Notes from the war front

Back when life was (sort of) normal …

VIDEO: Do you love Sinatra, Bennett, Darin, King Cole? Journey into a night club where every musical era is represented – swing, jazz, big band, lounge, Rat Pack and more. Enjoy this video of “Live from the Starlight Lounge,” our event this February that raised $23,000 for American Cancer Society.

View here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Ke1Pv65DwTY&feature=youtu.be

ABOVE: Me with dear Legal Marketing Association friends and fellow international board members Brenda Plowman and Cynthia Voth

I wrote the below for wonderful friend Jennifer Simpson Carr of Furia Rubel Communications (and a fellow Legal Marketing Association leader) who was drafting this piece on coping during this present crisis: https://www.furiarubel.com/what-were-up-to/25-ways-to-maintain-positivity-and-mental-health-in-uncertain-times/. I wrote too much – per usual – but she was kind enough to include an excerpt. Here’s the entirety of what I sent to her…

I am offering this list of tips that I myself may be failing to follow. I’m putting them in writing in the hopes that they will become a script for me to hang onto my sanity in these troubling times … as we all suddenly find ourselves in the strange predicament of feeling trapped in our own homes, working remotely, uncertain of how long this will last and what effect it will have on the future:

– switch off social media – connection is important. A steady diet of anxiety, judgment, and fear? Not so much.

– tune out that competitive spirit and any voices (real or imagined) saying you aren’t doing enough. Right now staying healthy and taking care of one another? That is PLENTY.

– avoid people who are using this crisis as a platform to further their own ambitions. ‘Nuff said.

– turn off and disconnect. Keep reasonable hours. Yes, you may be saving on commuting time by working in your basement, but that doesn’t mean putting in 12 hour days. Turn work off, read a book, watch a movie, walk the dog, recharge. 

– don’t get in arguments with know-it-alls. None of us know how this story ends. Be calm, be gracious, walk away from trolls.

– from a work perspective, be sensitive to the burdens everyone is carrying. We need to stay the course on projects that will need our attention when this crisis has passed, while communicating information that our colleagues and clients actually need in this moment. We don’t need to be the source of ALL information on this crisis. There are a lot of other people who are doing that better than we are. Share information that is relevant and appropriate.

– most of all. Be kind. To yourself. To others. To this world.

ABOVE: Danny Wallace, me, Susan Ahern & Megan McKeon (Clark Hill) and Cameron Ireland (BoardEx)

Very proud of the below recognition… happened before all hell broke loose …

Managing Partners’ Forum Awards

– best marketing initiative

2020 winner: Clark Hill

More here: https://www.mpfglobal.com/awards/awards-2020/best-marketing-initiative.aspx

Clark Hill has grown from a regional US firm, to an international firm with 25 offices. Marketing and Business Development was no longer fit for purpose.

They embarked on an ambitious initiative to completely re-imagine their marketing function and make the most of their global potential, through a very clear and comprehensive design of the department and how it has impact as a cohesive central function for the firm.

The judges were particularly impressed by the scale of their research and project commitment, how they achieved buy-in at every level and how they have creatively used data and technology in the delivery and measurement of marketing success, and achieved remarkable results.

Winner’s quote: “We are thrilled and honoured to be recognized by Managing Partners Forum for the strategic and operational transformation of the Marketing and Business Development Department. This initiative was achieved by incredible multi-stakeholder collaboration, the design of an innovative technical infrastructure; and the implementation of a flexible, defined process. A key focus was the capture, organisation and analysis of data which brings a new layer to our firm’s competitive edge.” – Susan Ahern, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer, Clark Hill

Thank you, Columbia City Post & Mail!

Thank you to The Post & Mail Newspaper – in my hometown of Columbia City, Indiana – for this lovely coverage of my Legal Marketing Association – LMA International appointment. #lmamkt

Roy Sexton, director of marketing for Clark Hill Law, has been named treasurer-elect for the International Board of the Legal Marketing Association. He assumed his new duties January 1 and will be working to support the continued growth of LMA.

Founded in 1985, LMA is the universal voice of the legal marketing profession, a forum that brings together CMOs and entry-level specialists from firms of all sizes, consultants and vendors, lawyers, marketers from other professions and marketing students to share their collective knowledge. More than 90 percent of the largest 200 U.S. law firms employ an LMA member. Members at every stage in their career development benefit from LMA participation because the association’s broad array of programs and services can be tailored to their specific needs. Visit http://www.legalmarketing.org to read more about LMA.

Sexton joined Clark Hill in October 2018. In his role there, he oversees the firm’s communication professionals, guides its communication efforts, and works to enhance brand awareness. Clark Hill has 25 offices, including one in Dublin and one in Mexico City.

“I’ve been a member of LMA since 2011 when I made the transition from healthcare to legal. It may sound clichéd, but this organization has become a professional family to me. I have benefited exponentially from my involvement and the opportunities to write, present, lead that LMA has afforded me. I’m beyond thrilled at this opportunity to contribute to the future of this great association, and I look forward to serving our members well,” Sexton noted. Sexton has served as a board member, presenter, and content expert for the Legal Marketing Association. Most recently, he served as treasurer for the association’s LMA Midwest Region Board of Directors.

Before joining Clark Hill, Sexton served as marketing director at Kerr Russell, another Detroit-based law firm. He has more than 20 years of experience in marketing, communications, business development, and strategic planning, previously holding leadership positions at Deloitte Consulting, Oakwood Healthcare (now Beaumont Health), Trott Law, and Saint Joseph Mercy Health System.

Sexton holds a bachelor’s degree from Wabash College in Indiana, a master’s degree in theater from The Ohio State University, and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Michigan. He is a graduate of Leadership Detroit and Leadership A2Y, was a governor-appointed member of the Michigan Council of Labor and Economic Growth, and was appointed to the Michigan Mortgage Lenders Association Board of Governors in 2012. He chairs the marketing committee as a board member of Ronald McDonald House Charities Ann Arbor and chairs the governance committee as a board member of Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit. He is a published author with two books to his credit, culled from his blog of the same name ReelRoyReviews.com. He is an active speaker, emcee, and regional actor. Most recently, he appeared as “Buddy” in Theatre Nova’s acclaimed production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies, directed by Diane Hill. He received a BroadwayWorld “best actor” award for his turn as John Jasper in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

“I retain the right to be moved by those little things that nobody notices.” Cats (the movie!), Bombshell, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Little Women (2019), The House with a Clock in Its Walls, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Where’d You Go Bernadette?

We were the ONLY people in the theatre. And this was Cats’ second day showing at Columbia City’s Bones Theatre

“I retain the right to be moved by those little things nobody notices.” – Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

My favorite part of the Christmas to New Year’s gauntlet? Those empty days when the sky is gray and there are no obligations, and you can sit around in your sweatpants, shell-shocked and comatose from the holiday frenzy, vegetating in front of a movie or television screen (or both!).

“People will believe anything if you’re properly dressed.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him

Cats. O, Cats. Listen, it’s a weird effing show (read more here) that should have never been the success it was. And the lemming-like behavior that led audiences to fuel its decades long stage success is the same lemming-like behavior that is leading people to scorn the film in droves now. The film is a logical outgrowth of its goof-a$$ origins, and, by that low bar, it’s perfectly fine. Passably entertaining even. So, everyone STOP piling on because it’s fun to make fun of something you SHOULD have scorned in 1981. Too late now! Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) brings some inventiveness here and there, but as Rum Tum Tugger (a mush-mouthed Jason Derulo) might observe, it tends to get lost “in a horrible muddle.”

