“I just can’t imagine eating anything that has a mother.” My gluttonous Thanksgiving: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Jojo Rabbit, Knives Out, Blinded by the Light, Kinky Boots, Lady & the Tramp, The Mandalorian, and Watchmen

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 Rabbit takes 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.

Postscript …

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.”

Alan Moore, Watchmen

“Those of us who have made something of our lives will look at those that haven’t as nothing but clowns.” Joker

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“I’ve proved my point. I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.” – Joker in Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s classic 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke

“Those of us who have made something of our lives will look at those that haven’t as nothing but clowns.” –  Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in Joker

“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” – Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in his journal in Joker

“Rated as many stars as possible. Brimming with messages about humanity. Incredible and mesmerizing. The best scene reflected in the poster [Joker descending the steps, fully realized]. The film turns embedded prejudices and mindsets and pseudo-psychology and psycho-babble on their collective heads. Disturbing? Yes. Important to view with an open mind? Absolutely! Not your typical comic book villain nor hero. Heartbreaking but enlightening. Stay focused and let this gem penetrate your heart. All due to the earnest performance of Joaquin Phoenix. Bravo and hallelujah!” – Susie Sexton, my mom, in her review as shared on Facebook.

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Joker is a brilliant, heartbreaking, honest, essential film. Its lesson? Focus on the origin with empathy if you truly want to avert the outcomes depicted. Best film I’ve seen this year.

Joaquin Phoenix, who has always been one of our most dependable if at times criminally underrated actors, gives the performance of a lifetime as Arthur Fleck, a man shattered by a relentlessly unforgiving society that has rarely, if ever, graced him with a kind word or charitable thought. Far TOO much has been written that Joker will inspire “lone wolf” killers to act upon their most marginalized feelings and strike us good, pure, honest citizens down as we cheerfully consume material goods, collect our paychecks, and avoid our own hidden pain(s). Bullsh*t.

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Those folks who shout “thoughts and prayers” in the midst of firearm-fueled massacre, those folks who say we need “mental health awareness” not “gun control,” those folks who turn a blind eye to the institutionalized bullying that breaks sensitive souls? This movie should be required viewing for them (us) all. The true criminal act is to imply violence occurs in a vacuum, to suggest that mental breaks from reality are somehow apropos of nothing, and to look past our collective tendency to pathologically distance ourselves from the very people who need our help the most. Joker is the movie we all need desperately right now.

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It is also interesting to me that casual viewers see Joker as “too dark” or “too intense” or “too morally ambiguous” for a comic book movie. I recommend you turn an eye toward 1988’s Alan Moore/Brian Bolland seminal graphic novel The Killing Joke (written over 30! years ago), which, while not a literal blueprint for Todd Phillips’ film, provides Joker with its essential DNA. Moore was one of the first to plumb the depths of why the Clown Prince of Crime is the way he is. (Tim Burton lifted the most superficial of aspects here for 1989’s Batman with its fixation on the yin/yang duality of Batman and his primary nemesis.) In The Killing Joke, we see a man rejected and broken by one disappointment upon another, until he finally succumbs to the message he believes he’s been receiving all along: you aren’t wanted by this world, so let this world know how little you want it. It was a powerful and disconcerting take in its day, made even more controversial due to its scenes depicting the rape and torture of Batgirl and her father Commissioner Gordon. Blessedly, Phillips (The Hangover trilogy, Borat) working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Scott Silver, gives us the sense memory of The Killing Joke while jettisoning Moore’s more misanthropic/sadistic tendencies.

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Joker is a movie I will be thinking about for a very long time. I could cry now reliving Phoenix’ early scenes – his glimmers of puppy-like hope dashed by one cruel word after another, his eyes conveying decades of hurt, his fractured heart yearning for empathy. It is a remarkable performance, layered and loving, with a Chaplinesque understanding that the most compelling underdogs are simultaneously winsome and incendiary. The turn he takes, slowly, methodically, as he is increasingly battered, does eventually result in violent impulse, but the film is not the bloodbath some might have you believe. There are three particularly shocking flashes of rage, as Arthur/Joker rewards his tormentors with the very lessons they have been teaching him. In each instance, there is a logic – and a horror – and unlike most Hollywood films, in Joker, violence has consequence and emotional weight. I believe that is a crucial distinction that pundits aren’t making, and I’m not entirely sure why.

