like osage county only with males, males, males: Guest review of The Judge (2014)

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.

The Judge

I received the following email from my mom Susie Duncan Sexton last night, and I thought it was pretty funny, succinct, and spot on … and definitely worth sharing here (especially since it saves me from having to see this one, which from the trailers looked a bit too Hallmark Hall-of-Fame/Lifetime TV-movie for me). Here comes … The Judge!

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From: Susie Sexton

Sent: Monday, October 13, 2014, 1:14 AM

To: Roy Sexton

Subject: not good

not worth bothering with…like osage county only with males, males, males…and that love interest sure looks like william macy’s wife…thought it was her through entire film…but this girl was in UP IN THE AIR and the stupid PSYCHO series on tv…only went for billy bob who has not much on-screen time.

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postscript (added by my mom in the comments section below … )

oddly, today, I began to extol bobby “sarah-palin-loving-conservative-tango-expert” duvall…he avoided SANTINI-esqueness, no doubt so that he can do the santini sequel itself about next. shining through some ooky clichés, like chatting at urinals and in contrived dives and on front porches, appeared some pretty cleverly packaged backstories to bring us up to speed as it were? even 8 MM home-made films to let us better understand a deceased mom’s loving parenting skills? else the film would have required serialization.

I am guessing that reviewers should wait one full day to critique because GONE GIRL I fell out of love with in 24 hours…THE JUDGE I began to reconsider. but where was it filmed???? …not MY Indiana…some other Indiana…the tornado has received disses as a tired metaphor for family strife…but the tornado was maybe the ONLY hoosier touch…or at least that business of retiring to the basement jazz that we still think about doing in hoosier-ville. but the bit-o-honey BIT I myself dissed everytime it showed up! probably have spiked your interest now? c’mon, admit it!

post-postscript

googled, and the danged thing was filmed all over MASSACHUSETTS??????? and I read a review criticizing the backstory provided between dueling pop and sonny boy via the gimmickry of screaming expository material (highlighting past events) at each other every so often…I love that description! yep, no mountains or rolling hills or slick scenery in the whole (hole) of Indiana! told ya!

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Susie and Bobby

Susie and Bobby (Kennedy)

So, there you have it, neither Robert Downey, Jr., nor Robert Duvall, and certainly not Vera Farmiga (let alone “Mr. Cellophane” Billy Bob Thornton) can save this train-wreck of a film. (Well, Duvall might have redeemed himself a bit upon reconsideration of the film.)

Skip it, and go see Gone Girl (maybe?) or stay home and watch PBS’ The Roosevelts instead. Or hope that the next Downey film features Felicity Huffman!

And be sure to check out my mom’s funny, provocative, educational, and interesting blog by clicking here – topics include animal rights, culture, movies, nostalgia, equality, and other progressive causes. She is a monthly columnist in Indiana who has published two books Secrets of an Old Typewriter and its follow-up More Secrets of an Old Typewriter: Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels (click the titles to order). And you can find out more about her, read her columns, and view photos at her website www.susieduncansexton.com.

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Tomfoolery

Tomfoolery

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! 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.

“We love a good ghost story. How about you?” Never Can Say Good-bye film in development PLUS Slipstream Theatre event AND Shih Tzu res-cue!

Never Can Say Goodbye

Never Can Say Goodbye

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (particularly for those provincial social media naysayers … who aren’t listening anyway), the internet brings the world together in fun and surprising and interesting ways, breaking down geographic boundaries and uniting people by affinity (as opposed to arbitrary constructs of place and time). Read The World is Flat. No, really. Go read it.

Writing this blog has introduced me to a documentary filmmaker in Toronto (click here) and allowed me to review a short film by an animal advocate whom I’ve never met but feel as though I have (click here). It has helped me connect with and learn from fellow bloggers (click here) and has given me the opportunity to assess the work of local theatre groups (click here). I even got a shout out from JB Bernstein, the subject of the Disney film Million Dollar Arm, over my review of that fabulous flick: “It means a lot to hear a review like this. This was a very personal story, and to know that I was able to reach even one person with our message it was worth all the work.”

