“If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Florence Foster Jenkins

[Image Source: WIkipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Sometimes Hollywood just makes sweet movies. Not often. Just sometimes. These are the movies that you remember from your youth, not completely great films, but kind-hearted ones where people’s common humanity is celebrated, where decency is rewarded, and where foibles are accepted and embraced, not pilloried in some sort of zero-sum football match – loving, slightly creaky movies you would have discovered at the far end of the television dial, some weekday afternoon, when you were home from school sick with the flu.

Two such movies are rolling through your local cineplexes now, quietly charming audiences in the shadow of more cynical, merchandisable fare like Suicide Squad. I happened to catch Florence Foster Jenkins and Pete’s Dragon in a double feature on a warm summer weekday afternoon, no flu required, and I’m glad I did.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pete’s Dragon is the much stronger film. The original 1977 Disney film combined one-dimensional animation, even more one-dimensional performances (who thought Helen Reddy was a good idea?), and treacly songs (“Candle on the Water,” anyone? nah, I didn’t think so) into a forgettable diversion consistent with the Mouse House’s lousy Me Decade offerings (Apple Dumpling Gang … blech).

The new Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery wisely jettisons everything from the original flick, save the boy and his dog … er … dragon conceit, giving us a smart and deeply affecting parable on ecology, tolerance, and the healing power of companionship. Pete (played with a feral wariness by Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in an unidentified Pacific Northwest woods when his parents run the family station wagon off the road to avoid hitting a deer (Bambi’s revenge?). Pete is discovered by large, green, furry, canine-like dragon whom Pete quickly names Elliot, after a puppy in a beloved book Elliot Gets Lost. (I said the movie was good; I didn’t say it was subtle.)

Years pass, and Pete and Elliot carve out a pastoral existence, spending their days at play in the woods, sheltered at night in a cave filled with the discarded refuse of humanity (think The Black Stallion meets The Goonies). However, this wouldn’t be a summer movie without some narrative tension, and it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some wholesome, well-intentioned, plucky, small-town intervention narrative tension. Along comes Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, a forest ranger, instantly more believable than the thousand false notes she played as an opportunistic theme park executive in Jurassic World, fighting a losing battle against the foresting company owned by her own fiance Jack (American Horror Story‘s Wes Bentley – about as creepily cardboard as he always is). Pete’s curiosity about these Disneyfied people gets the better of him, he reveals himself, and, in a series of predictable plot points, Pete and Elliot are separated by (in order) hospital rooms, child protective services, and Jack’s skeezy, gun-loving brother Gavin (Star Trek‘s sparkling Karl Urban, who knows how to play a ridiculous cad without chewing too much scenery).

Lowery borrows liberally from the Spielberg school of mid-80s family film-making, and Spielberg himself was beholden to an encyclopedic obsession with films of his youth. One might argue that every Spielberg children’s movie seems to be trying to right any emotional damage that Old Yeller may have caused a young Steven. Lowery even wisely sets Pete’s Dragon in a pre-cell-phone late 70s/early 80s (never completely defined), when a child would see nature with wonder and not as a backdrop by which to catch the latest Pokemon Go creature.

Elliot, the dragon, is a marvel of movie design and animation, rarely exhibiting any of the jarring disconnects from reality CGI can sometimes cause – the work here is fluid and warm and fantastic and heartbreaking. Elliot never speaks and relays sensitivities the way a dog or cat might, through undulating body language and heavy sighs, sideways glances and guttural noises. Elliot is at once the film’s center and periphery, a guide and a protector yet also a victim of the cruel whims of serendipity and fate … which is pretty consistent with how humans treat any and all animals, in fact.

And that is likely Lowery’s point. Robert Redford is cast as Grace’s father Meacham, the town eccentric whose claims of meeting a dragon in the woods decades prior have fueled a host of urban legends and have alienated him from all but the town’s youngest denizens. Early in the film, Meacham foreshadows what is yet to come with the line, “If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Toward the film’s conclusion, when it’s pretty damn evident there is a dragon living in the woods, Grace asks her father to tell her what really happened all those years ago. Meacham looks at Grace (after relating how Elliot hates guns … thank you!) and says, “I looked at that dragon. And he looked at me. And we were at peace. Something changed in me that day, and I could never look at you or any other creature the same way again.” Yeah, I cried buckets.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Florence Foster Jenkins on the other hand may change the way any of us ever look at amateur singers or any other aspiring creative type again. Or not. Long before American Idol, people in this country treated singing competitions like gladiator sport. We applaud and cheer the Susan Boyles or the Kelly Clarksons who may defy our expectations with voices like angels, but we guffaw and leer at the William Hungs or Sanjaya Malakars for whom “pitchy” is the best compliment anyone can muster. We can be exceedingly cruel as a culture; the dark side of our Horatio Alger tendencies.

