Queen Latifah and the Toledo Symphony at the Toledo Art Museum Peristyle

To quote Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.” That declaration very well could have been the concert title for Queen Latifah’s exceptional, fiery, funny, warm performance tonight with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the charming, witty, vibrant Michelle Merrill. The show was held in the Toledo Museum of Art’s stunning and slightly surreal “peristyle,” a Greek Revival colosseum that puts Vegas and EPCOT to shame.

Merrill opened the evening with exquisite, albeit Latifah-less, symphonic sets from Chicago, Porgy & Bess, and Hairspray as well as selections from Duke Ellington and Leroy Anderson. The brilliant acoustics highlighted the fine detail from the orchestra, and Merrill’s ebullient, joyous conducting was a fizzy delight to observe.

Note: during the show’s second half, when Latifah’s house band (remarkable talents in their own right) joined the orchestra, the acoustics got unfortunately muddy, likely a result of limited rehearsal time and unnecessary amplification. It didn’t hurt the show or its marvelous energy, but it made sitting on the first few rows feel like aural bombardment at times.

As for Latifah, the quintessential multi-hyphenate (actor, musician, raconteur, humanitarian), this Oscar Nominee (Chicago) exceeded the hype, offering a sunny, sharp, inclusive, pitch-perfect delivery and onstage persona. A voice and a personality that lifts the rafters, she glided effortlessly from standards to jazz to blues to Broadway to hip-hop.

Highlights included a disco swirl around Bill Withers’ poignant “Same Love That Made Me Laugh”; a delicate crystalline take on Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man”; a surging and transformational spin on The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin'”; a heartbreakingly anthemic “I Know Where I’ve Been” (which Latifah had immortalized in late producer and friend Craig Zadan’s film of Hairspray); a timely #MeToo revisit to her early feminist hip-hop anthem “U.N.I.T.Y.”; and a pulsing encore of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” marrying the best of actor and vocalist, as Latifah wrung every bit of pathos from the song’s haunting subtext of abandonment and regret.

It was a dynamite evening, simultaneously intimate and epic. Whether Latifah was goofing on the indigestion her hot dog dinner was causing or riffing with her band on a decade-old rap jam from Soulja Boy, she would always snap back to center: an icon of grace and dignity, compassion and independence who champions the marginalized and demands a better day for all. Ladies first, indeed. (Oh, and she grabbed my hand as she left the stage! Swoon!)

P.S. I’m guessing the symphony crowd hasn’t heard lyrics like these in that space before. Time for change, I reckon …

“You say I’m nothing without ya, but I’m nothing with ya.
A man don’t really love you if he hits ya.
This is my notice to the door, I’m not taking it no more.
I’m not your personal whore, that’s not what I’m here for.
And nothing good gonna come to ya til you do right by me.
Brother you wait and see (Who you calling a bitch?).

U.N.I.T.Y., U.N.I.T.Y. that’s a unity (You gotta let him know.)”

#CarpoolKaraoke: “Lights, Camera, Cure!” edition

Enjoy our version of #CarpoolKaraoke for #LightsCameraCure. In part one, my carpool buddies Bethany Basanese​, Aimee Chapman​, and I take on #JustinTimberlake, #MoonRiver, #CelineDion, and #Detroit’s own #Eminem. Thanks to Lia De Biasi​, our director, for figuring how the tech on this and to our cabaret queen Denise Isenberg Staffeld​ for the idea! 🎶

Video: https://youtu.be/qGpplBGhJiQ

“Lights. Camera. Cure!” is NEXT WEEK, benefiting The American Cancer Society – Relay For Life of Canton and Plymouth. Tickets are going quickly! Order yours today! Purchase here.

“Lights. Camera. Cure.” is a special theatrical event to be held Wednesday, February 6, 2019 at 7:00 p.m. (doors open at 6 pm) – a musical fundraiser featuring classic film hits as sung by local performers at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill. Learn more here.

#CarpoolKaraoke part deux with the divine Cathy Skutch McDonald and Jeff Steinhauer … some #BarbraStreisand / #LadyGaga #StarIsBorn magic, #AmericanGigolo ( #CallMe ), #SpyWhoLovedMe, and #SaturdayNightFever

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYP2YlB_ybg&t=60s

Here we are. The END of our #CarpoolKaraoke TRILOGY. Me and the adorable and talented Caitlin Chodos. Some #Xanadu. Some #WillyWonka / #VerucaSalt. And a whole LOT of #BohemianRhapsody.

