“If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Florence Foster Jenkins

[Image Source: WIkipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Sometimes Hollywood just makes sweet movies. Not often. Just sometimes. These are the movies that you remember from your youth, not completely great films, but kind-hearted ones where people’s common humanity is celebrated, where decency is rewarded, and where foibles are accepted and embraced, not pilloried in some sort of zero-sum football match – loving, slightly creaky movies you would have discovered at the far end of the television dial, some weekday afternoon, when you were home from school sick with the flu.

Two such movies are rolling through your local cineplexes now, quietly charming audiences in the shadow of more cynical, merchandisable fare like Suicide Squad. I happened to catch Florence Foster Jenkins and Pete’s Dragon in a double feature on a warm summer weekday afternoon, no flu required, and I’m glad I did.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pete’s Dragon is the much stronger film. The original 1977 Disney film combined one-dimensional animation, even more one-dimensional performances (who thought Helen Reddy was a good idea?), and treacly songs (“Candle on the Water,” anyone? nah, I didn’t think so) into a forgettable diversion consistent with the Mouse House’s lousy Me Decade offerings (Apple Dumpling Gang … blech).

The new Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery wisely jettisons everything from the original flick, save the boy and his dog … er … dragon conceit, giving us a smart and deeply affecting parable on ecology, tolerance, and the healing power of companionship. Pete (played with a feral wariness by Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in an unidentified Pacific Northwest woods when his parents run the family station wagon off the road to avoid hitting a deer (Bambi’s revenge?). Pete is discovered by large, green, furry, canine-like dragon whom Pete quickly names Elliot, after a puppy in a beloved book Elliot Gets Lost. (I said the movie was good; I didn’t say it was subtle.)

Years pass, and Pete and Elliot carve out a pastoral existence, spending their days at play in the woods, sheltered at night in a cave filled with the discarded refuse of humanity (think The Black Stallion meets The Goonies). However, this wouldn’t be a summer movie without some narrative tension, and it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some wholesome, well-intentioned, plucky, small-town intervention narrative tension. Along comes Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, a forest ranger, instantly more believable than the thousand false notes she played as an opportunistic theme park executive in Jurassic World, fighting a losing battle against the foresting company owned by her own fiance Jack (American Horror Story‘s Wes Bentley – about as creepily cardboard as he always is). Pete’s curiosity about these Disneyfied people gets the better of him, he reveals himself, and, in a series of predictable plot points, Pete and Elliot are separated by (in order) hospital rooms, child protective services, and Jack’s skeezy, gun-loving brother Gavin (Star Trek‘s sparkling Karl Urban, who knows how to play a ridiculous cad without chewing too much scenery).

Lowery borrows liberally from the Spielberg school of mid-80s family film-making, and Spielberg himself was beholden to an encyclopedic obsession with films of his youth. One might argue that every Spielberg children’s movie seems to be trying to right any emotional damage that Old Yeller may have caused a young Steven. Lowery even wisely sets Pete’s Dragon in a pre-cell-phone late 70s/early 80s (never completely defined), when a child would see nature with wonder and not as a backdrop by which to catch the latest Pokemon Go creature.

Elliot, the dragon, is a marvel of movie design and animation, rarely exhibiting any of the jarring disconnects from reality CGI can sometimes cause – the work here is fluid and warm and fantastic and heartbreaking. Elliot never speaks and relays sensitivities the way a dog or cat might, through undulating body language and heavy sighs, sideways glances and guttural noises. Elliot is at once the film’s center and periphery, a guide and a protector yet also a victim of the cruel whims of serendipity and fate … which is pretty consistent with how humans treat any and all animals, in fact.

And that is likely Lowery’s point. Robert Redford is cast as Grace’s father Meacham, the town eccentric whose claims of meeting a dragon in the woods decades prior have fueled a host of urban legends and have alienated him from all but the town’s youngest denizens. Early in the film, Meacham foreshadows what is yet to come with the line, “If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Toward the film’s conclusion, when it’s pretty damn evident there is a dragon living in the woods, Grace asks her father to tell her what really happened all those years ago. Meacham looks at Grace (after relating how Elliot hates guns … thank you!) and says, “I looked at that dragon. And he looked at me. And we were at peace. Something changed in me that day, and I could never look at you or any other creature the same way again.” Yeah, I cried buckets.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Florence Foster Jenkins on the other hand may change the way any of us ever look at amateur singers or any other aspiring creative type again. Or not. Long before American Idol, people in this country treated singing competitions like gladiator sport. We applaud and cheer the Susan Boyles or the Kelly Clarksons who may defy our expectations with voices like angels, but we guffaw and leer at the William Hungs or Sanjaya Malakars for whom “pitchy” is the best compliment anyone can muster. We can be exceedingly cruel as a culture; the dark side of our Horatio Alger tendencies.

The film, directed in workmanlike fashion by Stephen Frears (The QueenPhilomena), is a wartime snapshot of the title character’s days and nights as a wealthy patron of the musical arts in New York City and as a woefully untalented vocalist with a shockingly tin ear. Alas, as portrayed by Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash, Into the Woods), Jenkins comes off (no pun intended) as rather one-note. Not unlike an episode of the aforementioned American Idol, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are making fun of Jenkins or celebrating her unabashed moxie. Maybe I’m a bit simplistic, but trying to have it both ways with a character who cuts a more tragic than comic figure could be mistaken for cruelty.