The film, directed in workmanlike fashion by Stephen Frears (The QueenPhilomena), is a wartime snapshot of the title character’s days and nights as a wealthy patron of the musical arts in New York City and as a woefully untalented vocalist with a shockingly tin ear. Alas, as portrayed by Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash, Into the Woods), Jenkins comes off (no pun intended) as rather one-note. Not unlike an episode of the aforementioned American Idol, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are making fun of Jenkins or celebrating her unabashed moxie. Maybe I’m a bit simplistic, but trying to have it both ways with a character who cuts a more tragic than comic figure could be mistaken for cruelty.

In fact, Florence, (spoiler alert) on her deathbed, asks her dutiful (yet dubiously motivated) husband St. Clair (portrayed with surprising nuance by Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant) if all this time everyone has been laughing at her. It’s intended to be a devastating self-realization. In fact, everyone has been laughing at her, including us. The film takes comic glee is showing how Jenkins’ simian-like vocalizations send audiences into apoplexy, so it’s a bit tough (akin to emotional whiplash) to suddenly invoke our sympathy after indulging our baser instincts.

That said, the film is a pleasant lark with more sweet than sour at its core. Like the BBC production it is, the film is a clutch of fussy mannerisms and pop-eyed reaction shots. Streep is as hammy as we’ve seen her in years, if her Julia Child from Julie and Julia had spent a long afternoon with her Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. Grant does a fine job complementing and contextualizing Streep’s performance (partly it’s the design of his role as Florence’s major domo and consigliere), and there is a lot of joy in watching him out of love, sweetness, and survival clear one hurdle after another, shielding Florence from the worst of her detractors and hangers on. In hiring a new accompanist for his tone-deaf wife, St. Clair delineates to Cosme McMoon (a pleasantly neurotic Simon Helberg, playing a soft-spoken variation on his Big Bang Theory‘s Howard Wolowitz) some of the more eccentric rules of the house: “The chairs are not for practical use. They honor those who died in them. Are you fond of sandwiches? And potato salad? We have mountains of the stuff.” Grant’s delivery, a perfect blend of pragmatism, wonder, and self-interest, should have been the tone the entire film took.

Regardless, if you are seeking solace from a summer move season filled with smart aleck mutants and half-baked sequels, frat boy comedies and nihilistic explosions, go check out the dragon  (and Robert Redford) and stay for the potato salad (and Hugh Grant).

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Bonus: If you missed this summer’s production of Xanadu, enjoy this video footage!

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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.

“Just because you see me on TV, doesn’t mean I’m more enlightened than you.” Shatner’s World … We Just Live In It! at MotorCity Casino’s SoundBoard (Detroit)

William ShatnerLast night we saw William Shatner. Yes, THAT William Shatner. Priceline Negotiator. Denny Crane. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Captain Kirk. Cringe-worthy purveyor of spoken word psychedelia. He offered his one-man show Shatner’s World … We Just Live In It (originally presented in a limited run at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre) at Motor City Casino’s SoundBoard venue.

When I went to bed last night, visions of this D-level A-lister dancing around in my head, I was ready to write a snotty piece, dismissing his overeager schtick, rampant hamminess, cloddish sexism, sweaty egomania, and twitchy insecurity.

In the cold, hard light of this January day, I think, “Who am I to make fun of 84-year-old Hollywood legend William Shatner?! Granted he’s far from my favorite starship “Captain.” Patrick Stewart, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula, and Chris Pine are all far ahead in that line-up.

Shatner's WorldPlus, I’ve always found Shatner a rather desperate presence, sharing the same kind of icky balsa wood machismo that plagued contemporaries like Burt Reynolds, Robert Conrad, and Lee Majors throughout the 70s and 80s. Regardless, he’s sustained an acting career across stage and screen for sixty years; he’s a best-selling author; and he’s an icon. That is something to celebrate; yet, all that “Shatnerism” gets in the way of respecting his work and always has.