Video: https://youtu.be/lQRRvwstYPA

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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.

“Lights. Camera. Cure.” theatrical event to raise money for American Cancer Society Relay for Life, February 6 + delightfully serendipitous miscellany

Originally published by BroadwayWorld here.

“Lights. Camera. Cure.” is a special theatrical event to be held Wednesday, February 6, 2019 at 7:00 p.m. (doors open at 6 pm) – a musical fundraiser featuring classic film hits as sung by local performers at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill. View a preview video here

Producer/director Denise Staffeld of Lake Michigan Credit Union observes, “Last year, we had a vision to do a Cancer Society fundraiser that celebrated the healing power of Broadway. I had no idea – though I had faith – that it would be such a runaway success. We sold out the house, and raised over $15,000. We also had an amazing time along the way, so how could we NOT do this again?”

Music direction is by Kevin Robert Ryan, Director of Music and Liturgy at St. Thomas a’Becket Catholic Church. Ryan adds, “I love working with this cast. They are so clever and so talented. Film music speaks to all of us, doesn’t it? Reminds you of a happy time or a special memory. We’ve got Disney hits, classic musical numbers, The Wizard of Oz, on through The Greatest Showman. This is going to be an absolute ball.” Jeff Mongrain, Sonny Teodoro, and Joel Walter round out the orchestra.

Roy Sexton, director of marketing for the Clark Hill law firm, will emcee the evening as well as perform. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world. Denise is a long-time friend and such a pillar of our community. I don’t know how she does all that she does, but I’m honored to be a part of this. And somehow she’s convinced me to sing a Whitney Houston solo from The Bodyguard. This could get really interesting,” notes Sexton.

The cast is comprised of semi-professional and professional talent from throughout Southeast Michigan’s theatre community: Shirley Auty, Denise Staffeld, Aimee Chapman, Christina Bair, Cathy Golden, Cathy McDonald, Caitlin Chodos, Noel Bittinger, Julzie Gravel, Bethany Basanese, Keri Mueller, Janine Creedon, Tracey Bowen, Diane Dimauro, Roy Sexton, Jeff Steinhauer, AJ Kosmalski, Bruce Hardcastle, Tim Chanko, Kurt Bowen, Tracy Neil, Carl Nielsen, David Dilsizian, and Paul Bromnick.

Kelvin Elvidge will serve as sound designer/engineer. Lia DeBiasi is the production’s stage manager, and Daniel Pocock will assistant stage manage. There will be special appearances by Tom Cassidy and Canton Township Supervisor Pat Williams, opening remarks by Kim Scartelli, and event support by Megan Schaper (American Cancer Society) and Tammy Brown and Marion Rozum (Chicks 4 Charity).

Before the performance, there will be a red carpet reception, with silent auction and desserts. Just like the Oscars, there will be a pre-show, hosted by Canton Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Paden and Stephanie Tierney.

Paden laughs, “We get to channel Ryan Seacrest and Joan Rivers. We are going to broadcast via Facebook live, interviewing attendees as they arrive and sharing real time updates on our fundraising. I’m thrilled to be part of this and to see us all take this event to the next level.”

American Cancer Society Community Development Manager Megan Schaper notes, “The Cabaret is a great representation of the flexibility we have in partnerships. We want to attach cancer how our communities want to attack it. So ideas like musicals and other fun things allow us the chance to connect with different groups in the community and spread out our efforts year round.” Schaper supports Canton, Plymouth, Westland, Wayne, Ypsilanti, Livonia and Redford.

All proceeds for this event benefit the American Cancer Society Relay for Life Canton-Plymouth Event.  Tickets are available for $25.00 by visiting www.cantonvillagetheater.org. The event includes the performance, dessert reception, coffee bar, a silent auction and a cash bar.  This event is being offered in partnership with the Women’s Life Society, Chapter 827, Chicks for Charity and The American Cancer Society.

“We have so many surprises in store.” Tammy Brown of Chicks for Charity said. “We’ve already sold nearly a third of our tickets as the people who saw last year’s show don’t want to miss the next installment. Everyone loves movies, and everyone loves helping their neighbors, friends, and family. We are fighting this insidious disease with hope and music, your dollars and love. Please join us.”