Ok … enough patting myself on the back …

My downright caustic review of the latest Transformers installment caught the attention of Traverse City-based independent filmmaker Theresa Chaze (click here for her website). She is also a published author, experienced video producer, and accomplished communications professional, and she is hard at work launching her new film Never Can Say Good-bye. I was honored when she asked if I would read her script and offer my thoughts.

(And the animal lover in me adores this part of her impressive bio: “As the media specialist for Angel Protectors of Animals and Wildlife, she produced several public service announcements and micro-documentaries. The messages remained informative and promoted positive action to save our nation’s wildlife.” Yes! Another of her potential projects is a TV show about equine therapy for veterans – Horses and Heroes.)

Theresa Chaze

Theresa Chaze

Never Can Say Good-bye reinvents the reincarnation conceit (Christopher Reeve’s/Jane Seymour’s 1980 film Somewhere in Time, Ellen Burstyn’s 1980 film Resurrection) in the guise of gothic paranormal psychodrama (Nicole Kidman’s 2001 film The Others, Julie Harris’ 1963 film The Haunting, Deborah Kerr’s 1961 film The Innocents). The plot concerns two families united by a doomed marriage in the 1950s and explores the dissonant legacy that familial discord has had on subsequent generations. (See the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County for another take on this thematic concept.)

I finished reading the script earlier this week. It is so well done and layered and clever. I love the notion of turning a ghost story on its head through the lens of reincarnation. I thought the characters were all clearly and thoughtfully drawn, and the script is definitely a page turner in the best sense. The disparate threads cohere in a denouement that is both chilling and poignant. The dialogue is believable, and the insular college-town setting (somewhere in northern Michigan, I believe) lends a nice chilly, hierarchical vibe.

Different actors are reported to have been attached at various points, including Lauren Holly, Bill Hayes, and Dyan Cannon. Stanley Livingston is connected to direct. Obviously, “name” performers would bring added attention to the project, but I daresay a cast of unknowns would keep audience attention focused on the narrative and the dense web of challenging relationships therein.

And, as in seemingly all creative efforts these days, there is a crowd-source funding campaign afoot through Indiegogo – you can donate here. From the campaign’s page …

We love a good ghost story. How about you? We are not talking about films that gross out the audience or are so dependent of special effects that the producers forgot to give the characters personalities or have plots that are based on clichés or simply don’t make any sense. Much like Dark Shadows, Never Can Say Good-bye is based on suspense and plot twists that will scare the socks off the audience and make them suspicious of the dust bunnies under their beds.

Best of luck, Theresa – hope this script makes it to the silver screen soon – it’s a keeper!

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Slipstream LogoMy pal Bailey Boudreau (with whom I appeared in Farmington Players’ production of Legally Blonde the Musical last year) has launched the Slipstream Theatre Initiative here in Metro Detroit, and they have a fun event this weekend. Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

Slipstream Theatre Initiative is proud to present a one-weekend staged reading festival of new, local works! The festival is a fundraiser for both Slipstream Theatre Initiative and Two Muses Theatre, and promises to provide non-stop entertainment.

Slipstream

Slipstream

Featuring new short plays by Playwrights Cara Trautman, Bailey Boudreau, Emilio Rodriguez, Kim Carney, Emily Fishman, Barry Germansky, Margaret Edwartowski, Katherine Nelson, Lori Reece and Josie Kirsch, this two day event offers a wide variety of material and subject matter.

Bailey Boudreau

Bailey Boudreau

The actors include Scott Romstadt, Steve Xander Carson, Miles Bond, Cara Trautman, Jennifer Jolliffe, Cindi Brody, Katie Terpstra, Alexander Henderson Trice, Claire Jolliffe, Maxim Vinogradav, Nick Kisse, Joshua Daniel Palmer, Josie Kirsch and Bailey Boudreau.

