“There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” Hell or High Water and Southside With You

Hell_or_High_Water_film_posterDancing between the raindrops. One of the most powerful and essential things that film can do, arguably unlike any other medium, is to transform the smallest moments of daily life into something poetic, allegorical, epic, and identifiable. Film, at its best, is a concise narrative, simultaneously immediate and retrospective, exploring an embedded assumption that one exchange, one decision, one day can change a lifetime.

Two movie gems, exemplifying this remarkable storytelling attribute, are currently eking out a quiet subsistence in a far corner of your local multiplex. Stroll past the escapist CGI gargoyles, laser blasts, and gross out gags of those late summer wannabe blockbusters taking up the IMAX screens, and make your way to that tiny, itty bitty screening room. You know the one, beyond the garish birthday hall, clanging arcade, and Dippin’ Dots (“Ice Cream of the Future!”) outpost, at the far end of the hall … the one that seems like its sole existence is as a concession to the public television/NPR crowd or because an extra broom closet wasn’t needed? And catch Hell or High Water and Southside with You on the big-ish screen before they are consigned to Netflix next month.

Hell or High Water is as perfect a Valentine to people who love movies as I’ve ever seen. It wears its cinematic influences proudly and confidently, like that person in  your office who has figured out how to mix stripes, plaids, and polka dots into a breathtaking ensemble. Director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) mines A Touch of Evil (the tracking shot that opens Hell or High Water is a smooth, small-town honey), No Country for Old Men (dusty postmodern desperation), Giant (watch Hell or High Water‘s final front-porch confrontation and tell me I’m wrong), East of Eden (imagine Cal and Aron as kinder, gentler, floppy-haired Natural Born Killers), and Dog Day Afternoon (shaggy, sweaty bank robbers who have Robin Hood-aspirations to right the personal wrongs that corporate America has inflicted and who are destined to fail … spectacularly). Throw in one of the best depictions of Dust Bowl brotherly love/hate since Sam Shepherd’s classic play True West and pair it with the corrosive antipathy toward American Big Banking and the mortgage industry that The Big Short failed to capture compellingly, and you have a film for the ages.

Star Trek‘s Chris Pine (all dreamy, haunted dissipation) and 3:10 to Yuma‘s Ben Foster (Sean Penn 2.0 … damn, but he is SO good, and Foster even was engaged to Robin Wright Penn – twice – after she divorced Sean) play Toby and Tanner Howard, locked in a toxic cycle of arrested development, one a loyal son but failed husband and the other a loyal brother but ne’er-do-well prodigal. Toby has cared for their dying mother and stands to inherit the dilapidated family homestead (with its recently discovered oil reserves) if he can climb out from under the crushing reverse mortgage that mama foolishly, but necessarily, took out and which is now careening toward foreclosure. Tanner, whose lengthy prison record includes time for bank robbery but surprisingly not for murdering their abusive father, is the anarchic muscle, a Looney Tune with nothing to lose who helps support the otherwise straight-arrow Toby’s scheme. Their plan? Swipe just enough cash from the teller drawers of that very predatory lending bank holding the deed to the family home, pay said bank back the money, secure the land and the oil rights, and leave it all in trust to Toby’s two sons. It’s like the perfect Playhouse 90 – on steroids.

Oh, and the whole enterprise is set among the Great Recession-scorched badlands of Western Texas, where the endless dirty, rusty miles between neon-lit casinos are dotted with billboards touting “Instant, Easy Debt Relief” like Faustian blood-pacts with the financially damned. The long (and folksy) arm of the law is ably represented by True Grit’s Jeff Bridges (absolute mumble-mouthed perfection as Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger who views his impending retirement as more of a death sentence than an earthly reward) and Twilight‘s Gil Birmingham (as Alberto Parker – comically poignant gold, playing the stoic straight man, enduring a steady stream of Marcus’ jabs, zingers which shock for being as loving as they are racist).

