“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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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)

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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.

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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.)

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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)

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

 

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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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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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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.

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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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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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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)

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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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“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.

As if in a dream: Tipping Point Theatre’s Impossibility of Now wows

Originally published by EncoreMichigan

 

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them,” the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne once observed. For all intents and purposes, this quote could serve as the central thesis of Tipping Point Theatre’s latest offering, the Michigan premiere of Y. York’s The Impossibility of Now.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

With a narrative conceit that wouldn’t have been out of place in mid-century episodes of Playhouse 90, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or my mother’s beloved The Loretta Young Show, York’s play details the recovery of a successful non-fiction writer Carl (a dazzling Dave Davies) whose slate is literally wiped clean when a utility pole falls on his car and renders him an amnesiac. His wife Miranda (poignantly portrayed by Julia Glander) has suffered for years, married to a pre-accident Carl who was terse, cruel, distant, and unkind, keeping her an emotional prisoner in their isolated three-story Las Vegas condo.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

In the midst of her heartache, Miranda had taken up with a hunky man-child dentist Anthony (Glander’s real-life husband Alex Leydenfrost) who may or may not have fully healed from his own recent divorce. Yet, Carl returns from the hospital a changed man – innocent and loving, full of wonder about this new world around him … and pretty darn smitten with Miranda. Needless to say, Miranda is at a crossroads.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

What keeps the piece from devolving into maudlin soap opera? Sprightly dialogue by York that values adult wit over self-indulgent shtick and, perhaps more importantly, smart direction from Frannie Shepherd-Bates that allows each of her talented actors to shine and genius set and projection design from Moníka Essen that elevates the narrative with a hauntingly dream-like quality.

The interplay between Davies and Glander, as a couple rebuilding a life from ash, provides the production its most affecting moments. Essen’s set – a series of (literal) jigsaw puzzle pieces – is a nod toward Carl’s attempts at reconciling a sea of memories, real and imagined.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

Her projection work aids and abets the exceptional onstage connection between Davies and Glander: a series of animated words appear at key junctures on a screen above the stage, representing the ever-spinning algorithms in Carl’s mind, and provide exquisite punctuation (sometimes riotous, sometimes heartbreaking) on the unfolding tragicomedy.

I was transfixed by the interplay of these elements; an effect that can only be achieved in the theatre, expanding and elevating a good play into something great.

Quintessa Gallinat’s nuanced sound design is a key element in this experience as well and must be acknowledged for the immersive but unobtrusive use of music and sound effects.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

My only quibbles are more with script than production. At two hours, the narrative at times seems attenuated past its breaking point, and the capable and compelling Leydenfrost is saddled with a role which, at times, seems to be more a sitcom-level complication than fully developed character. He and Glander are fun to watch with their dental chair trysts, but those moments are jarring, like lost pages from Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, given the high-wire act Davies brings to Carl’s reclamation of self. They almost seem like two different universes entirely. It doesn’t hurt the show, and the cast all soldier through admirably, but the script would be more of a gut punch with fewer shenanigans and even more focus on Carl and Miranda’s fascinating pas de deux.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

Davies is a marvel. His crack comedic timing coupled with a deep-feeling pathos engenders a wealth of audience empathy. Davies has built an extraordinary number of layers into a role that in lesser hands could have been Forrest Gump-redux. He never condescends to the character nor to the situations and is electrifyingly present throughout. Don’t miss his work here. “Deft and exhilarating” can’t begin to describe it.

Tipping Point and its Producing Artistic Director James Kuhl are perhaps too-often unsung for the consistent level of quality and engagement they bring to their work. Productions there are consistently top-notch, relatable, and transporting. They take chances on new material, use their space in clever and creative and economical ways, and provide a safe place for an extraordinary array of talent to play. The Impossibility of Now is a perfect example of the humane and humanistic approach they take to theatrical arts, and, for that, this critic is grateful.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

The Impossibility of Now runs through August 19.