In fact, Florence, (spoiler alert) on her deathbed, asks her dutiful (yet dubiously motivated) husband St. Clair (portrayed with surprising nuance by Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant) if all this time everyone has been laughing at her. It’s intended to be a devastating self-realization. In fact, everyone has been laughing at her, including us. The film takes comic glee is showing how Jenkins’ simian-like vocalizations send audiences into apoplexy, so it’s a bit tough (akin to emotional whiplash) to suddenly invoke our sympathy after indulging our baser instincts.

That said, the film is a pleasant lark with more sweet than sour at its core. Like the BBC production it is, the film is a clutch of fussy mannerisms and pop-eyed reaction shots. Streep is as hammy as we’ve seen her in years, if her Julia Child from Julie and Julia had spent a long afternoon with her Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. Grant does a fine job complementing and contextualizing Streep’s performance (partly it’s the design of his role as Florence’s major domo and consigliere), and there is a lot of joy in watching him out of love, sweetness, and survival clear one hurdle after another, shielding Florence from the worst of her detractors and hangers on. In hiring a new accompanist for his tone-deaf wife, St. Clair delineates to Cosme McMoon (a pleasantly neurotic Simon Helberg, playing a soft-spoken variation on his Big Bang Theory‘s Howard Wolowitz) some of the more eccentric rules of the house: “The chairs are not for practical use. They honor those who died in them. Are you fond of sandwiches? And potato salad? We have mountains of the stuff.” Grant’s delivery, a perfect blend of pragmatism, wonder, and self-interest, should have been the tone the entire film took.

Regardless, if you are seeking solace from a summer move season filled with smart aleck mutants and half-baked sequels, frat boy comedies and nihilistic explosions, go check out the dragon  (and Robert Redford) and stay for the potato salad (and Hugh Grant).

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Bonus: If you missed this summer’s production of Xanadu, enjoy this video footage!

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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.

Dreaming Dreams Book Is Now Available!

Includes a piece by my talented ma Susie Duncan Sexton

 

The book, Dreaming Dreams No Mortal Ever Dared to Dream Before, is now available! Please spread the word. In this collection of Poe inspired stories and poems, you will find dreams (and nightmares), ghost stories, horror, madness, mystery, imagination, and even some humor. It is about 450 pages long and has works from over 150 authors. More info, including link to order, here

Source: Dreaming Dreams Book Is Now Available!

“Let me guess. We’re going to the swirling ring of trash in the sky now. When does this end?” Suicide Squad

Suicide_Squad_(film)_Poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I think I’m supposed to hate Suicide Squad, at least according to Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe I’m just a contrarian or I truly do have lousy taste, but I was entertained by David Ayer’s scruffy take on DC Comics’ classic Dirty Dozen-homage. Could it have been better? Um, yeah. Is it some cosmic train wreck that has destroyed cinema forevermore? Nope.

In full disclosure, my objectivity may be clouded. A bit. I still have the sense memory of holding the first issue of John Ostrander/Kim Yale’s 1987-comic-reimagining in my grubby eighth grade hands. (See cover below.) Suicide Squad had been around since the 60s, but, under the watch of husband/wife team Ostrander and Yale and inspired by the then-recent DC Universe-rebooting one-two punch of Crisis on Infinite Earths and Legends, the Squad went from being a dull paramilitary outfit (a cut-rate Mission: Impossible) to a gonzo bucket of colorfully costumed sociopathic misfits who agreed to take on covert missions in order to commute time from their lengthy prison sentences.

Suicide_Squad_Vol_1_1

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ostrander and Yale galvanized the team around new character Amanda Waller, the Squad’s tough-as-nails government handler for whom Machiavelli and Mussolini were likely matinee idols, and the Squad’s adventures became a bruise-black satire on the endemic overreach and inhumanity inherent in America’s military-industrial complex and criminal justice system.

Funny how little things change in 30-some years.

As Warner Brothers’ DC Entertainment continues to play catch up with the brighter, more engaging, critically acclaimed work of direct competitor Disney’s Marvel Studios, DC’s latest cinematic adaptation Suicide Squad plays well to the insiders (geeks like yours truly) but may stumble a bit with the casual moviegoer. That’s a shame. This material is rife with opportunity for timely and pithy allegory in a world where terror is combated with more terror and where politicians distinguish themselves through schoolyard taunts. Ostrander and Yale were pretty damn prescient.

Regardless, Suicide Squad is a pip, particularly in its first hour; Ayer, via narrator Waller (played with crisp gravitas by the ever-dependable Viola Davis [Prisoners]), fires off a visceral roll call of the scuzziest villains this side of Roger Ailes. Margot Robbie (The Big Short) as Harley Quinn, Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) as Deadshot, and Jai Courtney (Divergent) as Captain Boomerang have the most arresting (pun intended) moments throughout, popping off their glib one-liners with an undercurrent of soulful pathos. Jay Hernandez (Friday Night Lights) as the tragic El Diablo and Joel Kinnaman (Robocop) as the Squad’s field lieutenant Rick Flag are compelling and pleasantly understated, given that, respectively, one shoots fire from his hands and the other is dating a sorceress. You know, just a typical Tuesday.

