“They worship everything and value nothing.” La La Land

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Is La La Land the second (or even third or fourth) coming of the great movie musical? Not exactly. To call it a “musical” seems a bit overblown, as the flick’s songs (by newcomer Justin Hurwitz) come and go more like incomplete yet tuneful doodles as opposed to full-fledged numbers. The choreography is about two notches above a rhythmic walk down the street, and the singing … well … the singing makes Rex Harrison’s trademarked talk/sing (see My Fair Lady, Dr. Dolittle) sound like Adele at Carnegie Hall. Yet, I think that half-assed musicality is all by design on the part of director Damien Chazelle, who was responsible for Whiplash, one of my favorite films of the last ten years.

So, please, stop billing La La Land as a lush, glowing tribute to the glory years of the American movie musical. The film happily, gleefully wraps itself in all the tropes of the genre, much like The Artist (the two films are spiritual and stylistic cousins) used silent film to tell a similar narrative of ambitious if downtrodden performers navigating the despair and loneliness of love and ladder-climbing in the City of Dreams (Los Angeles). However, it ain’t a musical – at least for those of us expecting a behind-the-curtain songfest like Singin’ in the Rain or Funny Face. Much like Whiplash, it is a film with music, melodies seeping through every corner of its DNA. And that’s ok.

The genre that the film really exemplifies (a genre that isn’t really a genre except anywhere in my own head) is the movie-that-exists-solely-for-the-sake-of-a-final-act-punchline-that-brings-the-rest-of-the-film-into-stark-relief-and-makes-you-go-“oh-THAT’s-what-I’ve-been-watching-for-the-past-two-hours.” Think The Sixth Sense (or anything else by gimmicky M. Night Shyamalan).  I’m pretty certain this will be the only review that compares La La Land to a movie where Bruce Willis is a ghost (20-year-old spoiler alert!).

La La Land is surprisingly and refreshingly dark, but you don’t realize that until hours after viewing. It unspools in a light, frothy homage to films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which also beats with a candy-colored heart of darkness). Two (literally) star-crossed lovers – Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone – find mutual affection in their shared failure, he a struggling jazz pianist of the purest and most pretentious variety and she a failing actress bouncing unsuccessfully from one insultingly mind-numbing TV-pilot audition to another. Naturally, they fall for each other. It is a musical after all; oh wait, I just said it wasn’t. Much.

As their lives spiral up and down and back again (“me here at last on the ground … you in mid-air”), the movie details the toxic effects that unshared, ill-timed success and failure can have on a relationship of creative types torn between each other and egomania. The songs, as they are (“City of Stars” being the most memorable … or at least the most hummable), are used effectively to illustrate the pointed emotional moments of Gosling and Stone’s shared lives. Imagine A Star is Born (Judy and James, not Barbra and Kris – please) structured as the dreamlike nervous breakdown of Dancer in the Dark (directed by renowned sadist Lars von Trier and scored by renowned wood nymph Bjork).

This is the point in the review where you look at the screen and say, “Dammit, Roy, stop being an obtuse show-off! Did you like this movie or not?!”

I did. Very much. And here’s why. As a musical, it’s unremarkable (I’ve driven that point into submission). As a treatise on the fleeting nature of time and love and ambition, on the hollow reward of financial success and critical acclaim, on the haunting nature of missed opportunities and second-guessing one’s life choices, La La Land is a powder keg. The first hour? I thought to myself, “This is kind of insipid. Gosling and Stone are charming as always, but they embarrass me a little bit. Why are they so awkward and unsure. Why can’t they sing? Why are they floating on the ceiling of a planetarium? Am I supposed to be moved by this? Is Rebel Without a Cause as referenced in this flick intended to be a metaphor for something?” Well, the characters are gawky as hell because, at that point in their lives and careers, they would be.

In fact, Gosling edges Stone out a bit in the film’s first half, channeling the fourth-wall-breaking sparkle he demonstrated in The Big Short, with a winning “little boy lost” cynicism. Passing a group of actors rehearsing on the Warner Brothers’ back lot where Stone works as a barista in a forgotten coffee shop, he ruefully observes of the desperate thespians, “They worship everything and value nothing.”

