“Let this be a sign. Let this road be mine.” Broadway’s Anastasia

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ve got a history with Anastasia. My mother and I saw the animated film in theatres in 1997, past the age of so-called social acceptability for a mother and son to go see an animated “princess musical.” Furthermore, we were both ugly crying within 15 minutes of the film’s opening, overtaken by the lush poignancy of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ Broadway-ready score. Admittedly, we had been through about 15+ years of Faulknerian extended-family drama at that point, so we might have been raw nerves primed to lose our sh*t as an amnesiac Anastasia revisits the literal ghosts of her Romanov family past to the haunting strains of “Once Upon a December” as vocalized by the incomparable Liz Callaway.

A few months later, I decided to stage these bizarre, self-indulgent one-man cabarets on the campus of Wabash College (my alma mater where I was working as a development officer) and included both “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past” among my selections, using other people’s lyrics to express my late 20s existential angst.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I also recall that my mother and I both thought the animated film – 20th Century Fox’ answer to Disney’s nouveau blockbuster classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid – lost its way narratively when it turned master manipulator Rasputin into a nausea-inducing Maleficent knock-off with a comic relief sidekick bat Bartok, who would go on to star in his own series of wacky straight-to-video films. I’m not sure anyone would have predicted the Russian revolution and the tragic gunning down of the entire Romanov royal clan would eventually lead to a pile of Bartok the Magnificent DVDs in a Wal-Mart clearance bin one day. Ah, capitalism wins after all.

So, it was with a giddy heart and a heaping helping of trepidation that I entered Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre on Wednesday evening, September 26, to view the Broadway hit reinvention of Anastasia. (Please note, the last – and only other – time I saw a show on Broadway was when I attended, alongside Frances Sternhagen’s daughter Sarah Carlin, Paul Simon’s legendary flop The Capeman. And, other than the company I kept, that show sucked.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m happy to report that someone somewhere must have overheard that conversation my mother and I had 20 years ago (kidding!) and jettisoned the lousy script from the animated film and gave playwright Terrence McNally carte blanche to build a new narrative around the fantastic score. New songs have been added obvi – how else can they justify ticket prices starting at $160?! And the production values are absolutely to. die. for.

Costuming by Linda Cho is music box exquisite, and Alexander Dodge’s scenic design integrating flawlessly with Aaron Rhyne’s photo-realistic projection design is a gobsmacking wonder. I don’t know how they will tour this, but between the turntable at center-stage, the rotating flats of arches that outline everything from the Russian royal palace to communist bloc headquarters to Parisian nightclubs, and the breathtaking video projections that immerse the audience in a thrill-a-minute train ride or sweeping hillside vistas, I was in awe.

Curtain Call

Surrounded as I was by a sea of late-20-something women (all of whom were likely the little girls seated beside my mother and me when we saw the animated film), I stuck out like a sore thumb in the audience. And I didn’t care.

In its bumpy opening moments, the show seems JUST a touch theme-parkish, and it probably didn’t help that the woman playing Anastasia’s queen mother kept tripping over the hem of her Swarovski-crystal encrusted gown … and looking REALLY annoyed every time she did so. We are introduced to Anastasia as a child and the sumptuous excess of the Romanov family in a ballroom scene that is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

However, with a flick of digital magic and some ominous lighting cues, we are informed that the Romanov family has been summarily executed (hey, that’s a fun start to a family musical … if it worked for Bambi, I guess) and the littlest princess Anastasia may or may not have been killed alongside them. I must admit I wasn’t sure how they were going to pull that off. It’s kind of an important piece of set up. They did so tastefully and artistically and substantively, signaling straight away that there would be no singing and dancing bats in this interpretation.

We are then introduced to the adult Anastasia, now going by Anya, who seems to remember none of her upbringing. Unlike the animated film, doubt is placed in the audience’s minds whether or not she, in fact, is the grown-up Anastasia, though she sure does remember a lot of unusual details.

