Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the bookstore … bam, the sequel!

RRR2 CoverJust when you thought it was safe to go back in the bookstore … bam, the sequel! Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2 coming January 2015 – here’s the announcement from the publisher:

“Keep ‘em coming!” is something Roy Sexton’s fans have said frequently over the past dozen months since the release of his first book of film reviews, Reel Roy Reviews: Keepin’ It Real.

Roy started out penning saucy missives about the latest Hollywood blockbusters, but lately he has been writing more about theatrical productions, concerts, and other live musical performances, as well as conducting the occasional interview.

In his latest book Roy reviews Sting’s new musical The Last Ship, offers musings on shows by Lady Gaga, Cher, Randy Newman, and Katy Perry; and has written one of the snarkiest pieces you will ever read about a Transformers film!

RRR2 Headshotkid_stuff_0002Fellow author Tom Joyce writes, “The guy’s obviously a hardcore film geek, who’s seen a ton of movies and has a good sense of what makes a quality film. But there’s an element of populism to his approach that I see lacking in a lot of film reviewers. He understands that sometimes you’re just not in the mood for a transcendent redefinition of the cinematic art form. Sometimes you just want a fun night at the movies. In other words, he doesn’t review like a serious student of cinema, so much as a regular person who just happens to really like movies. And, since that description fits me and — I’d venture to say — the vast majority of movie viewers that makes his reviews enormously engaging.”

Lucy Jif for Banner

About the book: http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews-2/about-book.html

About the author: http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews-2/about-author.html

Pre-order: http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews-2/buy-book.html

 

 

 

And enjoy this video of my mother Susie Duncan Sexton and me on The Kevin Storm Show, discussing animal rights, theatre, culture, and more … and if you’ve ever wondered what radio people do while their on-air guests are talking, now you know! Definitely some unintentionally ironic comedy here …

Little Me … on the radio and on the stage

Kevin Storm

Kevin Storm

Exciting news! Both my mom author Susie Duncan Sexton and I are going to be guests on The Kevin Storm Show (radio) this Sunday at noon, discussing our books and theatre and love of animals – you can listen and find out more about Kevin and his show at his website or here as well.

Susie and Roy at Conors

Susie and Roy

 

Kevin is dedicated to animal rights and vegan causes and is billed as New Jersey’s youngest radio host! The show will also be available on YouTube here after the broadcast. And check out Kevin’s Facebook fan pages here and here  and or his Twitter here.

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Flashback Friday – enjoy these clips from a truly zany musical I did a couple years ago Little Me with Ann Arbor’s Penny Seats – you can view on YouTube here or below. Enjoy! Next year, Penny Seats will be doing TWO shows Urinetown and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare – you can find out more about the 2015 season at their website. Thanks to my wonderful pal Rebecca for capturing this video.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

A day late and a dollar short: NBC’s Peter Pan Live!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I was an apologist for last year’s inaugural live musical broadcast on NBC: The Sound of Music Live! starring pop/country superstar and American Idol winner Carrie Underwood.

In defense of those rather cardboard proceedings, featuring an underwhelmingly wooden (see what  I did there? :) ) performance from the otherwise charming, sweet, golden-voiced Ms. Underwood, I wrote, “Bully to NBC and the production team and the cast for their accomplishment and for giving the Wal-Mart generation a glimpse of another era. … Let’s hope for more live theatre on network TV … and less Wal-Mart.”

After finally slogging through Peter Pan Live! via the wonders of DVR, can I rescind that wish?

Good lord, but there was even MORE Wal-Mart: the creepily self-satisfied, Midwestern, hetero-normative, consumerist-fantasy, vaguely Christian with a capital “C”, generic family that peppered every d*mn commercial break during last year’s broadcast being replaced by a creepily self-satisfied, Midwestern, hetero-normative, consumerist-fantasy, vaguely Christian with a capital “C”, celebrity family, that of Sabrina the Teenage Witch Melissa Joan Hart, doing her darndest to look winsome and bake cookies and project a calm, ethereal, Donna Reed-passivity that would make Gloria Steinem’s head explode.

And good googly wooglies but as much as I hated the ever-increasingly invasive Wal-Mart ads, the show was worse. Others seem to disagree, but I found this production flatter, duller, drearier, and more aggravating than last year’s. Perhaps I gave Underwood and company a pass because it was the first time in decades someone had attempted such a spectacle. Perhaps Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Sound of Music is just a stronger show in its bones than Jule Styne/Adolph Green/Betty Comden’s Peter Pan. Perhaps Sound of Music had a stronger supporting cast, capable performers like Audra McDonald and Laura Benanti who knew how to transcend the molasses and pop off the screen with sparkle and charm. Perhaps all of the above.

 

My mother Susie Duncan Sexton emailed me immediately following the Peter Pan broadcast – the subject line was “panning pan” and the content is slightly edited here for a family audience :)

Petuh, Petuh, Petuh…Christopher Walken as Hook channeled Bette Davis?  Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling could have played Petuh or Wendy.  Wendy girl [Taylor Louderman] was great but looked 47.  Nana dog was the best of all.  Show was about as LIVE as a corpse in a casket.