All proceeds will go to the 2014-2015 seasons of Slipstream Theatre Initiative and Two Muses Theatre, both non-profit organizations.

  • What: Original Works Weekend
  • When: Saturday July 19th, 7:30 pm & Sunday July 20th, 5:00 p.m.
  • Where: Two Muses Theatre inside the West Bloomfield Barnes and Noble
  • How Much: $10, additional donations accepted (tax-deductible)
  • Contact: InsideTheSlipstream@gmail.com , www.SlipstreamTI.com

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And this is just something that I needed to capture – and why not put it in this particular crazy quilt of a blog entry …

Shih TzuSo, I’m going to lunch yesterday with my colleagues Mike and Jan and I see a Shih Tzu or something (no tags, but a collar) running about the busy traffic on Middlebelt. We lure the dog into a yard with a rattle-y container of gum, and the people who live in the house say, “We saw him running around.”

Really? And you didn’t do anything?

They give us some twine which we fashion into a leash. I wander about this neighborhood while Jan and Mike go to the drugstore to get a real leash (which of course they don’t carry – my mom always says, “Always have a leash in your car.” I will now).

As I stumble around using this dog like a divining rod to see if he will lead me to his home (he didn’t – he was kind of a cute dingbat), up rolls from within the neighborhood a Grand Marquis painted an ugly orange red and on tires the size of small boulders. The gentleman driving the car, not saying “thank you,” grumbles, “My dog.” I say, “What’s his name?” Surly reply, “Bear.” (Really, a Shih Tzu named “Bear”?) The dog did indeed reply to the name, at which time the man got out of the car, lifted the dog roughly by the collar, smacked it on its side, and said, “We’re goin’ home.”

So, who wants to kidnap a Shih Tzu with me? Yes, we drove back through the neighborhood to confirm that he and “Bear” do live there. And, after work yesterday, I drove by the house again where the dog lives, and I met the teenage boy who clearly loves him very much. Let’s hope for the best.

If you want to know where I got this love for all creatures great and small, please check out my mom’s latest wonderful blog entry “that is my medicine” here.

And read about friend Beth Kennedy’s adoption of “Nacho the Cat” here!

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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.

Point/counterpoint – Ann Arbor’s Rebecca Biber offers guest critique of The Grand Budapest Hotel

Roy Sexton and Rebecca Biber

Roy Sexton and Rebecca Biber – Photo by Dawn Marie Kaczmar

So, I did not like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. I mean I didn’t like it a lot. However, never let it be said that we here at Reel Roy Reviews aren’t equal opportunity reviewers.

My dear friend, the talented pianist, musical director, and instructor Rebecca Biber shared the following (beautifully composed) counterpoint today on Facebook, and I asked if I could pay it forward here. She graciously obliged. Her take actually makes me want to revisit this film … almost. 🙂

Bookbound April 26 Event

Bookbound April 26 Event

And, if you’d like a chance to meet the supremely talented Ms. Biber in person, Megan and Peter Blackshear of Bookbound, in Ann Arbor (1729 Plymouth Road), have generously agreed to host a Reel Roy Reviews book-signing/Q&A on Saturday, April 26 at 3 pm.

Rebecca will accompany me as I sing a few of my favorite movie themes and show tunes. She actually selected the numbers from our nearly decade-long musical partnership, so, if you like ditties from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, you are in luck!

(And be sure to check out this thoughtful response by my gifted mom – author Susie Duncan Sexton – to my review of Disneynature’s Bears.)

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Here’s Rebecca’s delightful take on The Grand Budapest Hotel – enjoy!

