On today’s episode, we chat with the divine Roy Schwartz about his book Is Superman Circumcised?from McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers and the Jewish context for comic book icon Superman. Schwartz is an accomplished legal marketing professional, and he details how his appreciation of storytelling, graphics, character, and effective narrative have enabled him to help lawyers discover their business development super powers.
We *may* also talk (a lot) about comic books.
Rob Kates and I also chat with my mom Susie Sexton about fleas, the Olympics, and the joys of marriage. Other topics addressed in today’s show, in no particular order: Britney Spears, Bill Cosby, Jack Kirby, Stephen Colbert, cosplay, pool toys, Richard Donner, Christopher Reeve, Superman and Lois, writing, Halloween costumes, Schneider, and heaven knows what else.
Shout outs include Richard Pinto, Scott Neitlich, Merry Neitlich, Andrew Laver, Jessica Aries (happy birthday!), Kimberly Schwartz, and more!
So, we’ll have two comic-book-loving “Roys” on the show, and they’ll discuss the intersection of a career in legal marketing, a passion for writing and cultural analysis, and an obsession with superheroes.
Legal Marketing Coffee Talk is brought to you by: Jessica Aries’ By Aries and Rob Kates’ Kates Media: Video Production. Thank you, as always, to Katelynn McGuire for the promotional support!
Beautifully written and consummately researched, Is Superman Circumcised? extends its analysis well beyond the character’s Golden Age origins and authorship to assess the full 80+ years of the Man of Steel’s pop cultural history.
Schwartz marries biblical, literary, and sociocultural scholarship effortlessly. This is a breezy yet substantive and profound read, deftly navigating real world and DC Comics in-universe history as well as religious and mythic iconography. The portrait of Jewish history, culture, and faith as channeled through the Superman mythos is comprehensive and revelatory.
As for the titular question, I won’t spoil any surprises. Rather inevitably, logically, and reasonably (for a character so ingrained in the public consciousness), Schwartz leaves his reader with an answer akin to what might only be described as … Schrödinger’s prepuce.
Highly recommend for both comics fans and casual readers alike.
Schwartz will be conducting an author talk at the University of Michigan on June 16, 3-4 pm. It’s free to attend via Zoom – register here: umlib.us/superman.
SUPERMAN is the most famous character in the world. He’s the first superhero, an American icon—and he’s Jewish!
Introduced in June 1938, the Man of Steel was created by two Jewish teens, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the sons of immigrants from Eastern Europe. They based their hero’s origin story on Moses, his strength on Samson, his mission on the golem and his nebbish secret identity on themselves. They made him a refugee fleeing catastrophe on the eve of World War II and sent him to tear Nazi tanks apart nearly two years before the US joined the war.
In following decades Superman’s mostly Jewish writers, artists and editors continued to borrow Jewish motifs for their stories, basing Krypton’s past on Genesis and Exodus, its civilization on Jewish culture, the trial of Lex Luthor on Adolf Eichmann’s and a holiday celebrating Superman on Passover.
Exploring these underlying themes of a beloved modern mythology, Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero is a fascinating and entertaining journey through comic book lore, American history and Jewish tradition, sure to give readers a newfound appreciation for the Mensch of Steel!
Roy is the author of Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero (McFarland ’21) and The Darkness in Lee’s Closet and the Others Waiting There (Aelurus ’18).
He has written for newspapers, magazines, websites, academic organizations and journals, law firms, tech companies, toy companies, and production studios. He has taught English and writing at CUNY, the City University of New York, and is a former writer-in-residence at the New York Public Library. When not writing he is the director of marketing & business development of a regional law firm.
Roy graduated magna cum laude from the New School University with a BA in English, majoring in creative writing with a minor in journalism, and cum laude from NYU with an interdisciplinary MA in English and social thought, focusing on 19th century British and 20th century American literature. He interned for Marvel Comics.
Originally from Tel Aviv, Israel, Roy grew up a voracious reader of everything from Israeli novels to British plays to American comic books. He taught himself English from comics and cartoons, which is why he’s comfortable using words like “swell.”
Roy lives in Long Island, NY with his wife Kim, a bestselling author and editor, and their two children. He has a penchant for caffeine, candy, and a quality-over-quantity wardrobe.
For kids of all ages – the #PiedPiper – with yours truly reading the title role. Thank you, Debbie DeCeco Lannen and Pass The Time Players, for having me. NOTE: no (virtual) rats were harmed in the making of this #Zoom event. You’re welcome. 😊 🐀 🎶
The Pied Piper of Hamelin Narrator: Debbie Lannen / Orlando, FL Merchant: Sally Daykin / DeLand, FL Erich – Kyle Coykendall / Wixom, MI Advisor: Tomothy Majzlik / Westland, MI Mayor: Joe Lannen / Orlando, FL Pied Piper: Roy Sexton / Saline, MI
Only I would take this beautiful day, and spend most of it indoors, working my way through the very long Zack Snyder’s Justice League. But it was worth it. Even if every 30 minutes John wandered through and said “Is this still on?”
I can barely remember the theatrical version, which is likely for the best. What I found in this updated version is that Snyder had room to explore ideas and relationships. And that made all the difference. I am not a fan of his work. By any stretch. But, perhaps because of what he has lived through the past few years, this film had something many of his previous efforts did not: heart.
My mom Susie Sexton’s take on Carey Mulligan’s Promising Young Woman:
GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY…already loved this actress … discovered her on PBS in a Dickens entry years ago. Outstanding!
This movie upends with its surreal treatment of a very real truth bedeviling this globe since the appearance of manKIND walking on its own evolved two feet – astounding, disturbing and so true and sad that it hurts, haunts and breaks any heart that is the least bit human.
The barbie doll sets and clothes simply enhance the deep damage done to humanity as we have all looked the other way and endured unnecessary heartache. Give it a look, enjoy!