The human faces on CGI cat bodies are disconcerting (mostly in how they kind of float around and drift a bit), but I found the un-CGI’d human hands and feet even more repulsive. Rebel Wilson (Jenny Anydots) should not be allowed anywhere near a musical. Or a piano. Or karaoke. Or cockroaches. The group dance numbers should have all been cut, as pseudo-ballet is pretty but not much fun to watch in the cinema, and Hooper’s approach to filming said numbers is by turns monotonous and disorienting. Imagine Michael Bay’s Transformers singing disco-synth, day-glo show tunes.

Buried under the muck, there are decent performances yearning to break free. Ian McKellen is heartbreaking and campy as Gus the Theatre Cat. James Corden is James Corden! as Bustopher Jones (though his number has about 8 reprises too many). Judi Dench makes a really pretty Persian Cat – who knew she had the face for it? Her Old Deuteronomy has a few good zingers, and she looks really fine lounging in a wicker basket. Idris Elba (MacAvity) and Taylor Swift (Bombalurina) should take their act on the road, hitting nightclubs across the land and wearing cat-style footie pajamas. Jennifer Hudson skulks and sulks nicely as Grizabella (even if showstopper “Memory” gets thrown into an editing Cuisinart by Hooper). Surprising no one, the British dance-trained unknowns Steven McRae (Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat), Robert Fairchild (Munkustrap), and Laurie Davidson (Mr. Mistoffeles) escape with the most dignity, lending pathos to t.s. eliot’s clever wordplay and lithe movement to their feline character work.

As my mother noted, the filmmakers would have been so much better off just crafting this as an animated film, a la The Aristocats or Lady & the Tramp. But, no. That would have made sense. And, while Cats may be “forever,” it has never made one lick of sense. Meow.

“Morals don’t sell nowadays.” – Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in Little Women

Ain’t that the damn truth? And no one knows that better than the political puppet masters over at FOX News. New movie Bombshell depicts the downfall of FOX head Roger Ailes (creepy good John Lithgow, who is no Loudest Voice in the Room‘s Russell Crowe, however). Ailes is brought low by decades of sexual misconduct, bullying, ugliness, and sheer thuggishness. Today, we’d reward that behavior by making him President of the United States.

The film is good, though lacking the depth of other treatments (namely Loudest Voice on Showtime). Go for Charlize Theron’s uncanny take on Megyn Kelly. Stay for the popcorn zip of director Jay Roach’s takedown of the hypocritical/toxic right wing media. Margot Robbie is remarkable as a production assistant torn between her ambition and her tenuous grasp on integrity. In other words, she fits right in in the FOX newsroom. Kate McKinnon is acerbic fun as Margot’s cubicle-mate, and Nicole Kidman does her best version of Nicole Kidman-as-befuddled-ice-queen as Gretchen Carlson, who first brings charges against Ailes. Some have worried that the film makes heroes of the unheroic, Kelly and Carlson and their ilk being as complicit in the rise of this Trumpian nation-state as anyone. Charles Randolph’s script doesn’t let them off the hook, in my opinion, and Roach’s swirling direction keeps the audience from feeling too much empathy for anyone.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know secular music.” – Bombshell‘s Kayla (Margot Robbie), a production assistant who mixes up images of The Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey during a FOX News broadcast

Who has two thumbs and is finally suffering from Star Wars fatigue? THIS guy. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is full of sound and fury, signifying … meh. It is overlong, derivative, and convoluted, and, while director J. J. Abrams pulls far too many threads together in a reasonably satisfying way, Skywalker just isn’t very thrilling. The film feels like homework: “I’ve seen eight of these things, and watched a grab bag of spin-offs and tv shows, so I guess I have to see how this thing ends.” Thank heavens for Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Daisey Ridley (Rey) who deserve a much better script but do yeoman’s work making something, anything seem interesting.

I didn’t love Last Jedi, the previous film in the series, but at least I felt, in that instance, that there was a plan and a strong artistic vision. Skywalker seems like it was focus-grouped with a bunch of Orlando tourists, hopped up on churros and Red Bull, after riding Space Mountain a dozen times. Truth be told. I just didn’t care. I know these films are fairy tale nonsense, Saturday-morning serials on big budget steroids. I love that about Star Wars, but, to succeed, to truly succeed, these flicks need to be fun and rollicking and light as air, so you happily look past the broad leaps of logic and common sense. Rise of Skywalker is anything but fun or light or rollicking, so all you are left with is a plateful of plot holes … and regret.

We Star Wars fans may seem nitpicky. Perhaps these movies were best left in the murky fog of childhood remembrance, but if Jon Favreau can evoke this perfect balance of whimsy and comic book gravitas in TV’s The Mandalorian, why can’t this be accomplished on the silver screen again as well? Disney has come closest with their entries in the Star Wars Stories anthology films, notably Rogue One and arguably Solo. Let’s hope Disney/Lucasfilm puts a pause button on these movies for awhile, learns some tough lessons from wise Baby Yoda, and gives their film strategy a good rethink. We’ll be waiting, getting older and fatter, but still buying action figures.

“Make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead. … Girls want to see women marry. Not [be] consistent!” – Jo’s publisher (Tracey Letts) in Little Women

Yet, I don’t suffer from Little Women fatigue, and, by all rights, we should be finished with cinematic and televised depictions of this oft-told tale of the plucky March sisters, surviving and thriving in Civil War-era America. The latest iteration, written and directed with postmodern aplomb by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), is a marvel.

The film is exquisite – a smart, sharp update for contemporary sensibilities, without losing the familiar story beats. Unencumbered by linear chronology (the film operates as a series of flashbacks while Jo challenges the limited sensibilities of her era’s publishing industry), Gerwig reimagines Little Women to render inexorable its keys messages of agency, humanism, imagination, independence, and hope.

Among the cast, of course Saoirse Ronan is dynamite as Jo, never losing the spirit or authenticity of the era but painting a clear-eyed portrait of a human being gobsmacked by the artificial limitations society imposes on her gender. The more things change. …

Meryl Streep as Aunt March downplays that character’s sometimes arch control and sour disappointment, offering an aunt as amused as aggravated by the changing mores around her. Laura Dern is the quintessential Marmee, warm and flinty and kind. Chris Cooper is lovable and loving as the March family’s wealthy neighbor, and Timothee Chalamet puts his innate insouciance to good use as Laurie.

The revelation, though, is Florence Pugh as Amy, avoiding the pouty, flouncy pitfalls of other portrayals, turning a bright spotlight on a woman tired of being left behind, refreshingly unapologetic in the choices she (logically) makes, given the cards she’s dealt.

Much will be written about the film’s ending, which borrows a bit (knowingly?) from the Broadway musical. Where does Gerwig actually leave the March sisters? At a sun-dappled picnic, happily betrothed, teaching the young and raising their own families? Or, with Jo as a fully-realized free-agent, unburdened, accomplished, and ready to change this world for the better? Or a mix of both? This film is essential viewing, and one of the best movies this year.