The film is picaresque, taking place over the course of just a few days. And it is a beauty, well-acted and crafted with such thoughtful precision that it stuns in its quiet verisimilitude. It is an indictment and celebration of the day-to-day crushing dreariness of American life – divorce, mortgages, child care, jobs, ambition, law and order, vanquished dreams – depicting a society that by dint of its unintentionally intentional design oppresses the brightest of hearts, turning mere survival into insurmountable distress. And don’t get me wrong, the movie is still an entertainment of the highest order, bleak but funny and engaging as hell.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Southside with You – otherwise known as the “Obamas’ first date movie” – is a fabulous companion piece to Hell or High Water … believe it or not. Whereas Hell or High Water tweaks the template of “caper flick” into allegory for the complex economic forces that damn the American Dream while simultaneously dangling it before our collective faces, Southside with You takes the “romantic comedy” genre and infuses it with a subtle condemnation of the race/class warfare that squelches opportunity for too many Americans.

Zero Dark Thirty‘s Parker Sawyers (a fellow Wabash College graduate, though our time in those hallowed halls, alas, did not overlap) and Sparkle‘s Tika Sumpter (also acting as a producer on the film) are luminous as the eventual First Couple: Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. Director Richard Tanne grounds the proceedings in a lush but gritty depiction of the scruffy joys of Chicago-life, and his two leads reward him (and the audience) beautifully. They are so good, subtly evoking mannerisms and vocal stylings, without ever resorting to caricature.

The film opens as these two prepare for the date – Michelle in denial (sort of) that it actually is a date – interacting sweetly with family members, electric in their nervous anticipation of the day before them. There is a gangly charm to these early scenes, humanizing two historical figures whose global accomplishments may have placed them in that unreachable classification: icon. It’s a smart narrative move for all involved.

As the film progresses, we learn that Barack is a summer associate at Michelle’s firm, and she has been assigned as his mentor. Set in the summer of 1989 (and, wow, does Tanne get that right from the fashion and the set direction to the cars and the music, including vintage Janet Jackson and Al B. Sure! playing on the radio), Michelle is cautious about the challenges facing her as a woman of color in a white man’s world, and she will be damned if this upstart intern is going to derail her career with his romantic overtures. He, on the other hand, is as earnest as he is charming, and it is evident that the engagement of each others’ impressive intellectual capacity – their beautiful minds – is how this romance blossomed and flourished.

Southside with You mostly sidesteps the pitfalls of movie biography (the pressing need to tell a whole lot in two short hours) by focusing on just this one day. Given that the narrative hook is a date, the characters have the latitude to ask a lot of questions as they get to know one another, and, by extension, we, as audience members, catch up on essential biographical detail and helpful context. Ninety-five percent of the time this works beautifully, aided and abetted by the naturalness of the performers, but a few moments are jarringly expository (particularly the discussion in the park about Barack’s upbringing) and make Southside with You feel like more of a stage play than a film. Nonetheless, those flaws are few and far between, and as the film moves toward the inevitability of its conclusion, we as viewers are gifted with consummate appreciation for the challenges this partnership overcame – culture, economics, race, gender – to step onto the global stage and effect needed social change.

Early in their date, Michelle and Barack debate the merits and downsides of working in a corporate law firm when there is so much need outside the business world for legal minds to provide community leadership: “There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” It is this existential riddle that drives both Hell or High Water and Southside with You, and, whether you are two down-on-your-luck siblings weighing a life of crime just to pay your mortgage, two lawmen putting in a brutal day’s work and hoping you emerge unscathed, the future First Couple of the United States mapping out a future together, or just some lowly audience member chomping popcorn in the movie theatre, that resonates.

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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.

“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.

“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.

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.

Elephant ears optional: My strange life with Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall

Tempus fugit. Carpe diem. Time waits for no man. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

There are so many clichés associated with the concept of time, which is as much an indicator of the shallowness of humankind as it is our own internal wrestling match with existentialism. For 26 years(!), I happily have portrayed a footnote in American history, Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall, who served under Woodrow Wilson during World War I. He is a hometown legend where I grew up, Columbia City, Indiana, and my life and his have been peculiarly intertwined.


