“America is just one big strip club.” Hustlers, IT Chapter Two, and Theatre Nova’s latest production Admissions

  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “… the ‘Horatio Alger myth’: a teenage boy works hard to escape poverty. Often it is not hard work that rescues the boy from his fate but rather some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty. The boy might return a large sum of lost money or rescue someone from an overturned carriage. This brings the boy—and his plight—to the attention of a wealthy individual.” – Wikipedia entry on author Horatio Alger
  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “America is just one big strip club … You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers
  • “From one angle … motherhood can be viewed as one long journey of overcoming obstacles. I salute mothers everywhere who overcome obstacles with grace, courage and tenacity. … There was this huge obstacle in the way that needed to be fixed for my daughter’s sake.” – amalgamation of quotes from scandal-ridden Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman
  • “Motherhood is a kind of madness.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

America is a “land of opportunity,” that is, if you are on the right side of the carnival game. This fall’s cinematic completion of Stephen King’s classic novel It, directed again as a labor of love by Andy Muschietti, opens with a grown man defeating a little girl in one such street fair contest and then magnanimously leaning down, whispering in her ear “thank you for letting me win,” and handing her the ugly stuffed frog (I think it was a frog?) he receives as a prize. It is as warm a moment as it is pandering, the young man’s buddy looking on admiringly. As the two men wander away, they lock in an embrace. Things aren’t what they seem. Moments later they are victims of one of the most brutal gay bashings I’ve seen on screen, the result of malevolent Pennywise the Clown’s supernatural influence on an already provincial, ugly, small-minded Maine town. (Truth be told, small-minded small towns are one of King’s favorite literary targets, God love him). There’s your American dream, folks, in one cynical, tragic, and heartbreaking 15 minute sprawl. [King based the incident in his novel on a real-life hate crime in Bangor, Maine, in 1986, at a time when few people would publicly address such horror.]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hustlers, written and directed with sizzle and sass by Lorene Scafaria, brings Jennifer Lopez, the actor, back on screen in a fiery mama lion performance, the likes of which we haven’t seen from her in years. Lopez is a multi-hyphenate talent and by all accounts a pretty likable human being, but she has not been willing to play anything other than that on screen in a long time. Her stripper den mother Ramona avails herself of the 2008 financial crisis and the ugly stew of capitalistic greed, toxic masculinity, rampant misogyny, female objectification, and weaponized sexuality that seems to be Wall Street’s stock-in-trade (if the movies are to be believed … paging Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko). Imagine if Magic Mike were written and produced by the team who put together The Big Short.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ramona and her pals (a dynamite ensemble that includes Crazy Rich AsiansConstance Wu, Akeelah and the Bee‘s Keke Palmer, and Riverdale‘s Lili Reinhart with crackerjack supporting turns by Julia Styles, Trace Lysette, Mercedes Ruehl, and singers Cardi B and Lizzo) gleefully (and illegally) flip the script on predatory men, drugging them, dragging them to strip clubs, draining their corporate credit cards, and leaving them in a heap of deflated machismo, far too embarrassed to press any charges. The women’s motivation? A mix of revenge, justice, and primarily a desire to provide better lives for their daughters, grandmothers, and other women in their lives.

[Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

The third leg of that “American dream”? College education and that carnival game that is the admissions process are addressed with incisive wit, searing criticism, and deft balance in the timely Michigan premiere of Joshua Harmon’s play Admissions by Ann Arbor’s Theatre NOVA, directed with aplomb by David Wolber. (Note: this show must be a beast to learn and to mount, with its zig-zagging clutch of monologues and whiplash inducing reversals of philosophy. I suspect Wolber and cast must share the kind of  brainpower required to complete the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in record time.)