“Don’t get sucked into a fight with someone who has better reason to be in it than you do.” – Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) in Bombshell

Outside of the cinema, we also caught some great flicks now on home video or streaming/cable. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a welcome, wholesome throwback to the ABC Afterschool Special and Wonderful World of Disney broadcasts of yore.

Based on a series of novels from the early 70s (inspired by a gothic mansion in Marshall, Michigan), Clock stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett at their most understated. Save for a CGI-filled denouement that gets a bit manic, the movie is a lighter-than-air soufflé of a fantasy period piece. Young Lewis (accessible, likable, kind Owen Vaccaro) is orphaned and is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black, almost unrecognizable in his quietly nuanced turn). Jonathan happens to be a warlock with a sorceress bestie (Blanchett, also nicely underplaying). Black and Blanchett seem like they stepped right off the set of 1958’s Bell, Book, and Candle – which is high praise – and I surely hope they get to make more installments in this series.

The Man Who Invented Christmas uses the inspiration behind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to inform, instruct, and inspire, thereby breathing new life into this over-adapted classic. Dickens (a wry and winsome Dan Stevens of Beauty and the Beast) is challenged to maintain his humanity in the face of a commercial machine that crushes souls and torches family ties.

His reclamation of his own voice and of his own industriousness is tied inextricably to his reconciliation of a past that haunts him and of a present that buffets him – not unlike what befalls Ebenezer Scrooge (a brilliant and twinkling Christopher Plummer). Jonathan Pryce deftly balances heartbreak, disappointment, and yearning as Dickens’ embattled father. The production, directed with a sure hand by Bharat Nalluri from a layered and literate script by Susan Coyne, is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly cliched holiday season.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, directed by Richard Linklater, is a beautiful film, light and poignant, a loving treatment of lost souls rediscovering their moorings and of the special challenges those with creative brains can experience in this judgmental world. Cate Blanchett as Bernadette and Kristin Wiig as her long-suffering “mean girl” neighbor both bring their A-game to the enterprise.

There is a pivotal sequence in the film wherein Bernadette’s heartbroken free-spiritedness finally runs afoul of the pragmatic realities of day-to-day living. Laurence Fishburne, as a former architectural colleague of Bernadette’s, and Judy Greer, as a therapist hired by Bernadette’s husband Elgin (the always reliable Billy Crudup), in parallel/intercut conversations with Bernadette and Elgin respectively, discuss the couple’s situation.

Fishburne and Greer’s characters share seemingly contradictory theses: Fishburne’s that Bernadette’s departure from a creative work life has atrophied her spirit and her mind and Greer’s that Bernadette has had a break from reality brought on by environmental change. In reality the truth is somewhere in between, and Emma Nelson, in a bright and affecting turn as Bernadette’s and Elgin’s daughter Bee, explicates clearly how her parents have drifted from what she once knew them to be, simultaneously appreciative of their distinctive quirks and gifts. Fishburne and Greer are both marvelous, as well, avoiding caricature or presumption, walking a fine line between compassion and bemusement.

As the film works toward its resolution, which as evidenced by the trailers includes Bernadette voyaging to Antarctica, her family finds healing, as they embrace the spark that makes Bernadette an individual while balancing the collective needs that will re-center their lives. The seemingly screwball comedy elements of the film may lead viewers to miss the important nuance here. Not dissimilarly to Joker, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? offers a sensitive and empathetic portrayal of how the intersection of emotion, intellect, and environment impacts us all.

“No one is useless in this life who lightens the burdens of another.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him

 

2019 Holiday Collage

 

“I just can’t imagine eating anything that has a mother.” My gluttonous Thanksgiving: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Jojo Rabbit, Knives Out, Blinded by the Light, Kinky Boots, Lady & the Tramp, The Mandalorian, and Watchmen

I had a pretty gluttonous Thanksgiving. No, I don’t mean green bean casserole and pecan pie (I loathe pumpkin) and cranberry sauce and corn bread stuffing. I certainly don’t mean turkey. As Tom Hanks, thoughtfully portraying children’s TV icon Fred Rogers, observes in the surreally superlative A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, “I just can’t imagine eating anything that has a mother.“ Me neither.

No, my holiday indulgences were of the entertainment variety, cramming in as many movies and binge watching as much television as my ever widening derrière could withstand. And, because I am fundamentally sort of lazy and because I realize now that (at times) writing this blog feels more like a penance than a reward for engaging in one of my favorite pastimes (that is, devouring pop culture), this entry is going to be more of a highlight reel of the past several days in entertainment.

It really is kind of a shame (and the luck of the draw) that I devoted 12 (!) paragraphs to Frozen 2 last week, and something as boffo and transcendent as the West End production of musical Kinky Boots (broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances) or Damon Lindelof’s continuation (via HBO) of Alan Moore’s/Dave Gibbons’ seminal comic book masterpiece Watchmen will only get a sentence or two.  I can watch this stuff or I can write about this stuff, but it’s getting too damn hard to try to do both and still enjoy it.

Be that (self-pitying moment) as it may, so much of the entertainment I will discuss below shares a common point of view. Whether ethereal drag queens or plucky Pakistani teens who idolize Bruce Springsteen, war-weary space age bounty hunters or cynical costumed vigilantes, precocious Nazi youths who come to realize Adolf Hitler is a less-than-ideal playmate or twinkly-eyed but secretly heavy-hearted kiddie show hosts, the characters who jumped off the screen in these movies and shows share a feverishly urgent demand for kindness, tolerance, justice, inclusion, and love. Timely for this holiday season … and timely for a culture in crisis. As Lola (played by that luminous and shamanistic firecracker Matt Henry) sings in Kinky Boots: “We give good epiphany.”

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is exceptional, in great part because the cast – the aforementioned Hanks, Matthew Rhys as a hardened journalist determined to find the toxic truth underlying Mr. Rogers’ sunny sanctimony, and Chris Cooper as Rhys’ neglectful/neglected papa – sidestep any mawkishness inherent in the material with their honest, unadorned portrayals. More to the point, director Marielle Heller takes her cue from the source material – an Esquire cover story – turning in a film that is more clear-eyed essay than slice-of-life biopic. Everything in the movie feels as slightly left of center as any episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood ever did, acknowledging the program’s twee sensibilities and refracting the show’s heightened sense of “make believe” wonder as a metaphorical context for the tiny cruelties family and friend exact on a daily, perhaps hourly basis. It’s a good movie, not quite a great one, but the comforting cinematic equivalent of a scruffy, slightly embarrassing cardigan and pair of house shoes.

Jojo Rabbit takes the Merrie Melodies lunacy of actor/director Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and applies it to the genocidal moral conflict of being a young, patriotically-obsessed citizen in WWII Nazi Germany. Hmmmm. Take The Mortal Storm, The Tin Drum, To Be Or Not To Be, Moonrise Kingdom, The Pianist, Lord of the Flies, and A Christmas Story, throw them into a blender, and have said output be directed  by a less precious, more humane Wes Anderson … after drinking three spiked Red Bulls? The resulting film would be Jojo Rabbit. (Waititi also plays the titular character’s imaginary playmate … Adolf Hitler.) The film depicts a Nazi-aspirant young boy (charismatic Roman Griffin Davis) and his less nationalistic mother (Scarlett Johansson about as charming and vibrant as I’ve ever seen her) surviving the dadaistic absurdity of a country run by race-mongering juvenile delinquents (in other words, an on-the-nose allegory for our presently fraught times). The enterprise works far better than it should, aided and abetted by a witty and whimsical supporting cast including Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson. By the time this satirical picaresque meanders to its conclusion, you will be shocked a few times, horrified a few more, laughing and maybe crying uncomfortably, in part due to subject matter and in part due to dodgy artistic execution. Again, a good movie with an essential message, and one that may age into something classic as viewers discover it after its theatrical run.