Today, I’m sporting a new birthday gift (the shirt) from my folks AND proudly displaying (in my office) the sweet card they made me.

[View the Canton Chamber of Commerce’s recent “Business Spotlight” video feature on “Life is a Cabaret” here.]

Tickets: Online or visit or call the theater 10am-2pm Monday-Friday. 734-394-5300 ext 3. PLEASE LEAVE A MESSAGE. CALLS WILL BE RETURNED WITHIN 24 HOURS OR WEEKEND CALLS BY END OF DAY MONDAY. All ages must have a ticket. No refunds or exchanges.

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Have I mentioned how proud I am to be on the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit board?

From The Detroit News: “Jeffrey Seller [Hamilton producer] recently saw the youth perform at New York’s The Public Theater. ‘He had the reaction that a lot of people have when they see the performances,’ Stefanie Worth said. ‘He was really, really impressed by the young artists. He has an affinity for what Mosaic does.’ … The $1 million grant will be used for two of Mosaic’s most popular programs: its four-week summer camp and the Mosaic Experience Empowerment Program, an eight-week after school program in nine Detroit schools. Both programs teach kids theater and vocal training and culminate with a student showcase, said Worth, who recently took over as Mosaic’s executive director.”

More: https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/detroit-city/2019/01/02/detroit-theatre-gets-1-m-hamilton-producer/2468760002/

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Lol. Well, thank you, Heather Morse-Geller! I think we make a fine team where THAT is concerned:

“Life is too damn short, and, honestly, Roy Sexton can only bring so much FUN to the world. So, yes, #BeARoySexton. Don’t take yourself or your life or your job too seriously. Give back to those around you, and have some FUN while doing it all!”

More: https://www.legalwatercoolerblog.com/2019/01/03/new-year-new-no-way/

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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 is new and different. Therefore, we should fear it.” Ralph Breaks the Internet

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Happy New Year! We finally saw Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet. Don’t make fun of our movie choice because it took a month and a half to get there. Or because it is, well, Ralph Breaks the Internet. The flick is a clever and zippy analysis of the light and dark sides of the internet and a logical extension of the franchise. The Disney princess sequence which has gained the lion’s share of the film’s buzz is indeed loony meta-perfection. The last 20 minutes of the movie feel a bit labored and darkly existential, like the filmmakers just had NO idea how to wrap the thing up, but otherwise the movie is a delight.

About the original film, I wrote six years ago:

“Does Disney’s latest animated foray Wreck-It Ralph live up to the peppy pixelated promise of its retro fun trailer? Not quite. Is it an enjoyable pre-holiday diversion with a lot of heart to accompany its endlessly merchandisable premise? Absolutely. A shameless amalgam of Disney’s own Toy Story, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Tron, this film deftly imagines a world in which video game characters (from across thirty years of canon beloved by Gens X & Y, Millennials, and beyond) live, laugh, argue, and play after the neighborhood video arcade takes its last round of quarters for the evening. Clever touches and pop cultural references abound, with the Donkey Kong-esque titular character Ralph, warmly voiced by the ever-reliable John C. Reilly, trying to shake off three decades of villainy to gain acceptance from his digital cohorts.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This synopsis basically holds true of the 2018 sequel as well. However, Wreck-It Ralph 2 benefits, like the Toy Story sequels before it, from a built-in audience familiarity with its premise. Going in, we carry few (if any) expectations for a groundbreaking narrative or breathtaking visual experience and are settled in for some cinematic comfort food. On that front, Ralph Breaks the Internet more than delivers.

