“If you dream it, you can achieve it” – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Prom, Midnight Sky, Wonder Woman 1984 … and Cimarron?

Joe: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.

Norma: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.

From Sunset Boulevard

“If you dream it, you can achieve it.” – Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) in Wonder Woman 1984

“Nothing good is born from lies.” – Diana (Gal Gadot) in Wonder Woman 1984

Sadly, this seems to be the season of watching big ticket blockbusters crammed onto a home screen. Furthermore, this seems to be the season where all of your Facebook friends march like lemmings to tell you what you’re supposed to think of said offerings before you even have had a chance to view them for yourself. Being the good-natured contrarian that my parents raised, I find myself in direct opposition to much of the feedback I’ve observed. To me, The Prom was kind-hearted escapism-with-attitude, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a stagy self-indulgent slog, Midnight Sky was a resonant Truman Capote-meets-Ray Bradbury short (long) story, and Wonder Woman 1984 was a candy-coated (admittedly overstuffed) confection.

I loved The Prom. I, for one, like unapologetic musicals, and this Ryan Murphy production reads like Hairspray, The Greatest Showman, High School Musical, and Bye Bye Birdie had a socially progressive movie baby. Much needless ado has been made about (formerly?) beloved Carpool Karaoke maven James Corden playing a gay character, claiming his take is offensively stereotypical. Many critics’ descriptions have been as troubling as what they accuse Corden of perpetuating, if you ask me.

To me, it is one of Corden’s better and more thoughtful performances, layering broad comedy in a compelling gauze of pathos, to effectively depict a man struggling to find his path in the margins (in career, physicality, and, yes, sexuality). Corden is part of a free-wheeling quartet of Broadway narcissists (all compensating for respective ghosts of failures past) who descend on a small Indiana town to “rescue” it from its own prejudices after the local PTA shames and embarrasses a young lesbian (luminous newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) in a way that would make even John Travolta’s character in Carrie cringe.

Meryl Streep (channeling a caustic yet charming mix of Patti LuPone and Susan Lucci), Nicole Kidman (at her most winsomely fragile), and Andrew Rannells (all bounding and puppyish joy) are Corden’s partners in well-intentioned, occasionally misplaced crime, and they have fabulous chemistry. Kerry Washington is suitably evangelically vampy as the rigid PTA president, and Keegan-Michael Key is a pleasant surprise (both as a singer and actor) as the high school’s show tune loving principal. Tracey Ullmann pops up as Corden’s regretful Midwestern ma, and their reconciliation scene is a lovely little masterclass in heightened understatement.

Oh, right, I did say the movie is kicky fun, but nothing I’ve written here much indicates why. Working from Matthew Sklar’s buoyant Broadway production, Murphy and team overdo everything in all the right ways, juxtaposing all-too-real intolerance and heartache (basically everyone in the film is guilty of uninformed prejudice of one kind or another) with the metaphysical joys of unhinged singing, dancing, glitter, and sequins. All ends (predictably) happily, almost Shakespearean (if Shakespeare listened to Ariana Grande), and I dare you not to sit through the end credits with a stupid, hopeful grin on your face.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is also adapted from the stage, as legendary director George C. Wolfe brings August Wilson’s play to the screen. I suspect my disappointment is more to do with the source material than Wolfe’s sure-handed if claustrophobic direction. To be honest, I wanted more of Viola Davis’ dynamite Ma Rainey and less of … everyone else. Davis has one scene worthy of the Hollywood time capsule, eviscerating the misogynistic and racist capitalist machine that steals artists’ voices (quite literally as Rainey is committing her vocals to vinyl) and tosses people to the curb when they’ve outlived their usefulness.

The film depicts one day in a Chicago recording studio as Rainey fights with, well, anyone who crosses her path in defense of her vision and to retain her integrity in a world that reduces her to a commodity. THAT is the movie I wanted to see, but Wolfe gives preferred time to Rainey’s studio musicians, a group of men whose primary purpose seems to be representing inter-generational animosity among those with a Y-chromosome. Perhaps I’ve just had my fill for one lifetime of toxic male posturing, but I grew weary of their (endless) scenes.

In total, the film feels like it never really escapes the confines of the stage, and I may be among the few viewers underwhelmed by Chadwick Boseman’s performance. His work seems hammy and like he is in search of another movie altogether. I could be wrong, but the overwhelming praise for Boseman here feels like groupthink rhapsodizing given that he is no longer with us. I’m going to hell. See you there. Boseman remains a singular talent, but I don’t think time will be kind to this particular role, Oscar-winning as it likely will be.

Wonder Woman 1984 follows the loping narrative style of all inexplicably beloved films made in, well, 1984, and thereby is a kind of referendum on the cardboard excess and shallow instant gratification of that hollow era, nostalgia for which continues to plague us in insidious ways to this very day.

I found it nicely character driven with a strong cast and with a warm and (mostly) light touch, but plagued by some script/logic problems in its final act. All in all, it met my comics-loving expectations, and I enjoyed what they were doing. Gal Gadot remains a commanding presence in a way we just don’t see in screen stars these days. She’s not an actor per se, but she is a star.

Director Patty Jenkins has great Rube Goldberg-esque fun with one improbable action sequence after another. All were clearly nods to similar films of the 80s featuring, say, Superman or Indiana Jones but enhanced through modern Fast and the Furious-style tech and suspension of disbelief. I’m not looking for pragmatism in a movie like this. Sometimes I just want to be entertained, and WW84 did that for me

Jenkins makes the smart choice of casting talent who will connect the dots in a wafer-thin script. In the film, Kristen Wiig consistently makes smart acting choices as her character progresses from heartbreakingly nerdy sidekick to sullen and insolent supervillain, never losing the heartache of exclusion underneath it all. I thought she was a refreshing and inspired choice to play Barbara Minerva/Cheetah.

Dreamy/witty Chris Pine doesn’t get much dialogue/plot to work with as newly resurrected love interest Steve Trevor, but he shines nonetheless, wringing laughs from fish-out-of-water nuance without ever belaboring the joke.

Pedro Pascal balances Trumpian satire and Babbitt-esque tragedy as a gilded charlatan who believes 80s greed is the key to self-acceptance. He’s grand until the dodgy final act strands him somewhere on manic Gene Wilder-isle, and the film limps to its inevitable world-saving resolution.

I also think if people had watched WW84 on the big screen, they would have walked away with a different vibe. Some may disagree, but there’s a hidden psychological bump to paying for a ticket and investing time away from home (one WANTS the movie to be good) that is erased by the small screen – which has little to do with what is actually being viewed. IMHO.

The global warming parable Midnight Sky (directed by and starring George Clooney), however, benefits from small screen viewing. That said, the film’s outer space, nail biting, race-against-time elements have all been covered (sometimes better) in The Martian, Interstellar, Ad Astra, and George Clooney’s own Gravity. Hell, throw in Event Horizon, Sunshine, and The Black Hole for good measure.

Rather, I enjoyed the film’s quiet moments with Clooney as the sole (maybe?) survivor on an ice-covered Earth, as he fights the elements, time, and his own failing health to deter a deep-space crew from returning to their certain death on an uninhabitable planet. I didn’t give two hoots about the space mission, which included Felicity Jones, Kyle Chandler, David Oyelowo, and Tiffany Boone, all doing their level best to make us care. However, I was transfixed by an almost unrecognizable Clooney who checked his golden boy charm at the door and exquisitely projected the exhaustion and anxiety and fear of someone nearing the literal end. So, in other words, how most of us feel in 2020.

If it were up to me, I would edit out all of the space-faring scenes and leave the film’s focus on George Clooney alone in a post-apocalyptic arctic, yielding a transcendent hour-long Twilight Zone episode.

Now, let’s see how I fare in the Twitterverse when I finally turn to watching Disney’s/Pixar’s Soul

Postscript … what follows is an email sent to my mother Susie Sexton this afternoon about 1960’s classic Cimarron. They don’t make movies like this any more, and that’s a shame.