Knives Out is just ok. There are far better versions of this movie and far worse, but I think I’d rather spend an afternoon with Sleuth or Murder by Death, hell, even Deathtrap before giving Knives Out another go. As Daniel Craig, playing a crispy-fried Foghorn Leghorn private detective with none of the zingy Mason-Dixon daffiness he exuded in Logan Lucky, notes regarding the reading of a family will, “Think of a community theatre production of a tax return.” That quote could describe this overeager flick as well. Writer/director Rian Johnson piles on the fake-outs and redirects, putting his breathless cast through its paces, and, while there is fun to be had, there’s just not nearly enough of it. Johnson has assembled a Whitman’s Sampler of movie star character players – Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Christopher freaking Plummer – and they all have moments (Chris Evans and Don Johnson acquitting themselves the best here), but I left the film with itchy teeth and liking everyone involved just a little bit less. That said, I applaud Rian Johnson and company for using the populist entertainment value of this black comedy as a Trojan horse for some biting, insightful social commentary about the entitled wealthy and the festering racism in Trump’s America.

Blinded by the Light (on DVD and streaming) is directed with a sure hand by Gurinder Chadha, employing pretty much the exact same template she rode to international success with Bend It Like Beckham (which in and of itself follows the pattern of so many working class British dramedies like Billy Elliot or The Full Monty, depicting resourceful souls rising above class warfare). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Based on a true story, the film focuses on a young Pakistani man (an appealing turn by Viveik Kalra) who strives to overcome the racist nationalism (there’s that theme again!) and economic disparity of 1980s Thatcherite England and to break loose from a well-intentioned but overbearing father who can’t understand his boy’s dreams of becoming a writer. (“Where’s the money in that?!” asks this guy writing a movie blog for free.) Instead of soccer, our protagonist finds his muse in the lyricism of “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen, encouraged by a wry but loving literature teacher (a marvelous Hayley Atwell) and some beautifully drawn teenage pals (Aaron Phagura and Nell Williams). The film is as predictable as all great fables can be but is delicately executed, well-acted, and simultaneously sobering and inspiring. And, yes, this bonbon of a film seems ready-made to be musicalized.

Speaking of which … Kinky Boots, the Tony-winning musical adaptation by Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein of the 2005 Brit comedy film of the same name (which starred a then-unknown Joel Edgerton and Chiwetel Ejiofor), was just broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances. To say the show was perfection – as perfectly kicky as the thigh-high red boots drag queen Lola (and later the entire cast) dons during the show – would be the textbook definition of understatement. This cast was the Olivier Award-winning West End crew, led by Matt Henry (my mother accurately observed … move over Shirley Bassey and Lena Horne) as the transformative Lola who storms into the life of bedraggled shoe-factory scion Charlie (a winning Killian Donnelly) and turns a small town on its collective head … for the better. The factory is days away from closing, and, by reinventing itself to serve the “niche market” of drag queen footwear, changes its fortunes … and the lives (and attitudes) of all who work there. This is no To Wong Foo magical drag queen fairy tale, however. Lola (also known as Simon) is a fully realized, poignant, exhilarating human being, complex, complicated, flawed, perfect. In Henry’s manicured hands, Lola is the heart of the show, a beautiful yin to Charlie’s shaggy yang. The stage relationship between Donnelly and Henry is deeply affecting, propelled by Lauper’s pulsing, percolating, nicely integrated score. Amy Lennox as Charlie’s co-worker, confidante, and eventual love interest Lauren is dynamite, a musical comedy crackerjack, balancing pathos and hilarity brilliantly, sometimes in a single phrase. Kinky Boots celebrates accepting who we are (and the gifts which embracing that truth can bring) with warmth, kindness, and about the best pacing I’ve seen onstage.

Lady & the Tramp (currently streaming on Disney+) is on the small screen where I reckon all of these live action remakes of Disney’s animated classics actually belong. Seriously, 20 years ago, these things would have all been very special presentations on Sunday nights on The Wonderful World of Disney in order to sell theme park tickets before landing on well-worn VHS tapes in the back seats of mini-vans everywhere. That said, this latest re-do ain’t half bad. Lady (voiced with moxie by Tessa Thompson) has an agency she never had in the animated film, and Tramp (a winsome Justin Theroux) just seems less, well, skeezy. There is an overarching effort toward inclusiveness with color-blind casting for the human roles of Jim Dear and Darling that, on one hand, is really refreshing, but on the other creates an inadvertently weirdly white-washed message about what interracial couples would have actually endured in turn-of-the-20th-century Missouri. And the problematic “Siamese Cat Song,” ear-wormy as it may have once been, is officially retired. In its place, there is a new and perfectly acceptable ditty to accompany Aunt Sarah’s prized felines’ narrative-essential shenanigans. “He’s a Tramp” is still on the playlist, but this time around is performed with sassy aplomb by Janelle Monae, in the role originated by Peggy Lee. The film is entertaining and pleasant with a timeless message about, yes, accepting our differences … not to mention the importance of responsible pet ownership.

The Mandalorian (currently streaming on Disney+) is about the best Star Wars spin-off to come from LucasFilm in the past 20-some years (if ever), in great part because it doesn’t seem very Star Wars-y. Or at least what “Star Wars-y” has come to mean since the original trilogy debuted: needlessly complicated back story; self-serious and ponderous mythologizing; overlong playing time; character development that seems driven as much by merchandisability as narrative need. The Mandalorian by comparison is a breezy pleasure, a throwback to single-protagonist vintage TV Westerns like The Virginian or The Rifleman (without any intentional swagger/machismo or inadvertent misogyny/racism), wherein our reluctant protagonist becomes the lens through which a different 37-minute parable is told each week. Oh, and there’s a really adorable Baby Yoda, who may be the cutest, funniest creature dreamed up since the Ewoks (yes, I still like Ewoks). Producer/writer Jon Favreau joyfully wears his retro influences on his sleeve (as evidenced by the minimalistic percussive soundtrack and the closing credits sequence, both of which seem channeled straight from 1968). Leading man Pedro Pascal (face forever obscured under his signature bounty hunter helmet – “this is the waaaay“) conveys so much heart, great comedic timing, and an intriguing amount of agnosticism, without benefit of one. single. facial. expression. Four episodes in, and I can’t wait to see where this one is going.

