“I’m a blunt instrument, and I’m damn good at it.” Mary Poppins Returns, Bumblebee, and Aquaman

For the past few years now, Disney and Lucasfilm have had a lock on the holiday blockbuster season with a little, revived franchise named Star Wars. Alas, the wheels fell of that wagon when the underrated, under-performing origin story Solo debuted in theatres this May with a thud, and there was no end-of-year galactic adventure to follow.

Into this December’s “let’s thumb our noses at Oscar bait” box office breach rushed Warner Brothers’/DC’s Aquaman, Paramount’s Transformers prequel Bumblebee, and Disney’s own Mary Poppins Returns. By some strange twist of fate, the fish king roundly beat the giant robot and the buttoned-up British nanny in ticket sales in their collective first weekend of release.

I am certain that all of these popcorn epics will clean up, though, in the gray and dreary vacation days following Christmas, as they each bring a great deal of heart, just enough ingenuity, and a comforting if lightly derivative familiarity.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Still. Today or never. That’s my motto.” – Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) in Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns is, yes, practically perfect. Predictable and formulaic? Mayhaps. But it doesn’t matter. You’ll laugh and cry, occasionally scratch your head … at times all three simultaneously. You’ll love it nonetheless … in great part due to Emily Blunt’s bonkers, measured, heartfelt commitment to the title role.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Not dissimilar to Disney’s decades-later reboot Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mary Poppins Returns feels like a subtle remix on the original film’s greatest hits.

The screenplay by David Magee dutifully follows the same story beats as Julie Andrews’ flick – for example:

  • a crabby dad (little Michael Banks, portrayed poignantly by Ben Whishaw, all grown-up and repeating the sins of his father, but in a mopey/angsty widower way);

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  • a politically woke sister (Emily Mortimer’s Jane Banks, the sunniest class warrior you’ll ever see, taking the place of Glynis Johns’ suffragette Mrs. Banks);
  • some lost soul children who need to rediscover the joys of imagination;
  • a no-good banker (Colin Firth, all sleazy charm as nothing says holiday kids movie like the threat of foreclosure!);

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

  • a winking-wise lamplighter instead of a chimney sweep (Lin-Manuel Miranda being slightly less insufferable and overeager than usual … and, yes, he raps, sort of … once);
  • and a finale that swaps out balloons for kites, and throws in Angela Lansbury for good measure … in case you’d forgotten about Mary Poppins‘ knock-off Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The score by Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) is perfectly fine, but follows a similar path as the script, presenting new numbers that evoke the overly familiar tunes of yore and serving similar narrative purposes. “Spoonful of Sugar” becomes “Can You Imagine That?” to get the ornery kids to embrace bathtime. “A Cover is Not the Book” (the best number in the new film) is an animated fantasia a la “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is an ode to the unappreciated lamplighters (who even do some BMX- style bicycle tricks?!?), not unlike “Step in Time.” And so on.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Rob Marshall’s direction (Into the WoodsNineChicago) is effective, if workmanlike, evoking the past film through iconography, color palette, choreography, and overall composition. Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t wow as much as it sedates the viewer, and the film never quite escapes the physical confines of the sound-stages upon which it was obviously filmed.

In the end, though, this is Blunt’s show, and she is an absolute pip. I could watch her read the phone book as Mary Poppins, with a knowing glance here, an arched eyebrow there, and a master plan to make all of us decent again. And that is why we all need a movie (and a damn nanny) like Mary Poppins Returns.

“The darkest nights produce the brightest stars.” – Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) in Bumblebee

If you’d told me the tone-deaf, garish, migraine-inducing, jingoistic Transformers film franchise would eventually yield one of the sweetest, warmest, funniest, family-friendliest “girl-and-her-[robot]-dog” coming-of-age yarns since, say, the Paddington movies, I’d have sold you my vintage Hasbro figures for $1. But here we are. Bumblebee, the sixth (!) installment in this series, jettisons director Michael Bay (praise be!), adds nuanced and charming leading lady Hailee Steinfeld, and delivers a lovely cinematic homage to simpler sci-fi allegories of the Spielbergian 80s.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Travis Knight, Oscar-nominated director of Kubo and the Two Strings, picks up the reins from Bay, working from an almost pastoral (!) script by Christina Hodson that wisely puts human/robot emotion and familial interaction before special effects and mind-numbing battle sequences (although there are still about two or three too many of those).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Borrowing liberally from producer Steven Spielberg’s own E.T. (and at this point, that’s just fine), the plot relates Autobot warrior Bumblebee’s arrival on earth, circa 1987. Within moments, the big, yellow, bug-eyed ‘bot finds himself used and abused by the American military (sparkling John Cena, wryly channeling every “shoot first, ask later” cinematic armed forces cliche). Bumblebee is eventually, inadvertently rescued from a junkyard by a plucky, sweet teenage girl Charlie Watson (Steinfeld) looking to rediscover the love of her deceased father at the bottom of a bin of used auto parts. Unsung Pamela Adlon is harried brilliance as Charlie’s befuddled and exasperated mother Sally.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Steinfeld is still coasting a bit on her stellar Edge of Seventeen performance as a misunderstood adolescent with a dazzling heart of gold buried under a sullen, surly, glowering pout. I guess this is her niche, for now, and it works to great effect in Bumblebee as well.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Two broken souls – in this case pubescent and robotic – heal one another by giving voice to the underdog and by waving a Breakfast Club fist in the face of institutional repression. I dug it. And the exquisitely curated soundtrack of late FM 80s hits adds an unexpected and refreshing layer of musical-comedy-esque commentary to a movie about giant robots taking over our planet.