No nudity, and only one supposed murder. An oddly wholesome at times comedic treatment of a tragic problem. Bravo!
Threw this viewer for a loop (which most all of us have existed within for all of eternity). Truth on film if there ever ever was. Whew?
Joe: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.
From Sunset Boulevard
“If you dream it, you can achieve it.” – Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) in Wonder Woman 1984
“Nothing good is born from lies.” – Diana (Gal Gadot) in Wonder Woman 1984
Sadly, this seems to be the season of watching big ticket blockbusters crammed onto a home screen. Furthermore, this seems to be the season where all of your Facebook friends march like lemmings to tell you what you’re supposed to think of said offerings before you even have had a chance to view them for yourself. Being the good-natured contrarian that my parents raised, I find myself in direct opposition to much of the feedback I’ve observed. To me, The Prom was kind-hearted escapism-with-attitude, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a stagy self-indulgent slog, Midnight Sky was a resonant Truman Capote-meets-Ray Bradbury short (long) story, and Wonder Woman 1984 was a candy-coated (admittedly overstuffed) confection.
I loved The Prom. I, for one, like unapologetic musicals, and this Ryan Murphy production reads like Hairspray, The Greatest Showman, High School Musical, and Bye Bye Birdie had a socially progressive movie baby. Much needless ado has been made about (formerly?) beloved Carpool Karaokemaven James Corden playing a gay character, claiming his take is offensively stereotypical. Many critics’ descriptions have been as troubling as what they accuse Corden of perpetuating, if you ask me.
To me, it is one of Corden’s better and more thoughtful performances, layering broad comedy in a compelling gauze of pathos, to effectively depict a man struggling to find his path in the margins (in career, physicality, and, yes, sexuality). Corden is part of a free-wheeling quartet of Broadway narcissists (all compensating for respective ghosts of failures past) who descend on a small Indiana town to “rescue” it from its own prejudices after the local PTA shames and embarrasses a young lesbian (luminous newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) in a way that would make even John Travolta’s character in Carriecringe.
Meryl Streep (channeling a caustic yet charming mix of Patti LuPone and Susan Lucci), Nicole Kidman (at her most winsomely fragile), and Andrew Rannells (all bounding and puppyish joy) are Corden’s partners in well-intentioned, occasionally misplaced crime, and they have fabulous chemistry. Kerry Washington is suitably evangelically vampy as the rigid PTA president, and Keegan-Michael Key is a pleasant surprise (both as a singer and actor) as the high school’s show tune loving principal. Tracey Ullmann pops up as Corden’s regretful Midwestern ma, and their reconciliation scene is a lovely little masterclass in heightened understatement.
Oh, right, I did say the movie is kicky fun, but nothing I’ve written here much indicates why. Working from Matthew Sklar’s buoyant Broadway production, Murphy and team overdo everything in all the right ways, juxtaposing all-too-real intolerance and heartache (basically everyone in the film is guilty of uninformed prejudice of one kind or another) with the metaphysical joys of unhinged singing, dancing, glitter, and sequins. All ends (predictably) happily, almost Shakespearean (if Shakespeare listened to Ariana Grande), and I dare you not to sit through the end credits with a stupid, hopeful grin on your face.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is also adapted from the stage, as legendary director George C. Wolfe brings August Wilson’s play to the screen. I suspect my disappointment is more to do with the source material than Wolfe’s sure-handed if claustrophobic direction. To be honest, I wanted more of Viola Davis’ dynamite Ma Rainey and less of … everyone else. Davis has one scene worthy of the Hollywood time capsule, eviscerating the misogynistic and racist capitalist machine that steals artists’ voices (quite literally as Rainey is committing her vocals to vinyl) and tosses people to the curb when they’ve outlived their usefulness.
The film depicts one day in a Chicago recording studio as Rainey fights with, well, anyone who crosses her path in defense of her vision and to retain her integrity in a world that reduces her to a commodity. THAT is the movie I wanted to see, but Wolfe gives preferred time to Rainey’s studio musicians, a group of men whose primary purpose seems to be representing inter-generational animosity among those with a Y-chromosome. Perhaps I’ve just had my fill for one lifetime of toxic male posturing, but I grew weary of their (endless) scenes.
In total, the film feels like it never really escapes the confines of the stage, and I may be among the few viewers underwhelmed by Chadwick Boseman’s performance. His work seems hammy and like he is in search of another movie altogether. I could be wrong, but the overwhelming praise for Boseman here feels like groupthink rhapsodizing given that he is no longer with us. I’m going to hell. See you there. Boseman remains a singular talent, but I don’t think time will be kind to this particular role, Oscar-winning as it likely will be.
Wonder Woman 1984 follows the loping narrative style of all inexplicably beloved films made in, well, 1984, and thereby is a kind of referendum on the cardboard excess and shallow instant gratification of that hollow era, nostalgia for which continues to plague us in insidious ways to this very day.
I found it nicely character driven with a strong cast and with a warm and (mostly) light touch, but plagued by some script/logic problems in its final act. All in all, it met my comics-loving expectations, and I enjoyed what they were doing. Gal Gadot remains a commanding presence in a way we just don’t see in screen stars these days. She’s not an actor per se, but she is a star.
Director Patty Jenkins has great Rube Goldberg-esque fun with one improbable action sequence after another. All were clearly nods to similar films of the 80s featuring, say, Superman or Indiana Jones but enhanced through modern Fast and the Furious-style tech and suspension of disbelief. I’m not looking for pragmatism in a movie like this. Sometimes I just want to be entertained, and WW84 did that for me
Jenkins makes the smart choice of casting talent who will connect the dots in a wafer-thin script. In the film, Kristen Wiig consistently makes smart acting choices as her character progresses from heartbreakingly nerdy sidekick to sullen and insolent supervillain, never losing the heartache of exclusion underneath it all. I thought she was a refreshing and inspired choice to play Barbara Minerva/Cheetah.
