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

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

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

From Sunset Boulevard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for recommending this! Love you!

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

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

That successful effort certainly shines forth as the highlight of my high school days. “Bye Bye Birdie” in Columbia City

So proud of my mom! “That successful effort certainly shines forth as the highlight of my high school days.” – Susie Sexton, who played Rose in “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1964, the first musical performed in Columbia City High School’s Newell Rice Auditorium. 55 years later, Columbia City High School brings “Bye Bye Birdie” back to the CCHS stage this November as the farewell musical for the current building. Opens tomorrow night! https://www.thepostandmail.com/content/musical-pays-tribute-first-performed-cchs-stage

https://www.thepostandmail.com/content/musical-pays-tribute-first-performed-cchs-stage

“With the combined efforts of musicians, dancers, drama enthusiasts, stage managers and light-ing technicians, the Senior Class of 1964 presented Columbia City’s first musical comedy, Bye Bye Birdie,” reads the article from the Columbian, the 1964 yearbook of Columbia City Joint High School.

Be prepared to put on a happy face as, 55 years later, Columbia City High School brings “Bye Bye Birdie” back to the CCHS stage this November as the farewell musical for the current building. A cast of more than 35 students will act, sing and dance their hearts out for audiences on Friday, Nov. 15 and Saturday, Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. in the Newell Rice Auditorium

With Director Shane Barkley

Set in the late 1950’s, “Bye Bye Birdie” is a romantic musical comedy revolving around the incredible popularity of Conrad Birdie (Ray Barrand), an Elvis-like rock & roll star who’s being drafted into the Army, which puts his publicity agent and songwriter Albert Peterson (Jack Claypool) into something of a pickle. Peterson’s sweetheart, Rosie (Sidney Basham), comes up with a last-ditch nationwide publicity scheme to get Conrad on to the Ed Sullivan Show and plant a lucky last kiss on a teenage fan before heading off overseas. When Kim MacAfee (Ella Kirchner) of Sweet Apple, Ohio wins the honor, all the telephones in her small town ring off the hook, and the entire town reels with anticipation. Kim’s boyfriend, Hugo (Daniel Booker), can’t take the humiliation of his lady love’s televised lip-lock. Rose can’t take another minute of Albert’s distracted ways. And Sweet Apple can’t take its teens’ riotous rebellion, inspired by the arrival of bad-boy Birdie. Will Sweet Apple ever be the same?

“Been waiting for someone to tell me the color of MY wind.” Vanessa Williams at Detroit’s Motor City Casino Sound Board

Vanessa Williams 4Vanessa Williams is an interesting figure in pop culture. One of the most (only?) successful (post-pageant winners) of “Miss America” … Lee Meriwether notwithstanding?

Sound Board 2Yet, can she still be considered “Miss America” when she was de-crowned after her Penthouse pictorial scandal mid-way through her reign?

Yet, she was reinstated this year because even the “Miss America” people realized that, in this day and age of Gaga and Miley and … Trump, that maybe zapping the title of one of the few contestants to actually have a viable career (Grammy/Tony-nominations, Top 40 hit songs, a freaking Disney theme) was kinda dumb?

Sound BoardShe’s had starring roles on just about every ABC dramedy of the past 15 years (e.g. Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives), and she has become, more or less, America’s b-list sweetheart.

Heck, she even plays Alan Cumming’s love interest now on The Good Wife – that’s a pair of celebrities who unexpectedly crawled from our nation’s puritanically judgmental margins to stand triumphant in the hazy comfort-glare of middle-America’s beloved boob tube. And they play a couple (sort of). Now that is something!

Vanessa WilliamsSo, when I got a panicky email from Ticketmaster last week, breathlessly urging me to “buy one-get one free” of her still copiously available tickets for Sunday’s performance at Motor City Casino’s “Sound Board” night club, you betcha I snapped up two.

And I’m so glad I did.

Her show is like a comfortably chunky, still stylish, but totally retro sweater in the back of your closet. It is 90-minutes of timeless nostalgia, a little funky and a lot soothing with a smidge of regret that whatever you thought you would be doing years later and however you thought you’d be changing the world just didn’t quite happen. And that’s ok. (This may be one of my worst/most confessional metaphors ever.)

Vanessa Williams 2Williams was one of the stand-bys in my mix-taped 90s/00s life soundtrack: from the Teena Marie-lite blast of her debut The Right Stuff through the adult-contemporary fog of The Sweetest Days, through the edgy post-divorce Alanis-ish angst of Next through her reinvention as a Broadway Baby in Into the Woods, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Sondheim on Sondheim, culminating in the inevitable (and kinda genius) post-relevance cover songs albums Everlasting Love and The Real Thing.

I’ve stuck by Williams, as a singer and as an actor – a performer who always embraced an underdog’s moxie and the reprobate’s swagger, from her sparkling turn in the ABC TV-adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie to the standout scenery-chewer in soapy melodrama Soul Food.

Vanessa Williams 5Her stage show hit all those notes, covering the hits we love and the ones we’ve forgotten: “Dreamin’,” “Love Is,” “Oh, How the Years Go By,” “Betcha Never,” “The Sweetest Days,” “Colors of the Wind,” and, of course, signature torch song “Save the Best for Last.”

Every number was delivered with smooth sophistication and aplomb, with the polish of a performer who dove into the muck, climbed out if it, and narrowly avoided a life of cruise ship dinner theatre performances (but still carries a few of those blue plate special, “so happy to be here with you fine folks” tics).

Her band is a tight jazz and R&B combo, and they have played with her for 20+ years. It shows. With two keyboardists, two guitarists, and one drummer as well as two dedicated backing vocalists and additional vocals from some of the instrumentalists, Williams received exceptional musical support. The band showed such range, from disco to blues, ballads to soul; they could do it all … gorgeously.

Martinis and Little Caesars pizza ... only at Motor City Casino

Martinis and Little Caesars pizza … only at Motor City Casino

Carmen Ruby Floyd

Carmen Ruby Floyd

She also featured back-up singer Carmen Ruby Floyd (an accomplished Broadway vet in her own right) who delivered a knock-out “Creole Love Call,” from the Broadway revue After Midnight.

Martinis and Pizza 2Williams gave us a few carefully guarded insights into her tabloid storybook life, just teasing enough to let us know she hates her ex-husbands (still), loves her current (third), thinks her four kids are the best things she’s ever done, and really thinks Stephen Sondheim and Barbara Cook are the bees’ knees.

She did bring down the house with one joke in particular, noting that after Williams performed Oscar-winning “Colors of the Wind” at the Academy Awards, Whoopi Goldberg quipped, “I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me the color of my wind.”

Vanessa Williams 3The highlights for me of this stellar show? A one-two punch of Pocahontas’ “Colors of the Wind” and encore “Harvest for the World” (Isley Brothers). The lyrics for both detail, in a strikingly similar blend of the hopeful and the cynical, how this world and its resources and those inhabiting the Big Blue Marble demand an appreciation and a respect that transcend the commercial, the crass, and the opportunistic.

I know that Williams has always championed progressive causes, and I’m guessing she’s a longtime friend of Mother Earth, but from her delivery of these two numbers, I daresay she is about as “eco-friendly” and socially conscious as they come. Can’t beat a pop legend who takes the time to wring a social message or two from her back catalog of hits.

Thanks, Vanessa – come back to Motown soon, please!

____________________________

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.