From IMDB’s synopsis: “The epic saga of a frontier family, Cimarron starts with the Oklahoma Land Rush on 22 April 1889. The Cravet family builds their newspaper Oklahoma Wigwam into a business empire and Yancey Cravet is the adventurer-idealist who, to his wife’s anger, spurns the opportunity to become governor since this means helping to defraud the native Americans of their land and resources.”

I just finished Cimarron and liked it very very much. I do think that Edna Ferber captures perhaps somewhat formulaically but absolutely effectively, the passage and snowballing magnitude of time and life, with a lovely progressive sensibility (pun unintended).

Maria Schell is exquisite. I don’t think the film would’ve been half as good without her in it. I really like Anne Baxter too. Their one scene together is quite understated and powerful.

Glenn Ford is of course great too, but Maria Schell really got to me. She acts in a style ahead of its time. It’s a beautiful film, but at least in the first ten minutes I kept expecting them to burst into song. When it really digs into their struggle and unpredictable relationship, it’s very powerful. The supporting cast was of course great since all of those people had been in one million films already.

Thanks for recommending this! Love you!

My family loves movies. We always have. It is our cultural shorthand, and every holiday – until this one – has been spent in communion over what movies we saw, how they made us think and feel, and what these films might say about our culture and its advancement. That is in short why I write this blog. I can’t imagine watching a movie without having the opportunity to share how it speaks to my heart and mind.

Thank you for reading these thoughts of mine for nearly ten years (!), inspired as they are by a lifetime of loving movies.

“They paved paradise.” The power of documentary film in pandemic: A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur and Marvel’s 616

They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot

– “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell

“Your imperfections make you special.” – Joey, student actor in “Spotlight,” the final episode of Marvel’s 616

Today, we brought in our deck furniture (from the summer!) to store in the basement, that is after decorating our house for Christmas. We bought the set what feels like yesterday (April), and we dutifully covered it to protect it from harsh sun and booming thunderstorms, pretty much never sitting on it, once wrapped in a cumbersome, billowing shroud of waxy canvas. So we paid for outdoor couches, negotiated their delivery in pandemic, never used them, and just huffed and puffed maneuvering them through endless doors and hallways into our basement, in another attempt to protect them.

Futility and comedy, thy name is home ownership. Everyone keeps blaming 2020 for everything, as if an arbitrarily determined twelve-month signifier of time’s passage is the cause of our collective woes. Yet, what has actually been laid bare in this dumpster fire period is, in fact, that we are all ourselves to blame with our materialistic, self-absorbed mania day after day, a long-standing debt that finally came due. How much have we taken for granted and what damage have we done to planet, culture, ecology, health, and mental well-being in the process? We’ve likely only seen the tip of that iceberg. Ahoy, me maties!

Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time
Lights down, you up and die
Driving in on this highway
All these cars and upon the sidewalk
People in every direction
No words exchanged
No time to exchange

When all the little ants are marching
Red and black antennas waving
They all do it the same
They all do it the same way

– “Ants Marching,” Dave Matthews Band

My last legit movie review was Birds of Prey. In February. Lord, I hope that’s not the last movie I ever get to see in an actual movie theatre. If I had only known, I’d have chosen … oh, who am I kidding? I still would have seen it. I miss the communal experience of movies, observing audience reaction and assessing the art as well as the commerce of cinema. Wild horses couldn’t get me to go now, if ever again, but I do miss it. Yet, between lone gunmen and rampant plague, performance venues are the new OK Corral.

Thanksgiving has always been a special movie time for my family. My parents and I, year after year, would see hundreds of films over the long holiday weekends, beguiled by Hollywood’s relentless marketing machine. We’d pronounce a film as “awful!” only to change our minds over breakfast, searching for connective tissue and insights into the human condition from such disparate selections as Life of Pi and Daddy’s Home 2. I miss that. I miss my parents.

My husband and I have had no end of entertainment – deck furniture notwithstanding. Showing my age, I do resent that finding new shows to binge is tantamount to a digital Easter egg hunt these days. Netflix? No. AmazonPrime? Maybe. Disney+? Possibly. Do we just have this on DVD somewhere?

We’ve enjoyed a lot of what we’ve seen, at times arguably more forgiving of relative quality for the escape that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Ratched, Upload, All-American, Hollywood, The Order, The Boys, Emily in Paris, Mandalorian, The Umbrella Academy provided. I’m 99% certain we would have watched very few of these (let alone looked forward to each installment like Victorians eagerly awaiting the next Dickens chapter) had the world not been ending every five days. For this time with my husband, enjoying our home, staying at home, not chasing frenetically scheduled ACTIVITIES!, I am grateful. Pandemic has been a pleasant reprieve in that regard, and I may have been permanently transformed into Boo Radley as a result. Check our trees for handmade toys left for passers-by.

My dear friend Tyler Chase is a talented documentary filmmaker, and she gave me a sneak peek at her latest A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur. To say it was the right movie to see in my present mindset would be textbook understatement. I am haunted days after by her clear-eyed, unsentimental but utterly empathic filmic observations on the clash of creativity, capitalism, obsession, free thought, and community in postmodern America.

From the film’s website: “A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur with Golden Globe Award recipient, Brian Cox as the Narrator is an intimate and journalistic documentary by filmmaker, Tyler A. Chase. The intimate and journalistic documentary … filmed over a period of seven years, A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur, brings us through the doors of the iconic Broken Angel building and into the world of its creators, the visionary, Arthur Wood and his wife, Cynthia as they cling to their life’s work, the Broken Angel building, the last symbol of the bohemian artist culture that once permeated Brooklyn, NY.

“The Woods created the 108 foot Broken Angel objet trouvé building as a sculpture and landmark for the community located in a section of Clinton Hill bordering on Bed Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The Broken Angel building is the subject of local and international news specials; photographed by many. The Woods are loved by their neighbors who see the iconic structure as a beacon of freedom and the threat of its destruction as an omen of the disappearance of a way of life and community. To many it is a symbol of freedom – to others an opportunity for profit.

“Filmmaker, Tyler A. Chase renders the Woods’ story as one both magical and heart wrenching; following them through triumphs, judicial blunders, injustice, evictions, and comedic moments all the while inspired by the indomitable spirit of visionary artist and creator of the Broken Angel, Arthur Wood.”

Director Tyler Chase filming on location at Broken Angel (above) and with narrator Brian Cox (below)

The piece, which recently received the Audience Choice Award from YoFiFest 2020 and the Grand Jury Prize from the CARE Awards International Film Festival, is lyrical and poignant and heartbreaking. Chase captures the visceral nature of what it must have been like to live in that space. And the pain of being deeply misunderstood. Grey Gardens for the 21st century.

As far as narrative techniques, Chase employs interstitial chapter headings with ironic word choices/definitions, building the momentum inexorably. Like a slow-moving car crash, it’s clear things won’t end well for Arthur, Cynthia, or their beloved home. This chapter device – dare I invoke Dickensian tragicomedy again? – accentuates the tale’s inevitability. We all know how the relentless, monochromatic push of “economic development” can destroy the delicate work of sensitive souls creating art in the margins. America, ain’t it something to see? But the viewer mustn’t look away, and Chase’s gaze assures that you won’t.

The overall construction of the film mirrors the Broken Angel itself, layering upon itself in jagged turns, a documentary collage. Exquisite. The film FEELS artisanal – no doubt because of its lengthy gestation – which brings us that much closer to understanding Arthur’s quixotic DIY style. Hello, Oscar? Don’t overlook this essential, bespoke film.

Brian Cox’ regally dulcet tones as the film’s narrator are, yes, Arthurian, yet comforting with a wry edge. The use of music – folk, classical, even what seems like Gregorian chanting – is elegiac. And the moment Chase steps in front of her camera to advocate in real-time for Arthur (at The U.N. no less!), becoming a character in the story, is breathtaking. Just when the viewer is screaming, “Why can’t someone do something for these souls?!” … she does.

(Side note: for the inevitable scripted Hollywood remake, Willem DaFoe is Arthur Wood’s doppelgänger, and he could start preparing his Academy Award acceptance speech now. And then Stephen Schwartz could musicalize it for Broadway, dusting off some of the salvageable ideas from his work on Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Broken Angel! The Musical! Arthur and Cynthia could live on forever!)