Marshall is perhaps best known for his quote, “What this country really needs is a good five cent cigar.” Oh, and he was a Democrat, praise be. They do exist in Indiana!

While he was born in nearby North Manchester, he resided in Columbia City, and his home was just a few blocks from where my mother grew up, a house my parents then later purchased, prompting a move from Fort Wayne 30 years ago. In fact, as a child, my mother had spent a glorious afternoon once with Marshall’s former secretary, looking through sheet music, but, indicative of the nature of any small town that can fixate on the most meaningless of gossip to the detriment of a bigger picture, no one bothered to tell my mother of this woman’s notoriety.

Decades later, my mother would find herself one of the curators of The Whitley County Historical Museum, which you may have guessed is housed in Marshall’s former home, restored to its Italianate glory. Because my family has always been a creative and resourceful clan, my mother recruited me, in my freshman year of high school, to spray silver in my hair and clip a fake homemade mustache under my nose (to this day, I couldn’t grow a mustache if my life depended on it, and I’m fine with that) and eat soup and break bread at a holiday dinner with a small but plucky crew who had an appreciation for northern Indiana history.

While that first mustache fell into my soup more times than I could count, and I found myself faced with questions I had no idea how to answer (I am genetically incapable of historical reenactment, and I would be an epic failure as a cast member at Greenfield Village or colonial Williamsburg, as I have no capacity to pretend that I don’t know what a television is or to extemporaneously expound on what life was like 100 years earlier without devolving into uncontrollable giggles), it was an auspicious beginning to the longest-running role I’ve ever held.


It was at that time that I fell in love with having a script, and in a great desire to avoid ever awkwardly eating dinner with people who knew more about the character I was playing then I did, I wrote a 20 minute speech, borrowing liberally from Marshall’s autobiography A Hoosier Salad. He was a funny man, not Mark Twain clever, but the Hoosier equivalent, and the speech was peppered with one Neil Simon-esque zinger after another. You know the kind? Set up, set up, punchline. Set up, set up, punchline.

My parents bought me a better mustache, and introduced me to the joys of spirit gum, though the likely-carcinogenic silver hairspray remained. I borrowed, and never returned – sorry about that – a tuxedo from some family friends, and after honing my craft at one women’s literary circle after another, my nascent impersonation career took off. And sputtered. And took off again. I suspect it was in those days that I began to appreciate cucumber sandwiches and pineapple upside down cake and how to successfully dodge and parry through invasive, yet well/meaning, inquisitions from blue-haired octogenarians. I would find myself presenting in the unlikeliest of circumstances, repeatedly giving the speech to Governor, later Senator, Evan Bayh, for example, who probably knew it better than I did after certain point.

Like Marshall, I would end up attending small, eccentric, insular, provocative Wabash College, a liberal arts institution that, to this day, stubbornly hangs on to its all male status, like a gilded beer keg at a caveman drum circle. It’s a charming place, filled with enough memories and shenanigans to last a lifetime; coupled with the tender yet firm guidance of intellectually insatiable parents who afforded me every opportunity, my college years set me on a path for success and even more importantly toward open-mindedness.

Just when I would hope I had shaken off the specter of Marshall, somebody from the College or from my hometown or from a neighboring burg, would recall that I did this bizarre thing, and they would summon me back, not unlike Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin screaming “Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!” And, poof, I would show up, hat in hand, with the same tired anecdotes that still delighted people as if they had never heard them before.

As I am careening now through middle-age, I had filed the speech away and hidden that yellowed, crusty mustache under the bathroom sink, believing I would never be asked to do this again. In fact, that tuxedo buckles under my newfound girth, and I had hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with the mortification of trying to zip up those pants again. But, mere months ago, Mary Ann Anderson on a sojourn from the Historical Society board, emailed me at the law office where I work, betraying whatever over-the-hill actor protection program I thought I had fallen into, and asked me and Tom to return.

And I’m so glad she did.