The costumes? (Kelli alone even got that right)  Petuh Pan girl should have worn tights and elf shoes/hiking boots exposing a hint of waxed legs…And, with their outrageous costumery for Tiger Lily’s men and sometimes the pirates, why not give Petuh a pointy hat?!?

And Allison Williams as Petuh never left girldom.  Was this a fever dream about some very odd female rite of passage? Just exchange thimbles either with other girls or with castrated fun-loving immature boys whom they will mother, rather than ever … you know what?

And I kept thinking of Natalie Wood for some reason?  What would she have thought of Walken on a boat with BTW the most talented folks in the show?  Had been looking forward to the production and kept thinking –through all of the lengthy commercial breaks (breaks causing ADD) filled with materialistic mind sets from big families who could even maybe adopt lost boys–that it would improve?

And how about this suggestion.  When Minnie Driver pushed the show down for a completed drowning death that the windows might have opened and Allison’s dad, newscaster Brian Williams, himself flew in?  His man daughter with the waxed legs all grown up?  And did they write unmemorable new-stale songs for this thing or what?

 

My mom is spot on.

As I watched this thing in dribs and drabs over the past weekend – 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there – I grew more horrified with each installment. Was Walken being punished somehow? Or were we, the audience? He seemed miserable, tone-deaf, and medicated like an aging drag queen who’d put in one too many performances of “I Will Survive” at The Jolly Roger in Provincetown. And the dancing? His much-vaunted dancing? All I saw was a lot of leaning left and right, fay hand gestures, and an occasional pretend tap sequence or too. Is that latter bit called lip-syncing? Toe-syncing?

Williams is arguably a smidgen better actor than Underwood but she definitely doesn’t have the erstwhile Maria’s pipes or, for that matter, simple sweetness. Williams had all the pluck and charm of a ball point pen and, at times, she performed like a well-heeled, smart-alecky co-ed slumming on her winter break from Barnard.

Christian Borle as Mr. Darling/Smee was ok. I find him talented but one-note usually. I may be in the minority, but I thought this production highlighted all of his airless, stiff limitations. O’Hara, on the other hand, was magic. In this production, she reigned in her overly plucky twinkle, and gave us a Mrs. Darling who was warm, authentic, poignant, and haunting. I very much like what she did with the role. It was a sobering juxtaposition to everything else.

Ah, everything else. The ingeniously fluid set design employed during Sound of Music was definitely on display, but a bigger budget does not necessarily bring better taste or strategic restraint. Neverland looked like it was outfitted by Hot Topic and Justice store employees hopped up on acid and Diet Coke. The Lost Boys/Pirates/Natives (basically all the group numbers) were a hoot to watch – that’s generally when the show came alive, especially the Pirates … but they all appeared to have been costumed by cast-off pieces from The Village People’s camp classic (?) Can’t Stop the Music (directed by Nancy Walker, btw/wtf).

It was this jarring conflict of tone and energy and intent that was most problematic. As my mom suggests with her “pointy hat” remark, if the show had just gone for all-out crazy the way the set and costume design suggest, it would have been an absolute riot. Peter Pan is a strange children’s (?) book with a lot of bizarre Freudian subtext (and super-text) made even odder when musicalized with a grown woman playing the lead and a cast of grown men all in pursuit of and at odds over finding the perfect mother (seemingly the show’s primary narrative conceit).

The production designers seemed to get that innate oddness, but, apparently, they were attending different team meetings from the director and cast who approached the material with flat affect and somber tone … when they could remember their lines, that is. The only way this thing would have worked (in addition to excising an hour of material/advertisements) would have been to celebrate it’s peculiarity, not only in production values but in performance. We needed unhinged whimsy but got unhinged boredom.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

The Penny Seats! 2015! Nothing BUT trouble!

Penny SeatsThis video is really adorable – and I can say that without any vanity (yet perhaps a little bit of pride) because, though I am a happy member of this intrepid troupe, I did not  have anything to do with the video’s artistic creation! (You will see some pics of me below though – ah, vanity!) Happy December!

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Hi friends, this is our one big chance to raise funds for our 2015 Summer Season.  And this year, it’s twice as exciting as it’s ever been.  Why?  Watch here

Help us achieve our dream! 
Two shows, six whole weeks,
at West Park this Summer.

 

ElektraAfter five years of steady growth and our 2014 season ending with a tremendous sold-out run, we ask for your help as we achieve a long-awaited dream:  in Summer 2015, our fifth year at Ann Arbor’s West Park, The Penny Seats will present two full-scale, professional shows at the park, for nine performances each, over six weeks.

Tomfoolery

 

This will double our summer residency, and at last build us into the summer repertory company we set out to be. In five years we have enjoyed enthusiastic and growing support from the community.  We’re proud and excited, and we have many to thank.  Since day one, our funding model has been simple:

raise every season’s funds in advance, and don’t spend what you can’t raise.

What Corbin Knew

 

 

Goodnight DesdemonaWe rely on donations and grants for 100% of our season budget.  We don’t count on ticket sales, so we can keep prices very low.  We want to be the best theatrical value in town, delivering top-quality theatre at bargain prices.  That’s where you come in.