 

 

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[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

Addendum … I’m participating in this event (below) on Thursday …

Theatre NOVA, Ann Arbor’s professional theatre with an exclusive focus on new plays and playwrights, presents their semi-annual Michigan Playwrights Festival, now in its third year. Five new plays by Michigan playwrights will be given readings July 25-29, 2018.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

Theatre NOVA focuses on new plays and new playwrights and is dedicated to working with new and local playwrights to help them develop their craft and to offer brand new plays for audiences. The theatre created the Michigan Playwrights Festival to nurture Michigan playwrights and to develop full-length plays for future seasons. They recently produced “Clutter,” an original script by Michigan playwright Brian Cox, as a result of its staged reading at a previous festival. “Clutter” was lauded by audiences and critics and earned two Wilde Award awards, including Best New Script.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

In the previous year, “Irrational” by R. MacKenzie Lewis and David Wells was given a full production and also received a Wilde Award for Best New Script. Other plays that began as staged readings at Theatre NOVA and have gone on to full productions are “Katherine” by Kim Carney, “Spin” by Emilio Rodriguez, and “Bird” by Kristin Hanratty. “Resisting” by David Wells and “Mrs. Fifty Bakes a Pie” by Linda Ramsay-Detherage also benefited from readings at a Michigan Playwrights Festival and had their world premieres in the current Theatre NOVA season, with “Resisting” being nominated for a Wilde Award for Best New Script.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

This activity is supported by the MICHIGAN COUNCIL FOR ARTS AND CULTURAL AFFAIRS and the NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS.

Schedule of the July Michigan Playwrights Festival:

“Sex and Innocence” by Emilio Rodriguez, Wednesday, July 25 at 8:00 pm

After hours, inside a fictional museum for 1950’s Hollywood plastic figurines, a statue of Rita Moreno comes to life and runs into a statue of Marlon Brando. When Rita’s statue discovers that she is tucked away in the basement of the museum and remembered as merely a sex symbol instead of an Oscar-winning actress, she attempts to re-brand herself while simultaneously confronting her tumultuous relationship with Marlon. Can she change how she is revered, or will her interactions reaffirm the very image she seeks to shatter? This reading, directed by Emilio Rodriguez, will feature Chloe Castro-Santos and James Busam.

“Hollywood Lies” by Jackie Sue Salter, Thursday, July 26 at 8:00 pm
A story of friendship amidst the Hollywood blacklist, “Hollywood Lies” presents 1948 Hollywood where a just-past-her-prime actress attempts to revive her stalled career. “Hollywood Lies” features Colleen Gentry, Roy Sexton, Laurie Atwood, Robert Schorr, and Ellen Finch, and is directed by Brian Cox.

 

“Under Ceege” by Jeffry Chastang, Friday, July 27 at 8:00 pm

Following the death of her father, a retired hospital worker finds herself not only at odds with her son, in the middle of a lucky lottery streak, but also at a financial disadvantage as she struggles to buy the home she’s lived in all of her life. Featuring Monrico Ward and directed by Lynch Travis.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

“Dirt” by Kristin Andrea Hanratty, Saturday, July 28 at 8:00 pm

All that Saundra wants to focus on during her sixth year of college is parties, avoiding schoolwork and herself. However, after she returns from a road trip to the Southwest, she finds herself plagued by the pains of others and the mysterious substance found in a hole of a New Mexican church. Directed by Aliyah Kiesler, “Dirt” features Danielle Wright, Carlos Westbrook, Rishi Mahesh, Maggie Alger, Connor Hutchins, Alan Gibson, and Joe Sfair.

“Dirty Glass” by Micealaya Moses, Sunday, July 29 at 2:00 pm

Teenaged Meghan returns home a year after running away and has to find a way to fit herself into her old life. Meghan and her community grapple with their responsibility concerning Meghan’s choices in a world that often doesn’t see young black girls as children and refuses to acknowledge when they have been victimized. This reading of “Dirty Glass” features Arabia Little, Shelia Johnson, Doug Monds, Dan Johnson, Aseneth Peek Parker, Jillian Diane Craighead, and Lorenzo Orlando, and is directed by Casaundra Freeman.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

The Michigan Playwrights Festival will run October 10-15, 2017 at Theatre NOVA (410 W. Huron, Ann Arbor), a downtown performance space. Show times are 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Theatre NOVA features free parking for patrons, as well as quick access to the city’s restaurants, bars, bakeries, and coffee shops.