Other cast members get a bit lost in the movie’s manic shuffle of CGI zombies and its “Now, THAT’S What I Call Hip-Hop” soundtrack. Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns) as Enchantress, Karen Fukuhara as Katana, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (The Bourne Identity) as Killer Croc eke out a memorable moment or two in this overstuffed flick, which is more credit to their talents than to Ayer’s screenplay.

Oh, yeah, and then there’s Jared Leto. The Joker. I may be in the minority, but I find Leto exhausting and a bit desperate. Always have. I believe his revelatory and nuanced and humane turn in Dallas Buyers Club may have been the exception and not the rule for his particular filmography.

Leto’s work in Suicide Squad as The Joker makes Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter look like Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski. Leto has expressed some crabbiness that so many of his scenes in Suicide Squad ended up on the cutting room floor. The powers-that-be (and whatever ADHD-addled focus group edited this thing) should have cut them all.

Yet, the narrative is stubbornly beholden to shackling Robbie’s much superior Harley Quinn to her comic book beau onscreen. To be honest, Harley would have been just fine without her “Mistah J.” And so would we.

After the first hour, alas, Suicide Squad devolves into the kind of muddy, mundane comic book movie that typically inflicted cinemas in the 90s. An ill-defined villain stands on a rooftop somewhere waving his/her arms around and speaking in an ominously metallic voice borrowed from the witness protection program. A sea of computer-generated minions construct a death-ray/cloud-thing that will annihilate humanity and demolish a number of stop-motion-photographed international landmarks along the way. Consequently, Suicide Squad isn’t a movie about which you should give much thought after viewing … but it could have been.

Ayer (End of Watch) is sharp enough to assign Smith’s Deadshot a quip about how silly and cliched that apocalyptic denouement can be (yet somehow the filmmaker is too lazy to actually devise a fresh third act). Smith intones, “Let me guess. We’re going to the swirling ring of trash in the sky now. When does this end?” Indeed, that is the question. I’m guessing Marvel’s acerbic Deadpool would have had an answer. And an inventive one. Maybe Will Smith and Ryan Reynolds can plot a cross-studios team-up for their next outing.

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05012016-Suicide-Squad

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“I don’t know if it’s a race thing or a lady thing, but I’m mad as hell.” Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters_2016_film_poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This summer’s Ghostbusters reboot/reimagining/sequel-non-sequel/whatever-it-is benefits and suffers from the wobbly foundation of opportunistic Gen X nostalgia upon which it is built. If, like me, you saw the film in 1984 as part of Mike Babbitt’s birthday-sleepover extravaganza – one of your first memories of feeling like a “grown-up” and seeing a movie in a communal glow a bunch of your farting, burping, snickering, supremely immature buddies – the original Ghostbusters is a classic. However, if, like someone else in my house (ahem, John), you view the original film from a different lens as the messy, self-indulgent, hammy ground zero for a whole host of similarly inept high-concept fantasy comedies that continue to infest multiplexes to this day, Ghostbusters is, well, meh. I suspect John is in the right, but don’t tell him I said so.

Paul Feig (BridesmaidsThe HeatSpy) has assembled an A-list crew of comedy dynamos for the 2016 outing: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and, yes, Chris Hemsworth (Thor is funny, y’all!). The plot – or what lightly resembles a plot – is more or less the same as the original Bill Murray/Dan Aykroyd/Harold Ramis/Ernie Hudson version. At least from what I recall … to be honest, I think the only time I actually saw that movie was at the aforementioned birthday party.

In the original film, someone is unleashing spectral Armageddon on Manhattan and a ragtag band of misfits in jumpsuits with laser guns overcomes their condemnation to a life of marginalia in order to save the day. Annie Potts, Rick Moranis, Sigourney Weaver all put in appearances doing … stuff. There’s a skyscraper-sized menace made of marshmallows and a big purple swirly cloud above the Empire State Building. As the credits roll, that ubiquitous Ray Parker, Jr.-led theme song (sounding copyright-infringibly close to Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug”) trumpets the arrival of a new breed of hero to NYC: The Ghostbusters. Pre-9/11, seeing Manhattan torn to ribbons and healed by the power of pop music was a more entertaining enterprise.

Feig’s version is pretty much the same damn movie, which is both bold and kind of lazy. Without a doubt in my mind, Feig’s cast is sharper, more incisive, and a helluva lot more identifiable than the original band. Fanboys, I don’t care what your social media cronies believe. It’s the truth.

This version of Ghostbusters was rife with such opportunity to import the anarchic, political raunch of Bridesmaids into a PG-13 manifesto on the power of diversity, individualism, and being funny as hell. Instead, it’s a bit toothless. A bunt when it could have been a home run, to mix my metaphors.

That said, I laughed. I laughed a lot. (John…laughed once. I think.) I thought the comically queasy uncertainty of characters fighting for a world that didn’t much want them in it was a pip. McKinnon (literally) chews the scenery as the group’s wild-eyed weapons master. And that was fine by me. Jones, who seems a bit out-of-her-depth (or maybe just bored) with sketch-acting on SNL, is dynamite here – crisp, zippy, focused. As she jumps into a metal-head mosh pit, expecting to be crowd-surfed on her way to exorcising a winged demon, she, instead, is unceremoniously dropped to the ground; Jones nails one of the film’s best and most timely zingers: “I don’t know if it’s a race thing or a lady thing, but I’m mad as hell.”

