“A little town called persistence.” Pitch Perfect 3

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m not a fan of extraneous sequels to sweetly self-contained high-concept comedies. I loathe cash-grab second or third chapters to the kind of original, fresh, humanistic sleeper hits which dumbfound Hollywood execs who believe the only way to climb the corporate ladder is by churning out one superhero opus after another. Often, the follow-up overemphasizes any buzzy kitsch that defined the first film and buries any shaggy underdog appeal in a mountain of glib slapstick and opportunistic product placement.

To me, Pitch Perfect 2 was, ahem, a perfect example of this commercial phenomenon, taking Rebel Wilson’s free-spirited second-banana “Fat Amy” and turning her into the unfunny, overexposed Mater (see Pixar’s Cars 2 … no don’t) of a cappella singing franchises. Poor Anna Kendrick (Into the Woods, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates), normally a luminous scene-stealer in any film, didn’t stand a chance.

I’m happy to report that Pitch Perfect 3, while still utterly unnecessary, is a fabulous course correction to the enterprise, featuring the sweet harmonies and girl-power shenanigans of the now graduated-from-college “Barden Bellas” in all their goofy show choir glory.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Directed by series-newcomer Trish Sie and written by Kay Cannon and Mike White, the threequel takes us on a European road trip as the Bellas, generally dissatisfied with the let-down of workaday adult life, stage one last hurrah, joining a USO tour alongside a surly power-pop-punk quartet (led by delightfully arch mean girl Ruby Rose), a Li’l John-adjacent rap act, and a mullet-wearing bluegrass jug band. What could have been a cliched let-down (European road-trip … really?) ends up a zingy meringue (albeit still pretty cliched) in the capable hands of the film’s solid cast.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The vocals, as ever, are impeccable and guilty fun, as the Bellas aca-remix one overplayed pop radio ditty after another. The ensemble is populated with pros (Anna Camp, Hairspray‘s Brittany Snow, True Grit/Edge of Seventeen‘s Hailee Steinfeld, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Chrissie Fit, Alexis Knapp) who know how to spin sitcom stereotypes into compelling and relatable human beings.

Blessedly, Kendrick is again in the driver’s seat narratively. The film reorients the series-focus back to her Beca character, still exhibiting outsize talent in a mediocre world that doesn’t know what to do with a whip-smart woman who isn’t particularly interested in playing reindeer games.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yes, series regulars Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins also return as caustic a cappella competition commentators who seem to have landed in the Pitch Perfect films on their way to a Christopher Guest satire (e.g. Best-in-Show, A Mighty Wind). When asked by Kendrick where they came from when the duo materializes from thin air on an Air Force tarmac, Banks deadpans, “A little town called persistence.” They are a total hoot, even if they do appear to be in an entirely different film from everyone else.

There is a jarringly odd subplot involving Daddy’s Home 2‘s John Lithgow (must he be in every movie this holiday season?) as Fat Amy’s sleazy Eurotrash high-stakes criminal father, and it’s a testament to the film and to Lithgow and Wilson that their rapport works as well as it does. The subplot seems tonally out-of-place with the rest of the proceedings, but it does give rise to a truly killer aca-cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” by the Bellas. The number runs twice in the film, and it is so sharply executed that it could have appeared a third time and not overstayed its welcome.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Pitch Perfect 3 is a holiday trifle but a welcome one as it marries genuine wit and heart with a celebration of friendship and song and female agency that is always needed onscreen. A fourth entry in the series seems inevitable, and I won’t complain (much). The easy, warm, and inclusive dynamic of this cast is one I will gladly leave on repeat.

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[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.

Let this be a lesson to comic book nerds everywhere: Marvel Universe Live! at the Palace of Auburn Hills

The Hulk, looking like a big Muppet.

The Hulk, looking like a big Muppet

The Palace

The Palace

Let this be a lesson to comic book nerds everywhere: don’t buy tickets to some superhero extravaganza 18 months in advance on the promise of a state-of-the-art immersive experience in the four-color world of funny book lore.

The stage

The stage

‘Cause a year and a half later, that magical cape-and-spandex fever dream to be? It’s basically Spider-Man Ice Capades … without the ice.

That about sums up the arena-touring Marvel Universe Live! which we had the misfortune of taking in this afternoon at The Palace of Auburn Hills, alongside a lot of gobsmacked kids and their grimacing mothers and fathers.

Captain American arguing with Iron Man about who has the worst lines

Captain American arguing with Iron Man about who has the worst lines

Seriously, if we escape this experience unscathed from the stomach flu or an ear infection, it will be a minor miracle.