[Image Source: ComingSoon.net]

[Image Source: ComingSoon.net]

In a made-up land resembling Germany or Austria (with Alps) on the eve of WWII, a charming, perfect hotelier played by Ralph Fiennes struggles to maintain his composure, help his friends, and avoid bad guys. His tale is narrated by his protege, Zero the Lobby Boy, now grown up into F. Murray Abraham. But this is merely the nugget at the heart of the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Abraham is speaking with a writer played by Jude Law, whom we have earlier seen in his aged incarnation, telling the viewer that if you are a writer, there is no need to make up stories: they will come to you. Earlier than that, we have seen a young woman placing a tribute of hotel keys at the base of a statue honoring her favorite writer, and holding a book that contains, we think, the story Jude Law has retold from F. Murray.


This movie is a typical Wes Anderson confection in some ways, with fanciful lettering, folk-tale inspired landscapes, and gorgeous color schemes throughout, not to mention the usual rapid-fire dialogue and the panoply of famous faces. While it can be entertaining to play Name That Actor, it is distracting as well – just as we are settling into the story for its own sake, what’s-his-name pops up and we’re back at the level of being mere viewers. Characters are pretty much as they first appear, with clear goodies and baddies. Edward Norton gets to play a Nazi (again, previously having played the neo-version in American History X) and Adrien Brody gets to…weirdly…also play a Nazi. Tilda Swinton is unrecognizable, Bob Balaban pops up like a fairy tale imp, and Harvey Keitel has jailhouse tattoos resembling middle school doodles. Young actress Saoirse Ronan is perfect as the young Zero’s girlfriend and pastry chef. But the standout, and one to watch, is Tony Revolori, who plays the Lobby Boy not merely as a supporting character with some great lines (which he does have) but as a complicated, unexpectedly fearless and wise young man. He has an unblinking gaze straight at the camera that compels both laughter and serious attention.


Unlike Moonrise Kingdom, which had all of the Wes Anderson cute and very little of the sad, Budapest has some moments of real darkness. And they always come unexpectedly. This movie is probably not safe for devoted animal lovers or the very squeamish. There are several bloody fights and, for those with Holocaust survivors in the family, the train scenes were a bit too close to real history despite Anderson’s attempts to fictionalize the material.
With all that goes on in the film, I haven’t even mentioned the stolen art, murder mystery and contested will (with legal executor played by an uncomfortable looking Jeff Goldblum). There is much to enjoy, and I came away glad I had watched this quirky adventure/love story with true friendship at its core. It is a visual feast with some nice musical touches (nothing overblown) and, if the story doesn’t make perfect sense outside of its own world, well, it does such an excellent job of conjuring that world that I was delighted to spend a couple of hours among its inhabitants.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. 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; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound, Common Language, and Memory Lane also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Two by two … what did I just do to myself? Noah AND The Grand Budapest Hotel

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I think I may have just given myself a year’s worth of nightmares as a result of this double feature I just endured: Darren Aronofksy’s Noah and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

(Seriously, for once in the short history of this wee ol’ blog I toyed with the idea of just going to bed right now as opposed to trying to digest what I just saw … yet, here I type …)

I actually enjoyed (sort of … I think) Noah, which basically turns the outline of the Old Testament tale of a prophet who builds a big boat to save his quirky family and a sampling of every animal on the planet into a Lord of the Rings super-size fantasy epic.

God love Russell Crowe (literally) who is the only reason to see Noah. He gives this epic gravitas and heft, and, coupled with Aronofsky’s sly allusions to ecology, animal rights, and humanitarianism, he reminded me that the Bible is an allegory, not to be taken in slavish literalism, but as poetic metaphor for how we need to treat our planet and each other with respect and kindness. Just sayin’.

There is a shipload (literally) of unconvincing CGI effects, some painful emoting from Harry Potter‘s Hermione (Emma Watson), some bad eyebrow furrowing from Crowe’s perpetual “movie wife” Jennifer Connelly, and a number of multi-limbed rock creatures doubling as fallen angels (but looking more like cast-offs from the last Transformers flick).

What does work are Aronofsky’s explorations of man’s chronic insensitivity to the environment and all its denizens, Aronofsky’s metaphorical musings on humanity’s arrogance to believe “God” has somehow given us “dominion” over all living creatures, and Crowe’s heartfelt perplexity over a world (and a deity) that seems rife with cruel hypocrisy.