Columbia City has a summer festival every year called Old Settlers. And in the summer of 1986, before I entered eighth grade at a new junior high in a strange yet familiar town, this street fair was my Disneyland. The downtown was taken over by the kind of carnival rides that anyone with a couple of screwdrivers and a hammer might be able to assemble, and for a week solid I would walk a handful of blocks to ride the tilt-a-whirl until my face was blue, shoveling elephant ears down a gullet queasy from the experience. I didn’t know nor care what an “Old Settler” was nor why the town’s self-appointed illuminati donned red blazers to celebrate the occasion. I just wanted carny distraction!

Thirty years later, the same rickety rides still appear and the red jackets are omnipresent. But this time I was among them, not as an impetuous teenager, but as an anxious adult, worried about a world spinning off its axis a little more every day and newly appreciative of one’s own heritage and mythology. What once seemed tangential to the celebration now seems essential: tracking and inventorying the number and ages of the attendees, where they live, and how far they may have traveled.

As part of a specific event – “History Alive!” – centered around this particular cataloging activity, Anderson asked me, a couple of Civil War reenact-ors (one for each side of the War Between the States apparently), some local artisans, and a handful of pioneer-garbed volunteers to mill about the museum grounds through the afternoon, greeting the “old settlers” as they arrived.

I found myself panicked. No script? I have to answer strange questions again? No quips? But once I settled in – somewhere around hour three – and my ever-loving and supportive parents stopped by (we never grow out of that, thank goodness), I started to have, well, fun. And even more I appreciated the purpose of this festival to celebrate people and our connection with one another and our history. Not all of us can be vice president of United States, nor would likely want to be, but we make our own history every day.

Sitting on Marshall’s front porch, dressed like a lunatic, I caught up with a steady stream of faces, half-remembered but fully loved. Looks like I just grew up a little bit. How about that? You can now call me an Old Settler. Elephant ears optional.

“No, there is no world-wide standard for the determination of provincialism. There is only one standard by which to judge men and women, and that standard is not so much one of brains and education as it is of culture and heart. Kindness seems to be the one golden metewand by which to measure how really civilized and catholic one may be.” – Thomas Marshall


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Roy Sexton tells about growing up in Columbia City, favorite teachers, pastimes, and unique opportunities he was privileged to experience living in a small town.

 

Susie Sexton’s father, Roy Duncan, was in charge of the Columbia City Blue Bell factory for many years. Susie herself grew up in Columbia City and lives today in the same home she was brought to as a baby. In this interview, Susie reminisces about Columbia City, her parents, the Blue Bell factory, the local theater and churches, and life in general.

 

 

Wild is the Wind: My mother’s birthday with Johnny Mathis 

 

This weekend was spent celebrating living legends, and that was before we even got to see Johnny Mathis at Clowes Hall, Butler University, in Indianapolis (on Saturday, May 14). My mother turned 70 this weekend, and the engaging conversation, intellectual insight, and just damn funny stuff made for a remarkable 72 hour celebration. Fine dining is arguably hard to come by where they live, but that didn’t stop us from making the best of every meal, as we prepared for our sojourn to see the legendary singer of “Wild is the Wind,” “Misty,” “Chances Are,” “99 Miles From LA,” and so many more.

Admittedly, the stifling concrete design of Clowes is a bit of a time warp, with the ushering staff seemingly comprised of retired wardens from some Eastern Bloc prison, and Johnny’s patrons, for the most part, bore an aloof midwestern crabbiness bespeaking of people who had paid too much for a blue plate special on their way to a Donald Trump rally.

But the magic that is Johnny Mathis transported us above the fray, as he celebrated his 60th year in show business, my mother having seen him 50 years prior at Ball State University. Apparently, 50 years ago, he had some strange stage antics, including a DEEP bow after EVERY number, like some road show cast member from “The King and I.” But, no more. Johnny today is a smooth, sleek lounge singer, sporting a chic yet understated Calvin Klein suit, looking like he had just stepped out of the country club to sing a few songs, before jetting off to Palm Beach for a few more rounds of golf.