“I’m a blunt instrument and I’m damn good at it.” Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) in Aquaman

I enjoyed Aquaman a lot, but could have used about 30 minutes less of blurry aquatic battles and about ten minutes more of authentic wit. Nonetheless, this is a visually stunning film that never takes itself too seriously and with the wisdom to assemble a world-class cast. Throw The Once and Future King, Black Panther, Tron, Flash Gordon, Jewel of the Nile, Krull, Thor, Big Trouble in Little China, Hamlet, and Lord of the Rings into a Mad Libs blender and you yield this wonderfully loony pic.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Momoa is nothing but utterly charming in interviews. A great actor? Meh. But a star? Absolutely. That said, he looks great, but I couldn’t help feeling like some of his best lines likely landed on the cutting room floor to make way for more CGI soldiers riding giant seahorses. That’s a shame. The best parts of this film are the human parts. Nicole Kidman deserves a medal for making the Splash-meets-Terminator opening sequence of her Atlantean queen meeting cute with a Maine lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), playing house, and popping out a half-breed sea-prince baby not only palatable, but poignant and downright thrilling.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Taken at a superficial level, the plot is almost identical to Black Panther‘s. Two beefy men square off to rule a hidden, technologically advanced kingdom with the “bad guy” claiming his rule will right the wrongs of the outside world (in Black Panther, it was racial divide, and, in Aquaman it is pollution and global warming). Black Panther has more nuance in its conflict and thereby the stakes are higher.

Aquaman telegraphs its punches, so it is quite obvious from the minute Aquaman’s/Arthur Curry’s half-brother Orm (a dolphin-sleek Patrick Wilson) enters the screen that he is basically a nogoodnik, regardless his sweet speeches about keeping the seven seas free of man-made detritus. He’d like to buy the world a Coke, as long as you keep the plastic six-rings, than you very much. But, with Aquaman, the fun is in the journey, not necessarily the destination. And Wilson is terrific, by the way.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Director James Wan (Furious 7, Insidious) takes his sweet time getting us to Arthur’s inevitable victory over and acceptance by both land and sea. The visuals are sumptuous, even if the running time is gluttonous. There are moments of true wonder – any time Momoa communes with the creatures of the deep, for instance – and, on the balance, the film is a joy for those who have hoped DC could really start having fun with their characters.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The pitch perfect Wonder Woman seems less like an anomaly now and more like the beginning of a new, humane, inclusive direction for DC’s movies. I’ll consider my 2.5 hours watching Aquaman an investment in that future.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, in 2018, we traded one time-worn, bloated Star Wars entry for three heartfelt, loving, and, at times, inspiring homages to other past fantasy hits. I think that’s a decent, if safely unimaginative, return.

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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.

“This is the last day we will be this young.” Girls Trip

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Girls Trip is so bawdy and raucous and, yes, delightful that it makes Bridesmaids look like Anne of Green Gables. Yet, there is something more significant than jaw-dropping raunch in the shared DNA of these two films. (And isn’t it troubling and a little sad that we are still comparing any ribald comedy featuring a group of female friends to one admittedly wonderful flick from six years ago? For every one Bridesmaids or Girls Trip, there are about 48 more gross-out comedies featuring men, and those don’t all get compared to The Hangover.)

No, what brings these two films together – Girls Trip and Bridesmaids – is heart and humanity but, most especially, the thrilling audacity to critique patriarchy and to celebrate female agency and intelligence through the cinematic hook of unrepentant madcap naughtiness.

Such a shame that there aren’t more movies like that. “It’s a hoot,” as one satirically out-of-touch business executive observes when Girls Trip‘s leads derail a televised cooking show midway through the film, but, dammit, if she isn’t right.

Portraying the “Flossy Posse,” a quartet of old college buddies whose wit is only superseded by their moxie is an A-team of crackerjack comic talent: Queen Latifah (Chicago, Bringing Down the House, Beauty Shop), Jada Pinkett Smith (Gotham, Set It Off), Regina Hall (Scary Movie), and deliciously scene-stealing Tiffany Haddish (Keanu).

As only movie “logic” can represent, the friends have pursued wildly divergent careers: celebrity gossip blogger, clinician, self-help guru, and businesswoman (respectively). The fact that this sitcom setup works as well as it does is a testament to this foursome’s talents as well as to Malcolm D. Lee’s smoothly effervescent direction and blackish‘s duo Kenya Barris’ and Tracy Oliver’s empathetic and intuitive script. The initial scenes depicting each of the four leads in their daily lives crackle with comic tension and a heightened but lovely reality.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hall’s character Ryan Pierce is on the fast-track to superstardom, aided and abetted by her hunky former pro-football player husband Stewart, as portrayed with just the right balance of glitz and menace by Mike Colter (The Good Wife, Luke Cage). She is invited to offer the keynote speech at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans at the same time a large discount retailer is courting her and her husband to launch a lifestyle line of clothing and household goods. (Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous. It is. And the movie knows this too. Thank goodness.) Ryan decides to invite her buddies to join her for, you guessed it, a “girls trip” to counteract the fact that they’ve all grown apart over the past few years, and the foursome boards a plane and head to New Orleans. As Ryan tells the group, “This is the last day we will be this young.”