She Loves Me

Little MeOur goal is ambitious:  to achieve our dream this year, we need to pay two sets of royalties, two times the rent for West Park and rehearsal space, and, most importantly, we need the proper funds to pay the dedicated Michigan artists at the center of it all.  Can you help?

 

 

Helping out is easy, and it comes with some great perks, including 2 free tickets to all our shows for a $100 donation!  So please, this year, help us achieve what we set out to do.  Let’s give Ann Arbor a fabulous, top-quality summer theatre festival in the park. Donate today.  Thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Penny Seats are:

Staff:
Lauren London, President
Sean Murphy, Technical Director
J.P. Hitesman, Marketing Director

Board of Directors:
Bridget Bly, Treasurer
Matthew Cameron, Chair
Kelly Cameron
Victoria Gilbert
Zachary N. London, Secretary
Laura Sagolla, Vice Chair

All photos by Dawn Kaczmar 

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Penny Seats
Copyright © 2014 The Penny Seats Theatre Company, All rights reserved.Our mailing address is:

The Penny Seats Theatre Company

2720 White Oak Dr.

Ann Arbor, MI 48103

Add us to your address book

A prurient taste for Penthouse Magazine and red-headed nursemaids? The Theory of Everything

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Stephen Hawking is a bit of a pig (with apologies to our swine brethren). At least that is one takeaway from The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s biopic of A Brief History of Time‘s famed physicist author.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the profound physical limitations that ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) imposed on his keen, unearthly scientific intellect, Hawking apparently always remained a bit of a 1960s Cambridge “lad” with a prurient taste for Penthouse Magazine and red-headed nursemaids.

This aspect of Hawking’s personality isn’t as prominent in the film as that lead-in might suggest, but it still stands in stark relief to the thirty-year devotion his first wife Jane offers him, from his early days struggling with the disease through the publication of his seminal work. Jane doesn’t suffer silently, though, as she herself is depicted as toying with an extra-marital dalliance with her church choir director (sweetly underplayed by Stardust‘s Charlie Cox), whom she later marries. (Someday, someone has to make a movie about how many trysts start off in the church choir.) Marsh, working from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten based on Jane’s own Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, does not shy from showing Hawking as a flawed but brilliant man.

The best weapon in Marsh’s cinematic arsenal is Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) in a jaw-droppingly transformational performance as Hawking. Redmayne, never showy in that “I’m not an animal!” Elephant Man way, immerses himself … no, subsumes himself … in Hawking’s evolutionary physicality, from the occasional stutter step and cramped hand of his early 20s to the fetal crab-like nature of his present life. It is astonishing. Yet, the impish light never leaves Redmayne’s eyes, conveying Hawking’s exceptional genius, when the script fails to give us much scientific substance behind his discoveries.

In general, the Hollywood biopic is a flawed genre, cursed from its inception to cram a lifetime into two-plus hours. People become ciphers, reduced to a CliffsNotes existences, as hairstyles and fashion choices and home furnishings magically change around them, decade by decade.

Like such recent examples as Helen Mirren in The Queen or Michelle Williams in My Life with Marilyn (or even Judi Dench in Philomenablech), Redmayne rises above a predictable “based on true events” script that tends to telegraph its punches. Look! Young Stephen drops a piece of chalk. Look! Hunky choir director is making goo-goo eyes at his new mezzo soprano Jane Hawking. Look! Marital tension boils over at a garden party Christening where Stephen’s parents confront both son and daughter-in-law separately about their life choices, foreshadowing their ultimate implosion. Redmayne so fully inhabits Hawking’s inner/outer life that we (mostly) look past the workmanlike narrative.

Every bit Redmayne’s acting match is Felicity Jones (Northanger Abbey) as Stephen’s long-suffering wife. It is to Jones’ credit that she never descends into self-pity or martyrdom, but rather reveals a multi-layered person whose path has brought a mixed bag of reward, betrayal, fulfillment, and disappointment. The script saddles Redmayne and Jones throughout with a half-baked debate over science versus spirituality, unfortunately never resolved in any particularly meaningful way.

Rounding out the cast are David Thewlis as Stephen’s long-term faculty mentor and a criminally under-used Emily Watson (oh, I love her) as Jane’s patient mother.

The film is beautifully shot in gauzy light, like a box of old photographs. The approach suits the woozy material well, which spans thirty-or-so years, from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s. The filmmakers generally get the feel and look of each decade right – Cambridge in the Hawkings’ early days serves as a kind of shabby Camelot fairy tale setting, replaced later by garish, clunky 80s environs as their marriage crumbles.

I wish that I loved The Theory of Everything. It is supremely well-acted, but ultimately the conventionality of the narrative hurts the film’s overall impact. I found myself deeply moved by Redmayne and Jones but left a bit cold where Mr. Hawking himself is concerned. Perhaps that is the film’s point after all (though not a groundbreaking revelation) … all genius comes at a price, and the act of discovery is often much more interesting than the final summation.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Best-dressed rebel in history …” The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I will admit that Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy is just not exactly my cup of tea. My first exposure was the initial episode in the cinematic franchise, starring Jennifer Lawrence. My biggest issue, ultimately, may have been with the marketing, which likely didn’t do the movie (or its source material) any favors.