Hill and Burcon [Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

In Admissions, a cheerfully smug couple Sherri and Bill, both working in administration at a New England prep school (Diane Hill and Joe Bailey, both at the top of their games here), are faced with the consequences of their own best liberal intentions to create “balanced diversity” at Hillcrest (the setting of the piece) when their own son, a student there, is wait-listed for Yale University. Their boy Charlie – a brilliant whirlwind of well-meaning confusion and privileged petulance in Jeremy Kucharek’s thoughtful performance – is passed over by Yale in favor of his best friend at Hillcrest (and the child of his parents’ best friends), a young man of color, whom Charlie believes to be “less accomplished than himself.” As you can imagine, in the grand tradition of school-based satiric comedies like God of Carnage or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, matters escalate and spiral quickly. Cynthia Szczesny as Sherri’s befuddled assistant and Sarah Burcon as Sherri’s best pal Ginnie serve as a kind of de facto Greek chorus, highlighting the absurdity of the situation and the dire consequences of good intentions that are as ego-driven as they are divorced from day-to-day reality.

Bailey, Hill, and Kucharek [Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns the narrative takes, but, suffice it to say this is neither a play the MAGA crowd will love nor one any Bernie Bros will embrace. Admissions casts a pretty scathing eye on us all and the mechanisms we craft to make a better world in our own images (whatever we believe those images to be). The title, of course, is a play on words: the literal use of “admissions” in terms of higher education and the figurative in terms of those honest truths we can’t bear to say out loud. A special shout out to Daniel C. Walker’s brilliant and economical use of Theatre NOVA’s warm, inviting, but challenging physical space. The use of a turntable to contrast home and office is smart, efficient, and (perhaps unintentionally) symbolic of the topsy turvy nature of the play itself.

[Admissions runs through October 13 and tickets may be purchased at www.theatrenova.org.]

And now back to It, Chapter Two. The first film nailed the pastoral qualities of youth in America, with that bubbling, malevolent, churning undercurrent of impending adulthood, cultural manipulation, and familial and societal abuse that Stephen King does so very well. The second film – not dissimilar to the second half of the 1990 ABC mini-series – suffers structurally in that the Losers Club are reunited in adulthood, seemingly all amnesiac to the horrifying events of their youths at the hands of ugly townspeople, parents, bullies, and Pennywise himself. It, Chapter Two is at its strongest in flashbacks to the children of the first film, filling in the gaps of the fateful summer depicted in Chapter One.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

That said, the adult cast of Chapter Two – including Mamas Jessica Chastain, Trainwreck‘s Bill Hader, X-Men‘s James McAvoy, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransome, and Andy Bean – do yeoman’s work selling the turmoil of adults, who have successfully “forgotten” the abuses of small town American living to achieve material success (if not emotional happiness) in the “big city.” Pennywise, brilliantly played again to maximum creepiness by Bill Skarsgard, is the inversion of the Horatio Alger myth and more likely a corollary to the true American experience. It is not a helping hand magnanimously offered that pulls someone up the corporate ladder, once said individual has demonstrated his or her “heart of gold;” it is fear, it is persecution, and it is one heaping chip on one’s shoulder, propelling us onward toward “happiness,” the achievement of which may never be all it’s cracked up to be.  If there’s a through-line in the three very disparate entertainments I took in this weekend, it’s that.

  • “The essential and defining characteristic of childhood is not the effortless merging of dream and reality, but only alienation. There are no words for childhood’s dark turns and exhalations. A wise child recognizes it and submits to the necessary consequences. A child who counts the cost is a child no longer.” – Stephen King, Salem’s Lot.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“You know, you are going to lose us the right to vote!” Trainwreck

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I finally saw Trainwreck. I’m probably the last person in America to see it. I’m so glad I did.

It’s not a perfect film. I think Amy Schumer, the film’s lead and screenwriter, is a brilliant sketch artist with a sharp POV that is so dead center and incisive that it seems skewed, if not downright avant garde, in a world strangled by artifice and hypocritical self-satisfaction.