Pretty quickly, they all realize that the picture perfect lives they purport to lead are all kind of a mess, and, through the course of a their long weekend (and some truly audacious comic set pieces I can’t even begin to describe here), they reclaim the people they once were. If you aren’t choked up when Hall finally delivers that keynote and talks about the dreams and hopes she had as an individual back in college and how life and her rocky marriage have derailed her from being her most authentic self, well, you’ve got a heart of stone. Or you are under 40.

[ADDENDUM: Susanna Leonard noted on LinkedIn: Bone picking: ‘Or you’re under 40’ – I promise you, women in their 30s can identify quite well with losing the dreams of their college-years. I finished college almost 15 years ago… I think I get it.” Right on, Susanna – I stand corrected. I was viewing strictly from the POV of a 40-something – the exact age of the film’s characters, in fact – and that was wrong. I appreciate that you took the time to read and to comment.]

On its surface, Girls Trip is just a sassy, raunchy summer night at the movies, and, on that level alone, it will be quite a crowd-pleaser. However, the depth of love and anger roiling underneath the surface of these women’s 25-year-long friendship has an authenticity and relatability seldom captured in this genre of film.

Haddish is the nuclear bomb in their midst. Forgive me yet another Bridesmaids comparison, but she is the Melissa McCarthy who swipes the picture away yet somehow remains a consummate ensemble player, elevating everyone to a higher level of performance. She is the quartet’s trickster and its broken/beating heart, who blithely ignores bad news and good advice and emerges victorious in any situation. She is a revelation.

But, then so is Smith – I’d forgotten what an actor she can be. Yes, she can play the anarchic spitfire in her sleep. (Her crime boss Fish Mooney was the only reason to watch Gotham – if there were an Emmy for “best use of lacquered fingernails,” she’d have ten.) And I tire of watching her and husband Will walk the red carpet as if they just descended from Mount Olympus. So, I had my doubts when I realized she was playing the requisite frumpy fuddy duddy in the group. She is a wonder in the part, rediscovering the impish joys of her youth, yet never devolving into self-indulgent clowning and always retaining the anxious, caring core of her character. When she proudly emerges with four bedazzled denim vests for her pals to wear on their trip and is told dismissively by the others that her sartorial efforts look like they belong to “the My Little Pony motorcycle club,” her hurt is as palpable as the line is glibly funny.

Queen Latifah is the only cast member who seems a bit lost amidst the shenanigans. Her character is faced with mounting debts and a failed career, and there is a melodramatic tension introduced at the midpoint between her character and Hall’s. It doesn’t completely work, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the picture either. Consequently, Latifah is forced to react knowingly to the broader bits Smith and Haddish get to explore and carry the maudlin moments when the quartet have their predictable (though really well played) final act meltdown. Latifah typically has such a presence, and, in Girls Trip, she ends up being a bit of a background player. In the inevitable sequel, maybe she’ll regain her edgy footing.

So grab thee a cosmo and a bag of popcorn and your best pals, and head over to the cinema posthaste for a weekend on the town with these screwball comediennes of the 21st century. They are a hoot.

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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.

“I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.” Jackie (2016)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What is a real flesh-and-blood human being actually feeling in the midst of historical crisis? Forget how a history book packages the moment or how a watercolor painting inspires or what a media soundbite mythologizes or what the gossip-mongers would have us believe. What does the heart and mind actually experience when all hell is breaking loose around one, and how does that manifest in terms of integrity and leadership?

That is the central conceit of Jackie, starring Natalie Portman, about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (later Onassis) and how she responded to and dealt with the assassination of her husband, quite literally in. her. lap.  This movie doesn’t make it easy on the viewer. Director Pablo Larrain traffics in visceral terrain, leaving your Hallmark Hall of Fame standard biopic in a dusty heap. Jackie Kennedy was an avowed Francophile, and the film itself has a gauzy French impressionist feel throughout, like a nauseating bad dream that folds in on itself, confounding the viewer with abstract symbolism and illuminating through eerie parallels. Even the musical score, which I found deeply affecting, has a jarring dissonance as beautiful as it is horrifying. In fact, the notes and chords used wouldn’t be out of place in your average slasher movie, and maybe that’s what Jackie actually is?

I am not much of a Natalie Portman fan – I still find Black Swan confounding, and her run as Padme Amidala (Star Wars prequels) grates to this day – but I thought she was a revelation here. Much has been said of Portman’s replication of Jackie’s clipped upper-crust accent and her affecting of the First Lady’s mannerisms and style, but what made me give forth the ugly cries during Jackie‘s first twenty minutes was the juxtaposition of nervous, guarded Jackie filming her famed White House special with shots of her on that fateful day in Dallas, scared for her life and her future, grieving her husband, and trying to find a pathway out. In a deeply impactful conceit, the director contrasts Portman (as Jackie) filming the White House special and its then-revolutionary notion of restoring the presidential domicile as a means of ensuring legacy and respect, with the abrupt and cruel murder of arguably one of the brightest lights in American politics at that time, a light that represented for many citizens great hopes for the future. I personally found the sequence devastating, although I did note that I seemed to be the only person in my Ann Arbor theater crying like a fool. (#Softie.)

