Don’t pass go. Don’t collect $200: Edge of Tomorrow

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

All You Need is Kill was the original title of Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt’s cheeky summer epic Edge of Tomorrow. Changing the film’s name to something akin to a 1950s NBC soap opera is the only misstep the movie makes.

I’ve heard folks describe this slyly smart sci-fi bon-bon as Groundhog Day meets the video game Halo, and there is truth to that. The movie does use a “Live. Die. Repeat.” narrative structure (Edge of Tomorrow‘s marketing slogan, in fact … which also would have made a better title), and it cannily turns video game tropes on their collective head: bloodless mayhem; squiggly, skittery, unrelatable enemies; trash-talking mercenaries; Starship Troopers-esque chunky, scruffy battle gear; and, most importantly, the ability to replay a scene over and over until you get it right and can move onto the next.

Here’s the thing: director Doug Liman (so good with popcorn fare that’s a witty cut above the rest – Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Swingers, The Bourne Identity, Jumper) is not glorifying violence but rather using genre elements (not unlike the aforementioned Starship Troopers does) with such crafty juxtaposition (including the endless, intentionally mind-numbing repetition) to emphasize the colossal absurdity, and ultimate futility, of warfare. More 50 First Dates meets Dr. Strangelove.

While the rest of the world seems to have abandoned their golden boy Cruise, I actually find him rather interesting these days. From his gonzo cameo in Tropic Thunder to his sozzled musical turn in Rock of Ages to his caustic antihero Jack Reacher, Cruise appears to have finally embraced his twitchy, sweaty inner-hooligan and jettisoned his alpha male leading man aspirations. He has given up on winky, grinny charm … and has become authentically charming in the process. He finally feels like one of us – welcome to the poor schlub club, Tommy – you always belonged here.

Cruise’s character Major William Cage is a PR wonk who has somehow talked his way into a cushy military job as Europe is overtaken by long-legged-y beasties that make ominous hissing noises like a Slinky descending stairs. The always perfect Brendan Gleeson plays a Euro-general who has seen it all and isn’t buying Cage’s line of BS, sending the yellow-bellied marketer directly to the front-lines … don’t pass go, don’t collect $200.

And this is where the movie takes off like a rocket ship. Bill Paxton, in yet another wry summer movie turn (see him equally genius in a very different role in Million Dollar Arm) is Cage’s commanding officer with a bad 70s ‘stache and an even (intentionally) worse 70s swagger. Cage ends up thrown on a beach-y war-zone (a la Normandy) alongside a crew of misfits. He gets sprayed with some icky purple alien blood, and gains the gift (or curse?) to repeat this day over and over and over.

Cruise’s performance is so unexpectedly nebbishy, sans any annoying Woody Allen eccentricities, that he has the audience in the palm of his hand instantly. We are right there with him in this comically nightmarish bad dream.

Eventually, Cage survives long enough to meet Joan of Arc-super warrior Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt playing splendidly against type – see Devil Wears Prada, The Five-Year Engagement). Vrataski once had the same affliction as Cage, doomed to repeat the same day in an endless loop until a blood transfusion took her power away. Consequently, she becomes his Obi-Wan Kenobi, Mr. Miyagi, and Ellen Ripley all in one. Blunt uses her crack timing, soulful eyes, proper British cynicism, and cut-glass cheekbones all to great effect, giving us an intimidatingly likable  a**-kicker who suffers no fools gladly.

By the time the third act starts to wrap up with its inevitable “save the world by blowing up the source of all alien incursions” denouement, your patience with the film’s conceits may be worn thin. I suspect that is by design. The audience’s mental posture mirrors Cage’s/Cruise’s at that particular cinematic crossroads, and the overlap of viewer and viewed is a gas. (At least it was for me.) And this film is one of the rare examples of an ambiguous non-ending ending that works like a charm. I won’t spoil it, but I think you’ll agree.

Kyle, Steve, Jim, Sean, Roy and John

Kyle, Steve, Jim, Sean, Roy and John

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P.S. Viewing this movie was the capstone to our pal Jim Lynch‘s Big Day of Fun.