Y’see, I grew up in a small town, the daily paper of which now peppers its pages every fall with one image after another of young bow-hunting girls and their “prizes” – bloody deer carcasses. Lots of them. One sad image after another of a toothy kid, grinning madly, not as if they’d just won a science fair or a spelling bee, but because they killed some defenseless creature. And that bugs me. Are these kids the target audience for these movies? Or are people who find this kind of “sportsman”-proselytizing offensive the audience? I don’t know.

The reason I share this bit of soap-boxing is because the original film seemed oddly positioned at some strange Venn Diagram nexus where Harry Potter-philes and Twi-hards meet neurotic survivalists and Cabela’s frequent flyer-card holders. I wasn’t exactly sure the core demographic, and perhaps Hollywood was trying a bit too hard to appeal to all comers. I heard a lot of rhetoric that somehow Katniss Everdeen, “the girl on fire,” with her furrowed brow and propensity for zapping squirrels and people with her trusty bow and arrow was a great antidote to the Disney princess affliction that was miring our nation’s young women in a malaise of pink chiffon. Maybe. But are those the only two choices? Archery and violence or toddlers and tiaras? Sigh.

Well, I guess I played my hand a bit early on this one, eh?

Said marketing/positioning celebrated the games aspect of the narrative, while missing entirely the inherent social satire. Granted, the marketers likely chose the more sale-able commodity, but, for someone persnickety like yours truly, this approach has made it that much harder for me to warm up to this particular franchise. (Divergent is more my speed.)

Blessedly, The Hunger Games film series has evolved and moved past the gimmicky hook of watching teenagers slaughter each other before national audiences in an oppressed dystopian near-future. (Gee, why is it that I don’t get that these flicks are good wholesome family fun?!) This brings us to the third installment in the franchise (after The Hunger Games and Catching Fire), the awkwardly titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.

Those of you ready to jump down my blogging throat in dismissal of my critique of the series’ omnipresent marketing framework? How’s about you read that title again: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. And convince me that the third book in this literary trilogy was not unnecessarily hacked into two parts to fill Lionsgate’s coffers with extra coin. Just sayin’. (No, I’m not the first to point this out, but it seems a fair critique on all fronts.)

This latest film continues the revolution that Katniss began fomenting in Panem (the future stand-in for an America run into the ground, no doubt by a lethal combo of Democrats and Republicans). Mockingjay spends the bulk of its running time underground, quite literally, as Katniss and her pals find themselves sequestered away in the mysterious District 13, a militarized sector that all had thought long-destroyed.

District 13 is the home of the Rebel Alliance (oops, wrong franchise) … the rebellion led by President Coin (Julianne Moore, a subtle-yet-steely breath of fresh gravitas) with the assistance of games-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman, sadly a bore in one of his final roles), weapon-smith Beetee (always sparkling Jeffrey Wright), and fashionista-cum-PR-wonk Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, a standout as she curdles Effie’s cartoonish buffoonery into sharp social commentary). The saving grace of these films has always been in the casting (Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz have both done some of their best work in the series), and this entry is no exception.

Unfortunately, Jennifer Lawrence and her bag of actorly tricks are starting to show some wear and tear with Mockingjay. The film is two hours of treading water before the big blowout with movie number four, and Lawrence suffers for it. (As do sidekicks Liam Hemsworth as Gale and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta.) Lawrence, saddled with what appears to be an Elvira wig from a bad Halloween costume, glares and pouts, glowers and mopes, without a heckuva lot to do. There’s a lot of talking and talking and talking about various political machinations, most of which bored me silly, and, by the time, Lawrence loses her sh*t in the third act because Peeta is in some grave peril (yet again), I found myself giggling and not one whit concerned for any of these thinly drawn characters.

Here is the interesting concept that Mockingjay (Part 1!) presents, however: wars are won and lost not by bravery or valor or even violence, but by public relations. The sly-est and most engaging moments in the film are when the forces of good and bad start to blur in their relentless uses of videographic propaganda (kinda like our fall election). The first two films laid this groundwork with jack-o-lantern-headed reality TV pundit Caesar Flickerman (a truly unhinged Stanley Tucci) and his broadcast of the super-violent Hunger Games as both public diversion and punitive restraint (boob tube as carrot and stick). This latest entry shows how that machine is employed in times of great social unrest, echoing eerily some of the latest trials and tribulations affecting race relations in present-day America.

For a series so superficially savvy about the strategic implications of marketing and PR on societal oppression, you’d think The Hunger Games’ real-world advertising campaigns wouldn’t seem so tone-deaf. At one point, Effie hisses with glee at Katniss, “You are going to be the best-dressed rebel in HISTORY!” Banks as Effie clearly gets the irony of that line and zings it to the rafters. But, then, I remembered seeing a Katniss Barbie doll (dressed in the same chic skin-tight jump suit) at Wal-Mart earlier this Black Friday “sell, sell, sell!” week, and I realized how hollow that irony actually was. Talk about winning the battle and losing the war…

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Shaggy dog biting the hand that feeds: Randy Newman at The Palladium in Carmel, Indiana

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

The first concert I ever attended (at least that I remember) was when my parents took this eighth grader to see Bobby McFerrin at the much-vaunted Holidome in Crown Point, Indiana. Just take a moment and let that sentence settle in … and try to contain your envy. Yes, some kids in the late 80s went to see Madonna or Aerosmith or MC Hammer or New Kids on the Block, but for me it was Bobby McFerrin all the way. And this was before “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” So there.

