, the moment that cemented my fascination with the various permutations of this quintessentially American fantasy series? That would be The Wiz, and particularly the 1978 Sidney Lumet-directed film version starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor, and Lena Horne. It’s a polarizing entry point to be sure. While the stage version of Charlie Smalls’ musical was a huge and historic Tony-winning hit in the early 70s, the film was a colossal bomb, vilified for the liberties it took with the source material, and there was a bit of ageist/sexist foolishness over Lumet casting then 33-year-old Diana Ross as Dorothy. (“Too old,” the people cried! I’d love to be 33 again …)

I wrote at length on The Wiz in an embarrassingly fawning love letter in my first book (not humble-bragging – just telling you where you can find it). The movie isn’t without its flaws – too long, kinda dreary, covered in the depressing pseudo-sexual grime that seemed to permeate films of the “Me Decade.” Yet, I would argue that it is the very moodiness of the film, coupled with a Quincy Jones-produced funk bottle-rocket of a score, that gets closest to the populism with which L. Frank Baum approached his work. In that sense, one might suggest that The Wiz movie, remembered chiefly as an unmitigated pop culture misstep, was actually the purest distillation of the grim essence at the original novel’s core.

However, nobody but me likes the nearly forty-year-old flick, so it was high time for a multimedia teardown and rebuild of The Wiz. I’m happy to state that NBC’s live televised holiday musical (from Craig Zadan and Neil Meron who brought us the turgid Peter Pan Live! and the better-but-still-sort-of-moribund Sound of Music Live!) did a fine job reestablishing The Wiz for a new generation.

Director Kenny Leon, aided and abetted by choreographer Fatima Robinson and script doctor Harvey Fierstein, wisely approached the work not as sacred text but as an opportunity for reinvention and reinvigoration. Some of the updates worked beautifully, particularly the orchestrations which, originally (film and stage), were very much “of the moment” (dated R&B, disco) so a refresh was not only in order but essential. Other tweaks fell flat (iPads, sushi, referring to the silver slippers as “kicks”) – a good rule of thumb? If it’s going to sound corny five years from now, chances are it already sounds corny now.

The smartest thing the production team did was cherry pick from both the stage and film scores. Quincy Jones, when he was working on the film, saw that Smalls’ score, even then, needed an overhaul, notably the Scarecrow’s signature tune: the percolating and devastating “You Can’t Win” – foreshadowing Jones’ future blockbuster collaborations with Michael Jackson on the albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad – replaced the stage production’s aimless “I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday.” Happily, in this latest production “You Can’t Win” won out, and the Elijah Kelley’s adorably nimble performance as the Scarecrow benefited.

Robinson’s choreography cleverly incorporated many au courant moves but in subtle fashion. Oz has always been a cracked mirror reflection of American society, so moves like “whip” and “nae nae” – not to mention some seriously fierce Emerald City voguing – spicing up Ozzians’ onstage pogoing was smart and fun.

The cast was perfection throughout. Newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy married a steamroller voice with righteous fire that was fun to see. Finale “Home” was a knockout. She seemed a bit lost in the quieter, softer moments of the show, but those skills will come with experience. For a broadcast theatrical debut, she ran rings around Peter Pan Live’s Allison Williams, though admittedly that bar was so low that it sits in a sub-basement somewhere next to Brian Williams’ career.

Queen Latifah gave as good as she got as a gender-defying Wiz. Vocally, she wasn’t quite up to the role, but from sheer presence? There was no taking that stage away from her.

Intentional or not (and I suspect intentional with Leon’s and Fierstein’s involvement), there was an interesting statement in having the traditionally male role of The Wiz played by the indomitable Latifah. In the guise of the strutting, swaggering Wiz, everyone called Latifah “sir,” until it was revealed that The Wiz was not actually a he but a she. When Dorothy’s scruffy companions exclaimed their horror, Dorothy wheeled on them, exclaiming, “There is nothing wrong with being a woman,” and then spun back to The Wiz and chastising, “But there is everything wrong with being a liar.”