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The cinematography by Lawrence Sher and the musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir are almost characters in Joker unto themselves, crucial to the narrative, framing the film’s emotional grace notes and enveloping the audience in an increasing sense of disorientation. And the supporting cast, including Robert DeNiro as a smarmy talk show host, Frances Conroy as Arthur’s tortured mother, Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s neighbor and possible love interest, and Brett Cullen as a Trumpian Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s papa) are all excellent – Dickensian specters dancing in and out of the passion play in Arthur’s mind.

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“In my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice,” Arthur observes as he becomes the reflection of the dark society in which he dwells. Joker is, in fact, a subversive film because it dares to suggest that we, each and every one of us – with our casual cruelty, our blithe self-absorption, our overt thuggery – are responsible for the toxicity in our society, for those who are broken by it, and for those who act violently upon it. There is no easy blame in Joker, and that’s why the film may make some self-righteous souls uncomfortable.  Joker swivels the mirror on its audience and hisses, “You are the problem, and only you can fix it.”

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“On Wednesday night I attended the New York Film Festival and witnessed a cinematic masterpiece, the film that last month won the top prize as the Best Film of the Venice International Film Festival. It’s called Joker — and all we Americans have heard about this movie is that we should fear it and stay away from it. We’ve been told it’s violent and sick and morally corrupt — an incitement and celebration of murder. We’ve been told that police will be at every screening this weekend in case of ‘trouble.’ Our country is in deep despair, our constitution is in shreds, a rogue maniac from Queens has access to the nuclear codes — but for some reason, it’s a movie we should be afraid of. I would suggest the opposite: The greater danger to society may be if you DON’T go see this movie. Because the story it tells and the issues it raises are so profound, so necessary, that if you look away from the genius of this work of art, you will miss the gift of the mirror it is offering us. Yes, there’s a disturbed clown in that mirror, but he’s not alone — we’re standing right there beside him.” – Michael Moore in a Facebook post about Joker

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“To appreciate Joker I believe you have to have either gone through something traumatic in your lifetime (and I believe most of us have) or understand somewhere in your psyche what true compassion is (which usually comes from having gone through something traumatic, unfortunately). An example of dangerous compassion would be to, say, make a film made about the fragility of the human psyche, and make it so raw, so brutal, so balletic that by the time you leave the theatre you not only don’t want to hurt anything but you desperately want an answer and a solution to the violence and mental health issues that have spun out of control around us. This film makes you hurt and only in pain do we ever want to change. It’s all in the irony of trauma — a fine line between the resentment of wanting to hurt society back for raping you of a decent life, for not protecting you, and accepting what feels like alien feelings with softening to those others who seem freakish in our era of judgment, and digital damnation. Like kids in Middle School: man, they can just be mean. For no reason. And, sometimes, those awful little clicky [sic] kids breed an evil in someone that rages much later, when everyone pretends we are all back to normal, when we all thought it had just manned up and gone away. We have a habit of hating and ostracizing and dividing and sweeping our problems under the rug. Joker, is simply lifting the rug and looking underneath it. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s there.” – Josh Brolin in an Instagram post about Joker

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“I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” – Joker in Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s classic 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke

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Thank you to Thomas Paden and the Canton Chamber for this TV opportunity to discuss our #RealMenWearPink Detroit campaign. View here.

Grateful to be interviewed alongside rock stars Denise Isenberg Staffeld and Megan Schaper. And stick around to the end to see/hear the official video of yours truly singing #PureImagination with accompaniment by super talented Kevin Robert Ryan.

If you feel so moved to donate, please click here.

“Breast cancer affects everyone women and men. That’s why we’re recruiting men to fight breast cancer through Real Men Wear Pink. This distinguished group of community leaders is determined to raise awareness and money to support the American Cancer Society’s mission and save more lives than ever before from breast cancer.”

