“If you dream it, you can achieve it” – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Prom, Midnight Sky, Wonder Woman 1984 … and Cimarron?

Joe: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.

Norma: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.

From Sunset Boulevard

“If you dream it, you can achieve it.” – Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) in Wonder Woman 1984

“Nothing good is born from lies.” – Diana (Gal Gadot) in Wonder Woman 1984

Sadly, this seems to be the season of watching big ticket blockbusters crammed onto a home screen. Furthermore, this seems to be the season where all of your Facebook friends march like lemmings to tell you what you’re supposed to think of said offerings before you even have had a chance to view them for yourself. Being the good-natured contrarian that my parents raised, I find myself in direct opposition to much of the feedback I’ve observed. To me, The Prom was kind-hearted escapism-with-attitude, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a stagy self-indulgent slog, Midnight Sky was a resonant Truman Capote-meets-Ray Bradbury short (long) story, and Wonder Woman 1984 was a candy-coated (admittedly overstuffed) confection.

I loved The Prom. I, for one, like unapologetic musicals, and this Ryan Murphy production reads like Hairspray, The Greatest Showman, High School Musical, and Bye Bye Birdie had a socially progressive movie baby. Much needless ado has been made about (formerly?) beloved Carpool Karaoke maven James Corden playing a gay character, claiming his take is offensively stereotypical. Many critics’ descriptions have been as troubling as what they accuse Corden of perpetuating, if you ask me.

To me, it is one of Corden’s better and more thoughtful performances, layering broad comedy in a compelling gauze of pathos, to effectively depict a man struggling to find his path in the margins (in career, physicality, and, yes, sexuality). Corden is part of a free-wheeling quartet of Broadway narcissists (all compensating for respective ghosts of failures past) who descend on a small Indiana town to “rescue” it from its own prejudices after the local PTA shames and embarrasses a young lesbian (luminous newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) in a way that would make even John Travolta’s character in Carrie cringe.

Meryl Streep (channeling a caustic yet charming mix of Patti LuPone and Susan Lucci), Nicole Kidman (at her most winsomely fragile), and Andrew Rannells (all bounding and puppyish joy) are Corden’s partners in well-intentioned, occasionally misplaced crime, and they have fabulous chemistry. Kerry Washington is suitably evangelically vampy as the rigid PTA president, and Keegan-Michael Key is a pleasant surprise (both as a singer and actor) as the high school’s show tune loving principal. Tracey Ullmann pops up as Corden’s regretful Midwestern ma, and their reconciliation scene is a lovely little masterclass in heightened understatement.

Oh, right, I did say the movie is kicky fun, but nothing I’ve written here much indicates why. Working from Matthew Sklar’s buoyant Broadway production, Murphy and team overdo everything in all the right ways, juxtaposing all-too-real intolerance and heartache (basically everyone in the film is guilty of uninformed prejudice of one kind or another) with the metaphysical joys of unhinged singing, dancing, glitter, and sequins. All ends (predictably) happily, almost Shakespearean (if Shakespeare listened to Ariana Grande), and I dare you not to sit through the end credits with a stupid, hopeful grin on your face.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is also adapted from the stage, as legendary director George C. Wolfe brings August Wilson’s play to the screen. I suspect my disappointment is more to do with the source material than Wolfe’s sure-handed if claustrophobic direction. To be honest, I wanted more of Viola Davis’ dynamite Ma Rainey and less of … everyone else. Davis has one scene worthy of the Hollywood time capsule, eviscerating the misogynistic and racist capitalist machine that steals artists’ voices (quite literally as Rainey is committing her vocals to vinyl) and tosses people to the curb when they’ve outlived their usefulness.

The film depicts one day in a Chicago recording studio as Rainey fights with, well, anyone who crosses her path in defense of her vision and to retain her integrity in a world that reduces her to a commodity. THAT is the movie I wanted to see, but Wolfe gives preferred time to Rainey’s studio musicians, a group of men whose primary purpose seems to be representing inter-generational animosity among those with a Y-chromosome. Perhaps I’ve just had my fill for one lifetime of toxic male posturing, but I grew weary of their (endless) scenes.

In total, the film feels like it never really escapes the confines of the stage, and I may be among the few viewers underwhelmed by Chadwick Boseman’s performance. His work seems hammy and like he is in search of another movie altogether. I could be wrong, but the overwhelming praise for Boseman here feels like groupthink rhapsodizing given that he is no longer with us. I’m going to hell. See you there. Boseman remains a singular talent, but I don’t think time will be kind to this particular role, Oscar-winning as it likely will be.