The show runs under two hours, including an interminable 25 minute intermission, designed chiefly for parents to empty their wallets at the carny-esque merchandise carts clogging nearly every aisle. It is a Disney enterprise after all.

Oh, what have we done ...

Oh, what have we done …

The plot, or what passes for one, is a hodgepodge of elements cribbed from a decade’s worth of Marvel movies (Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) and a bit or two from the comics (those characters like X-Men or Spider-Man for whom Disney doesn’t necessarily hold the movie rights in Mickey’s four-fingered paw).

The Avengers, or a loose confederation of badly costumed heroes bearing a passing resemblance to said superhero team, are chasing down bits of that damned Tesseract (“Cosmic Cube”) – the boring MacGuffin that has dominated Disney/Marvel’s film output: a glowing device that gets chopped up in a million bits which, if brought back together, will let any number of bad-deed-doers take over the world, monologue an lot, and shake their scaly fists at the sky.

Motorcycles. Lots of motorcycles.

Motorcycles. Lots of motorcycles.

Woo boy.

The show is an enterprise intended for kids, so I should just stop being a jackass and note that, for any child under 10, it will be the. best. freaking. thing. they. have. ever. seen. (I was heartened to see as many girls as boys in the audience, possibly indicating a break in the Disney Princess stranglehold on post-millennial prepubescent gender identity? We can only hope.)

There are motorcycle and aerial stunts aplenty with enough pyrotechnics to make a vintage Van Halen fan weep. The dialogue (the program actually lists a team of writers on this thing, and surprisingly not 18 monkeys in a room of keyboards) is phoned in from somewhere left of the moon, as the poor souls playing these comic book icons are required to lip sync every line. And I thought Britney Spears had it bad … and that ain’t good.

Loki and his vacuum/fish bowls of death

Loki and his vacuum/fish bowls of death

The costumes are pretty hit or miss. Some folks, like big bad Asgardian Loki, are almost note-perfect, while others, like Wolverine, look like they were garbed in leftovers fished from the remainder bin at Halloween City.

Believe it or not, the show has its standout performers (though for all intents and purposes, the actors remain nameless/faceless entities).

Spider-Man is a hoot, assigned the zippiest quips (not saying much) and imbued with an acrobatic whimsy that comes as a welcome relief from all the paper-doll posturing on-stage. Captain America is a delight as well, with some great stunt work and a bit of the light comedy his eponymous films wring from Cap’s anachronistic circumstances.

Spider-Man hitching a ride from his buddy Green Goblin

Spider-Man hitching a ride from his buddy Green Goblin

The backdrop

The backdrop

For the true comic nerds in audience? For middle-aged people, like yours truly, who have no business going to a show like this, at least without the cover-story of dragging a niece or nephew or random neighbor kid grudgingly along?

Finale ... thank heavens

Finale … thank heavens

Well, for geeks like us, the joys are limited. You get to see some random fan-favorite characters like Captain Marvel, Black Cat, assorted AIM Agents (with those silly beekeeper outfits), and Madame Hydra in the flesh, and there are some nifty items in the merchandise booth (the program with commemorative comic book and a few of the shirts are keepers). Otherwise, just stay home, save your moolah, and revisit your old super-favorites the way we always have … by reading.

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Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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.

Coming out of the woods: Taylor Swift’s 1989 Tour at Detroit’s Ford Field

Taylor Swift at Ford Field

Taylor Swift at Ford Field

We had a debate about Taylor Swift at brunch today … well, not a debate so much as friendly banter, but, yes, about Taylor Swift. You see, I saw her stellar 1989 concert at Detroit’s Ford Field last night, and it seems to shock/awe/flabbergast that a grown (sort of) man appreciates the glittering pop output of one Ms. Swift. But I really do. Swift seems to be a polarizing force. Either you adore her or you really don’t ever, ever, ever like her style of wholesome-with-an-edge, high-waisted-Wonder-Bread-dominatrix, let-people-be-people, sh*tcan-the-jerks-in-your-life-with-a-smile jukebox jive.

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

I don’t think it’s easy to transition from child star to adult phenomenon in the public eye. I don’t mean the drug-addled, gin-soaked misadventures of a young (baby) Drew Barrymore or a slipping-down-the-rabbit hole Lindsay Lohan/Amanda Bynes. Rather, it’s probably worse for someone like Swift, whose Amazonian work ethic and drive for world domination must never give her a moment’s rest and which seems to make her a perennial target for critique.

