“What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” The Nice Guys

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Nice Guys. Imagine Boogie Nights as a frothy Abbott and Costello cinematic confection with a healthy sprinkling of The Rockford Files on top. Served with a side of Starsky & Hutch … or Bugs & Daffy.

Set in a smoggy/syphilitic 1977 Los Angeles, director/screenwriter Shane Black’s comic noir caper flick revels in just how damned ugly the Me Decade was. Film has a tendency to romanticize an era or to toy cutely with a period’s quirky extremes. Black time travels without commentary. The characters in this film aren’t living in a Smithsonian exhibit. They are simply living. Or attempting to live.

Beyond the flawless set decoration and precise costume design, Black is aided and abetted by the sparks that fly when you throw the unlikeliest of co-stars together: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Glowering gravitas meets wicked whimsy.

That said, the awkwardly delicious alchemy these two titans demonstrated on the talk show circuit promoting the film isn’t as evident onscreen as one might expect. Perhaps surprisingly, Crowe ends up garnering more laughs because he is always so. darn. grounded.  He’s funny simply because he’s not trying to be. Gosling indulges cartoonish impulses a few too many times, not trusting the comedy of situational contrast to do the heavy lifting. (Gosling has yet to outgrow the “isn’t it just a riot to see a handsome adult man let loose an ear-piercing community theatre shriek when he’s scared?” tic. Be careful, Ryan, for that way rests Johnny Depp’s sputtering career.)

Regardless, Crowe and Gosling are pretty freaking adorable together, and the whole enterprise plays like a pilot episode of a vintage TV-series that never got picked up. The plot is, well, kind of a meandering mess … just like a grainy 1970s TV crime drama. I kept waiting for Jaclyn Smith or Gavin MacLeod  to show up as a “very special guest star.” (We do get a Lynda Carter shout out, though.) There are double- and triple-crosses aplenty as a porn actress (literally) crashes through a family’s living room, and her death starts a spiraling series of murders and other sordid shenanigans. Oh, and there is intrigue about the auto industry and catalytic converters and how in the world Kim Basinger’s character managed to have Botox before the procedure was ever invented.

Gosling, as private eye Holland March, and Crowe, as hired muscle Jackson Healy, initially find themselves at cross purposes (with Gosling’s pretty mug on the receiving end of Crowe’s brass knuckles). Grudgingly, the duo partner up as the violence mounts and their befuddlement grows. A big part of the movie’s charm is that Crowe and Gosling gleefully portray characters whose detective skills are as suspect as their collective intelligence, with Holland’s precocious daughter Holly March (portrayed by a captivating Angourie Rice) serving as a wise-beyond-her-years Nancy Drew to Gosling/Crowe’s dim bulb Hardy Boys.

Rice’s performance is dynamite with a sharp feminist subtext. As  the “grown up” characters find themselves derailed by patriarchy run amuck (porn, corrupt manufacturing, prostitution, the Oil Crisis … the 70s at its worst), Rice’s Holly is clear-eyed, vigilant, incisive, defying the limitations and stereotypes society seeks to impose. “Don’t say, ‘And stuff.’ Just say there are whores here,” Gosling intones at one point, attempting to correct his daughter’s grammar and missing the misogynist irony in his declaration. The look in Rice’s eye reveals that her character does not lose the irony.

Holly is always ten steps ahead of her father and, without Holly’s continual intervention, the titular Nice Guys would still be attempting to solve the film’s mystery well into the late 1980s. Or they’d be dead.

I’m hoping this feminist dynamic is intentional on Black’s part, a storyteller whose filmography (from Lethal Weapon to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang through Iron Man 3) typically co-opts and reinvents B-movie formula, inverting its clichés as satiric critique of our baser instincts. I suspect this is by design, the film’s random (gratuitous?) naked porn stars notwithstanding.

With The Nice Guys, Black is trying to have his cake and eat it too. And he succeeds. Mostly. In a larger sense, Black is using the indulgent myopia of the 1970s as a reflection of how little we have changed as a nation. Basinger, plays a Department of Justice operative (in a bit of meta-casting, referencing her earlier – better – work in both L.A. Confidential  and 8 Mile) whose definition of “justice” is protecting the (then) fat cats in the Detroit auto industry. In the final act, she delivers the film’s punch line: “What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” Even as today’s Detroit reinvents itself as a hipster paradise of urban farming, artisanal soaps, and craft cocktails, the lesson in Basinger’s remark remains prescient. An America that lives for itself and only itself will quickly find itself trapped in yesteryear’s polyester leisure suit.