Watchmen (HBO) is so damn good. We had one of those “watch HBO for free!” weekends on Xfinity and, in a less than 24-hour period, we binged the first seven episodes, including tonight’s exemplary “An Almost Religious Awe” (every episode has a great title). I’m going to have to show up on the doorstep of some generous HBO-subscribing friend the next two Sundays to see how this thing wraps up! Any takers? The original DC comic book mini-series (1986-87) deconstructed the very notion of what a superhero was, offering a heady mix of cynicism and optimism, critical of Reagan-era excess and territorialism while satirically reinventing atomic age tropes of flying humans and hooded marvels, all to dissect the morals and ethics of those who set themselves up as our saviors. “Who watches the Watchmen?” Subsequent efforts to adapt the landmark series onscreen (no thank you, Zack Snyder) or revisit in print (just stop, Geoff Johns) have fallen flat, missing the existential trauma at the heart of the work. If you’d told my 14-year-old self that his 46-year-old future would include a triumphant, accessible yet layered, televised continuation of the storyline for a mainstream audience, I never would have believed you. In fact, it is this very question of identity and self and the ephemeral nature of time folding upon itself through memory that gives Watchmen its slippery power. The HBO series replaces the Cold War paranoia of the original comics with an incisive take on the race-baiting xenophobia currently paralyzing our country, in a way that is completely true to the original work while acknowledging how far we have (and haven’t) come as a society. Regina King and Jean Smart are (together) an acting powder keg, wrestling with thorny questions of race and gender, empowered and stonewalled and uninhibited and numb with white-hot rage. The supporting players are to a one excellent – Don Johnson (again!), Tim Blake Nelson, Jeremy Irons, Louis Gossett Jr., Hong Chau, Frances Fisher, Tom Mison, Sara Vickers – finding Shakespeare in the mundane and delivering a show that isn’t afraid to explore big ideas amongst daily tragedies. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a character unto itself – disco for a dark age, as if Phillip Glass found his groove. I have no idea where this show is going, and I can’t wait to get there … and I really don’t want it to end.

Postscript …

So as gluttony goes, I don’t think I’ll apologize for this indulgence of the mind as my brain is truly spinning with possibility, heading back into a work week, knowing that there are ideas bigger than ourselves as all ideas should be.

“The endless story of expectations wiring inside my mind/Wore me down/I came to a realization and I found a way to turn it around/To see/That I could just be me.”

– “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” Cyndi Lauper, Kinky Boots

“We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.”

Alan Moore, Watchmen

“Fear is what can’t be trusted.” Frozen 2

Frozen 2 has a difficult task: justify its existence as more than an unnecessary cash grab sequel to a multi-billion-dollar, unexpected-franchise-spawning original that was kind of a rip-off of the Broadway musical Wicked (which was, itself, a watered-down derivative of a much more interesting novel).

And, for the most part, Frozen 2 succeeds. Not unlike this summer’s Toy Story 4, the lack of a predetermined intellectual property roadmap is liberating, yielding a trippy, dark, existential exploration that surprises, delights, and traumatizes.

Frozen 2 (is that REALLY the best title they could devise?) is beautiful and kinda loopy in a New Agey sort of way. Not sure exactly what I sat through, but I loved its messages of inclusion and empowerment, even if its plot line seems to throw Avatar, Pocahontas, The Fifth Element, Wicked, Marianne Williamson’s brain, and Frozen the First in a blender. Songs are fab too.

I’m not sure the world needed an origin story explaining Elsa’s snow queen powers, even if the potential revenue stream to befall the Mouse House makes such a cinematic move unavoidable. That said, I applaud the filmmakers for doing so with a conscience, muddled as the final results may be.

In essence, without spoiling too much, sisters Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristin Bell) discover that their forebears in the Arendelle royal family might not have been as kind as they should have been to the land’s indigenous Northuldra people. In a timely nod to our nation’s own Thanksgiving mythologizing, the first time their grandfather broke bread with the native tribe inhabiting the “enchanted forest” outside Arendelle, he might have had nefarious colonizing motives. It is then up to Elsa and Anna – alongside returning buddies Olaf the snowman (Josh Gad) and Kristoff and his beloved reindeer Sven (both voiced by Jonathan Groff) – to unearth the truth, bring peace to the natural order (reflected in weather patterns run amuck – sound familiar?), and right the historical wrongs. If Disney was ever to offer a populist counterpoint to xenophobic MAGA tribalism it is Frozen 2.

The film doubles down on the zany Nordic fantasy elements suggested by the bizarre rock trolls in the first film, with Frozen 2 offering flame lizards, anthropomorphic wind currents, water horses, bolder giants, and more cryptic hieroglyphs than you could hurl a Rosetta Stone at. It all works better than it should, woven together by our collective fondness for the characters, all voiced with warmth and whimsy by the principals, and for the music.

Songwriting team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert López have outdone themselves on the numbers here, jettisoning any singsong qualities of the first’s films ditties in favor of musical comedy complexity and emotional depth. There are no “ear worms” in this score which is a compliment to the songwriters and the filmmakers who allow more character-driven nuance in. I’ll take this film’s “Into the Unknown” or “When I Am Older” or “Lost in the Woods” or “Show Yourself” or “The Next Right Thing” over the prior entry’s “Let It Go” or “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” any day, all day long.

As Elsa notes ominously toward the film’s conclusion: “fear is what can’t be trusted.” If Frozen 2 is as inescapable as its predecessor was and successfully socializes themes of inclusion, equality, fairness, and acceptance among our youth (and their parents), then Disney deserves to fill its corporate coffers with a mountain of box office gold ten times over.

BONUS: Honored!! I was quoted by Law.com’s Frank Ready in “5 Challenges Facing Firms Trying to Boost Marketing With Tech,” which includes discussions of app development, podcasts, YouTube/video, social media, and open-source software: https://lnkd.in/em6NSpr (subscription may be required) … excerpt …

“They assume that you’re a good lawyer. They want to see that you’re a decent human being and that you’re engaged in our world,” Sexton said. “We need to put all of that in language that appeals, yes to millennials, but again, to millennials on the way toward appealing toward everyone else. And the manner in which millennials are reshaping our culture and the way we think, we have to keep an eye towards that.” …

Modern audiences are bombarded by content, and for every firm that adopts a video channel or sets up a podcast booth, there’s probably another lawyer out there doing the exact same thing.

To stand out, attorneys may have to emphasize personality over personal accomplishments and perhaps even begin contemplating the true meaning of the words “free of charge.” #lmamkt

“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Disney’s High School Musical

Collage swiped from The Ringwald’s Facebook page

Stick to the stuff you know
If you want to be cool
Follow one simple rule
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status quo
No, no, no
Stick to the stuff you know
It is better by far
To keep things as they are
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status
Stick to the status
Stick to the status quo – Stick to the Status Quo,” High School Musical

Watching The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Disney’s High School Musical alongside an avowed HSM superfan like my husband was as entertaining as the show itself. He did his best to stifle singing along to his favorite numbers, occasionally verbalizing key lines of dialogue before a character onstage would, frequently noting (dramaturgically) to me differences between the film and the stage version. I suspect this is what it is like attending Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival with a lifelong Bard scholar? It was all kinds of adorable.

No doubt John has his own review to offer, but this is my blog. While I don’t find the HSM trilogy without its charms (well, the first and third installments at least … the second film is the Voldemort of Disney Channel tee-vee musicals … best never invoked again), I think the movies could stand a bit of tinkering, revising, and revisiting. And, in recent news emanating from last week’s D23 convention, it sounds like the Mouse House agrees.