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]

On the other hand, Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel just gave me a colossal headache. Between the Sunday funnies-style cinematography and the twee, “aren’t-we-precious” Keystone Cops antics, I quickly reached an apex of just not giving a fig as to what was  transpiring onscreen. The slight narrative relates that a concierge (Ralph Fiennes, surprisingly funny) has inherited a highly appraised painting from one of the hotel’s guests (and a former concubine of Fiennes).

Said painting becomes a source of various hijinks as assorted characters (including a so-so Adrien Brody and a slightly better Ed Norton) try to reclaim the work of art in question.

Perhaps I was just worn down by all the sturm und drang of Noah, but I felt like jumping out of my skin while sitting through The Grand Budapest Hotel. Every aspect was so tortured, darling, overdone, cute that I could barely stand another scene. I felt positively itchy watching it.

I may add to this blog entry in the light of day tomorrow, but right now I’m just tired. Good night, all. (It’s rather sad that I could find more to say about Muppets Most Wanted than a Biblical epic and a highly anticipated art film.)

Coda … there’s got to be a morning after ….

So, this is what I was struggling to say last night, and just now it hit me like a bolt of lightning (not the supernatural but the human kind).

I have long struggled with both Anderson and Aronofsky as filmmakers, though I was never quite sure why. I loathed Black Swan, found The Fountain interminable, and thought The Royal Tenenbaums was the fever dream of my cloying “magnet” middle school classmates.

Both directors are blessed with distinctive voices; however, they are so wrapped up in the style of their films (cinematography, costumes, music, arch acting/writing) that we as audience members struggle to invest in the people, whether in the characters or in the filmmakers themselves. Further, both directors seem to be challenging their viewers to try to enjoy what they’re watching; it’s like Anderson and Aronofsky are standing on the cinematic playground screaming “Neener neener neener! I dare you to like this … or to even suss out what the heck is going on!”

That art of alienation is all well and good, but, when it is wrapped in what appear to be big-budgeted attempts at popular entertainment, it comes across sophomoric and kinda mean.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. 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; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

 

Countdown: Inside Llewyn Davis

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 5 days remain until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s Review of Inside Llewyn Davis: “I’ll tell you what I think. Inside Llewyn Davis is in keeping with a theme that shoots through much of the Coen Brothers work: frustration over the venom creative people spew at each other in their dogged competition for limited resources, attention, and fame. Actors and singers and writers and painters and dancers are all a bit broken, and they make their way into careers that are often doomed from the start, compounded by a cruelly competitive system that rewards the schemers and abandons the weak.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Folk music is hateful stuff: Inside Llewyn Davis

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I have to start with a disclaimer …

I cannot tolerate a movie where animals are hurt or in peril. I knew going into Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from the acerbic yet cynically humanistic writer/director team Joel and Ethan Coen, that a runaway cat is a central narrative element. Hell, the orange tabby is on the damn poster, clutched in the titular anti-hero’s arms as Llewyn saunters down a busy New York street.

Have you ever tried to hold a cat in one arm, a guitar in the other, while walking down a bustling thoroughfare?!? Exactly.

I will offer for my fellow animal advocates (spoiler alert!) that the cat is ok. Sort of.

A cat runs out a fire escape window and disappears. A cat reappears. A cat makes it home. A cat takes a road trip to Chicago. And a cat (or something) has a limp-inducing near miss with a car on a snowy road. Might be the same cat. Might not. I’m not sure what all these orange cats signify, but the Coen Brothers love their oddball metaphors, even if PETA (or yours truly) is inflamed in the process.

(As a side note, for viewers like me who, yes … of course! … worry about cinematic animal safety much more than that of human counterparts, there is a website for us. Thanks to Kim Elizabeth Johnson for alerting me to it.)