As a satirist, Schumer typically works in bite-size toxic nuggets, and her first feature film script meanders (not that unusual for a Judd Apatow-directed flick – see 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up). Unsurprisingly, the strongest punches come from the frequent sidebars with broadly drawn characters like Amy’s addled viper of a boss (an unrecognizable and genius Tilda Swinton, zinging every big-haired, proud anti-feminist walking the planet).

Schumer is at her best in commentary mode, contrasting her wide-eyed cynicism with the empty-headed happiness of a society that blithely has no idea how sexist, racist, homophobic, ageist, and just plain dumb it can actually be.

So, the trick of planting her in the middle of a summer romantic comedy confection like this is keeping that tart, chewy Schumer nougat at the airy center. The film stumbles in its early scenes, working just a bit too hard at the Apatow-brand of gross-out-with-a-heart-of-gold shenanigans. We get it. Schumer is not Meg Ryan (thank heavens!) – she drinks, she screws, she takes drugs, she has a glorious jackass of a father (Colin Quinn, brilliantly channeling the dark side of every borough in Manhattan as a philandering papa whose MS derailed his high-life but not before he imploded his happy marriage/family). She works hard and she plays hard as a writer for the kind of men’s magazine that would make Hugh Hefner blanch.

In other words, she’s the character Will Ferrell used to play in these productions … or worse Seth Rogen did.

Yet, the canniness of the film is in how it questions that frat boy cliche, defying gender convention and blessedly, by the second and third acts, revealing the human underneath the costume – the whip-smart, emotionally-raw Amy who lives out loud in defiance of a culture that loves its cheerleaders.

Amy hates sports and cheerleaders and anything remotely associated with either, which prompts Swinton’s character to (of course) assign her a profile on an up-and-coming sports medicine/orthopedic surgeon Aaron Connors (played by a winning Bill Hader). At one point in the film, Schumer sneers at the group of gyrating Knick Girls in front of her, “You know, you are going to lose us the right to vote!”

As Amy and Aaron connect as people and as friends, they (no shock) fall in love, much to Amy’s consternation. The humanity of the film rests in Schumer/Hader’s dynamic. They are so believable, so gentle, so kind, and so spiky together, thereby grounding a film that otherwise would fall apart as a loose collection of (albeit very funny) character bits.

Hader’s character just happens to be besties with NBA star LeBron James who ends up being the stealth comic genius in the madcap proceedings. (Seriously, between James and WWE’s John Cena, playing Amy’s heartsick, kicked-to-the-curb boy-toy, who’d a thunk some of the funniest bits would be offered by two pro-athletes? Not this guy. Color me surprised.)

The film insinuates itself in a good way. The onscreen relationship between Schumer and Hader is so scruffily relatable (but still frothy fun) that it, well, sneaks up on you. The film (and Schumer) seem to be challenging you to care, and, by gum, you really do.

However, there are the typical final act complications that always seem to ensue in these kinds of films; though, in this case, they aren’t as ridiculous as Hollywood tends to dictate. And the final reunion of our intrepid couple, while quite adorkable, undermines a bit of Schumer’s central conceit that she is an everyperson who doesn’t need to bend to anyone’s constrained view of gender roles.  Sadly, the ending feels tacked on, like a focus group told the filmmakers, “We want to feel goooood! Can’t you just make us happy?!”

Well, I know what makes me happy and that’s seeing Schumer turn the stereotypical romantic comedy on its head and for about 75% of Trainwreck she does. I’ll take those odds.

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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.

“Oh, facts and opinions, who can tell them apart?” Pixar’s Inside Out

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

When it comes to Pixar, I’m a sucker for their more esoteric/existential offerings: Up, WALL-E, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles. If you had told me twenty years ago that there would be an animation super-company that synthesizes the works of Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Chaplin … and Abbott & Costello for mass-market, blockbuster consumption, well, I would have simply replied, “Why are we here?” (Cue existentialist rim shot.)

No film in the Pixar canon, though, can compare for sheer WTF meaning-of-life audacity to their latest Inside Out. I loved this movie for its gentle heart, its minimalist humor, and its sly message that all emotions are valid and essential, not just that most-favored nation: technicolor, buoyant, “have a blessed day” joy.