But, then, life hits this duo right in the solar plexus (plexi?), and La La Land gets really interesting. Their shabby chic world together experiences a few wins but even more losses. They drift. They fight. They become more sure of themselves and reluctantly admit that life must lead them away from each other. And they sing (sort of).

In defense of Stone, her big solo (in the spot of what we used to call an “11 o’clock” number like “Ladies Who Lunch” or “Rose’s Turn” that spins all the key themes into one fist-raising, anthemic exclamation point) is “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” a full-throated yawlp that shows us, yes, she can sing, and, boy, can she act.

Then, THEN, in the film’s final moments, Chazelle hits you with a Gene Kelly-esque montage/remix/rewind/dream-dance ballet (I’ve always hated those, until this one) that puts the preceding narrative in perspective and leaves you gutted, wondering about your own life choices, what has worked, what hasn’t, and what might have been. Now, that‘s a musical. No, it isn’t. It’s something new entirely. That’s why I loved this movie.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

“Sometimes I don’t want to let it go.” Idina Menzel at Detroit’s Fox Theatre – PLUS, my mom Susie Duncan Sexton on Patty’s Page tv show

No Day But Today

“No Day But Today”

For a bit of time now, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Idina Menzel, she of the soaring vocals that are such a shot of adrenaline in beloved (overrated?) musicals like Rent and Wicked. The first time I saw her perform Wicked‘s signature tune “Defying Gravity” on the Tony Awards (10+ years ago), I got chills and my eyes welled up from the underdog-makes-good vitriol in her delivery. She was the best thing – the much-needed battery acid – in Chris Columbus’ misguided candy-coated film version of Rent. Her sporadic appearances on Glee – as the brilliantly cast mother of All About (Baby) Eve Rachel Berry (Lea Michelle) – were spiky, oddball fun, notably their peculiar duet of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”

However, “Let It Go” (the ubiquitous ditty from Disney’s Frozen) seemed like an underwritten redux of “Defying Gravity” (not her fault of course), and the whole “Adele Dazeem” debacle just got more cloying and unfunny with each passing day (again not her issue … exactly). And the “brand” of Menzel – not unlike that of Wicked co-star Kristin Chenoweth or, for that matter, Audra McDonald or the queen mother of kewpie doll divas Bernadette Peters – suffers from a “gee, aren’t I darling” humblebrag self-absorption and a disingenuous projection of “how did I get here?!” humility that belies the ragingly talented, driven loon lurking underneath.

“Don’t Rain On My Parade”

Blessedly, Menzel’s show last night at Detroit’s Fox Theatre (more or less) stripped away that glossy artifice and laid bare the broken soul with the big voice. It was a revelation.

In her between-song patter, Menzel offered a rambling treatise on her befuddlingly amazing 18-month ride, with epic highs like the runaway success of Frozen and performing on the Oscars and devastating lows like her divorce from Taye Diggs (whom she never mentioned by name). Lest you think she was milking all of this life experience in some kind of self-serving “Oprah” confessional, that was not the vibe at all. Her chatter was too loopy, too heartfelt, too, well, lost to be anything but that of a desperate soul searching for an anchor in a swirling moment of intense success and loss.

“River”

She channeled this personal crisis into a fascinatingly raw (and dare I say schizophrenic) array of song choices. Yes, the favorites were all present: “Defying Gravity,” “The Wizard and I,” “For Good” (for which she dropped the mic and used the Fox Theatre’s legendary acoustics to chilling effect), all from Wicked; “Take Me or Leave Me” (which she used as an opportunity to winningly share the stage with many hyperventilating Idina-groupies in the audience) and “No Day But Today” from Rent; and, of course, show-closing “Let It Go,” again sharing the mic with all the wannabe “Elsa”s in the audience (weirdly/delightfully interpolating the song with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ funky classic “Give It Away”?!?!).

The Wicked tunes especially seemed to get a perfunctory, hastened treatment, as if Menzel is as tired of them as we are. She seemed anxious to get to the caustic musical nuggets at the heart of her show, gleefully dropping many f-bombs along the way, hoisting a middle finger to the Disney empire (and all the blue-dressed dollies) that allowed her to mount such an extensive summer tour in the first place. That’s my kind of diva (and I hate that word).