The vintage arcade that houses Ralph, Sugar Rush racing game’s Vanellope von Schweetz (an impishly acerbic Sarah Silverman), and their sundry digital buddies adds “WiFi” internet access for its young patrons’ convenience. After a mishap involving the steering wheel controller attached to Vanellope’s game console, Ralph and Vanellope use said WiFi to take a wild and woolly trip into the far reaches of the internet to retrieve a replacement.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The same aesthetic inventiveness from directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore that benefited the first film is on display here, depicting the interwebs as a glistening Emerald City-style metropolis, populated with perky chirping Twitter birds, YouTube-inspired video cafes, and an ebay shopping complex that borrows liberally from Target and IKEA and the Mall of America. Oh, and just like the real internet, the denizens of Ralph‘s mythic world know that one should never read the comments section.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Vanellope and Ralph’s friendship is put to the test when she is lured by the manic, violent pleasures of an online Grand Theft Auto-style game Slaughter Race and its a**-kicking heroine Shank (a wry Gal Gadot). After a satirical meet-up with all the Disney princesses (which is somehow both ultimate Disney-corporate synergy and a bold send-up of Mouse House excess), Vanellope sings her own “I’m Wishing”/”Part of Your World”/”Belle”-style anthem of longing, the zany “A Place Called Slaughter Race”: “What can it be that calls me to this place today?/This lawless car ballet, what can it be?/Am I a baby pigeon sprouting wings to soar?/Was that a metaphor?/Hey, there’s a Dollar Store!” (and so on).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ultimately, the core message of Ralph Breaks the Internet is that true friendship can withstand any challenge or geographical distance. Ho hum. The more important takeaways are that women are people too, free-thinking and bold, and that nothing is gained in life without a sense of risk and adventure. As the arcade characters are cautioned by one of their own when “WiFi” enters their midst: “It is new and different. Therefore, we should fear it.” Pshaw!

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Yours truly modeling my new birthday coat (FAUX fur collar). My mother thinks I look like the creature from “The Shape of Water.” LOL.

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.

Want to hear me attempt to sing Whitney Houston? February 6 cabaret “Lights. Camera. Cure.” (Plus, a bit of good news!)

Enjoy this preview of the Feb. 6 #LightsCameraCure cabaret to benefit American Cancer Society – video here: https://youtu.be/EA2MW45itFI. Includes some schmoozing and singing from yours truly. My attempt to channel #WhitneyHouston 😂 … as well as a throwback to Oklahoma! (oh, what a beautiful melody) are all at the 9:45 mark. Plus, I will be emceeing the event this year again.

Tickets are going fast – last year’s event sold out and raised nearly $15,000 dollars. Get your tickets at http://www.cantonvillagetheater.org today.

Thank you, Thomas Paden and Canton Chamber for this coverage. Great job, Denise Isenberg Staffeld, Megan Schaper, Tammy Schenck Brown, and Kevin Robert Ryan. Canton Chamber of Commerce Business Spotlight: December 2018

 

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Proud to announce that my fabulous colleague Megan McKeon and I were both promoted to director-level roles at Clark Hill PLC, in the Marketing and Business Development group, effective January 1. We report to a truly amazing and supportive Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer Susan Ahern (she is the best!). I feel fortunate to be part of this incredible team and to be part of this organization, and I am very grateful for their appreciation of my individuality, of my quirks, and of my contributions thus far. More to come! Happy New Year!

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Me, Kevin Ryan, and an unnamed holiday conifer. “The breeze is so busy, it don’t miss a … Christmas tree?”

 

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

I’ve arrived.

I’ve arrived. 😊 I’m a “top ten legal marketing read in 2018!” In all seriousness, I’m proud to be on this JD Supra list alongside stellar folks like Amber Bollman (one of my first Legal Marketing Association buddies), Yolanda Cartusciello, Morgan Ribeiro, Stefanie Marrone (cookies!), Gregory Fleischmann, Ryan King, my sister in mischief Laura Toledo, Sheenika Gandhi, Adam Hopkins, Erin West, and my karaoke queen and king Jenna Schiappacasse and David Ackert. This is a remarkable industry filled with brilliant souls, and I feel fortunate to share their airspace.

https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/the-year-in-law-firm-marketing-56170/

“Over the years, we have been pleased to give voice to the insights and perspectives of professionals succeeding in marketing and business development roles within law firms. We ardently believe that one of the defining characteristics of this tight-knit community (in which we happily participate) is the willingness to share knowledge so freely. ‘Legal Marketing’ is a community of friendship, support, and education … and we are glad JD Supra plays a part in supporting that. For your interest, here is a look at some of the most well-read (and well-heard) perspectives by law firm marketers and BD folks published on our site during the past year.”

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Because genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” The Green Book and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Family is what you make it. Two holiday film offerings – seemingly disparate as can be – explore that notion with nuance, surprising gravitas, and humor to spare.