 

Also, don’t forget that Theatre NOVA’s Follies in Concert opens November 7. I’m playing “Buddy”! We had our first read-through this week, and it’s such a marvelous cast! It’s going to be great fun. Tickets here

Sondheim’s Broadway smash hit musical concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies” that played in that theatre between the World Wars. A fundraiser for Theatre NOVA and presented in concert, Follies is a glamorous and fascinating peek into a bygone era, and a clear-eyed look at the transformation of relationships over time, with countless songs that have become standards, including “Broadway Baby,” ” I’m Still Here,” “Too Many Mornings,” “Could I Leave You?” and “Losing My Mind.” Directed by Diane Hill with music direction by Brian E. Buckner. Featuring Sue Booth, Tom Murphy, Diane Hill, Roy Sexton, Annie Kordas, Kryssy Becker, Eddie Rothermel, Connor Rhoades, Harold Jurkiewicz, Olive Hayden-Moore, Carrie Jaye Sayer, Emily Rogers-Driskill, Gayle Martin, Edith Lewis and Darnell Ishmel.

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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.

“You want out of the hole? You should put down the shovel.” Incredibles 2

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Disney Pixar’s Incredibles 2, picking up 14 years (!) after the last film hit theatres, is about as subversive as a movie full of pixelated superheroes can be. This is the film our country needs right now. People will flock to this – Blue States on the coasts and Red States in the middle – and none will be the wiser that directing wunderkind Brad Bird has given us the ultimate Ray Bradburdy-esque allegory for our topsy turvy political times.

For instance, Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl – offered a Faustian contract by media-hack Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) to publicly redeem superheroes who have been outlawed in the Incredibles’ flawlessly production-designed mid-century moment – queries, “To help my family I have to leave it. To fix the law, I have to break it.” Does that sound familiar … or what?! (I won’t even get into our present debate over the horror of separating immigrant families from their children at the border … oh, Elastigirl, how we need you right now.)

The first Incredibles surprised us all, billed as it was as a four-color throwback to superhero shenanigans of movie matinee yore. Yet, in reality, it was a brilliantly executed existential treatise on surviving in a world of ageist disposability and politically charged hypocrisy. In both films, Bird uses the titular Spandex’d family (homage as they are to Marvel’s own Fantastic Four) to explore thorny issues of identity politics, socioeconomic disparity, and xenophobia. (For those of you rolling your eyes, watch the first film again and tell me I’m wrong. In fact, I would argue that, taken together, The Incredibles are a far better “spiritual adaptation” of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ seminal Watchmen than Zack Snyder’s slavishly literal 2009 film treatment of said graphic novel.)

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Bird has woven into both films an infectious love of 60s caper-television fare a la Mission: Impossible, The Man from UNCLE, and Jonny Quest, aided and abetted by his pitch-perfect musical soundtrack partner Michael Giacchino, whose shameless worship of Lalo Schifrin, John Barry, and Herbie Hancock is as obvious as the “i” on Mr. Incredible’s Buick-sized chest.

Of all Pixar’s storied output, The Incredibles films go the greatest distance, creating a self-contained universe of exceptional design and unimpeachable character and holding an outsized mirror to the heartbreaking flaws in our present reality.

Incredibles 2 is one of those rare sequels that meets if not exceeds its predecessor. This may be the Godfather 2 of Pixar flicks.

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The first film debuted before Marvel Studios’ ascent to cinematic glory, not to mention Marvel’s subsequent acquisition by Disney, and this sequel appears after the first major chapter of Marvel’s meteoric rise comes to a close with Avengers: Infinity War. Not sure what to make of that, but The Incredibles‘ wry, relatable commentary is arguably far more sophisticated than that of any other superhero flicks we have seen … or likely ever will. (I’m pretty sure this is the only superhero movie, let alone animated film, I’ve ever seen that has used the word “conflate” in a line of dialogue.)

We meet our heroes, one day following the events of the first film, as they continue to bump along in life – Olympian gods suffering through the mundanities of middle American subsistence. The super-family’s well-intentioned intervention of a bank heist goes awry, and they find themselves in the slammer and without the aid of their super-handler Rick Dicker, who has decided a life of retirement is preferable to one of damage control for a family of super-powered freaks. He observes ruefully, “You want out of the hole? You should put down the shovel.”