“Defying Gravity”

She delivered expected Broadway bon-bons like Funny Girl‘s “Don’t Rain on my Parade” and an Ethel Merman tribute medley (Annie Get Your GunGypsy) with powerhouse vocals and a salty element of sad understanding, as if trying to say, “We women have been treated like crap forever, no matter how talented we are. Knock it off!”

The deepest heartache was telegraphed during a one-two punch of the crystalline elegance of Joni Mitchell’s “River” and what could only be described as a “hooker medley” of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and The Police’s “Roxanne.” Both numbers were electrifying, eliciting a hushed awe from the audience. “River” with its repeated chorus of “I wish I had a river I could skate away on” seemed to serve as Menzel’s central thesis. In her introductory remarks to “Love for Sale/Roxanne,” she mentioned a fearsome theatre professor who excoriated her about her performance of the Porter tune, challenging “Do you even know what that song is about?!?!” She wanted us to know – especially juxtaposed with her earlier performance of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” – that, yes, Mr. Man, she does know that the song is about. It was sheer theatrical brilliance.

Fox Theatre

Fox Theatre

She performed a number of original works, none of which alas quite held up to the other material, but the punk rock passion with which she delivered the tunes revealed an alternate reality where Idina might have been another Alanis, instead of a wannabe Barbra. She offered If/Then‘s 11 o’clock number of “Always Starting Over” as a fiery yawp over the Sisyphean nature of daily living. Her take on Radiohead’s 90s classic “Creep” was a dizzyingly effective blend of Broadway bombast and grunge existentialism. I would love to have that performance on a permanent loop in my head.

John and Roy

John and Roy

At one point in the show, Menzel joked that, while she’s appreciative of her recent success, “sometimes I just don’t want to let it go.” Some days she just wants to stay in her bed and let the world run its course while she tries to figure out which end is up. Her candor and her authenticity were much appreciated, and, along with her prodigious use of the f-word, just the eye-opening experience all those baby Elsa princesses in the audience needed to hear. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.

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BONUS! Enjoy part 1 of my mom Susie Duncan Sexton‘s two-part interview with delightful Patty Hunter on her Patty’s Page TV program. Also in the house are journalist and advocate Terry Doran and my dad Don Sexton. It’s a free-wheeling and fun discussion of politics, small-town living, animal rights (and, yes, pig wrestling), writing, and other insights and adventures. Enjoy! Click here to view.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 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.

Maybe next time, McCarthy. I believe in you. Tammy (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Melissa McCarthy’s latest comedic opus Tammy is like a crass redneck cousin to Barbra Streisand’s/Seth Rogen’s similarly themed The Guilt Trip. That may seem like a slam. It’s not. I enjoyed both movies, flawed though they are, particularly given that exceptional performers can sell the thinnest of scripts.

Where McCarthy stumbles a bit more, however, is that she helped write the slight script for her starrer. Ouch.

What other movies are in Tammy‘s DNA? If Nebraska and McCarthy’s own Identity Thief had a cinematic baby, it wouldn’t be that far afield from Tammy, which depicts a shaggy dog heroine (McCarthy, natch) on the lam with her bewigged and besotted (as in drunk) granny (Susan Sarandon!). Heck, throw in a touch of Sarandon’s own twenty-five-year-old summer blockbuster Thelma and Louise for good measure.

Tammy’s life is a mess. She nearly totals her jalopy when she hits a deer on the way to her crappy fast food job. (In one of the movie’s more touching moments, Tammy lays down on the highway, gets face-to-snout with the deer, and talks the little fellow back into sprightly, white-tailed-scampering-across-a-field life. I liked that part. A lot.)

Tammy gets fired from said crappy job for being late (because of the deer miracle), throws ketchup packets at her now-erstwhile boss (McCarthy’s real-life husband and the film’s director Ben Falcone), comes home early to discover her hubby (a suitably golf-caddy skeezy Nat Faxon) serving a romantic dinner to her neighbor (Toni Collette, wasted here), and runs home (two doors down) to her mother (Allison Janney, dependably ringing gold from nothing).