While the HSM franchise gave us the gift that keeps on giving in Zac Efron, it also left a legacy a with a generation of twenty-somethings that it is good to be different, that you must never constrain yourself by the labels teachers/parents/friends slap upon you, and that singing show tunes is good for the soul … even in the middle of a crowded cafeteria. Whether you loved high school or really hated it, the movies speak in a cuddly and antiseptic way to the toxic socioeconomic hothouse that is public education in this country and how all of us are shaped for better or worse by the twelve years we spent there. “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Matthew Wallace as Troy and Jordan Gagnon as Gabriella

As metaphor for inclusion and a fun platform for camp, HSM is a pretty genius choice for The Ringwald, whose stock in trade is as much John Waters as it is Stephen Sondheim. When I bought these tickets, I did so as a gift for John but also for myself as I was genuinely curious how they’d approach the show. I’m happy to report that the Ringwald’s team pulls it off in their shaggy dog, Mickey-and-Judy-are-putting-on-a-show fashion, with exceptional vocals, high energy, and (mostly) just the right amount of wink-and-nudge.

The plot is paper thin but nonetheless lovely: a science-loving girl (“Gabriella Montez”) and a basketball “jock” (“Troy Bolton”) discover their mutual love of show tunes on a mid-winter ski trip, and turn their high school “status quo” upside down by auditioning for the spring musical. It’s a slight but surprisingly subversive conceit, compounded by the fact that the “villains” of the piece – Sharpay and her doting brother Ryan (think The Carpenters, just as weirdly incestuous, but with blond hair, pink plaid outfits, and body glitter) – are the theatre kids, overly protective of their turf and their small corner of high school performative heaven. Anyone who’s worked in theatre in any aspect will view this duo with a knowing smile. The theatre community waves the flag of inclusion and understanding … until you step outside your “lane” or win a role someone else has coveted or challenge the artistic certitude of another.

Kevin Keller as Jack Scott

The Ringwald’s production, populated as it is by a cast who, for the most part, would have been in elementary school when High School Musical debuted in 2006, is pleasantly reverential to the material, while not taking any of it too damn seriously. It’s a high wire act that I found, quite frankly, refreshing. Playing double duty as director and actor (“Coach Jack Bolton”), Brandy Joe Plambeck takes a breezy, frothy approach to the material, aided and abetted by his real-life husband Joe Bailey in the role of Sharpay. In Bailey’s hands, Sharpay is both comic and poignant, never shrill, and just the right side of arch. Bailey knows that a middle-aged man playing a heartbreakingly spoiled high school theatre diva is pretty damn funny in and of itself and that layering on any meta commentary or turning up his nose at the material would sink the show and his performance. It’s smart and it’s fun, and Bailey alongside his “brother” Ryan (Christopher Ross-Dybash exuding sunshine) are a hoot.

Similarly, frequent Ringwald player Jordan Gagnon brings a nicely grounded whimsy to Gabriella. In her program bio, she writes that she is “excited to be living out [my] childhood fantasies of playing Gabriella.” For the young people in this cast, I suspect HSM is to them what Bye Bye Birdie, Grease, or Mamma Mia! are to other generations. Gagnon’s affection for the material is evident. The actor knows the enterprise is a bit silly but treats it as the heightened reality it is, and Gagnon strikes just that perfect balance of nodding to the audience while believing in her bones that she is a marginalized high schooler finding her true voice in life and love. She’s a delight to watch.

Matthew Wallace as Troy

Gagnon’s real-life boyfriend Matthew Wallace (I’m not telling tales … it’s in the marketing materials for the production) plays Troy. He is at his best when it is just the two of them onstage. There is an easy comfort to their onstage dynamics that really sells their numbers. I would encourage Wallace to find that same ease in the rest of the production. He has been exceptional in productions like The Dio’s Forever Plaid and The Ringwald’s own Merrily We Roll Along. Here, however, his physicality and high energy run the risk of commenting upon the material and distancing himself from it, as opposed to immersing himself in the goofy joy of the narrative. Wallace has a fabulous voice, and he and Gagnon are so good together onstage, but Wallace at times seems to be accentuating the stereotype of the thick-headed high school athlete as opposed to realizing the point of the piece is to gently, lovingly undermine those stereotypes.

The ensemble is damn terrific, selling the big group numbers in Ringwald’s tiny space, and energizing the audience with their unbridled enthusiasm for the score. Music director Lily Belle Czartorski and choreographer Molly Zaleski have great fun with the “pop” nature of this material, and their cast rises to the challenge. Standouts are Rashna “Rashi” Sarwar as “Taylor McKessie” and Geoffrey Schwerin as “Zeke Baylor,” both of whom squeeze every bit of juice from their limited stage moments, crafting memorable, lovable, vibrant characters. Tyler Goethe also deserves a shout out for nailing every bit of the choreography – again, note that I was sitting beside a “superfan” and it was not lost on him (or me) that Tyler was on point with every single move and was utterly present throughout. Wendy Cave plays “Kelsi Nielsen,” the resident high school songsmith, awfully big. She lands great laughs, but she also skates on the edge of commentary as opposed to immersion.

Having the time of their lives onstage are the aforementioned Plambeck as “Coach” and Suzan M. Jacokes as drama teacher “Ms. Darbus,” two educators whose dreams deferred manifest in ugly rivalries and provincial manipulations, all nobly disguised as wanting “what’s best” for their charges. If there was dramatic metaphor for the crises, both large and small, of today, it’s this. Jacokes and Plambeck are great fun in their short scenes together.

Costuming by Vince Kelley is just as one would hope, mirroring without shamelessly imitating the iconic garb of the original film. I want to give a special call out to the show’s marketing materials, as well, which evoke the look and feel of the original film’s poster and set the right tone for what to expect, as does the pre-show music: “Kidz Bop” versions of early-aughts pop music hits. Hysterical! The new lighting array at The Ringwald is a welcome upgrade with Plambeck making great use of gels and specials to maximize the understandably understated set design by Stephen Carpenter, a pitch perfect “Wildcat” logo prominent throughout.

For those wondering: yes, The Ringwald’s version of High School Musical is family-friendly, but with plenty of acknowledgment to any adults in the audience that this is all one big lark, albeit one with a really nifty message of inclusion and acceptance. If you aren’t tapping your feet or dancing in the aisles during the “We’re All In This Together” finale, well, there’s just no hope for you!

Everyone is special in their own way
We make each other strong (we make each other strong)
We’re not the same
We’re different in a good way
Together’s where we belong
We’re all in this together
Once we know
That we are
We’re all stars
And we see that
We’re all in this together
And it shows
When we stand
Hand in hand
Make our dreams come true
Together, together, together everyone
Together, together, come on let’s have some fun
Together, we’re there for each other every time
Together, together, come on let’s do this right – We’re All In This Together,” High School Musical
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The Ringwald’s production of Disney’s High School Musical runs through September 16. Purchase tickets here.

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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.

“It’s not the circle of life … it’s the meaningless line of indifference.” Disney’s The Lion King (2019)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

People, namely but not exclusively critics, are all of a dither because The Lion King, as directed by Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book) – the latest in Disney’s unyielding march of “live action” remakes and re-imaginings of their own animated classics – is not original enough. People! Didn’t you know the “D” is Disney stands for “derivative”? That’s the Mouse House’s stock-in-trade.