Guardians of the Galaxy with interlopers Charlie, Steve, Jim

The Guardians of the Galaxy with interlopers Charlie, Steve, and Jim

In anticipation of Jim’s upcoming nuptials to Lyn Weber, we had an afternoon of silly (great!) activities:

 

 

 

Hudson Museum (with genuine Tucker car) and Sidetracks in Ypsilanti, SkyZone and GameStop in Canton, Putterz (with a Z!) in Ypsilanti, and Carlyle Grill and, yes, Edge of Tomorrow in Ann Arbor.

The day was less Hangover more Little Rascals.

Assorted thunderstorms and a leaky limo roof only enhanced the fun, never dampening (pun intended) the hijinks! Enjoy these photos …

Jim, Roy, and John

Jim, Roy, and John

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view.

Sean makes a friend at Putterz

Sean makes a friend at Putterz

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.

Jim, Kyle, Sean, and  John at Sidetracks

Jim, Kyle, Roy, Sean, and John at Sidetracks

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

 

 

Still nursing a grudge over Paint Your Wagon? Jersey Boys (film adaptation)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Oh, for the love of all things holy, what went wrong with the film adaptation of Jersey Boys? I wish director Clint Eastwood would go back to yelling at chairs. I wasn’t sure he could get any more out of touch, and then I saw his film adaptation of the uber-popular Broadway show.

What is truly disappointing is that the stage musical (see my review of its Las Vegas residency here) is so expertly, effortlessly cinematic in its original incarnation. Intentionally episodic, Jersey Boys (live) glides along like a classic Cadillac from one Goodfellas-ish moment to another on the exquisite chassis of The Four Seasons’ hit songs.

Yes, the book is slight, but theatre director Des McAnuff knows that with enough pizzazz, flashy choreography, smooth-as-silk scene changes, and cheeky wit, the audience will be enraptured. Let the music speak for itself.

Eastwood on the other hand, while a self-admitted music-phile, makes the head scratching decision to bury the fizzy pop tunes under heaps of bad TV movie bio-drama. Seriously, did anyone bother to tell him this is a musical? Aren’t we past the point of self-consciousness over the genre, with ten-plus years of hit tuner films (ChicagoMama Mia!, Hairspray, Dreamgirls, Les Miserables) – not to mention tv series (GleeNashville) – under our collective belt?

Unfortunately, the majority of Jersey Boys‘ musical numbers on film are truncated to a verse and a chorus or used as background (playing on a radio!) while the actors – in bad wigs and later even worse old age makeup – struggle to make the life events of The Four Seasons interesting.

The ensemble cast soldiers through, but only Christopher Walken emerges completely unscathed. At this point in his career, that man could show up on an episode of The Bachelor and make it seem interesting.

Everyone else displays pained expressions as if they know Eastwood has ground this Tony Award-winning show to pulp. I was taken with Vincent Piazza (“Tommy DeVito”) and Erich Bergen (“Bob Gaudio”) who both exude a suitable amount of sparkle and nuance; I just wish they had been in a better movie. Sadly, John Lloyd Young (“Frankie Valli”), who won the Tony for his uncanny vocal pyrotechnics on Broadway, just seems constipated for the film’s entire 2 1/2 hour running time.

The only moment – and I mean the only moment – the movie truly comes alive is during the closing credits (!) sequence. Finally, we get a full-fledged musical number (“Oh, What a Night”), with joy and buoyancy and, yes, some cheesy backlot choreography. It’s like Eastwood grudgingly growled to his cast, “Okay, you can do some of this musical crap now. But it’s only at the end when people are walking out in disgust, popcorn stuck to their shoes. Anyone seen my chair?”

Maybe he’s still nursing a grudge about Paint Your Wagon and this is how he punishes us all? “Hey, you musical comedy kids, get off my lawn!”

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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 most turgid and sordid ‘That Girl’ ever!” Author Susie Duncan Sexton offers guest critique of Darling (1965)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I got an email today from my mom Susie Duncan Sexton that I found so very funny and spot on; I figured it was time for another guest reviewer on this blog! (Check out a guest review of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ by Rebecca Biber here.) My mom is an author and columnist, animal rights advocate and culture pundit – you can read her wonderful and free-wheeling blog here and check out her website (including info on her two books Secrets of an Old Typewriter and Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels) here.