The show was in the round, with just McFerrin and maybe a piano. I can’t recall. But with his phenomenal, otherworldly musicality, he rattled (largely acapella) through two hours of amazing numbers, not to mention his complete re-creation of the entire film The Wizard of Oz, including that iconic “I’m melting!” bit.

Flash forward, nearly 30 years (sigh), and I find myself yet again riding along in the backseat of my parents’ car, on our way to see another Baby Boomer mainstay Randy Newman, this time in Indianapolis. Nothing takes you back to the feeling of being a child like riding in the backseat of your parents’ car on a long car trip – that intoxicating mix of comfort and powerlessness as you cruise down the road listening to the squabbling and the laughter, to music you don’t recognize and familial history references you do. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.

Palladium

Palladium

So it is with this context that we took in Newman’s concert at Carmel, Indiana’s palatial music hall, the Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts. Such a musical hall Indiana has never before seen – a concert venue that looks like it was designed by M.C. Escher, if overdosed with Benzedrine by Liberace’s hairdresser, after visiting the Palace of Versailles or Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.” It really is beautiful and strange, with a byzantine entrance and egress system that made me feel like I was playing Milton Bradley’s Mousetrap.

However, there isn’t a bad seat in the house (nor a reasonably priced one), with Phantom of the Opera-esque box seats at every turn, polished cherry and marble floors, phenomenal acoustics and lighting, and super-cushy chairs.

As we sat there taking in the opulence, Newman lumbered on stage, after a loving introduction by Michael Feinstein himself. You see, Feinstein, a Columbus, Ohio native, helped get the Center established five or so years ago, alongside his husband Terrence Flannery, as a permanent monument to the Great American Songbook and to our musical theater traditions. The space also houses The Great American Songbook Foundation, which is very much worth visiting if you have some time to spare before a show there. They are great about arranging tours.

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

For over two hours, it was just Newman, his piano, and a very responsive audience. Newman isn’t quite the showman that McFerrin was/is – likely an unfair comparison since they’re such different artists, and I am judging them across a divide of 30 years. Ah well.

But what Newman lacked in showmanship, he made up in shaggy charm. He would periodically play wrong notes, stop, look up at the audience, shake his head, and say things like, “I never was a very good pianist.” Then, he would dive back into plunking out notes for many of his signature songs like “I Love L.A.,” “Short People,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”

A highlight for me was his performance of “Love Story (You and Me),” a Newman tune covered previously by artists as diverse as Harry Nilsson, Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte. The song is a poignant charmer and has not aged a bit. Newman delivered it with aplomb, his frogs-and-molasses voice the perfect accent to the song’s lilting, loping melody.

Newman peppered his set-list, which pretty much seemed made up as he went along, with anecdotes about his life as a child of Los Angeles, as a child of the 60s, and as a child of a movie soundtrack dynasty (he is the nephew of acclaimed film composers Alfred and Lionel Newman and the cousin of Thomas Newman). The casual vibe he affected was on the whole delightful, though a bit more preparation and variety would have benefited the slow-going second act.

An artist of Newman’s caliber with such an accomplished history in pop, theater, and movie music is pretty much just going to do whatever the hell he wants, so that’s just fine. It is unlikely he will come this way again, so we are grateful we got the chance to see him.

Newman at piano

Newman at piano

I never realized just how many songs the man has written about cities and/or states: Baltimore, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Louisiana. And he performed them all. They follow a similar formula, with snarky verses that alternate with hypnotic repetition of said geography’s name. He worked in a wink and a nod to his Hoosier hosts, noodling through “On the Banks of the Wabash” and “Back Home Again in Indiana,” at one point looking around the beautiful Palladium and cheekily observing, “What a dump.”

His show was riddled with his caustic takes on religion and politics, government and capitalism. That was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise conservative community, so I’m sure a few spiky letters to the editor will arrive at the Indianapolis Star this week.

Yet, if he had really wanted to drive a stake through the heartland, he should have played one of my personal favorites, his theme “That’ll Do” from Babe: Pig in the City. While originally sung by Peter Gabriel, their voices are rather interchangeable at this point, so I think Newman delivering this subtle ode to kindness and to compassion and, well, to pigs would have been the perfect punctuation mark on his performance in factory farming Indiana (sad example here). We thought about shouting the title “That’ll Do” (like some rowdy concert-goers shouted “Free Bird” when I saw Tracy Chapman at the Wabash College Chapel years ago), but then we realized he might misunderstand, think we were telling him he was done for the evening, and then walk off stage.

Newman, ever the iconoclast, also worked in his shots at corporate giant Disney, letting us know in no uncertain terms, that while he has appreciated the opportunity, he hasn’t always been thrilled with the artistic limitations imposed. In a funnier bit, he commented how frustrating it is to score something such as a toy soldier falling into a drawer, adding that there is a good 20 minutes of Toy Story he’s never seen, because that particular section didn’t require any musical scoring. He then launched into a fine rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” one of the sharpest musical moments of the evening. Again, I wouldn’t have minded hearing a slightly more obscure tune from the Toy Story saga, the beautiful and heartbreaking “When She Loved Me” (originally sung by Sarah McLachlan and written by Newman).