Christy Altomare is a crackerjack Anya, delivering the hit songs with aplomb but adding a contemporary agency to the character that is utterly refreshing. Whether or not Anya is a royal, she suffers no fools gladly. Borrowing liberally from the 1956 classic film starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner, McNally sets up a narrative where Anya/Anastasia must escape Russia and journey to Paris to meet her surviving grandmother the Dowager Empress (a luminous Jennifer Smith, filling in for Judy Kaye in our performance) to prove her lineage.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

She is aided and abetted by a couple of well-intentioned scalawags Dmitry (dreamy, zippy Zach Adkins whose soaring voice rattles the rafters) and Vlad (Broadway vet John Bolton whose confident ease and crack comic timing nearly carry the show). Of course, initially this duo is only interested in collecting reward money for “finding” Anastasia. In fact, they have set up a casting call to try and coach any young street urchin into the role. It’s like My Fair Lady-meets-American Idol. However, when they start to realize little Anya may in fact be the real deal (clue: remember that music box in the animated film? … it plays an equally important – and merchandisable – a role here), their common decency starts to shine through.

Narrative complications are provided not by an evil immortal magician who can remove his head at will (no Rasputin … yay!), but by a society in turmoil as the Soviet government wants nothing more than to squelch the Romanov legend and give power to the people. (Watching a show about how nutty Russians can be was … odd … in this current political climate, I must admit.) Max Von Essen (Tony nominee for An American in Paris) turns in a solid performance as conflicted military bureacrat Gleb (think Les Miserables Javert without all the scenery chewing) whose hunt for Anya/Anastasia propels our heroes forward.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Once Anya, Dmitry, and Vlad reach Paris in the show’s second act, Anastasia truly comes alive. The stakes are raised. There is a magnificent scene at the ballet where Anya and her grandmother circle one another to the backdrop of Swan Lake (think The King and I‘s “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”). And we are introduced to the Dowager Empress’ lady-in-waiting Countess Lily, who has a sordid past with Vlad. NewsRadio‘s Vicki Lewis normally plays Lily, but we were treated to understudy Janet Dickinson … and she was a MARVEL. The perfect blend of Madeline Kahn and Christine Ebersole. Lily’s role could be a thankless one in lesser hands. She’s pretty much saddled with expository responsibilities. Dickinson turned her two numbers “Land of Yesterday” and “The Countess and the Common Man” into absolute show-stopping barnstormers. If only the entire ensemble had her fire. I’d love to see this woman headline a show ASAP.

That said, on the balance Anastasia is a glittering gem of a musical, heartfelt and transporting with important messages about individuality, compassion, and family in all its forms. Unlike the animated film, the stage show fully embraces the historical underpinnings without losing the escapist fantasy of someone realizing that they just might be royalty. However, this is no rescue-the-princess throwback. Anastasia and the women surrounding her challenge the status quo, call the shots, and do their level best to overcome a world stacked against them. One step at a time. One hope, then another.

Anastasia is currently running at the Broadhurst Theatre. I bought my ticket for 50% off at TKTS. The musical is also launching its national tour. Don’t miss it.

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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.

“If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Florence Foster Jenkins

[Image Source: WIkipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Sometimes Hollywood just makes sweet movies. Not often. Just sometimes. These are the movies that you remember from your youth, not completely great films, but kind-hearted ones where people’s common humanity is celebrated, where decency is rewarded, and where foibles are accepted and embraced, not pilloried in some sort of zero-sum football match – loving, slightly creaky movies you would have discovered at the far end of the television dial, some weekday afternoon, when you were home from school sick with the flu.

Two such movies are rolling through your local cineplexes now, quietly charming audiences in the shadow of more cynical, merchandisable fare like Suicide Squad. I happened to catch Florence Foster Jenkins and Pete’s Dragon in a double feature on a warm summer weekday afternoon, no flu required, and I’m glad I did.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pete’s Dragon is the much stronger film. The original 1977 Disney film combined one-dimensional animation, even more one-dimensional performances (who thought Helen Reddy was a good idea?), and treacly songs (“Candle on the Water,” anyone? nah, I didn’t think so) into a forgettable diversion consistent with the Mouse House’s lousy Me Decade offerings (Apple Dumpling Gang … blech).

The new Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery wisely jettisons everything from the original flick, save the boy and his dog … er … dragon conceit, giving us a smart and deeply affecting parable on ecology, tolerance, and the healing power of companionship. Pete (played with a feral wariness by Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in an unidentified Pacific Northwest woods when his parents run the family station wagon off the road to avoid hitting a deer (Bambi’s revenge?). Pete is discovered by large, green, furry, canine-like dragon whom Pete quickly names Elliot, after a puppy in a beloved book Elliot Gets Lost. (I said the movie was good; I didn’t say it was subtle.)