Sarandon’s character, who lives in Tammy’s mom’s spare bedroom, already has a suitcase packed and can’t wait to provide the ancient Cadillac and limited funds ($6700) necessary for her and her granddaughter to skedaddle from small-town life and go see the spectacle that is Niagara Falls.

Just like The Guilt Trip (where Streisand’s character wanted nothing more than to see the Grand Canyon), all manner of comic disruptions keep Sarandon’s and McCarthy’s characters from their destination. Like Rogen and Streisand, Sarandon and McCarthy also end up in a barbecue restaurant where Sarandon meets cute with a potential beau (Gary Cole, playing it rather subtle for once). Unlike The Guilt Trip, Tammy heads in a decidedly cruder direction, involving Cole and Sarandon and the backseat of that decrepit Cadillac. Ewww.

(The fact that I’m giving point/counterpoint between two failed comedies released within 18 months of each other is indicative of two things: 1) my relative lack of taste and 2) the fact that Hollywood really has no new ideas. It could be worse. I could be reviewing Transformers.)

Tammy is entertaining. I laughed heartily at McCarthy’s antics (just as I did during The Heat or Bridesmaids). I also found myself moved by her ability to telegraph so pointedly the hurt of someone who lives on the margins, either by choice or happenstance. McCarthy can inhabit a character like no other. Problem is it’s the same character, and, while I like and can relate to this person she plays (and her penchant for wearing Crocs), I’d like to meet someone else … soon.

Sarandon is a hoot, particularly in her early scenes, also offering us a caustic comic portrait of someone who refuses to be consigned to the periphery. Her performance is derailed mostly by the script,which turns her into a Golden Girls sexpot for no discernible reason at the midway point.

Kathy Bates sparkles as Sarandon’s pet food store magnate/lesbian cousin (yeah, it’s that kind of movie) who lives in one of those beachfront homes that only exist in Hollywoodland. She gives Tammy and her grandma a warm meal, a roof over the heads, and one fabulous July 4th wingding. Despite the improbability of Bates’ surroundings, she grounds the movie just as it seems likely to run right off the rails, as Bates beautifully walks that fine line between satire and heartache that has been her specialty since Misery.

Mark Duplass (Zero Dark Thirty) is also a source of warmth as Tammy’s suitor Bobby, cursed as he is to babysit his philandering father (Cole). The quiet scenes between McCarthy and Duplass are when the film is at its finest (not unlike those charming moments between Kristen Wiig and Chris O’Dowd in the aforementioned Bridesmaids). All the cartoonish chaos stops for a moment, and two believably broken souls connect as kindred spirits.

That is the movie I hoped to see tonight. Maybe next time, McCarthy. I believe in you.

[NOTE: I’ve been suffering from a wicked cold this entire holiday weekend, and this movie was viewed as a late-afternoon matinee while I was all hopped up on DayQuil. Take all preceding advice with a huge grain of salt.]

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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.

Countdown: The Guilt Trip

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 17 days until the release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Here’s what Roy thought about The Guilt Trip: “The film blessedly avoids slapstick predictability and deftly sidesteps Freudian mama-bashing. The dynamic between the two actors is that of mother and son, a delicate spider web of love and generosity and aggravation and pride, and they deliver it with aplomb. I really loved this movie, and I hope, with time, people will discover and enjoy it for the kind-hearted enterprise that it is.”

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.

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

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]

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.

There is nothin’ like a dame…who deserves a better movie: Philomena

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Is it strange that I prefer my Judi Dench (DAME Judi Dench, if you’re nasty) shaken and not stirred? I wish they hadn’t killed her off last year in Skyfall so I could anticipate her next round of icily maternal spy-mastering and forget the dreck that is Philomena.

OK, this British tragicomic trifle isn’t that bad but it ain’t that good either.

I had high hopes for this one as I always enjoy Dench (she could read the phone book for all I care) as, unlike some UK thespians, she cuts through the pretense and offers her perfect cadence, crisp diction, and profound stares in an earthy and relatable way.