Charlotte, MY chaperone for the evening

Charlotte, MY chaperone for the evening

The 1989 show, named after the year a wide-eyed Taylor (now 25 years old, natch) powered into this unsuspecting world, brings all of the pop (formerly country) powerhouse’s disparate influences into sharp relief. And it makes abundantly clear just how profound her transition has been from kiddie cult to global superstar. Watching last night’s show, I was struck by Swift’s confident swagger (and I normally hate swagger) but she wears it well.

She is not limited by gender, age, public perception, nor a cavalcade of A-list ex-paramours. NO.

She has reverse engineered the formula for inevitable, relentless singularity: one part Mick Jagger, two parts Madonna, a pinch of Janet, with a healthy sprinkling Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morissette, and Tori Amos self-mythologizing confessional. Well-played, kid. No one else quite cracked that code – not Britney, not Rihanna, not Gaga. Not even sure Beyonce did it … but watch your back for Miley. Most important? Last night’s show was fun. (And, yeah, I might have been one of the oldest and fewest Y-chromosomed attendees – but if the Church of Swift teaches us anything it’s “haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate.”)

Welcome to New York

Welcome to New York

The set list is essentially the 1989 album (from last fall) in its entirety with a few other now-classics (strange to say of songs not even five or so years old) thrown in (“I Knew You Were Trouble,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “Love Story”). Performance highlights included: a glitzy 42nd Street take on opener “Welcome to New York” with its swirling, infectious message of universal inclusion; a little Fosse in the stylized shadow-dancing of hypnotic “Blank Space;” some sweaty Velvet Rope-era Janet stylings on a molasses-throbbing “I Knew You Were Trouble” and a Rhythm Nation twist on rival-skewering “Bad Blood;” and straight-up Courtney Love guitar-raging on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (arguably the strongest reinvention of the bunch).

Bad Blood

Bad Blood

Before her (literally) soaring encore of the ubiquitous “Shake It Up” (staged as a can-can kick-line atop a spinning/floating catwalk), Swift closed with a stadium-rattling take on my personal 1989 favorite “Out of the Woods.” Against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of twisting Grimm Brothers trees and underneath giant spiraling paper airplanes, Swift nailed this Simple Minds/Tears for Fears/Kate Bush-homage, an anthem of empowerment and self-actualization and her ultimate thesis for this sleek, epic pop evening. You are you. Own it.

Out of the Woods

Out of the Woods

There were many surprises in an already jam-packed evening. Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons popped up for a frisky duet on his own hit “Radioactive” that had the crowd in a frenzy. (Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to get the 50K plus, sold-out crowd in a frenzy. They were going nuts over trivia questions about Taylor’s cats in the pre-show warm-up period.) Other members of the Swift celeb mafia put in video and live appearances – models GiGi Hadid and Martha Hunt walked the catwalk in “Style” to wish their singer-songwriter pal well, and Girls‘ Lena Dunham and the band Haim (not to mention, yes, Taylor’s cats Olivia and Meredith) offered their greetings from the big screens. (Is Swift the new Sinatra – and it’s not Jay-Z after all? Food for thought.)

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

The spectacle of the show was tasteful – more old-school Vegas than stadium bombast – with minimalist choreography, a series of subtle costume changes (all spangles and mini-skirts), a lot of rear-screen projection, and Taylor’s fabulously perfect 1989-bobbed haircut. (Seriously, she should never wear her hair any. other. way.) The niftiest touch of all? Every member of the audience was given a light-up wrist-band (RFID-powered?) that flashed and pulsed and changed colors to the stage activities. Such a simple thing, but had such a profound effect on the overall experience. The huge room at Ford Field looked like a twinkling galaxy, and all of us – young and, ahem, old – were gobsmacked by the clever inclusion of every one us in the concert staging.

The galaxy of wristbands

The galaxy of wristbands

The show is a reverent homage to an era which Swift couldn’t possibly remember – the late 80s. I do. Unlike Katy Perry’s Prismatic Tour (which I enjoyed), Swift is not winking at the Day-Glo era. She is embracing it and exploring those musical influences she never knew she had. I was 17 in 1989, and it was the year I started loving pop music from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation to Madonna’s Like a Prayer to, yes, Prince’s Batman. I still treasure those albums as they transport me to a simpler, maybe sillier, possibly less socially divisive time when a lifetime of opportunity still extended before me. Whether she knows it or not, Swift captured the summer fun of listening to pure pop escapism on my little red boombox on the sundeck of my parents’ house in 1989. Thank you, Taylor.