I was curious to see if Shatner’s World would allay or compound that conundrum. The answer, quite honestly, is that it did both. Whereas a Star Trek alum like George Takei has revealed a comic impishness and a (more or less) refreshing layer of self-mocking irreverence in the latter years of his career, Shatner has gleefully become more bloated, arrogant, and self-mythologizing as the years have passed. He capitalized on this to greatest effect as bloviating Denny Crane in Boston Legal, but he was aided in that enterprise by co-star James Spader (who could make an avocado interesting) and to some degree by Candice Bergen (whom one could argue is kind of the female Shatner when it comes to smart aleck self-absorption). His quirky Priceline “Negotiator” persona is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of Denny with a teaspoon of mannered Kirk-isms and a healthy portion of “drunk uncle at your family reunion.”

IMG_3769(My favorite Shatner moment remains The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” wherein his character is convinced that gremlins – which only he can see – are dismantling a plane in mid-flight. If there ever was a place for Shatner’s hyperventilating hyperbole and pop-eyed claustrophobia, it was the black-and-white world of Rod Serling.)

Shatner’s World – the show – is like a cocktail party guest who lingers about 45 minutes too long. The first hour is fun, frothy, and full of empty calories. Shatner, with his squatty shenanigans, fancies himself a raconteur – the dirty-joke-telling kind who went out of style when they retired Johnny Carson’s guest couch. For precisely sixty minutes, Shatner’s creative retelling of an upbringing with a loving, middle-class, Jewish family in Montreal is engaging. He uses slide projections, video clips, and an office chair in rather ingenious and theatrical ways to illustrate key moments (e.g. the office chair doubles as a motorcycle and a horse at various points in the show).

IMG_3754His sentimental, albeit self-aggrandizing, descriptions of his early days in the entertainment industry are captivating, damn funny, and, I suspect, patently false: he worked with good buddy Christopher Plummer (who knew?) at Stratford (Canada), and supposedly saved the day once as Plummer’s understudy in Henry V; he, in his estimation, single-handedly turned Broadway bomb The World of Suzie Wong into a long-running comic hit; he, according to Shatner, gave an Emmy-caliber performance in an unnamed Playhouse 90 episode until legendary co-star Lon Chaney, Jr., started rattling off stage directions as if they were dialogue; Shatner discovered the glories of leadership and horsemanship starring as Alexander the Great (!) in a film none of us had ever heard of.

Dammit. I’ve fallen into making fun of him. I said I wouldn’t. Yet, that’s part of Shatner’s studied charm. He knows you want to mock him, so he does it first, but then he twists every anecdote into a celebration of self, of the sheer force of will that has allowed him to transform marginal talent and blandly handsome features into more success and longevity than any of his detractors have or ever could achieve. It’s rather fascinating in fact – like a piece of performance art or a social experiment to which we’ve all been subjected yet remain unaware of its grand design. In this day of virulent social media and steroidal self-promotion, is Shatner any worse than the rest of us? Or was he simply our forebear? A pop culture Thomas Edison to Kim Kardashian’s Steve Jobs?

IMG_3743As Shatner’s World proceeds into its second hour, the focus grows more diffuse and the self-celebration harder to take. He glosses over his Star Trek years, oddly enough, dedicating as much (if not more) time to his dubious career as a recording artist. This turns out to be a canny decision, though, as it allows Shatner to end the show (and reconnect with his flagging audience) with a “song” titled “Real,” co-written with country star Brad Paisley. It’s a pretty tune (spoken word overlay notwithstanding) and offers Shatner a chance to encapsulate his raison d’etre as vainglorious underdog, aptly noting: “Just because you see me on TV doesn’t mean I’m more enlightened than you.”

It is this struggle with external perception and internal reality that brings much-needed (and sometimes head-scratching) pathos to the evening. He owns the fact that he can be a lousy husband and a half-assed father, sharing anecdotes that are equal parts aspiration and humiliation – a little Father Knows Best, a little Honeymooners, and a little War of the Roses. He acknowledges that he isn’t always beloved by his co-stars, with a riotous bit where he allows Takei to call Shatner a sh*t while simultaneously suggesting Takei might not be all the sweetness and light he wants us to believe. Brilliant. He isn’t afraid to show us his infamous struggles with money either, the kind of struggles that led him back to Star Trek (films) in the 70s (when sci fi nostalgia wasn’t the sure thing it is today), to an endless stream of comic book convention appearances, and to doing casino gigs like the very one witnessed at SoundBoard last night.