I don’t know what to make of the moment, but, in its narrative context of self-actualization and self-discovery and self-worth, it offers an interesting commentary on the relevance/irrelevance of gender, the importance of humanity and honesty, and the authentic roles women can and do play in leadership and in the accountability of others. I dug it.

In this reboot, women ruled Oz. Not just Dorothy and The Wiz, but Mary J. Blige’s Evillene was a pip. She frolicked dangerously close to the land of overacting, but it’s to be expected from a role that, while serving the primary narrative impetus (“kill the witch”), only has about 10 minutes of actual stage time. Her number “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is a highlight in the score, and the gospel rave-up that Blige delivered did it proud. Blige running around in a half-hoop skirt and stiletto boots that looked like they could serve double duty as murder weapons only added to the, er, fun. And, in one of the few actual LOL moments of the evening for me, Blige had an Abott-and-Costello-esque word battle with a lackey that sparkled with perfect comic timing.

Uzo Aduba’s Glinda had even less stage time than Blige but an even better song in the gorgeous, hauntingly inspirational “Believe in Yourself.” I’m sorry, Aduba, but no one can touch the incomparable Lena Horne in my mind for her soaring, effortlessly fierce performance of that number in the film, but you made it your own. The sweetly schoolmarm-ish way Aduba (Orange is the New Black) approached the role was distinctive and effective, even if her dress looked as though it were made of a million fuzzy, glowing yellow pipe cleaners.

Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the original stage production, was a thoughtful addition as Aunt Em, establishing the show’s central thesis in fine fashion with opening ballad “The Feeling We Once Had,” an undulating gut punch of a song, simultaneously channeling the remorse for life lost and hope for life yet to live. Glee’s Amber Riley nailed the playground chant whimsy of “He’s the Wiz,” barreling through the number like her life depended on it. Her acting and enunciation could still use a bit of work, but her powerhouse voice made up for those flaws.

If the show’s authority and presence came from the women in the cast, the zip and the play came from the men. David Alan Grier’s Lion had the most fully realized performance of the night – not a beat was lost, not a note was missed. The show was fully alive whenever he was onscreen; he kept things moving at a clip (which was a blessing given half the three-hour running time was made up of commercials … though, happily, that creepy Walmart family was MIA this year); and any consistent comedy in the production came from him. Elijah Kelley (Hairspray) was an adorable wee dervish as the kind-hearted Scarecrow, and pop star Ne-Yo was all country-fried charm and deep feeling soul as the Tin Man. His “What Can I Feel” was a tear-jerking marvel.

From classics like “Ease on Down the Road” to the jubilant (and timely) “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day,” the cast of The Wiz Live! performed the showstoppers with vital urgency, as declarations that life can be better – should be better – and that it takes all of us, with the right sense of compassion and of adventure, to get there. I think L. Frank Baum would have been proud. I know I was.

Little Roy

Little Roy

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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.

Still seeking answers: Trumbo (2015)

Trumbo

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This is a strange time, n’est-ce pas? Yet, when you look at human history, has there ever been a moment unblemished by manufactured turmoil, cruelty, prejudice, and hate? I don’t mean to be nihilistic, but I suspect every generation wonders if they are living the “end of days.” And I don’t just mean Justin Bieber’s inexplicable re-ascension to the top of the charts.

Didn’t you have that moment in history class where you were astounded that humanity collectively allowed something blatantly horrific to happen? The holocaust. Slavery. The Salem witch trials.

Or that there were times where we turned our backs and willfully denied the humanity of others? Women’s right to vote. Segregation through the Southland. Marriage equality.

Or that we found wartime justification in the mass slaughter of our fellow beings? Atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hirsoshima. The conflict in Vietnam. Rwandan genocide.

And let’s not forget ongoing issues like the cruelly monolithic factory farming that is driving the climate itself to hourly nervous breakdowns.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Xenophobia runs amok. Religious fanaticism of all stripes rules the day. A paralyzing fear of “the other” (name a category, any category) cripples us. Outright, politicized hatred wrapped in disingenuous, fear-mongering appeals to the gun-loving, Bible-thumping walking dead to fight for their rapidly “eroding” rights. I’ll say it again: one’s loss of cultural hegemony is not an incursion. It’s a re-balancing.

