“I am one of many gems he wears to reflect the light back on him.” Dumbo (2019)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Well, I REALLY don’t understand the critics on this one. Tim Burton’s live-action remake of Disney’s Dumbo is a treat, correcting the dated/troubling politics of the original, expanding the story in logical ways, and making strong declarations for animal rights and compassion overall. My eyes still hurt from ugly crying for two hours earlier today. Highly recommend.

The original animated Dumbo is a beautiful film but deeply odd, held in affection more in our collective foggy sense memory than in the reality of its execution. There is a downright racist depiction of crows as a minstrel chorus (one is even named, yes, “Jim Crow”). Dumbo and Timothy (the mouse) get drunk on champagne and have a hallucinatory trip this side of Woodstock (“pink elephants”). The flick is only 64 minutes long. And there’s an anthropomorphic train (“Casey, Jr.”). Oh, and we all pretty much hate circuses now and the horrors they’ve exacted upon brilliant, beautiful pachyderms over the decades.

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So, as much as I love the original film, and I truly do (in great part because it’s one of those seminal movie-going experiences that shaped a lifelong championing of animal rights and a loathing of bullying of any kind), Dumbo is, in fact, rife for updating and reinvention as Disney continues to strip mine their classic film library to pad quarterly profit earnings … er … expand artistic horizons.

Tim Burton is a director who specializes in Technicolor bad dreams. His relentless storybook/Edward Gorey-book sensibility is a logical fit for a narrative dripping in creepy circus tropes (clowns! leering audiences! mustache-twirling carnival barkers!), focused on the magic of mutant deformation (those ears! that flight!), and the central tragedy of which is the heartrending separation of mother and son (“Baby Mine”). I’ve often found Burton’s cinematic output wildly uneven and maddeningly frustrating with its unrealized potential, but I, for one, found Dumbo one of his stronger efforts in years.

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The script by Ehren Kruger is not terribly inventive but fills out the thin story line of the original with predictable but welcome subplots. The movie’s second half literally bites the hands that feeds in a fairly wicked satire of the antiseptically brutal capitalism of the Disneyland theme park concept itself.

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The cast is a starry array of Burton regulars: Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Michael Keaton (who has developed a lovely niche playing country club sleeze). In that battery-acid tone that is her trademark, Green  who portrays a glitzy diva trapeze artist in Keaton’s employ observes: “I am one of many gems he wears to reflect the light back on him.”

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Colin Farrell is in fine form as a widower who returns from the war-front (WWI) sans one arm and with two young children who desperately need him to reclaim his heart and soul. He and his wife had been equestrian performers in DeVito’s shaggy “Medici Bros. Circus,” and Farrell is faced with the economic pressures of reframing his career amidst familial heartbreak. Enter one too-cute-for-words little blue-eyed-big-eared elephant to heal this tiny clan (see: PaddingtonMary Poppins) as Dumbo seeks to reunite with his own mama.

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Maybe I’m too soft a touch for a movie like this, but any film that ends with as a strong a statement I’ve seen from Hollywood in years that animals (CGI-generated or not) belong in nature and that they should be admired and respected and left alone is a winner in my book. Is it a cliche that pretty much every major character rallies by the film’s raucous conclusion to restore Dumbo and his ma to their jungle lives (save two or three souls who, spoiler alert, are grimly punished for their cruelty)? Maybe. But that’s a cliche I’ll take all day long.

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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.

“Perfect. We’ll make a killer of you yet.” The Favourite and Vice

“Beware the quiet man.” – proverb that opens the film Vice

Oh, this special and lovely historical moment we are currently surviving, with volatile, temperamental, ill-informed leadership surrounded by hangers-on who benefit more from chaos than peace. You’d think we’d learn from the mistakes of our forebears. Hell, you’d think we’d learn from the mistakes of a decade-or-so ago. Nope. Nada. Nyet.

Blessed be when Hollywood gets something right, and did they ever with the one-two punch of The Favourite and Vice. In essence, these fact-based films tell two versions of the same tale: a sweet-natured autocrat (The Restoration-era’s Queen Anne and post-9/11 President George W. Bush, respectively) whose ineptitude is compensated for/manipulated by courtesans (Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill and Dick and Lynne Cheney, also respectively) whose Machiavellian desires for power belie a self-satisfied surety that their intentions are noble (even when the outcomes are clearly suspect).

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Both flicks embrace a surreal cinematic visual and aural language as well (in The Favourite, fish-eye lens cinematography, discordant musical queues, and what appears to be hip-hop choreography; in Vice, fourth-wall busting asides, Shakespearean soliloquies, and omniscient narrators) to make abundantly clear that The Favourite and Vice are intended as allegorical cautionary tales for a present-day society that has utterly run off the rails.

“The word is about, there’s something evolving; whatever may come, the world keeps revolving. They say the next big thing is here, that the revolution’s near, but to me it seems quite clear, that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.” – Shirley Bassey and Propellerheads, “History Repeating.”

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“Perfect. We’ll make a killer of you yet.” – Sarah Churchill/Lady Marlboro (Rachel Weisz) in The Favourite

The Favourite. So well-acted  and so damn visceral. You can practically smell the powdered wigs … and copious amounts of onscreen vomit. That said, the three leads – Olivia Colman (oh, she’s a freaking lead!), Emma Stone (La La Land, Birdman), and Rachel Weisz (best I’ve EVER liked her) – tear up the screen in a post-feminist, 18th-century-period-piece take-down of patriarchy …working from a twenty-year-old (!) script by Deborah Davis. If there ever was a movie that showed the hell women go through (and sometimes put each other through) when they darn well know how the world SHOULD be run (and nobody will listen), this is it.

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Director Yorgos Lanthimos stages an insular and haunting court where palace intrigue is as cruel as it is serendipitous. Lady Marlboro (Weisz) rules the palace and Queen Anne’s (Colman’s) heart with kid-gloved fists, a dominatrix with a heart of gold who manages the day-to-day royal operations as a means toward ultimately setting foreign policy and other matters of state.

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Into this delicate spider-web wanders Marlboro’s wide-eyed cousin Abigail (Stone), whose guilelessness is as phony as the rouge on her cheeks. I won’t spoil the fun, but the wit and wisdom in the performances and in the script and the sheer lack of vanity throughout are unlike anything we’ve seen onscreen in quite a while.

And Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: First Class) holds his own with this remarkable trio as Robert Harley, a parliamentarian who finds himself the happy beneficiary of the political blow-back from this unlikeliest of love triangles.

“I’m still the lady I was. In my heart.” – Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) in The Favourite

I wasn’t a huge fan of Adam McKay’s previous biodramedy The Big Short (which just tried too damn hard and was too cute by half for my tastes), but I LOVE its follow-up Vice. A little Macbeth, a bit of Richard III, a smidge of Hee Haw, and a smattering of Mad Magazine.

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Christian Bale (American Hustle, The Dark Knight) and Amy Adams (Big Eyes, Man of Steel) are perfection as Dick and Lynne Cheney, the calculating, power-hungry duo at the center of a decades-old political machine that prizes cash over humanity. But the film is never cruel, offering a kind of grudging appreciation for the audacity of their unified if calloused accomplishment.

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The supporting cast is pretty damn excellent as well with dynamic character turns by Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards) as George W. Bush, Steve Carell (Beautiful Boy) as Donald Rumsfeld, and Tyler Perry (Madea) as Colin Powell. The Cheney family is rounded out by American Horror Story mainstays Alison Pill and Lily Rabe as Mary and Liz Cheney. Naomi Watts (Insurgent) and Alfred Molina (The Front Runner) pop up in delightful, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos as Jiminy-Cricket-esque commentators (a FOX News anchor and a snooty steakhouse waiter, respectively) on the Shakespearean intrigue that is afoot.

“I will not lie, and THAT is love.” – Sarah Churchill/Lady Marlboro (Rachel Weisz) in The Favourite

 

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It may seem a strange recommendation to suggest that you should spend your remaining holiday free-time with such a dubious cast of characters … but you should. Both films are not only crackerjack, award-caliber entertainments, but they are essential viewing as collective warning against repeating the sins of both the distant and the immediate past. Don’t miss either film, and, if you’re truly feeling ambitious, and perhaps a bit masochistic, take them in as a double-feature.

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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’m a blunt instrument, and I’m damn good at it.” Mary Poppins Returns, Bumblebee, and Aquaman

For the past few years now, Disney and Lucasfilm have had a lock on the holiday blockbuster season with a little, revived franchise named Star Wars. Alas, the wheels fell of that wagon when the underrated, under-performing origin story Solo debuted in theatres this May with a thud, and there was no end-of-year galactic adventure to follow.

Into this December’s “let’s thumb our noses at Oscar bait” box office breach rushed Warner Brothers’/DC’s Aquaman, Paramount’s Transformers prequel Bumblebee, and Disney’s own Mary Poppins Returns. By some strange twist of fate, the fish king roundly beat the giant robot and the buttoned-up British nanny in ticket sales in their collective first weekend of release.

I am certain that all of these popcorn epics will clean up, though, in the gray and dreary vacation days following Christmas, as they each bring a great deal of heart, just enough ingenuity, and a comforting if lightly derivative familiarity.

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“Still. Today or never. That’s my motto.” – Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) in Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns is, yes, practically perfect. Predictable and formulaic? Mayhaps. But it doesn’t matter. You’ll laugh and cry, occasionally scratch your head … at times all three simultaneously. You’ll love it nonetheless … in great part due to Emily Blunt’s bonkers, measured, heartfelt commitment to the title role.

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Not dissimilar to Disney’s decades-later reboot Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mary Poppins Returns feels like a subtle remix on the original film’s greatest hits.

The screenplay by David Magee dutifully follows the same story beats as Julie Andrews’ flick – for example:

  • a crabby dad (little Michael Banks, portrayed poignantly by Ben Whishaw, all grown-up and repeating the sins of his father, but in a mopey/angsty widower way);

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  • a politically woke sister (Emily Mortimer’s Jane Banks, the sunniest class warrior you’ll ever see, taking the place of Glynis Johns’ suffragette Mrs. Banks);
  • some lost soul children who need to rediscover the joys of imagination;
  • a no-good banker (Colin Firth, all sleazy charm as nothing says holiday kids movie like the threat of foreclosure!);

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  • a winking-wise lamplighter instead of a chimney sweep (Lin-Manuel Miranda being slightly less insufferable and overeager than usual … and, yes, he raps, sort of … once);
  • and a finale that swaps out balloons for kites, and throws in Angela Lansbury for good measure … in case you’d forgotten about Mary Poppins‘ knock-off Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The score by Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) is perfectly fine, but follows a similar path as the script, presenting new numbers that evoke the overly familiar tunes of yore and serving similar narrative purposes. “Spoonful of Sugar” becomes “Can You Imagine That?” to get the ornery kids to embrace bathtime. “A Cover is Not the Book” (the best number in the new film) is an animated fantasia a la “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is an ode to the unappreciated lamplighters (who even do some BMX- style bicycle tricks?!?), not unlike “Step in Time.” And so on.

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Rob Marshall’s direction (Into the WoodsNineChicago) is effective, if workmanlike, evoking the past film through iconography, color palette, choreography, and overall composition. Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t wow as much as it sedates the viewer, and the film never quite escapes the physical confines of the sound-stages upon which it was obviously filmed.

In the end, though, this is Blunt’s show, and she is an absolute pip. I could watch her read the phone book as Mary Poppins, with a knowing glance here, an arched eyebrow there, and a master plan to make all of us decent again. And that is why we all need a movie (and a damn nanny) like Mary Poppins Returns.

“The darkest nights produce the brightest stars.” – Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) in Bumblebee

If you’d told me the tone-deaf, garish, migraine-inducing, jingoistic Transformers film franchise would eventually yield one of the sweetest, warmest, funniest, family-friendliest “girl-and-her-[robot]-dog” coming-of-age yarns since, say, the Paddington movies, I’d have sold you my vintage Hasbro figures for $1. But here we are. Bumblebee, the sixth (!) installment in this series, jettisons director Michael Bay (praise be!), adds nuanced and charming leading lady Hailee Steinfeld, and delivers a lovely cinematic homage to simpler sci-fi allegories of the Spielbergian 80s.

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Travis Knight, Oscar-nominated director of Kubo and the Two Strings, picks up the reins from Bay, working from an almost pastoral (!) script by Christina Hodson that wisely puts human/robot emotion and familial interaction before special effects and mind-numbing battle sequences (although there are still about two or three too many of those).