Dreamy/witty Chris Pine doesn’t get much dialogue/plot to work with as newly resurrected love interest Steve Trevor, but he shines nonetheless, wringing laughs from fish-out-of-water nuance without ever belaboring the joke.
Pedro Pascal balances Trumpian satire and Babbitt-esque tragedy as a gilded charlatan who believes 80s greed is the key to self-acceptance. He’s grand until the dodgy final act strands him somewhere on manic Gene Wilder-isle, and the film limps to its inevitable world-saving resolution.
I also think if people had watched WW84 on the big screen, they would have walked away with a different vibe. Some may disagree, but there’s a hidden psychological bump to paying for a ticket and investing time away from home (one WANTS the movie to be good) that is erased by the small screen – which has little to do with what is actually being viewed. IMHO.
The global warming parable Midnight Sky (directed by and starring George Clooney), however, benefits from small screen viewing. That said, the film’s outer space, nail biting, race-against-time elements have all been covered (sometimes better) in The Martian, Interstellar, Ad Astra, and George Clooney’s own Gravity. Hell, throw in Event Horizon, Sunshine, and The Black Hole for good measure.
Rather, I enjoyed the film’s quiet moments with Clooney as the sole (maybe?) survivor on an ice-covered Earth, as he fights the elements, time, and his own failing health to deter a deep-space crew from returning to their certain death on an uninhabitable planet. I didn’t give two hoots about the space mission, which included Felicity Jones, Kyle Chandler, David Oyelowo, and Tiffany Boone, all doing their level best to make us care. However, I was transfixed by an almost unrecognizable Clooney who checked his golden boy charm at the door and exquisitely projected the exhaustion and anxiety and fear of someone nearing the literal end. So, in other words, how most of us feel in 2020.
If it were up to me, I would edit out all of the space-faring scenes and leave the film’s focus on George Clooney alone in a post-apocalyptic arctic, yielding a transcendent hour-long Twilight Zone episode.
Now, let’s see how I fare in the Twitterverse when I finally turn to watching Disney’s/Pixar’s Soul …
Postscript …what follows is an email sent to my mother Susie Sexton this afternoon about 1960’s classic Cimarron. They don’t make movies like this any more, and that’s a shame.
From IMDB’s synopsis: “The epic saga of a frontier family, Cimarron starts with the Oklahoma Land Rush on 22 April 1889. The Cravet family builds their newspaper Oklahoma Wigwam into a business empire and Yancey Cravet is the adventurer-idealist who, to his wife’s anger, spurns the opportunity to become governor since this means helping to defraud the native Americans of their land and resources.”
I just finished Cimarron and liked it very very much. I do think that Edna Ferber captures perhaps somewhat formulaically but absolutely effectively, the passage and snowballing magnitude of time and life, with a lovely progressive sensibility (pun unintended).
Maria Schell is exquisite. I don’t think the film would’ve been half as good without her in it. I really like Anne Baxter too. Their one scene together is quite understated and powerful.
Glenn Ford is of course great too, but Maria Schell really got to me. She acts in a style ahead of its time. It’s a beautiful film, but at least in the first ten minutes I kept expecting them to burst into song. When it really digs into their struggle and unpredictable relationship, it’s very powerful. The supporting cast was of course great since all of those people had been in one million films already.
Thanks for recommending this! Love you!
My family loves movies. We always have. It is our cultural shorthand, and every holiday – until this one – has been spent in communion over what movies we saw, how they made us think and feel, and what these films might say about our culture and its advancement. That is in short why I write this blog. I can’t imagine watching a movie without having the opportunity to share how it speaks to my heart and mind.
Thank you for reading these thoughts of mine for nearly ten years (!), inspired as they are by a lifetime of loving movies.
Yes, I’m an adult (sort of) who reads (and enjoys) comic books. I’ve always relished the escapist interludes comics frequently provide. But sometimes they are transcendant.
A few times in my life, be they in epic scale (Marv Wolfman’s and George Pérez’ Crisis On Infinite Earths, Brad Meltzer’s and Rags Morales’ Identity Crisis, Grant Morrison’s and Howard Porter’s JLA) or clear-eyed cultural critique (Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Reggie Hudlin’s and John Romita, Jr.’s Black Panther), the books left me speechless and deeply moved, notably in terms of how metaphorically revelatory these pieces can be about our sometimes joyous, often painful human condition.
Add The Other History of the DC Universe to that storied (pun intended) list. Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley pens a compelling, heartrending, corrosive yet loving treatment of the history of the DC Universe from the eyes of heroes of color left in the (literal) margins. Giuseppe Camuncoli and Andrea Cucchi provide gorgeous illustrations that are expansive, exhilarating, and somehow both retro AND forward-leaning.
In the first issue, Jefferson Pierce AKA Black Lightning takes us from 1972 through 1995, juxtaposing “real” world and “DC Comics’ world” events of that era with an incisive point-of-view that is eye-opening, transformative, damning, beautiful, and human. You might never look at Superman the same way again, yet you are even more appreciative of these characters and their ability to reflect our own ever-evolving societal perspectives on equality, fair play, and inclusion. Can’t wait to read the rest.
Want to join me in supporting a good cause? For my birthday this month (December 28 to be exact!), I’m raising money for Ronald McDonald House Charities Ann Arbor and your contribution will make an impact, whether you donate $5 or $500. Just click donate on this fundraising page: https://lnkd.in/eQ_NVZD
I’m a proud board member and have seen firsthand how every little bit helps. This little fundraiser is nearing the two thousand dollar mark because of wonderful support from kind and generous friends like you!