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In Dicker’s absence, PR maven Winston Deavor steps forward with a scheme to celebrate Elastigirl and thereby rehabilitate the negative image “supers” have suffered in The Incredibles-universe for years. Mr. Incredible (with heart-breaking comic voice work by Craig T. Nelson) is left at home with a super-powered infant Jack-Jack (whose anarchic impulses yield increasingly zany and haunting consequences) as well as two angsty tweens: the invisible Violet and the speedster Dash. Oh, and Deavor’s sister Evelyn (a delightfully sardonic Catherine Keener) may or may not be on the side of the angels. TBD.

The movie touches on just about every zeitgeist issue hitting today’s headlines: women who have lived far too long in the shadows of men; the dilemma of finally finding one’s “moment” when the obligations of daily life make it impossible to actually enjoy it; a fear-mongering government whose reach far exceeds its grasp; and the unerring need of the media and elected officials to scapegoat the marginalized for all of society’s failings. Not incidentally, Incredibles 2 is a funny-as-hell, fizzy-a$$ bottle-rocket of entertainment.

Yes, fan-favorites Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson, all wisenheimer perfection) and Edna Mode (director Brad Bird doing double-duty as the voice of the fussy Edith Head-inspired “capes and cowls” designer) make their triumphant returns. Mode particularly enjoys a delightful sequence where her take-no-prisoners approach to fashion ends up yielding exceptional parenting tips to Mr. Incredible: “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act.”

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The film’s antagonist declares in the movie’s final act that “superheroes make us weak,” asserting that our reliance on escapist fare prevents us from living our most authentic lives.

It’s a twisty and cynical bit of meta-commentary, embedded as it is in a film produced by a media empire (Disney’s) raking in billions from our foolhardy fantasies that Captain America will somehow save our hides from the real-life fascists ruining our country. Fair enough.

But all hail Pixar for yet again offering us – under the deceptive and intoxicating guise of family friendly entertainment – a healthy dose of philosophical medicine just when we desperately need it … a big gulp of fortifying spinach to counteract the real-life Krytonite sapping our spirits on a daily basis. (Yes, I just mixed my Popeye and Superman metaphors. Go sue me, Lex Luthor.)

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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.

“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” Marvel’s Black Panther

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Wow. I think we are truly in a Golden Age of superhero cinema, wherein technology and talent and investment have converged to create engaging spectacles that not only sell a sh*t-ton of action figures but, y’know, have something to say.

Wonder Woman. Logan. Captain America: Winter Soldier. Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thor: Ragnarok. Deadpool.

And, now, arguably the best of them all: Marvel’s/Disney’s Black Panther.

Classic comic book creators like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore long ago tapped into the allegorical power of superheroes as a lens to assess our present reality and to give us hope … or a dose of hard medicine.

It took Tinseltown decades – with a number of promising starts and soul-crushing stops – to wake up to the fact that, while, yes, these movies cost a lot of money, they will make a lot more if they aren’t dumbed down and focus-grouped past all recognition. Give us relatable figures in a heightened environment, thereby offering commentary and guidance on surviving this tumultuous human condition.

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Think Shakespeare … with capes … and slightly easier to follow. Or Aesop’s Fables … in Spandex. The messages in these films are essential and timely and healing, but, even more importantly (and perhaps sadly so), these messages are making money, which is, alas, the only language that sometimes brings actual change in this country. Nonetheless, I’ll take it.

Black Panther is a superhero fable our stormy times need. If Wonder Woman helped soothe hearts broken over Hillary Clinton’s defeat – anticipating the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement – in an escapist adventure celebrating the strength and power of women, Black Panther offers a fist-raising rallying cry for those in pain over the institutional racism and politicized xenophobia which always existed but has come roaring to the fore since November 2016.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Imagine an African nation, with limitless natural resources, that developed, unmolested by Western colonization, to its truest societal, cultural, intellectual, industrial, and technological potential. This is Wakanda, the fictional setting of the latest offering from Marvel Studios.