McCarthy, believe it or not, is impressively understated as the team’s whip, and only Wiig seems to get lost in the shuffle as a the mild-mannered heart of the group. She may have played one milquetoast too many at this point in her storied career. Hemsworth, as the Ghostbusters’ receptionist, is comically objectified for his Aussie sparkle in a welcome role-reversal. And, no, that is not “reverse sexism” – which is not a thing. It’s satire of the rampant and insidious male gaze…which is a thing.

There is an endless parade of self-referential cameo appearances. I found them all unnecessary, distracting and, worse, unfunny. Andy Garcia and Cecily Strong – as the oily mayor and his obsequious assistant – can stay. Everyone else? You gotta go!

That Love Boat-load of guest stars would be an example of where nostalgia bites this production on its collective behind.  I wish Feig had been liberated by the corporate powers-that-be at Columbia Pictures to make the itchy, twitchy film that is lurking under the surface of this new Ghostbusters. Alas, all the product placement – from Papa Johns to Bill Murray – might suggest Feig was in servitude to a paycheck, not an artistic vision. That’s a shame.

Wiig, McCarthy, Jones, and McKinnon as the Ghostbusting quartet are clearly having a ball playing summertime action figures. Yet, their fun never quite becomes our fun. The ad-libbed scenes have crackling moments but never quite add up to coherent narrative. The stakes never seem that dire (perhaps because of the familiarity of the plot), and consequently the film has no urgency or agency. In the year of #ImWithHer, Ghostbusters is serviceable allegorical escapism, when it could have been timeless, seismic revelation.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

“That outfit looks like Jimmy Buffett’s dust ruffle … or the wallpaper in a Long John Silver’s bathroom.” Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike-and-Dave-Need-Wedding-Dates-2016-Comedy-Movie-Inspired-by-a-true-storyI daresay we see too many Zac Efron movies in our household (evidence here and here and here). Perhaps an intervention is required. His cinematic output is not exactly transcendent, but it ain’t bad either. Efron has become the poster boy for pleasant-diversion, middlebrow-comedy, derivative filmmaking. And I suspect it’s a lucrative and easy life, with just an inordinate number of sit-ups and bench-presses required.

Efron can sing. He’s cornered a unique underdog, alpha-himbo comic niche. He’s man-pretty, in a distracted, dissipated, vacuous way. He can dance. Before the advent of sophomoric gross-out rom-coms, he would have probably been John Davidson. (If you’re under 40, Google him.)

But here we are. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. We saw it, ‘Murica, in a need to go see something stupid and funny and palate-cleansing after a busy theatre month. And it did the trick.

Throw Wedding Crashers, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Bridesmaids, Meet the Parents, and an episode of Animaniacs into a Cuisinart, and you’d get something approximating this flick. And that’s not a bad thing, because, what all of those influences have at their core (beyond the Post-Its and the poop jokes) is an inherent sweetness, an appreciation for the absurdity of the human condition, and a wily distaste for both the clusterf*ck ostentation of modern weddings and the phony pretense of “growing up.”

Based on a hyperbolic “true story” as can only exist in post-millennial internet-obsessed America, Mike and Dave tells the story of the Stangle Bros, puckish siblings locked in a self-destructive cycle of privilege, self-absorption, and arrested development. You see, these boys, as played by Efron and Pitch Perfect‘s Adam DeVine are sawed-off li’l Hollister-wearing muscle jocks whose daily life is spent in package liquor sales and whose evenings are occupied trying to make family gatherings more fun through a healthy heaping of fireworks, chemical influence, and general mayhem.

We all know these guys. They view themselves as not just the “life of the party” but the party itself, not realizing they leave scorched earth, tears, and exhaustion in their wake – their pursuit of spontaneity at all costs actually driving everyone in their orbit into increasingly rigid anxiety. The film sets this up in a clever way with an opening credits montage demonstrating the Stangle Bros’ “fun” like a glammed up highlights reel from the Jackass television show, juxtaposed later in the film with a grainy, home-movie montage showing what really happened.

The boys’ beloved sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard, a comic elf with nitroglycerine in her veins … hope she gets more work!) is getting married in one of those cost-prohibitive, vulgar “destination weddings” only seen in film … or on Facebook. Given the brothers’ propensity to ruin everything, Jeanie, her fiance (Sam Richardson, a wry and reserved powder-keg), and parents (the always dependable Stephen Root and Stephanie Faracy) insist that Mike and Dave bring actual dates to this event, under the false assumption that having women to “monitor” their foolish impulses will make any difference at all.

Of course, this being the world in which we now live, Mike and Dave post an ad on CraigsList (nothing bad ever happens via CraigsList, eh?), and a pair of lightning rods Alice and Tatiana answer the call (chiefly because they want the free trip to Hawaii). Into the Woods‘ Anna Kendrick (as Alice) and Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza (as Tatiana) are dynamite. I don’t think I could (or should) go so far as to suggest this trifle of a movie is feminist, but the way these two rip up the screen and any shred of dignity the brothers have left is a sight to behold. Needless to say, they do not take to their roles as “baby-sitters” and proceed to demolish the nuptials in ways the boys could only dream about.