Thanks to our donors-to-date: Beth Kennedy, Greg Griffin, Terry Branoff, Paola Armeni, Chris Sheeren, Aaron Bebee, Rachel Shields Williams, Megan McKeon, Morgan Leigh Horvitz, Monica Phillips, Dianne Rychlewski, Kristen Bateman Leis, Becky Felix, Anna Ostrander, Eric Walkuski, Donna Ballantyne, Christine N. Harris, Jennifer Munsayac, Barry Solomon, Kate Meltzer, Laurin Hawkins, Connie Harris, Cynthia Voth, Tina Paraventi, Amy Oldiges, Tammy Gales Mangan, Kelly MacKinnon, Sally Feldman, Petrea Schumacher, Brook Weeks Redmond, and Sarah Gallagher. Love you ❤️
Thank you for your support.
Legal Marketing Coffee Talk is back Monday with host Roy Sexton (ME!), Director of Marketing at Clark Hill, and guest Stephanie D. Preston, PhD and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. Dr. Preston examines how the brain evolved to use emotions to influence decisions across species, particularly in interpersonal and investment contexts.
How does this apply to legal marketing!?
Well, Dr. Preston focuses her attention on our desires and how our neural processes that originally evolved to guide mammals toward resources that are necessary but scarce may mislead us in our current modern conditions of material abundance. In other words, she will help us understand how our brains work. She will also explain to us the interesting connection between marketing and psychology and how their connection has led to overconsumption in some areas.
“Your imperfections make you special.” – Joey, student actor in “Spotlight,” the final episode of Marvel’s 616
Today, we brought in our deck furniture (from the summer!) to store in the basement, that is after decorating our house for Christmas. We bought the set what feels like yesterday (April), and we dutifully covered it to protect it from harsh sun and booming thunderstorms, pretty much never sitting on it, once wrapped in a cumbersome, billowing shroud of waxy canvas. So we paid for outdoor couches, negotiated their delivery in pandemic, never used them, and just huffed and puffed maneuvering them through endless doors and hallways into our basement, in another attempt to protect them.
Futility and comedy, thy name is home ownership. Everyone keeps blaming 2020 for everything, as if an arbitrarily determined twelve-month signifier of time’s passage is the cause of our collective woes. Yet, what has actually been laid bare in this dumpster fire period is, in fact, that we are all ourselves to blame with our materialistic, self-absorbed mania day after day, a long-standing debt that finally came due. How much have we taken for granted and what damage have we done to planet, culture, ecology, health, and mental well-being in the process? We’ve likely only seen the tip of that iceberg. Ahoy, me maties!
Take these chances Place them in a box until a quieter time Lights down, you up and die Driving in on this highway All these cars and upon the sidewalk People in every direction No words exchanged No time to exchange
When all the little ants are marching Red and black antennas waving They all do it the same They all do it the same way
My last legit movie review was Birds of Prey. In February. Lord, I hope that’s not the last movie I ever get to see in an actual movie theatre. If I had only known, I’d have chosen … oh, who am I kidding? I still would have seen it. I miss the communal experience of movies, observing audience reaction and assessing the art as well as the commerce of cinema. Wild horses couldn’t get me to go now, if ever again, but I do miss it. Yet, between lone gunmen and rampant plague, performance venues are the new OK Corral.
Thanksgiving has always been a special movie time for my family. My parents and I, year after year, would see hundreds of films over the long holiday weekends, beguiled by Hollywood’s relentless marketing machine. We’d pronounce a film as “awful!” only to change our minds over breakfast, searching for connective tissue and insights into the human condition from such disparate selections as Life of Piand Daddy’s Home 2. I miss that. I miss my parents.
My husband and I have had no end of entertainment – deck furniture notwithstanding. Showing my age, I do resent that finding new shows to binge is tantamount to a digital Easter egg hunt these days. Netflix? No. AmazonPrime? Maybe. Disney+? Possibly. Do we just have this on DVD somewhere?
We’ve enjoyed a lot of what we’ve seen, at times arguably more forgiving of relative quality for the escape that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Ratched, Upload, All-American, Hollywood, The Order, The Boys, Emily in Paris, Mandalorian, The Umbrella Academy provided. I’m 99% certain we would have watched very few of these (let alone looked forward to each installment like Victorians eagerly awaiting the next Dickens chapter) had the world not been ending every five days. For this time with my husband, enjoying our home, staying at home, not chasing frenetically scheduled ACTIVITIES!, I am grateful. Pandemic has been a pleasant reprieve in that regard, and I may have been permanently transformed into Boo Radley as a result. Check our trees for handmade toys left for passers-by.
My dear friend Tyler Chase is a talented documentary filmmaker, and she gave me a sneak peek at her latest A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur. To say it was the right movie to see in my present mindset would be textbook understatement. I am haunted days after by her clear-eyed, unsentimental but utterly empathic filmic observations on the clash of creativity, capitalism, obsession, free thought, and community in postmodern America.
From the film’s website: “A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur with Golden Globe Award recipient, Brian Cox as the Narrator is an intimate and journalistic documentary by filmmaker, Tyler A. Chase. The intimate and journalistic documentary … filmed over a period of seven years, A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur, brings us through the doors of the iconic Broken Angel building and into the world of its creators, the visionary, Arthur Wood and his wife, Cynthia as they cling to their life’s work, the Broken Angel building, the last symbol of the bohemian artist culture that once permeated Brooklyn, NY.
“The Woods created the 108 foot Broken Angel objet trouvé building as a sculpture and landmark for the community located in a section of Clinton Hill bordering on Bed Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The Broken Angel building is the subject of local and international news specials; photographed by many. The Woods are loved by their neighbors who see the iconic structure as a beacon of freedom and the threat of its destruction as an omen of the disappearance of a way of life and community. To many it is a symbol of freedom – to others an opportunity for profit.
“Filmmaker, Tyler A. Chase renders the Woods’ story as one both magical and heart wrenching; following them through triumphs, judicial blunders, injustice, evictions, and comedic moments all the while inspired by the indomitable spirit of visionary artist and creator of the Broken Angel, Arthur Wood.”
The piece, which recently received the Audience Choice Award from YoFiFest 2020 and the Grand Jury Prize from the CARE Awards International Film Festival, is lyrical and poignant and heartbreaking. Chase captures the visceral nature of what it must have been like to live in that space. And the pain of being deeply misunderstood. Grey Gardens for the 21st century.