Pairing her with the reliably wry and delightful Steve Coogan (see: Hamlet 2 … no, really, see Hamlet 2 … right now!) seems inspired. And, while I’m not much a fan of director Stephen Frears – whose movies just seem scruffily overwrought to me, The Queen notwithstanding – he is a workmanlike director whom I assumed would be wise enough to just wind his actors up and start the cameras rolling.

All that said, Dench and Coogan are just fine, but the script is sorely lacking. This would have been a marvelous hour-long holiday special teleplay on Masterpiece Theatre or something, but as a nearly 2-hour film, the thin material is stretched to its breaking point. Dench and Coogan look quite bored for about a third of the film, to be honest – and so was I.

The plot, as it is, concerns a young girl in 1950s Ireland who finds herself “in the family way” as they say and is slapped in a nunnery to have the child, endure assorted abuses, do a lot of the nuns’ laundry (yeah…really), and then have her toddler torn from her arms and sent to America to live with a wealthy couple. Flash forward to the present, said toddler now would be 50 years old, and Dench is hellbent to find him and finally meet him, with the assistance of recently “sacked” journalist Coogan.

This sets up what is arguably the dullest road trip on film. (I kept hoping for them to cross paths with The Guilt Trip‘s much funnier though critically maligned duo Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, but, alas, no.) Coogan and Dench go to America, have some funny exchanges on the back of an airport go-cart thing, have some more fish-out-of-water interactions at the hotel omelette station, and then find her son … via the INTERNET (?!?!). They couldn’t have accomplished that remaining in merry old England?

Then they episodically interview a number of folks with whom her son had interacted over the years, get some sad news (which I won’t spoil), chase down some more people, and then race back to England for a throw down with the nuns who treated Dench so shabbily. THAT last part I enjoyed, and it’s the moment when Coogan finally comes alive with that wild-eyed, exasperated, ticked off Brit thing he does so well.

The movie traffics in a few horrendous mid-90s cliches and attempts to say some deep things about gender, age, class, and faith, but it all comes off as a pencil sketch of a movie that could have been so much more.

I did very much enjoy the movie’s point of view that the intent and the reality of organized religion couldn’t be farther from one another, yet there was nothing groundbreaking nor bold in the telling. Cruel and hypocritical people use the umbrella of the church to get their jollies doing cruel and hypocritical things in the name of “morality.” Irritates the living daylights out of me but I would rather watch a movie tackle that pernicious issue in a stronger, more confident manner.

I seem to be saying this a lot lately, but these actors deserve a much better film. You can plaster “based on a true story” on any flick, but, if the proceedings aren’t compelling, well-written, or thoughtful, you may as well just pick up a copy of Reader’s Digest and save yourself a trip to the theatre.

How I spent my Christmas vacation…Les Miz, Django, and Babs

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One of the things I look forward to most every holiday season is the movie marathon I share with my parents. Hollywood back-loads all their great Oscar bait films from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, and every year my parents and I try to cram in as many as we can in a three-to-four day period. Invariably, we have a number of disappointments along the way.

Let me be clear, sometimes we do all of this in a single day. I think our record may be four movies in one twenty-four hour period…but that was also a day where we got so intoxicated by movie magic and stale popcorn that we saw anything with the right start time that allowed us to go from one movie right into the next (tickets purchased for all, of course). I believe on that auspicious occasion, in our weakness, we saw The Golden Compass…I think we were the only three people in America who ever saw The Golden Compass. It was pretty turgid.

So what cinematic treasures did Santa leave in our collective stocking this year? Three super-hyped, market-saturating, blockbuster-hopefuls: Les Miserables, Django Unchained, and The Guilt Trip. You know what? All three were perfection – that has never happened in the brief history of the Sexton Family’s Hide-from-the-Bothersome-Relatives-Holiday-Film-Fest.

Les Miserables ran the risk of not meeting the breathless anticipation whipped up through its ubiquitous and compelling advertising campaign. Happily, it far exceeded our expectations in every way. Much has been written about Tom Hooper’s decision to have his actors act and sing the challenging music live, as opposed to recording in a studio weeks before filming, only to lip sync before the cameras. It works and works well.