Plaza particularly is a revelation, her banjo eyes and sardonic delivery bespeaking a world of hurt that someone so young should not yet have experienced. And don’t get me wrong, there is no poignancy in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates – like zero, like no attempt even made – but Plaza (and Kendrick too) do great work beyond the thin confines of the script to represent fully developed if utterly misdirected minds onscreen, giving the film a lift and, dare I say, import that is likely 100% accidental.

Oh, and the film adds a meddlesome cousin (Terry), who seems to exist simply to provide unnecessary narrative complication, but Alice Wetterlund (who could play Kate McKinnon’s sister) tears into the role with a fire that is delightful and necessary. The raging Id to Mike and Dave’s SuperEgo. She sizes up the boys’ wedding ensembles, reducing them to ash with one of the funniest lines in the film: “That outfit looks like Jimmy Buffett’s dust ruffle … or the wallpaper in a Long John Silver’s bathroom.”

There are about three cringe-worthy scenes, the kind which always seem to be plopped into these enterprises solely to create Tweet-worthy shock value, all easily excised when aired on TBS in two years. Just muddle through those sequences, and focus on the sparkle at play between Plaza and Kendrick and the way their work enhances and critiques the more heavy-handed bro-comedy of, say, DeVine, in particular. Efron remains a cipher in his own film, and I think that’s a conscious decision on his part. He is funniest in befuddled observation, and he has a lot of that to do here.

Now, if only Hollywood had been brave enough to make Alice and Tatiana DON’T Need Wedding Dates. I’d RSVP for that.

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Mike-and-Dave-Need-Wedding-Dates-MovieReel 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.

“It’s hard to feel grounded when even the gravity is artificial.” Captain Kirk, sweetie, darling: Star Trek Beyond and Absolutely Fabulous the Movie

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Turning a beloved television series into a motion picture event and expanding the small screen confines to cinematic vistas can yield remarkable results (The Untouchables, Addams Family Values, 21 Jump Street, Charlie’s Angels, Sex and the City) or abysmal ones (Coneheads, Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Wild Wild West, Sex and the City 2). Admittedly, it’s a tricky gambit, balancing the crushing demands of commerce and misplaced nostalgia with heightened expectations of scale and postmodern reinvention. There is bound to be disappointment.

So color me refreshed that two TV-based film reboots Star Trek Beyond and Absolutely Fabulous the Movie (viewed this weekend after finally digging out from a month or so of Xanadu preparation and performance) achieved more right than wrong on the big screen. Obviously, Trek has been at this movie blockbuster game longer than our intrepid British boozehound fashionistas Patsy Stone and Edina Monsoon, but, in both instances, the films translate all the character beats and shenanigans expected while sufficiently bringing our heroes into larger-than-boob-tube-life environs.

Star Trek Beyond continues the sleek, comic, well-acted renaissance begun by J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) with Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. Beyond copious lens flares and consummate 1960s-mod-for-21st-Century-millennials art direction, Abrams’ best contribution to the franchise has been a beautifully curated cast of actors (Into the Woods‘ Chris Pine, American Horror Story‘s Zachary Quinto, Harold and Kumar‘s John Cho, Dredd‘s Karl Urban, Paul‘s Simon Pegg, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Zoe Saldana, and the late Anton Yelchin of Fright Night) who leverage the iconic DNA of those d-list actors who came before (respectively, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, DeForrest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig), adding irreverent sparkle and authentic character development to give us a Trek with appeal that extends far beyond the madding comic-con crowd.

This latest installment, ably directed by The Fast and the Furious-franchise vet Justin Lin with a seamless stylistic transition from Abrams’ offerings, is all-popcorn all the time with one dizzying set piece after another. In fact, the first act firefight between The Enterprise and the swarm-like armada of Krall is so manic the audience is likely in need of Dramamine for the rest of the picture. A strange hybrid of Darth Vader and The Beast from Beauty and the Beast, Krall is played adequately by an unrecognizable Idris Alba (Luther) … continuing the regrettable habit of the Abrams-era Trek films wasting fabulous actors – Eric Bana, Benedict Cumberbatch – as half-baked, forgettable villains.  Krall is after some cosmic doodad so he can destroy a Federation space station called Yorktown (if MC Escher had designed the Death Star in partnership with the Wizard of Oz and The United Colors of Benetton). Y’see, Krall hates the Federation for, in essence, stealing a plot point from the movie Event Horizon (kidding, sort of), and his scheme to destroy them borrows heavily from Return of the Jedi‘s Moon of Endor sequence with a sprinkling of Avatar‘s don’t trust anyone/unity vs. divisiveness narrative polemic. I admit that last bit resonated a bit more than it probably should have, given the GOP’s national mob rally … er … convention this past week.