I guess it is a sign that I am more of a fan than I knew, having left the show enjoying what I heard but wishing for more songs than time had allowed.

Feinstein and Sexton

Feinstein and Sexton

As a final note, we realized after the show was over, that we had been seated in a box next to Michael Feinstein and his family and some potentially uber-wealthy donors. No doubt we probably would have been a bit better behaved had we known this – not putting our feet on the backs of chairs, nor taking flash photos, nor snapping our chewing gum. We are so classy. Regardless, after he finished schmoozing Daddy Warbucks and Co., Feinstein was kind and gracious enough to take a photo with us and to chat for a bit, though I suspect the cleaning crew was dispatched to our vacated box immediately.

Do take a moment to check out Feinstein’s Foundation and the great work they’re doing there, and if you feel like sending a donation to preserve our musical history and keep art alive, I’m sure it would be appreciated. If you find yourself in Indianapolis, definitely stop by for a visit or show. It’s worth it!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

More Dickens than Kubrick: Interstellar

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I went into Interstellar with a bad attitude. I wanted to hate this movie. It’s three hours long. It stars swaggering/ posturing Matthew McConaughey, an actor I find as irritating as sand in my shoe. It has Anne Hathaway who is not that far behind McConaughey in the line of annoyingly self-satisfied celebs. It is directed by Christopher Nolan, who seems to have gotten more ponderous and more pretentious with every successive flick. Hell, it has a score by Hans Zimmer, who has gotten so lazy that most of his latter-day scores seem like they were composed on auto-pilot by a drum machine.

I’m an ass. And I was wrong.

I loved this movie.

It is, in fact, too long by half and, yes, is a bit ponderous and pretentious. All of the aforementioned annoying attributes of cast and crew are apparent. And the score does sound like a drum machine having a nervous breakdown … a really LOUD! nervous breakdown. Yet, it all works so beautifully.

The film has been billed as Nolan’s version of 2001, but I found the movie more Charles Dickens than Stanley Kubrick. Yes, the narrative involves slow-moving, quietly-haunting, ethereally-staged space travel with the future of all mankind at stake, but at its heart, this is a film about the devastating impact of time’s passage and of well-intentioned decisions that unfortunately drive wedges between family/friends. There are moments, especially toward the film’s gonzo, fever-dream denouement that I thought I was watching A Christmas Carol … if staged by Twyla Tharp. That’s a compliment, by the way.

The older I get, the more I realize what an underrated gem Dickens’ holiday novella is. “Underrated” may seem like a strange word choice for something so widely known, but A Christmas Carol is often viewed as a lesser literary work or as a holiday novelty or as both. What Dickens captures so elegantly/efficiently, though, is that, with each year, we add layers and layers of memories – good and bad – and all the regrets and heartaches that accompany … like an ever-expanding box of ornaments gathering dust in the attic.

This is the psychological murk in which Interstellar traffics. Space exploration is but a metaphor for our unyielding pursuit of some brief, crystalline moments of unadulterated joy amidst all the sadness life brings.

The film is set in a disturbingly near-time future, a Ray Bradbury-esque Earth, where all of our selfish consumption has reduced our planet to a cruel, barren dustbowl in which the only remaining growable crop is corn. The world no longer needs engineers or scientists or professors – rather just people willing to grow corn with the aid of mindless robotic farm implements.

America appears to have been reduced to one continuous farm town (blink and you’ll miss the New York Yankees, now quite literally a farm team, playing ball in a sad little cornfield), and, periodically, the citizens have to set fire to the latest round of blight-infested crops. The only upshot I could see is that these circumstances finally force everyone to go vegetarian/vegan. :)

Nolan’s great gift is how he uses fantasy as metaphor for present-day turmoil. (See Dark Knight Rises for his take on the 1% ruling class). Interstellar is no exception. His muted gray yet epically widescreen cinematography creates some of the most indelible images in recent memory of our ongoing environmental crisis.

In the midst of this ecological upheaval, and in one of the film’s seemingly more nonsensical moments, McConaughey’s “Cooper” and his beloved daughter “Murphy” stumble across a hidden cadre of space scientists who decide that Cooper (yes, he just happens to be a former astronaut himself!) is our only hope to pilot the last remaining rocket ship off the planet, in order to find a new (less angrily dusty) world for us to inhabit.

If this movie weren’t so purposeful, so moving, and so well-acted, I would have lost it right there and been forcibly carried out of the theatre, racked by a convulsive giggle fit.

McConaughey and Hathaway are surrounded by top-shelf talent like Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, and Michael Caine, all exhibiting gravitas and heartache in poignantly compelling spades. There’s a surprise cameo that I won’t spoil, but said unnamed actor (whom I typically find a bit boring) does a marvelous job in a pivotal role as an appropriately dubious explorer.