From there, Portman as Jackie sits down with a hard-boiled reporter (a solemn, dubious, and engaging Billy Crudup who looks and acts more like Darren McGavin’s prettiest nephew every day) to recount the events of that fateful day and of her overall perspective on her brief stint as the First Lady. What the film drives home, more clearly than any other Kennedy biography I’ve yet viewed (and I’ve seen a lot), is the ephemeral and fleeting moment in time Jack and Jackie actually spent in Washington, D.C., and how fiercely Jackie protected what remained of their legacy after the assassination. When asked by Crudup if she displayed her children opportunistically during President Kennedy’s funeral procession to gain comfort and security through sympathy and adulation, she responds coolly, “I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.”

The fiction of the film may very well be in the way Larrain positions Jackie as someone relentlessly documenting past, present, and future through an authoritarian’s view of narrative. The flick’s few humorous bits spin out of this perspective, as in the moment when Jackie, chain-smoking obsessively, notes to Crudup with firm certainty, “I don’t smoke.” An exchange like this, sardonically, is a breath of fresh air in Jackie‘s otherwise oppressive presentation.

Yet, this movie has to be oppressive.

Our society has gotten so cavalier about political rivalry and of threatening violence to those with whom we may differ philosophically. Consequently, this film becomes an essential part of our ongoing societal discourse. These deep cultural fissures in present-day America fall along many of the same socioeconomic, racial, gender, generational divides that wracked 1960s America. The ills of that decade (rampant assassinations, global conflict, violent protests) eventually became a kind of distant cultural wallpaper as time inevitably marched on. “Oh, we won’t ever be like that again,” we sighed collectively. Yet, here we are, perhaps worse than we were then; what happens if we don’t stop and think how violence and divisive rhetoric shatters families, shatters hope, and shatters our nation.

Jackie gets a bit muddled in its midsection, as narrative devices start to pile up: Jackie speaking to the reporter; Jackie speaking to a priest (the redoubtable John Hurt); Jackie chastising various cabinet members (including Attorney General and brother-in-law Bobby as played by Peter Sarsgaard who does a credible job relaying the protective anxiety of the character if not exactly nailing his look or cadences);  Jackie wandering around the White House listening to Camelot in a drunken stupor, trying on dresses and gathering up framed photographs by the armful. For some, this section will seem self-indulgent. For me, it reinforced what an inescapable nightmare this time must have been. Jackie got under my skin (in a good way), and created empathy and admiration for this woman trying to reclaim whatever power was left to her as life literally fell apart for her and for the world. Yet, even I would have trimmed about 20 minutes from the picture … and cut around three or four costume changes.

A little over a decade ago, my mother and I went to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and saw the exhibit of Jackie Kennedy’s life, fashion, and historical impact. Every suit she wore was like chain mail, tightly woven, crisp, tiny, Chanel. It struck both of us – even then – what kind of world she must have been guarding against, constructing such a structured, aggressively controlled, protective bubble (clothes, decor, fashion, history, routine, rigor) around herself.  I suppose now we know the answer, and, sadly, that world has changed very little, regardless of your particular political persuasion.  Jackie Kennedy had great wit and great intelligence, and Jackie, the film, does a fine job capturing the coiled ferocity of someone who could survive such tumult and emerge on the other side an icon. I found the film upsetting and inspiring – and that is about as American as anything can be

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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.

Penny Seats Theatre Company Announces Open Auditions for Sing Happy

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The Penny Seats Theatre Company is thrilled to announce open auditions for its upcoming show, Sing Happy!, a celebration of the work of the famed songwriting duo, John Kander and Fred Ebb.  Kander and Ebb wrote some of the most beloved musicals of all time, including Chicago, Cabaret, and others.  Sing Happy! will feature well-known favorites and hidden gems from the famed songwriters’ catalogue.

Directed by Thalia Schramm with Music Direction by R. MacKenzie Lewis, this show arrives just in time for Valentine’s Day, and will be presented in a dinner theater format in partnership with Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Restaurant on Main Street in Ann Arbor.

Auditions will be held on Sunday, October 23, 2016 from 6:00pm – 9:00pm in the Choir Room at Tappan Middle School, located at 2251 E. Stadium Blvd., Ann Arbor, MI 48104.  Auditioners should prepare and bring two contrasting 32-bar cuts of Kander & Ebb songs of their choice, along with a headshot and resume.  Rehearsals begin January 3, 2017, and performances are February 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, and 16.  All roles are paid.

Please contact pennyseats@gmail.com or call (734) 926-5346 to schedule a slot.

The rest of The Penny Seats’ 2017 Season will feature, in June, the world premiere of The Renaissance Man, a new comedy by Michigan’s award-winning playwright Joe Zettelmaier, who will direct it himself; in July, Peter and the Starcatcher, the daring and sweet prequel to J. M. Barrie’s beloved Peter Pan, directed by Phil Simmons; and in October, The Turn of the Screw, a two-person adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher of Henry James’ well-known psychological thriller, directed by Tony Caselli.