Linda's daughter Laura (right) with Taylor's mom Andrea

Linda’s daughter Laura with Taylor’s mom Andrea

P.S. Taylor loves Detroit. She first sang the National Anthem at a Lions game at Ford Field years ago, and she even brought her mom along last night to help usher ecstatic fans backstage. My pal Linda Cameron, mom of frequent Penny Seats cast-mate Matt Cameron, was there as a belated holiday present from her family, and Linda even got a chance to meet Mom Swift whom Linda described as a  “sweetheart.”

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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.

Two-parts 12-year-olds’ slumber party, one-part Bettie Page pinup calendar: Katy Perry’s Prismatic World Tour at The Palace of Auburn Hills

Cover Girl

Cover Girl

 

Katy Perry is adorable. I realize this is not news. But when you spend several hours in her orbit during her Prismatic World Tour you are stunned by the extent of her Hello-Kitty-meets-Mae-West powers.

Like Madonna before her (only without the hauteur), Perry mines every element of current (and past) pop culture to concoct a cheeky confection that is two-parts 12-year-olds’ slumber party, one-part Bettie Page pinup calendar.
 
Hot n Cold

Hot n Cold

 

 

 

Every pop dolly from Britney to Gaga has been after Madge’s crown for years, but I daresay Katy sneaked off with it ages ago with a wink and a smile. Whereas Madonna couches her pop appropriation (theft?) in Marlene Dietrich-style Teutonic frost, Perry zooms in on California sunbeams with a spray of confetti in her wake. But don’t be fooled by the bonbon guise, Perry is just as crafty, intelligent, and witty as her forebear.

 
Walking On Air

Walking On Air

 

Last night’s show at the Palace of Auburn Hills, attended by a sold-out crowd of crazed KatyCats who braved one of the most torrential downpours in recent memory, was/is an epic tribute to one young person’s (Perry’s) astounding ability to crank out nearly two-dozen top ten hits in half a decade. These are the kind of ubiquitous, ear-wormy, inescapable, platinum(!) sing-alongs that most rock stars would give their eyeteeth to have just once in a lifetime. In this sense, Perry and her prodigious musical output have as much in common with the Jackson siblings – Janet and Michael – as any other singers. Like those two talents, the hits just keep on coming … like you’re being pummeled in a disco-fied prizefight.

 
Prismatic

Prismatic

Perry’s latest extravaganza is a deceptively lean and efficient delivery mechanism for all of her numbers, running the gamut from ancient Egypt to 80s video games, from LOLCats-inspired memes to hippie dippie flowers and fairies. The show is a technical marvel with nary a misstep.  As one might expect from a tour dubbed “prismatic,” COLOR! and pyramids and COLOR! and light and COLOR! and triangles and COLOR! are key visual elements.

 
The cartoon cavalcade of costumery appears to have been designed by Roy G. Biv on a bender … and it’s exquisite. The lighting scheme is rife with laser beams, pyrotechnics, kitschy/campy video projections, and enough light-pipes to make Tron green with envy.
 
Birthday

Birthday

As anyone who watched (and loved) Perry’s documentary Part of Me (click here) will attest, Perry’s aesthetic may be best described as American Greetings crossed with Andy Warhol, and the front woman delivers it all with wide-eyed wonder, tongue firmly in cheek. In this sense she may be more Jeff Koons than his self-appointed muse Lady Gaga – sorry, Little Monsters.

My high points from the show?
 
Turning “Hot-n-Cold” into a cabaret number featuring singing/dancing/jazz-handy felines; lightly kinky “Birthday” delivered with zero irony in what appears to be a Chuck E. Cheese party from hell; and closing number (arguably the strongest tune in her canon) “Firework” which she performs alone, amidst, yes, fireworks and wearing a Marie Antoinette gown as bedazzled by Jackson Pollock.
 
This is How We Do

This is How We Do

Every element of the show is meticulously manicured, including opening acts Ferras and Kasey Musgraves, both of whom give the kind of fully-realized performances you rarely see in a warm-up. Ferras is the missing link between Flock of Seagulls and Adam Lambert, strutting about the stage, delivering his new wave hoo-ha in a supremely confident and compelling manner.

 
Kittywood

Kittywood

Musgraves, though, is the stealth winner of the evening – a twangy Laura Benanti who complements nicely Katy Perry’s Lucille Ball-esque screwball tomfoolery.

Enveloping the audience in a big country hug, Musgraves delivers her sweetly sharp, refreshingly progressive hits like “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry Go ‘Round” not to mention Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” amidst neon cacti and groovy roots musicians. Genius counterprogramming on Perry’s part.