Heck, we even get some subtly funny voice work from delightful Bill Irwin as robot companion TARS, a sleek automaton who bears more than a passing resemblance to a giant, walking/talking deck of cards. Humor? In a Nolan film? Crazy talk! That alone should tell you this is a (sort of) different direction for him. Sort of.

There is a lot of gobbledy-gook pseudo-science talk: singularity! relativity! event horizon! There are a lot of epically dreamy long-shots of planets and cosmic gases and spinning spacecraft. There are a lot of lines that are trying so hard for deep poetic thought that they sounds stilted and just darn goofy. And, yes, there is a lot of furrowed-brow, sweaty-faced ACTING!

Eventually, though, our intrepid spacefaring crew do end up on other worlds, most of which are as deadly as the one they left behind. I don’t want to ruin any of the surprises (or the movie’s more head-scratchingly kooky moments), but, in essence, humanity prevails … quite literally. The film, in total, is an argument for our innate goodness, even when we aren’t sure of it ourselves. Whether today or tomorrow, we will help each other and we will care.

This is a more hopeful message then we typically see in a Christopher Nolan production, and the optimism suits him.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Are you satisfied with your care? That’ll do, Bay. That’ll do. Big Hero 6

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

When I heard that Disney was going to start mining its ownership of Marvel for future animated properties, I admit my blood (unnecessarily) ran to ice water. This corporate marriage of Mouse House and House of Ideas has yielded a remarkable run of quirky and thrilling and poignant live-action cinematic blockbusters, rife with whimsy and adventure. However, the idea of Spider-Man potentially swinging his way through a princess fairytale musical extravaganza gave me pause.

I should’ve known better. These guys aren’t messing around.

Big Hero 6, Disney Animation’s latest offering, based on an obscure Marvel comic about teenagers saving the world in some indeterminate polyglot future world, absolutely sparkles. I was a lone-dissenting voice in my distaste for Frozen, and, while I enjoyed Wreck-It Ralph, I thought it got rather lazy in its final act. However, Big Hero 6 is perfection.

This latest addition to the Disney canon has its feet planted firmly in the superhero genre, and, while comfortably familiar (it is Disney/Marvel after all), it takes the conceit to new humanistic heights. The tried-and-true Disney themes of family and acceptance and kindness and altruism and championing the underdog are all gloriously on display, but they are infused with a hyper-charged cheekiness that we typically only see over at corporate cousin Pixar.

The story relates the life of two loving brothers, who having lost their parents, now live with their aunt (voiced warmly by Maya Rudolph) above a bakery in San Fransokyo. One can only presume at some point in the near future, the Pacific Ocean dries up, with Tokyo and San Francisco inevitably meeting “urban spawl cute” somewhere in the middle. Or something.

Older brother Tadashi is a robotics expert at the local university, and his younger brother, Hiro, equally bright, aspires to join him. They are surrounded by a colorful and sweet group of friends, a United Colors of Benetton with brains and self-awareness. These are misfits for our modern age, open-hearted kids who embrace their intelligence, see the world as a playground of opportunity, and wear the term “nerd “as a badge of honor.

It wouldn’t be a Disney movie, if there were not some tragic death that prompts the narrative to action. Someday someone needs to write a thesis on that inherent dark heart in all the Disney “magic.” Tadashi and his beloved professor Callaghan (voiced perfectly by the always dependable James Cromwell) disappear in a tragic accident, and Hiro and his pals must band together to solve the mystery (and thereby overcome their heartache … paging Joseph Campbell).

And, like any Disney or Marvel film, we are introduced to an instantly unforgettable character – the kind of character who should have absolutely no appeal but who, though the power of design, voice, and script, somehow enters the halls of classic animated sidekicks the moment he steps on screen.

Before his disappearance, Tadashi had invented a medical robot named Baymax, a large squishy creature, one part marshmallow, one part Michelin Man, and one part unadulterated love. Baymax lives to heal, having been designed as a one-stop walking/talking urgent care facility, and his life’s work becomes the central metaphor throughout the entire film … in a way, rather ingeniously undermining the genre. So many of these movies use violence to bring peace, but in Baymax’s case,  his very design (and every intention) is to use peace and love to end violence and heartache.

The film is most enjoyable in its first half, as it establishes the relationships among these thoughtfully drawn characters. It is a rich and diverse cast, and I applaud that the filmmakers are able to offer us nuance and depth for each and every member of the cast in the film’s lean 90-minute running time (with nary a fart joke to be had).

The film also looks gorgeous. As I said, it quite literally sparkles. I don’t know that I have ever seen an animated film, to this date, in our computer-generated era, that is so immersive and so beautiful and so fluid. It is a treat to watch, and likely will benefit from repeated viewings.

AND, don’t miss the lovely animated short that precedes it, Feast (from the same team that crafted the glorious Paperman) – an affectionate ode to animal rescue, the joys of food, and the ability of one little dog to bring a family together.

One of Baymax’s signature lines is the query, “Are you satisfied with your care?” Indeed, this evening at the movies fit the bill. That’ll do, Bay. That’ll do.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

A Willy Loman for the internet era: Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As a theater person who loves superheroes, Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was the perfect cinematic storm for me: a film about an actor who walked away from a superhero franchise at the peak of his box office powers in order to rediscover his pretentious inner-theater muse … quite an intoxicating brew for yours truly.