Chase tells the story of Broken Angel with an artist’s appreciation and identification sans any judgment. That’s all Arthur likely ever wanted, in his expression and in his life. Is that why some of us “live out loud,” making bold choices, seemingly incongruous with the workaday world? Semiotic code for the person to be seen and accepted as they are? More devastating than the demolition of Arthur’s life’s work is society’s sniffy rejection of his unique soul made manifest in the Broken Angel.

Surprisingly, this same theme carries through another documentary – or rather documentary series – of a more corporate variety: Marvel’s 616 on Disney+. Across eight episodes, helmed by a bevy of filmmakers, the series wisely eschews a linear recounting of Marvel Comics’ storied history, instead highlighting unsung corners of fandom and creative output.

The incisive episode depicting the rise and proliferation of women comic book writers and artists is as reflective of the fraught times in which we live as it is of Marvel’s fits and starts where inclusion is concerned. The episode about toy creation and collection is as frenetic and joy-filled as you might imagine. And the feature on Marvel’s growing community of international artists is quietly introspective and appropriately moving, if not quite compensating for Marvel’s poor track record with creators of color in the past.

Episodes, respectively, on the cosplay community and school-based theatre are almost tangentially Marvel, shining a much needed light on people left behind who found kinship, purpose, and family through the characters, stories, and mythology of Marvel. I dare you not to shed a few happy tears while viewing.

Much (digital) ink has been spilled on the episode highlighting the legendary “Marvel Method,” whereby an issue is created iteratively and collaboratively between writer and artist. Affable, jocular Dan Slott, the subject of the episode, spurred great ire from fanboys over what they perceived as his seeming disrespect for his fellow creators (and, ultimately, for the end user). Slott’s procrastination is played for comic effect in the episode, and his chronic inability to meet dreaded deadlines is excused under the guise of “Marvel Method.”

The angry binge-watching horde missed the point, however. This isn’t about their inconvenience over receiving the latest issue of Iron Man 2020 a few weeks later than expected. This is about, yet again, the thorny nexus of art and commerce. For Slott, like Arthur Wood, creative expression is a kind of one-sided communion with his fellow human beings. The procrastination prolongs the fun, the invention, the collaboration. Hitting deadline means the party’s over, only to begin again on a schedule set by management, not artists.

Dan Slott

The episode ends with Slott prowling his local comic shop – no doubt in avoidance of work awaiting him at home – joyously name-dropping his favorite writers and artists, as he thumbs through their latest issues. In that moment, he is a figure both inspiringly childlike and painfully alone. If anything, I am now more appreciative of Dan Slott as a singular voice than I am annoyed by delays in his output.

I’m just a face in the crowd
Nothing to worry about
Not even trying to stand out
I’m getting smaller and smaller and smaller
And I got nothing to say
It’s all been taken away
I just behave and obey
I’m afraid that I’m starting to fade away

Hey, and for what it was worth
I really used to believe
That maybe there’s some great thing
That we could achieve
And now I can’t tell the difference
Or know what to feel
Between what I’ve been trying so hard to see
And what appears to be real

– “Getting Smaller,” Nine Inch Nails

Images of Bill Schwarz and of my mom Susie Duncan Sexton during various special moments of creativity and community

We all just want to be seen, to be understood, to matter. While writing this, my mom Susie Duncan Sexton received a glorious email from her friend and fellow Columbia City, Indiana native Bill Schwarz. My mother wrote about Bill nearly a decade ago (here), and they recently reconnected. Both are accomplished talents in their own rights (check out Bill’s singing group “New Tradition Chorus” and upcoming concert), but their appreciation for one another is inspiring. Bill just finished reading one of my mother’s books, and here is an excerpt of what he wrote to her in response:

“After reading your book (on my Nook reader) it prompted me to write my opinion… I perceived a sensitive, creative intellect that deeply cared and loved unconditionally. Your pets have that quality as does your son Roy. I sensed in your writing the wholesome expression of joy, yet I saw you tempering feelings of dismay. You said, how does the song go: ‘looking for love in the most usual places…..’”

And isn’t that all any of us desire? A voice that is heard, appreciated, reciprocated. To all of the artists in this world … thank you.

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

– “Nature Boy,” Nat “King” Cole

Want to join me in supporting a good cause? Beginning this #GivingTuesday and on through my birthday on December 28, I’m raising money for Ronald McDonald House Charities Ann Arbor and your contribution will make an impact, whether you donate $5 or $500. I’m a proud board member and have seen firsthand how every little bit helps.

And on GivingTuesday Dec 1, Facebook will match $7 million in qualifying donations. Just click donate on this fundraising page: https://www.facebook.com/donate/3378588845591918/?fundraiser_source=external_url

Thank you for your support.

The mission of the Ann Arbor Ronald McDonald Houses is to provide families of children experiencing a serious illness or injury requiring hospitalization or treatment on an outpatient basis, a “home away from home” that assists in alleviating the families’ emotional and financial stress.

“I retain the right to be moved by those little things that nobody notices.” Cats (the movie!), Bombshell, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Little Women (2019), The House with a Clock in Its Walls, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Where’d You Go Bernadette?

We were the ONLY people in the theatre. And this was Cats’ second day showing at Columbia City’s Bones Theatre

“I retain the right to be moved by those little things nobody notices.” – Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

My favorite part of the Christmas to New Year’s gauntlet? Those empty days when the sky is gray and there are no obligations, and you can sit around in your sweatpants, shell-shocked and comatose from the holiday frenzy, vegetating in front of a movie or television screen (or both!).

“People will believe anything if you’re properly dressed.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him

Cats. O, Cats. Listen, it’s a weird effing show (read more here) that should have never been the success it was. And the lemming-like behavior that led audiences to fuel its decades long stage success is the same lemming-like behavior that is leading people to scorn the film in droves now. The film is a logical outgrowth of its goof-a$$ origins, and, by that low bar, it’s perfectly fine. Passably entertaining even. So, everyone STOP piling on because it’s fun to make fun of something you SHOULD have scorned in 1981. Too late now! Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) brings some inventiveness here and there, but as Rum Tum Tugger (a mush-mouthed Jason Derulo) might observe, it tends to get lost “in a horrible muddle.”

The human faces on CGI cat bodies are disconcerting (mostly in how they kind of float around and drift a bit), but I found the un-CGI’d human hands and feet even more repulsive. Rebel Wilson (Jenny Anydots) should not be allowed anywhere near a musical. Or a piano. Or karaoke. Or cockroaches. The group dance numbers should have all been cut, as pseudo-ballet is pretty but not much fun to watch in the cinema, and Hooper’s approach to filming said numbers is by turns monotonous and disorienting. Imagine Michael Bay’s Transformers singing disco-synth, day-glo show tunes.

Buried under the muck, there are decent performances yearning to break free. Ian McKellen is heartbreaking and campy as Gus the Theatre Cat. James Corden is James Corden! as Bustopher Jones (though his number has about 8 reprises too many). Judi Dench makes a really pretty Persian Cat – who knew she had the face for it? Her Old Deuteronomy has a few good zingers, and she looks really fine lounging in a wicker basket. Idris Elba (MacAvity) and Taylor Swift (Bombalurina) should take their act on the road, hitting nightclubs across the land and wearing cat-style footie pajamas. Jennifer Hudson skulks and sulks nicely as Grizabella (even if showstopper “Memory” gets thrown into an editing Cuisinart by Hooper). Surprising no one, the British dance-trained unknowns Steven McRae (Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat), Robert Fairchild (Munkustrap), and Laurie Davidson (Mr. Mistoffeles) escape with the most dignity, lending pathos to t.s. eliot’s clever wordplay and lithe movement to their feline character work.

As my mother noted, the filmmakers would have been so much better off just crafting this as an animated film, a la The Aristocats or Lady & the Tramp. But, no. That would have made sense. And, while Cats may be “forever,” it has never made one lick of sense. Meow.