 
Katycats

Katycats

Both Musgraves and Perry are adept at torching their own glamazon façades and letting their freak flags fly, directly interacting with their audiences in funny and touching ways. Last night’s production felt as if a female Rat Pack had arrived from somewhere beyond Pluto to stage a Pride parade, bringing too-cool-for-school hipsters, screaming junior high girls, their befuddled parents, random “bros” ashamed to admit how much they love pop music, and tightly wound Walmart shoppers all into one big tent revival of tolerance, expression, and joy. I loved every minute!

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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.

Guitar heroes and heartaches: Howie Day at Ann Arbor’s The Ark

Howie Day

Howie Day

I’m not much for folk music (see my review of Inside Llewyn Davis) or, for that matter, guitar-driven singer/songwriters. So, when our friend Bonnie offered an extra ticket to see Howie Day at Ann Arbor’s The Ark, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I had vague memories of Day as an early aughts pop/rock folkie with the following attributes: an inescapable (and kinda bland) radio hit “Collide,” a reputation as having been Britney Spears’ rehab rebound boy toy, some TMZ-style controversies that involved berating flight attendants and throwing cell phones, and a Russell Crowe-esque fiery temper (that last point being the most intriguing to me).

It’s a shame that this is his legacy to ignorant lay-people like yours truly, because he is phenomenal.

The joy of seeing a musician live when you know pretty much none of their songs is that every tune is a new discovery. (My apologies to those Howie Day fans looking for a set-list or some other detail from tonight’s show. I have no idea what the songs were titled.)

Bonnie and Roy

Bonnie and Roy

Day was such a compelling presence, with just his honey-husky voice, his Liev Schreiber-ish look, a guitar and a microphone, and (his secret weapon) some astonishing gizmo that let him record, dub, layer, and re-layer his own voice and instrumentation in real time. I don’t know how else to describe it.

I’m sure someone out there knows the name for this, but he had a device on the floor that he would tap with his foot and record a snippet of guitar or voice or some other noise that would then loop and repeat and become the accompaniment for any given song. This technique – which was part dusty troubadour, part Ibiza-bound DJ – was transfixing and transporting.

This beat-infused folktronica (lord, I always hated that term, yet here I am using it) offered a surreal soundscape for the heartache dripping from every lyric. While Day gave sparkling between-song  patter (he kept returning to the notion that he really should have seen the film Noah today if he was going to perform at a venue called “The Ark”), every song he played related the tale of someone abandoned by love, by friends, by life. Haunting doesn’t even begin to describe the musical stories he wove.

Shane Piasecki

Shane Piasecki

Opening act Shane Piasecki was a sunny counterpoint to Day’s melodic solemnity. Piasecki – resembling some mashed up hybrid of Ed Norton, Bob Dylan, and James Franco – captivated the audience with his shaggy dog charm, playing guitar and harmonica and vocalizing, with studied casual aplomb. His numbers all had a loping frat boy charm but with a musical sophistication that belied his youthful demeanor. He had the audience in the palm of his hand … and that was prior to him telling us he had to rush back to his mischievous dog at the hotel where he’s staying before the establishment lost every last pillow to the canine’s canines.

If these two wandering minstrels find their way to your town (or somewhere nearby), do not hesitate to check them out. You won’t be disappointed. I, for one, bought all of Piasecki’s musical output (four CDs – $35 in total) at the merchandise table, and Day’s are now added to my Amazon cart for ordering posthaste!

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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.

Countdown: Bangerz

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 10 days left until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Some nice early reviews from Roy’s readers…

  • Zach London: “I thoroughly enjoy your reviews. They are short, well-written, and insightful. For movies I have already seen, your reviews articulate things that my subconscious brain recognized but my conscious brain did not. Congratulations on this accomplishment!”
  • Michael Lesich: “I’ve been a fan of Roy’s movie reviews for some time. Armed with a sharp tongue, a quick wit, and an absolute love of movies and theater, Roy brings a passionate and independent voice to movie reviews. Whether you love-em-or-hate-em, Roy’s reviews are never dull. I’m just an average guy, but when I see a new movie, I often check out Roy’s review to get a sense of whether they are worth spending my hard-earned money and scarce time to see them. Grab the popcorn, a giant soda, and a pair of 3D glasses, and get ready to enjoy this book!”
  • Mary Shaull: “Roy Sexton is a brilliant, talented observer of film and life. He can say in a few words exactly what the rest of us wish we could say. He does it for us in this delightful book. Write on, Roy!”