As far as narrative techniques, Chase employs interstitial chapter headings with ironic word choices/definitions, building the momentum inexorably. Like a slow-moving car crash, it’s clear things won’t end well for Arthur, Cynthia, or their beloved home. This chapter device – dare I invoke Dickensian tragicomedy again? – accentuates the tale’s inevitability. We all know how the relentless, monochromatic push of “economic development” can destroy the delicate work of sensitive souls creating art in the margins. America, ain’t it something to see? But the viewer mustn’t look away, and Chase’s gaze assures that you won’t.
The overall construction of the film mirrors the Broken Angel itself, layering upon itself in jagged turns, a documentary collage. Exquisite. The film FEELS artisanal – no doubt because of its lengthy gestation – which brings us that much closer to understanding Arthur’s quixotic DIY style. Hello, Oscar? Don’t overlook this essential, bespoke film.
Brian Cox’ regally dulcet tones as the film’s narrator are, yes, Arthurian, yet comforting with a wry edge. The use of music – folk, classical, even what seems like Gregorian chanting – is elegiac. And the moment Chase steps in front of her camera to advocate in real-time for Arthur (at The U.N. no less!), becoming a character in the story, is breathtaking. Just when the viewer is screaming, “Why can’t someone do something for these souls?!” … she does.
(Side note: for the inevitable scripted Hollywood remake, Willem DaFoe is Arthur Wood’s doppelgänger, and he could start preparing his Academy Award acceptance speech now. And then Stephen Schwartz could musicalize it for Broadway, dusting off some of the salvageable ideas from his work on Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Broken Angel! The Musical! Arthur and Cynthia could live on forever!)
Chase tells the story of Broken Angel with an artist’s appreciation and identification sans any judgment. That’s all Arthur likely ever wanted, in his expression and in his life. Is that why some of us “live out loud,” making bold choices, seemingly incongruous with the workaday world? Semiotic code for the person to be seen and accepted as they are? More devastating than the demolition of Arthur’s life’s work is society’s sniffy rejection of his unique soul made manifest in the Broken Angel.
Surprisingly, this same theme carries through another documentary – or rather documentary series – of a more corporate variety: Marvel’s 616 on Disney+. Across eight episodes, helmed by a bevy of filmmakers, the series wisely eschews a linear recounting of Marvel Comics’ storied history, instead highlighting unsung corners of fandom and creative output.
The incisive episode depicting the rise and proliferation of women comic book writers and artists is as reflective of the fraught times in which we live as it is of Marvel’s fits and starts where inclusion is concerned. The episode about toy creation and collection is as frenetic and joy-filled as you might imagine. And the feature on Marvel’s growing community of international artists is quietly introspective and appropriately moving, if not quite compensating for Marvel’s poor track record with creators of color in the past.
Episodes, respectively, on the cosplay community and school-based theatre are almost tangentially Marvel, shining a much needed light on people left behind who found kinship, purpose, and family through the characters, stories, and mythology of Marvel. I dare you not to shed a few happy tears while viewing.
Much (digital) ink has been spilled on the episode highlighting the legendary “Marvel Method,” whereby an issue is created iteratively and collaboratively between writer and artist. Affable, jocular Dan Slott, the subject of the episode, spurred great ire from fanboys over what they perceived as his seeming disrespect for his fellow creators (and, ultimately, for the end user). Slott’s procrastination is played for comic effect in the episode, and his chronic inability to meet dreaded deadlines is excused under the guise of “Marvel Method.”
The angry binge-watching horde missed the point, however. This isn’t about their inconvenience over receiving the latest issue of Iron Man 2020 a few weeks later than expected. This is about, yet again, the thorny nexus of art and commerce. For Slott, like Arthur Wood, creative expression is a kind of one-sided communion with his fellow human beings. The procrastination prolongs the fun, the invention, the collaboration. Hitting deadline means the party’s over, only to begin again on a schedule set by management, not artists.
The episode ends with Slott prowling his local comic shop – no doubt in avoidance of work awaiting him at home – joyously name-dropping his favorite writers and artists, as he thumbs through their latest issues. In that moment, he is a figure both inspiringly childlike and painfully alone. If anything, I am now more appreciative of Dan Slott as a singular voice than I am annoyed by delays in his output.
I’m just a face in the crowd Nothing to worry about Not even trying to stand out I’m getting smaller and smaller and smaller And I got nothing to say It’s all been taken away I just behave and obey I’m afraid that I’m starting to fade away
Hey, and for what it was worth I really used to believe That maybe there’s some great thing That we could achieve And now I can’t tell the difference Or know what to feel Between what I’ve been trying so hard to see And what appears to be real
We all just want to be seen, to be understood, to matter. While writing this, my mom Susie Duncan Sexton received a glorious email from her friend and fellow Columbia City, Indiana native Bill Schwarz. My mother wrote about Bill nearly a decade ago (here), and they recently reconnected. Both are accomplished talents in their own rights (check out Bill’s singing group “New Tradition Chorus” and upcoming concert), but their appreciation for one another is inspiring. Bill just finished reading one of my mother’s books, and here is an excerpt of what he wrote to her in response:
“After reading your book (on my Nook reader) it prompted me to write my opinion… I perceived a sensitive, creative intellect that deeply cared and loved unconditionally. Your pets have that quality as does your son Roy. I sensed in your writing the wholesome expression of joy, yet I saw you tempering feelings of dismay. You said, how does the song go: ‘looking for love in the most usual places…..’”
And isn’t that all any of us desire? A voice that is heard, appreciated, reciprocated. To all of the artists in this world … thank you.