Tickets are $10 for each reading, while festival passes good for all five readings are $30. Theatre NOVA continues its commitment to making theatre accessible by offering pay-what-you-can tickets for those who need them for all readings. For tickets or more info, visit TheatreNOVA.org, call 734-635-8450 (Tuesdays through Fridays from noon until 3 p.m.), or buy them in person at the box office one hour before show time.

Theatre NOVA is Ann Arbor’s resident professional theatre company. Its mission is to raise awareness of the value and excitement of new plays and new playwrights in a diverse and expanding audience and to provide resources and outlets for playwrights to develop their craft, by importing, exporting, and developing new plays and playwrights.

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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.

Of freak flags and time warps: The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show

Originally published by EncoreMichigan.com

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show is a bit of an artifact of its time, when queer culture and camp were avant garde, subversive, and downright frightening to most of America. Mike Pence notwithstanding, today we’ve seen such a mainstreaming of O’Brien’s core shock tactics (gender fluidity, B-movie tropes taken to their kinkiest extremes, gay panic, sophomoric raunch) that the show almost seems like a cuddly, family-friendly enterprise. I guess we can thank Andy Warhol, John Waters, Madonna, RuPaul, Logo TV, and Sacha Baron Cohen for that? When Drag Race – the likeliest heir to Rocky Horror’s legacy – is one of the most popular reality shows in America, you know we’ve turned a corner, even if the daily headlines, Fox News, and the comments section of any given Yahoo! news story lead us to believe otherwise. Hell, Fox themselves aired a (not very good) TV remake of Rocky Horror starring trans actress/activist Laverne Cox  … in response to Carrie Underwood playing Maria in NBC’s Sound of Music Live!?! Strange days indeed.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

Ferndale, Michigan’s The Ringwald gets all of this. This milieu is their stock-in-trade. In fact, I can practically feel their collective eyeballs roll as they read that opening paragraph. Consequently, it is assured that Ringwald will do something unique with the material, while honoring the nostalgia factor that keeps Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials alike coming back year-after-year to this show and its classic film adaptation. The film, of course, starred Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, and Susan Sarandon in career-launching roles with a million toast-strewn midnight-movie showings.

 

[Wallace, Harris, Gagnon, Jacokes – image by author]

Directed with aplomb by Brandy Joe Plambeck (also brilliantly pulling out all the stops as exposition- spouting character Dr. Scott), The Ringwald’s Rock Horror Show does not disappoint. Tied loosely to the bicentennial anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (I wondered why everyone was doing these kinds of shows in the middle of summer – well, I’m seeing this one), The Ringwald’s production is a damn party. Yes, O’Brien’s book reads like a series of MadLibs pages strung together and makes about as much sense. However, the songs are sublime, and they are beautifully delivered here – kudos to Jeremy St. Martin’s music direction. The bonkers characters are a scream for talented actors like Ringwald’s to play. No bit of scenery remains unchewed; no audience member unaccosted. And it’s divine.

 

Defying convention, Plambeck transplants the show from a rambling gothic castle into a seedy biker bar, covered in punk rock graffiti and serving (non-alcoholic) drinks to audience and cast members – with smart, solid, economic scenic design from Stephen Carpenter. It’s a genius and immersive move. Squeaky clean (or are they?) Brad and Janet – representing the dreams and aspirations of middle-America to live boring, Instagram-friendly lives – stumble into said bar from the rain to use the pay phone after their car dies. While there, Brad and Janet meet a sordid cast of characters, all of whom are easy-to-judge but hard-to-avoid and totally at home in this setting. What Plambeck’s approach loses in outright spooky weirdness, it makes up for in sheer Muppet-y anarchic charm.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

The bar is run by one Dr. Frank N. Furter who uses sex as a weapon AND a floor show. In a welcome bit of gender-blind casting, Suzan M. Jacokes takes on the role. Her acting style seems pneumatically engineered for an outsized, cartoonish part like this, and she doesn’t disappoint. While nuance may not be her forte, she has power, polish, volume, and command to spare. You can’t look away. I did miss some of the slithering insinuation we typically associate with the role, but Tim Curry’s gonzo performance will always cast a long shadow. Jacokes deserves plaudits for stomping it to the ground and making it uniquely her own. She’s like the caffeine-addled lovechild of Gloria Swanson and Rodney Dangerfield. She nails the anthemic “I’m Coming Home” number, with just the right hint of Liza/Judy-ish “little girl (boy?) lost” pathos.

