So … THIS is happening. 10/28 – 11/7. I should be ready to leave my basement by then. 😉 🎶 Thank you, Diane Hill, Ryan MacKenzie Lewis, and Theatre Nova, for your kindness, including me in this fabulous upcoming event!
A fundraiser for Theatre NOVA and presented in concert, Sing Happy! is a celebration of the work of Broadway’s famous duo, Kander and Ebb. An ensemble of singers will take the stage with showstoppers from “Cabaret,” “Chicago,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and many others while weaving a tale of strength and determination.
Directed by Diane Hill. Music Direction by R. MacKenzie Lewis. Featuring Jason Briggs, John DeMerell, Kalyse Edmondson, Diane Hill, Elizabeth Jaffe Smoot, Sarah Stevens, Connor Thomas Rhoades, Carrie Jay Sayer, and Roy Sexton (that’s me! 🤩).
Spoiler alert: my solos are “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago and “A Quiet Thing” from Flora the Red Menace.
LIMITED ENGAGEMENT October 28 – November 7, 2021 Single tickets: $30
A New Brain by William Finn (Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and James Lapine (Falsettos, Into the Woods, Passion) is one of those musicals held in rapturous, nay obsessive esteem by the theater community but is virtually unknown by anyone who doesn’t know the difference between stage left and stage right. (Cue Hanna-Barbera’s Snagglepuss.)
And that’s a shame. Written in 1998, following Finn’s harrowing ordeal with brain surgery, this musical roman à clef resonates now more than ever, with its themes of isolation and stifled creativity, a jaded and callous medical industry, a business community that literally works its employees to their deathbeds, and ultimately the redemptive power of just slowing the eff down.
If you’ve never heard the clever score (that is part pastiche, part light poperetta, and all wit) via cast album nor ever seen a live production, then you are in luck … no matter what part of the world in which you live or how “busy” your schedule. Theatre NOVA, in collaboration with The Ringwald Theatre, released a brilliant filmed co-production of A New Brain this weekend on Broadway on Demand.
From their press release:
By the Tony Award-winning authors of Falsettos, A New Brain is a life-affirming, heartfelt, often comical musical about a composer during a medical emergency. As doctors and nurses fly in and out of his room, trying to figure out what’s wrong with his brain, Gordon drifts in and out of consciousness as he contemplates his life, legacy, and the meaning of music – all while navigating his relationships with his best friend, mother, and boyfriend. A New Brain is an unexpectedly funny, relatable, and ultimately touching meditation on how beautiful the world is when we slow down enough to look.
With special permission and a unique COVID-19 Contingency License from Concord Theatricals, Theatre NOVA and The Ringwald Theatre shot the musical over a period of two weeks to ensure that all COVID protocols and safety procedures could be upheld. The cast spent the month of March learning and rehearsing the all-sung show over Zoom with music director R. MacKenzie Lewis. At the beginning of April, the cast transitioned to socially distanced and masked in-person music rehearsals at Theatre NOVA. Finally, with all of the cast and crew partially or fully vaccinated and all participants COVID-tested, director Vince Kelley and cinematographer Jake Turner rehearsed and shot the show over a 12-day period, scene by scene, with arduous planning about how it would all be stitched together in post-production. This schedule allowed them to have the fewest people in the theatre at once, but also provided very new experiences for the stage actors who were accustomed to rehearsing a play for 4-6 weeks. The crew and cast wrapped the filming on April 24.
Read that previous paragraph again. Go ahead. I’ll wait…
This production – which will be aired three weekends this PRIDE month of June (appropriate) – is one helluva feat of logistics and moxie. Yes, right now we are all starting to peek out our front doors like the Munchkins when Dorothy dropped that house on the Wicked Witch of the West. But several months ago, when this production was being devised, most of us still were more worried about buying groceries safely than figuring out how to stage and film a full-blown musical between two cross-regional theatre companies. Theatre people will not be contained. Remember that!
So I’d be impressed by this production under any circumstances. However, it’s so damn good that I forgot within minutes that this incredible crew had any constraints at all. That may be the best compliment I could provide. This gleaming production may have been forged in the fires of pandemic but it transcends the moment, reflecting our fraught human condition both today and tomorrow.
The cast includes Jason Briggs, Arielle Crosby, Steve DeBruyne, Diane Hill, Vince Kelley, Alaina Kerr, Richard Payton, Jamie Richards, and Liz Schultz. This ensemble is tight, both in their vocals and their stage relationships. Given the compressed/limited rehearsal and filming schedule, that is testament to their talent, professionalism, and performance history.
The production team includes Vince Kelley (director, costumer), R. MacKenzie Lewis (music director, musical tracks), Jake Turner (set designer, cinematographer, sound engineer, editor), Dan Morrison (lighting designer), Brandy Joe Plambeck (additional camera work), and Briana O’Neal (stage manager).
This is an all-star team, and it shows. The cinematography, lighting, sound, and edits are all on point. There is the occasional bit of mic buzz and a randomly disruptive cutaway shot or two, but on the balance the production is staged in a nicely polished way, balancing the visceral immediacy of live theatre with the more controlled and directive nature of film. It’s a pretty thrilling hybrid and great fun to watch performers heretofore only seen live in such a recorded setting.
Every actor has iconic moments. Kelley, being an actor himself, is clearly a director who knows how to frame actorly impulses to benefit both the individual performer and the overall needs of the narrative.