Wonder Woman 1984 follows the loping narrative style of all inexplicably beloved films made in, well, 1984, and thereby is a kind of referendum on the cardboard excess and shallow instant gratification of that hollow era, nostalgia for which continues to plague us in insidious ways to this very day.

I found it nicely character driven with a strong cast and with a warm and (mostly) light touch, but plagued by some script/logic problems in its final act. All in all, it met my comics-loving expectations, and I enjoyed what they were doing. Gal Gadot remains a commanding presence in a way we just don’t see in screen stars these days. She’s not an actor per se, but she is a star.

Director Patty Jenkins has great Rube Goldberg-esque fun with one improbable action sequence after another. All were clearly nods to similar films of the 80s featuring, say, Superman or Indiana Jones but enhanced through modern Fast and the Furious-style tech and suspension of disbelief. I’m not looking for pragmatism in a movie like this. Sometimes I just want to be entertained, and WW84 did that for me

Jenkins makes the smart choice of casting talent who will connect the dots in a wafer-thin script. In the film, Kristen Wiig consistently makes smart acting choices as her character progresses from heartbreakingly nerdy sidekick to sullen and insolent supervillain, never losing the heartache of exclusion underneath it all. I thought she was a refreshing and inspired choice to play Barbara Minerva/Cheetah.

Dreamy/witty Chris Pine doesn’t get much dialogue/plot to work with as newly resurrected love interest Steve Trevor, but he shines nonetheless, wringing laughs from fish-out-of-water nuance without ever belaboring the joke.

Pedro Pascal balances Trumpian satire and Babbitt-esque tragedy as a gilded charlatan who believes 80s greed is the key to self-acceptance. He’s grand until the dodgy final act strands him somewhere on manic Gene Wilder-isle, and the film limps to its inevitable world-saving resolution.

I also think if people had watched WW84 on the big screen, they would have walked away with a different vibe. Some may disagree, but there’s a hidden psychological bump to paying for a ticket and investing time away from home (one WANTS the movie to be good) that is erased by the small screen – which has little to do with what is actually being viewed. IMHO.

The global warming parable Midnight Sky (directed by and starring George Clooney), however, benefits from small screen viewing. That said, the film’s outer space, nail biting, race-against-time elements have all been covered (sometimes better) in The Martian, Interstellar, Ad Astra, and George Clooney’s own Gravity. Hell, throw in Event Horizon, Sunshine, and The Black Hole for good measure.

Rather, I enjoyed the film’s quiet moments with Clooney as the sole (maybe?) survivor on an ice-covered Earth, as he fights the elements, time, and his own failing health to deter a deep-space crew from returning to their certain death on an uninhabitable planet. I didn’t give two hoots about the space mission, which included Felicity Jones, Kyle Chandler, David Oyelowo, and Tiffany Boone, all doing their level best to make us care. However, I was transfixed by an almost unrecognizable Clooney who checked his golden boy charm at the door and exquisitely projected the exhaustion and anxiety and fear of someone nearing the literal end. So, in other words, how most of us feel in 2020.

If it were up to me, I would edit out all of the space-faring scenes and leave the film’s focus on George Clooney alone in a post-apocalyptic arctic, yielding a transcendent hour-long Twilight Zone episode.

Now, let’s see how I fare in the Twitterverse when I finally turn to watching Disney’s/Pixar’s Soul

Postscript … what follows is an email sent to my mother Susie Sexton this afternoon about 1960’s classic Cimarron. They don’t make movies like this any more, and that’s a shame.

From IMDB’s synopsis: “The epic saga of a frontier family, Cimarron starts with the Oklahoma Land Rush on 22 April 1889. The Cravet family builds their newspaper Oklahoma Wigwam into a business empire and Yancey Cravet is the adventurer-idealist who, to his wife’s anger, spurns the opportunity to become governor since this means helping to defraud the native Americans of their land and resources.”

I just finished Cimarron and liked it very very much. I do think that Edna Ferber captures perhaps somewhat formulaically but absolutely effectively, the passage and snowballing magnitude of time and life, with a lovely progressive sensibility (pun unintended).

Maria Schell is exquisite. I don’t think the film would’ve been half as good without her in it. I really like Anne Baxter too. Their one scene together is quite understated and powerful.

Glenn Ford is of course great too, but Maria Schell really got to me. She acts in a style ahead of its time. It’s a beautiful film, but at least in the first ten minutes I kept expecting them to burst into song. When it really digs into their struggle and unpredictable relationship, it’s very powerful. The supporting cast was of course great since all of those people had been in one million films already.