Whereas once upon a box office, Disney strip-mined the works of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, P.L. Travers, Carlo Collodi, and A.A. Milne for their cinematic output (which was in itself then repurposed across theme parks, television series, video releases, toy stores, straight-to-home animated sequels, and so on), NOW CEO Robert Iger and team have turned to modern-day folklorists like George Lucas, Stan Lee, and Walt Disney himself to source and resource their intellectual property. Lazy? Maybe. Smart capitalism? Indubitably. All-American? You bet your a$$.

And like all good mythology, these stories bear repeating, whether around the campfire or the eerie glow of an iPhone. Hell, Shakespeare was just as guilty of the practice as any contemporary entertainment conglomerate. There’s a sucker born every minute. We lemmings have been ever guilty of plunking our hard-earned money at the ticket counter to re-view the shopworn and redundant.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of Shakespeare, The Lion King has often been described as “Hamlet in the jungle,” with its story of a young prince (Simba) who suffers from the machinations of a despicable uncle (Scar) and who grapples with the uneasy responsibilities of royal leadership after the untimely death of his father (Mufasa). It’s just that in The Lion King, every character happens to be a four-legged denizen of the African pride land who occasionally breaks into an Elton John/Tim Rice-penned show tune. The original animated film was a box office behemoth in its day, yielding in turn a Julie Taymor-directed puppet extravaganza that collected every Tony on earth and continues to mint money. Tell me again, why Disney shouldn’t bring The Lion King back in yet another guise to multiplexes? Ka-ching.

As I’ve often said to fellow critics, reviewing their umpteenth community production of Oklahoma! or The Putnam County Spelling Bee, we aren’t critiquing the script or the music at this point, nor even the very choice to do one of these damn shows again (much as we might like to), but rather the intention and the execution.

That said, the 2019 Lion King is pretty darn flawless and sticks its landing, even if some are scratching their heads if it was needed at all. This film is a technological wonder, marrying the heart and horror of the animated film with a hyper-reality that makes all of the stakes disconcertingly real. It’s one thing to watch a James Earl Jones-voiced Mufasa trampled by a multi-colored two-dimensional stampede of wildebeest; it’s something else altogether to watch a photorealistic James Earl Jones-voiced Mufasa in the same harrowing circumstance.

I’m not sure how kids are going to sit through this thing, what with all of the National Geographic-style eat-what-you-kill royal court intrigue of Scar (a menacing Chiwetel Ejiofor, rejecting any of predecessor Jeremy Irons’ fey mannerisms in the role) and his grotesque hyena henchmen (a slithering trio voiced by Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre, offering very little of the comic relief previously offered by Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings in the original). Shudder.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As the adult Simba and his best friend (soon-to-be paramour) Nala, Donald Glover (Solo) and Beyonce, respectively, are as luminous vocally as you would imagine, notably on the ubiquitous anthem “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”  In fact, the film truly roars to life (pun intended) at the mid-way mark after Simba befriends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand-ins Timon and Pumbaa (a meerkat and a warthog naturally) who teach him the finer points of not giving a sh*t (“Hakuna Matata”), and a gobsmacked Nala (think Ophelia without the manic suicidal tendencies) urges Simba to get woke and return home as Scar has made a big ol’ scorched earth mess of the kingdom.

(NOTE: one of the best and most original elements of this new Lion King roll-out is Beyonce’s spin-off album The Gift, not unlike how Madonna’s Dick Tracy-inspired I’m Breathless album had arguably more zip than the film that inspired it.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Billy Eichner as Timon to Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa is a revelation. Who knew Eichner had such a divine singing voice? And the best lines in the flick are his. At one point, he dismisses the narrative’s overworked philosophy that everything (including becoming a lion’s dinner entree) happens for a divine and glorious purpose with a stinging, “It’s not the circle of life … it’s the meaningless line of indifference.”

I admit as comfortable as I am with Disney’s master plan to take over the world with reworked, utterly unnecessary versions of old movies still readily available at our Netflix’d fingertips, even I would have liked more Eichner-style anarchy and less safe familiarity in the 2019 Lion King. As brainwashed as audiences have become, marching steadfastly from one box office event picture to the next, mindlessly apathetic toward the tragic state of the real world, Eichner’s “meaningless line of indifference” is an apt and sobering description of us all.

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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 am one of many gems he wears to reflect the light back on him.” Dumbo (2019)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Well, I REALLY don’t understand the critics on this one. Tim Burton’s live-action remake of Disney’s Dumbo is a treat, correcting the dated/troubling politics of the original, expanding the story in logical ways, and making strong declarations for animal rights and compassion overall. My eyes still hurt from ugly crying for two hours earlier today. Highly recommend.

The original animated Dumbo is a beautiful film but deeply odd, held in affection more in our collective foggy sense memory than in the reality of its execution. There is a downright racist depiction of crows as a minstrel chorus (one is even named, yes, “Jim Crow”). Dumbo and Timothy (the mouse) get drunk on champagne and have a hallucinatory trip this side of Woodstock (“pink elephants”). The flick is only 64 minutes long. And there’s an anthropomorphic train (“Casey, Jr.”). Oh, and we all pretty much hate circuses now and the horrors they’ve exacted upon brilliant, beautiful pachyderms over the decades.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, as much as I love the original film, and I truly do (in great part because it’s one of those seminal movie-going experiences that shaped a lifelong championing of animal rights and a loathing of bullying of any kind), Dumbo is, in fact, rife for updating and reinvention as Disney continues to strip mine their classic film library to pad quarterly profit earnings … er … expand artistic horizons.

Tim Burton is a director who specializes in Technicolor bad dreams. His relentless storybook/Edward Gorey-book sensibility is a logical fit for a narrative dripping in creepy circus tropes (clowns! leering audiences! mustache-twirling carnival barkers!), focused on the magic of mutant deformation (those ears! that flight!), and the central tragedy of which is the heartrending separation of mother and son (“Baby Mine”). I’ve often found Burton’s cinematic output wildly uneven and maddeningly frustrating with its unrealized potential, but I, for one, found Dumbo one of his stronger efforts in years.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The script by Ehren Kruger is not terribly inventive but fills out the thin story line of the original with predictable but welcome subplots. The movie’s second half literally bites the hands that feeds in a fairly wicked satire of the antiseptically brutal capitalism of the Disneyland theme park concept itself.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The cast is a starry array of Burton regulars: Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Michael Keaton (who has developed a lovely niche playing country club sleeze). In that battery-acid tone that is her trademark, Green  who portrays a glitzy diva trapeze artist in Keaton’s employ observes: “I am one of many gems he wears to reflect the light back on him.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Colin Farrell is in fine form as a widower who returns from the war-front (WWI) sans one arm and with two young children who desperately need him to reclaim his heart and soul. He and his wife had been equestrian performers in DeVito’s shaggy “Medici Bros. Circus,” and Farrell is faced with the economic pressures of reframing his career amidst familial heartbreak. Enter one too-cute-for-words little blue-eyed-big-eared elephant to heal this tiny clan (see: PaddingtonMary Poppins) as Dumbo seeks to reunite with his own mama.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Maybe I’m too soft a touch for a movie like this, but any film that ends with as a strong a statement I’ve seen from Hollywood in years that animals (CGI-generated or not) belong in nature and that they should be admired and respected and left alone is a winner in my book. Is it a cliche that pretty much every major character rallies by the film’s raucous conclusion to restore Dumbo and his ma to their jungle lives (save two or three souls who, spoiler alert, are grimly punished for their cruelty)? Maybe. But that’s a cliche I’ll take all day long.