Payton has the heaviest lift, rarely leaving the stage, and he plays our protagonist Gordon with an impish poignancy and deeply layered inner life. Payton is so gifted, and one of his superpowers as a performer is bringing distinct clarity to the relationships his characters have with others onstage. That talent propels this piece to new heights, notably in his interactions with a crackling good Hill as Gordon’s mother and a luminous Kelley as his life partner Roger.
Hill’s numbers – both with Payton and solo – are all standouts: the wry neurosis of “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine,” the incendiary comedy of “Throw It Out,” and the smoldering regret of “Music Still Plays On.”
Crosby electrifies whenever she enters the picture as a wise and whimsical homeless person/Greek chorus. Her line delivery and physicality can be piercingly funny and deeply heartbreaking, depending on the moment, and her singing his divine.
Speaking of soaring vocals, someone get DeBruyne and Payton to record an album of pop standard duets stat. Kerr and Briggs are also great fun in a handful of ensemble parts, bringing deft comic chops and a much-appreciated nibble or two on the scenery.
The production design is sleek and efficient, with onstage lighting rigs that serve a host of purposes from operating room to MRI to nightclub bistro. Turner is wearing many hats, and the slick integration of cinematography and design roles is evident in the final product. Morrison does fine work with the lighting cues which remain overtly theatrical (appropriate for the piece) while honoring the more naturalistic needs of the camera.
And Lewis deserves special recognition for his music direction here. Onscreen at times and always accompanying the cast on piano, he has created a lush and enveloping soundscape without the benefit of orchestra or, well, much time. It’s a remarkable achievement.
My only critique would be that the latter third – focused as it primarily is on the fevered imaginings of our hero’s coma-afflicted mind – doesn’t feel particularly differentiated from the rest of the show. Not dissimilar to, say, the “Loveland” sequence in Folliesor the musical numbers in Rob Marshall’s film treatment of Chicago, this section of A New Brain should take on a heightened, nightmarish quality. Unfortunately, that isn’t quite achieved here – other than a sequin or two, not much is offered to signal we as an audience are trapped in Gordon’s dreamscape. I don’t know that I have a recommendation but this is where the post-production that film affords (versus stage work) might have aided and abetted. But it’s a minor quibble.
Theatre NOVA and The Ringwald’s A New Brain is a revelation, attesting to the talent, ingenuity, and collaboration in our Southeast Michigan theatrical community. It is a show for the ages and should not be missed. Per one lyric in the number “And They’re Off,” “sometimes joy has a terrible cost.” Given the past year, we’ve all paid an extraordinary price for our safety and that of our loved ones. We all deserve a bit of joy now, so do yourself a favor and purchase a ticket for A New Brain.
A New Brain will be available ON DEMAND on June 5, 6, 12, 13, 19, and 20. Tickets are $25 per person. Ticket-holders may watch the show on Broadway On Demand on their computers, tablets, smartphones, and TV via the Broadway on Demand App, using AppleTV, Roku, all compatible Amazon Video devices. For tickets, visit www.TheatreNOVA.org.
From their press release:
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 playwrights and provide resources for playwrights to develop their craft by importing, exporting, and developing new work.
The Ringwald Theatre is based in Ferndale, and its mission is to engage diverse audiences through fresh, risk-taking theatrical experiences. This activity is supported in part by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Vince Kelley (Director) just returned to the Detroit area and is very happy to be back. After a lifetime of telling people what to do, he decided to legitimize his behavior and try his hand at directing. With decades of acting under his belt, Vince has performed all over Metro Detroit, a few places in New York City, and a handful of National Tours. One day about a decade ago Joe Bailey from The Ringwald asked if he would be interested in costuming a production of “Hurlyburly” and since then he’s enjoyed working behind the scenes. Making his directorial debut at The Ringwald helming “Company” in 2018, that show also starred Richard Payton and Diane Hill. Vince is looking forward to what show he can direct Richard and Diane in next. Maybe “Escape to Margaritaville?”
R. MacKenzie Lewis (Music Director, Tracks) is the composer/music director for Eastern Michigan University’s School of Communication, Media, and Theatre Arts and a lecturer and accompanist with the School of Music and Dance. Favorite projects outside of university life include music directing and orchestrating the National Tour and Off-Broadway premiere of “The Berenstain Bears Live! In Family Matters, The Musical,” “Titanic” and “Gypsy” at the Hangar Theatre in New York (Broadway World Award, Best Music Direction); “A Little Night Music” at the Performance Network (Wilde Award, Best Music Direction); “Legally Blonde” at MSU (Pulsar Award, Best Music Direction), “Irrational” (Composer, Wilde Award, Best New Script); and “Romance in Hard Times” with William Finn at the Barrington Stage Co. He composed music for the shows “Wings of Ikarus,” “Jason Invisible,” and “Mockingbird” (two Helen Hayes nominations), all of which were commissioned and premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.. Lewis has also composed the musicals: “Video Games: The Rock Opera,” “Treasure Island,” “Pinocchio,” “A Very British Christmas,” “Sugar Plum Panto,” “The Elves and the Schumachers,” and “Soaring on Black Wings,” a world premiere with Ben Vereen.