For me, one of the darkest chapters in American history has always been the bureaucratic bullying perpetrated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in overreaction to the so-called “Red Scare” against Communism in the Eisenhower years. This period always troubled me because it seemed to be the most likely to be repeated. We can argue the nobility of governmental intention then, but the march into fearful groupthink was truly “un-American” and continues to be.

Yet, here we are again.

“Are you a good American and not a Communist?” has now become “Are you a good patriot and do you wear a flag on your lapel?” Back then, anyone who had ever had any affiliation or any interest in socialism or Communism was seen as a potential threat to the “Homeland.” Sound familiar? Sometimes, I wonder if Sarah Palin or Rupert Murdoch scribbled into a Mad Libs page on “the ideal American” the words Christian, reactionary, culturally illiterate, gun-loving, white, married with too many children, hunting, climate change denying martyr – and that, if we’re not careful, the wrong people in power will make sure that those of us not fitting into such a narrow paradigm will be marginalized into oblivion.

I used to think we’d learned from the cruel missteps of something like the 50s “blacklist” which, under the auspices of the House Un-American Activities Committee, destroyed the careers and lives of many actors, writers, directors, and other creative types just because they were believed to think differently than the imposed norm. These days, I’m not so sure.

I was hopeful, then, that Trumbo, the new biopic of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo with Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) in the title role, would be a tonic for this troubled age, the kind of film that uses its historical frame to challenge our present-day complacency. It isn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a perfectly fine, workmanlike piece of biographical fluff. It’s a bit troubling, maybe ironic, though, that a film about a sparklingly incisive screenwriter has such a lousy, predictable screenplay, including the now-standard “I’m a famous person who lived a troubled life, and I get to end the film treatment of said existence by making a cliché-laden speech and getting an award” denouement (see: A Beautiful MindThe Theory of Everything).

Cranston, who, to me, is overrated and rather uneven as an actor (sorry, not a Breaking Bad fan), does a credible job and is one of the film’s bright spots. Depicting the act of writing which, at best, is a task of isolation and at worst one of alienation, is not something that translates readily to the beat-driven narrative which film requires. How do you open up someone’s mind with its insecurities and egomania, triumphs and failures, engaged in the solitary exercise of communing with a blank piece of paper and make it interesting? Fortunately, Trumbo had his share of eccentricities – writing from the bathtub to ease an aching back; a mustache that gave Salvador Dali a run for his money; owlish horn-rimmed glasses; chain-smoking from a jeweled cigarette holder – allowing Cranston to play up the actorly tics on his way to finding Trumbo’s spiky inner life.

The film falls on the horns of its own noble intentions, however, depicting a world where Trumbo is the liberal white knight tilting at the windmills of an increasingly conservative Hollywood establishment as represented with fang-gleaming glee by Hedda Hopper (an impishly fun Helen Mirren) and lumbering thuggishness by John Wayne (J.A.G.’s David James Elliott, miscast but weirdly endearing – Elliott doesn’t look a d*mn thing like Wayne, but he gets the silly voice right … sort of … and gives the role a kind of Frankenstein’s monster likability). The performers are having a lark, and, like a zippy Halloween masquerade, they are fun to watch, until you think about the proceedings a bit more than you should. The simplicity with which director Jay Roach (Recount, Game Change, Austin Powers, Meet the Parents, Mystery Alaska) approaches this complex philosophical conflict at the tinny heart of Hollywood commerce is practically chiaroscuro and altogether disappointing. As ridiculous as Hedda Hopper was and as destructive as her caustic PR-meddling may have been, I’m pretty sure she had a bit more nuance than Elvira Gulch.