 

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ABOUT THE PENNY SEATS

We’re performers and players, minimalists and penny-pinchers.  We think theatre should be fun and stirring, not stuffy or repetitive.  We believe going to a show should not break the bank.  And we find Michigan summer evenings beautiful. Thus, we produce dramas and comedies, musicals and original adaptations, classics and works by up-and-coming playwrights. We also provide cabaret shows, acting classes, and wacky improv evenings.  And you can see any of our shows for the same price as a movie ticket.

 

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SPONSOR US!

If you’re interested in helping The Penny Seats have a great 7th season, then a SPONSORSHIP may be for you! Please contact Lauren London at pennyseats@gmail.com to find out how you/and or your company could receive free tickets to our shows, full-page ads in our programs and other wonderful benefits of being a sponsor!

 

For tickets, please visit our box office at http://www.pennyseats.org/box-office .

For more information, press interviews, photos or for press comps, please contact Lauren London, Penny Seats President at pennyseats@gmail.com or by phone at 734.846.3801

 

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img_6250Reel 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.

Penny Seats Theatre Company Announces Its 2017 Season

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Ann Arbor’s Penny Seats Theatre Company is set to open its seventh season this year, with four shows, the largest season the company has ever attempted. Through an operational support grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts, the company has expanded its offerings and will have a year-round presence.

 

First up in February is Sing Happy!, a celebration of the work of the famed songwriting duo, John Kander and Fred Ebb.  Kander and Ebb wrote some of the most beloved musicals of all time, including Chicago, Cabaret, and others. Sing Happy! will feature well-known favorites and hidden gems from the famed songwriters’ catalogue as the performers explore matters of the heart. Directed by Thalia Schramm with Music Direction by R. MacKenzie Lewis, this show arrives just in time for Valentine’s Day, and will be presented in a dinner theater format in partnership with Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Restaurant on Main Street in Ann Arbor.

 

The Penny Seats’ 2017 Summer Season will again feature two shows, running back-to-back in Ann Arbor’s West Park. In June, the group is proud to present the world premiere of Renaissance Man, a farcical look at Macbeth, as told by the workers at a Renaissance Faire. Renaissance Man tells the hilarious story of a hard-working Knight who dreams of transforming his beloved Faire, though his ambition proves unpopular among his co-workers.  The show is the work of Michigan’s award-winning playwright Joe Zettelmaier, who will direct it himself.

 

In July, the group will present Peter and the Starcatcher, the daring and sweet prequel to J. M. Barrie’s beloved Peter and Wendy. A play (with music), the show is based on the 2006 novel of a similar name by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, adapted for the stage by Rick Elice. The play opened on Broadway in 2012, receiving critical acclaim and Tony Award recognition, including a Best Actor statue for Christian Borle. The Penny Seats production will be directed by Phil Simmons, who serves on the theatre faculty at Eastern Michigan University.

 

Finally, just in time for Halloween, the company will perform The Turn of the Screw, a two-person adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher (who also authored What Corbin Knew, performed in the Penny Seats’ second season) of Henry James’ well-known psychological thriller and ghost story.

 

Executive Director Lauren London observes, “This is our most ambitious slate to date. When we started this venture six years ago, while we had grand visions, I don’t think any of us could have foreseen such rapid growth or the kinds of artistic acknowledgement we’ve received from the Southeast Michigan theatre community. We received our first Wilde Award nomination [Paige Martin, Urinetown] as a company in 2016, and have seen tremendous expansion of the talent desiring to work with us. Our audiences continue to multiply, and we are busier than ever. I’m so proud of this company, our board, and all the artists and community members who continue to join this adventure.”

 

In fact, the Penny Seats recently added James Cameron to the Board to head up the group’s business development and corporate fundraising efforts. Cameron is a successful attorney and businessperson, having served as Managing Member of Dykema’s Ann Arbor office for a number of years. Cameron lives in Ann Arbor with his wife Linda.

 

Cameron comments, “I’ve been a long-time supporter of the Penny Seats, never missing a production. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be able to play such a crucial role in ensuring the ongoing success of this group and their outreach to the Ann Arbor community. The future is indeed bright for the Penny Seats.”

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What: Sing Happy!: A Celebration of Kander and Ebb

When: February, 2017

Venue: Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Restaurant

318 S Main St, Ann Arbor, MI 48104

Show Dates for Sing Happy!