So, with that point made, how is the movie? Quite good actually. It is one of the Coens’ most sedate offerings, bleakly transporting viewers to grungy Greenwich Village in the 1960s where the folk music scene appears to be atrophying before the ascent of pop derivatives like Bob Dylan and his ilk.

Llewyn, played wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, is a failed troubadour, whose singing partner is long gone and who subsists on a steady diet of cigarettes, self-loathing, and couch-crashing at a succession of annoyed friends’ apartments. Isaac is a marvel, resisting every urge to make Llewyn one bit redeeming or likable. He is a wretched human (with a lovely voice) consumed by a toxic brew of pretension, insecurity, jealousy, bitterness, condescension, and holier than thou artsy-fartsiness.

(Oh, how I’ve known too many dudes like this fellow – folks who are so got by their own disappointments that they have to kick sand in the faces of any and everyone else with the tiniest shred of talent or even the slightest bit of creative happiness. Ah, that felt better.)

Often with a Coen Brothers film (in fact their best ones – like Barton Fink or the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men), you’re left wondering: what was their intention exactly? This film, like others in their oeuvre, offers their trademark circular non-ending ending, and, as we departed the theatre, I overheard a few folks asking, “What was that about?”

I’ll tell you what I think. Inside Llewyn Davis is in keeping with a theme that shoots through much of the Coen Brothers work: frustration over the venom creative people spew at each other in their dogged competition for limited resources, attention, and fame. Actors and singers and writers and painters and dancers are all a bit broken, and they make their way into careers that are often doomed from the start, compounded by a cruelly competitive system that rewards the schemers and abandons the weak.

With this acidic lens, the Coens turn their filmic gaze on folk music, one of the more self-satisfied forms of artistic expression. At surface, folk music has always been about gathering the tribe to celebrate our commonality; yet, in reality, it is usually a vehicle for some twee turtleneck-wearing phony to look down his or her nose at middle-class plebes who are scraping by with their staid corporate lives and suffocating mortgage payments.

The Coens dive right into the heart of that notion, and not with the campy satire of Christopher Guest’s similarly themed A Mighty Wind, but with the unsympathetic bruised heart of a Sidney Lumet or a John Cassavetes with just a smidge of their own asburdist twinkle.

The supporting cast is populated with assorted odd ducks stepping on the heads of their fellow “artists” in hopes of making a buck or two. Justin Timberlake is adequate in a throwaway role as an earnest folkie who writes a really godawful song with unsurprising populist appeal. John Goodman is sheer brilliance as a mean-as-a-rattlesnake jazz musician who shows his contempt for Llewyn and his chosen genre with a steady stream of vitriol, leveled at what he deems inane and amateurish musicianship. The normally exquisite Carey Mulligan struggles a bit with a one-note role (and equally bad wig) as an ambitious ladder-climbing folkie who may or may not be pregnant with Llewyn’s child.

Previously mentioned feline concerns aside, I recommend Inside Llewyn Davis to anyone who has found themselves lost in a creative bubble, not sure whom to trust or where to go. As they say, karma will get you, and perhaps that is the ultimate lesson we glean from Llewyn’s neglect of cats and people. What goes around comes around. And folk music is hateful stuff.

Fa …. a long, long way to run: The Sound of Music Live! (2013 NBC event)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A lot of ink (and, one might argue, blood) has been spilled in the intervening days since The Sound of Music Live! starring country/pop superstar and American Idol Carrie Underwood reaffirmed NBC as a destination for “Must See TV.”

It’s taken me a bit of time (for once) to digest all of my thoughts – less about the show and more about the absurd level of snotty, glib, social-media fueled schadenfreude it seemed to generate.

Just when I thought this telecast (which I enjoyed by the way – more on that in a moment) would be another casualty of America’s silly “culture wars,” along came news that it was one of the most highly viewed shows in recent memory.

The chief driver of controversy and ratings? Ms. Underwood herself, who somehow has become as big a cultural lightning rod as my beloved Miley.