“Morals don’t sell nowadays.” – Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in Little Women

Ain’t that the damn truth? And no one knows that better than the political puppet masters over at FOX News. New movie Bombshell depicts the downfall of FOX head Roger Ailes (creepy good John Lithgow, who is no Loudest Voice in the Room‘s Russell Crowe, however). Ailes is brought low by decades of sexual misconduct, bullying, ugliness, and sheer thuggishness. Today, we’d reward that behavior by making him President of the United States.

The film is good, though lacking the depth of other treatments (namely Loudest Voice on Showtime). Go for Charlize Theron’s uncanny take on Megyn Kelly. Stay for the popcorn zip of director Jay Roach’s takedown of the hypocritical/toxic right wing media. Margot Robbie is remarkable as a production assistant torn between her ambition and her tenuous grasp on integrity. In other words, she fits right in in the FOX newsroom. Kate McKinnon is acerbic fun as Margot’s cubicle-mate, and Nicole Kidman does her best version of Nicole Kidman-as-befuddled-ice-queen as Gretchen Carlson, who first brings charges against Ailes. Some have worried that the film makes heroes of the unheroic, Kelly and Carlson and their ilk being as complicit in the rise of this Trumpian nation-state as anyone. Charles Randolph’s script doesn’t let them off the hook, in my opinion, and Roach’s swirling direction keeps the audience from feeling too much empathy for anyone.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know secular music.” – Bombshell‘s Kayla (Margot Robbie), a production assistant who mixes up images of The Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey during a FOX News broadcast

Who has two thumbs and is finally suffering from Star Wars fatigue? THIS guy. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is full of sound and fury, signifying … meh. It is overlong, derivative, and convoluted, and, while director J. J. Abrams pulls far too many threads together in a reasonably satisfying way, Skywalker just isn’t very thrilling. The film feels like homework: “I’ve seen eight of these things, and watched a grab bag of spin-offs and tv shows, so I guess I have to see how this thing ends.” Thank heavens for Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Daisey Ridley (Rey) who deserve a much better script but do yeoman’s work making something, anything seem interesting.

I didn’t love Last Jedi, the previous film in the series, but at least I felt, in that instance, that there was a plan and a strong artistic vision. Skywalker seems like it was focus-grouped with a bunch of Orlando tourists, hopped up on churros and Red Bull, after riding Space Mountain a dozen times. Truth be told. I just didn’t care. I know these films are fairy tale nonsense, Saturday-morning serials on big budget steroids. I love that about Star Wars, but, to succeed, to truly succeed, these flicks need to be fun and rollicking and light as air, so you happily look past the broad leaps of logic and common sense. Rise of Skywalker is anything but fun or light or rollicking, so all you are left with is a plateful of plot holes … and regret.

We Star Wars fans may seem nitpicky. Perhaps these movies were best left in the murky fog of childhood remembrance, but if Jon Favreau can evoke this perfect balance of whimsy and comic book gravitas in TV’s The Mandalorian, why can’t this be accomplished on the silver screen again as well? Disney has come closest with their entries in the Star Wars Stories anthology films, notably Rogue One and arguably Solo. Let’s hope Disney/Lucasfilm puts a pause button on these movies for awhile, learns some tough lessons from wise Baby Yoda, and gives their film strategy a good rethink. We’ll be waiting, getting older and fatter, but still buying action figures.

“Make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead. … Girls want to see women marry. Not [be] consistent!” – Jo’s publisher (Tracey Letts) in Little Women

Yet, I don’t suffer from Little Women fatigue, and, by all rights, we should be finished with cinematic and televised depictions of this oft-told tale of the plucky March sisters, surviving and thriving in Civil War-era America. The latest iteration, written and directed with postmodern aplomb by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), is a marvel.

The film is exquisite – a smart, sharp update for contemporary sensibilities, without losing the familiar story beats. Unencumbered by linear chronology (the film operates as a series of flashbacks while Jo challenges the limited sensibilities of her era’s publishing industry), Gerwig reimagines Little Women to render inexorable its keys messages of agency, humanism, imagination, independence, and hope.

Among the cast, of course Saoirse Ronan is dynamite as Jo, never losing the spirit or authenticity of the era but painting a clear-eyed portrait of a human being gobsmacked by the artificial limitations society imposes on her gender. The more things change. …

Meryl Streep as Aunt March downplays that character’s sometimes arch control and sour disappointment, offering an aunt as amused as aggravated by the changing mores around her. Laura Dern is the quintessential Marmee, warm and flinty and kind. Chris Cooper is lovable and loving as the March family’s wealthy neighbor, and Timothee Chalamet puts his innate insouciance to good use as Laurie.

The revelation, though, is Florence Pugh as Amy, avoiding the pouty, flouncy pitfalls of other portrayals, turning a bright spotlight on a woman tired of being left behind, refreshingly unapologetic in the choices she (logically) makes, given the cards she’s dealt.

Much will be written about the film’s ending, which borrows a bit (knowingly?) from the Broadway musical. Where does Gerwig actually leave the March sisters? At a sun-dappled picnic, happily betrothed, teaching the young and raising their own families? Or, with Jo as a fully-realized free-agent, unburdened, accomplished, and ready to change this world for the better? Or a mix of both? This film is essential viewing, and one of the best movies this year.

“Don’t get sucked into a fight with someone who has better reason to be in it than you do.” – Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) in Bombshell

Outside of the cinema, we also caught some great flicks now on home video or streaming/cable. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a welcome, wholesome throwback to the ABC Afterschool Special and Wonderful World of Disney broadcasts of yore.

Based on a series of novels from the early 70s (inspired by a gothic mansion in Marshall, Michigan), Clock stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett at their most understated. Save for a CGI-filled denouement that gets a bit manic, the movie is a lighter-than-air soufflé of a fantasy period piece. Young Lewis (accessible, likable, kind Owen Vaccaro) is orphaned and is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black, almost unrecognizable in his quietly nuanced turn). Jonathan happens to be a warlock with a sorceress bestie (Blanchett, also nicely underplaying). Black and Blanchett seem like they stepped right off the set of 1958’s Bell, Book, and Candle – which is high praise – and I surely hope they get to make more installments in this series.

The Man Who Invented Christmas uses the inspiration behind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to inform, instruct, and inspire, thereby breathing new life into this over-adapted classic. Dickens (a wry and winsome Dan Stevens of Beauty and the Beast) is challenged to maintain his humanity in the face of a commercial machine that crushes souls and torches family ties.

His reclamation of his own voice and of his own industriousness is tied inextricably to his reconciliation of a past that haunts him and of a present that buffets him – not unlike what befalls Ebenezer Scrooge (a brilliant and twinkling Christopher Plummer). Jonathan Pryce deftly balances heartbreak, disappointment, and yearning as Dickens’ embattled father. The production, directed with a sure hand by Bharat Nalluri from a layered and literate script by Susan Coyne, is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly cliched holiday season.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, directed by Richard Linklater, is a beautiful film, light and poignant, a loving treatment of lost souls rediscovering their moorings and of the special challenges those with creative brains can experience in this judgmental world. Cate Blanchett as Bernadette and Kristin Wiig as her long-suffering “mean girl” neighbor both bring their A-game to the enterprise.

There is a pivotal sequence in the film wherein Bernadette’s heartbroken free-spiritedness finally runs afoul of the pragmatic realities of day-to-day living. Laurence Fishburne, as a former architectural colleague of Bernadette’s, and Judy Greer, as a therapist hired by Bernadette’s husband Elgin (the always reliable Billy Crudup), in parallel/intercut conversations with Bernadette and Elgin respectively, discuss the couple’s situation.

Fishburne and Greer’s characters share seemingly contradictory theses: Fishburne’s that Bernadette’s departure from a creative work life has atrophied her spirit and her mind and Greer’s that Bernadette has had a break from reality brought on by environmental change. In reality the truth is somewhere in between, and Emma Nelson, in a bright and affecting turn as Bernadette’s and Elgin’s daughter Bee, explicates clearly how her parents have drifted from what she once knew them to be, simultaneously appreciative of their distinctive quirks and gifts. Fishburne and Greer are both marvelous, as well, avoiding caricature or presumption, walking a fine line between compassion and bemusement.