Sing Happy! will run on February 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, and 16  at 7:30pm

–tickets: Online – $30.00 for dinner-and-show combo; $15 for show-only

Directed by: Thalia Schramm

Music Director: R. MacKenzie Lewis

 

What: Renaissance Man

When: June 2017

Venue: West Park

215 Chapin St, Ann Arbor, MI 48103

Show Dates for Renaissance Man:

Renaissance Man will run on June 15 ,16, 17, 22, 23, 24, 29, 30, and July 1 at 7:00pm

-tickets: Online – $15.00        At the Door – $20.00

Directed by: Joe Zettelmaier

 

 

What: Peter and the Starcatcher

When: July 2017

Venue: West Park

215 Chapin St, Ann Arbor, MI 48103

Show Dates for Peter and the Starcatcher:

Peter and the Starcatcher will run on July 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, 27, 28, and 29 at 7:00pm

– tickets: Online: $15.00        At the Door: $20.00

Directed by: Phil Simmons

 

What: The Turn of the Screw

When: October 2017

Venue: TBD

Show Dates for Turn of the Screw: TBD

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ABOUT THE PENNY SEATS

We’re performers and players, minimalists and penny-pinchers.  We think theatre should be fun and stirring, not stuffy or repetitive.  We believe going to a show should not break the bank.  And we find Michigan summer evenings beautiful. Thus, we produce dramas and comedies, musicals and original adaptations, classics and works by up-and-coming playwrights. We also provide cabaret shows, acting classes, and wacky improv evenings.  And you can see any of our shows for the same price as a movie ticket.

 

SPONSOR US!

If you’re interested in helping The Penny Seats have a great 7th season, then a SPONSORSHIP may be for you! Please contact Lauren London at pennyseats@gmail.com to find out how you/and or your company could receive free tickets to our shows, full-page ads in our programs and other wonderful benefits of being a sponsor!

 

For tickets, please visit our box office at http://www.pennyseats.org/box-office .

For more information, press interviews, photos or for press comps, please contact Lauren London, Penny Seats President at pennyseats@gmail.com or by phone at 734.846.3801

Transformers: Age of Extinction – now on home video … “Should you be tempted to rent it … well, consider this a public service announcement.”

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Transformers: Age of Extinction

Thanks to wonderful Tom Joyce for re-posting my review of the godawful Transformers: Age of Extinction (on home video today). Tom writes:

The DVD release date of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” will be here in less than two hours, Eastern Standard Time. I believe that movie coming out on DVD, along with a hail of fire and the oceans turning to blood, is one of the signs of the Apocalypse cited in the Book of Revelation. Beware. Anyway, film reviewer Roy Sexton of Reel Roy Reviews has generously allowed me to run his review from the movie’s original theatrical release here. Should you be tempted to rent it … well, consider this a public service announcement.

Read the rest here: Transformers: Age of Extinction Review.

“Well, you brought your family and that is terrible parenting.” Transformers: Age of Extinction

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]

Have you ever seen a movie so astoundingly awful that you find yourself overwhelmed, gobsmacked, dumbfounded to the point you don’t even have words?

Yeah, Michael Bay, that’s the impact of your latest creation Transformers: Age of Extinction.

I knew going in that this would be a dumb, loud b-movie. I even relished the potential for mindless fun. I’ve seen the other three, forgettable as they are – though I don’t mind Dark of the Moon too much (either as a Pink Floyd album or as a Transformers flick). And, yes, Michael Bay has gotten to a point where every film he makes is him flipping the proverbial bird at liberal Hollywood … and at good taste.

But, good googly moogly, this installment may be final evidence that Bay’s cinematic nervous breakdown is totally complete.

I don’t even know if it’s worth bothering to summarize the plot. Mark Wahlberg, looking like a sad and puffy plumber in T-shirts two sizes too small, plays a down-on-his- luck single dad and robotic engineer (yeah, I know) in Texas who discovers a dilapidated semi-truck embedded in a dilapidated movie theater (yeah, I know). Of course, every shot is art-designed to look like a sepia-toned Abercrombie & Fitch ad … or a Buick commercial … all grungy, wholesome Americana.

Well, duh!, the truck turns out to be Autobot leader Optimus Prime hiding out from big bad CIA operatives led by Kelsey Grammer (yeah, I know) who is hunting down all the Transformers to mine their metal skin for something called “Transformium” (yeah, I know) that Stanley Tucci (shamelessly aping Steve Jobs) will use at his fabulously appointed tech company in Chicago/Hong Kong to create America’s own army of robots to defend us from future alien incursions (yeah, I KNOW).

It’s just not even any fun to ridicule this movie. The film is so self-consciously horrid that it’s like shooting rubber bands at a Teflon skillet.

The movie runs an interminable three hours, more or less, and is an unending series of chase scenes and things-blowed-up-real-good and tin-eared dialogue. I thought Zack Snyder was my go-to cinematic caveman, but I’d forgotten about Big Daddy Bay, whose male insecurity manifests itself in an avalanche of phallic images and orgasmic explosions and flag waving (?), not to mention some rather kinky torture scenes. Is this a kids’ movie? Ah, Michael Bay and his angry inch.

It goes without saying, that the heroes (whomever or whatever they are exactly) win the day and leave things wide-open for the inevitable sequel. This involves murdering a gaggle of CIA agents (cause the gubment is BAD, see?), destroying pretty much all of Hong Kong (cause no one is supposed to like the Chinese but they spend a lot of money going to movies so we’ll blow up Hong Kong cause it’s all sorta British and doesn’t really count), planting or not planting or destroying or flying away with some cosmic “seed” (subtle metaphor there!), and assorted other mayhem and corny one-liners all too inconsequential to delineate.

This movie is like comic book porn for FOXNews aficionados.

I suspect the next movie will be four hours long, with even more randomly racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic images and themes all edited together in the most confoundingly inept way possible.