The show was a breezy overview of songs he loves to sing, some he himself admitted have become a bit snooze-worthy in their sheer repetition over the years. I myself don’t enjoy all of the “going steady” numbers for which he is most famous. I prefer the offbeat fare in his discography: swirling theme songs from purple movie melodramas, 70s/80s pop songs stretching for but not quite capturing renewed relevance, cover songs made famous by other artists. Consummate showman, Mathis made sure to offer something for every audience member.

A highlight from the show was a smashing medley of Henry Mancini numbers, for which Mathis is not necessarily known but which nonetheless suit him beautifully. “Two for the Road,” “Charade,” “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Moon River” fit Mathis as beautifully as his tailored outfit. Accompanied by a lush orchestra, that nearly drowned Mathis out frequently, the effervescent ring-a-ding poignancy of those songs were well served.

Songs of unfulfilled longing also mesh gloriously with Mathis’ flawless choirboy voice – numbers like “Wild is the Wind,” “Secret Love,” and “99 Miles From LA” all wistful perfection.

At the close of the evening, Mathis soared through a raucous medley of tropical hits, that were equal parts Sergio Mendes and Carlos Jobim. I particularly enjoyed his take on “Brazil,” a nearly eight minute epic, culminating in every audience member on their feet.

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The sour note in the evening? An “intermission” comedian named John Upton who openly joked that people often mistake him for Barry Goldwater. Perhaps there is a physical resemblance, but they may be referring to the fact that his jokes seems to have started and stopped in the retro era when Goldwater may have had some dubious relevance.

I’m not a fan of “take my wife, please” comedy. It wasn’t funny when it was written on cocktail napkins from 1963, and it’s not funny now. Upton’s style was the typical snarky, “I want to be David Letterman when I grow up” comedy of the self-satisfied, insecure, egomaniacal middle-aged white male – the kind of jokes where someone else is always to blame for one’s own deficiencies: 20-year-olds, cell phones, geese, the cat, and, most egregiously, women.


For someone like Mathis, who has made a career from being a sweetly innocuous, confectionary bonbon, beloved by any and all walks of life, this inclusion of Upton is a serious misstep. I found myself cringing in the presence of my progressive parents, but we offset the misogynist toxin by listening during the car ride to the cast recording of “American Psycho,” a scabrous musical that derives its humor and pathos by skewering such men and their shallow ways. At least, that’s how I rationalized it.

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All in all, it was a memorable birthday weekend for my mother, with interesting adventures added to the record books, a toilet that decided to malfunction Sunday morning, and a plethora of birthday goodies presented by my father. Happy birthday, Susie! We love you!🙂

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

“I can do this all day!” Captain America: Civil War

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel’s latest offering Captain America: Civil War made me a bit cranky. The film is perfectly fine – good-to-great, in fact. So, why do I feel bowed and broken by the 2.5 hour superhero slugfest?

Returning to this fan-favorite character – after their exceptional work raising the genre to dizzying, political potboiling heights with Captain America: The Winter Soldier director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo now take on the unenviable task of adapting a year-long Marvel Comics event (2006’s Civil War) that encompassed hundreds of characters and decades of lore and centered on a contentious feud between Captain America and Iron Man over the very civil liberties that are sliding off the rails in the present-day 2016 presidential election.

Importing this plot, that benefited extensively from comic readers’ knowledge of Marvel Comics’ 50+ years of canon, into a popcorn blockbuster cinematic universe still in its infancy is no mean feat.

More or less, the Russos succeed brilliantly. The directors deftly juggle a baker’s dozen of colorfully clad Avengers, throwing some new ones into the mix (Marvel has to set up Phase 27 of this merchandising empire, naturally!), yet somehow still retaining focus on the character (Chris Evans’ Captain America) around whom the film ostensibly revolves.

Thank heavens for THREE factors which prevent the enterprise from becoming the kind of overpopulated, unholy, confusing movie slog we tend to associate with Marvel’s Distinguished Competition: 1) the Russos balance their reverence for the comics source material with a surgical ability to excise the nerd-centric minutiae, capturing the essence of this allegorical battle for the soul of America; 2) the filmmakers smartly realize Captain America works well onscreen as a sweet-natured, noble everyman whose motivation will always be, first and foremost, that of a 98-pound weakling out-of-touch with the ways of the modern world yet not giving one damn if his desire to put down bullies of every stripe sets him at odds with current mores; and 3) Chris Evans.