To be honest, the plot doesn’t matter (in a good way) as the film borrows its retro structure from classic Trek episodes when the core crew gets split up planet-side and pairs off in unconventional ways to defeat the big bad wolf and demonstrate how diversity brings strength, ingenuity, and great one-liners. We get a fun new character in Kingsman‘s Sofia Boutella (“Jaylah”), a resourceful ghost-faced alien/feminist warrior with an affinity for gangster rap (“classical music” to the rest of the crew, or, as she states, “I like the beat and the yelling”) who, more or less solves every crisis single-handedly. And probably deserves her own film (#ImWithAlienHer).

absolutely-fabulous-the-movie-poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of an inconsequential plot, Absolutely Fabulous the Movie is as fizzy as a freshly opened bottle of Bollinger champagne and with just as little nutritional value. Like Chris Pine’s Kirk and company, Jennifer Saunders’ Eddy and Joanna Lumley’s Patsy wink at the camera, knowing full well the audience is as interested in how they ridicule the source material as celebrate it. AbFab ran in the early-to-mid 90s on the BBC and on Comedy Central (with a few additional seasons and TV movies for good measure into the 2000s). The series relentlessly skewered celebrity-culture well before it was such. a. thing. (Thanks, TMZ and Perez Hilton and Kardashians … for nothing.) And Patsy and Edina with their chemically-altered lives and propensity for fashion-victimhood anticipated the solipsism of shallow, egomaniacal dunderheads like The Real Housewives, Sarah Palin, The Bachelor, Justin Bieber, and, um, Donald Trump. (I’d vote for Joanna Lumley any day – her Botoxed ire for any who dare ask her to smoke outside is worth the price of admission alone.)

This Abbott and Costello for the Reality TV age couldn’t have re-emerged at a better moment. Their bewilderment over and preoccupation with a world that values youth and shiny objects over pretty much anything/anyone with even the slightest shred of substance is as timely an allegory as we can get. The film relates Eddy’s desperate need to right her PR career (“I do PR, darling. Lots of PR things.”), leading her to a series of random celebrity encounters, like an R-rated Muppet Movie, with Jon Hamm, Joan Collins, Dame Edna, Graham Norton, Chris Colfer, Emma Bunton, Lulu, Gwendolyn Christie, and a bunch of other celebs vaguely familiar if you’ve ever spent any time on BBC America. Eventually, her spiraling hysteria results in model Kate Moss falling off a balcony and disappearing into the Thames (don’t ask), and Eddy finds herself on the wrong-end of a media maelstrom for the catwalk siren’s possible “murder.”

There are endless opportunities for materialistic sight-gags as heinous fashion is celebrated as high art, and Lumley regularly steals the show, particularly when she dresses up as a man – a swaggering Tom Selleck with a blonde pony-tail, eviscerating insufferable machismo –  to woo a dowager empress on the French Riviera. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, anyone? All the series favorites return, including Julia Sawalha as Eddy’s long-suffering/happily martyred daughter Saffron (who has a number of surprisingly delicate character turns as she wrestles with her own aging and her complicated familial relations), Jane Horrocks (Little Voice) as Eddy’s craftily inept assistant “Bubble,” Celia Imrie (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) as Eddy’s frosty rival Claudia Bing, June Whitfield as Eddy’s exasperated/instigating mother, and Mo Gaffney as Saffron/Saffy’s myopically liberal step-mother Bo.

The film, like the original series, is cluttered with indecipherable in-jokes, though the movie blessedly cuts down on TV AbFab‘s tendency toward sloppy ad libs and muttered asides that could occasionally make for a frustrating (American, that is) viewing experience. Regardless, the film succeeds beautifully on multiple levels: reinvigorating our interest in Patsy and Eddy as a sozzled Didi and Gogo for our self-obsessed internet days, eviscerating a 1%-er culture that sacrifices humanity for Chanel, and, most surprisingly, layering in a tender and poignant assessment of society’s tendency to pillory those who fall at the crossroads of age and gender (#ImWithHerAndPatsyAndEddy).

As Chris Pine’s Kirk intones at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond, “It’s hard to feel grounded when even the gravity is artificial.” Well, said, Kirk, sweetie, darling. Well said.

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5 Sebastian Gerstner Jenna Pittman Kristin McSweeney Logan Balcom Paige Martin as Muses and KiraReel 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.

WCBN’s “It’s Hot in Here” features “Xanadu”! WE NEEDED THE WORLD TO KNOW: WE ARE IN XANADU

Thanks, Rebecca Hardin, for having the Xanadu cast on your WCBN radio show “It’s Hot in Here.” Such fun and such an honor! “We were delighted once again to welcome members of Ann Arbor’s Penny Seats Theatre Company to talk theater in the parks and perform a few tunes from their ongoing show. Xanadu is an outrageous show that defies simple explanation: suffice it to say the Muses go to Venice Beach to inspire a sidewalk chalk artist to open a roller disco. You really have to see it to believe, but hearing them sing a few numbers and talk about their process on today’s show is sure to pique your interest.”

Listen here: http://www.hotinhere.us/podcast/we-are-in-xanadu/

Enjoy!

PHOTOS: Xanadu onstage at Ann Arbor’s West Park … Penny Seats!

 

Kasey Donnelly, Allison Simmons, Sebastian Gerstner, Paige Martin, Logan Balcom, Kristin McSweeney, Jenna Pittman as Muses with Kira

Penny Seats Theatre Company’s production of 2007 Broadway musical smash, Xanadu (based on the 1980 cult classic movie of the same name), with a book by Douglas Carter Beane and music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, runs July 14 through July 30 (Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays) at Ann Arbor’s West Park Band Shell.