Years pass, and Pete and Elliot carve out a pastoral existence, spending their days at play in the woods, sheltered at night in a cave filled with the discarded refuse of humanity (think The Black Stallion meets The Goonies). However, this wouldn’t be a summer movie without some narrative tension, and it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some wholesome, well-intentioned, plucky, small-town intervention narrative tension. Along comes Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, a forest ranger, instantly more believable than the thousand false notes she played as an opportunistic theme park executive in Jurassic World, fighting a losing battle against the foresting company owned by her own fiance Jack (American Horror Story‘s Wes Bentley – about as creepily cardboard as he always is). Pete’s curiosity about these Disneyfied people gets the better of him, he reveals himself, and, in a series of predictable plot points, Pete and Elliot are separated by (in order) hospital rooms, child protective services, and Jack’s skeezy, gun-loving brother Gavin (Star Trek‘s sparkling Karl Urban, who knows how to play a ridiculous cad without chewing too much scenery).

Lowery borrows liberally from the Spielberg school of mid-80s family film-making, and Spielberg himself was beholden to an encyclopedic obsession with films of his youth. One might argue that every Spielberg children’s movie seems to be trying to right any emotional damage that Old Yeller may have caused a young Steven. Lowery even wisely sets Pete’s Dragon in a pre-cell-phone late 70s/early 80s (never completely defined), when a child would see nature with wonder and not as a backdrop by which to catch the latest Pokemon Go creature.

Elliot, the dragon, is a marvel of movie design and animation, rarely exhibiting any of the jarring disconnects from reality CGI can sometimes cause – the work here is fluid and warm and fantastic and heartbreaking. Elliot never speaks and relays sensitivities the way a dog or cat might, through undulating body language and heavy sighs, sideways glances and guttural noises. Elliot is at once the film’s center and periphery, a guide and a protector yet also a victim of the cruel whims of serendipity and fate … which is pretty consistent with how humans treat any and all animals, in fact.

And that is likely Lowery’s point. Robert Redford is cast as Grace’s father Meacham, the town eccentric whose claims of meeting a dragon in the woods decades prior have fueled a host of urban legends and have alienated him from all but the town’s youngest denizens. Early in the film, Meacham foreshadows what is yet to come with the line, “If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Toward the film’s conclusion, when it’s pretty damn evident there is a dragon living in the woods, Grace asks her father to tell her what really happened all those years ago. Meacham looks at Grace (after relating how Elliot hates guns … thank you!) and says, “I looked at that dragon. And he looked at me. And we were at peace. Something changed in me that day, and I could never look at you or any other creature the same way again.” Yeah, I cried buckets.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Florence Foster Jenkins on the other hand may change the way any of us ever look at amateur singers or any other aspiring creative type again. Or not. Long before American Idol, people in this country treated singing competitions like gladiator sport. We applaud and cheer the Susan Boyles or the Kelly Clarksons who may defy our expectations with voices like angels, but we guffaw and leer at the William Hungs or Sanjaya Malakars for whom “pitchy” is the best compliment anyone can muster. We can be exceedingly cruel as a culture; the dark side of our Horatio Alger tendencies.

The film, directed in workmanlike fashion by Stephen Frears (The QueenPhilomena), is a wartime snapshot of the title character’s days and nights as a wealthy patron of the musical arts in New York City and as a woefully untalented vocalist with a shockingly tin ear. Alas, as portrayed by Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash, Into the Woods), Jenkins comes off (no pun intended) as rather one-note. Not unlike an episode of the aforementioned American Idol, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are making fun of Jenkins or celebrating her unabashed moxie. Maybe I’m a bit simplistic, but trying to have it both ways with a character who cuts a more tragic than comic figure could be mistaken for cruelty.

In fact, Florence, (spoiler alert) on her deathbed, asks her dutiful (yet dubiously motivated) husband St. Clair (portrayed with surprising nuance by Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant) if all this time everyone has been laughing at her. It’s intended to be a devastating self-realization. In fact, everyone has been laughing at her, including us. The film takes comic glee is showing how Jenkins’ simian-like vocalizations send audiences into apoplexy, so it’s a bit tough (akin to emotional whiplash) to suddenly invoke our sympathy after indulging our baser instincts.