Directed with verve and sensitivity by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) from his own screenplay, Black Panther takes a smidge of Hamlet, a bit of Richard III, maybe some Henry IV, a lot of Alex Haley, some Suzan-Lori Parks and James Baldwin, with a sprinkling of Disney’s own The Lion King and throws it all in a blender, yielding magic.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Prince T’Challa (a haunted and haunting Chadwick Boseman with enough leonine presence to command the screen and enough emotional uncertainty to allow us all to project our own anxieties and dreams onto him) returns to a kingdom in turmoil after the assassination of his father.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

His mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett who really just has to be Angela Bassett here … her and her cheekbones … and that’s just fine) is preparing for her son’s coronation. T’Challa’s sister and Wakanda’s tech wizard Shuri (a gleefully scene-stealing Letitia Wright) impishly ensures her brother’s swaggering male ego doesn’t run off the rails. T’Challa is challenged for the throne, first by competing tribal leader M’Baku (an imposing yet delightfully comic turn by Winston Duke) and later by interloping American Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (a beautifully nuanced Michael B. Jordan).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I won’t spoil some fairly significant “palace intrigue” twists, but suffice it say Jordan delivers one of Marvel’s strongest villains to date (watch out Cate Blanchett’s “Hela” and Ian McKellen’s/Michael Fassbender’s “Magneto“). This isn’t your standard-issue “I’m going to take over the WORLD” baddie.

Nope, Killmonger is a disruptive demogogue whose power-to-the-people shtick is motivated by anger and frustration that Wakandan isolationism has deprived generations of displaced African descendants the resources and aid that would have transformed their lives and leveled the playing field. Who’s the villain, and who’s the hero here? Pretty heady stuff for a superhero fantasy, and  Jordan doesn’t miss a beat.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Coogler wisely frames the film with sequences set in Oakland, California, depicting the hardscrabble conditions facing too many African-Americans today.  (People vs. OJ Simpson’s Sterling K. Brown puts in a brief but effective, narratively significant appearance here.) The juxtaposition of our reality with the “Emerald City”-escapist beauty of Wakanda is sobering and revelatory.

Reflecting on a hard lesson learned through soul-crushing circumstances, Boseman’s T’Challa observes in the film’s final scene (before the United Nations, no less): “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” (Yeah, tell me that isn’t some overt shade-throwing to our present administration. Swoon!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We also have damn fine character turns by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the chrome-domed head of Wakanda’s all-female army Dora Milaje, and by Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, first and foremost Wakanda’s chief foreign intelligence agent and only secondarily T’Challa’s on-again-off-again love interest. The women are anything but damsels-in-distress in this flick; they are a**-kicking-take-names-later warriors who more than hold their own onscreen with our titular hero.

Martin Freeman is a twitchy, breezy delight as government handler Everett K. Ross, and Andy Serkis is great, scenery-chewing fun as sonically-super-powered smuggler Ulysses Klaue. Even Forest Whitaker as Wakandan elder Zuri with the same old tired, hammy, pontificating performance which he always delivers can’t bring this intoxicating wild ride to a screeching halt.

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It’s a Marvel movie, so, yes, there are spaceships and car chases and explosions aplenty, nail-biting races-against-the-clock, and more references to fictitious ore “Vibranium” than you could shake a graphic novel at. The design-work in this film is beyond extraordinary, importing Jack Kirby’s original comic book concepts but infusing them with an African authenticity and a breath-taking, jewel-toned aesthetic. But Coogler knows that none of that matters a damn if we aren’t invested in character, plot, and message. This is a remarkable film.

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It’s time for change. For women. For people of color. For the LGBTQ community. For those of us growing older. For the differently-abled. For humanity. Between seeing this film this weekend, and watching those beautiful and brave teenagers from Parkland, Florida, publicly calling out the complacency, corruption, and culpability in our national leaders, I – for the first time in a while – have (a glimmer of) hope.

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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.

Thank you to sweet friend Victoria Nampiima, an upcoming Ugandan fashion designer, for sending these beautiful threads this week!