Michael Keaton, whom I admit was most appealing to me back in his Mr. Mom days, plays the title character, an actor named Riggan Thomson. The film tracks the Quixotic enterprise to mount his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story … starring himself … and directed by … himself. If that conceit weren’t so believable in this egocentric day and age, it would be absurd. Keaton does his manic best, aided and abetted by director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) and his woozy one-continuous-take cinematic approach, to convince us that he is a failed superstar on the verge of a nervous break down.

After a clunky, self-aggrandizing first act, where all the players seem to be channeling Robert Altman-esque self-indulgence, the film kicks in and the enterprise becomes dizzyingly entertaining. Keaton is surrounded by a cast of superstars from Emma Stone playing his rehab-quirk-addled daughter to Zach Galifianakis as his neurotic consigliore to Edward Norton who steals the show as his Brando-ized Method (!) Acting co-star.

Once Norton enters the scene, the film finds its groove. (Norton can do no wrong in my book). Norton (both in character and in real-life) gives Keaton a similarly monumental ego against which to clash, and their scenes together are dynamite. The two actors create sparks as they literally beat each other to bloody pulps in their rehearsals for what appears to be one of the most turgid dramas that could ever grace the Great White Way. Norton is the saving grace (and secret weapon) of this film.

Birdman goes a long way to skewer our superhero-obsessed culture, casting many veterans of the genre, including Keaton (Batman), Norton (The Incredible Hulk), and Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man). They knowingly wink at the camera, actors who long for real parts to play but who have been forced to play spandex-clad clowns (or their paramours) to pay the mortgage.

I will add, though, that, like some lesser Oscar-bait films, the metaphors are laid on a little thick. This film is no Being John Malkovich, with its thrilling heights of meta-lunacy. Riggan literally (there’s that word again) cuts off his nose to spite his face by the movie’s conclusion. You don’t get much more obvious than that … unless Riggan had actually bitten that hand (audience member’s? producer’s?) that feeds. If the movie had been any longer, I bet he would have.

What the film gets so, so very right is the petty, competitive, ugly world of theater, rife with people who claim to be part of a larger artistic community but who can’t wait to plunge the proverbial ice pick in the back of a scenery-chewing costar. And, there is a wonderful moment in the film where Keaton says everything every actor has ever wanted to say to a theater critic. He eviscerates a New York Times pundit over drinks in a speakeasy; she, the gate keeper of all Broadway success, is excoriated by Riggan for what he sees as her lack of actual artistic credibility, channeled as it is into destroying the hopes and dreams of those treading the boards. It is a highlight of the film, which spectacularly identifies the Faustian pact that performers make with the media to promote and support their unyielding insecurities.

As an aside, this film made me think about what kind of creative person I am, both as an actor and a critic. I have acquaintances who are what one might call more “artistic” than I … or perhaps more “affected” if one is being cruel. In this blog, I don’t write about camera angles or nuance or sociopolitical constructs … at least not much. I write about my visceral response as a regular person wandering from multiplex to multiplex. I don’t know if that makes me a good critic or bad critic … a good witch or a bad witch. And I don’t really care.

That’s the joy of social media and blogging. People in the Fourth Estate might resent that there are folks out there like yours truly writing our thoughts for all the world to see. Well, get over it.

This film nails how creative people tear each other down for a lack of external validation. We are extremely, unnecessarily competitive. Sometimes we’re overtly harsh to each other in our commentary, and sometimes our absence of comment is even more so. I will never understand that. I remember vividly a dinner conversation after a local performance of Legally Blonde the Musical. (Yeah, I was in that show.) My cast-mates let me know how some other community theater types had seen the production and had identified at length all the things they thought we were doing incorrectly. WTF?!?  It was Legally Blonde the Musical.  It’s a cruise ship show.  A cartoon. This ain’t Hamlet, kids. Why anyone who is in community theater (myself included) would knock someone else’s community theatre show is beyond me. But I digress.

Back to Birdman. While I applaud Iñárritu’s efforts to create a Rube Goldberg cinematic style that sweeps us seamlessly from one scene to the other – in what appears to be a two hour continuous take – at times, it was a bit visually nauseating for me.  Or maybe that’s his point: when anybody launches into the fool’s errand of performing live theater, it is an experience that creates headaches, stomachaches … visceral highs and lows.

I will admit that I didn’t love this movie. It felt more like a student exercise at times than a fully-realized film. But I often find myself on the outskirts of what critics hail as artistic entertainment. The movie goes to great lengths to lampoon those films that the masses adore; yet, it misses the fact that most of us go to movies for escapism not torture.

Regardless, I found myself compelled by Keaton’s performance, a Willy Loman for the internet era, who sells his soul for credibility yet only finds validation when he accidentally lands on YouTube.

I believe the writers stole a bit from Carol Channing’s life, If I recall, she tells a wonderful story of being locked in the alley during a performance of Hello, Dolly! having to come around to the front door and enter through the audience. Granted, she was in full costume and not dingy BVDs like Keaton’s Riggan Thomson. And maybe that’s most obvious and most appropriate metaphor of all. The emperor is not wearing any clothes.

Musical postscript …

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.