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Borrowing liberally from producer Steven Spielberg’s own E.T. (and at this point, that’s just fine), the plot relates Autobot warrior Bumblebee’s arrival on earth, circa 1987. Within moments, the big, yellow, bug-eyed ‘bot finds himself used and abused by the American military (sparkling John Cena, wryly channeling every “shoot first, ask later” cinematic armed forces cliche). Bumblebee is eventually, inadvertently rescued from a junkyard by a plucky, sweet teenage girl Charlie Watson (Steinfeld) looking to rediscover the love of her deceased father at the bottom of a bin of used auto parts. Unsung Pamela Adlon is harried brilliance as Charlie’s befuddled and exasperated mother Sally.

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Steinfeld is still coasting a bit on her stellar Edge of Seventeen performance as a misunderstood adolescent with a dazzling heart of gold buried under a sullen, surly, glowering pout. I guess this is her niche, for now, and it works to great effect in Bumblebee as well.

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Two broken souls – in this case pubescent and robotic – heal one another by giving voice to the underdog and by waving a Breakfast Club fist in the face of institutional repression. I dug it. And the exquisitely curated soundtrack of late FM 80s hits adds an unexpected and refreshing layer of musical-comedy-esque commentary to a movie about giant robots taking over our planet.

“I’m a blunt instrument and I’m damn good at it.” Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) in Aquaman

I enjoyed Aquaman a lot, but could have used about 30 minutes less of blurry aquatic battles and about ten minutes more of authentic wit. Nonetheless, this is a visually stunning film that never takes itself too seriously and with the wisdom to assemble a world-class cast. Throw The Once and Future King, Black Panther, Tron, Flash Gordon, Jewel of the Nile, Krull, Thor, Big Trouble in Little China, Hamlet, and Lord of the Rings into a Mad Libs blender and you yield this wonderfully loony pic.

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Momoa is nothing but utterly charming in interviews. A great actor? Meh. But a star? Absolutely. That said, he looks great, but I couldn’t help feeling like some of his best lines likely landed on the cutting room floor to make way for more CGI soldiers riding giant seahorses. That’s a shame. The best parts of this film are the human parts. Nicole Kidman deserves a medal for making the Splash-meets-Terminator opening sequence of her Atlantean queen meeting cute with a Maine lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), playing house, and popping out a half-breed sea-prince baby not only palatable, but poignant and downright thrilling.

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Taken at a superficial level, the plot is almost identical to Black Panther‘s. Two beefy men square off to rule a hidden, technologically advanced kingdom with the “bad guy” claiming his rule will right the wrongs of the outside world (in Black Panther, it was racial divide, and, in Aquaman it is pollution and global warming). Black Panther has more nuance in its conflict and thereby the stakes are higher.

Aquaman telegraphs its punches, so it is quite obvious from the minute Aquaman’s/Arthur Curry’s half-brother Orm (a dolphin-sleek Patrick Wilson) enters the screen that he is basically a nogoodnik, regardless his sweet speeches about keeping the seven seas free of man-made detritus. He’d like to buy the world a Coke, as long as you keep the plastic six-rings, than you very much. But, with Aquaman, the fun is in the journey, not necessarily the destination. And Wilson is terrific, by the way.

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Director James Wan (Furious 7, Insidious) takes his sweet time getting us to Arthur’s inevitable victory over and acceptance by both land and sea. The visuals are sumptuous, even if the running time is gluttonous. There are moments of true wonder – any time Momoa communes with the creatures of the deep, for instance – and, on the balance, the film is a joy for those who have hoped DC could really start having fun with their characters.

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The pitch perfect Wonder Woman seems less like an anomaly now and more like the beginning of a new, humane, inclusive direction for DC’s movies. I’ll consider my 2.5 hours watching Aquaman an investment in that future.

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So, in 2018, we traded one time-worn, bloated Star Wars entry for three heartfelt, loving, and, at times, inspiring homages to other past fantasy hits. I think that’s a decent, if safely unimaginative, return.

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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.

“Dog Almighty.” A Thanksgiving analysis of the films Boy Erased, The Front Runner, and Isle of Dogs

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There is no question that this world feels more than a bit broken these days. Over this Thanksgiving holiday, we took in three films that all deal with our shared past, present, future imperfect in poignant, heartrending, riotous, and allegorical ways: Boy Erased, The Front Runner, and Isle of Dogs. In essence, all three deal with the fact that our world is governed by people who don’t always have our best interests at heart … nor, in fact, have any interests but their own in mind.

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Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley‘s best-selling memoir, is a gut punch with a surprisingly light touch – as much about family, faith, being true to one’s own self, and integrity as it is about the horrors of gay conversion therapy. Directed with a balanced and nuanced approach by Joel Edgerton (who also plays the head conversion “therapist” with a refreshing lack of Snidely Whiplash-ism), the film withholds judgment on well-meaning parents whose hearts are in the right place even if their actions couldn’t be more out-of-touch. Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe are absolute magic as an Arkansas couple whose capital-C Christianity defines every square inch of their lives. He is a pastor AND runs a Ford dealership where the salespeople begin each day with a group prayer. Ah, the American Southland. Am I being judgy? Ah well.

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Lucas Hedges ably portrays their prototypical all-American golden boy Jared – a basketball-playing, cheerleader-dating, Mustang-driving alpha-male-in-training. Except, he isn’t. He’s a sensitive and dutiful son following the recipe-for-life set before him by his noble if misguided parents, still striving to define himself in a world far too ready to box him in with hetero-normative conventions. The irony is that Jared is the purest soul, lost amidst elders who purport purity yet are more obsessed with human sexuality than the supposed “deviants” they seek to condemn. The textbook definition of “thou dost protest too much.”

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The chief strength of the film is how believably this trio of acting pros – Kidman, Crowe, and Hedges – weaves together a family dynamic that is sad and warm and funny and never melodramatic. This is an essential film and must be viewed by everyone, particularly those arrogant and hypocritical enough to weigh in on social issues that they lack the empathy to fully comprehend.

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What is it about Australians – like Crowe and Kidman – that they are capable of translating the American experience to film better than most Americans? And here we have fellow Aussie Hugh Jackman offering a pensive, detailed, reserved, dynamite turn as 1988 presidential hopeful Gary Hart in director Jason Reitman’s stellar flick The Front Runner. Jackman is aided and abetted by the always magnificent Vera Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering but never victimized wife. Jackman and Farmiga are a formidable acting combination, and I would love to see them do something again soon.