“No day like today.” The Barn Theatre’s 2017 production of Rent

 

“To days of inspiration/Playing hooky, making/Something out of nothing/The need to express/To communicate,/To going against the grain,/Going insane, going mad/To loving tension, no pension/To more than one dimension,/To starving for attention,/Hating convention, hating pretension.”

– “La Vie Boheme” from Rent, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.

 

When Rent hit the musical theatre scene, it created a seismic shift, a middle finger to convention, not far afield from what Nirvana did to rock music a few years earlier with Nevermind or what Alan Moore’s Watchmen did to comics even a few years before that. We didn’t really know the term “market disruption” back then, but these Gen X cultural touchstones were exactly that, staking a claim and a voice for those at the margins and, in the process, achieving immense (and ironic) commercial success and transforming their respective industries. We often forget there are more people on the margins (people with wallets) than in the comfortable middle.

(Remember the “popular kids” who bullied you in school? There were fewer of them than the rest of us and nobody actually liked them. Sooooo, how were they deemed “popular”? Who gave them their power? All of us idjits on “the margins,” that’s who.)

I saw a touring production of Rent nearly 20 years ago at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. I admit nosebleed seats as well as overamplifaction of the band and underarticulation of the cast led me to having zero idea of what was going on and longing for a nice Rodgers and Hammerstein show. Another decade later, we took in Chris Columbus’ film version, which retained much of the original Broadway cast. John loved it; I was a bit more on the fence, feeling the Home Alone/Mrs. Doubtfire/Harry Potter drector’s candy-coated, populist sensibility probably wasn’t the best choice for Alphabet City drug addicts, AIDS sufferers, drag queens, and starving artists. And, to be honest, faced with the prospect of seeing the show again, I wondered if it had suffered the same time warp that befell a musical like Hair.

Wrong. Rent couldn’t be more prescient or essential in today’s challenged times.

During the Wilde Awards last week, I befriended Jamey Grisham, who has been a featured performer, choreographer, and director for The Barn Theatre School in Augusta, Michigan, for the past decade. The Barn had a great night at the ceremony, between an exceptional performance by Jamey and racking up a number of awards. Most notably, however, I was struck by their humility and their sense of community, something you don’t always see in the hyper-competitive world of professional and regional theatre. (Let’s just say I’ve never been sprung on insecure prima donnas.)

Jamey was wrapping up The Barn’s 2017 summer repertory season, playing Angel in, yup, Rent and invited us to see their closing show. So glad we made the drive!

John and me with Penelope Ragotzy and Jamey Grisham

As an aside, The Barn Theatre was founded in 1946 and serves as a fertile training ground for the theatrical talent of today and tomorrow. Notable alumni – who served as apprentices or appeared onstage or both – include Lauren Graham, Tom Wopat, Jennifer Garner, Eric Petersen, Marin Mazzie, Stephen Lynch, Kirker Butler, Paul Loesel, Kim Zimmer, Becky Ann Baker, Eric Cornell, and, yup, Jonathan Larson (the creator of Rent who died a tragic and untimely death from aortic dissection the night before the show opened).

Jamey, perhaps channeling a bit of his community-building character, along with cast-mate and fellow Wilde Award winner Penelope Ragotzy (who also oversees publicity and marketing – they wear MANY hats there) did everything they could to make us feel welcome.

Unfortunately, their production of Rent has wrapped and is now in the record books, so this review will serve more as a reflection on the piece itself, on its relevance, and on the unique and magical nature of The Barn Theatre itself. Given the ongoing cultural and socioeconomic fragmentation of modern-day America, Rent is perhaps more essential than ever (the narrative’s over-reliance on land lines and answering machines notwithstanding).

Loosely based on La Boheme, Rent details a Christmas-Eve-day-in-the-life (first act) followed by a year-in-the-life (second act) of a fractious group of New York anti-Friends: gypsies, tramps, and thieves who can barely afford a cup of coffee, let alone hang out all day in a coffee shop, and whose “fabulous” loft living comes with no heat, no electricity, and the constant threat of eviction. Larson drew iconic characters (the filmmaker, the musician, the junkie, the drag queen, the performance artist, the lawyer, the teacher, the sell-out) and gifted them with even more iconic songs, an unyielding series of barbaric yawps from a youthquake disaffected by the 1% ruling the world. Larson was ahead of his time, foretelling a generation for whom gender and sexuality are fluid (albeit silly) constructs, who care deeply for their environment and whose diet and fashion are dictated by kindness and compassion and locality, and whose self-absorbed/self-aggrandizing selflessness drives all grown-ups in their presence to apoplexy. Sound familiar? All of it?