From Wikipedia: “Darling is a 1965 British drama film written by Frederic Raphael, directed by John Schlesinger, and starring Julie Christie with Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey. Darling was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Christie won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Diana Scott. The film also won the Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Costume Design.”

Here’s Susie’s no-hold-barred-wittily-concise assessment of ‘Darling’ …

Susie Duncan Sexton

Susie Duncan Sexton

so atrocious…as if marlo thomas’ That Girl went apesh*t and became accidentally more comedic than one could ever imagine…move over holly golightly…welcome ‘holly go-darkly.’ awkwardly thunky…one of the worst movies I have ever seen.

for starters…christie is 5 ft. two in. and we are supposed to believe she is a model?  she got the academy award?  shirley maclaine was offered the piece of crap first.  christie looked exactly like carole king to me.  she has an abortion…a cuckolded husband, two lovers and marries a prince?  in the longest piece of drivel I have ever sat through.

just atrocious…that guy who hates giant and doris day [David Thomson] also hates this time-warped mod squad sleaze…if it weren’t so pathetically hilarious, it would be the most turgid and sordid That Girl ever!

Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels Thanks to Debbie Lannen for this fabulous review (just posted here!) of my mom’s book Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels: “Susie Duncan Sexton has a way of opening your eyes into a world long gone. Her unique style invites you to imagine as she guides you through her experiences. A delightful book. I enjoy her references to musicals, theatre, and music of all types. It is a book that can be read in one sitting or enjoyed throughout a series of sittings, as I have. Sit back with your favorite beverage and enjoy!” Check out Debbie’s just-published We Won You in a Raffle: An Adoption Story here.

Secrets of an Old Typewriter

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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.

“I refuse to pity you in the way to which you have become accustomed.” The Fault in Our Stars (film)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What has happened to me? Have I been taken to the dark side by young adult fiction? Or are the cinematic charms of Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort simply to blame? (Wow, those are some monikers – what is with every millennial having a kooky name? God love yuppie parents and their precious aspirations.)

First, I lavished praise on Divergent (see here) starring Woodley and featuring Elgort (as her brother). Now, I find myself equally enthused about The Fault in Our Stars, the film adaptation of John Green’s worldwide bestseller about young cancer patients finding love for the first time. This go-round, Woodley and Elgort aren’t siblings, but rather are the oncologically-challenged paramours in question. (That took a bit of getting used to after Divergent‘s familial dynamic. Just sayin’…)

Nothing about this movie, in the abstract, is something I should have liked. I don’t like sappy love stories (e.g. Nicholas Sparks!). I don’t like cancer dramas where illness becomes metaphor for tragic courage (e.g. Love Story!). I don’t like teen angst played out by beautiful people who’ve never had a zit in their lives and live in “middle class” homes that look like spreads in Better Homes & Gardens (e.g. pretty much any show that doesn’t feature superheroes or monsters on The CW and ABC Family … and even a few that do!).

However, I found The Fault in Our Stars quite remarkable. The film is too long by a good 20 minutes, and it has its fair share of After School Special stomach-turning goop. Yet, it also has a poignant spikiness and warm-hearted cynicism that I found refreshing.

Woodley is lovely as “Hazel,” the film’s narrator and protagonist – a young woman who has spent much of her young life in hospitals, who lugs around an oxygen tank, and who obsesses about “the only honest book about death” she’s ever read – An Imperial Affliction. She is sick of being sick, but she’s also up-to-here with well-meaning folks who push her to join prayer circles and support groups. (I don’t know if it’s happenstance or by design that the film is set in Indianapolis, but Hazel’s eyeball-rolling, scorched-earth reaction to a class held in a Hoosier church basement by a twee born-again sitting atop a latch-hook-rug depicting the “heart of Jesus” had me at “hello.”)

Woodley and Elgort (“Gus”) meet cute in the church parking lot, when he, also a cancer sufferer, offers her a cigarette. See, he carries a pack around at all times, never lighting them, both for shock value and because, after losing one leg to cancer, he likes to “keep death between his teeth,” one unlit cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips.

Never ooky, always honest, continually charming, Elgort and Woodley are a luminous screen couple. Yes, the specter of cancer is always near, but the film deftly skewers Camille-esque cliche by depicting the realities of the illness and the pharmacological insanity of modern healthcare without devolving (much) into maudlin soap opera.