 

[Wallace, Gagnon – image by author]

Matthew Wallace and Jordan Gagnon as Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, respectively, are an absolute delight, setting aside the faux innocence often brought to the roles and bringing a postmodern loopy assuredness that is fun to watch. Their love/hate dynamic in “Dammit Janet” and later “Super Heroes” is touching, thoughtful, and refreshingly believable, particularly in the midst of such a carnival-esque enterprise. Their characters benefit best from the updated locale. The hedonism of a late-night, dead-end watering hole on a stormy night (and with no vehicular escape) would indeed lead to some relationship topsy-turviness.

 

Brad and Janet arrive smack in the midst of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s experiments (in a bar?) to genetically engineer the perfect man and sexual plaything “Rocky.” Garett Michael Harris as Rocky turns in an eye-poppingly nimble performance that is more Iggy Pop than Tab Hunter. He’s terrific.

 

[Riedel, Bailey, Sulkey – image by author]

Janet takes up with Rocky; Frank takes up with Brad (and Janet). Brad and Janet’s former science professor Dr. Scott arrives in a wheelchair (and glittering pumps) to drop a whole sh*t-ton of backstory. Frank reveals that he and his fellow bar denizens are actually space aliens (!) who left their mission behind to get freaky with earthlings. Servants Riff Raff (effectively underplayed by Donny Riedel) and Magenta (Dyan Bailey – imbuing Magenta’s “over it” personality with her trademark Kathleen Turner-esque a$$-kickery) shoot up the bar with ray guns and demand a return to their home planet. Brad and Janet escape, sweetly acknowledging their love and their need for one another. Finis. Whew.

 

The ensemble work (Colleen Bielman, Ryan Kayla, Peggy Lee, Rebecca S. Mickle as “The Fantoms”) is exceptional, and the group numbers (“Time Warp,” “Floor Show”) really pop in The Ringwald’s tiny space. Efficient and effective choreography is provided by Molly Zaleski. Articulation in the group numbers sometimes gets muddled, but most of the audience knows these songs backwards and forwards so that can be forgiven. Austin Sulkey makes a fabulously exasperated/exasperating Columbia, whose love of delivery boy Eddie (a swaggering RJ Cach) ends in tragedy. Costuming on both Columbia and Eddie is great as they look like they just stepped off Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” video. Vince Kelley has done remarkable sartorial work here across the board, tying the updated setting’s aesthetic with the imagery we are accustomed to seeing in this show. Clever stuff.

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Peggy Lee (no, not that Peggy Lee) deserves a special shout out for her work as “Fantom Flo.” She hauntingly delivers the show’s opening and closing numbers (“Science Fiction Double Feature” and its reprise). Her voice is exquisite – clear and crisp and evocative.

Lee also embraces “biker chic” better than anyone else in the cast, save ursine narrator David Schoen, who greets every audience member at the door, brings you to your seat, may pull you up on stage, and is completely “Hell’s Angel” intimidating in a totally adorable way.

 

This is a production put together by people who clearly love this show. The stage manager Holly Garverick shouts out all of the expected audience participation lines from the back of the house, encouraging the audience to interact with the proceedings, a la those midnight movie house showings throughout the 70s and 80s. One thought: let’s all retire yelling “slut” whenever Janet’s name is mentioned onstage. It may be tradition, but, in these “I’m With Her”/#MeToo days, it feels all kinds of misogynistic wrong.

 

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Audience members are encouraged to purchase (for a nominal fee) a bag of props (playing cards, rubber gloves, party hats, bells, glow sticks, newspapers, kazoos, “Time Warp” dance instructions) to use at key moments during the show. Garverick may want to help with that a bit, as well, as the opening night audience didn’t seem terribly keen on using any of those goodies, save the newspapers.