The Barn’s production, populated as it is with Millennials channeling the Gen X oldies, got that irony fully. From the flawless jungle gym of a set by Samantha Snow to the pitch perfect Archie-meets-Salvation Army pop of Michael Wilson Morgan’s costumes, the able cast was aided and abetted by a technical team – and by Brendan Ragotzy’s sure-handed direction – that embraced the early 90s conventions fully yet wasn’t afraid to wink at the more twee “lost generation” quirks. (The Barn space itself, if you’ve never been, is like seeing a musical in the inverted hull of an old ship, warm and cozy, a little eerie, kind of claustrophobic, and very dramatic.)

Grisham (and, no, it’s not just because he invited us!) was a standout as the shamanistic Angel, the tinsel-strewn lightning rod whose second act sacrifice teaches this band of misfits what love really means. Grisham (doing double duty as the show’s choreographer as well) commanded attention with every entrance and imbued Angel with a lovely “mama bear” authoritarianism that was a welcome new addition to the piece.

Also providing remarkable turns were Courtney Bruce as heart-of-gold-in-pleather Joanne and  Byron Glenn Willis as heart-on-his-sleeve-Jiminy-Cricket Tom Collins. Both mined the conflicted layers inherent in each role, pushing past the one-note takes (pushy lawyer, saintly teacher) that can derail lesser portrayals of each character. Notably, Bruce’s “We’re Okay” and Willis’ reprise of “I’ll Cover You” were character-driven showstoppers that exemplified how each actor grounded their performances in the urgent realities of untenable situations. (I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Willis and the aforementioned Grisham made a divinely poignant stage pairing, both vocally and in their scenework.)

Maureen (originated by Idina Menzel) can be a confounding character, the pampered performance artist who wreaks emotional havoc on anyone foolish enough to give her their heart. In Samantha Rickard’s hands, Maureen was no-less confounding, but also sympathetic and relatable … and a comic firecracker to boot. “Over the Moon,” Maureen’s absurd paean to absurd social justice warriors, was a triumphant hoot, augmented as it was by director Brendan Ragotzy’s genius decision to add a chorus of dancing cows. And, yes, Rickard and Bruce knocked sassy, swaggering musical standoff “Take Me Or Leave Me” out. of. the. park.

Courtney Bruce with me and John

Overall, the ensemble work was top-notch, a blend of seasoned Equity vets and acting apprentices. The central roles of  Mark and Roger are often a challenge to differentiate, given how broadly drawn all of the surrounding characters are, and Nick Barakos and Alex Crossland (respectively) held their own, with Barakos especially offering some nice solo moments and solid interactions with Angel and Tom as the show progressed. These performers obviously will continue to grow, and it’s a remarkable environment where students can take top-billing and learn onstage from seasoned pros.

Following each Barn performance, audience members are encouraged to retire to the “Rehearsal Shed” where the apprentices present a cabaret show (“The Bar Show”) – and serve you drinks and desserts (imagine your grandparents’ “rumpus room” if it had been taken over by cast members from the documentary Camp). Given that we were there for the final performance of the season, emotions ran high – and many a heart-string was plucked – as these kids poured out their souls (and the spirits) one final time. It was truly a gift to be in the room.

I realize this post is one-part review and about eight-parts love letter, but it was just that kind of day, a beautiful late-summer weekend in Michigan, enjoying a wonderfully talented, utterly inclusive band of talented bohemians portray a wonderfully talented, utterly inclusive band of talented bohemians. Thank you for the memories, Jamey and Penelope and your Barnie Brethren. We’ll be back.

 

“Take me for what I am!/Who I was meant to be!/And, if you give a damn,/Take me baby, or leave me!”

– “Take Me Or Leave Me” from Rent

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The Bar Show

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.