Yes, Robert Downey, Jr.’s motormouth Tony Stark (Iron Man), whose oily hustle as a Tin Woodman on steroids is all sparkle and no soul, slapped the verve into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the first place. (He is dynamite, and, while his rust is starting to show, it plays well through that character’s arc as the cynical pragmatist of The Avengers.) However, my money for the heart and soul of these films is and always will be on Evans’ Captain America.

The best bits of the extended Marvel television universe (Agent Carter, later seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) took root in the Captain America films, and the strongest humor and the most heart-tugging pathos have always centered around the character. Captain America: The First Avenger is as kind, humane, and inspiring a film as Marvel has produced, and Winter Soldier was a crackling spin on America’s obsession with a stalwart greatness we’ve never actually possessed.

So why am I a bit crabby this afternoon after viewing Civil War? Maybe it’s just because the pollen count is woefully high here in Michigan. Or the fact that summer is suddenly barreling down upon us, with the idea of five months of yard work less-than-thrilling.

It’s certainly not because there are any issues with Civil War‘s cast, a collection of champs as fine as they come: Scarlett Johansson (bringing Black Widow new levels of compelling internal conflict), Sebastian Stan (a haunted, hulking Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (his gleaming loyalty cut with a sly anxiety as Falcon), Jeremy Renner (a world-weary Hawkeye), Don Cheadle (a world-wearier War Machine), Paul Bettany (with a nice touch of metallic angst as The Vision), Paul Rudd (welcome comic relief as Ant-Man), Elizabeth Olsen (dodgy Slavic accent notwithstanding as the tortured Scarlet Witch), newcomers Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland (a glowering, intense Black Panther and a cagey yet-wheeling Spider-Man respectively) and a whole busload of “non-supers” caught in (or causing) the cross-fire (William Hurt, Emily VanCamp, Martin Freeman, Daniel Bruhl, John Slattery, Alfre Woodward, Marisa Tomei, Hope Davis).

There is not one false note among them – which is remarkable given that many of these pros receive mere minutes (if not seconds) of screen time. They all make the most of every moment, neither chewing the scenery nor fading into the background amidst all the pyrotechnics. That is a testament as much to the Russos’ direction as it is to the respective actors’ abilities.

I guess I’m a bit sour because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has started to feel like all work, no play. (And we know what effect that had on Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Not good.) The early films were rife with a joy of discovery and a whimsy that is starting to dissipate around the edges. The evolution of this vast Marvel machinery – all the cogs and spokes and wheels and widgets from the movies to the ABC shows to the NetFlix series to the tie-in books and cartoons and merchandise – is a wonder to behold but can also seem stiflingly corporate. It’s become terribly self-serious, all gravity, no air – each Marvel film trailer now peppered with phrases like “nothing will ever be the same,” “forget everything you know,” “this is the moment everything changes.”

The unrelenting bigness seems antithetical to the “little guy taking on the world” joie de vivre that makes Captain America such a special and uniquely American creation. As Evans’ Cap often declares in these films, to comic effect under the most dire of circumstances, “I can do this all day!” Unfortunately, where the Marvel empire is concerned, that sounds like more of a menacing declaration of war than a scrappy assertion of hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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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.

“I had a mountain of student loan debt, and this job guarantees me four years of income.” Eye in the Sky

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Eye in the Sky, starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi and Alan Rickman (in one of his final performances) is about as perfect a film as I’ve seen in a long time and hands down is my favorite film of 2016 so far (though admittedly that bar is pretty low right now).

The film is a sophisticated but unpretentious examination of drone warfare in our 21st century civilization – our big blue marble, which is getting frighteningly smaller by the minute, so technologically advanced yet still so stone age barbaric.