William Finn (Music/Lyrics/Book) is the writer and composer of “Falsettos,” for which he received two Tony Awards, Best Book of a Musical (with James Lapine) and Best Original Score. He has also written and composed In “Trousers,” “March of the Falsettos,” and “Falsettoland” (Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, two Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards, two Drama Desk Awards, the Lucille Lortel Award, and Guggenheim Fellowship in Playwriting). Mr. Finn wrote the lyrics to Graciela Daniele’s “Tango Apasionado” (music by the great Astor Piazzolla) and, with Michael Starobin, the music to Lapine’s version of “The Winter’s Tale.” His musical “Romance in Hard Times” was presented at The Public Theater. Recently, he wrote “Painting You for Love’s Fire,” a piece commissioned and performed by the Acting Company, based on Shakespeare’s sonnets. For television, Mr. Finn provided the music and lyrics for the Ace Award-winning HBO cartoon “Ira Sleeps Over,” “Tom Thumb and Thumbelina,” “Pokey Little Puppy’s First Christmas,” and, with Ellen Fitzhugh, two “Brave Little Toaster” cartoons. Mr. Finn has written for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and The New Yorker. A graduate of Williams College, where he was awarded the Hutchinson Fellowship for Musical Composition, Finn now teaches a weekly master class at the NYU Tisch Graduate Program in Musical Theatre Writing. His most recent projects include “Elegies, A Song Cycle” (Lincoln Center), “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which had a three-year run on Broadway and has been produced nationally and all over the world, and “Little Miss Sunshine” with James Lapine. For the past four years, he has been the Artistic Head of the Musical Theatre Lab at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
James Lapine (Book) was born in 1949 in Mansfield, Ohio, and lived there until his early teens when his family moved to Stamford, Connecticut. He attended public schools before entering Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he majored in History. He went on to get an MFA in Design from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. After graduate school, he moved to New York City, where he worked part-time as a waiter; a page and tour guide at NBC; a free-lance photographer and graphic designer; and an architectural preservationist for the Architectural League of NY. One of his free-lance jobs was designing the magazine of the Yale School of Drama, Yale/Theater, then edited by Rocco Landesman and Robert Marx. The dean of the School of Drama, Robert Brustein, offered Lapine a full-time job designing all of the printed materials for the School of Drama and the Yale Repertory Theatre as well as a faculty position teaching a course in advertising design. While at Yale, his students urged him to direct a play during the annual January period when both faculty and students undertook a project outside of their areas of study or expertise. At their suggestion Lapine directed a Gertrude Stein play, “Photograph.” The play was five acts, and just three pages in length. Assembling students and friends, the play was presented in New Haven and came to the attention of director Lee Breuer, who helped arrange for a small performance space in Soho to present the work for three weeks. The production was enthusiastically received and won Lapine an Obie award. Lapine was approached to create a new piece for the Music-Theatre Group. He wrote and directed a workshop version of “Twelve Dreams,” a work inspired by a Jungian case history. The play was later presented at the Public Theatre and revived by Lincoln Center Theatre. Lapine eventually left the visual arts for a career in the theatre where he has also written and directed the plays “Table Settings,” “Luck, Pluck and Virtue,” “The Moment When,” “Fran’s Bed,” and “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing.” He has written the book for and directed Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Into the Woods,” “Passion,” and the multi-media revue “Sondheim on Sondheim.” He also directed “Merrily We Roll Along” as part of Encores! at New York City Center. With William Finn, he has collaborated on “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland,” later presented on Broadway as “Falsettos,” “A New Brain,” “Muscle,” and the soon to be produced, “Little Miss Sunshine” which will open at 2nd Stage Theatre. On Broadway, he has also directed David Henry Hwang’s “Golden Child,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Michel Legrand’s “Amour, “and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” He directed Jenny Allen’s solo piece “I Got Sick and Then I Got Better” with Darren Katz. Lapine directed the 2012 Broadway revival of Annie. He is co-producing and directing the upcoming HBO documentary “Six By Sondheim,” which is due to be released this winter. In the Spring of 2014, Lincoln Center Theater will produce his stage adaptation of the Moss Hart memoir, “Act One.” Lapine has also directed several productions off-Broadway as well as three films. He is the recipient of three Tony Awards, five Drama Desk Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2011, he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. Lapine is a member of the Dramatist Guild Council and, for the last twelve years, has been a mentor for TDF’s Open Doors Program. He is also on the board of Ars Nova Theatre. He currently lives in New York City.
Jason Briggs (Richard) Arielle Crosby (Homeless Woman) Steve DeBruyne (Doctor) Diane Hill (Mother) Vince Kelley (Roger) Alaina Kerr (Waitress/Nancy D.) Richard Payton (Gordon) Jamie Richards (Mr. Bungee) Liz Schultz (Rhoda)
Director/Costume Designer: Vince Kelley
Music director/musical tracks: R. MacKenzie Lewis
Set design, cinematographer, sound engineer, editor: Jake Turner
Thank you for helping celebrate my birthday month (December 28 to be exact!) by helping others! Your contributions make an impact, whether you donate $5 or $500 – here is the link to the fundraising page: https://lnkd.in/eQ_NVZD
I’m a proud board member of RMHCAA and have seen firsthand how every little bit makes a huge difference. Thank you SO MUCH for your incredible support! Love you. ❤️
Happy New Year!
Thank you to these wonderful donors! (Apologies to anyone missed – these are screen captures from the record Facebook provides.)