 

On August 4, The Ringwald will perform the show in a special midnight performance, again to evoke those high school years when people convinced their parents it would be ok for them to go take in a showing at the witching hour.

 

[Riedel – image source: The Ringwald]

Why has Rocky Horror been such a success all these years? I often wonder. However, The Ringwald’s production reminds us that, while the show may not be Pulitzer Prize-winning material, it champions underdogs and misfits, encourages all of us to let our freak flags fly, and envisions a world where inclusion of any and all is the ideal … in one really weird package. That is why. And that message is more important than ever before. Vive la difference.

 

The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show runs until August 6. For tickets, go to http://www.theringwald.com

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Lauren Crocker and Roy Boy

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.

“He puts the ‘hell’ in ‘hello.” The Barn Theatre’s production of Bonnie and Clyde the Musical

Melissa Cotton Hunter and Jonnie Carpathios [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

In a time when vanity rules the day, socioeconomic disparity drives a culture war of epic proportions, and shallow aspirations of celebrity glitz and glamor are seemingly the sole requirements to seek (and win) public office, Frank Wildhorn’s Bonnie & Clyde the Musical (running July 3-15) is an inspired choice for the 72nd season of Augusta, Michigan’s summer stock venue The Barn Theatre.

Earlier this season, The Barn performed another Wildhorn piece – Civil War – with comparable commentary on the corrosive myth-making and partisanship that tears at the heart of our nation. Who knew Wildhorn could be so deep?

I suspect there’s a reason we don’t see Jekyll & Hyde on the Barn’s slate this season.

That said, like any Wildhorn show, the treatment of history tends toward the romantic (or the superficial … depending on your point of view). Regarding Wildhorn, while the man only writes the music, he sure gets blamed for a lot of the structural flaws in his shows. Strange thing that, and I’m just as guilty as any other critic, so here goes … Sondheim, he ain’t. Bonnie & Clyde overlays the tale of the notorious bank robbers with a kind of misunderstood outlaw prince/princess narrative that is less Natural Born Killers, more Lifetime TV. In less capable hands, that approach can be maddening, especially with so much subtext to mine about the always twisted nature of fame (and infamy) in America.

Jonnie Carpathios [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

Fortunately, this is The Barn, so the production is about as pitch perfect as can be.

Directed with lean efficiency and maximum style by Brendan Ragotzy, the show moves at a brisk pace, representing its bleak Depression-era Dust Bowl Texas setting through a series a rough-hewn-boarded flats and saturated-color lighting cues. Samantha Snow (scenic designer), Mike McShane (lighting designer), and Lauren Alexandria (costume designer) all deserve a bow for their evocative, economical work transporting the audience to another haunted/haunting place in time. Shout out to Michael Wilson Morgan for his clever and agile coupe car design that allows the fugitives’ roadster to become (as it should) an iconic character unto itself and not just expensive theatrical window dressing.

Jonnie Carpathios and Melissa Cotton Hunter [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

Opening night had a few not-unexpected technical bumps – dodgy spotlight here, slow-moving flat there, and a muffled mic or two. With the exceptional vocal talents in this cast, it’s a bit disheartening when the leads sound as though they are singing through a thin layer of gauze or when one has to strain to hear dialogue as amplification is only used during musical numbers. It’s a minor complaint and perhaps exacerbated by the fact that I was sitting in the back of the house atop rumbling AC units and under the lighting loft. Plus, my ears ain’t what they used to be either. C’est la vie.

The cast? Is to die for. No pun intended, given – spoiler alert – the ill-fated fate of our titular larcenous lovebirds. Barn mainstays Melissa Cotton Hunter and Jonnie Carpathios knock it out of the park as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow respectively. Hunter and Carpathios wisely eschew actorly vanity to get to the heart of their characters’ vanity. Any onstage preening and prancing (and there is plenty of it) comes with healthy portions of heartbreak and insecurity as well. It is a testament to these performers that, while the audience may relish the toe-tapping tune-filled adventure, we never lose sight of the tragic consequences that familial rejection and economic marginalization have had on these desperate creatures.