IMG_3761Finally, the aspect of Shatner’s life that surprised and troubled me most was (is) Shatner’s adoration of animals. Complete shock to me. Images of Shatner with his beloved dogs, horses, and other creatures fill his slide show and his repartee, and the joy in his eyes is palpable. He speaks meaningfully about the special language and kinship one can only feel with and for animals and how they can tell us all we need to know if we’d only listen. Yet, he then talks about how he “studs” his prize pets (equine and canine) to this day, going into great detail about all the awards he’s received and money he has made from the practice. He also relays a lengthy anecdote about the “horse of a lifetime” – his spirit animal, if you will – whose existence he ruined by breeding, the creature consigned to unending days of isolation and misery as a result. Shatner seems to indicate deep regret, and he expresses hope that the horse, in his final moments, forgave Shatner; but he follows this heartbreaking moment by regaling us with tales of the horse’s award-winning progeny.

Is Shatner looking for redemption or rationalization? This horse tale is arguably the most unintentionally revealing moment in the evening. A sensitive and empathic soul may lurk beneath all that Shatner bravado, but he is so preoccupied by a maddeningly retro belief in what he thinks we expect of masculinity that he can’t quite let that soul breathe and evolve and teach. He wants to embrace his mistakes, but he is too afraid that those mistakes, if authentically understood, will make him less compelling. It’s a shame. Those mistakes make him more compelling. Maybe when he’s 94 years old, we’ll get that show. He’ll still be going strong, kept aloft by a self-sustaining gale of monomania.

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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.

Congrats to my mom on her Hall of Fame nomination (and save the date for upcoming author appearance)!

Susie at Chamber Event 1Congratulations to my mom Susie Duncan Sexton (www.susieduncansexton.com) for being nominated to the Whitley County Hall of Fame (a new honor developed by the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce – www.whitleychamber.com).Susie at Chamber Event 2

 

 

She was nominated for her contributions to local arts and culture, animal welfare, and for helping to preserve the history of her hometown via her columns and books and other research.

susie with certificate

 

 

Kudos to the Chamber’s new Director of Marketing Jennifer Zartman Romano for what sounds to have been a marvelous event last week to celebrate all the honorees (and thanks to Jennifer and my dad for the photos below).

hall of fame certificate

 

 

Also, for those of you in Northeast Indiana, my mom will be appearing Saturday, November 8 from noon to 3 pm as part of the Allen County Public Library Authors Fair – a copy of the flyer appears below and more info can be found here.

Enjoy these fun photos from the Chamber event last week!

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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.

Author Fair Poster for Public-jpeg

“We love a good ghost story. How about you?” Never Can Say Good-bye film in development PLUS Slipstream Theatre event AND Shih Tzu res-cue!

Never Can Say Goodbye

Never Can Say Goodbye

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (particularly for those provincial social media naysayers … who aren’t listening anyway), the internet brings the world together in fun and surprising and interesting ways, breaking down geographic boundaries and uniting people by affinity (as opposed to arbitrary constructs of place and time). Read The World is Flat. No, really. Go read it.

Writing this blog has introduced me to a documentary filmmaker in Toronto (click here) and allowed me to review a short film by an animal advocate whom I’ve never met but feel as though I have (click here). It has helped me connect with and learn from fellow bloggers (click here) and has given me the opportunity to assess the work of local theatre groups (click here). I even got a shout out from JB Bernstein, the subject of the Disney film Million Dollar Arm, over my review of that fabulous flick: “It means a lot to hear a review like this. This was a very personal story, and to know that I was able to reach even one person with our message it was worth all the work.”

Ok … enough patting myself on the back …

My downright caustic review of the latest Transformers installment caught the attention of Traverse City-based independent filmmaker Theresa Chaze (click here for her website). She is also a published author, experienced video producer, and accomplished communications professional, and she is hard at work launching her new film Never Can Say Good-bye. I was honored when she asked if I would read her script and offer my thoughts.

(And the animal lover in me adores this part of her impressive bio: “As the media specialist for Angel Protectors of Animals and Wildlife, she produced several public service announcements and micro-documentaries. The messages remained informative and promoted positive action to save our nation’s wildlife.” Yes! Another of her potential projects is a TV show about equine therapy for veterans – Horses and Heroes.)