And then one day A magic day he passed my way And while we spoke of many things Fools and kings This he said to me The greatest thing you’ll ever learn Is just to love and be loved in return
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn Is just to love and be loved in return
Want to join me in supporting a good cause? Beginning this #GivingTuesday and on through my birthday on December 28, I’m raising money for Ronald McDonald House Charities Ann Arbor and your contribution will make an impact, whether you donate $5 or $500. I’m a proud board member and have seen firsthand how every little bit helps.
The mission of the Ann Arbor Ronald McDonald Houses is to provide families of children experiencing a serious illness or injury requiring hospitalization or treatment on an outpatient basis, a “home away from home” that assists in alleviating the families’ emotional and financial stress.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a shotgun blast of pure pop riot grrl anarchy. Just the slap in the face “bro culture” has needed. And will continue to need.
Director Cathy Yan and producer/star Margot Robbie, working from a script by Christina Hodson, have crafted a beautifully forward-leaning day-glo antithesis to the retrograde sludge that was Suicide Squad(the precursor to Birds of Prey wherein Robbie’s “Harley Quinn” made her scene-stealing debut). One could even argue that Birds of Prey is a razor-barbed bookend to the exquisite existential angst of DC Entertainment’s Oscar-winning Joker.
The set up of Birds of Prey is that Harley has finally broken up for good with her boyfriend: yes, The Joker. Not Joaquin’s superior “Mistah J,” but Jared Leto’s inferior one – the tattooed, gold-toothed, overacting, “Hot Topic” fever dream one from Suicide Squad. Their breakup involves blowing up a chemical factory because, you know … comic books. As Rosie Perez’ world-weary and whimsically hard-boiled Detective Renee Montoya observes, “She [Harley] just publicly updated her relationship status.” Robbie is divine as Harley. Full of madcap poignancy, unencumbered by the cinematic fetishization she and the character suffered in Suicide Squad.
Alas, freeing herself from one hotbed of toxic masculinity just throws Harley into the deep end of a pool of abusive, egomaniacal, swaggering male bullsh*t as every thug in town now sees Harley as fair game. Leading the pack is Ewan McGregor’s sadistic Roman “Black Mask” Sionis and his sleazy, murderous, codependent wingman Mr. Zsasz (a fabulously glowering Chris Messina). McGregor literally gnaws at every splinter of scenery in one of his best performances – all fluttery hands, gritted teeth and coiled self-loathing.
Eventually the film adds a serpentine plot line about a diamond and a hidden family fortune, tied to a mafia family entirely gunned down years ago with only one “lost” survivor. Think Anastasia by way of The Jersey Shore. As Birds of Prey gathers momentum, like a pinball careening through a Rube Goldberg contraption, Harley partners up with Detective Montoya as well as a scrappy street thief Cassandra Cain (charming Ella Jay Basco), sonically superpowered club singer Black Canary (sparkling Jurnee Smollett-Bell of Roll Bounce and The Great Debaters), and socially maladjusted but utterly a$$-kicking Huntress (dynamite – as always – Mary Elizabeth Winstead of Fargo and Sky High).
There is a buoyancy to the entire film that is utterly infectious. The sheer joy these actors seem to be having playing women in command in a world out of control is a delight. I’m not one to care much for fight scenes or action sequences, but the balletic, athletic choreography on display here is Gene Kelly meets Sly Stallone, Bob Fosse meets Jackie Chan, if filmed by Vincente Minnelli. When a climactic car chase involves one of the characters on roller skates, you may be in for a treat.
The film reminded me of Drew Barrymore’s reboot of Charlie’s Angels, now 20 (!) years old. A film by women and about women, reclaiming a genre (action/superheroes) which has been far too long dominated by men (and, worse, by men of a certain stunted emotional development). Go for the hijinks, stay for the surprising depth of character development, and linger for the final scene as the women celebrate their victory over tacos and margaritas, sharing camaraderie and conversation and honest appreciation for their common humanity. Far too few films – let alone comic book epics – end on such an affirming note. Keep ‘em coming.
P.S. Spoiler alert for my animal loving friends, but Harley’s hyena “Bruce” makes it to the end of the film just fine￼. 😉
[Chorus] Got bridges to burn and places to run Yeah, this smile is a loaded gun
[Verse 1] It’s my party, my body, my business It’s my town and my crown on my hitlist It’s my world and you’re just living in it Did I, did I, did I finish? They are my girls, and it’s us who’s deciding It’s our door, did we say you’re invited? Leave your name and we’ll call if we like it If we, if we, if we like it
[Pre-Chorus] No more Mrs. Sweet and Miss Nice No more Mrs. Fuckin’ Polite Time for Mrs. Takin’ What’s Mine You don’t need him
[Chorus] Got bridges to burn and places to run Yeah, this smile is a loaded gun
[Verse 2] It’s my party, my body, my business If he tries to control me, he’s finished Won’t be crying, there’s plenty of fishes And I, and I, and I’m fishin’ You should know that you won’t find another Who will ruin your life then your brother’s Who will take what she’s owed when she wants to Did I, did I, did I stutter?
I had a pretty gluttonous Thanksgiving. No, I don’t mean green bean casserole and pecan pie (I loathe pumpkin) and cranberry sauce and corn bread stuffing. I certainly don’t mean turkey. As Tom Hanks, thoughtfully portraying children’s TV icon Fred Rogers, observes in the surreally superlative A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, “I just can’t imagine eating anything that has a mother.“ Me neither.
No, my holiday indulgences were of the entertainment variety, cramming in as many movies and binge watching as much television as my ever widening derrière could withstand. And, because I am fundamentally sort of lazy and because I realize now that (at times) writing this blog feels more like a penance than a reward for engaging in one of my favorite pastimes (that is, devouring pop culture), this entry is going to be more of a highlight reel of the past several days in entertainment.
It really is kind of a shame (and the luck of the draw) that I devoted 12 (!) paragraphs to Frozen 2 last week, and something as boffo and transcendent as the West End production of musical Kinky Boots (broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances) or Damon Lindelof’s continuation (via HBO) of Alan Moore’s/Dave Gibbons’ seminal comic book masterpiece Watchmen will only get a sentence or two. I can watch this stuff or I can write about this stuff, but it’s getting too damn hard to try to do both and still enjoy it.