Seriously, watching my Facebook feed Thursday night, I found it fascinating that so many of my “Red State” friends, for whom the Wal-Mart sponsored production’s selection of Underwood seemed targeted, dug in their heels and proclaimed they didn’t like “different” and “it wasn’t like the movie” and “how dare they replace Julie Andrews” (whom I should add herself replaced Mary Martin from the stage show). Conversely, my “Blue State” friends all saw this as some Tea Party conspiracy to send Broadway to the Dark Ages and “bring Hee-Haw to high culture.” (And, yeah, they also didn’t like that is wasn’t Julie Andrews. There goes Underwood, finally bringing this country together again!)

Really? Really, folks? Just unclench and enjoy that someone is trying something new –  ironic, I know, given that this particular show is a pretty musty, overdone piece of musical theatre malarkey, but just go with me here.

I applaud producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for attempting – and succeeding – at the herculean task of getting a three hour, live musical performed, mostly without a hitch, on prime time television to blockbuster viewership. Last time that happened? Fifty years ago with another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical – Cinderella – which I might also add committed the “sacrilege” of casting a “hot young thing” in place of another actress who had originated the role (albeit in an earlier TV version). Guess who? Yup, Julie Andrews was “replaced” by Lesley Ann Warren, who was not only a bit dodgy as an actress but not that remarkable a vocalist either.

Zadan and Meron have pretty much led the charge over the past twenty years bringing the American musical into the broader popular consciousness of film and TV. And, yes, one of their gimmicks is creative and unconventional casting that gets them sponsorships, studio green lights, and viewership. Vanessa Williams and Jason Alexander and Chynna Phillips in Bye Bye Birdie. Kathy Bates in Annie. Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston in Cinderella. Bette Midler and Cynthia Gibb in Gypsy. Richard Gere and Renee Zellwegger and John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Oscar-winning Chicago. And, yes, John Travolta (and Michelle Pfeiffer) in Hairspray. (NOTE: many of these folks were not necessarily considered musical stars before these productions, but are now.) Would these productions have been artistically “better” with Broadway vets in those roles? Probably. Would these films have gotten made, let alone watched and enjoyed by millions, without these stars? Nope.

And, furthermore, Audrey Hepburn was cast over Andrews in My Fair Lady, the Hollywood penance for this decision in turn landing Andrews Mary Poppins and, I suspect, Sound of Music, which had been written for Broadway for Mary Martin (yes, JR Ewing’s mom who made a name among American viewers for playing a boy – Peter Pan). And should Barbra Streisand have played the lead in the film Hello Dolly! or Lucille Ball Mame? And don’t even get me started on Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (the latter of whom is cuter in the role than people give credit). And I’m not sure I was that nuts about Beyonce in Dreamgirls, though I did adore another American Idol – Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson – for her contributions to that film.

What’s my point – other than showing off all the useless and opinionated knowledge I carry around in my noggin? I’m not quite sure, other than everyone chill the freak out!

How was the show? It was fine – not revelatory but not a train wreck either. Quite the contrary. Yes, Underwood is not an actress, but she is a presence with a pleasant personality and a marvelous voice – all of which seemed to suit the rather bland, nun-lite role of Maria, if you ask me. (I kept thinking of Gwen Stefani the whole time for some reason – they vaguely resemble each other and I also love this riff by Stefani on “The Lonely Goatherd” – truly, check it out!)

Before I get labeled an Underwood apologist, let me say I have always been rather neutral about her. I hate American Idol. I love that she’s a vegan and an animal rights activist, vocally opposed to factory farming and ag gag bills. I find her preening, showy religiosity annoying – yes, we get it – you’re so “blessed.” I adore that she is a social progessive who believes in equal rights for all, including ardent support for gay marriageI do not like country music (unless it’s poppy stuff like Shania or Taylor). I enjoy Underwood more when she’s singing about smashing a cheating boyfriend’s car than when she’s imploring for “Jesus to take the wheel.” (She does seem to sing about motor vehicles a lot, come to think of it.)