Thanks for recommending this! Love you!

My family loves movies. We always have. It is our cultural shorthand, and every holiday – until this one – has been spent in communion over what movies we saw, how they made us think and feel, and what these films might say about our culture and its advancement. That is in short why I write this blog. I can’t imagine watching a movie without having the opportunity to share how it speaks to my heart and mind.

Thank you for reading these thoughts of mine for nearly ten years (!), inspired as they are by a lifetime of loving movies.

Empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache: Laura Benanti at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club

Benanti with my mom and me

Benanti with my mom and me

On this Tony Award weekend, we had the privilege of meeting a fabulous Tony-winner – Laura Benanti – last night at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club.

The Columbia Club

The Columbia Club

You might recall last fall that I was a staunch defender of NBC’s production of The Sound of Music (click here), which I thought suffered unfairly from a lot of social media-fueled schadenfreude. The one element that did not need defending, by me or anyone else, because it was universally lauded as perfection, was the performance by Laura Benanti as the Baroness.

Roy and Susie with poster

Roy and Susie with poster

I am happy to report that she is even more terrific in real life.

Benanti with my dad

Benanti with my dad

Throughout her fizzy cabaret show, not a note is missed – musically, comedically, thematically. She is one of the most engaging performers I’ve ever had the privilege to observe.

But even more importantly, she is kind and down-to-earth and real.
My mother and I accidentally ran into her at the elevator right before her performance. Rather than keep her distance, she walked right over to us, and with an effervescent smile, queried, “You’re coming back, aren’t you?” Of course we were! And, even though she had a two hour set to get herself psyched up for, she stood there and talked to us for several minutes.

 

 

 

I might add that she is just as gracious with all of her fans following the performance in what otherwise can be sometimes awkward for both audience and performer: the dreaded meet and greet. She takes time with each and every one and genuinely connects with all.

Almond with me and my mom

Almond with me and my mom

With my starstruck gushing aside, what about the performance itself? It is such great fun – a brilliant blend of soaring vocals, crack comic timing, cheeky irreverence, and poignant character analysis. The essence of what makes cabaret such a viable art form.

The Big Room

The Big Room

Benanti is marvelously aided and abetted by her amazing musical director Todd Almond who is as much sidekick and partner as accompanist, composing the original tunes, vocalizing with Benanti, and offering the periodic witty aside. And, by the way, he is equally personable, following the performance, happily taking my loony suggestions of pop nuggets they can skewer in their act – notably, my latest obsession Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea’s “Problem.”

Why, might you ask was I so bold to suggest such a silly song for these accomplished musicians to perform in their act?

Susie and Roy Capone

Susie and Roy Capone

 

Well, for someone like Benanti who moves seamlessly between My Fair Lady‘s “On the Street Where You Live” to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” to Nine‘s “Unusual Way” (mesmerizing!) not to mention Sisqo’s “The Thong Song,” it seems a logical addition.

What you may gather from the preceding paragraph is that Benanti’s show is a gutsy synthesis of her tastes and style and identity. She wears all these songs easily … which is a remarkable gift. She is always herself yet simultaneously channeling a wild array of characters.

Benanti and me

Benanti and me

 

This tour is captured live on her album “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention,” recorded at 54 Below, formerly the iconic disco Studio 54. My recommendation? Buy this album now, and enjoy it like you would a cast recording before going to see a Broadway show. The album is remarkable, but seeing Benanti act and sing these songs live is something not to be missed. There are enough variances between the album and the show to keep things interesting, and I won’t spoil the surprises here. If she comes to your town, run (don’t walk) to see her.

Most compelling is the manner in which Benanti paints a picture of her life as a perpetual (though fiercely independent) underdog. About someone so talented and beautiful, that may be hard to believe, but the reality is she has always been a quirky theater kid on the outside looking in. Amusingly, she lays bare the personal turmoils of a young girl listening to cast albums, learning to play the ukulele, and dressing up as obscure musical theater characters for Halloween.

Cheers

Cheers

 

(She also isn’t afraid to go off script, poking gentle fun at the more provincial elements of the Hoosier-land where she was performing. I love my home state, but I give Benanti many props for gently reminding her audience that tolerance and compassion and humanity are essential regardless your background or beliefs. And if one can get that message across with a smile on one’s face, it makes an impact.)

I leave you with a clip of her singing “Mr. Tanner,” a forgotten gem by Harry Chapin. This number was a highlight for me both when I first listened to the recording as well as during the live performance. It definitely gives you a sense of her empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache. Enjoy!

[All photos by Don Sexton – more 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.