The Tony-nominated musical comedy tells the tale of a Greek Muse’s descent from Mt. Olympus to Venice Beach, California, to inspire a struggling artist to achieve the greatest artistic creation of all time – the world’s first roller disco. With direction by R. MacKenzie Lewis and choreography by Sebastian Gerstner, based on concepts by Phil Simmons, the show will feature performers Paige Martin (Ann Arbor), Matthew Pecek (Adrian), Roy Sexton (Saline), Kasey Donnelly (Ypsilanti), Allison Simmons (Holland), Sebastian Gerstner (Ann Arbor), Logan Balcom (Hillsdale), Jenna Pittman (Waterford), and Kristin McSweeney (Ypsilanti). Encore Musical Theatre Company’s Thalia Schramm and Matthew Brennan provided assistant direction. Musical Direction is provided by Richard Alder, costuming by Virginia Reiche, and set design and technical direction by Steve Hankes. Lauren London is producing.

Advance tickets are available for $10 at the group’s website, www.pennyseats.org. Although the curtain goes up at 7:00pm each evening, pre-show picnicking is encouraged for audience members, and the group will sell water and concessions at the park as well. Photos by Kyle Lawson and Lauren London, and video of the music of Xanadu in rehearsal here.

 

 

Matthew Pecek and Paige Martin as Sonny and Kira with Muses

3 Roy Sexton as Danny and Paige Martin as Kira

Roy Sexton as Danny and Paige Martin as Kira

4 Kasey Donnelly and Allison Simmons and Melpomene and Calliope

Kasey Donnelly and Allison Simmons as Melpomene and Calliope

5 Sebastian Gerstner Jenna Pittman Kristin McSweeney Logan Balcom Paige Martin as Muses and Kira

Sebastian Gerstner, Jenna Pittman, Kristin McSweeney, Logan Balcom, Paige Martin as Muses and Kira

6 Roy Sexton as Danny Maguire

Roy Sexton as Danny Maguire

7 Matthew Pecek as Sonny

Matthew Pecek as Sonny

8 Matthew Pecek as Sonny and Paige Martin as Kira

Matthew Pecek as Sonny and Paige Martin as Kira

9 Matthew Pecek as Sonny Performs Dont Walk Away with Muses

Matthew Pecek as Sonny Performs “Don’t Walk Away” with Muses

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. And you can see any of our shows for the same price as a movie ticket.

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

Ann Arbor’s Penny Seats production of Xanadu (opening July 14) in rehearsal [VIDEO]

IMG_5255

On July 14 at Ann Arbor’s West Park Band Shell, the Penny Seats Theatre Company launches their production of 2007 Broadway musical smash, Xanadu (based on the 1980 cult classic movie of the same name), with a book by Douglas Carter Beane and music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. Enjoy these photos and video clips from our first rehearsal with orchestra.

Tony nominated musical comedy Xanadu tells the tale of a Greek Muse’s descent from Mt. Olympus to Venice Beach, California, to inspire a struggling artist to achieve the greatest artistic creation of all time – the world’s first roller disco. And yes, there will be roller skating in the park!

 

[Photos by Jenna Pittman, who plays "Euterpe"]

[Photos by Jenna Pittman, who plays “Euterpe”]

With direction by R. MacKenzie Lewis and choreography by Sebastian Gerstner, based on concepts by Phil Simmons, the show will feature performers Paige Martin (Ann Arbor), Matthew Pecek (Adrian), Roy Sexton (Saline), Kasey Donnelly (Ypsilanti), Allison Simmons (Holland), Sebastian Gerstner (Ann Arbor), Logan Balcom (Hillsdale), Jenna Pittman (Waterford), and Kristin McSweeney (Ypsilanti). Encore Musical Theatre Company’s Thalia Schramm and Matthew Brennan are providing assistant direction. Musical Direction is provided by Richard Alder, costuming by Virginia Reiche, and set design and technical direction by Steve Hankes. Don’t miss this crazy, campy, big-hearted show! The show runs Thursday/Friday/Saturday for three weekends (beginning July 14), and tickets are $10, available at www.pennyseats.org.

Clips of Xanadu cast members rehearsing with orchestra on Sunday, July 10 (here) … enjoy!

 

Three versions here …

Two versions here …

IMG_52335 Xanadu Penny Seats

Ann Arbor’s Penny Seats Theatre Company opens Xanadu on July 14

5 Xanadu Penny SeatsOn July 14 at Ann Arbor’s West Park Band Shell, the Penny Seats Theatre Company launches their production of 2007 Broadway musical smash, Xanadu (based on the 1980 cult classic movie of the same name), with a book by Douglas Carter Beane and music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar.

Tony nominated musical comedy Xanadu tells the tale of a Greek Muse’s descent from Mt. Olympus to Venice Beach, California, to inspire a struggling artist to achieve the greatest artistic creation of all time – the world’s first roller disco. And yes, there will be roller skating in the park!

With direction by R. MacKenzie Lewis and choreography by Sebastian Gerstner, based on concepts by Phil Simmons, the show will feature performers Paige Martin (Ann Arbor), Matthew Pecek (Adrian), Roy Sexton (Saline), Kasey Donnelly (Ypsilanti), Allison Simmons (Holland), Sebastian Gerstner (Ann Arbor), Logan Balcom (Hillsdale), Jenna Pittman (Waterford), and Kristin McSweeney (Ypsilanti). Musical Direction is provided by Richard Alder, costuming by Virginia Reiche, and set design and technical direction by Steve Hankes.