We listened to the soundtrack album the night before seeing the movie, and I’m still not sure if that was a good or bad idea. The CD is not exactly fun listening. Yet, it did prepare us for the vocal stylings of the key performers, and, as viewers, we were perhaps better equipped to appreciate the film as narrative. My mom said it best, “It’s like watching a film with sub-titles…you just get used to the singing and after a point forget you are even watching a musical…in a good way.”

I enjoyed every performer in the film, and any flaws, in my estimation, are inherent in the source material. For instance, I don’t much care for the young lovers storyline, and the nefarious Dickensian innkeepers even less so. Regardless, everyone in the ensemble – notably Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Eddie Redmayne – executes their piece in Victor Hugo’s ever-unfolding diorama of some French Revolution (I’m still not sure which one) breathtakingly. I cried countless times. Darn, this movie is cathartic.

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I don’t much want to get into a debate about the merits of Russell Crowe’s performance as Inspector Javert. People are hung up on his singing style – which I for one thought was just fine, though we did have our doubts when listening to the CD before seeing the film. What I ask is that you view his performance as that of a consummate actor in service to story in a cinematic way. He could play the role as Snidely Whiplash. He doesn’t. He underplays to great effect, against the overall hammy-ness of the show’s origins, offering a stolid, pedantic take on his character’s rigid moral code. I liked him a lot. ‘Nuff said.

Django Unchained is pure Tarantino in form and style and exceptionally crafted in every way. Strangely, both Django and Les Miz (I sort of hate that nickname by the way), released together on Christmas Dayexplore themes of persecution, faith, oppression, and the redeeming hope of friendship and love. Who’d-a-thunk?

In Django’s case, a lot of ink has been spilled already about the violence, gunplay, and prodigious use of the “N-word” (another diminutive that always bugs me). Do I admit to feeling a bit squeamish at times during the film for these reasons? You betcha. Was I more bothered that some thuggish teenagers in the Midwestern audience with me were laughing un-ironically at these elements? God, yes. Is that Tarantino’s fault? Emphatically, no.

What Tarantino has been doing to great effect through his last several films – the Kill Bill two-parter, Inglourious Basterds, and now Django – is put our societal propensity for violence, pettiness, ugliness under a tight microscope. He directs particular ire at our American condition to view the different with derision and hate and anger. With Django, he may as well throw battery acid on the Southland, exposing the inherent hypocrisy of good Christians whose economic standing was achieved on the bloody backs of far too many African-Americans.

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If nothing else, go see this one for Leonardo DiCaprio’s bravura turn as the well-heeled owner of a plantation cheekily named Candyland. He is a whirlwind of oily smiles, fey mannerisms, and unbridled bile. I adored watching him in the film. Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx more than hold their own, but the film springs fully to life when DiCaprio joins the proceedings. Pay close attention when he brings his doctor’s bag into the dining room – that scene alone is Oscar-worthy. Not the time you want to take a potty break.

Finally, The Guilt Trip … if one of these things is not like the others, I suppose it is this film, but it is no less perfection in my eyes. I am astounded at the negative reviews I have read on this one. I suspect the film is a victim of its holiday timing and its star power (Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen). If it had been quietly released in March or some other time, perhaps viewers would give it a fair chance…or maybe not.

Regardless, this is a gem of a little film. As actors, both Streisand and Rogen can be undermined by their own excesses (see Prince of Tides and The Green Hornet respectively). Yet, in this film, they are authentic, subtle (or at least what passes for subtlety for either), and thoroughly charming as a mother and son trapped in one tiny car together on a cross-country road trip.

The film blessedly avoids slapstick predictability and deftly sidesteps Freudian mama-bashing. The dynamic between the two actors is that of mother and son, a delicate spiderweb of love and generosity and aggravation and pride, and they deliver it with aplomb. I really loved this movie, and I hope, with time, people will discover and enjoy it for the kind-hearted enterprise that it is.

That’s it folks…and if you see three people next Christmas Day schlepping a monster-size bucket of popcorn from one Fort Wayne, Indiana-theatre to the next, give us a wave…and discourage us from seeing another Golden Compass.