People who know they are dying can be really sh*tty with the healthy and unhealthy folks around them, but they also can tap into an exuberance for living life that the rest of us can’t hope to touch. The movie captures both with subtlety and nuance, with much credit going to its talented young co-stars.

Laura Dern is her affecting, capable self as Hazel’s pragmatically optimistic mother, and Willem Dafoe is a quiet hoot as Hazel’s literary hero, the author of An Imperial Affliction, who, let’s just say, doesn’t feel one iota of condescending compassion for “Make-a-Wish” kids.

At one point, Dafoe hisses, “I refuse to pity you in the way to which you have become accustomed,” seemingly putting Hazel in her place for once and for all. What he fails to realize is that Hazel, full of a self-awareness few ever achieve, wants neither his pity nor his kinship. She simply wants truth and respect. That‘s a fine summer movie message in my book.

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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.

Funky college professors who change your life … The Carolina Chocolate Drops with Grace & Tony at Ann Arbor’s The Ark

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Carolina Chocolate Drops [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Effervescent. Witty. Intelligent. … Force of nature! These are the best words I can devise to describe Carolina Chocolate Drops’ performance Wednesday night at Ann Arbor’s The Ark.

If you aren’t familiar with this group, stop reading this right now, go to YouTube and check out their stuff. I have never seen so raucous a crowd at The Ark as I did last night, jubilant and joyous and energized by the band’s world-class musicianship and delightfully irreverent intellectualism.

This group of multi-hyphenate performers have mined hundreds of years of musical history: folk, roots, hip-hop, spiritual, blues, country, bluegrass, and even Celtic rhythms to create an intoxicating brew of acoustic, string driven, pop delights.

The drum!

The drum!

While the lineup of the group has undergone some changes in recent years, lead singer Rhiannon Giddens is a mainstay. (One of the night’s biggest laughs came when she stated, “A certain pop star came on the scene a few years back [the similarly named Rihanna] … and pretty much ruined my life … I wear clothes, though.”

Giddens is a marvel. As much accomplished actress as she is exceptional vocalist and amazing instrumentalist, she breathes life into songs that veer wildly from a 200 A.D. war chant to Blu Cantrell’s one-hit-wonder “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops).” She makes every song her own. With wide-eyed wonder, heartfelt intelligence and charm, and an impish smile, she delivers raw roots vocals with operatic technique, all while playing nearly every stringed instrument on stage from mandolin to banjo. Many of last night’s selections focused on the mistreatment of women through the ages and the essential reclamation of female power. That may sound stuffy. It ain’t.

The band!

The band!

The talents of this quartet cannot be overstated. The Chocolate Drops’ nearly two hour set flew by. Opening with the propulsive and gripping “Country Girl” through their encore “Cornbread and Butterbeans” (which was aggressively  – and quite humorously – requested all night long by one notably vocal fan), the set was a dynamic and earthy array of the group’s best work with a handful of undiscovered gems tossed in for good measure.

I felt like I was at a fabulous party that I never wanted to end. The Chocolate Drops were relaxed and authentic, gracious and inclusive. Their repartee between songs (and during!) was both instructive and hysterically funny, like that of funky college professors whom you adore for making you laugh … and changing your life.

(The Chocolate Drops also gave some local dancers the opportunity to hit the stage and interpret their music as they were playing it. If there ever was a textbook definition of a “happening,” this was it.)

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Grace & Tony [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Opening act, alt-country/folk/steampunk husband/wife duo Grace & Tony may have been an acquired taste for some. I loved them! By the time they played their last number, they had completely won me over. (I listened to their CD November in the car today on my way to work, and I highly recommend it – ethereal, zany, and compelling.)

Tony White (brother of The Civil Wars’ John Paul White) knows how to work his hipster winsome charm in service to songs inspired by such diverse topics as Stephen King’s book Salem’s Lot, Frankenstein’s monster, and a couple of serial killers who sold cadavers to universities in the 1800s. These topics sound ghoulish, but Tony (and Grace!) sold these cracked ditties with such saucy glee that the audience was in the palm their hands by the time the Chocolate Drops took the stage.

Thanks to our dear pal Rachel Murphy who introduced all of us to the Carolina Chocolate Drops music. And I, in turn, hooked my parents on the group and have given several copies of their spectacular CDs as gifts.