Jackman has always been a twinkling presence (a true blue Greatest Showman) – sometimes even a glowering, steroidal, twinkling presence  (Wolverine … and Jean Valjean) – but I had my doubts that he had the chops to be unapproachable and unlikable yet still admirable in a ripped-from-the-headlines character role like this. I was wrong. (I do think his hair and makeup people should be fired, though, for the weird dusty mop they plopped on his noggin in the film.)

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Reitman has surrounded his leads with a fantastic supporting cast – including exceptional JK Simmons and Alfred Molina as two sides of the same benevolent puppet-master coin, the first as Hart’s campaign manager and the latter as The Washington Post’s editor. Furthermore, Reitman uses the controversy surrounding Hart’s infidelity which derails his campaign as a sharp-eyed allegory on today’s contentious and never-ending donnybrook between politicians and news media.

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Is a public figure’s personal life fair game for the media? Is a private transgression a worthy public measure of integrity? Do people care, or do they only care when it benefits their party of affiliation? And what of the ongoing invisibility and disposability of women in said process, be they spouse or mistress or aide or voter?

The film raises all of these questions in the context of what once seemed a charmingly bygone era, yet offers us, today, no easy answers. Significantly, Reitman turns the mirror on ourselves, challenging the viewer to assess his or her own culpability in perpetuating this madness, and that is a marvelous hat trick.

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But would you believe me when I said that the best and most pointed analysis of our current milieu comes from what is ostensibly a children’s animated film about dogs banished to a garbage heap island by a Japanese magistrate who prefers cats over canines? I predict masters theses will be written about Isle of Dogs at liberal arts colleges and universities all over the land 20 years from now.

I’m not crazy about director Wes Anderson. Twee sarcasm is not usually something that screams “great night at the movies” to me. His Isle of Dogs (now on home video), blessedly, is anything but.

Imagine Richard Adams’ novel Plague Dogs or George Orwell‘s Animal Farm adapted to film by Quentin Tarantino, using Manga-stylized puppets and stop-motion animation. Isle of Dogs is sweet-natured yet caustic, escapist yet blisteringly critical, whimsical yet horrifying. If there is a movie that pushes and explores and avails itself of every inch and vista what the artsy fartsies call “cinema,” this is it.

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The script is layered and thoughtful and addresses everything from animal rights to totalitarianism to the twin toxicities of apathy and wishful thinking. The film’s core message, beyond that we should be kind to animals and to each other and that tolerance and inclusion heal? It’s this: if you want this damn world to change, get in there and change it. Anderson seems to be directly addressing any children watching his film that if you see oppression or evil, take it upon yourselves to stop it. Adults are too fat and lazy to care. The young human protagonists in this film are heroic in a way that goes beyond the fantasy role-playing of, say, Dorothy Gale or Katniss Everdeen, presenting young audience members with salient and actionable examples to follow.

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Oh, and the voice cast is to die for, including Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, and, yes, Yoko Ono. The titular dogs are, yes, adorable but with agency and surety and never one moment of infantilism.

Hot damn!

Thanksgiving is a time of reflection and appreciation. It’s also a time to think about what’s next and where you want to go. This seemingly serendipitous combination of films does indeed add up to a pretty important road map. One worth following. For that, I am thankful.

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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.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Beautiful Boy (film)

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Felix Van Groeningen’s film adaptation of David Sheff’s memoir Beautiful Boy is, alas, one of those movies that doesn’t do anything terribly well. Neither poignant and tear-jerking nor haunting and horrifying, neither evocative and transporting nor gritty and (forgive me) sobering, Beautiful Boy attempts to be a harrowing account of a father (Steve Carrell, all professorially hirsute and mincingly whiny) watching his beloved first born (Timothee Chalamet, all Gen X shaggy and sullenly whiny) circle the drain of crystal meth addiction.

I wanted to care. I wanted to be invested. I hear that the book is quite compelling. Perhaps I should have spent my time reading it instead.

This is the kind of film that makes me understand why the Fox & Friends tin-foil-hat brigade hates us liberals. The family in the film is all northern California boho charm, too cool to parent exactly right, having only momentary flirtations with actual discipline. Why read your kid the riot act when you can smoke a doobie all-hipster style with him at his high school graduation? This is the kind of film where stepmom is a groovy painter (Maura Tierney, all furrowed brow pout and earnestly whiny); dad’s manopausal new toe-headed toddlers never get haircuts and have cutesy names like Jasper and Daisy; the family pads around super-casz in their sprawling Frank Lloyd Wright-esque redwood-and-glass ranch; and they tool around town in a vintage Volvo station wagon (“boxy but good!”) with two bounding retriever mutts in tow. Lord, these people annoyed me. “Hey, we’re having a crisis that would cripple any normal family … so let’s all go surfing.”

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The film only manages to grind to some kind of life in its final 20 minutes as Carrell’s David Sheff finally writes off a son who is beyond redemption and Chalamet’s “beautiful boy” Nic Sheff truly hits rock bottom as a result. This is where the film’s bloodless dispassion does pay off. We, as an audience, have grown as numb and as immune as David to Nic’s manipulations, so when we see Nic at his most disgustingly debased, we realize that Nic’s only way out is to come face-to-face alone with his demons (and they are legion). End scene.

I’m not sure what this genre of film should be called: “Pretty hippies with moolah have troubles too?” I blame Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach and Lisa Cholodenko and their self-indulgent directorial ilk. I attended a “magnet school” growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the campus was rife with kids from clans like that in this film; I’m guessing these directors are likely my age and came from similar upbringings as those classmates of mine. I’m probably just a cranky old fart at this point, but if I was even drinking too much Coca Cola as a teen, you’re damn well certain my parents wouldn’t just look casually over their shoulders as I passed through the front door to God-knows-where and say, “Have a good time!” I’m being judgmental, but then why else do we watch movies like this, if it isn’t to walk away empathizing “glad that’s not my life”?

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I should probably say more about about the movie. It’s a bore. A crashing bore. I wasn’t sure if the film wanted to be a navel-gazing After School Special cautionary tale on the dangers of drugs or was simply in love with its own masturbatory misanthropy. It’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back.