Paige Martin in rehearsal as Clio or Kira with her muse sisters - Jenna Pittman, Logan Balcom, Sebastian Gerstner, Kristin McSweeney, Allison Simmons, and Kasey Donnelly

Paige Martin in rehearsal as Clio or Kira with her muse sisters – Jenna Pittman, Logan Balcom, Sebastian Gerstner, Kristin McSweeney, Allison Simmons, and Kasey Donnelly

Martin, who has been nominated for an Encore Michigan Wilde Award for her performance as “Little Sally” in last summer’s Penny Seats production of Urinetown – the company’s first nomination in the prestigious competition, portrays muse Kira (played by Kerry Butler in the Broadway cast), whose positive intentions to inspire art and love quickly go awry. (Lewis and Gerstner are also nominated this year for Wilde Awards for their work last year at other area theatres.) Martin notes, “This is my third show with the Penny Seats, after playing Little Sally in Urinetown and choreographing Jacques Brel, and I really love the spirit of this company, blending professionalism, inclusion, and whimsy. Playing this muse – Clio or Kira or Kitty or whatever name she’s using at any given moment – is such a fun adventure. I get to play screwball comedy and romance and a little campy Greek tragedy all at once. It’s a hoot.”

Matthew Pecek in rehearsal as Sonny Malone

Matthew Pecek in rehearsal as Sonny Malone

Pecek, a graduate of Adrian College, portrays Kira’s romantic interest ‘Sonny Malone’ [played in the original Broadway production by American Horror Story’s Cheyenne Jackson], and it is Xanadus unique score that holds the greatest joy for him. “Electric Light Orchestra’s harmony-infused pop songs make for the perfect jukebox musical and adding Olivia Newton-John’s power ballads into the mix keeps the soundtrack fresh. I truly believe this is the best jukebox musical ever written. This soundtrack kept me alive during exams my sophomore year of college and now I get to rock out to it every night all over again.”

Martin, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, observes, though, that the show isn’t all fun and games, “I am beyond thrilled to be playing Kira, but the role has come with some significant challenges. Not surprisingly, the most difficult aspect of playing Kira has been the roller skating. It’s amazing how much the skates cause slight balance shifts and inhibit sudden, quick movements, thus greatly affecting my acting. Of course, performing on a stage of ‘rough rock’ [West Park’s stamped concrete patio] doesn’t make it any easier, but it certainly will add an element of adventure to each performance! I just love playing this quirky, Australian-accented muse from Ancient Greece, among a vibrantly talented cast and creative team, in this ridiculous, yet endearing show.”

Roy Sexton in rehearsal as Danny Maguire

Roy Sexton in rehearsal as Danny Maguire

Pecek adds, wryly, “Working with Roy Sexton [Sonny’s elder rival ‘Danny Maguire,’ played by Tony Roberts in the original stage show] has been an incredible experience. His poise and natural instinct onstage is rivaled only by his giving nature and his fierce passion for his art. I’ll never meet the likes of him again …and I don’t think I’d ever want to.”

The production process beautifully exemplified how cohesive the local theatre community can be when, due to unforeseen challenges, Phil Simmons was unable to continue in the director role. Penny Seats president Lauren London notes, “More than any other, this show has demonstrated to me the power of our theater community when we stick together. We were heartbroken to lose Phil Simmons as a director for this show, but literally within minutes we had Sebastian expanding his role, Phil’s colleague Ryan taking the reins, and friends from The Encore Musical Theatre Company offering their aid as well. The cohesion of this group boggled our minds, crystallized Phil’s vision, and touched all of us. We owe the whole community a huge debt of gratitude, and we can’t wait to share the result of this collaboration. And we look forward to working with Phil again on a future production.”

Xanadu production team including director R MacKenzie Lewis, stage manager Kerry Rawald, and costumer Virginia Reiche - with guest Brendan August Kelly

Xanadu production team including director R MacKenzie Lewis, stage manager Kerry Rawald, and costumer Virginia Reiche – with guest Brendan August Kelly

MacKenzie Lewis is currently the composer and music director for Eastern Michigan University’s Theater Department and a lecturer with their Department of Music. Lewis’ recent works include composing The Wings of Ikarus Jackson at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., orchestrating and music directing the National Tour and Off-Broadway productions of The Berenstain Bears LIVE: Family Matters, composing Video Games: The Rock Opera and the world premiere musical with Ben Vereen, Soaring on Black Wings. He has kept busy by music directing at the Hangar Theatre in New York, the Performance Network in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and recently performing in the Las Vegas production of Ain’t Misbehavin’.

Lewis is effusive about Xanadu and its kitschy era, “This is a show that takes us back to a moment when times were simpler, carefree, our hair was feathered, and roller skates reigned supreme. I love this cheeky and totally tubular love letter to the 80’s that both satirizes and celebrates the spirit of my childhood. And who can beat watching videos of Olivia Newton-John roller skating for show research?”

Pecek elaborates, “This show is certainly an irreverent romp through the 80s but at its core, it’s about a man who needs guidance and the woman who shows him the path to artistic fulfillment. The musical serves as both a ridiculous comedy and a feminist anthem and I think that’s one reason it’s been so successful in the last decade.”

Xanadu will run at West Park’s band shell from July 14th to July 30th at 7:00pm on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

Advance tickets are available for $10 at the group’s website, http://www.pennyseats.org. Although the curtain goes up at 7:00pm each evening, pre-show picnicking is encouraged for audience members, and the group will sell water and concessions at the park as well.

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. And you can see any of our shows for the same price as a movie ticket.

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