It’s a shame that the direction and script are so shallow, never rising above TV-movie grade, because the supporting cast offers some great character turns. Louis CK with his “find a cloud for every silver lining” dyspepsia gives some much-needed gravity to the proceedings. He has far too little screen time as the perfect deflation for Trumbo’s hyperbole. The film lazily assumes its audience enters with a common understanding of how horrific the blacklist and its underlying philosophy was (is) and fails to capture the sticky claustrophobia that those victimized by it likely felt. Fortunately, CK with his defeated bearing and hopeful hopelessness grounds the proceedings by establishing the emotional stakes at play.

John Goodman plays, well, the same part he’s played his whole career as a blustering, heart-of-gold purveyor of cinematic filth. And that’s just fine. He can get away with it. He has a unique gift for simultaneously being a pixie and a bag of cement. Alan Tudyk is fine, all wide-eyed, button-downed anxiety as a fellow screenwriter, to whom Trumbo gives the credit for the Oscar-winning Roman Holiday when Trumbo has been all but written-off. Elle Fanning as Trumbo’s daughter offers a nice bit of spark to her father’s flinty charm – their few exchanges depict a rich familial dynamic that isn’t really present in the script.

This brings us to Diane Lane, as Trumbo’s long-suffering wife Cleo. Said simply, it’s likely the worst performance I’ve seen her give. I don’t know if it’s the screenplay or Lane or both, but, to steal a quip from my mom who observed, “It’s like Lane prepared for the role by watching too many episodes of The Donna Reed Show.” There is a lot of squinting and posturing and mincing, a bit of juggling (literally!), some boxing (not kidding!), and … well … that’s about it. I suspect there was a much more contentious dynamic between Cleo and her husband, whose admirable ethics caused years of economic and social strife for his entire family, as he engineered ways to undermine the stultifying effects of the Hollywood blacklist. Sadly, we just don’t get to see any of it. The film would have been stronger if we had. And Lane would have had something to play, other than juggling glassware (literally!).

According to the film, Trumbo’s Oscar wins for Roman Holiday (uncredited) and for the beautiful ode to compassion (and animal rights) The Brave One lit a spark under Hollywood to push back and challenge the blacklist’s economic stranglehold. Additionally, Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman who looks like Douglas if you squint and sounds like Douglas if you’re deaf) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel, playing the famed director as if he were auditioning for the villain role in Dr. No) were among the few Hollywood establishment players to buck the system and give Trumbo a chance, thumbing their noses at the suffocating evil of the Washington witch hunters.

I wish this film had been better. I wish we were left with a clearer understanding of what motivated all of the players, both the “good” and the “bad” (whatever those terms even mean). I wish I knew what “messages” were so troubling in the screenplays of the time. I wish I knew why people with one kind of power (political) were so threatened by the free speech of those with another kind of power (celebrity) that they were compelled to shred the very Constitution they claimed they would die on their swords to defend. Trumbo doesn’t help us with these answers. I wish it did. We need these answers, now more than ever.

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DemsReel 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.

 

Ghosts of Christmas (movies) past: The Night Before (2015)

TheNightBefore2015poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

If we’re really honest with ourselves, Christmas is less about a magically mysterious birth, less about “new beginnings,” and more about exorcising the ghosts and specters of the past that haunt us all. Charles Dickens understood this, and that’s why A Christmas Carol, which is as gothic a horror story as they come, has become a timeless template for the best holiday stories in the canon.

Hollywood knows this too, and they return to Dickens’ inkwell time and again, for the best (and the worst) of their seasonal cinematic output: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Home Alone, Four Christmases, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas, The Polar Express, Love Actually, Scrooged (and every other overtly Dickensian swipe/homage/remake), Bad Santa (my favorite), and on and on. These films, in their episodic tedium, work when they nail the debilitating guilt we all feel as adults that the “special day” never lives up to its materialistic hype, that the whole month of December is cluttered and cramped – with decades of detritus from prior Decembers, with the tears of holiday heartbreak, with the thorny angst of broken promises, with too many ephemeral demands of time and money, and with the laughter of feverishly fun Christmas Eves nearly-forgotten.