Here’s a snippet of Roy’s review of Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz: “Lord, I’m tired of all the Miley-hatin’. She’s a cute gremlin of a girl trying to distance herself from a smothering Disney-funded-life, for which she should probably feel very grateful. But who can blame her for trying to express her own personality outside the pervasive marketing bubble of the Mouse House?”

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.

Countdown: Jack Reacher

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 16 days until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton! The book is now (for however long THAT will last 😉 !) on Amazon’s list of top-selling “Guides and Reviews”!!

“Tom Cruise’s latest Jack Reacher is the cinematic equivalent of fast food, albeit slightly nicer fast food…like Subway.”

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.

Haunting truths – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate

Me with my mom Susie Duncan Sexton at Grand Wayne Center prior to performance [Image by author]

When you visit your childhood home, you can’t help but feel like a kid again. You may be careening past 40 years of age, but one look at a stuffed animal you used to cuddle or a board game you used to play and you’re 12 again. I cherish my visits with my parents in Indiana as we always have laughter and thoughtful conversations and adventures and movies. And I always feel blissfully childlike.

Cover of Duncan Sexton’s second book, now available
[Image Source: Open Books]

It is with this deep-feeling and introspective state-of-mind – impacted also by the impending, always ethereal Halloween holiday and by a couple of manic weeks helping my mom shepherd her second book Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels to print (order it here – sorry, can’t help myself … but seriously, it is amazing!) – that I approached one of our family’s signature movie (and in this instance also theatre) marathon weekends.

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]

What did we see? What didn’t we see! Thursday night, we found ourselves at Fort Wayne, Indiana’s gloriously preserved Embassy Theatre with the John Mellencamp/ Stephen King/T-Bone Burnett horror musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County making a stop on its trial tour of the Midwest. The show is told in old-fashioned radio drama style with actors and musicians on stage the entire performance and with minimal props and a vintage microphone in the middle of the stage (though that last bit is mostly for show as all the players also wear those Britney Spears/McDonald’s drive-thru/Time-Life operator headset things).

The spartan approach works generally well, at least during the first act, as the spooky tale unfurls of two feuding brothers, their bloody end, and the generational impact their war eventually would have on the nephews they would never have a chance to meet. The show stars Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, Thirteen Days) and Emily Skinner (Tony-nominee for Side Show) as the family’s world-weary patriarch and matriarch (respectively) who want desperately for the current generation to just get the heck along.

Ghost Brothers cast at curtain call [Image by author]

Greenwood and Skinner and Mellencamp’s rockabilly/ bluegrass score are the assets of an otherwise uneven show. With a more-than-adequate supporting cast, the show rumbles through a strong first act exploring the corrosive effects that lies and jealousy and stubborn misunderstanding can have on every branch of a family tree.

The second act, however, doesn’t fare nearly as well. Logic, sensible chronology, and audience sympathies are all tossed out the window for a muddled, hasty denouement riddled with carnage and too many smart aleck remarks. The latter are delivered nonetheless with aplomb by the ever-present “Shape” – played by a firecracker Jake LaBotz – who lurks behind all the players encouraging bad deeds and ill intent. Other standouts are Kylie Brown wringing every last bit of malicious glee from her role as the resident temptress Anna (she’s one to watch!) and Jesse Lenat doing triple duty as narrator, guitarist, and angelic yin to LaBotz’s yang.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Next up on our tour of cynical debauchery was Ridley Scott’s new film The Counselor. Script problems would plague pretty much every selection of the weekend, and this one was no exception. The first 30 minutes of the film are cringe-worthy with Scott’s trademark cinematic fetishization of sleek mid-century furnishings, gleaming sports cars, and objects otherwise found in lost issues of the J. Peterman catalog completely unchecked. Eventually, however, the film clicks into high-gear and these initial missteps are quickly forgotten (and one might argue seem intentional: rampant, glib superficiality in stark contrast to the soul-crushing darkness that follows).

Michael Fassbender stars as the never-named, vacuous, materialistic title character whose love of self and stuff leads him to make some dodgy deals with fabulously attired, endlessly entertaining, totally skeezy drug dealers. The latter are portrayed by the always dependable Javier Bardem as well as Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, turning in frothy/smarmy/delightful performances. There are a host of fun cameos that I don’t want to spoil, but let’s just say this is a cast to die for. And pretty much every one of them does.

The Counselor is a Trojan Horse of a movie. It seems to be escapist fantasy – a Vanity Fair photo-expose of the rich and powerful, tacky and corrupt, brought to burnished, big screen life. Yet, the real agenda of screenwriter Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) in his first piece written directly for the movies is to taunt us with the trappings of wealth and then peel back every sordid layer of the blood, pain, and (literal) human filth underpinning these lavish, undeserved lifestyles.