Melissa Cotton Hunter [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

The show opens with the number “Picture Show” in which the duo proclaim their aspirations to become as “celebrated” as Clara Bow and Al Capone (!). If you give these kids an iPhone and a selfie-filled Instagram account and swap out Bow for Kim Kardashian and Capone for, dare I say, Donald Trump, the poignant ditty could be about any number of lost souls today, fighting uphill battles against an economy and a culture they believe to be stacked against them.

Let me add that Hunter’s and Carpathios’ performances are subtle. The show is no polemic, so don’t be deterred by my more politicized observations. Hunter and Carpathios are talented actors mature enough to draw upon their contemporary influences without derailing the escapist joy of watching two beautiful, young exiles upend a system that rejected them from the outset.

Aiding and abetting (quite literally) our anti-heroes are Clyde’s brother Buck (Derek Gulley) and Buck’s wife Blanche (Samantha Rickard). Gulley and Rickard also turn in nuanced performances, wisely avoiding the pitfalls and pratfalls of second banana comic relief. Rickard especially does a fine job conveying Blanche’s tortured soul, yearning for a calm and stable family life but tragically loyal to a husband inexorably pulled to a life of crime. Her performance is a bit Eve Arden, a smidge Carrie Fisher, and a touch Sally Field …  and that combination works quite effectively.

Describing her brother-in-law Clyde, Blanche deadpans, “He puts the ‘hell’ in ‘hello.'” In lesser hands, that line would hit the audience over the head with a “laugh now!” anvil, but Rickard’s rueful, ever-so-slightly envious delivery offers wit and insight and character definition in one tidy morsel. Blanche’s opening number “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail” is a musical highlight, set in a beauty salon, with a sharp-as-tacks “Greek chorus” all-in-curlers, commenting on the unexpected joys and freedoms that result from having incarcerated husbands.

Samantha Rickard and Derek Gulley [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

The conscious theatricality of Bonnie & Clyde reaches its apex in two numbers – “God’s Arms Are Always Open” and “Made In America” – performed with gusto by Hunter’s real-life husband Patrick as a preacher whose commentary on the false promises of organized religion and government crystallize how society has failed Bonnie and Clyde.

Patrick Hunter [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

Miguel Ragel Wilson deserves special recognition for his touching and winsome portrayal of Ted Hinton, caught between his unrequited lifelong adoration of Bonnie and his career as a deputy-cum-sheriff pursuing her as she and Clyde continue to terrorize Texas. Wilson has a remarkable singing voice – clear, well-articulated, powerful, distinctive (check him out in the third “Bar Show” clip below, singing Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”). He pairs that impressive vocalization with a lean physicality and personality that evokes a mix of young Anthony Perkins, Sam Waterston, and Ray Bolger. He is one to watch.

“The Bar Show”

As always, The Barn offers an immersive experience. Grab a drink or snack at the Rehearsal Shed before or during the show, and you will see performers from the ensemble, in costume, slinging drinks and making small talk. It’s absolutely charming and never unprofessional.

Following the performances, the ensemble and apprentices take over the Shed and put on a free-wheeling and saucy cabaret – “The Bar Show” – all while still serving drinks and providing exceptional customer service. What remarkable training this experience must be for any profession they choose to pursue later in life, artistic or otherwise.

This time around in the Shed, you’ll hear some Patsy Cline, some Eurythmics, some Ricky Martin (with “breathtaking” choreography), some Marty Robbins, some Zorba, and maybe a commercial jingle or two. Do yourself a favor, and stick around after Bonnie & Clyde and take in the cabaret. It is not only worthwhile and entertaining, but gives you such an appreciation for how much work goes into a summer spent at The Barn.

Don’t miss Bonnie & Clyde. Yes, it’s a fun show with a great score, but the production at The Barn makes it an essential one, offering provocative perspective on today’s fraught and exhausting, quintessentially American experience. I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate Independence Day.

Bonnie & Clyde the Musical hereruns July 3-15 at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan. Tickets can be purchased .

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Jamey Grisham, Marin Heinritz, Roy Sexton, John Mola – happy audience members following the performance

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.