As the film works toward its resolution, which as evidenced by the trailers includes Bernadette voyaging to Antarctica, her family finds healing, as they embrace the spark that makes Bernadette an individual while balancing the collective needs that will re-center their lives. The seemingly screwball comedy elements of the film may lead viewers to miss the important nuance here. Not dissimilarly to Joker, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? offers a sensitive and empathetic portrayal of how the intersection of emotion, intellect, and environment impacts us all.

“No one is useless in this life who lightens the burdens of another.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him

 

2019 Holiday Collage

 

“Fear is what can’t be trusted.” Frozen 2

Frozen 2 has a difficult task: justify its existence as more than an unnecessary cash grab sequel to a multi-billion-dollar, unexpected-franchise-spawning original that was kind of a rip-off of the Broadway musical Wicked (which was, itself, a watered-down derivative of a much more interesting novel).

And, for the most part, Frozen 2 succeeds. Not unlike this summer’s Toy Story 4, the lack of a predetermined intellectual property roadmap is liberating, yielding a trippy, dark, existential exploration that surprises, delights, and traumatizes.

Frozen 2 (is that REALLY the best title they could devise?) is beautiful and kinda loopy in a New Agey sort of way. Not sure exactly what I sat through, but I loved its messages of inclusion and empowerment, even if its plot line seems to throw Avatar, Pocahontas, The Fifth Element, Wicked, Marianne Williamson’s brain, and Frozen the First in a blender. Songs are fab too.

I’m not sure the world needed an origin story explaining Elsa’s snow queen powers, even if the potential revenue stream to befall the Mouse House makes such a cinematic move unavoidable. That said, I applaud the filmmakers for doing so with a conscience, muddled as the final results may be.

In essence, without spoiling too much, sisters Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristin Bell) discover that their forebears in the Arendelle royal family might not have been as kind as they should have been to the land’s indigenous Northuldra people. In a timely nod to our nation’s own Thanksgiving mythologizing, the first time their grandfather broke bread with the native tribe inhabiting the “enchanted forest” outside Arendelle, he might have had nefarious colonizing motives. It is then up to Elsa and Anna – alongside returning buddies Olaf the snowman (Josh Gad) and Kristoff and his beloved reindeer Sven (both voiced by Jonathan Groff) – to unearth the truth, bring peace to the natural order (reflected in weather patterns run amuck – sound familiar?), and right the historical wrongs. If Disney was ever to offer a populist counterpoint to xenophobic MAGA tribalism it is Frozen 2.

The film doubles down on the zany Nordic fantasy elements suggested by the bizarre rock trolls in the first film, with Frozen 2 offering flame lizards, anthropomorphic wind currents, water horses, bolder giants, and more cryptic hieroglyphs than you could hurl a Rosetta Stone at. It all works better than it should, woven together by our collective fondness for the characters, all voiced with warmth and whimsy by the principals, and for the music.

Songwriting team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert López have outdone themselves on the numbers here, jettisoning any singsong qualities of the first’s films ditties in favor of musical comedy complexity and emotional depth. There are no “ear worms” in this score which is a compliment to the songwriters and the filmmakers who allow more character-driven nuance in. I’ll take this film’s “Into the Unknown” or “When I Am Older” or “Lost in the Woods” or “Show Yourself” or “The Next Right Thing” over the prior entry’s “Let It Go” or “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” any day, all day long.

As Elsa notes ominously toward the film’s conclusion: “fear is what can’t be trusted.” If Frozen 2 is as inescapable as its predecessor was and successfully socializes themes of inclusion, equality, fairness, and acceptance among our youth (and their parents), then Disney deserves to fill its corporate coffers with a mountain of box office gold ten times over.

BONUS: Honored!! I was quoted by Law.com’s Frank Ready in “5 Challenges Facing Firms Trying to Boost Marketing With Tech,” which includes discussions of app development, podcasts, YouTube/video, social media, and open-source software: https://lnkd.in/em6NSpr (subscription may be required) … excerpt …

“They assume that you’re a good lawyer. They want to see that you’re a decent human being and that you’re engaged in our world,” Sexton said. “We need to put all of that in language that appeals, yes to millennials, but again, to millennials on the way toward appealing toward everyone else. And the manner in which millennials are reshaping our culture and the way we think, we have to keep an eye towards that.” …

Modern audiences are bombarded by content, and for every firm that adopts a video channel or sets up a podcast booth, there’s probably another lawyer out there doing the exact same thing.

To stand out, attorneys may have to emphasize personality over personal accomplishments and perhaps even begin contemplating the true meaning of the words “free of charge.” #lmamkt

“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Disney’s High School Musical

Collage swiped from The Ringwald’s Facebook page

Stick to the stuff you know
If you want to be cool
Follow one simple rule
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status quo
No, no, no
Stick to the stuff you know
It is better by far
To keep things as they are
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status
Stick to the status
Stick to the status quo – Stick to the Status Quo,” High School Musical

Watching The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Disney’s High School Musical alongside an avowed HSM superfan like my husband was as entertaining as the show itself. He did his best to stifle singing along to his favorite numbers, occasionally verbalizing key lines of dialogue before a character onstage would, frequently noting (dramaturgically) to me differences between the film and the stage version. I suspect this is what it is like attending Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival with a lifelong Bard scholar? It was all kinds of adorable.

No doubt John has his own review to offer, but this is my blog. While I don’t find the HSM trilogy without its charms (well, the first and third installments at least … the second film is the Voldemort of Disney Channel tee-vee musicals … best never invoked again), I think the movies could stand a bit of tinkering, revising, and revisiting. And, in recent news emanating from last week’s D23 convention, it sounds like the Mouse House agrees.

While the HSM franchise gave us the gift that keeps on giving in Zac Efron, it also left a legacy a with a generation of twenty-somethings that it is good to be different, that you must never constrain yourself by the labels teachers/parents/friends slap upon you, and that singing show tunes is good for the soul … even in the middle of a crowded cafeteria. Whether you loved high school or really hated it, the movies speak in a cuddly and antiseptic way to the toxic socioeconomic hothouse that is public education in this country and how all of us are shaped for better or worse by the twelve years we spent there. “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Matthew Wallace as Troy and Jordan Gagnon as Gabriella

As metaphor for inclusion and a fun platform for camp, HSM is a pretty genius choice for The Ringwald, whose stock in trade is as much John Waters as it is Stephen Sondheim. When I bought these tickets, I did so as a gift for John but also for myself as I was genuinely curious how they’d approach the show. I’m happy to report that the Ringwald’s team pulls it off in their shaggy dog, Mickey-and-Judy-are-putting-on-a-show fashion, with exceptional vocals, high energy, and (mostly) just the right amount of wink-and-nudge.

The plot is paper thin but nonetheless lovely: a science-loving girl (“Gabriella Montez”) and a basketball “jock” (“Troy Bolton”) discover their mutual love of show tunes on a mid-winter ski trip, and turn their high school “status quo” upside down by auditioning for the spring musical. It’s a slight but surprisingly subversive conceit, compounded by the fact that the “villains” of the piece – Sharpay and her doting brother Ryan (think The Carpenters, just as weirdly incestuous, but with blond hair, pink plaid outfits, and body glitter) – are the theatre kids, overly protective of their turf and their small corner of high school performative heaven. Anyone who’s worked in theatre in any aspect will view this duo with a knowing smile. The theatre community waves the flag of inclusion and understanding … until you step outside your “lane” or win a role someone else has coveted or challenge the artistic certitude of another.

Kevin Keller as Jack Scott

The Ringwald’s production, populated as it is by a cast who, for the most part, would have been in elementary school when High School Musical debuted in 2006, is pleasantly reverential to the material, while not taking any of it too damn seriously. It’s a high wire act that I found, quite frankly, refreshing. Playing double duty as director and actor (“Coach Jack Bolton”), Brandy Joe Plambeck takes a breezy, frothy approach to the material, aided and abetted by his real-life husband Joe Bailey in the role of Sharpay. In Bailey’s hands, Sharpay is both comic and poignant, never shrill, and just the right side of arch. Bailey knows that a middle-aged man playing a heartbreakingly spoiled high school theatre diva is pretty damn funny in and of itself and that layering on any meta commentary or turning up his nose at the material would sink the show and his performance. It’s smart and it’s fun, and Bailey alongside his “brother” Ryan (Christopher Ross-Dybash exuding sunshine) are a hoot.