(I suspect some internet trolls will tell me I’m mixing personal politics into my “objective” review. My blog. My site. Never said I was objective. What reviewer is? Viewing a film is a subjective, singular experience. Neener neener neener.)

And, in the inevitable fifth (!) Transformers movie (yet, only three Godfathers!), another A-list actor undoubtedly will be slumming it. At least in this “film,” Stanley Tucci (unlike franchise vets Frances McDormand and John Turturro) wisely realizes he is in a completely bonkers enterprise, allowing his character to just start screaming out obscenities like he’s having a Tourette’s-fueled meltdown.

Watching this film, I felt like joining him. It was pretty much the only joy I had the whole three hours.

I take that back. The greatest joy was that friends Jim and Sean braved this crap with me. And that, between our rounds of church pew giggles and guffaws (we weren’t the only ones doing so, I might add), they were jotting down all the godawful lines they couldn’t wait for me to include in this review. (In fact, I kept getting texts from Sean today asking, “When are you going to post it?!?!”)

  • From Sean: “I think you should definitely note that, thankfully, the movie is left with a cliffhanger, paving the way for Transformers 5! ‘When you look at the stars, think of them as my soul…’ – Optimus Prime.” Even Gary Cooper couldn’t have sold that clunker of a line.
  • From Jim: “Here’s your title … you know that quote thing you do? When Wahlberg is roughing up Tucci, blaming him for all the turmoil, Tucci replies, ‘…Well, you brought your family and that is terrible parenting.'” Tucci is a touch wittier than a CGI robot, so at least that gem elicits a chuckle or two … and is a nice little indictment of anyone who brings their kids to see this dreck.
  • From me: at the film’s conclusion, Nicola Peltz, who plays Wahlberg’s Lolita-90210 daughter, intones, “We don’t have a home, dad. It blew up.” No kidding.

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SUP YogaOn a totally unrelated note, my pal Alli asked me to give a plug to her yoga practice here in Ann Arbor. In fact, maybe this is the perfect antidote to the pain of seeing Transformers: Age of Extinction. That, PLUS you should go adopt a homeless animal (or two or three) – truly! THAT is some joy!

Here’s what Alli wrote …

“This is a little something to get people hopefully interested in SUP yoga. It’s a fun new activity and I really would like to see people get into it. It’s changed my life for the better. SUP Yoga is the art of moving and finding your center on a paddle board. I specialize in beginner classes. It is all done on water and it is an excellent opportunity to realize that one isn’t broken and that you can still do the most amazing things at any point in your life. It’s fun to float around and see the world from a new perspective. Thanks, Roy 🙂 ” More info at (734) 680-0904 or yoginifadia@hotmail.com  

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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.

Still nursing a grudge over Paint Your Wagon? Jersey Boys (film adaptation)

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]

Oh, for the love of all things holy, what went wrong with the film adaptation of Jersey Boys? I wish director Clint Eastwood would go back to yelling at chairs. I wasn’t sure he could get any more out of touch, and then I saw his film adaptation of the uber-popular Broadway show.

What is truly disappointing is that the stage musical (see my review of its Las Vegas residency here) is so expertly, effortlessly cinematic in its original incarnation. Intentionally episodic, Jersey Boys (live) glides along like a classic Cadillac from one Goodfellas-ish moment to another on the exquisite chassis of The Four Seasons’ hit songs.

Yes, the book is slight, but theatre director Des McAnuff knows that with enough pizzazz, flashy choreography, smooth-as-silk scene changes, and cheeky wit, the audience will be enraptured. Let the music speak for itself.

Eastwood on the other hand, while a self-admitted music-phile, makes the head scratching decision to bury the fizzy pop tunes under heaps of bad TV movie bio-drama. Seriously, did anyone bother to tell him this is a musical? Aren’t we past the point of self-consciousness over the genre, with ten-plus years of hit tuner films (ChicagoMama Mia!, Hairspray, Dreamgirls, Les Miserables) – not to mention tv series (GleeNashville) – under our collective belt?

Unfortunately, the majority of Jersey Boys‘ musical numbers on film are truncated to a verse and a chorus or used as background (playing on a radio!) while the actors – in bad wigs and later even worse old age makeup – struggle to make the life events of The Four Seasons interesting.

The ensemble cast soldiers through, but only Christopher Walken emerges completely unscathed. At this point in his career, that man could show up on an episode of The Bachelor and make it seem interesting.

Everyone else displays pained expressions as if they know Eastwood has ground this Tony Award-winning show to pulp. I was taken with Vincent Piazza (“Tommy DeVito”) and Erich Bergen (“Bob Gaudio”) who both exude a suitable amount of sparkle and nuance; I just wish they had been in a better movie. Sadly, John Lloyd Young (“Frankie Valli”), who won the Tony for his uncanny vocal pyrotechnics on Broadway, just seems constipated for the film’s entire 2 1/2 hour running time.

The only moment – and I mean the only moment – the movie truly comes alive is during the closing credits (!) sequence. Finally, we get a full-fledged musical number (“Oh, What a Night”), with joy and buoyancy and, yes, some cheesy backlot choreography. It’s like Eastwood grudgingly growled to his cast, “Okay, you can do some of this musical crap now. But it’s only at the end when people are walking out in disgust, popcorn stuck to their shoes. Anyone seen my chair?”