The latest in a long line of sad/funny attempts to capture this cold, clammy Christmas truth is director Jonathan Levine’s (50/50, Warm Bodies) holiday farce The Night Before. The film depicts one final Christmas Eve rager for a trio of Manhattan-dwelling friends (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie). The boys have convened for a night of drug-fueled debauchery every Noel for the past 15 years to help Gordon-Levitt’s character cope with the fact that his parents were killed in a car accident during the “hap-happiest season of alllll” in 2001.

However, people tend to move on, even if they don’t necessarily grow up, with Rogen and wife (the plucky Jillian Bell who nearly saves the film and steals every scene) expecting their first child and Mackie ascending as a football hero (albeit a steroidal one) and social media star. Gordon-Levitt, though, has no life, no prospects, and no joy, and these Christmas blow-outs have sustained him when he is otherwise running on fumes. In spite of this, Rogen and Mackie have convinced their buddy that this year’s event will be the last hurrah.

The film, which borrows liberally from The Hangover, The Great Gatsby (?!), and the aforementioned Scrooged and Harold and Kumar, unfortunately never gels around its high-concept premise. There are bright spots. Both Mackie (who can deftly balance poignancy and jackassery) and Gordon-Levitt (who has the sad clown deadpan expressiveness of silent movie king Harold Lloyd) have some fabulously grounded moments where the superficiality of the season halt them in their holly jolly tracks. They both deserved a better movie.

A stocking-full of zippy guest stars brighten the proceedings. Michael Shannon is a hoot as a bedraggled, philosophizing, drug-dealing guardian angel – think David Johansen’s Ghost of Christmas Past from Scrooged by way of It’s a Wonderful Life‘s Clarence Odbody … on his way to/from/to The Betty Ford Clinic. Mindy Kaling is her typical acerbic self, playing the boys’ drinking buddy and appearing to be the only character who has a realistic reaction to how, well, reprehensible they are. Lizzy Caplan is criminally underutilized as the wise and world-weary, gimlet-eyed object of Gordon-Levitt’s affections. And [spoiler alert] James Franco and Miley Cyrus (yup, there she is again) portray versions of themselves, injecting the right amount of spiked frothy eggnog into the film’s climactic party scene.

(Can someone get Franco and Cyrus a screwball comedy stat? Maybe a remake of Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn’s Bringing Up Baby … set in a marijuana dispensary?)

Rogen is Rogen, and, since he is an executive producer on the film, it appears that no one was able to rein in his bug-eyed mugging and foghorn-in-a-windstorm delivery. I didn’t think it was possible, but he actually gets worse every time I see him, and he drags everyone down with him. The film has a sweet and salty balance when he’s not onscreen. Regrettably, he’s onscreen about 85% of the time, so you can do the math.

There is an interesting film – a loving/witty/sad/believable holiday movie gut-ache – lost somewhere amidst the rambling raunch and ribaldry of The Night Before. Perhaps that movie got left on the cutting room floor, or perhaps it was side-lined from the get-go with Rogen’s grubby involvement. I guess we’ll never know. I’m still waiting for that movie – in the meantime I’ll stick with Bad Santa.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by 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.

 

“I guess there are no more rules about what a person can do to another person” – Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

Mockingjay_Part_2_Poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What passes for entertainment these days, it could be argued, shows a glib disregard for humanity, grace, and life itself. It’s a bit ironic, given that Hollywood tends to be first to get in line for humanitarian causes, yet the chief blockbuster product rolling from the City of Dreams on a quarterly basis is awash in cinematic bloodletting. I don’t know what to make of that.

I’ve long struggled with my distaste for The Hunger Games saga for this very reason. People tell me to lighten up, but often they are the same people who celebrate photos in their local paper of young girls and boys, bow in hand, grinning madly over their latest “trophy kill.” Violence begets violence, and when does it stop?

Surely, Hollywood doesn’t influence behavior – it’s just a movie, right? But, then, why did Chrysler partner with Lionsgate on this latest installment to cross-promote cars (which just seemed to be odd synergy, regardless)? Sorry, folks, you don’t get to pick and choose what people will emulate (rampant consumerism) or won’t (rampant disregard for life).