Wonderful miscellany …
Going through the week’s mail, and I spy this gem! Another hidden Wabash College connection or two: the Blue Bell plant manager mentioned here was my grandfather Roy Duncan, and JoEllen Adams, Jim Adams’ daughter, was a close friend of my mother Susie Sexton. JoEllen was a big influence on me choosing Wabash as was Bob. The Lilly Fellowship I received helped too. 😊
Congrats, Ellen and Bob Kellogg, on this well-deserved recognition – and thank you for your support of Wabash! Happy New Year and Wabash Always Fights!
Love this, David Troutman, Scott Feller, and team!
Thank you, Holly Maurer-Klein, SHRM-SCP, for this inclusion in HR/Advantage Advisory LLC, Powered by Clark Hill PLC’s year-end newsletter. Happy New Year, all! #Gratitude is more essential than ever these days.
“Throughout the year, Clark Hill Law PLC (HR/AA is a division of Clark Hill) holds Town Hall Meetings where the firm communicates and celebrates promotions, business wins, and goal achievement. For the year-end meeting in 2020, the firm decided to do something different. As Roy E. Sexton, Director of Marketing, described it recently, ‘our executive team at Clark Hill identified gratitude as the core theme for our year-end Town Hall. We organized a survey to collect examples in our colleagues’ own words and had them submit video shout-outs.’ Employees–the IT team and administrative staff who kept the firm’s wheels turning, fellow attorneys who had been quick to jump in to help when someone was sick or absent–heard heartfelt, personalized, and public descriptions of the impact of the ‘behind the scenes’ work that they had done. As an observer, it was uplifting. As Roy described it, ‘the results were phenomenal. People felt seen and heard and, most importantly, appreciated.’”
There is good in this world. We were blown away, Megan McKeon and Eric Lewandowski, by this incredible Christmas gift. John and I are big Supernatural fans, and Mark Sheppard’s “Crowley” is a particular fave. But even more, what he says here in his message is so heartfelt and kind and inclusive and loving. We were both incredibly moved by his words, and I suspect others will be as well. Megan and Eric – and Mark! – we love you very much. Our hearts are full.
Joe: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.
From Sunset Boulevard
“If you dream it, you can achieve it.” – Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) in Wonder Woman 1984
“Nothing good is born from lies.” – Diana (Gal Gadot) in Wonder Woman 1984
Sadly, this seems to be the season of watching big ticket blockbusters crammed onto a home screen. Furthermore, this seems to be the season where all of your Facebook friends march like lemmings to tell you what you’re supposed to think of said offerings before you even have had a chance to view them for yourself. Being the good-natured contrarian that my parents raised, I find myself in direct opposition to much of the feedback I’ve observed. To me, The Prom was kind-hearted escapism-with-attitude, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a stagy self-indulgent slog, Midnight Sky was a resonant Truman Capote-meets-Ray Bradbury short (long) story, and Wonder Woman 1984 was a candy-coated (admittedly overstuffed) confection.
I loved The Prom. I, for one, like unapologetic musicals, and this Ryan Murphy production reads like Hairspray, The Greatest Showman, High School Musical, and Bye Bye Birdie had a socially progressive movie baby. Much needless ado has been made about (formerly?) beloved Carpool Karaokemaven James Corden playing a gay character, claiming his take is offensively stereotypical. Many critics’ descriptions have been as troubling as what they accuse Corden of perpetuating, if you ask me.
To me, it is one of Corden’s better and more thoughtful performances, layering broad comedy in a compelling gauze of pathos, to effectively depict a man struggling to find his path in the margins (in career, physicality, and, yes, sexuality). Corden is part of a free-wheeling quartet of Broadway narcissists (all compensating for respective ghosts of failures past) who descend on a small Indiana town to “rescue” it from its own prejudices after the local PTA shames and embarrasses a young lesbian (luminous newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) in a way that would make even John Travolta’s character in Carriecringe.
Meryl Streep (channeling a caustic yet charming mix of Patti LuPone and Susan Lucci), Nicole Kidman (at her most winsomely fragile), and Andrew Rannells (all bounding and puppyish joy) are Corden’s partners in well-intentioned, occasionally misplaced crime, and they have fabulous chemistry. Kerry Washington is suitably evangelically vampy as the rigid PTA president, and Keegan-Michael Key is a pleasant surprise (both as a singer and actor) as the high school’s show tune loving principal. Tracey Ullmann pops up as Corden’s regretful Midwestern ma, and their reconciliation scene is a lovely little masterclass in heightened understatement.
Oh, right, I did say the movie is kicky fun, but nothing I’ve written here much indicates why. Working from Matthew Sklar’s buoyant Broadway production, Murphy and team overdo everything in all the right ways, juxtaposing all-too-real intolerance and heartache (basically everyone in the film is guilty of uninformed prejudice of one kind or another) with the metaphysical joys of unhinged singing, dancing, glitter, and sequins. All ends (predictably) happily, almost Shakespearean (if Shakespeare listened to Ariana Grande), and I dare you not to sit through the end credits with a stupid, hopeful grin on your face.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is also adapted from the stage, as legendary director George C. Wolfe brings August Wilson’s play to the screen. I suspect my disappointment is more to do with the source material than Wolfe’s sure-handed if claustrophobic direction. To be honest, I wanted more of Viola Davis’ dynamite Ma Rainey and less of … everyone else. Davis has one scene worthy of the Hollywood time capsule, eviscerating the misogynistic and racist capitalist machine that steals artists’ voices (quite literally as Rainey is committing her vocals to vinyl) and tosses people to the curb when they’ve outlived their usefulness.