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The Nice Guys PostersReel 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.

Whip and nae nae, compassion and inclusion. A beautifully revitalized The Wiz (Live!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ve always been an Oz-nut for as long as I can remember. Oh, the annual viewings of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz every holiday season (pre-VCR/DVD/YouTube era, you got one shot, once a year!). I read the books backwards and forwards and mentally catalogued all the fantastic creatures, political intrigue, and oddball illustrations. (“Dorothy Gale” was my “Harry Potter.”) Occasionally, I would delve into other adjacent fantasy lands like Narnia or Wonderland when I needed to cleanse my palate. I devoured any and all minutiae about what motivated L. Frank Baum to write the series (hint: he was pretty irritated with scandal-ridden American politics … go figure).

Championing Gregory Maguire’s postmodern, animal-rights-skewing reimagining of the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I eventually viewed that recent stage musical adaptation twice (though I think it misses the mark when it comes to Maguire’s prescient political allegory). I obsessed over all the trivia I could find on the various cinematic and stage and television journeys over the rainbow and across the Yellow Brick Road. I even love The Boy from Oz – apropos of nothing.

Oh, did I collect STUFF! Stuff upon stuff always competing for space with my ever-growing piles of Star Wars and comic book ephemera as well. Oz has generated mountains of merchandise in the past 100+ years: toys, dolls, figurines, posters, and, yes, those ubiquitous-in-the-1980s Franklin Mint plates. I have a couple of those hand-painted platters (thanks to my gracious parents) … but where and what was the “Franklin Mint” exactly? Does anyone really know? Was it just in some dude’s basement and his name was Franklin?

However, if pressed to pick one corner of Oz-mania that is my absolute fave, the moment that cemented my fascination with the various permutations of this quintessentially American fantasy series? That would be The Wiz, and particularly the 1978 Sidney Lumet-directed film version starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor, and Lena Horne. It’s a polarizing entry point to be sure. While the stage version of Charlie Smalls’ musical was a huge and historic Tony-winning hit in the early 70s, the film was a colossal bomb, vilified for the liberties it took with the source material, and there was a bit of ageist/sexist foolishness over Lumet casting then 33-year-old Diana Ross as Dorothy. (“Too old,” the people cried! I’d love to be 33 again …)

I wrote at length on The Wiz in an embarrassingly fawning love letter in my first book (not humble-bragging – just telling you where you can find it). The movie isn’t without its flaws – too long, kinda dreary, covered in the depressing pseudo-sexual grime that seemed to permeate films of the “Me Decade.” Yet, I would argue that it is the very moodiness of the film, coupled with a Quincy Jones-produced funk bottle-rocket of a score, that gets closest to the populism with which L. Frank Baum approached his work. In that sense, one might suggest that The Wiz movie, remembered chiefly as an unmitigated pop culture misstep, was actually the purest distillation of the grim essence at the original novel’s core.

However, nobody but me likes the nearly forty-year-old flick, so it was high time for a multimedia teardown and rebuild of The Wiz. I’m happy to state that NBC’s live televised holiday musical (from Craig Zadan and Neil Meron who brought us the turgid Peter Pan Live! and the better-but-still-sort-of-moribund Sound of Music Live!) did a fine job reestablishing The Wiz for a new generation.

Director Kenny Leon, aided and abetted by choreographer Fatima Robinson and script doctor Harvey Fierstein, wisely approached the work not as sacred text but as an opportunity for reinvention and reinvigoration. Some of the updates worked beautifully, particularly the orchestrations which, originally (film and stage), were very much “of the moment” (dated R&B, disco) so a refresh was not only in order but essential. Other tweaks fell flat (iPads, sushi, referring to the silver slippers as “kicks”) – a good rule of thumb? If it’s going to sound corny five years from now, chances are it already sounds corny now.