That said, the film is a pleasant lark with more sweet than sour at its core. Like the BBC production it is, the film is a clutch of fussy mannerisms and pop-eyed reaction shots. Streep is as hammy as we’ve seen her in years, if her Julia Child from Julie and Julia had spent a long afternoon with her Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. Grant does a fine job complementing and contextualizing Streep’s performance (partly it’s the design of his role as Florence’s major domo and consigliere), and there is a lot of joy in watching him out of love, sweetness, and survival clear one hurdle after another, shielding Florence from the worst of her detractors and hangers on. In hiring a new accompanist for his tone-deaf wife, St. Clair delineates to Cosme McMoon (a pleasantly neurotic Simon Helberg, playing a soft-spoken variation on his Big Bang Theory‘s Howard Wolowitz) some of the more eccentric rules of the house: “The chairs are not for practical use. They honor those who died in them. Are you fond of sandwiches? And potato salad? We have mountains of the stuff.” Grant’s delivery, a perfect blend of pragmatism, wonder, and self-interest, should have been the tone the entire film took.

Regardless, if you are seeking solace from a summer move season filled with smart aleck mutants and half-baked sequels, frat boy comedies and nihilistic explosions, go check out the dragon  (and Robert Redford) and stay for the potato salad (and Hugh Grant).

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Bonus: If you missed this summer’s production of Xanadu, enjoy this video footage!

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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.

A day late and a dollar short: NBC’s Peter Pan Live!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I was an apologist for last year’s inaugural live musical broadcast on NBC: The Sound of Music Live! starring pop/country superstar and American Idol winner Carrie Underwood.

In defense of those rather cardboard proceedings, featuring an underwhelmingly wooden (see what  I did there? 🙂 ) performance from the otherwise charming, sweet, golden-voiced Ms. Underwood, I wrote, “Bully to NBC and the production team and the cast for their accomplishment and for giving the Wal-Mart generation a glimpse of another era. … Let’s hope for more live theatre on network TV … and less Wal-Mart.”

After finally slogging through Peter Pan Live! via the wonders of DVR, can I rescind that wish?

Good lord, but there was even MORE Wal-Mart: the creepily self-satisfied, Midwestern, hetero-normative, consumerist-fantasy, vaguely Christian with a capital “C”, generic family that peppered every d*mn commercial break during last year’s broadcast being replaced by a creepily self-satisfied, Midwestern, hetero-normative, consumerist-fantasy, vaguely Christian with a capital “C”, celebrity family, that of Sabrina the Teenage Witch Melissa Joan Hart, doing her darndest to look winsome and bake cookies and project a calm, ethereal, Donna Reed-passivity that would make Gloria Steinem’s head explode.

And good googly wooglies but as much as I hated the ever-increasingly invasive Wal-Mart ads, the show was worse. Others seem to disagree, but I found this production flatter, duller, drearier, and more aggravating than last year’s. Perhaps I gave Underwood and company a pass because it was the first time in decades someone had attempted such a spectacle. Perhaps Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Sound of Music is just a stronger show in its bones than Jule Styne/Adolph Green/Betty Comden’s Peter Pan. Perhaps Sound of Music had a stronger supporting cast, capable performers like Audra McDonald and Laura Benanti who knew how to transcend the molasses and pop off the screen with sparkle and charm. Perhaps all of the above.

 

My mother Susie Duncan Sexton emailed me immediately following the Peter Pan broadcast – the subject line was “panning pan” and the content is slightly edited here for a family audience 🙂 …

Petuh, Petuh, Petuh…Christopher Walken as Hook channeled Bette Davis?  Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling could have played Petuh or Wendy.  Wendy girl [Taylor Louderman] was great but looked 47.  Nana dog was the best of all.  Show was about as LIVE as a corpse in a casket.

The costumes? (Kelli alone even got that right)  Petuh Pan girl should have worn tights and elf shoes/hiking boots exposing a hint of waxed legs…And, with their outrageous costumery for Tiger Lily’s men and sometimes the pirates, why not give Petuh a pointy hat?!?