A plug for The Ark: this is a fabulous, nonprofit venue staffed by volunteers, bringing in internationally known performers many times a week. Definitely check out their schedule, and take in a show there first chance you get!

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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.

scha·den·freu·de: chasing after the same last scrap of bread

Thanks to the Ann Arbor Independent Newspaper which is now including me (semi-regularly) as an arts and culture contributor. My first piece appeared last week as part of their “Culture Vulture” series. A scan of the article is captured below, and the text follows. Enjoy!

Schadenfreude

 

scha·den·freu·de

 noun, often capitalized \ˈshä-dən-ˌfrȯi-də\

: a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people

By now, we’ve all digested the news that beloved, award-winning Ann Arbor-theatrical mainstay The Performance Network abruptly shuttered its doors (and fabulous floor to ceiling windows) on May 22. Possibly between the time this glib little opinion piece was composed and when you are holding it in your hot little hands, more info has come to light, but, right now, we are woefully in the dark, other than one cryptic press release and some social media nervous breakdowns that I will be courteous enough not to repeat here for all parties involved.

(Does PNT not have a PR person worth their salt to manage this situation? ‘Cause there are a lot of accusations flying about the interwebs, hot-blooded musings from troubled artists … the kind of things that make lawyers either shudder or salivate and leave the rest of us just shaking our heads in collective sadness.)

Here’s the official word: “The board of directors of Performance Network Theatre has determined that the theater is not currently financially viable and suspends all operations, effective immediately. The board wants to thank the community, actors, directors, designers, donors, and subscribers for their long-standing support of the theater.”

This is not a lot to go on, and it certainly leaves the stage door wide open for theatre pros and amateurs across the land to conjecture all kinds of tomfoolery and Shakespearean intrigue.

In the spirit of disclosure, I’m one of those rubberneckers. I’m not one of the theatrical “cool kids” in Southeast Michigan. I’m not one of the 12 performers who always get mentioned in Encore (the weekly newsblast that goes out summarizing local theatre) and I will never be nominated for a Wilde Award (especially not now). It sounds like I’m bitter. I’m not. At least not much.

PNT ClosedHowever, I respect deeply the work of those 12 performers. We have such talent and such creativity in the theatre community here. It needs to be cultivated and supported, and these are folks who have given their life’s blood (quite literally) to create some beautiful things in Southeast Michigan.

But, here’s the thing that happens with all artists at the local level, and I’m seriously armchair quarterbacking as someone who has helped found a theatre company, has acted in a lot of amateur and semi-professional productions, and who writes frequently about the arts here: artists talk a good game about supporting each other, but they still tend to behave as if they are all chasing after the same last scrap of bread.

The very profession lends itself to this cutthroat behavior: audition for a role, show up and there are 100 other talented people all wanting it, give it your best shot, dig at the other performers, shake their confidence, get the part (or don’t). And, even when you do get the part, subsist on little to no compensation, give it your all, get knocked around by critics, perform for non-existent audiences, rinse, and repeat.

I can’t speak to the business decisions at the Performance Network or what debts were racked up or how unforeseen calamities (like a burst water pipe) may have been the proverbial straw. But I do wonder about what creative hubris may result from living in perennial fear that some other artists will come along and eat your box office lunch.

A successful creative enterprise must know the audience and be sensitive to changing tastes and styles. I saw a number of shows at Performance Network, and I was always so impressed technically but I also always felt like I was outside looking in. The proceedings felt a bit hermetically sealed … like being assigned really interesting homework.

And I’m enough of a plebian that, ultimately, I’d probably rather spend my entertainment dollars to go see The Avengers than an avant garde treatment of Richard III. That is totally unfair, and really crappy of me to type … but it’s a market truth. Was Performance Network actually competing against The Avengers? Of course not, but did the company reach a point of insularity, inaccessibility, and cliquishness? Possibly.

There does seem to be some hope ahead as a new venture is rising from the ashes – something called Theater NOVA, the mission statement of which (according to their Facebook page) reads: “Creating a more sustainable model of non-profit theatre, through innovation in production/administration, commitment to artists, and true accessibility.” It’s that last word that rings truest. And I hope they mean it – accessibility … of content, for talent, for audiences. That is key. I wish them luck and hope that this momentary crisis has blown out the cobwebs, popped the pretensions, and lit a fire for improved business management. [Check out the latest developments – all seemingly positive – here. And the final resolution from the board as reported here.]