Be that (self-pitying moment) as it may, so much of the entertainment I will discuss below shares a common point of view. Whether ethereal drag queens or plucky Pakistani teens who idolize Bruce Springsteen, war-weary space age bounty hunters or cynical costumed vigilantes, precocious Nazi youths who come to realize Adolf Hitler is a less-than-ideal playmate or twinkly-eyed but secretly heavy-hearted kiddie show hosts, the characters who jumped off the screen in these movies and shows share a feverishly urgent demand for kindness, tolerance, justice, inclusion, and love. Timely for this holiday season … and timely for a culture in crisis. As Lola (played by that luminous and shamanistic firecracker Matt Henry) sings in Kinky Boots: “We give good epiphany.”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is exceptional, in great part because the cast – the aforementioned Hanks, Matthew Rhys as a hardened journalist determined to find the toxic truth underlying Mr. Rogers’ sunny sanctimony, and Chris Cooper as Rhys’ neglectful/neglected papa – sidestep any mawkishness inherent in the material with their honest, unadorned portrayals. More to the point, director Marielle Heller takes her cue from the source material – an Esquire cover story – turning in a film that is more clear-eyed essay than slice-of-life biopic. Everything in the movie feels as slightly left of center as any episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood ever did, acknowledging the program’s twee sensibilities and refracting the show’s heightened sense of “make believe” wonder as a metaphorical context for the tiny cruelties family and friend exact on a daily, perhaps hourly basis. It’s a good movie, not quite a great one, but the comforting cinematic equivalent of a scruffy, slightly embarrassing cardigan and pair of house shoes.
Jojo Rabbittakes the Merrie Melodies lunacy of actor/director Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and applies it to the genocidal moral conflict of being a young, patriotically-obsessed citizen in WWII Nazi Germany. Hmmmm. Take The Mortal Storm, The Tin Drum, To Be Or Not To Be, Moonrise Kingdom, The Pianist, Lord of the Flies, and A Christmas Story, throw them into a blender, and have said output be directed by a less precious, more humane Wes Anderson … after drinking three spiked Red Bulls? The resulting film would be Jojo Rabbit. (Waititi also plays the titular character’s imaginary playmate … Adolf Hitler.) The film depicts a Nazi-aspirant young boy (charismatic Roman Griffin Davis) and his less nationalistic mother (Scarlett Johansson about as charming and vibrant as I’ve ever seen her) surviving the dadaistic absurdity of a country run by race-mongering juvenile delinquents (in other words, an on-the-nose allegory for our presently fraught times). The enterprise works far better than it should, aided and abetted by a witty and whimsical supporting cast including Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson. By the time this satirical picaresque meanders to its conclusion, you will be shocked a few times, horrified a few more, laughing and maybe crying uncomfortably, in part due to subject matter and in part due to dodgy artistic execution. Again, a good movie with an essential message, and one that may age into something classic as viewers discover it after its theatrical run.
Knives Out is just ok. There are far better versions of this movie and far worse, but I think I’d rather spend an afternoon with Sleuth or Murder by Death, hell, even Deathtrap before giving Knives Out another go. As Daniel Craig, playing a crispy-fried Foghorn Leghorn private detective with none of the zingy Mason-Dixon daffiness he exuded in Logan Lucky, notes regarding the reading of a family will, “Think of a community theatre production of a tax return.” That quote could describe this overeager flick as well. Writer/director Rian Johnson piles on the fake-outs and redirects, putting his breathless cast through its paces, and, while there is fun to be had, there’s just not nearly enough of it. Johnson has assembled a Whitman’s Sampler of movie star character players – Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Christopher freaking Plummer – and they all have moments (Chris Evans and Don Johnson acquitting themselves the best here), but I left the film with itchy teeth and liking everyone involved just a little bit less. That said, I applaud Rian Johnson and company for using the populist entertainment value of this black comedy as a Trojan horse for some biting, insightful social commentary about the entitled wealthy and the festering racism in Trump’s America.
Blinded by the Light (on DVD and streaming) is directed with a sure hand by Gurinder Chadha, employing pretty much the exact same template she rode to international success with Bend It Like Beckham (which in and of itself follows the pattern of so many working class British dramedies like Billy Elliot or The Full Monty, depicting resourceful souls rising above class warfare). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Based on a true story, the film focuses on a young Pakistani man (an appealing turn by Viveik Kalra) who strives to overcome the racist nationalism (there’s that theme again!) and economic disparity of 1980s Thatcherite England and to break loose from a well-intentioned but overbearing father who can’t understand his boy’s dreams of becoming a writer. (“Where’s the money in that?!” asks this guy writing a movie blog for free.) Instead of soccer, our protagonist finds his muse in the lyricism of “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen, encouraged by a wry but loving literature teacher (a marvelous Hayley Atwell) and some beautifully drawn teenage pals (Aaron Phagura and Nell Williams). The film is as predictable as all great fables can be but is delicately executed, well-acted, and simultaneously sobering and inspiring. And, yes, this bonbon of a film seems ready-made to be musicalized.