And Allison Williams as Petuh never left girldom.  Was this a fever dream about some very odd female rite of passage? Just exchange thimbles either with other girls or with castrated fun-loving immature boys whom they will mother, rather than ever … you know what?

And I kept thinking of Natalie Wood for some reason?  What would she have thought of Walken on a boat with BTW the most talented folks in the show?  Had been looking forward to the production and kept thinking –through all of the lengthy commercial breaks (breaks causing ADD) filled with materialistic mind sets from big families who could even maybe adopt lost boys–that it would improve?

And how about this suggestion.  When Minnie Driver pushed the show down for a completed drowning death that the windows might have opened and Allison’s dad, newscaster Brian Williams, himself flew in?  His man daughter with the waxed legs all grown up?  And did they write unmemorable new-stale songs for this thing or what?

 

My mom is spot on.

As I watched this thing in dribs and drabs over the past weekend – 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there – I grew more horrified with each installment. Was Walken being punished somehow? Or were we, the audience? He seemed miserable, tone-deaf, and medicated like an aging drag queen who’d put in one too many performances of “I Will Survive” at The Jolly Roger in Provincetown. And the dancing? His much-vaunted dancing? All I saw was a lot of leaning left and right, fay hand gestures, and an occasional pretend tap sequence or too. Is that latter bit called lip-syncing? Toe-syncing?

Williams is arguably a smidgen better actor than Underwood but she definitely doesn’t have the erstwhile Maria’s pipes or, for that matter, simple sweetness. Williams had all the pluck and charm of a ball point pen and, at times, she performed like a well-heeled, smart-alecky co-ed slumming on her winter break from Barnard.

Christian Borle as Mr. Darling/Smee was ok. I find him talented but one-note usually. I may be in the minority, but I thought this production highlighted all of his airless, stiff limitations. O’Hara, on the other hand, was magic. In this production, she reined in her overly plucky twinkle, and gave us a Mrs. Darling who was warm, authentic, poignant, and haunting. I very much like what she did with the role. It was a sobering juxtaposition to everything else.

Ah, everything else. The ingeniously fluid set design employed during Sound of Music was definitely on display, but a bigger budget does not necessarily bring better taste or strategic restraint. Neverland looked like it was outfitted by Hot Topic and Justice store employees hopped up on acid and Diet Coke. The Lost Boys/Pirates/Natives (basically all the group numbers) were a hoot to watch – that’s generally when the show came alive, especially the Pirates … but they all appeared to have been costumed by cast-off pieces from The Village People’s camp classic (?) Can’t Stop the Music (directed by Nancy Walker, btw/wtf).

It was this jarring conflict of tone and energy and intent that was most problematic. As my mom suggests with her “pointy hat” remark, if the show had just gone for all-out crazy the way the set and costume design suggest, it would have been an absolute riot. Peter Pan is a strange children’s (?) book with a lot of bizarre Freudian subtext (and super-text) made even odder when musicalized with a grown woman playing the lead and a cast of grown men all in pursuit of and at odds over finding the perfect mother (seemingly the show’s primary narrative conceit).

The production designers seemed to get that innate oddness, but, apparently, they were attending different team meetings from the director and cast who approached the material with flat affect and somber tone … when they could remember their lines, that is. The only way this thing would have worked (in addition to excising an hour of material/advertisements) would have been to celebrate its peculiarity, not only in production values but in performance. We needed unhinged whimsy but got unhinged boredom.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common 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.

Guest “Homeward Angle” column – Don Draper redeemed … Million Dollar Arm (redux)

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

My mom’s latest Homeward Angle column is actually written by yours truly – as she notes here

“I’m turning my column this month over to my kid Roy ‘Inky’ Sexton (www.reelroyreviews.com). I was so taken by the message in this review he did of a movie I absolutely loved – Million Dollar Arm – that I wanted to share it with you. The concepts of appreciation and of kindness, of living in the moment and of acknowledging the contributions of others are so crucial, no matter your background or philosophy. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did! … and I am Don Draper’s and Jerry Van Dyke’s love child, I figured out! You can read his original post here.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Below is the scanned copy of the column … enjoy! Find out more about my mom, her books, columns, and other writing at www.susieduncansexton.com – I’m very proud of her!