Similarly, frequent Ringwald player Jordan Gagnon brings a nicely grounded whimsy to Gabriella. In her program bio, she writes that she is “excited to be living out [my] childhood fantasies of playing Gabriella.” For the young people in this cast, I suspect HSM is to them what Bye Bye Birdie, Grease, or Mamma Mia! are to other generations. Gagnon’s affection for the material is evident. The actor knows the enterprise is a bit silly but treats it as the heightened reality it is, and Gagnon strikes just that perfect balance of nodding to the audience while believing in her bones that she is a marginalized high schooler finding her true voice in life and love. She’s a delight to watch.

Matthew Wallace as Troy

Gagnon’s real-life boyfriend Matthew Wallace (I’m not telling tales … it’s in the marketing materials for the production) plays Troy. He is at his best when it is just the two of them onstage. There is an easy comfort to their onstage dynamics that really sells their numbers. I would encourage Wallace to find that same ease in the rest of the production. He has been exceptional in productions like The Dio’s Forever Plaid and The Ringwald’s own Merrily We Roll Along. Here, however, his physicality and high energy run the risk of commenting upon the material and distancing himself from it, as opposed to immersing himself in the goofy joy of the narrative. Wallace has a fabulous voice, and he and Gagnon are so good together onstage, but Wallace at times seems to be accentuating the stereotype of the thick-headed high school athlete as opposed to realizing the point of the piece is to gently, lovingly undermine those stereotypes.

The ensemble is damn terrific, selling the big group numbers in Ringwald’s tiny space, and energizing the audience with their unbridled enthusiasm for the score. Music director Lily Belle Czartorski and choreographer Molly Zaleski have great fun with the “pop” nature of this material, and their cast rises to the challenge. Standouts are Rashna “Rashi” Sarwar as “Taylor McKessie” and Geoffrey Schwerin as “Zeke Baylor,” both of whom squeeze every bit of juice from their limited stage moments, crafting memorable, lovable, vibrant characters. Tyler Goethe also deserves a shout out for nailing every bit of the choreography – again, note that I was sitting beside a “superfan” and it was not lost on him (or me) that Tyler was on point with every single move and was utterly present throughout. Wendy Cave plays “Kelsi Nielsen,” the resident high school songsmith, awfully big. She lands great laughs, but she also skates on the edge of commentary as opposed to immersion.

Having the time of their lives onstage are the aforementioned Plambeck as “Coach” and Suzan M. Jacokes as drama teacher “Ms. Darbus,” two educators whose dreams deferred manifest in ugly rivalries and provincial manipulations, all nobly disguised as wanting “what’s best” for their charges. If there was dramatic metaphor for the crises, both large and small, of today, it’s this. Jacokes and Plambeck are great fun in their short scenes together.

Costuming by Vince Kelley is just as one would hope, mirroring without shamelessly imitating the iconic garb of the original film. I want to give a special call out to the show’s marketing materials, as well, which evoke the look and feel of the original film’s poster and set the right tone for what to expect, as does the pre-show music: “Kidz Bop” versions of early-aughts pop music hits. Hysterical! The new lighting array at The Ringwald is a welcome upgrade with Plambeck making great use of gels and specials to maximize the understandably understated set design by Stephen Carpenter, a pitch perfect “Wildcat” logo prominent throughout.

For those wondering: yes, The Ringwald’s version of High School Musical is family-friendly, but with plenty of acknowledgment to any adults in the audience that this is all one big lark, albeit one with a really nifty message of inclusion and acceptance. If you aren’t tapping your feet or dancing in the aisles during the “We’re All In This Together” finale, well, there’s just no hope for you!

Everyone is special in their own way
We make each other strong (we make each other strong)
We’re not the same
We’re different in a good way
Together’s where we belong
We’re all in this together
Once we know
That we are
We’re all stars
And we see that
We’re all in this together
And it shows
When we stand
Hand in hand
Make our dreams come true
Together, together, together everyone
Together, together, come on let’s have some fun
Together, we’re there for each other every time
Together, together, come on let’s do this right – We’re All In This Together,” High School Musical
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The Ringwald’s production of Disney’s High School Musical runs through September 16. Purchase tickets here.

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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 not the circle of life … it’s the meaningless line of indifference.” Disney’s The Lion King (2019)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

People, namely but not exclusively critics, are all of a dither because The Lion King, as directed by Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book) – the latest in Disney’s unyielding march of “live action” remakes and re-imaginings of their own animated classics – is not original enough. People! Didn’t you know the “D” is Disney stands for “derivative”? That’s the Mouse House’s stock-in-trade.

Whereas once upon a box office, Disney strip-mined the works of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, P.L. Travers, Carlo Collodi, and A.A. Milne for their cinematic output (which was in itself then repurposed across theme parks, television series, video releases, toy stores, straight-to-home animated sequels, and so on), NOW CEO Robert Iger and team have turned to modern-day folklorists like George Lucas, Stan Lee, and Walt Disney himself to source and resource their intellectual property. Lazy? Maybe. Smart capitalism? Indubitably. All-American? You bet your a$$.

And like all good mythology, these stories bear repeating, whether around the campfire or the eerie glow of an iPhone. Hell, Shakespeare was just as guilty of the practice as any contemporary entertainment conglomerate. There’s a sucker born every minute. We lemmings have been ever guilty of plunking our hard-earned money at the ticket counter to re-view the shopworn and redundant.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of Shakespeare, The Lion King has often been described as “Hamlet in the jungle,” with its story of a young prince (Simba) who suffers from the machinations of a despicable uncle (Scar) and who grapples with the uneasy responsibilities of royal leadership after the untimely death of his father (Mufasa). It’s just that in The Lion King, every character happens to be a four-legged denizen of the African pride land who occasionally breaks into an Elton John/Tim Rice-penned show tune. The original animated film was a box office behemoth in its day, yielding in turn a Julie Taymor-directed puppet extravaganza that collected every Tony on earth and continues to mint money. Tell me again, why Disney shouldn’t bring The Lion King back in yet another guise to multiplexes? Ka-ching.

As I’ve often said to fellow critics, reviewing their umpteenth community production of Oklahoma! or The Putnam County Spelling Bee, we aren’t critiquing the script or the music at this point, nor even the very choice to do one of these damn shows again (much as we might like to), but rather the intention and the execution.

That said, the 2019 Lion King is pretty darn flawless and sticks its landing, even if some are scratching their heads if it was needed at all. This film is a technological wonder, marrying the heart and horror of the animated film with a hyper-reality that makes all of the stakes disconcertingly real. It’s one thing to watch a James Earl Jones-voiced Mufasa trampled by a multi-colored two-dimensional stampede of wildebeest; it’s something else altogether to watch a photorealistic James Earl Jones-voiced Mufasa in the same harrowing circumstance.

I’m not sure how kids are going to sit through this thing, what with all of the National Geographic-style eat-what-you-kill royal court intrigue of Scar (a menacing Chiwetel Ejiofor, rejecting any of predecessor Jeremy Irons’ fey mannerisms in the role) and his grotesque hyena henchmen (a slithering trio voiced by Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre, offering very little of the comic relief previously offered by Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings in the original). Shudder.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As the adult Simba and his best friend (soon-to-be paramour) Nala, Donald Glover (Solo) and Beyonce, respectively, are as luminous vocally as you would imagine, notably on the ubiquitous anthem “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”  In fact, the film truly roars to life (pun intended) at the mid-way mark after Simba befriends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand-ins Timon and Pumbaa (a meerkat and a warthog naturally) who teach him the finer points of not giving a sh*t (“Hakuna Matata”), and a gobsmacked Nala (think Ophelia without the manic suicidal tendencies) urges Simba to get woke and return home as Scar has made a big ol’ scorched earth mess of the kingdom.