Maybe he’s still nursing a grudge about Paint Your Wagon and this is how he punishes us all? “Hey, you musical comedy kids, get off my lawn!”

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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.

Zippy, socially incendiary fun with a side of self-mythologizing: Motown the Musical in Chicago

Somewhere between the toxic camp of Dreamgirls and the theme park spectacle that is Motown the Musical, the real story of Berry Gordy and Diana Ross lives.

Currently playing at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, the Broadway transplant tells the tale of Motown Records’ founding and (ostensibly) the true life story of its chief mastermind Gordy and of his key preoccupation/inspiration call-her-MISS-Ross.

(Yes, this Metro Detroit resident – yours truly – had to travel to Chicago to see a musical about the Motor City. Ah, show biz. Why this tuner isn’t in permanent residence at Detroit’s Fox Theatre I will never know.)

What I enjoyed about the show is how seamlessly it blends all of the magical hits of the Motown era into one narrative, running the gamut from Joe Louis’ historic title bout victory to the Detroit race riots to Motown’s iconic 25th anniversary television special.

The ensemble is unbelievable. A relatively small cast literally portrays hundreds of characters, many of them etched into our collective memories: Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and on and on.

For the most part, the cast – who must have a thousand dressers backstage and racks upon racks of costumes and wigs – avoids devolving into cheap mimicry, giving us fully realized, albeit brief, glimpses into the lives of these pop music celebrities.

A few moments made me wince, particularly the portrayal of a young Stevie Wonder, but that may have just been my oversensitivity at the strange chuckles from an audience who seemed to find Wonder’s blindness a source of amusement.

I don’t know how this cast does this jam-packed, high energy, Jerome Robbins-on-caffeine-pills show night after night. They must have the aerobic health of decathletes.

Clifton Oliver as Gordy and Allison Semmes as Ross acquit themselves in a lovely fashion with roles that are just a bit too idolatrous. Given that Gordy is a producer, I guess that adoration is unsurprising.

Semmes gives a nuanced performance, introducing as much critique of Ross’ famed ambition as she was likely allowed, evolving from 17-year-old hopeful to seasoned diva before our very eyes.

Other standouts are Nicholas Christopher who gives us a sweet-hearted, nervous-headed Smokey Robinson (providing the show’s best comic moments) and Jarran Muse whose Marvin Gaye is both epic talent and maddening flake.

This isn’t a bad show. In fact it’s quite delightful. However, it is too long by at least 30 minutes. And at times the manner in which fairly significant historical moments are reduced to song and dance amidst pretty fantastic digital projections is a little goofy.

I wanted to love this show. I wanted to leave the theater with all of these marvelous songs dancing through my head. At times, however, I felt pummeled by Gordy’s self-mythologizing, to the point I wanted to spend the rest of my life listening to hair metal.

Go for the spectacle, the amazing costumes, the brilliant use of light and minimalist set pieces, but prepare yourself for a marathon. The talented cast redeems a marginal book and does yeoman’s work reminding us why Motown’s canon was and is such zippy, socially incendiary fun.

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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.

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Return to Sweethaven: Sting’s The Last Ship in previews in Chicago (review)

For all intents and purposes, Sting has musicalized what is arguably his greatest album The Soul Cages – full of warmth and sadness and Celtic rhythms – in his new show The Last Ship in previews at Chicago’s Bank of America theater.

It is a thing of beauty.

Directed expertly by Joe Mantello (Love! Valour! Compassion! and Wicked) with an efficiently insightful book by John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), The Last Ship paints the hardscrabble tale of an English community (based on Sting’s hometown experiences) whose sole industry – shipbuilding – has seen better days.

Against this backdrop, Gideon, who fled this life and the girl he loved (Meg), returns to find the son he never knew and the life he never wanted. Narrative tension comes from the “will they, won’t they” of Meg and Gideon resuming their romance. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I was pleasantly heartened by the believable outcome of that particular storyline.

The ensemble does marvelous work with Sting’s hypnotic score. The title song will be stuck in my head for weeks. And the key themes of class and faith and honoring one’s past will resonate with every viewer.

In fact, that is what works most wonderfully in this new production. Yes, the show anchors around a rather conventional love triangle, but the anxiety of a town trying to find its footing again as its chief economic foundation erodes is compellingly told.

Using minimalist design that evokes a number of locations (think “Jersey Boys” in the U.K.), Sting and Logan and Mantello populate this seaside village with a cast of characters that would not be out of place in Popeye’s Sweethaven.

Standouts in the cast include Michael Esper (“Gideon”), Rachel Tucker (“Meg”), Sally Ann Triplett (joyously Emily Watson-esque as cheeky “Peggy”), Jimmy Nail (sounding uncannily like Sting himself as “Jackie”), and Fred Applegate (“Father O’Brien”).

I’m not sure if it is kosher for one to critique a show still In previews … so don’t consider this a review. Rather, think of it as a shameless plug to go check out this fabulous, grounded, melodic production either in Chicago or when it magnificently sails to a town near you. It will be on Broadway soon.

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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.20140611-225534-82534412.jpg