The film, directed with economy and precision by Gavin Hood (Hood, I now can forgive you for X-Men Origins: Wolverine), is a narrative throwback to political potboilers like Three Days of the Condor, Black Sunday, or even 12 Angry Men and Judgment and Nuremberg with a healthy dose of vintage Playhouse 90 and BBC teleplays in its DNA. That’s a compliment, by the way.

Taking place in a single day, across three continents (Africa, North America, and Europe) the film’s action is constrained essentially to a board room, two “mission control”-type chambers, and one dusty town in Nairobi. It’s a rare film these days that relies on its actors to bring the slow-burn pyrotechnics, nary a green screen or lightsaber or cape in sight.

Not unlike recent true-life thriller Captain Phillips (which also featured Barkhad Abdi, in an Oscar-nominated performance), Eye in the Sky weaves cinematic tension around the tricky juxtaposition of the comfortably mundane and the horrifyingly extraordinary. Like Tom Hanks’ Phillips, the characters in Eye in the Sky have jobs to do, mortgages to pay, birthday gifts to pick up, dogs to feed, snoring spouses to ignore, food poisoning to overcome, bread to sell … all while making small and large philosophical gestures toward righting the perceived wrongs in a vast geopolitical landscape.

A ball of ethereal, blue-eyed twitch, Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul, who plays the Las Vegas-based drone pilot assigned to Eye in the Sky‘s particular mission, is asked by a colleague why he signed on to a military career. In a lesser film, he might have replied (with flag waving in the foreground and a vaguely patriotic theme swelling in the soundtrack), “For love of country … and freedom … and our way of life.” In Eye in the Sky, his answer? “I had a mountain of student loan debt, and this job guarantees me four years of income.” Yup.

It’s a little throwaway moment, but, coupled with similar moments (Rickman wrestling with the choice of inanely named dolls in a toy shop; Mirren padding out of bed at 4 am to feed her dog and check her email; Abdi bringing some dubious looking lunch containers to his surveillance monitoring colleague), the film offers incisive, sobering, ever-so-lightly-satiric commentary on human survival.

In the context of the film, Mirren is an intelligence operative, Rickman is British military, Paul is American military, and Abdi Kenyan intelligence/military. They are collaborating to bring down a terrorist cell on the move in Nairobi. The film opens with a pastoral depiction of a Kenyan family – father, mother, daughter – eking out a living, repairing bicycles and baking bread. The young daughter – newcomer Aisha Takow in a hauntingly subtle, heart-tuggingly luminous performance – is dutiful and bright, enjoying her hula hoop and books behind the walls of the family home, but hiding her light out of necessity when “fanatical” (her father’s words) customers come to their door. As the military (and comically inept bureaucratic) forces converge to strike down the terrorist cell next door, the easy, kind-hearted daily rituals of this little family end up in the cross-hairs (literally). I don’t want to spoil the film, but I could cry right now just typing this.

You must see this film. It is humanist. It is feminist. It is fair. There isn’t an ounce of jingoism, but it is patriotic- that is, if you see patriotism, not with the skewed xenophobic nationalist lens that has ruined the word, but as something that certain leaders must carry in their hearts and minds and actions to preserve a larger peace for us all. And the film never shies from the idea that said peace for one group has a yin/yang consequence on another group down the line. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Our political and military decisions carry racist, sexist, classist implications. They all come at a cost – to life on this planet and to our souls.

At the film’s conclusion, Rickman (who is a beautiful tempest of persistence and exasperation in the film) dresses down a well-intentioned bureaucrat to never doubt a military man’s (woman’s) deep awareness of the bloody price of war. That’s the genius of this film. No one is a villain; no one is a hero. Choices are made pragmatically, and it is that crushing pragmatism that tortures every character in the film. Ultimately, like us all, the characters in Eye in the Sky just hope to make it through their 9-5 days relatively unscathed, go home, take off their shoes, pet the dog, love their kids, and sleep.

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When the director of the movie you’ve just reviewed tweets out your post … #Cloud9 


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A young fan exhibiting her fabulous taste in books!

A young fan exhibiting her fabulous taste in books!

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.