The smartest thing the production team did was cherry pick from both the stage and film scores. Quincy Jones, when he was working on the film, saw that Smalls’ score, even then, needed an overhaul, notably the Scarecrow’s signature tune: the percolating and devastating “You Can’t Win” – foreshadowing Jones’ future blockbuster collaborations with Michael Jackson on the albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad – replaced the stage production’s aimless “I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday.” Happily, in this latest production “You Can’t Win” won out, and the Elijah Kelley’s adorably nimble performance as the Scarecrow benefited.

Robinson’s choreography cleverly incorporated many au courant moves but in subtle fashion. Oz has always been a cracked mirror reflection of American society, so moves like “whip” and “nae nae” – not to mention some seriously fierce Emerald City voguing – spicing up Ozzians’ onstage pogoing was smart and fun.

The cast was perfection throughout. Newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy married a steamroller voice with righteous fire that was fun to see. Finale “Home” was a knockout. She seemed a bit lost in the quieter, softer moments of the show, but those skills will come with experience. For a broadcast theatrical debut, she ran rings around Peter Pan Live’s Allison Williams, though admittedly that bar was so low that it sits in a sub-basement somewhere next to Brian Williams’ career.

Queen Latifah gave as good as she got as a gender-defying Wiz. Vocally, she wasn’t quite up to the role, but from sheer presence? There was no taking that stage away from her.

Intentional or not (and I suspect intentional with Leon’s and Fierstein’s involvement), there was an interesting statement in having the traditionally male role of The Wiz played by the indomitable Latifah. In the guise of the strutting, swaggering Wiz, everyone called Latifah “sir,” until it was revealed that The Wiz was not actually a he but a she. When Dorothy’s scruffy companions exclaimed their horror, Dorothy wheeled on them, exclaiming, “There is nothing wrong with being a woman,” and then spun back to The Wiz and chastising, “But there is everything wrong with being a liar.”

I don’t know what to make of the moment, but, in its narrative context of self-actualization and self-discovery and self-worth, it offers an interesting commentary on the relevance/irrelevance of gender, the importance of humanity and honesty, and the authentic roles women can and do play in leadership and in the accountability of others. I dug it.

In this reboot, women ruled Oz. Not just Dorothy and The Wiz, but Mary J. Blige’s Evillene was a pip. She frolicked dangerously close to the land of overacting, but it’s to be expected from a role that, while serving the primary narrative impetus (“kill the witch”), only has about 10 minutes of actual stage time. Her number “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is a highlight in the score, and the gospel rave-up that Blige delivered did it proud. Blige running around in a half-hoop skirt and stiletto boots that looked like they could serve double duty as murder weapons only added to the, er, fun. And, in one of the few actual LOL moments of the evening for me, Blige had an Abott-and-Costello-esque word battle with a lackey that sparkled with perfect comic timing.

Uzo Aduba’s Glinda had even less stage time than Blige but an even better song in the gorgeous, hauntingly inspirational “Believe in Yourself.” I’m sorry, Aduba, but no one can touch the incomparable Lena Horne in my mind for her soaring, effortlessly fierce performance of that number in the film, but you made it your own. The sweetly schoolmarm-ish way Aduba (Orange is the New Black) approached the role was distinctive and effective, even if her dress looked as though it were made of a million fuzzy, glowing yellow pipe cleaners.

Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the original stage production, was a thoughtful addition as Aunt Em, establishing the show’s central thesis in fine fashion with opening ballad “The Feeling We Once Had,” an undulating gut punch of a song, simultaneously channeling the remorse for life lost and hope for life yet to live. Glee’s Amber Riley nailed the playground chant whimsy of “He’s the Wiz,” barreling through the number like her life depended on it. Her acting and enunciation could still use a bit of work, but her powerhouse voice made up for those flaws.

If the show’s authority and presence came from the women in the cast, the zip and the play came from the men. David Alan Grier’s Lion had the most fully realized performance of the night – not a beat was lost, not a note was missed. The show was fully alive whenever he was onscreen; he kept things moving at a clip (which was a blessing given half the three-hour running time was made up of commercials … though, happily, that creepy Walmart family was MIA this year); and any consistent comedy in the production came from him. Elijah Kelley (Hairspray) was an adorable wee dervish as the kind-hearted Scarecrow, and pop star Ne-Yo was all country-fried charm and deep feeling soul as the Tin Man. His “What Can I Feel” was a tear-jerking marvel.