The producers wisely surrounded Underwood with a cast of pros (True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer’s rigid and kinda dull take on Captain Von Trapp notwithstanding). Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess and Laura Benanti as the Baroness were the absolute rock star standouts of the night. I hate “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” but I was in tears from McDonald’s rendition. And Benanti was a sparkling delight, humanizing what could have been a villainous turn. She has a perfect light yet intelligent touch for this kind of production – I hope they do more with her. The kids were all fine and avoided the cloying, insufferable trap into which so many productions can fall. Newcomer Michael Campayno was marvelous in the tricky role of turncoat boyfriend Rolf.

The set design was sublime – beautifully detailed but consciously theatrical. And I got a visceral thrill when the cast would glide from one locale to another through an open door or a raised curtain, most notably when the family leaves their home for the climactic Nazi rally.

My criticism of the evening? Those d*mn creepy Wal-Mart ads that seemed designed to appeal to some modern, overpopulated, Midwestern yuppie family that buys too much crap and communicates in dull, cutesy quips via their cellular devices when they are one. room. away. from each other. Argh!

Why do people love this musical? And feel so fiercely protective of it? I’m not quite sure – there are much better shows out there, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s many other offerings. There is a strange princess element – young nun finding love with a stodgy rich man in a castle. An inversion of the Beauty and the Beast tale? Or is it the nightmare panic that the Nazi element offers, including the pulse-pounding (and clever) escape from that oppressive regime while singing the oddly creepy “So Long, Farewell.” Not sure, but clearly a lot of folks love this darn story, so 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.

Did you read the book first? Life of Pi

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It’s unusual that I don’t post a review almost immediately upon seeing a film. In part, the recent Thanksgiving holiday was the culprit for me not posting a review of the film adaptation Life of Pi sooner…but I also wasn’t sure what I thought of the movie until today. In fact, I am still not exactly sure.

I left the theatre thinking, “Well, that was ok, not great.” The next day, I hated the movie (chiefly for the sunlit depictions of animal-on-animal violence), but now I feel differently. I actually think I like the ambiguity with which the film leaves its viewers.

And, no, I did not read the book…seems to be what everyone asks me when I am ambivalent about a cinematic adaptation of some contemporary literature. [See: any reaction any friend of mine has ever had to my utter distaste for the Twilight franchise.]

Life of Pi is a beautiful film. Director Ang Lee has done a sumptuous job creating the cinematic equivalent of a lushly illustrated children’s book – though I’m not entirely certain it serves the narrative well. In 3D, the sparkling visuals literally leap from the screen, but the ViewMaster quality of such stereoptic spectacle may mislead viewers into thinking the film is a fun holiday family jaunt. It ain’t.

The movie grapples with issues of faith, humanism, animal rights, gender and class politics in an allegorical melange that at times evokes Aesop’s Fables by way of Sigmund Freud. In short, Life of Pi details the adventure of a young Indian boy trapped at sea on a lifeboat with a ravenous tiger. Hijinks ensue.

The “did they/didn’t they” questions of whether the tiger (and a few other animals) are real or imagined and whether they are actually symbolic of man’s inhumanity to man are ultimately unresolved, leaving it to viewer discretion. That is no doubt what the book’s author Yann Martel intended. However, as a cinematic exercise, the movie somehow finds itself at the difficult crossroads of simplistic AND abstruse.

I find myself still pondering the questions raised about faith, the divine within us all, the power of nature, and the pure equality of all living creatures. In that sense, Life of Pi works a kind of big budget, “Hollywood blockbuster as art film” wonder. Yet, I haven’t made up my mind if Ang Lee has achieved an amazing hat trick in filming the supposedly unfilmable…or if he completely missed the mark with this CGI-filled epic.

I guess I will have to get back with you on that one.

Maybe this is one of those times when I should have heeded my friends’ query: “Did you read the book first?”