Speaking of which … Kinky Boots, the Tony-winning musical adaptation by Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein of the 2005 Brit comedy film of the same name (which starred a then-unknown Joel Edgerton and Chiwetel Ejiofor), was just broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances. To say the show was perfection – as perfectly kicky as the thigh-high red boots drag queen Lola (and later the entire cast) dons during the show – would be the textbook definition of understatement. This cast was the Olivier Award-winning West End crew, led by Matt Henry (my mother accurately observed … move over Shirley Bassey and Lena Horne) as the transformative Lola who storms into the life of bedraggled shoe-factory scion Charlie (a winning Killian Donnelly) and turns a small town on its collective head … for the better. The factory is days away from closing, and, by reinventing itself to serve the “niche market” of drag queen footwear, changes its fortunes … and the lives (and attitudes) of all who work there. This is no To Wong Foo magical drag queen fairy tale, however. Lola (also known as Simon) is a fully realized, poignant, exhilarating human being, complex, complicated, flawed, perfect. In Henry’s manicured hands, Lola is the heart of the show, a beautiful yin to Charlie’s shaggy yang. The stage relationship between Donnelly and Henry is deeply affecting, propelled by Lauper’s pulsing, percolating, nicely integrated score. Amy Lennox as Charlie’s co-worker, confidante, and eventual love interest Lauren is dynamite, a musical comedy crackerjack, balancing pathos and hilarity brilliantly, sometimes in a single phrase. Kinky Boots celebrates accepting who we are (and the gifts which embracing that truth can bring) with warmth, kindness, and about the best pacing I’ve seen onstage.
Lady & the Tramp(currently streaming on Disney+) is on the small screen where I reckon all of these live action remakes of Disney’s animated classics actually belong. Seriously, 20 years ago, these things would have all been very special presentations on Sunday nights on The Wonderful World of Disney in order to sell theme park tickets before landing on well-worn VHS tapes in the back seats of mini-vans everywhere. That said, this latest re-do ain’t half bad. Lady (voiced with moxie by Tessa Thompson) has an agency she never had in the animated film, and Tramp (a winsome Justin Theroux) just seems less, well, skeezy. There is an overarching effort toward inclusiveness with color-blind casting for the human roles of Jim Dear and Darling that, on one hand, is really refreshing, but on the other creates an inadvertently weirdly white-washed message about what interracial couples would have actually endured in turn-of-the-20th-century Missouri. And the problematic “Siamese Cat Song,” ear-wormy as it may have once been, is officially retired. In its place, there is a new and perfectly acceptable ditty to accompany Aunt Sarah’s prized felines’ narrative-essential shenanigans. “He’s a Tramp” is still on the playlist, but this time around is performed with sassy aplomb by Janelle Monae, in the role originated by Peggy Lee. The film is entertaining and pleasant with a timeless message about, yes, accepting our differences … not to mention the importance of responsible pet ownership.
The Mandalorian (currently streaming on Disney+) is about the best Star Wars spin-off to come from LucasFilm in the past 20-some years (if ever), in great part because it doesn’t seem very Star Wars-y. Or at least what “Star Wars-y” has come to mean since the original trilogy debuted: needlessly complicated back story; self-serious and ponderous mythologizing; overlong playing time; character development that seems driven as much by merchandisability as narrative need. The Mandalorian by comparison is a breezy pleasure, a throwback to single-protagonist vintage TV Westerns like The Virginian or The Rifleman (without any intentional swagger/machismo or inadvertent misogyny/racism), wherein our reluctant protagonist becomes the lens through which a different 37-minute parable is told each week. Oh, and there’s a really adorable Baby Yoda, who may be the cutest, funniest creature dreamed up since the Ewoks (yes, I still like Ewoks). Producer/writer Jon Favreau joyfully wears his retro influences on his sleeve (as evidenced by the minimalistic percussive soundtrack and the closing credits sequence, both of which seem channeled straight from 1968). Leading man Pedro Pascal (face forever obscured under his signature bounty hunter helmet – “this is the waaaay“) conveys so much heart, great comedic timing, and an intriguing amount of agnosticism, without benefit of one. single. facial. expression. Four episodes in, and I can’t wait to see where this one is going.
Watchmen(HBO) is so damn good. We had one of those “watch HBO for free!” weekends on Xfinity and, in a less than 24-hour period, we binged the first seven episodes, including tonight’s exemplary “An Almost Religious Awe” (every episode has a great title). I’m going to have to show up on the doorstep of some generous HBO-subscribing friend the next two Sundays to see how this thing wraps up! Any takers? The original DC comic book mini-series (1986-87) deconstructed the very notion of what a superhero was, offering a heady mix of cynicism and optimism, critical of Reagan-era excess and territorialism while satirically reinventing atomic age tropes of flying humans and hooded marvels, all to dissect the morals and ethics of those who set themselves up as our saviors. “Who watches the Watchmen?” Subsequent efforts to adapt the landmark series onscreen (no thank you, Zack Snyder) or revisit in print (just stop, Geoff Johns) have fallen flat, missing the existential trauma at the heart of the work. If you’d told my 14-year-old self that his 46-year-old future would include a triumphant, accessible yet layered, televised continuation of the storyline for a mainstream audience, I never would have believed you. In fact, it is this very question of identity and self and the ephemeral nature of time folding upon itself through memory that gives Watchmen its slippery power. The HBO series replaces the Cold War paranoia of the original comics with an incisive take on the race-baiting xenophobia currently paralyzing our country, in a way that is completely true to the original work while acknowledging how far we have (and haven’t) come as a society. Regina King and Jean Smart are (together) an acting powder keg, wrestling with thorny questions of race and gender, empowered and stonewalled and uninhibited and numb with white-hot rage. The supporting players are to a one excellent – Don Johnson (again!), Tim Blake Nelson, Jeremy Irons, Louis Gossett Jr., Hong Chau, Frances Fisher, Tom Mison, Sara Vickers – finding Shakespeare in the mundane and delivering a show that isn’t afraid to explore big ideas amongst daily tragedies. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a character unto itself – disco for a dark age, as if Phillip Glass found his groove. I have no idea where this show is going, and I can’t wait to get there … and I really don’t want it to end.
So as gluttony goes, I don’t think I’ll apologize for this indulgence of the mind as my brain is truly spinning with possibility, heading back into a work week, knowing that there are ideas bigger than ourselves as all ideas should be.
“The endless story of expectations wiring inside my mind/Wore me down/I came to a realization and I found a way to turn it around/To see/That I could just be me.”
– “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” Cyndi Lauper, Kinky Boots
“We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.”