The film depicts one day in a Chicago recording studio as Rainey fights with, well, anyone who crosses her path in defense of her vision and to retain her integrity in a world that reduces her to a commodity. THAT is the movie I wanted to see, but Wolfe gives preferred time to Rainey’s studio musicians, a group of men whose primary purpose seems to be representing inter-generational animosity among those with a Y-chromosome. Perhaps I’ve just had my fill for one lifetime of toxic male posturing, but I grew weary of their (endless) scenes.
In total, the film feels like it never really escapes the confines of the stage, and I may be among the few viewers underwhelmed by Chadwick Boseman’s performance. His work seems hammy and like he is in search of another movie altogether. I could be wrong, but the overwhelming praise for Boseman here feels like groupthink rhapsodizing given that he is no longer with us. I’m going to hell. See you there. Boseman remains a singular talent, but I don’t think time will be kind to this particular role, Oscar-winning as it likely will be.
Wonder Woman 1984 follows the loping narrative style of all inexplicably beloved films made in, well, 1984, and thereby is a kind of referendum on the cardboard excess and shallow instant gratification of that hollow era, nostalgia for which continues to plague us in insidious ways to this very day.
I found it nicely character driven with a strong cast and with a warm and (mostly) light touch, but plagued by some script/logic problems in its final act. All in all, it met my comics-loving expectations, and I enjoyed what they were doing. Gal Gadot remains a commanding presence in a way we just don’t see in screen stars these days. She’s not an actor per se, but she is a star.
Director Patty Jenkins has great Rube Goldberg-esque fun with one improbable action sequence after another. All were clearly nods to similar films of the 80s featuring, say, Superman or Indiana Jones but enhanced through modern Fast and the Furious-style tech and suspension of disbelief. I’m not looking for pragmatism in a movie like this. Sometimes I just want to be entertained, and WW84 did that for me
Jenkins makes the smart choice of casting talent who will connect the dots in a wafer-thin script. In the film, Kristen Wiig consistently makes smart acting choices as her character progresses from heartbreakingly nerdy sidekick to sullen and insolent supervillain, never losing the heartache of exclusion underneath it all. I thought she was a refreshing and inspired choice to play Barbara Minerva/Cheetah.
Dreamy/witty Chris Pine doesn’t get much dialogue/plot to work with as newly resurrected love interest Steve Trevor, but he shines nonetheless, wringing laughs from fish-out-of-water nuance without ever belaboring the joke.
Pedro Pascal balances Trumpian satire and Babbitt-esque tragedy as a gilded charlatan who believes 80s greed is the key to self-acceptance. He’s grand until the dodgy final act strands him somewhere on manic Gene Wilder-isle, and the film limps to its inevitable world-saving resolution.
I also think if people had watched WW84 on the big screen, they would have walked away with a different vibe. Some may disagree, but there’s a hidden psychological bump to paying for a ticket and investing time away from home (one WANTS the movie to be good) that is erased by the small screen – which has little to do with what is actually being viewed. IMHO.
The global warming parable Midnight Sky (directed by and starring George Clooney), however, benefits from small screen viewing. That said, the film’s outer space, nail biting, race-against-time elements have all been covered (sometimes better) in The Martian, Interstellar, Ad Astra, and George Clooney’s own Gravity. Hell, throw in Event Horizon, Sunshine, and The Black Hole for good measure.
Rather, I enjoyed the film’s quiet moments with Clooney as the sole (maybe?) survivor on an ice-covered Earth, as he fights the elements, time, and his own failing health to deter a deep-space crew from returning to their certain death on an uninhabitable planet. I didn’t give two hoots about the space mission, which included Felicity Jones, Kyle Chandler, David Oyelowo, and Tiffany Boone, all doing their level best to make us care. However, I was transfixed by an almost unrecognizable Clooney who checked his golden boy charm at the door and exquisitely projected the exhaustion and anxiety and fear of someone nearing the literal end. So, in other words, how most of us feel in 2020.
If it were up to me, I would edit out all of the space-faring scenes and leave the film’s focus on George Clooney alone in a post-apocalyptic arctic, yielding a transcendent hour-long Twilight Zone episode.
Now, let’s see how I fare in the Twitterverse when I finally turn to watching Disney’s/Pixar’s Soul …
Postscript …what follows is an email sent to my mother Susie Sexton this afternoon about 1960’s classic Cimarron. They don’t make movies like this any more, and that’s a shame.
From IMDB’s synopsis: “The epic saga of a frontier family, Cimarron starts with the Oklahoma Land Rush on 22 April 1889. The Cravet family builds their newspaper Oklahoma Wigwam into a business empire and Yancey Cravet is the adventurer-idealist who, to his wife’s anger, spurns the opportunity to become governor since this means helping to defraud the native Americans of their land and resources.”
I just finished Cimarron and liked it very very much. I do think that Edna Ferber captures perhaps somewhat formulaically but absolutely effectively, the passage and snowballing magnitude of time and life, with a lovely progressive sensibility (pun unintended).
Maria Schell is exquisite. I don’t think the film would’ve been half as good without her in it. I really like Anne Baxter too. Their one scene together is quite understated and powerful.
Glenn Ford is of course great too, but Maria Schell really got to me. She acts in a style ahead of its time. It’s a beautiful film, but at least in the first ten minutes I kept expecting them to burst into song. When it really digs into their struggle and unpredictable relationship, it’s very powerful. The supporting cast was of course great since all of those people had been in one million films already.