The film details the awkward transition of a sweet, beloved only child (Riley, charmingly voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) as she and her parents relocate from their small-town home in Minnesota to the big city life of San Francisco. The transition isn’t an easy one, as the family’s belongings are lost mid-transit, Riley finds herself missing friends and activities from her previous life, and her new school offers little reprieve. Complicating (or causing?) these challenges are a series of misadventures from the voices living in Riley’s head.

When I saw the first preview several months ago, I admit I was dubious about the central conceit: that our emotional inner life can be distilled into five warring character traits: Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). From the looks of things, I feared that Pixar had swiped the concept of that odd 70s construct Mr. Men and Little Miss, whereby we Me-Era kindergartners learned about our thorniest of emotions and the need to share and play well with others via a series of easy-to-read, infinitely merchandised board-books. And lest we not forget the acid trip “Free To Be You and Me” musings of holiday specials from Rankin/Bass and Sid and Marty Krofft where the fight for one’s psychological well-being could be enacted through feuding Claymation characters representing weather fronts or trippy sea monsters and Phyllis Diller witches. How we Gen X’ers survived, I’ll never know.

(We also had the short-lived, early 90s sitcom Herman’s Head, likely crafted by someone weaned on the animated output of the Children’s Television Workshop but with a naughtier spin, in which a young writer had every decision dictated by a group of wise-cracking Jiminy Crickets cohabiting in his cranium. Interestingly, that show, like Pixar’s Inside Out, was executive produced by Disney.)

How wrong I was! (And apologies for the digression into artifacts of my childhood – Inside Out is so good, you can’t help but plumb the depths of your youth upon exiting the theater.)

The film does share its DNA with earlier cinematic/television efforts to explain psychology to kids and adults alike, but it is also very much its own unique creation. Director Peter Docter (who helmed Up as well as Monsters, Inc.) is in his element constructing richly detailed mythology for us all to understand and appreciate the colors (quite literally) of our emotional responses. With Inside out, the primal depth of Up (I dare you not to watch the opening sequence of that film and find yourself in poignant Ingmar Bergman puddle) finds a new home in the Rube Goldberg whimsy of Monsters, Inc. as Docter and his team give us an Oz-like travelogue through the various geographies in one’s brain.

After a mix-up involving some precious long-term memories, sending Riley on a prepubescent spiral of self-doubt, Joy and Sadness find themselves on the unlikeliest of road-trips, navigating Riley’s id, ego, and superego in order to right a sinking ship.

There are many clever asides and surprises along the way, and I dare not spoil a one. I will note, however, that I guffawed loudest at a bit where Joy stumbles over what appears to be a large box of placards, jumbling them all. She comments, “Oh, facts and opinions, who can tell them apart?” In these contentious times, truer words may have never been spoken in an animated film.

At the halfway point, the heartbreaking soul of the film makes his shaggy, sad-sack appearance. Richard Kind is exceptionally voice-cast as Riley’s elephant-nosed, cotton candy-bodied, cat-tailed imaginary friend Bing Bong. As Riley’s life has evolved, Bing Bong has become a stranger in a strange land, a Didi/Gogo whose tears take the form of cellophane-wrapped candy pieces. As he assists and occasionally misleads Joy and Sadness from the dark recesses of Riley’s brain, he insinuates his way into the audience’s heart, and his ultimate sacrifice (not saying what) is as devastating a moment as you’ll see in cinemas this year. (At least it was for this weirdo who still personifies all of his childhood toys and can’t bring himself to part with a one.)

The film’s final message for us all? (One I find so very important.) Every feeling is valid and shapes who we are. Sadness is as crucial as joy, anger as essential as fear or disgust. To force happiness when it isn’t immediately evident is to cause even greater sadness and disruption. Embrace who you are and how you feel in the moment, and embrace that honesty in others as well. We will all be that much happier as a result.

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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.