The Green Book is pretty darn magnificent. Just when you think you’re getting another magical Hollywood-cures-racism retro-tear-jerking fantasy, the film subtly indicts the prejudices that plague us all, without avoiding the fact that we have some grade-A hateful jackholes in our country who need to be taken down a notch … or eight. Viggo Mortensen runs just shy of coming off like a Hanna-Barbera character, but he is nonetheless lovably/adorably brilliant in one of his broadest roles to date. Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali is brittle, haunted, wry, and superb, and they make a heckuva duo. Oh, and the film still manages some retro-tear-jerking holiday magic too.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There is a strange sub-genre in well-meaning, liberal Hollywood: the crowd-pleasingly simple-minded, amber-hued “let’s overcome racism together in two hours” flick (The Help, Hidden Figures, The Blind Side, Driving Miss Daisy, on and on). There can be a tone-deaf, self-satisfied entitlement to the “white savior” trope in these films, and that is just as off-putting as the nasty institutional racism these movies overtly critique. I’m not sure Green Book, directed by Dumb and Dumber‘s Peter Farrelly of all people, entirely avoids this trap, but the performances of Mortensen and Mahershala (not to mention perpetually underrated Linda Cardellini as Mortensen’s stoic-but-free-thinking wife) raise the film’s profile significantly from Hallmark Hall of Fame pap to something more vibrant and compelling.

Depicting real-life jazz and classical pianist Don Shirley and his chauffeur/hired muscle Frank Vallelonga as they tour the Deep South in 1962 and encounter one well-heeled bigot after another, The Green Book draws its name from a guide that helped African-American motorists of the era tour the country with as little aggravation as the era would allow. Reportedly, Shirley and Vallelonga would eventually become lifelong friends, but that is the kind of factoid that becomes increasingly debated as a biographical film like this grows in popularity and collects more end-of-year trophies. So, who knows?

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As for the film’s central thesis, it is summarized in this comment by a member of The Don Shirley Trio when asked why Shirley would take them all below the Mason-Dixon Line in the first place: “Because genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” It’s the kind of line that sounds like it was penned expressly for the daily horoscopes, but in the context of Mortensen and Mahershala’s exceptional dynamic (not to mention today’s strange days), it takes on a heart-wrenching profundity.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is unlike any superhero film nor any animated film I’ve seen: inventive, whimsical, poignant, heartfelt, transporting, kinetic, inclusive, unashamedly odd, surreal, and funny as hell … a true comic book brought to life in the best possible ways. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is the superior film to the awards-baiting Green Book where issues of race, gender, identity, and inclusion are concerned.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Rife with the delightfully irreverent influence of producers/screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street), Spider-Verse introduces its audience to a new Spider-Man in the form of Afro-Latino Miles Morales whose ethnicity isn’t a gimmick or a plot point but just part and parcel to his character, that is, in addition to him being a teenager, a science prodigy, an artist, and a music lover. How about that?

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

After a multiversal quantum physics experiment gone awry, Miles finds himself surrounded by a Benetton ad’s worth of fellow Spider-people: neo-feminist Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (notably not “girl”), silver-haired ass-kicking Aunt May (cheekily voiced by Lily Tomlin), Untouchables-throwback Spider-Noir (another fun voice cameo, this time by Nicholas Cage), paunchy and midlife-crisis’d Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man, Japanese robotics expert Peni Parker and her sidekick SP//dr, and (for us animal nuts) an anthropomorphic pig Peter Porker / Spider-Ham. Miles’ mission – in addition to navigating his newfound super powers and his loving-but-demanding parents who want him to focus on nothing but his science academy studies – is to help these Spider Buddies save the world and return to their respective parallel Earths. A bit like The Wizard of Oz, in reverse, but with super villains and web shooters.

The movie has a visual language unlike anything seen in computer animation before, photo realistic yet simultaneously comic book flat: a bit Andy Warhol, a touch Roy Lichtenstein, a smidge Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, yet wholly original, breathtaking, and dreamlike. The film’s comic timing borrows liberally from Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, Pink Panther, and Tex Avery, while the narrative grounds itself in the polyglot humanity of modern day NYC. It’s an exceptional piece of pop art, and effortlessly leverages the best of superhero egalitarian metaphor to give the middle finger to MAGA nationalism. I can’t wait to see it again.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

Hot damn!

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

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.