Thanks for recommending this! Love you!
My family loves movies. We always have. It is our cultural shorthand, and every holiday – until this one – has been spent in communion over what movies we saw, how they made us think and feel, and what these films might say about our culture and its advancement. That is in short why I write this blog. I can’t imagine watching a movie without having the opportunity to share how it speaks to my heart and mind.
Thank you for reading these thoughts of mine for nearly ten years (!), inspired as they are by a lifetime of loving movies.
Enjoy this fun chat with my buddies Jon, Kristen, Gia, Rob, Renee, Jennifer as we discuss all of the amazing things in store for next week’s Legal Marketing Association – LMA International annual conference. There are also rich conversations about the importance of diversity and inclusion, a renewed focus on mental health and resilience, the challenges of managing workflow and engagement in pandemic, and the details of our fantastic talent show. I also may stumble through #StevieWonder’s classic “As.” Also, shout outs in the show to Sheenika Shah Gandhi, Jill Mason Huse, Brook Weeks Redmond, Jasmine C. Trillos-Decarie, and … The Ohio State University. Go Bucks!
Episode description: “Are you ready for #LMA20? On Wednesday, October 14th, Legal Marketing Coffee Talk brings you a very special episode. Hosted by the Conference Co-Chairs Kristen Bateman Leis, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP & Jonathan Mattson, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer Stinson LLP. They are joined by Gia Altreche, Director of Business Development & Marketing, Newmeyer Dillion; Renee Branson Founder | Principal Consultant, RB Consulting: Resilience. Bounty; Jennifer A. Manton, Chief Marketing & Business Development Officer, Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP; & Roy Sexton, Clark Hill, Director of Marketing, who will all tell you about what they are presenting at this year’s conference.”
Hey, Legal Marketing Association – LMA International! Show us your talent! Otherwise you will be subjected to an hour of me singing things like this … to various #StarWars characters. And nobody wants that! First prize is free registration to next year’s annual conference!
Introducing LMA’s Got Skills – taking place on Tuesday, October 20th at 7:30pm (EDT) – which will shine a spotlight on the dynamic talent within our community. With a complimentary registration for the 2021 Annual Conference as the Grand Prize, we can’t wait to see your talents on the #LMA20 main stage! If you’re attending and want to share your skills, submit your entry before October 14, 2020.
“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 Bombshelldepicts 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 Oneand 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 Christmasuses 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
“We are thrilled to announce our third annual cabaret fundraiser to benefit The American Cancer Society: February 5, 2020 at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill! Drum roll please!!!! Our theme for the 2020 cabaret is … ‘Live from the Starlight Lounge!’ Our night club theme will encompass favorites from Sinatra, Bennett, Darin, King Cole, Martin through the hits of present-day, beloved performers. Cabaret for a Cure is under the musical direction of the extremely talented Kevin Robert Ryan. This year we are excited to announce that legendary trombonist Bugs Beddow will be joining our outstanding musicians and vocalists for an amazing night of entertainment! We can’t wait to see what emcee Roy Sexton has instore for us, as he leads the audience through an exciting musical timeline! Please save the date of February 5, 2020 and join us for this wonderful event for such a great cause! Huge shout out to Thomas Paden and the Canton Chamber for another outstanding Cabaret launch! www.cantonvillagetheater.org#StarLightLounge#Cabaretforacure#Musicheals#Findacure”
I had a pretty gluttonous Thanksgiving. No, I don’t mean green bean casserole and pecan pie (I loathe pumpkin) and cranberry sauce and corn bread stuffing. I certainly don’t mean turkey. As Tom Hanks, thoughtfully portraying children’s TV icon Fred Rogers, observes in the surreally superlative A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, “I just can’t imagine eating anything that has a mother.“ Me neither.
No, my holiday indulgences were of the entertainment variety, cramming in as many movies and binge watching as much television as my ever widening derrière could withstand. And, because I am fundamentally sort of lazy and because I realize now that (at times) writing this blog feels more like a penance than a reward for engaging in one of my favorite pastimes (that is, devouring pop culture), this entry is going to be more of a highlight reel of the past several days in entertainment.
It really is kind of a shame (and the luck of the draw) that I devoted 12 (!) paragraphs to Frozen 2 last week, and something as boffo and transcendent as the West End production of musical Kinky Boots (broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances) or Damon Lindelof’s continuation (via HBO) of Alan Moore’s/Dave Gibbons’ seminal comic book masterpiece Watchmen will only get a sentence or two. I can watch this stuff or I can write about this stuff, but it’s getting too damn hard to try to do both and still enjoy it.
Be that (self-pitying moment) as it may, so much of the entertainment I will discuss below shares a common point of view. Whether ethereal drag queens or plucky Pakistani teens who idolize Bruce Springsteen, war-weary space age bounty hunters or cynical costumed vigilantes, precocious Nazi youths who come to realize Adolf Hitler is a less-than-ideal playmate or twinkly-eyed but secretly heavy-hearted kiddie show hosts, the characters who jumped off the screen in these movies and shows share a feverishly urgent demand for kindness, tolerance, justice, inclusion, and love. Timely for this holiday season … and timely for a culture in crisis. As Lola (played by that luminous and shamanistic firecracker Matt Henry) sings in Kinky Boots: “We give good epiphany.”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is exceptional, in great part because the cast – the aforementioned Hanks, Matthew Rhys as a hardened journalist determined to find the toxic truth underlying Mr. Rogers’ sunny sanctimony, and Chris Cooper as Rhys’ neglectful/neglected papa – sidestep any mawkishness inherent in the material with their honest, unadorned portrayals. More to the point, director Marielle Heller takes her cue from the source material – an Esquire cover story – turning in a film that is more clear-eyed essay than slice-of-life biopic. Everything in the movie feels as slightly left of center as any episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood ever did, acknowledging the program’s twee sensibilities and refracting the show’s heightened sense of “make believe” wonder as a metaphorical context for the tiny cruelties family and friend exact on a daily, perhaps hourly basis. It’s a good movie, not quite a great one, but the comforting cinematic equivalent of a scruffy, slightly embarrassing cardigan and pair of house shoes.