Much ink may be spilled about Diaz’s … er.. relations with a yellow Ferrari in the film, but that scene (notably Bardem’s exasperated monologue, Diaz’s keen power-play, and Bardem’s and Fassbender’s wry facial expressions) is dynamite – funny, distressing, horrifying. It is a perfect snapshot of the scuzzy glitz personified by these Machiavelli-meets-Jersey Shore super-thugs.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Finally, we made our way to Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, a film unfairly painted with the broad brush of box office failure. Yes, it has a script that devolves into train wreck – the final act squanders the spidery intrigue of the film’s first two-thirds with some US-government silliness led by the otherwise reliable Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci. However, Benedict Cumberbatch sparkles as Julian Assange, whose controversial website WikiLeaks is the film’s chief subject matter.

Condon takes his time tracing the rise of WikiLeaks, a website that effectively shielded a whole host of geopolitical and corporate whistle-blowers from those powerful enough to otherwise bully them into submission. Condon doesn’t lose his audience in cyberpunkery and technobabble; rather, he delivers strong characters in an easy-to-follow (if at times unconventional) entrepreneurial narrative, highlighted by quick edits, blessedly appreciated subtitles, hyperconscious symbolism and theatricality, and a great Daft Punk-meets-Kraftwerk-meets-Blondie score.

Assange, who in real life famously disparaged Cumberbatch and his performance and the film itself, actually comes off a sympathetic character. Assange’s chronic disappointment with the world and its inhabitants has turned him into the ultimate underdog, railing against a crushingly capitalistic infrastructure that espouses free speech while secretly depriving it at every turn.

Perhaps it is my predilection as fall edges closer to winter to turn inward and seek patterns where they may or may not exist, but, to my mind, all three pieces – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate – centered on a singular theme: that the choices we make to seek, reveal, or bury the truth – any truth – affect our futures irrevocably.

At some point, in all three pieces, some character ruminates on the pointless energy of grief and regret and that, once the decision is made to lie or to tell the truth, events are set in motion that can never be undone. The heroes and anti-heroes of these works are all haunted by truth – revealing it, hiding it, weaponizing it – and, as a consequence, we audience members depart the darkened theatre wrestling with the specters created by our own life choices, from childhood to the present.

Twerking, tongue all a-twangle: Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Lord, I’m tired of all the Miley-hatin’. She’s a cute gremlin of a girl trying to distance herself from a smothering Disney-funded-life, for which she should probably feel very grateful. But who can blame her for trying to express her own personality outside the pervasive marketing bubble of the Mouse House?

The last time I felt this over-protective of a pampered, overpaid pop princess was was when Britney shaved her noggin and started hitting people over the head with umbrellas (ellas, ellas, ellas, ay!). Wow, I LOVED that period of Britney’s career!

And the first time I felt this way was when Madonna released the underrated Erotica album and overrated Sex book (and completely bat-sh*t movie Body of Evidence) to much over-heated media alarm during my sophomore year of college. Yeah, Britney and Madonna survived quite well (thank you very much) without my nerdish big brotherly over-worry…and I suspect Miley will too.

I don’t typically review music albums here (though I buy a lot of them). However, I have zero interest in the current slate of Oscar-bait Fall films. I do not want to watch Gravity‘s Sandra Bullock moon around, quite literally, as an astronaut divorced from her George Clooney-piloted shuttle (really?!?! who cast that one?!!?).  Nor do I want to suffer through Captain Phillip‘s Tom Hanks besieged by nautical pirates straight from central casting. (Now, if Johnny Depp’s fey, bejeweled Jack Sparrow made an appearance in either film, I might check them out, but no…)

SO, with that said, you, dear reader, are getting a micro-review of Miley Cyrus’ unfortunately titled CD (or whatever the download generation calls them) Bangerz. And, you know what? It’s freaking fantastic.

Why did Miley feel the need to twerk, tongue all a-twangle, in nude-colored underwear on MTV last month? ‘Cause no states, neither red nor blue, would set her free of her godawfully tangled Hannah Montana wig and the Disney-fied alter ego that it represented.

But you know what (again)? Ain’t nobody talkin’ ’bout Hannah now… so good on ya’, Miley!

How about the album? Hey, it’s a pop album, so it’s going to be a catch-all-of-crazy … and a darn infectious one. There are beautifully melodic offerings like album opener “Adore You” and monster hit “Wrecking Ball” (naked Miley video notwithstanding).