From classics like “Ease on Down the Road” to the jubilant (and timely) “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day,” the cast of The Wiz Live! performed the showstoppers with vital urgency, as declarations that life can be better – should be better – and that it takes all of us, with the right sense of compassion and of adventure, to get there. I think L. Frank Baum would have been proud. I know I was.

Little Roy

Little Roy

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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.

Yeah, I know. We should have known better … the sequel: Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Well, when I started this adventure called Reel Roy Reviews a little over a year and a half ago, my first review – perhaps just to telegraph to readers how few standards I had – was of Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection Program. No lie – proof here.

As if to come (shamefacedly) full circle at this holly jolly holiday time of reflection and penance, this fifty-eighth (!) entry in my weird, lightly trafficked corner of blogdom highlights Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas. And, yeah, we still should have known better. It is just dreadful.

(Tyler Perry, that dollar store indie-auteur, is helping me formulate a new supposition: the more possessive apostrophes in a film’s title, the worse the cinematic outcome.)

Perry is no dummy. His bread and butter is Madea, and, as poorly (under)written as his scripts are and as shoddy as his direction, that character – a loving (and honest) homage to his mother – remains the bright spot in the Perry universe. As broadly as she is drawn (sometimes spinning perilously into full-blown cultural offense), Madea as a characterization, I would argue, belongs in the cinematic canon of franchise comedy series players like Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, or Francis the Talking Mule.

Strange company, I realize, but when Perry is firing on all saucy cylinders, his Madea transcends the sub-par narrative context in which she’s placed and can make me laugh like a kid watching Laurel and Hardy reruns on a rainy Saturday afternoon. It’s just too bad Perry as a filmmaker doesn’t know his limitations – imagine if Hal Roach thought he was Ingmar Bergman.

This brings us to Perry’s latest – A Madea Christmas – which is one of his weakest efforts to date. He bears the remarkable distinction of actually getting worse as a filmmaker the more movies he directs.

As an aside, the high-water mark for the series (which isn’t saying much) remains Madea Goes to Jail, which leverages Madea’s ongoing rage at the cosmic ineptitude of mankind to great effect, most notably during a run-in in a Kmart parking lot. Madea Goes to Jail also has the good sense to include Viola Davis (at a time before we all realized how amazing she is) in one of Perry’s trademark melodramatic subplots: some nonsense about Rudy from The Cosby Show becoming a drug addicted prostitute … and then finding Jesus. Davis, whose actorly commitment could make an episode of Full House bearable, plays the prison counselor that gets Rudy (and Madea) back on track and offers one of the rare instances of a compelling character-driven performance in a Perry film.

A Madea Christmas on the other hand features the magical acting chops of … Larry the Cable Guy. And he’s one of the most subdued (and funny) people in this mess. Color me astounded. Kathy Najimy (who should fire her agent) and Larry play liberals-in-rednecks’-clothing whose son secretly marries Madea’s niece. Madea, of course, is fine with all of it, as long as she gets to crack wise and crack heads. The girl’s mother, histrionically played by Anna Maria Horsford as if she thinks the movie’s audience is located somewhere on the moon, is less than thrilled by her daughter’s choice of life mate. Bad 1980s TV movie hijinks ensue.

There’s a bizarre subplot about a dam that has cut off water from the town and is robbing the hateful farmers there of crop-growing potential; a Christmas pageant sponsored by the conglomerate that built said dam and that now wants to deprive the town of their “Christ in Christmas” by making the event a non-denominational “Holiday” pageant (with no – gasp! – nativity); and a school that apparently is located right inside the town hall (!), has six students, and is run by sweet-faced principal Lisa Whelchel (yeah, The Facts of Life‘s Blair) whose notion of the separation of church and state is decorating her classrooms with Christmas-light-festooned crosses. It’s like Sam Walton’s fever-dream.

Mr. Perry, I implore you – take some time off. Cranking out two movies a year does not a great director make. Assess what you do well (fish-out-of-water comedy, class warfare satire) and what you don’t (poignant melodrama, humanist messages) and be brave enough to let someone else … anyone elsedirect you (as Madea) in one of your scripts. That would be the best holiday gift of all to those moviegoers (like yours truly) who keep waiting (but probably not for much longer) for you fully to realize your potential.