For those of you in the Fort Wayne, Indiana-area, save the date as she filmed an episode of the “Patty’s Page” talk show with wonderful Patty Hunter. The show will air Saturday, June 7, 5:30 pm and Sunday, June 8, 9:30 am on 55 (comcast) and 25 (frontier). For those not in Northeast Indiana, the show will also be posted by Patty on YouTube shortly following the broadcast.

Million Dollar Arm Column

Here’s an excerpt from the column: “No one can play an admirable cad quite like Hamm, and, as noted above, he is subtle perfection, no easy feat in a Disney summer blockbuster. His transformation from a machine who views his fellow man as ‘investments’ to someone who appreciates the heart and soul, fears and hopes intrinsic in us all is more inspiring than any slow-mo, symphonic-scored baseball-pitching at the film’s conclusion.”

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common 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.

Don Draper redeemed: Disney’s Million Dollar Arm

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Everything in life is a transaction. Success of any kind – be it in love, in wealth, or in notoriety – comes with a price. This was certainly the central theme of last winter’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and it’s the key message of the decidedly more humane and lovable summer Disney flick Million Dollar Arm, starring Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm.

Yes, snooty cineastes, I just compared a feel-good Mouse House sports movie to a Scorsese-helmed orgy of sex, drugs, and Leo DiCaprio. Like it or lump it.

I loved every minute of Million Dollar Arm, which, like Wolf, offers us a predatory anti-hero whose adoration of a life fueled by supermodels, million dollar paychecks, sleek Porsches and swanky mid-century Eames chairs gives him license to try one get-richer scheme after another. Unlike Wolf, however, when our hero J.B. Bernstein (Hamm) hits bottom, he doesn’t double down and snort a yacht-ful of cocaine; rather, he finds the joy of unconventional family, risks his pristine world for the future success of others, and rediscovers his soul. Don Draper redeemed.

(Don’t get me wrong, I was a big fan of The Wolf of Wall Street as well – see here – and I suspect no one else in their right mind would compare the two … but I’ve never claimed normality.)

My parents were gaga over Million Dollar Arm too, with my mother emailing me, “An exceptional low-key film concentrating on human beings … happens to deal with sports incidentally, else I would not have loved it so! Hamm blends in and does not play ‘leading man’! Terrific film undeniably!” I couldn’t agree more with that succinct and apt assessment.

I’m not a sports fan either, but Disney has a marvelous track record for co-opting sports (MiracleGlory Road, The RookieInvincibleRemember the Titans, to name a few of my favorites) as tear-jerking, heart-tugging metaphors for underdogs overcoming daunting adversity – ageism, racism, xenophobia, socioeconomic disparity, classism, sexism … heck, even species-ism (yup, Air Bud, I’m talking about you and all your countless direct-to-video sequels and spin-offs). Million Dollar Arm is no exception, and likely is my favorite one to date.

In short, Hamm plays a Jerry Maguire-esque sports agent whose days are numbered. He loses a key client that could have turned his fortunes around, and, in a very funny twist of remote control fate, he finds himself inspired by late-night channel-surfing between Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed a Dream” and an Indian cricket tournament. He heads to India to scout out potential cricket players whom he can transform via American Idol-style pageantry into star American baseball pitchers. It is his last hope to reignite his sputtering career.

No one can play an admirable cad quite like Hamm, and, as noted above, he is subtle perfection, no easy feat in a Disney summer blockbuster. His transformation from a machine who views his fellow man as “investments” to someone who appreciates the heart and soul, fears and hopes intrinsic in us all is more inspiring than any slow-mo, symphonic-scored baseball-pitching at the film’s conclusion.

Hamm’s Bernsetin does find two potential baseball stars in Dinesh Patel (portrayed by a transfixing Madhur Mittal of Slumdog Millionaire) and Rinku Singh (played by Life of Pi‘s Suraj Sharma, also very affecting). He brings the two young men back to America, after a moving sequence where the boys’ families bid farewell with a heady mix of anxiety and aspiration. Dinesh and Rinku are accompanied by a manager of sorts, the very funny and very sweet Amit Rohan, portrayed by Pitobash. There are ups and downs as Dinesh and Madhur make their way to the inevitably uplifting conclusion, and, while some of the narrative is unsurprisingly predictable (it is a Disney movie, after all), the warmth and the humanity of all involved help keep the enterprise fresh and engaging.