However, the real winners are when Miley lets her freak flag FLY – nothing like a liberal progressive redneck who doesn’t give one rat’s a$$ what any of us think, putting together an album on sale at both Target and Wal-Mart … with varying bonus tracks for retail!

What the heck does that preceding sentence mean? Check out “4X4,” Miley’s ode to monster trucks, with a special appearance by singer/rapper Nelly, that sounds like the track Jessica Simpson should have contributed to The Dukes of Hazzard soundtrack. Or “FU” (title self-explanatory) that sounds like a bizarro mash-up of The Scissor Sisters and The Sherman Brothers and that pretty much tells ex-fiance Liam Hemsworth that (without question) Cyrus is over him … and, for that matter, over all swaggering dudes by the sound of it.

Of course “We Can’t Stop” (which alongside fellow Hollywood-progeny Robin Thicke’s “Parallel Lines” was an inescapable 2013 summer anthem) is zanily fantastic. But the album standout is (unfortunately) a bonus track “On My Own.” This is Miley’s big pop anthem, a hybrid of the best stripper-pole-Britney-Spears and persecuted-dance-pop-Michael-Jackson. I can’t get enough of that song.

There are many other great tracks: the Pharrell Williams-produced “#getitright” (I hate that hashtag gimmick and I hate boudoir come-on songs, but darn if this one isn’t catchy) or uber-pissed-off stomper “Do My Thang” or delightfully subversive “Someone Else” (which has Madonna-esque fun interpolating 1 Corinthians 13:4 … you know, that whole “Love is patient, love is kind” claptrap).

It’s a fun album and possibly a great one. Who cares what Miley had to do to get our attention! It worked. It made me buy the CD, and I’ve been listening to it all week.

And one more thing… As much as I love Annie Lennox, Sinead O’Connnor, Kelly Clarkson, and all the other pop divas who have thrown acid in Miley’s face, all of their critiques come off as sour grapes. This next generation-post-feminist-icon-in-the-making is “doing her own thang” and telling all of us to go take a flying leap … as we line up eagerly in the check-out line to buy her special edition CD … with bonus tracks!

Runs and jumps and leaps and squints: Jack Reacher

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Tom Cruise’s latest Jack Reacher is the cinematic equivalent of fast food, albeit slightly nicer fast food…like Subway. It is pleasant, even rather enjoyable and with a touch of nutritional value…but imminently forgettable.

Apparently, this movie is an adaptation of a book series, with which I admit I have zero familiarity. It is clunkily episodic, like one of those goony Janet Evanovich novels…though blessedly without the audience having to suffer through Katherine Heigl this time. (See: One for the Money…no, wait, please DON’T see One for the Money…it was godawful). It also has a fun Sherlock Holmesian procedural-featuring-a-quirkily-flawed-antihero vibe.

Tom Cruise is actually a delight as the titular character. I have to admit since his Oprah couch-jumping episode I have enjoyed his subsequent movie output’s steady parade of unhinged, tightly wound, micro men. He has a niche, and he does it well.

(As an aside, I also started liking Britney Spears a lot more after her umbrella-wielding, head-shaving meltdown. Not sure what that says about me.)

The rest of the film doesn’t fare as well. It is entertaining throughout…but just don’t think about any of it too hard. The movie’s tone is ALL over the map, veering wildly from gritty thriller to methodical potboiler to camp action-fest. Robert Duvall pops up unnecessarily in the final act in his typical grizzled, cranky old wise man with a heart of gold role. Richard Jenkins is wasted as a dubiously motivated D.A., and Rosamund Pike is just surprisingly bad, in fact stultifyingly stiff, as Reacher’s defense attorney sidekick.

The plot is fairly conventional as Reacher runs and jumps and leaps and squints to find the real killer in a too-close-to-current-headlines sniper shooting. The motivation when finally revealed is like something from an episode of 70s-era Dallas, and Werner Herzog’s villain even worse, like J.R. Ewing if he was raised in Das Boot.

The film lurches toward some interesting commentary about how our military/industrial complex can churn out and abandon broken souls for whom violence and gunfire are the only language they know. But just as quickly as the film touches on an intriguing socioeconomic critique about America’s preoccupation with firearms, it flies into a well-paced, lovingly-edited chase scene, and the insightful moment is gone.

There was potential here for a fun yet intelligent popcorn flick, a la Skyfall. In fact, Tom Cruise seems like he was primed and ready to be in such a movie. It’s a shame that director Christopher McQuarrie, so good with The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie, showed up ready to direct a very special episode of CH*Ps.