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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.

“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);

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

  • 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.

“Let this be a sign. Let this road be mine.” Broadway’s Anastasia

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ve got a history with Anastasia. My mother and I saw the animated film in theatres in 1997, past the age of so-called social acceptability for a mother and son to go see an animated “princess musical.” Furthermore, we were both ugly crying within 15 minutes of the film’s opening, overtaken by the lush poignancy of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ Broadway-ready score. Admittedly, we had been through about 15+ years of Faulknerian extended-family drama at that point, so we might have been raw nerves primed to lose our sh*t as an amnesiac Anastasia revisits the literal ghosts of her Romanov family past to the haunting strains of “Once Upon a December” as vocalized by the incomparable Liz Callaway.

A few months later, I decided to stage these bizarre, self-indulgent one-man cabarets on the campus of Wabash College (my alma mater where I was working as a development officer) and included both “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past” among my selections, using other people’s lyrics to express my late 20s existential angst.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I also recall that my mother and I both thought the animated film – 20th Century Fox’ answer to Disney’s nouveau blockbuster classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid – lost its way narratively when it turned master manipulator Rasputin into a nausea-inducing Maleficent knock-off with a comic relief sidekick bat Bartok, who would go on to star in his own series of wacky straight-to-video films. I’m not sure anyone would have predicted the Russian revolution and the tragic gunning down of the entire Romanov royal clan would eventually lead to a pile of Bartok the Magnificent DVDs in a Wal-Mart clearance bin one day. Ah, capitalism wins after all.

So, it was with a giddy heart and a heaping helping of trepidation that I entered Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre on Wednesday evening, September 26, to view the Broadway hit reinvention of Anastasia. (Please note, the last – and only other – time I saw a show on Broadway was when I attended, alongside Frances Sternhagen’s daughter Sarah Carlin, Paul Simon’s legendary flop The Capeman. And, other than the company I kept, that show sucked.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m happy to report that someone somewhere must have overheard that conversation my mother and I had 20 years ago (kidding!) and jettisoned the lousy script from the animated film and gave playwright Terrence McNally carte blanche to build a new narrative around the fantastic score. New songs have been added obvi – how else can they justify ticket prices starting at $160?! And the production values are absolutely to. die. for.

Costuming by Linda Cho is music box exquisite, and Alexander Dodge’s scenic design integrating flawlessly with Aaron Rhyne’s photo-realistic projection design is a gobsmacking wonder. I don’t know how they will tour this, but between the turntable at center-stage, the rotating flats of arches that outline everything from the Russian royal palace to communist bloc headquarters to Parisian nightclubs, and the breathtaking video projections that immerse the audience in a thrill-a-minute train ride or sweeping hillside vistas, I was in awe.

Curtain Call

Surrounded as I was by a sea of late-20-something women (all of whom were likely the little girls seated beside my mother and me when we saw the animated film), I stuck out like a sore thumb in the audience. And I didn’t care.

In its bumpy opening moments, the show seems JUST a touch theme-parkish, and it probably didn’t help that the woman playing Anastasia’s queen mother kept tripping over the hem of her Swarovski-crystal encrusted gown … and looking REALLY annoyed every time she did so. We are introduced to Anastasia as a child and the sumptuous excess of the Romanov family in a ballroom scene that is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

However, with a flick of digital magic and some ominous lighting cues, we are informed that the Romanov family has been summarily executed (hey, that’s a fun start to a family musical … if it worked for Bambi, I guess) and the littlest princess Anastasia may or may not have been killed alongside them. I must admit I wasn’t sure how they were going to pull that off. It’s kind of an important piece of set up. They did so tastefully and artistically and substantively, signaling straight away that there would be no singing and dancing bats in this interpretation.

We are then introduced to the adult Anastasia, now going by Anya, who seems to remember none of her upbringing. Unlike the animated film, doubt is placed in the audience’s minds whether or not she, in fact, is the grown-up Anastasia, though she sure does remember a lot of unusual details.

Christy Altomare is a crackerjack Anya, delivering the hit songs with aplomb but adding a contemporary agency to the character that is utterly refreshing. Whether or not Anya is a royal, she suffers no fools gladly. Borrowing liberally from the 1956 classic film starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner, McNally sets up a narrative where Anya/Anastasia must escape Russia and journey to Paris to meet her surviving grandmother the Dowager Empress (a luminous Jennifer Smith, filling in for Judy Kaye in our performance) to prove her lineage.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

She is aided and abetted by a couple of well-intentioned scalawags Dmitry (dreamy, zippy Zach Adkins whose soaring voice rattles the rafters) and Vlad (Broadway vet John Bolton whose confident ease and crack comic timing nearly carry the show). Of course, initially this duo is only interested in collecting reward money for “finding” Anastasia. In fact, they have set up a casting call to try and coach any young street urchin into the role. It’s like My Fair Lady-meets-American Idol. However, when they start to realize little Anya may in fact be the real deal (clue: remember that music box in the animated film? … it plays an equally important – and merchandisable – a role here), their common decency starts to shine through.

Narrative complications are provided not by an evil immortal magician who can remove his head at will (no Rasputin … yay!), but by a society in turmoil as the Soviet government wants nothing more than to squelch the Romanov legend and give power to the people. (Watching a show about how nutty Russians can be was … odd … in this current political climate, I must admit.) Max Von Essen (Tony nominee for An American in Paris) turns in a solid performance as conflicted military bureacrat Gleb (think Les Miserables Javert without all the scenery chewing) whose hunt for Anya/Anastasia propels our heroes forward.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Once Anya, Dmitry, and Vlad reach Paris in the show’s second act, Anastasia truly comes alive. The stakes are raised. There is a magnificent scene at the ballet where Anya and her grandmother circle one another to the backdrop of Swan Lake (think The King and I‘s “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”). And we are introduced to the Dowager Empress’ lady-in-waiting Countess Lily, who has a sordid past with Vlad. NewsRadio‘s Vicki Lewis normally plays Lily, but we were treated to understudy Janet Dickinson … and she was a MARVEL. The perfect blend of Madeline Kahn and Christine Ebersole. Lily’s role could be a thankless one in lesser hands. She’s pretty much saddled with expository responsibilities. Dickinson turned her two numbers “Land of Yesterday” and “The Countess and the Common Man” into absolute show-stopping barnstormers. If only the entire ensemble had her fire. I’d love to see this woman headline a show ASAP.

That said, on the balance Anastasia is a glittering gem of a musical, heartfelt and transporting with important messages about individuality, compassion, and family in all its forms. Unlike the animated film, the stage show fully embraces the historical underpinnings without losing the escapist fantasy of someone realizing that they just might be royalty. However, this is no rescue-the-princess throwback. Anastasia and the women surrounding her challenge the status quo, call the shots, and do their level best to overcome a world stacked against them. One step at a time. One hope, then another.

Anastasia is currently running at the Broadhurst Theatre. I bought my ticket for 50% off at TKTS. The musical is also launching its national tour. Don’t miss it.

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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.