(NOTE: one of the best and most original elements of this new Lion King roll-out is Beyonce’s spin-off album The Gift, not unlike how Madonna’s Dick Tracy-inspired I’m Breathless album had arguably more zip than the film that inspired it.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Billy Eichner as Timon to Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa is a revelation. Who knew Eichner had such a divine singing voice? And the best lines in the flick are his. At one point, he dismisses the narrative’s overworked philosophy that everything (including becoming a lion’s dinner entree) happens for a divine and glorious purpose with a stinging, “It’s not the circle of life … it’s the meaningless line of indifference.”

I admit as comfortable as I am with Disney’s master plan to take over the world with reworked, utterly unnecessary versions of old movies still readily available at our Netflix’d fingertips, even I would have liked more Eichner-style anarchy and less safe familiarity in the 2019 Lion King. As brainwashed as audiences have become, marching steadfastly from one box office event picture to the next, mindlessly apathetic toward the tragic state of the real world, Eichner’s “meaningless line of indifference” is an apt and sobering description of us all.

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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.

“Do you still need the cape?” Spider-Man: Far From Home

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a worthy follow-up to Spider-Man: Homecoming. The first act is cutesy, cloying, and underwritten, but the sparkling, believable kids in the cast (who actually seem like, you know, KIDS) keep things zipping along.

Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Zendaya as his friend/crush/equal MJ are lighter than air, and Jake Gyllenhaal is great, popeyed, hunky fun as too-good-to-be-true Mysterio. Once the narrative takes a crafty u-turn at the midway mark, the film becomes a frisky, unpredictable, cinematic tilt-a-whirl.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film follows directly onto the events of Avengers: Endgame (making it really hard to review without spoiling anything of the previous film still in theatres). Let’s just say, Peter is haunted by a great loss, tries futilely to fill his former mentor’s very large (iron) boots (and groovalicious aviator shades), and somehow still ends up saving the day, amidst a heaping helping of adorkable teen angst. Holland is arguably the most darling Spider-Man to ever grace the screen, and Zendaya more than holds her own. (Between these films and The Greatest Showman, I can’t wait to see where her career ends up. The sky’s the limit.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The movie does explain how the kids in Peter’s high school were impacted when five whole years were lost (not to mention half of all life on the planet Earth) after that purple, hulking malevolence named Thanos jazz-snapped his Infinity Gauntlet’d fingers. Blessedly, the sturm und drang of the previous Avengers films is shed for sitcom-lite cheekiness about the absurdity of it all in Far From Home.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Just as the entire enterprise seems in peril of spinning off into a Saved By the Bell-esque goof as Peter and his buddies enjoy a pratfall-filled European senior trip, in saunters Gyllenhaal as the prototypical alpha hero, a gleaming surface that belies the cracked-pot interior of a toxic male raging against an invisible machine. Gyllenhaal is pretty underrated across the board, and it is due to performances like this: he makes it look easy to play a Ken doll gone very astray. It isn’t.

In some respects, Far From Home is both a by-the-numbers, assembly line Marvel blockbuster and a sly send-up of all the very movies that preceded it. Issues of identity and fame and pride and the very illusory nature of heroism in this modern Trumpian age of hyperbolic pettiness are rife throughout the film, including the two end credits scenes, both of which (for once) are actually worth sticking around to see.

One of Mysterio’s associates, his browbeaten dresser, harangues him repeatedly,”Do you still need the cape?” to which he responds every time with an exasperated “Yesssss!” The Incredibles, another Disney-corporate product, was the first to opine in a postmodern way about the idiocy of capes and the inherent strangulation danger of flying around with a piece of billowing cloth around one’s neck. The Incredibles‘ Edith Head-inspired superhero fashion designer Edna Mode declared, “NO. MORE. CAPES!” Yet, as Marvel Studios’ copious cinematic output over the past decade has proved as salve and welcome distraction during our stormy IRL times, sadly, yes, we all do still need the cape(s).

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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.

“Some kids play rougher than others.” Toy Story 4

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Some kids play rougher than others,” intones a battle-worn Bo Peep (Annie Potts) to Woody (Tom Hanks), explaining that not every toy has a safe, beloved spot in a child’s play room.

I know someone is going to give me crap for this, but Toy Story 4 is the franchise installment Trump’s America deserves: darker, looser, even more pointedly existential than ever. The series has always had a sadistic tendency to torture audiences with one scene after another of cute, lovable toys in peril (darting through traffic, avoiding incineration, evading plaything-mutilating bullies, escaping the clutches of nerdy collectors), but Toy Story 4, while offering plenty of hair-raising slapstick sequences, has the temerity to ask the most haunting question of all: why are any of us alive?

The tool (no pun intended) whereby our plucky Pixar filmmakers hang the tale is a garbage pail-bound spork whom the film’s young human Bonnie (introduced at the heartwrenching end of Toy Story 3 inheriting Buzz and Woody and the gang from Andy) fishes from the trash to create, with the aid of putty, pipe-cleaners, and craft-store googly eyes, a Kindergarten companion dubbed “Forky.” As voiced with a Dostoyevsky-esque quaver by Tony Hale, Forky is torn between a destiny of disposability and the fact that this little girl has brought him to life as an adored plaything through childlike whimsy and a touch of Dr. Frankenstein hubris.

This is just weird (and welcomed) territory for the series.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the midst of Forky’s arrival, it becomes apparent to Woody that his days as a top draw in the play room have come to an end and that his primary mission at this point is to save Bonnie’s heart by keeping Forky from Forky’s more self-destructive impulses. Forky frequently yells “trash” with the longing of a drug addict, hurling himself headlong into any garbage heap he can find. It’s funny. And it’s not.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Along the way, Bonnie’s family rents an RV for a rustic road trip, and Woody and Forky find themselves lost (repeatedly), eventually landing in an antique shop, haunted by a 50s-era “talking baby doll” named Gabby Gabby (a delightfully chilling Christina Hendricks) whose voice box has long ago gone kaput. Her dream, like that of all the characters we’ve met over these four films and multiple spin-off shorts, is to simply have one child to truly love her. She may be the villain of Toy Story 4 but is utterly relatable and darn impossible to loathe.

To the rescue rides Bo Peep and her army of misfit lost toys. Long ago, Bo Peep (voiced brilliantly by Annie Potts, on quite the career renaissance between this and her genius turn as Young Sheldon‘s free-spirited granny) had been given away from the home Woody and Buzz originally inhabited. Sadly, they had all lost track of one another. Bo Peep, in counterpoint to Gabby Gabby, however, finds an owner-less life quite liberating, manning an “underground railroad” of sorts for all of the world’s lost toys, including a charming turn by Keanu Reeves’ as a failed Canadian Evel Knieval knock-off Duke Kaboom.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Toy Story 4 is an odd film and, as a result, may, with time, become my favorite in the series. Yes, there is warmth and nostalgia and a handful of feel-good tears, as expected, but there is also a pronounced, ominous quality, reflective of the free-floating anxiety I think most of us in the world feel these days. When the present is bleak and the future is smoggy, don’t we all just want someone to love us, write their first name on the bottom of our shoe, and believe the sun rises and sets upon us? We sure do. And Toy Story 4 posits that sometimes even that isn’t enough.

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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.

“If you don’t have anything, you have to act like you own everything.” Disney’s Aladdin (2019)

  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “If you don’t have anything, you have to act like you own everything.” – Aladdin
  • “Steal an apple and you’re a thief. Steal a kingdom and you’re a statesman.” – Jafar
  • “We should only be as happy as our least happy subject.” – Princess Jasmine

(Taken together, all might as well be explaining the current state of world politics.)

I found Disney’s live action reimagining of Aladdin pretty delightful and a welcome, inclusive, and, dare I say, much-needed feminist update of the original. (Note: I liked this spring’s equally critically reviled Dumbo a LOT too, so fair warning.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yes, we all adored Robin Williams, but we forget that he is (arguably) the essential (sole?) reason the original animated film is held in such esteem. I think director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) rebalances the proceedings with a well-rounded and integrated effort in his live action remake. Does it occasionally suffer from some TV movie flatness (a la Disney’s own Once Upon a Time or The Descendants)? Maybe. Do the musical numbers look a bit like they were lifted from a 1980s cruise ship commercial? Probably. But on the whole, I thought it was a lot of fun. And don’t get me wrong. I was nuts about the original and saw it about five times in the cinema during my sophomore year of … college. So, yes, I’m a soft touch for this material, and also one who has a well-earned fondness for the original.