The preceding opinions are not likely to make me very popular in Southeast Michigan’s theatrical community. In fact, they may get me banned for life. I hope not, but, from monitoring social media, I seem to be alone in this perspective. That’s depressing. Successful artists know how to set up the “big tent” and invite everyone in. A closed ecosystem that just cycles through the same resources will always stagnate.

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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.

“I thought we had Cate Blanchett for the budget?” 22 Jump Street

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]

There is no question I like my movies silly. Silly but smart and self-aware.

Similarly, I like my Channing Tatum silly. Silly but smart and self-aware.

22 Jump Street delivers on both expectations in spades.

When a beautiful person – like Tatum or, say, Jon Hamm or Charlize Theron – can let their freak flag fly, shed vanity, and just be a big goof, I find that endlessly appealing. Tatum, with his James-Dean-on-steroids pout and lunkhead-with-sparkle charm, hit an unexpected comedic home run with the cinematic adaptation of 21 Jump Street in 2012. And that left-field success is (quite literally) repeated with 2014’s sequel.

Tatum’s partner in (fighting) crime Jonah Hill is the perfect match in his sheer opposite-ness. When we first met their characters “Jenko” (Tatum) and “Schmidt” (Hill) in 21 Jump Street, comic gold was spun from their playing against type. Tatum was the loose-limbed Looney Tune, and Hill was his (sort of) straight man. (Imagine Bud Abbott in Lou Costello’s body.)

Wisely, the formula carries over in the now-franchise’s latest installment. Rather than posing as high school students to break up a drug ring, however, cops Jenko and Schmidt go to (wait for it) college to break up a drug ring. The very meta film, directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (on a satirical roll following February’s blockbuster The Lego Movie), gives us one, yes, self-aware joke after another, ridiculing Hollywood’s tendency to bloat and distort what was once witty originality in the crass desire to mint money from one unnecessary sequel after another.

You know you’re in good hands when the redoubtable Rob Riggle reappears from the first film, continuing to crack wise on how the “boys” look like 40-year-olds and shamelessly ridiculing Schmidt’s whiny sycophancy.

Other standouts in the cast include Jillian Bell as sardonic (and just plain hysterically mean) college dorm devil “Mercedes;” Wyatt Russell (son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell) as a golden-haired, puka-shell-necklace-wearing frat/football bro “Zook;” and Ice Cube (as cantankerous “Captain Dickson”) who has somehow managed to turn his rage-against-any-machine 90s persona into wry, whip-smart comic firepower.

The plot is admittedly inconsequential. The film starts nowhere and ends in the same place – pretty much all by design. However, if you want to see two good-hearted, happy-as-clams performers (Tatum and Hill) decimate a college campus while careening about in a go-cart decorated like a football helmet or skewer all the tried-and-true spring break Where the Boys Are cliches or offer zany subtle-as-a-sledgehammer critique of America’s ongoing puritanical dance with homophobia, then this is the movie for you. And for me.

(And be sure to stay through the credits. Some of the free-wheeling-est jokes are made as the filmmakers propose about 30 more Jump Street films that could keep the team of Tatum and Hill in business for decades.)

P.S. Thanks to my mom – author and columnist – Susie Duncan Sexton for allowing me to guest-write her ‘Old Type Writer’ column this month on Jennifer Zartman Romano’s ‘Talk of the Town.’ You can check out our tribute to Tony Award-winning actress Laura Benanti here.

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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.

 

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Zippy, socially incendiary fun with a side of self-mythologizing: Motown the Musical in Chicago

Somewhere between the toxic camp of Dreamgirls and the theme park spectacle that is Motown the Musical, the real story of Berry Gordy and Diana Ross lives.

Currently playing at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, the Broadway transplant tells the tale of Motown Records’ founding and (ostensibly) the true life story of its chief mastermind Gordy and of his key preoccupation/inspiration call-her-MISS-Ross.

(Yes, this Metro Detroit resident – yours truly – had to travel to Chicago to see a musical about the Motor City. Ah, show biz. Why this tuner isn’t in permanent residence at Detroit’s Fox Theatre I will never know.)