Jojo Rabbittakes the Merrie Melodies lunacy of actor/director Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and applies it to the genocidal moral conflict of being a young, patriotically-obsessed citizen in WWII Nazi Germany. Hmmmm. Take The Mortal Storm, The Tin Drum, To Be Or Not To Be, Moonrise Kingdom, The Pianist, Lord of the Flies, and A Christmas Story, throw them into a blender, and have said output be directed by a less precious, more humane Wes Anderson … after drinking three spiked Red Bulls? The resulting film would be Jojo Rabbit. (Waititi also plays the titular character’s imaginary playmate … Adolf Hitler.) The film depicts a Nazi-aspirant young boy (charismatic Roman Griffin Davis) and his less nationalistic mother (Scarlett Johansson about as charming and vibrant as I’ve ever seen her) surviving the dadaistic absurdity of a country run by race-mongering juvenile delinquents (in other words, an on-the-nose allegory for our presently fraught times). The enterprise works far better than it should, aided and abetted by a witty and whimsical supporting cast including Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson. By the time this satirical picaresque meanders to its conclusion, you will be shocked a few times, horrified a few more, laughing and maybe crying uncomfortably, in part due to subject matter and in part due to dodgy artistic execution. Again, a good movie with an essential message, and one that may age into something classic as viewers discover it after its theatrical run.
Knives Out is just ok. There are far better versions of this movie and far worse, but I think I’d rather spend an afternoon with Sleuth or Murder by Death, hell, even Deathtrap before giving Knives Out another go. As Daniel Craig, playing a crispy-fried Foghorn Leghorn private detective with none of the zingy Mason-Dixon daffiness he exuded in Logan Lucky, notes regarding the reading of a family will, “Think of a community theatre production of a tax return.” That quote could describe this overeager flick as well. Writer/director Rian Johnson piles on the fake-outs and redirects, putting his breathless cast through its paces, and, while there is fun to be had, there’s just not nearly enough of it. Johnson has assembled a Whitman’s Sampler of movie star character players – Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Christopher freaking Plummer – and they all have moments (Chris Evans and Don Johnson acquitting themselves the best here), but I left the film with itchy teeth and liking everyone involved just a little bit less. That said, I applaud Rian Johnson and company for using the populist entertainment value of this black comedy as a Trojan horse for some biting, insightful social commentary about the entitled wealthy and the festering racism in Trump’s America.
Blinded by the Light (on DVD and streaming) is directed with a sure hand by Gurinder Chadha, employing pretty much the exact same template she rode to international success with Bend It Like Beckham (which in and of itself follows the pattern of so many working class British dramedies like Billy Elliot or The Full Monty, depicting resourceful souls rising above class warfare). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Based on a true story, the film focuses on a young Pakistani man (an appealing turn by Viveik Kalra) who strives to overcome the racist nationalism (there’s that theme again!) and economic disparity of 1980s Thatcherite England and to break loose from a well-intentioned but overbearing father who can’t understand his boy’s dreams of becoming a writer. (“Where’s the money in that?!” asks this guy writing a movie blog for free.) Instead of soccer, our protagonist finds his muse in the lyricism of “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen, encouraged by a wry but loving literature teacher (a marvelous Hayley Atwell) and some beautifully drawn teenage pals (Aaron Phagura and Nell Williams). The film is as predictable as all great fables can be but is delicately executed, well-acted, and simultaneously sobering and inspiring. And, yes, this bonbon of a film seems ready-made to be musicalized.
Speaking of which … Kinky Boots, the Tony-winning musical adaptation by Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein of the 2005 Brit comedy film of the same name (which starred a then-unknown Joel Edgerton and Chiwetel Ejiofor), was just broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances. To say the show was perfection – as perfectly kicky as the thigh-high red boots drag queen Lola (and later the entire cast) dons during the show – would be the textbook definition of understatement. This cast was the Olivier Award-winning West End crew, led by Matt Henry (my mother accurately observed … move over Shirley Bassey and Lena Horne) as the transformative Lola who storms into the life of bedraggled shoe-factory scion Charlie (a winning Killian Donnelly) and turns a small town on its collective head … for the better. The factory is days away from closing, and, by reinventing itself to serve the “niche market” of drag queen footwear, changes its fortunes … and the lives (and attitudes) of all who work there. This is no To Wong Foo magical drag queen fairy tale, however. Lola (also known as Simon) is a fully realized, poignant, exhilarating human being, complex, complicated, flawed, perfect. In Henry’s manicured hands, Lola is the heart of the show, a beautiful yin to Charlie’s shaggy yang. The stage relationship between Donnelly and Henry is deeply affecting, propelled by Lauper’s pulsing, percolating, nicely integrated score. Amy Lennox as Charlie’s co-worker, confidante, and eventual love interest Lauren is dynamite, a musical comedy crackerjack, balancing pathos and hilarity brilliantly, sometimes in a single phrase. Kinky Boots celebrates accepting who we are (and the gifts which embracing that truth can bring) with warmth, kindness, and about the best pacing I’ve seen onstage.