If I want to watch a film that crawls under my skin and nails the familial destabilization substance abuse can cause, give me Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Days of Wine and Roses (at least that one has a lush theme song), The Lost WeekendLess Than ZeroTrainspotting, The Fighter or, hell, 28 Days.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Indeed.

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[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.

“It’s America: They’re Puritans in public, perverts in private.” Bohemian Rhapsody (film)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I wanted to love Bohemian Rhapsody. I really did.

One of the first 45s (remember those?) which I bought with my own money was Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust,” and I wore out many a needle on my little Raggedy Andy record player listening to their day-glo Flash Gordon soundtrack on endless repeat.

That said, is there a rock group of the past 40 years that is more rife with the potential for gonzo, heartbreaking baroque cinematic poignancy than Queen?! Lead singer Freddie Mercury’s out-sized public persona and haunted inner turmoil are ready-made for the kind of swirling epic that is both audience catnip and Oscar bait this time of year.

Alas, embattled director Bryan Singer is no Milos Forman, Stanley Kubrick, or, heck, Baz Luhrmann, and, in his hands, Bohemian Rhapsody becomes a serviceably entertaining yet never transcendent paint-by-numbers affair. A well-intentioned, well-acted Wikipedia entry.

Much has been written about Rami Malek’s transformation into Freddy Mercury. I’m not sure he quite lives up to the hype. When bandmates Brian May and Roger Taylor (a sparkling Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy) steal scenes from Mercury, you may have a problem. (IRL, May and Taylor are producers on the film. Go figure.) Malek does compel as a little-boy-lost caught between cultures in love with his voice but at odds with his sexuality and his ethnicity. Yet, he never inspires in the way the real Mercury could with the mere flick of an eyebrow. Malek’s limpid banjo eyes and cumbersome prosthetic teeth are more static Al Hirschfeld caricature than true character development.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film is at its playful best when detailing the creation of Queen’s biggest stadium thumpers like “We Will Rock You,” “Another One Bites The Dust,” and the titular mock-opera tune. The ensemble is clearly having a ball playing dress-up and re-enacting Queen’s free-wheeling creative process. There is a fun cameo by Mike Myers as a small-minded producer baffled by the neo-classical camp charms of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (A sly wink at Myers’ Wayne’s World movie which introduced a new generation to the number, rocketing it up the pop charts once again.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film is less successful when it addresses Mercury’s challenged and challenging personal life. The film wants to paint this singular misfit as an everyman, a libidinous Warholian svengali for the Jock Rock crowd. It just doesn’t quite work, alas. At one point, the band opines, “It’s America: They’re Puritans in public, perverts in private.” One wonders if that notion didn’t hang up the filmmakers as well.

There is a gut punch of a movie in Mercury’s life, a celebratory cautionary tale about creative spark, sexual impulse, and uninhibited expression. Unfortunately, Bohemian Rhapsody ain’t it. A cheap, slight K-Tel hits collection when a messy, overlong box set was required.

Oh, and, Sacha Baron Cohen, I’d still like to see your version of this story.

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[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.

“Our blackness is the weapon they fear.” The Hate U Give (film review)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A young woman, torn between two worlds, discovers her voice and her resolve and becomes a champion of her people in the face of tyranny. This trope has long-defined a good chunk of young adult fiction from The Wizard of Oz to The Hunger Games, Alice in Wonderland to Divergent. However, those works use allegorical fantasy to safely distance the reader from the tumult of real-life. Oh, and those works all feature a female protagonist who is white. There may be a sidekick or two of color, but that’s it.

Angie Thomas jettisons the allegory and brings us face-to-face with the racism, sexism, and economic disparity crippling our country in her young adult novel The Hate U Give (title courtesy of a 2Pac lyric), now sure-handedly adapted into film by director George Tillman, Jr. (Soul Food, Barbershop, Notorious).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

African-American teen Starr Carter – portrayed in the film with exceptional fire and presence by Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) – is a luminous and high-potential presence at Williamson, her all-white, upper-class high school . Her principled parents (Girls Trip‘s Regina Hall and Fences‘ Russell Hornsby delivering just the right mix of haunted bravery and pragmatic compassion) have kept the family residing in neighboring Garden Heights – a hardscrabble community riddled with gun violence, drug lords, and countless dead ends – to remain close to their roots, but they drive their kids to Williamson to give their progeny a leg up on their education. I suspect there is a lot that could be written about those parenting choices (pro and con), but that is the narrative conceit around which The Hate U Give‘s story revolves.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

One night, after attending a house party in her home town, Starr witnesses one of her dearest and oldest friends (a heartbreakingly charming Algee Smith – Detroit) gunned down in a routine traffic stop. The narrative then tracks her challenges overcoming her own fears and those of her parents – re: taking a stand and testifying – as well as her burgeoning realization that her well-intentioned but myopic classmates don’t know the first thing about the daily dangers Starr faces in her own neighborhood.

Tillman’s film is a gut punch, particularly in its nuanced first hour, as we are introduced to Starr’s world(s) and trace the tricky balancing act she performs every day. If there is a flaw in the film, it is that – due to the time-limitations of film versus novel – the Williamson side of Starr’s life is relatively unexplored and her school chums remain ciphers, chiefly providing the occasional plot complication and little more.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The supporting cast is exceptional: Selma‘s Common as Starr’s loving but arguably hypocritical policeman uncle who collects a paycheck while (sort of) accepting the party line to “shoot first, ask questions later”; Captain America‘s Anthony Mackie as a local drug lord who was once best buds with Starr’s father and whose children remain Starr’s pals; Riverdale‘s KJ Apa wringing his Archie Andrews best from an underwritten role as Starr’s boyfriend; and singer Sabrina Carpenter (“Thumbs“) as one of Starr’s besties who devolves into the junior version of Laura Ingraham before Starr’s very eyes.

Apparently, I will spend this autumn in the multiplex in a puddle of tears. A Star is Born gutted me, and, now, The Hate U Give had the same impact. The latter film grows increasingly predictable as it reaches its climactic moments, but it is so well-executed with such authenticity and is so sensitively relevant to the callous and cruel days in which we are living that I found myself having about 12 ugly cries through its running time. I attribute that, not only to Tillman’s confident and workmanlike direction, but to performances – particularly Stenberg’s, Hall’s, and Hornsby’s – that stubbornly refuse to embrace cinematic escapism. This family is a loving one, rife with disagreements, but ultimately wanting to rise above the fray and simply live.