Disney’s storied 90s animated output was, on balance, comprised of big Broadway-esque musicals that made it ok for a sh*t-ton of Gen Xers and Millennials to like show tunes, fairy tales, AND cartoons again. The flicks earned oodles of money in process. Nowadays, since just about any movie can be viewed (legally or illegally) on an iPad via YouTube, the idea of Disney “re-releasing” the “classics” from the “vault” via DVD/VHS/carrier pigeon is a quaint memory. Consequently, the Mouse House has to find a new way to monetize their intellectual property for the children of the children of the children of all their original audiences. Hence, remade enterprises like the recent live action Dumbo, the upcoming Lion King, and this Aladdin.

Folks, it’s Disney. If they can wring a nickel out of a t-shirt or doll or knapsack featuring some obscure character from, say, The Aristocats, they sure as hell are going to get another billion dollars from one of their most popular animated flicks of all time: Aladdin.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The nice thing here is that Aladdin is actually pretty good, a pleasant early summer diversion, that leans into Will Smith’s estimable charms while putting a governor on his out-sized ego and that offers us a forward-thinking story line about people of color living as, you know, people and acquitting themselves with agency and wit and heart.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Even villainous Jafar gets a makeover here. Describing the original animated version of Jafar as ethnic caricature would be … kind. In the hands of Marwan Kenzari, Jafar is still pretty despicable, but with a motivation that is more political than icky-for-icky’s sake and who isn’t as creepily fixated on marrying the unwilling Jasmine. The downside is live-action Jafar is, well, a little bland, not-to-mention kinda pretty, so his menace ends up more subtle than overt. That said, it’s a stronger performance than I think many will initially recognize. (His sidekick parrot Iago is toned down too – nary a squawking voice of Gilbert Godfried in earshot.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Our leads Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott as Aladdin and Jasmine respectively are, yes, Disney dreamy, but they also have grit and spark underlying all that glamor. Scott particularly approaches each scene with an unselfconscious irony and fiery whimsy that gives us a very un-princessy princess (blessed be). By the way, in this update, Jasmine is less interested in romance than in being named (rightfully) sultan. Yasss, queen!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Saturday Night Live‘s Nasim Pedrad is great fun as Jasmine’s confidante and handmaiden, the newly created character Dalia, who suffers no fools gladly either. When Scott steps forth to deliver the score’s one new song, the anthemic “Speechless” (crafted by original composer Alan Menken with an assist from The Greatest Showman‘s/La La Land‘s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), a star is born, and the Disney princess merchandising machine gets a much-needed shot of #ImWithHer feminism:

I won’t be silenced
You can’t keep me quiet
Won’t tremble when you try it
All I know is I won’t go speechless

‘Cause I’ll breathe when they try to suffocate me
Don’t you underestimate me
‘Cause I know that I won’t go speechless

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the end, though, Aladdin is still a rollicking fairy tale adventure, and Ritchie paces it as such. Musical numbers? Nah, not his forte, but he makes them work in an insular, oversaturated, Bollywood-lite sort-of-way. The marketplace shenanigans and palace intrigues, however, are all rock solid. Will Smith? Not a singer. But he can move and he lights up a screen like no other. (Robin Williams wasn’t exactly Pavarotti.) In Smith’s hands, the jazzy cut-up “Friend Like Me” gets a Fresh Prince hip-hop makeover, and it works far better than my description makes it sound. No one in the production is taking this material too damn seriously. Shakespeare, it ain’t. And that’s just fine.

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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.

“The measure of a person, of a hero is how well they succeed at being who they are.” Avengers: Endgame

  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “The measure of a person, of a hero is how well they succeed at being who they are.” – Queen Frigga (Rene Russo) to son Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
  • “No amount of money every bought a second of time.” – Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to father Howard Stark (John Slattery)
  • “You look like melted ice cream.” – Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) to Thor (Hemsworth again) who has discovered a physique-obliterating love of beer, junk food, video games, and sweatpants

Marvel’s Avengers movies are, yes, about superheroes and, by extension, merchandise, theme park attractions, and an infinitely extendable money-minting film franchise. But they are about something else … and always have been: family. Finding one’s family in the most unlikeliest of places and forging new bonds (Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor), rediscovering and healing one’s fragmentation with the past (Black Panther, Iron Man, Captain America), or redefining one’s destiny and defying the limitations others’ have unfairly or unintentionally imposed (Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Ant-Man) are all themes that have defined this groundbreaking film series.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I would suggest that is why last year’s Infinity War with its (one-year-later spoiler alert!) decimation of nearly half the beloved team struck such a chord (and blow) with the general movie-going public. We comic nerds (and anyone who paid half a millisecond of attention to box office returns or awards season nominations) realized there was no earthly way a character like Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) was going to remain “dead.” Nonetheless, we were gutted to see newly arrived fan favorites like Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) or Spider-Man (Tom Holland) erode as pillars of collapsing ash, Sodom and Gomorrah-style, after “Mad Titan” Thanos (beautifully glowering Josh Brolin) snapped his fingers (literally), worked his “Infinity Gauntlet” mojo, and made 50% of all living creatures disappear from the universe. You see, Thanos has an unusual solution for chaos theory and overpopulation: get rid of half of us, re-instituting balance in a world run amuck. I suppose there are worse ideas.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Last year, we viewers were left with the mother of all cliffhangers, and, while Marvel Studios’ unyielding production schedule pretty much spoiled the surprise that the surviving Avengers would find a means to bring their missing brethren back, we didn’t know how and, perhaps more importantly, we didn’t know what this dissolution would do to the Marvel family.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I won’t reveal the plot of this year’s $1.2 billion (and counting) juggernaut Endgame. To be honest, even if I wanted to detail the 3-hour narrative here, I’m not sure I could unravel the plateful of spaghetti that relies as much on the 21 (!) movies that precede it as it does some rudimentary knowledge of quantum mechanics, bad time travel flicks, and somberly-crafted peanut butter sandwiches.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

And, in the end, it doesn’t much matter. The movie is a marvel (pun intended) because directors the Russo Brothers (no relation to Rene … that I’m aware) are smart enough to pepper the proceedings with brilliant action sequences yet ground the entirety in humanity, heart, and deft character development.

The running time of Endgame never feels gratuitous (other entries in the Marvel franchise have felt overlong and indulgent occasionally). This much airtime is in fact essential to re-engage with our core heroes: Iron Man (Downey, Jr. who started it all with his character’s eponymous debut), Captain America (Chris Evans, long the heart and soul of the series), Thor (Hemsworth who has evolved from pretty dull to pretty comic dynamite), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, by far the best actor in the bunch who always makes every other performer just that much better in their scenes with him), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, who, like Hemsworth, found much surer footing as the series proceeded), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, more often than not a cipher who truly comes into his own in this latest installment).

No one is given short-shrift here, with emotionally weighty, at times devastatingly heartfelt, denouement(s) that honor all that has come before and set the entire franchise on an exciting and uncharted path. It’s not all doom and gloom as there is plenty of self-referential/self-deprecating wit, with Captain America himself setting off some of the best zingers in the bunch. The whole enterprise is sweet-natured, entertaining-as-heck, genuinely humorous, and damn moving. Trust me, you will be sniffling throughout the last 20 minutes and downright sobbing at the very final scene.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Possibly for the first time ever, it feels like we can expect nothing but the unexpected from Marvel films going forward. It’s a genius move. For over a decade, Marvel Studios president and executive producer Kevin Feige has teased us with his “phased” master plan, all leading up to these final films. All of Hollywood became covetous of Marvel’s “shared cinematic universe” (less artistic envy, I suspect, than material greed … but c’est la vie). (See: DC Extended Universe, Universal’s Monsters Universe … no, better yet, don’t.) We are at Endgame, and, effectively, Feige and Marvel have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, sun-setting beloved canon while simultaneously thumbing their nose at it. The sky’s the limit, so empty your wallets, moviegoers: who knows what’s next?

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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.