What I enjoyed about the show is how seamlessly it blends all of the magical hits of the Motown era into one narrative, running the gamut from Joe Louis’ historic title bout victory to the Detroit race riots to Motown’s iconic 25th anniversary television special.

The ensemble is unbelievable. A relatively small cast literally portrays hundreds of characters, many of them etched into our collective memories: Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and on and on.

For the most part, the cast – who must have a thousand dressers backstage and racks upon racks of costumes and wigs – avoids devolving into cheap mimicry, giving us fully realized, albeit brief, glimpses into the lives of these pop music celebrities.

A few moments made me wince, particularly the portrayal of a young Stevie Wonder, but that may have just been my oversensitivity at the strange chuckles from an audience who seemed to find Wonder’s blindness a source of amusement.

I don’t know how this cast does this jam-packed, high energy, Jerome Robbins-on-caffeine-pills show night after night. They must have the aerobic health of decathletes.

Clifton Oliver as Gordy and Allison Semmes as Ross acquit themselves in a lovely fashion with roles that are just a bit too idolatrous. Given that Gordy is a producer, I guess that adoration is unsurprising.

Semmes gives a nuanced performance, introducing as much critique of Ross’ famed ambition as she was likely allowed, evolving from 17-year-old hopeful to seasoned diva before our very eyes.

Other standouts are Nicholas Christopher who gives us a sweet-hearted, nervous-headed Smokey Robinson (providing the show’s best comic moments) and Jarran Muse whose Marvin Gaye is both epic talent and maddening flake.

This isn’t a bad show. In fact it’s quite delightful. However, it is too long by at least 30 minutes. And at times the manner in which fairly significant historical moments are reduced to song and dance amidst pretty fantastic digital projections is a little goofy.

I wanted to love this show. I wanted to leave the theater with all of these marvelous songs dancing through my head. At times, however, I felt pummeled by Gordy’s self-mythologizing, to the point I wanted to spend the rest of my life listening to hair metal.

Go for the spectacle, the amazing costumes, the brilliant use of light and minimalist set pieces, but prepare yourself for a marathon. The talented cast redeems a marginal book and does yeoman’s work reminding us why Motown’s canon was and is such zippy, socially incendiary fun.

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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.

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The Last Ship

Return to Sweethaven: Sting’s The Last Ship in previews in Chicago (review)

For all intents and purposes, Sting has musicalized what is arguably his greatest album The Soul Cages – full of warmth and sadness and Celtic rhythms – in his new show The Last Ship in previews at Chicago’s Bank of America theater.

It is a thing of beauty.

Directed expertly by Joe Mantello (Love! Valour! Compassion! and Wicked) with an efficiently insightful book by John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), The Last Ship paints the hardscrabble tale of an English community (based on Sting’s hometown experiences) whose sole industry – shipbuilding – has seen better days.

Against this backdrop, Gideon, who fled this life and the girl he loved (Meg), returns to find the son he never knew and the life he never wanted. Narrative tension comes from the “will they, won’t they” of Meg and Gideon resuming their romance. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I was pleasantly heartened by the believable outcome of that particular storyline.

The ensemble does marvelous work with Sting’s hypnotic score. The title song will be stuck in my head for weeks. And the key themes of class and faith and honoring one’s past will resonate with every viewer.

In fact, that is what works most wonderfully in this new production. Yes, the show anchors around a rather conventional love triangle, but the anxiety of a town trying to find its footing again as its chief economic foundation erodes is compellingly told.

Using minimalist design that evokes a number of locations (think “Jersey Boys” in the U.K.), Sting and Logan and Mantello populate this seaside village with a cast of characters that would not be out of place in Popeye’s Sweethaven.

Standouts in the cast include Michael Esper (“Gideon”), Rachel Tucker (“Meg”), Sally Ann Triplett (joyously Emily Watson-esque as cheeky “Peggy”), Jimmy Nail (sounding uncannily like Sting himself as “Jackie”), and Fred Applegate (“Father O’Brien”).

I’m not sure if it is kosher for one to critique a show still In previews … so don’t consider this a review. Rather, think of it as a shameless plug to go check out this fabulous, grounded, melodic production either in Chicago or when it magnificently sails to a town near you. It will be on Broadway soon.