We all want that. We all need that. We all deserve that. Yet, every day when I read the headlines, that seems to be an increasingly unattainable pipe dream.

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[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.

 

“Secrets are like margarine.” A Simple Favor and White Boy Rick

simple favor
[Image Source: Wikipedia]

 

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

– “We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

“Secrets are like margarine. Easy to spread but bad for the heart.” – Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), A Simple Favor

“What can I say? I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.” – Rick Wershe, Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), White Boy Rick

 

White-Boy-Rick-movie-poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ah, American hustle and the dark truth of the Horatio Alger myth: you can be anything you want to be in America and have as much success as you can stand as long as you deny your true nature and, arguably, your humanity. If there is a through line in A Simple Favor and White Boy Rick, this weekend’s two big “fall films” (movies that lean into Oscar season and don’t star an alien Predator), it is that very truism and the resultant deception and self-loathing that accompanies it.

 

A Simple Favor is stylishly directed by Paul Feig, whose previous efforts Bridesmaids, The Heat, Ghostbusters, and Spy demonstrated a sure-handed understanding that women are, you know, people too. Based on a novel by Darcey Bell (think Postman Always Rings Twice author James M. Cain writing for The CW), Feig gleefully pulls a Brian DePalma (minus the gory misogyny) in an unrelenting homage to some of suspense cinema’s greatest hits: Vertigo, Charade, Diabolique (actually name-checked by one of the characters), Gaslight, and, yes, Cain’s Double Indemnity, and probably a dozen more I’m forgetting. Blessedly, Feig embraces the black comedy of it all, and the film is less Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct and more Mel Brooks-spoofs-Gone Girl.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

For her work in this film, Anna Kendrick now and forever will be my hero as her performance drives a stake into the heart of the insufferable DIY, cupcake-baking, Pinterest-stalking mommy vlogger (that’s vlogger with a “v” … as in “video blogger”). Her Stephanie Smothers is a hoot, one bad PTA meeting away from a nervous breakdown – a young widow whose  fixation on “home and hearth” may belie a darker (trashier) past.

 

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Into Stephanie’s life breezes fellow elementary school mom Emily Nelson, an icy Hitchcock blonde in divine Lauren Bacall-pantsuits. Blake Lively reminds viewers she’s more than “Ryan Reynolds’ wife” in a crackpot performance that is one part Carole Lombard, one part Veronica Lake, and one part Barbara Stanwyck … that is if those women were showboating, day-drinking, pansexual PR executives addicted to painkillers and stainless steel appliances. Oh, and she’s got secrets too … some doozies.

 

Emily and Stephanie meet cute in the rain, picking their sons up from school, and strike up the unlikeliest of friendships. The best parts of the movie are watching these two circle each other, realizing their respective “hustles” are as artificial as the day is long. Pretty soon, Emily disappears Gone Girl-style, and hunky husband Sean Townsend (Crazy Rich Asians‘ Henry Golding who is suddenly everywhere) is the chief culprit, which is compounded when he and Stephanie strike up a romance.

simple couch

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I won’t spoil the twists and turns as they come fast and furious, but Feig and his stars have a ball indulging in and skewering the excesses of the genre. A fabulous supporting cast of pros like Jean Smart, Linda Cardellini, Rupert Friend, and Andrew Rannells all deliver zippy character turns. By the final twenty minutes, I will admit, I began to sour on the improbability of it all as the film veers into farcical War of the Roses territory. Nonetheless, for Lively’s gonzo performance alone, the film is essential viewing.

 

Across the aisle from A Simple Favor‘s flawless Dwell Magazine production design is the rough and tumble scruffiness of White Boy Rick, set in the nadir of Mayor Coleman Young’s mid-80s Detroit when the entire city looked like the back lot of a Mad Max movie and stopping to grab a Slurpee at 7-Eleven was a death-defying act.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Based on the true story of Rick Wershe, Jr., the longest serving juvenile drug offender in the history of Michigan, White Boy Rick details Wershe’s descent into crime, his ascent as both FBI-informant and drug kingpin, and his eventual arrest and conviction. Along the way, Wershe (a haunting Richie Merritt) and his gun-smuggling papa (McConaughey in one of his best and most understated performances) meet a host of dodgy characters from the mean streets of the Motor City and in the mayoral Manoogian Mansion. (Legends Piper Laurie and Bruce Dern pop up as McConaughey’s parents – they are dynamite, and the biggest crime is that they don’t get more screen time.)

 

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Jennifer Jason Leigh is pretty much Jennifer Jason Leigh (which is fine) as an FBI agent using the boy to infiltrate the Detroit drug scene, and Brian Tyree Henry spins gold from his underwritten part as a Detroit cop in on the deal.

 

Director Yann Demange does an exceptional job capturing the sheer ugliness of this hardscrabble place and time without ever condescending to the moment nor its denizens. These characters are people who view the “land of opportunity” through a fun-house mirror where the only choices for financial stability are felonious. I will admit that I found the film’s point-of-view regarding its central figure problematically slippery. Are we to sympathize with him and his failings? Is he some kind of martyr figure? What does the film mean to imply about race in these circumstances? I’m at sea about the answers to these questions, and that leaves me just shy of fully supporting the film. White Boy Rick is well-done with a crackerjack cast, but I walk away with a bit of unease about what it is ultimately trying to say about race and class distinctions in America.

Matthew McConaughey (Finalized);Richie Merritt (Finalized)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Regardless, both A Simple Favor and White Boy Rick (especially taken together) do an exceptional job holding a cinematic lens to the artifice of “success” in America: its false promise of fulfillment, its ephemeral nature, and its intrinsic heartache.

 

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

       We wear the mask.

 

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

       We wear the mask!

– “We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

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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.

“We don’t grow children like that here.” The Ringwald’s production of The Laramie Project – plus, quick notes on Crazy Rich Asians, Blaine Fowler’s America, and yours truly being interviewed on Freeman Means Business

Laramie Project review originally published by Encore Michigan here.

[Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook page]

The Ringwald Theatre’s 2018-19 season opener The Laramie Project is not a production that needs to be reviewed. It is a production that needs to be viewed. It is a production that essentially illustrates (beyond question) that the most impactful theatre requires very little: words, voice, people, movement. Storytelling in its truest form. As an audience member, I haven’t cried like I did opening night of Laramie Project in years (if ever).

 

At the end of act one, I was a puddle, with two acts to go, and, by the time the performance wrapped, I was red-eyed, gutted, mad-as-hell, and cautiously hopeful. It’s that good. I suppose some projection was involved on my part. I was roughly Matthew Shepard’s age when he was savagely brutalized and murdered. I grew up and attended college in Indiana, which, as Mike Pence’s political ascent will attest, is a state not unlike Wyoming – more Handmaid’s Tale than Moulin Rouge.

That notwithstanding, The Ringwald’s production of Laramie Project is a slow-burn powerhouse.

The play written by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project assembles first-person narratives from hundreds of interviews with Laramie townspeople, University of Wyoming faculty members, friends of Matthew’s, and the Tectonic Theater’s actors themselves. The narrative roughly follows this arc: defining Shepard’s humanity and upbringing, detailing the incidents of that tragic evening, and assessing its aftermath, all in the words of narrators both reliable and not. It is up to the audience to sort the wheat from the chaff and to make sense of a society where such irrational cruelty can occur. The approach is as journalistic as it is theatrical, and the topic is (sadly) as timely today as it was when the piece was written in 2000.

Director Brandy Joe Plambeck has assembled an empathetic, deep-feeling, yet commanding cast to perform dozens of roles: Joe Bailey, Greg Eldridge, Kelly Komlen, Sydney Lepora, Joel Mitchell, Taylor Morrow, Gretchen Schock, and Mike Suchyta. Rarely does this stellar group miss a beat, and Plambeck wisely eschews distractingly overt theatricality for a stripped down readers’ theatre approach. The emphasis is quite literally on the words on the page, and, as the details mount, both performers and audience are swept into a hurricane of emotion, of indignation, and of heartbreak.

As for those tears of mine? Well, Lepora and Bailey are the chief culprits, tasked to deliver some of the more devastating speeches and historical detail. They resist the temptation to indulge their characters’ raw emotions in a broad, selfish, “actorly” way. Rather, they quite realistically and subtly show their characters desperately trying (and failing) to stifle and contain their confusion, their anguish, their rage. And that damming of emotion, only to see the floodgates fail, is what cuts an audience to the quick.

Suchyta is quite effective as a series of “Wyoming” alpha men, from a star theatre student to a local bar owner to Shepard’s tormentors Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Mitchell is a sparkplug, breathing bold strokes life into the play’s few comic moments as a surprisingly insightful cab driver, and Morrow does a fine job balancing characters both reprehensible (local “mean girls” who basically imply Shepard deserved his fate) and painfully noble (one of the very few out-and-proud lesbian faculty members at the University of Wyoming).

That said, I hate to single out any performances, because this is an ensemble show in the truest sense of the word, and everyone is excellent. Plambeck paces the show in a measured but never ponderous way. The costuming is minimal, stage directions and character names are read by Plambeck, and scene changes/location names are projected on the back wall of the space. This approach results in a production that places the emphasis squarely where it belongs – on the voices of the people who experienced this tragedy and on a nation that both evolved and devolved as a result. Don’t miss this production.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I’m so Chinese I’m an economics professor with lactose intolerance.” – Crazy Rich Asians

 

The other week we saw the film Crazy Rich Asians. Somehow life got in the way of me writing anything at length about the film, which is a shame because it is quite exceptional. Let me say this: while it was marketed as a wall-to-wall laugh riot a la Bridesmaids, it shares more with that film’s DNA than just riotous shenanigans.

Don’t get me wrong, Crazy Rich Asians has its fair share of zaniness, chiefly supplied by sparkling comedienne Awkwafina, but like Bridesmaids, that tomfoolery belies a gentler, sweeter, yet exceptionally subversive core. It’s been 20-some years since Hollywood produced a film starring an all-Asian cast (the far inferior Joy Luck Club), and the box office success of Crazy Rich Asians will hopefully inspire a bit of sea change where Asian representation in Tinseltown is concerned. Money matters (sadly).

Crazy Rich Asians is part fair tale fantasy, part light comedy, part soap opera, all heart. Luminous Constance Wu arrives a fully formed movie star as Rachel Wu, a whip-smart economics professor in New York whose life is turned upside down when she learns her longtime boyfriend Nick Young (a dashing Henry Golding) is in actuality Singapore real estate royalty. As Rachel runs the gauntlet of Henry’s wackadoo family members – including a sympathetically subtle turn by Michelle Yeoh as Henry’s fearful and controlling mother Eleanor – Wu reveals varied layers of heartache and resilience. It’s a thoughtful performance, understated and thereby likely to be unfairly overlooked come awards season, but nonetheless an exceptional depiction of female frustration and agency in this maddening modern era.

Catch this film while still in theaters or on home video shortly.

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[Yes, a window into my musical taste.]

Blaine Fowler’s AmericaMy friend Blaine Fowler is a brilliant, witty, and delightful radio DJ here in metro Detroit on WDVD 96.3 FM. His morning show is a top-rated listen in this market. He and his wife Colleen are also among the kindest people you’ll have the chance to meet with two lovely and successful children. But one of his greatest loves is music. I wrote a bit about his last iTunes album 49783 here.

 

His latest release America was just posted on iTunes and Amazon for download.The whole album is divine. More cohesive sonically and rawer lyrically than the prior one, with an almost “song cycle” effect and an evocative moodiness. I liked it very much. Highlights include “Love Is” (a trippy throwback to Prince at his Minneapolis peak), “Reach,” “Oval Beach,” and “Best Friend.” This is an impressive evolution, which is saying something as I very much enjoyed Blaine’s previous effort. Keep it up. And keep experimenting. My two cents.

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Freeman Means Business

This week, my friend and fellow legal marketer Susan Freeman interviewed me for her podcast. She writes, “Check out the latest great conversation about the life of a legal marketer from our ‘Peer Pod’ podcast featuring Roy Sexton, a real dynamo — and a reel dynamo too!” Click here or here.

“Be patient. Listen to those with experience in areas that are new or foreign to you. Don’t be afraid to be your authentic self. People WILL respond.” Thank you, Susan!