Not only did I already have this predisposition going into Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, but the world has spent the better part of a week trying to reconcile the senseless violence in Paris, France and wagging hundreds of politicized fingers at governments or refugees or religions in a misplaced, manic desire to place blame on anyone but the actual perpetrators … and, for that matter, to shift focus away from our own collective collusion in this endless stream of mind-numbing violence, real and fictional, that dances across myriad screens.

It’s funny, and a bit sad then, that this final Hunger Games installment actually clarifies what it’s all about, Alfie, and what it’s been about, all along: a cautionary tale (albeit a simplistic, pubescent soap opera one) about the very world we have become – a world where violence is used for theatrical purposes to divide and conquer, to prop up the 1% and their self-selected preening dictators, and to oppress any and all of those dumb enough to allow mindless fear to curdle into unbridled hate.

Perhaps, the fact that this fourth film has opened with the smallest box office total of any in the series (albeit still exceeding $100M) suggests that the world sees less entertainment in its own follies than it once did? This film is a tough pill to swallow right now in the midst of the real-life tragedies facing us all.

Mockingjay – Part 2 suffers from the excesses of its immediate predecessor – or said more plainly, the greed of Lionsgate to attenuate the final book’s narrative into two films. Part 2 is just much too long, mopey, and meandering, after a Part 1 that was all of those things and a bore.

That said, this movie finally delivers what stands as the series’ punchline and thesis: absolute power – in a media-saturated age – not only corrupts absolutely, but does so with a rationalizing, self-obsessed, materialistic, nihilistic glee. Like the ubiquitous reality shows that Suzanne Collins’ literary creation ostensibly lampoons, the prize – in this case control of all humanity – must be won at any cost, and, if one freely jettisons their own humanity along their path to the crown, well, so be it.

In a line that practically made me stand up and applaud, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss hisses – as she begins to see the shameless willingness of “on/off again” boyfriend Gale (played with less and less gusto by otherwise charming Liam Hemsworth) to sacrifice morality for victory – “I guess there are no more rules about what a person can do to another person.” Darn tootin’.

This is not groundbreaking insight, of course. Shakespeare covered this idea in just about every play, comedy or tragedy … but it is potentially heady stuff for today’s masses if delivered in a smart, playful, and authentic way. Unfortunately, for me, this film series seemed perpetually torn between the Ray Bradbury/Kurt Vonnegut/Clockwork Orange-esque battery acid allegory it could have been (should have been) and the escapist PG-13 Subway-sandwich selling, middle America revenge fantasy it actually was.

For those following the films – and (gulp) loving them – Mockingjay Part 2 won’t disappoint. Jennifer Lawrence continues her emotionless, robotic hero quest as Katniss. This actor shows so much spark anywhere else that I’m just baffled by what a dud she is here. Regardless, Lawrence is still the glue holding this enterprise together. When she discovers the [spoiler alert] big reveal that the dictator she hopes to unseat (Donald Sutherland’s President Snow) will be replaced by one conceivably even more ruthlessly cavalier (Julianne Moore’s President Coin), Lawrence does yeoman’s work quietly selling the point to all of us in the cheap seats: “Look, bloodlust gets you nowhere. People are evil, duplictious sh*ts. They don’t care about each other, and those desperately seeking power are exactly the people who should. not. ever. get. it.” (Maybe Lawrence could moderate the next GOP presidential debate? Bow and arrow in hand?)

The film has an ample amount of political intrigue, some fun twists, a couple of seat-jumping scares, and a sparkling supporting cast (largely wasted). It’s a bit of a Hunger Games greatest hits: Stanley Tucci’s TV huckster Caesar Flickerman for a hot second spewing some Fox News-style bile; Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy looking even more bedraggled and annoyed with all of it, but still saddled with life-coaching that makes Yoda look like a Quentin Tarantino character; Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket now completely de-fanged but again fabulously bewigged as her chief role seems to be serving as Katniss’ valet; Sam Claflin’s vainglorious Finnick Odair and Natalie Dormer’s caustically pragmatic Cressida now reduced to cannon fodder.