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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.20140611-225534-82534412.jpg

Empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache: Laura Benanti at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club

Benanti with my mom and me

Benanti with my mom and me

On this Tony Award weekend, we had the privilege of meeting a fabulous Tony-winner – Laura Benanti – last night at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club.

The Columbia Club

The Columbia Club

You might recall last fall that I was a staunch defender of NBC’s production of The Sound of Music (click here), which I thought suffered unfairly from a lot of social media-fueled schadenfreude. The one element that did not need defending, by me or anyone else, because it was universally lauded as perfection, was the performance by Laura Benanti as the Baroness.

Roy and Susie with poster

Roy and Susie with poster

I am happy to report that she is even more terrific in real life.

Benanti with my dad

Benanti with my dad

Throughout her fizzy cabaret show, not a note is missed – musically, comedically, thematically. She is one of the most engaging performers I’ve ever had the privilege to observe.

But even more importantly, she is kind and down-to-earth and real.
My mother and I accidentally ran into her at the elevator right before her performance. Rather than keep her distance, she walked right over to us, and with an effervescent smile, queried, “You’re coming back, aren’t you?” Of course we were! And, even though she had a two hour set to get herself psyched up for, she stood there and talked to us for several minutes.

 

 

 

I might add that she is just as gracious with all of her fans following the performance in what otherwise can be sometimes awkward for both audience and performer: the dreaded meet and greet. She takes time with each and every one and genuinely connects with all.

Almond with me and my mom

Almond with me and my mom

With my starstruck gushing aside, what about the performance itself? It is such great fun – a brilliant blend of soaring vocals, crack comic timing, cheeky irreverence, and poignant character analysis. The essence of what makes cabaret such a viable art form.

The Big Room

The Big Room

Benanti is marvelously aided and abetted by her amazing musical director Todd Almond who is as much sidekick and partner as accompanist, composing the original tunes, vocalizing with Benanti, and offering the periodic witty aside. And, by the way, he is equally personable, following the performance, happily taking my loony suggestions of pop nuggets they can skewer in their act – notably, my latest obsession Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea’s “Problem.”

Why, might you ask was I so bold to suggest such a silly song for these accomplished musicians to perform in their act?
Susie and Roy Capone

Susie and Roy Capone

 

Well, for someone like Benanti who moves seamlessly between My Fair Lady‘s “On the Street Where You Live” to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” to Nine‘s “Unusual Way” (mesmerizing!) not to mention Sisqo’s “The Thong Song,” it seems a logical addition.

What you may gather from the preceding paragraph is that Benanti’s show is a gutsy synthesis of her tastes and style and identity. She wears all these songs easily … which is a remarkable gift. She is always herself yet simultaneously channeling a wild array of characters.
Benanti and me

Benanti and me

 

This tour is captured live on her album “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention,” recorded at 54 Below, formerly the iconic disco Studio 54. My recommendation? Buy this album now, and enjoy it like you would a cast recording before going to see a Broadway show. The album is remarkable, but seeing Benanti act and sing these songs live is something not to be missed. There are enough variances between the album and the show to keep things interesting, and I won’t spoil the surprises here. If she comes to your town, run (don’t walk) to see her.

Most compelling is the manner in which Benanti paints a picture of her life as a perpetual (though fiercely independent) underdog. About someone so talented and beautiful, that may be hard to believe, but the reality is she has always been a quirky theater kid on the outside looking in. Amusingly, she lays bare the personal turmoils of a young girl listening to cast albums, learning to play the ukulele, and dressing up as obscure musical theater characters for Halloween.
Cheers

Cheers

 

(She also isn’t afraid to go off script, poking gentle fun at the more provincial elements of the Hoosier-land where she was performing. I love my home state, but I give Benanti many props for gently reminding her audience that tolerance and compassion and humanity are essential regardless your background or beliefs. And if one can get that message across with a smile on one’s face, it makes an impact.)

I leave you with a clip of her singing “Mr. Tanner,” a forgotten gem by Harry Chapin. This number was a highlight for me both when I first listened to the recording as well as during the live performance. It definitely gives you a sense of her empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache. Enjoy!

[All photos by Don Sexton – more here.]

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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.