The remaining cast members are all gems as well: Lake Bell’s sunny-but-pragmatic “Ms. Brenda” who rents Bernstein’s guest house and breaks into everyone’s heart; Bill Paxton’s left-of-center coach Tom House who cares as much if not more about heart and mind as he does body; Alan Arkin doing that same old (but still delightful) Alan Arkin-thing as Ray, a scout who assists Bernstein in India; Aasif Mandvi bringing light comic relief as Bernstein’s exasperated business partner; and Allyn Rachel as Bernstein’s helium-voiced assistant.

In a summer filled with mutants and dinosaurs and robots and spider-men (all of which I do indeed cherish myself), Million Dollar Arm is a welcome respite. It’s nice to spend two hours with human beings struggling as we all do with this human condition and how to make it through life without having a nervous breakdown. Million Dollar Arm is indeed a quiet film, albeit burnished in Disney gold, quietly inspiring in its message that no matter how preoccupied we may become with the material trappings of life, we can still stop, do the right thing, and appreciate those people who need us and love us.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common 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.

Fun escapist trifle far better than it deserves to be: Sparkle

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

I have foggy half-remembered impressions of the original Sparkle with Irene Cara and Philip Michael Thomas. I, like so many others, am more keenly aware of all the films and musicals that came in its wake, paying homage (or swiping) its central conceit, including both stage and film versions of Dreamgirls. But, probably my most memorable exposure to the film was hearing En Vogue’s hit remake of the original Sparklesoundtrack cut “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” in the early 90s.

Consequently, this remake is no doubt going to land with an anti-climactic thud, which is a bit unfair. Yes, the film manages somehow to outdo both Douglas Sirk AND Tyler Perry in overwrought, under-scripted, over-accessorized, oddly-bewigged melodrama. Yes, it is yet another in the strange new subgenre of cheaply made, kinda junky, shamefully enjoyable Hollywood film musical featuring pop divas at odd way-stations in their careers (see: Cher and Xtina in Thanksgiving turkey Burlesque).

HOWEVER, a key difference is that the generally winning cast here overcomes limited material and an unfortunate Lifetime TV-movie approach to direction and screenplay to deliver a pretty compelling and always entertaining two hours. The specter of Whitney Houston’s passing hangs heavy on the production but also gives it an emotional heft it might not have otherwise had. Never an actress of great depth but always a presence, Houston, in this case, gives a nuanced performance, providing the film its emotional center. She plays a matriarch whose misspent youth has left her living in fear that her daughters will repeat her sordid deeds (which one of them does) and overcompensating through religious zealotry. If you can make it through Houston’s singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” at a key moment in the film without becoming a puddle, well, you’re a stronger soul than I…or you’re a cyborg.

The other performers all turn in credible performances, and keep the enterprise moving along. Mike Epps is quite effective as a charmingly smarmy and eventually rabidly mean comedian who woos (and worse) Houston’s eldest daughter, the equally good Carmen Ejogo. Ejogo is kinda like a less-scenery-chewing Thandie Newton. As Houston’s middle daughter, Tika Sumpter has great fun with an otherwise thankless role – I looked forward to every line she zippily delivered. There was far too little of her in the film.

I’m not a fan of American Idol Jordin Sparks who played Houston’s song-writing title character daughter, and she and fellow romantic lead Derek Luke were a bit too cloyingly wholesome to be endured at times. BUT she dutifully served her purpose as a pleasant cipher upon whom we as audience members could project our own reactions to the, at times, goofy “movie logical” moments that would never actually happen in reality. (For example, not to spoil anything, but at one point a key figure is, yes, murdered with a fireplace poker, and, while the murder is in self-defense and no court in the land would debate it…all the other characters cover it up, while another nobly takes the rap. That’s what I call “movie logic.”)

Catch this one at the dollar theatre or on DVD/online. It’s a fun escapist trifle that is far better than it deserves to be because the ensemble is so devoted and engaged. Whitney Houston’s passing broke my heart for many reasons, though not necessarily because of her prior film performances. After seeing her in this, though, I think we have been deprived of what could have been a very interesting third act in her remarkable, challenged, and challenging career.