Lady & the Tramp(currently streaming on Disney+) is on the small screen where I reckon all of these live action remakes of Disney’s animated classics actually belong. Seriously, 20 years ago, these things would have all been very special presentations on Sunday nights on The Wonderful World of Disney in order to sell theme park tickets before landing on well-worn VHS tapes in the back seats of mini-vans everywhere. That said, this latest re-do ain’t half bad. Lady (voiced with moxie by Tessa Thompson) has an agency she never had in the animated film, and Tramp (a winsome Justin Theroux) just seems less, well, skeezy. There is an overarching effort toward inclusiveness with color-blind casting for the human roles of Jim Dear and Darling that, on one hand, is really refreshing, but on the other creates an inadvertently weirdly white-washed message about what interracial couples would have actually endured in turn-of-the-20th-century Missouri. And the problematic “Siamese Cat Song,” ear-wormy as it may have once been, is officially retired. In its place, there is a new and perfectly acceptable ditty to accompany Aunt Sarah’s prized felines’ narrative-essential shenanigans. “He’s a Tramp” is still on the playlist, but this time around is performed with sassy aplomb by Janelle Monae, in the role originated by Peggy Lee. The film is entertaining and pleasant with a timeless message about, yes, accepting our differences … not to mention the importance of responsible pet ownership.
The Mandalorian (currently streaming on Disney+) is about the best Star Wars spin-off to come from LucasFilm in the past 20-some years (if ever), in great part because it doesn’t seem very Star Wars-y. Or at least what “Star Wars-y” has come to mean since the original trilogy debuted: needlessly complicated back story; self-serious and ponderous mythologizing; overlong playing time; character development that seems driven as much by merchandisability as narrative need. The Mandalorian by comparison is a breezy pleasure, a throwback to single-protagonist vintage TV Westerns like The Virginian or The Rifleman (without any intentional swagger/machismo or inadvertent misogyny/racism), wherein our reluctant protagonist becomes the lens through which a different 37-minute parable is told each week. Oh, and there’s a really adorable Baby Yoda, who may be the cutest, funniest creature dreamed up since the Ewoks (yes, I still like Ewoks). Producer/writer Jon Favreau joyfully wears his retro influences on his sleeve (as evidenced by the minimalistic percussive soundtrack and the closing credits sequence, both of which seem channeled straight from 1968). Leading man Pedro Pascal (face forever obscured under his signature bounty hunter helmet – “this is the waaaay“) conveys so much heart, great comedic timing, and an intriguing amount of agnosticism, without benefit of one. single. facial. expression. Four episodes in, and I can’t wait to see where this one is going.
Watchmen(HBO) is so damn good. We had one of those “watch HBO for free!” weekends on Xfinity and, in a less than 24-hour period, we binged the first seven episodes, including tonight’s exemplary “An Almost Religious Awe” (every episode has a great title). I’m going to have to show up on the doorstep of some generous HBO-subscribing friend the next two Sundays to see how this thing wraps up! Any takers? The original DC comic book mini-series (1986-87) deconstructed the very notion of what a superhero was, offering a heady mix of cynicism and optimism, critical of Reagan-era excess and territorialism while satirically reinventing atomic age tropes of flying humans and hooded marvels, all to dissect the morals and ethics of those who set themselves up as our saviors. “Who watches the Watchmen?” Subsequent efforts to adapt the landmark series onscreen (no thank you, Zack Snyder) or revisit in print (just stop, Geoff Johns) have fallen flat, missing the existential trauma at the heart of the work. If you’d told my 14-year-old self that his 46-year-old future would include a triumphant, accessible yet layered, televised continuation of the storyline for a mainstream audience, I never would have believed you. In fact, it is this very question of identity and self and the ephemeral nature of time folding upon itself through memory that gives Watchmen its slippery power. The HBO series replaces the Cold War paranoia of the original comics with an incisive take on the race-baiting xenophobia currently paralyzing our country, in a way that is completely true to the original work while acknowledging how far we have (and haven’t) come as a society. Regina King and Jean Smart are (together) an acting powder keg, wrestling with thorny questions of race and gender, empowered and stonewalled and uninhibited and numb with white-hot rage. The supporting players are to a one excellent – Don Johnson (again!), Tim Blake Nelson, Jeremy Irons, Louis Gossett Jr., Hong Chau, Frances Fisher, Tom Mison, Sara Vickers – finding Shakespeare in the mundane and delivering a show that isn’t afraid to explore big ideas amongst daily tragedies. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a character unto itself – disco for a dark age, as if Phillip Glass found his groove. I have no idea where this show is going, and I can’t wait to get there … and I really don’t want it to end.
So as gluttony goes, I don’t think I’ll apologize for this indulgence of the mind as my brain is truly spinning with possibility, heading back into a work week, knowing that there are ideas bigger than ourselves as all ideas should be.
“The endless story of expectations wiring inside my mind/Wore me down/I came to a realization and I found a way to turn it around/To see/That I could just be me.”
– “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” Cyndi Lauper, Kinky Boots
“We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.”
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.
Frozen2 (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