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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.

Tech Thoughts From a Long-Time Marketer in a First-Year Role

As published by Legal Marketing Association’s Strategies here

 

Share, collaborate and give credit where credit is due.

 

This article aligns with the focus of the July/August issue of Strategies magazine: technology.

The other day I hosted a webinar. It didn’t go well.

We didn’t select one of the platforms typically used by our industry. “Let’s save costs,” we thought. “We can do this ourselves,” we thought. So, we used a subscription for a service we already had. We scheduled it. We did a “dry run” in our media room. Everything seemed to being working OK.

Day of webinar, with 60 people on the line, we launched our new quarterly web series. There was lots of energy. Lawyers were pumped. Rockin’ and rollin’. Twenty minutes later, a colleague popped her head in the conference room, gesticulated wildly toward her ears, and hissed, “We can’t hear you.” White hot panic ensued.

We started over. Still couldn’t be heard. Suddenly, we couldn’t see our slides either. Disconnected. Restarted. Suddenly all was right, but only for the 20 people who inexplicably remained on the line. Blessedly, my attorneys were game to re-record the whole thing offline, which we then posted on our website — and a new podcast was born.

I’m 20-plus years into this career. I think I know what I’m doing, but I often don’t know what I’m doing. It can happen to any of us. We want to please too many people; we’re told to keep costs low, don’t commit to any product long term, pilot something new — you can figure anything out, until you can’t.

 

When You Can’t Be All Things to Your Firm

 

This brings me to my most salient piece of advice for the small-firm marketer with finite resources (human, financial, technological): It may seem counterintuitive, but you must budget for consulting advice, and you must push back if your firm is unwilling to let you enlist the virtual aid of experts on areas where you may be deficient. It’s tempting to try to be all things to your firm, but you can’t. You will fail, and when you fail they fail.

It is crucial to my success to stay in contact with fellow legal marketers as well as service providers in our industry. You need to stay on top of the latest and greatest in technology solutions, measurement, outreach, etc., and, for me, maintaining my professional network is a great way to do so. I have some consultants I’ve known personally and professionally for years ― people I met at my very first LMA conference. Consequently, I trust their counsel.

Know what you don’t know, and be transparent about that. Part of your value to your respective organizations may be in giving them access to consultants and resources you have gathered over the years. For me, I lean heavily on CRM, web/digital and measurement experts, and, as appropriate, have them take on engagements with the firm.

First Time’s the Charm

 

When you are pushing your firm to make that big expenditure (for them), you need to articulate how important it is to do things correctly the first time. What are those old sayings? Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Measure twice, cut once. Don’t cut your nose off to spite your face. (Shudder. That last one is particularly grim.)

You must quantify your impact. Social media and digital give us a host of great leading metrics to use around awareness and engagement (e.g., reach, readability, downloads). We can also target industry groups now in very sophisticated ways. When working with attorneys, you need to show immediate impact ― whether by helping them connect with media and PR opportunities or through networking events, and then mapping out strategies for follow-up, codifying the business development steps and pipeline.

It’s not always evident that business development is a long game, so you have to help them see the short-term gains on the way to the larger outcome. If you have made a strategic bet on technology (e.g., marketing automation, competitive intelligence) to achieve those gains, celebrate each and every gain — no matter how small — and link it back to that investment.

That is how you will free up capital for your next play. And, if you can integrate with your accounting team via a CRM system (sometimes easier said than done), all the better. In an ideal environment, you should be tracking your marketing activities and then seeing what, if any, revenue impact they may be having and adjust as needed.

  • The digital revolution is changing the way we connect with the consumer and how we impact their decision-making processes dramatically. Duh. We can be increasingly targeted and can measure our impact in more granular ways. Be aware of how you are budgeting your dollars, and don’t be left behind because decision-makers in your firm may remain smitten with antiquated techniques that once worked for them. Both from a talent retention and a client acquisition perspective, you need to adapt and adapt quickly.
  • We are seeing an increasing diversification and consolidation of the traditional chief marketing officer role. Duh again. We are seeing chief experience officers, engagement execs, digital leaders, tech experts and operational leads spin out of and take over the marketing space. Keep your skills up-to-date and diversify, and don’t focus on tactics at the expense of strategy. At the end of the day, we are here to drive awareness and business. As a result, we can find ourselves at the table for interesting conversations. Avail yourself of the opportunities. Don’t be linear about your work nor provincial/territorial in your thinking.
  • Dollars will always be a challenge. Duh… big time. No one wants to spend money on marketing, but they want amazing results. You can’t really blame leaders for that. Marketing can be very expensive and frustratingly nebulous in its impact, so operate lean. Cut programs that aren’t working before others cut them on your behalf. Find ways to leverage digital to shrink your own budget and demonstrate that you can achieve significant outcomes for less. That may seem counterintuitive as marketers can sometimes spiral into empire building as a means to seem more significant or powerful within an organization. Show your value through outcomes, not turf or budget size.

 

 

Lean on Collective Intelligence

 

Digital, digital, digital. Acquiring technology to increase targeting. Boosting signal. Digital dissemination vehicles. Marketing automation.

There are so many great tools out there that your head will spin trying to understand them all. Don’t try. Find people who are doing that work ― sifting the wheat from the chaff. Tell them your needs, seek their counsel and follow their advice. Don’t be afraid to spend some money on people who are doing the research you may not have the bandwidth or expertise to accomplish yourself.

Some days I feel like I’m having a nervous breakdown. Others I feel like I’ve won the lottery. I love being a solo marketer. I love the work I do when I can introduce my attorneys to a new tool that will make their lives easier, help them reach a broader audience and find their voices. But I can’t do it alone. The best “tech” I can acquire is the collective intelligence of consultants and colleagues who have solved these problems before me, who know what works (and what doesn’t) and who can help me make the case for change. Share, collaborate and give credit where credit is due. That’s how you win the game.

Interested in learning more about marketing technology? Be sure to check out the July/August issue of LMA’s Strategies magazine.

Roy Sexton is the director of marketing for Kerr Russell. His background includes significant experience in both the legal and healthcare industries. He recently returned to a law firm environment, assuming the role of director of marketing at Kerr Russell after a stint as regional marketing director of a large health system. He is treasurer-elect for the 2018 LMA Midwest Regional Governing Board.

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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.