Jena Malone fares best as Katniss’ frenemy Johanna Mason, chewing the cardboard scenery and reaching through the screen and grabbing us by the collective lapels. She seems to say, “You know this is kinda nuts right? That this series made so much money? Now, stop whining and moping and pay attention to the nuggets buried way deep in this thing and start giving a crap about your own lives and about each other.” Or maybe I’m projecting a bit.

Best part of Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 2 – for me?  That it’s over.

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12208463_10206963059693889_4367987464574781874_nReel 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 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.

 

Ann Arbor’s Penny Seats Theatre Company Kicks Off 2016 season with JACQUES BREL

Penny SeatsThe Penny Seats return to the stage this upcoming winter for Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, a musical revue of the songs of Jacques Brel, translated into English by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman.

The show kicks off the sixth season for The Penny Seats and will run on Thursdays February 11th, 18th, 25th, and March 3rd, at Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Restaurant, 318 South Main Street, Ann Arbor. The two companies are partnering to offer a dinner theatre-style show, with dinner seatings available starting at 6:00 pm, and performances each night at 7:30pm.

Tomfoolery

Tomfoolery

Audience members can purchase tickets for the dinner-and-show package for just $20, or for the show only, for $10. Advance tickets (which are encouraged) are available online at www.pennyseats.org or by phone at (734) 926-5346.

“The show is filled with songs that explore the deepest emotions–heartache, longing, regret, fear– and yet because of Brel’s quirky perspective always manage to steer clear of the maudlin or clichéd,” explains the show’s director, Laura Sagolla. “I’m so excited to bring Brel back to those who’ve missed him and to introduce a new audience to this truly modern singer-songwriter.”

Urinetown

Urinetown

The musical revue stars Brendon Kelly of Ypsilanti, Natalie Rose Sevick of Swartz Creek, Lauren London of Ann Arbor, and Roy Sexton of Saline. Laura Sagolla (of Ann Arbor) directs with the assistance of Matt Cameron (of Plymouth) and technical direction by Stephen Hankes (of Ann Arbor). Musical direction will be provided by Richard Alder (of Westland) as well as choreography by Paige Martin (of Ann Arbor).

Following the success of the group’s 2015 two-show summer series of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged] and Urinetown: The Musical in West Park, Ann Arbor last summer, The Penny Seats is proud to announce another two-show summer series for 2016. The season will feature an adaption of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and the 2007 Broadway Musical Comedy Xanadu, based on the 1980 film of the same name.

Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Complete Works of William Shakespeare

“I am incredibly excited about this slate,” said Lauren London, The group’s President.  “It’s a very diverse group of shows, and it explores many things The Penny Seats do well:  music, satire, comedy, open-air theater, and partnerships with other local businesses.  We’re also building relationships with some fantastic regional artists, both on stage and off.  We hope to channel some of the terrific excitement we were able to generate last year–our biggest season ever–and up the ante once more. It’s going to be a tremendous experience.”

Performances of The Canterbury Tales will run Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights from June 16th – July 2nd, 2016 in West Park, Ann Arbor. Performances of Xanadu are set for July 7th– July 23rd , 2016 and will also run Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at the park.

ABOUT THE PENNY SEATS: Founded in 2010, we’re performers and players, minimalists and penny-pinchers. We think theatre should be fun and stirring, not stuffy or repetitive. We believe going to a show should not break the bank. And we find Michigan summer evenings beautiful. Thus, we produce dramas and comedies, musicals and original adaptations, classics and works by up-and-coming playwrights. We also provide cabaret shows, acting classes, and wacky improv evenings. And you can see any of our shows for the same price as a movie ticket.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about The Penny Seats call at 734-926-5346 or Visit: www.pennyseats.org.

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12208463_10206963059693889_4367987464574781874_nReel 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 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.