Theresa Chaze

Theresa Chaze

Never Can Say Good-bye reinvents the reincarnation conceit (Christopher Reeve’s/Jane Seymour’s 1980 film Somewhere in Time, Ellen Burstyn’s 1980 film Resurrection) in the guise of gothic paranormal psychodrama (Nicole Kidman’s 2001 film The Others, Julie Harris’ 1963 film The Haunting, Deborah Kerr’s 1961 film The Innocents). The plot concerns two families united by a doomed marriage in the 1950s and explores the dissonant legacy that familial discord has had on subsequent generations. (See the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County for another take on this thematic concept.)

I finished reading the script earlier this week. It is so well done and layered and clever. I love the notion of turning a ghost story on its head through the lens of reincarnation. I thought the characters were all clearly and thoughtfully drawn, and the script is definitely a page turner in the best sense. The disparate threads cohere in a denouement that is both chilling and poignant. The dialogue is believable, and the insular college-town setting (somewhere in northern Michigan, I believe) lends a nice chilly, hierarchical vibe.

Different actors are reported to have been attached at various points, including Lauren Holly, Bill Hayes, and Dyan Cannon. Stanley Livingston is connected to direct. Obviously, “name” performers would bring added attention to the project, but I daresay a cast of unknowns would keep audience attention focused on the narrative and the dense web of challenging relationships therein.

And, as in seemingly all creative efforts these days, there is a crowd-source funding campaign afoot through Indiegogo – you can donate here. From the campaign’s page …

We love a good ghost story. How about you? We are not talking about films that gross out the audience or are so dependent of special effects that the producers forgot to give the characters personalities or have plots that are based on clichés or simply don’t make any sense. Much like Dark Shadows, Never Can Say Good-bye is based on suspense and plot twists that will scare the socks off the audience and make them suspicious of the dust bunnies under their beds.

Best of luck, Theresa – hope this script makes it to the silver screen soon – it’s a keeper!

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Slipstream LogoMy pal Bailey Boudreau (with whom I appeared in Farmington Players’ production of Legally Blonde the Musical last year) has launched the Slipstream Theatre Initiative here in Metro Detroit, and they have a fun event this weekend. Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

Slipstream Theatre Initiative is proud to present a one-weekend staged reading festival of new, local works! The festival is a fundraiser for both Slipstream Theatre Initiative and Two Muses Theatre, and promises to provide non-stop entertainment.

Slipstream

Slipstream

Featuring new short plays by Playwrights Cara Trautman, Bailey Boudreau, Emilio Rodriguez, Kim Carney, Emily Fishman, Barry Germansky, Margaret Edwartowski, Katherine Nelson, Lori Reece and Josie Kirsch, this two day event offers a wide variety of material and subject matter.

Bailey Boudreau

Bailey Boudreau

The actors include Scott Romstadt, Steve Xander Carson, Miles Bond, Cara Trautman, Jennifer Jolliffe, Cindi Brody, Katie Terpstra, Alexander Henderson Trice, Claire Jolliffe, Maxim Vinogradav, Nick Kisse, Joshua Daniel Palmer, Josie Kirsch and Bailey Boudreau.

All proceeds will go to the 2014-2015 seasons of Slipstream Theatre Initiative and Two Muses Theatre, both non-profit organizations.

  • What: Original Works Weekend
  • When: Saturday July 19th, 7:30 pm & Sunday July 20th, 5:00 p.m.
  • Where: Two Muses Theatre inside the West Bloomfield Barnes and Noble
  • How Much: $10, additional donations accepted (tax-deductible)
  • Contact: InsideTheSlipstream@gmail.com , www.SlipstreamTI.com

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And this is just something that I needed to capture – and why not put it in this particular crazy quilt of a blog entry …

Shih TzuSo, I’m going to lunch yesterday with my colleagues Mike and Jan and I see a Shih Tzu or something (no tags, but a collar) running about the busy traffic on Middlebelt. We lure the dog into a yard with a rattle-y container of gum, and the people who live in the house say, “We saw him running around.”

Really? And you didn’t do anything?

They give us some twine which we fashion into a leash. I wander about this neighborhood while Jan and Mike go to the drugstore to get a real leash (which of course they don’t carry – my mom always says, “Always have a leash in your car.” I will now).

As I stumble around using this dog like a divining rod to see if he will lead me to his home (he didn’t – he was kind of a cute dingbat), up rolls from within the neighborhood a Grand Marquis painted an ugly orange red and on tires the size of small boulders. The gentleman driving the car, not saying “thank you,” grumbles, “My dog.” I say, “What’s his name?” Surly reply, “Bear.” (Really, a Shih Tzu named “Bear”?) The dog did indeed reply to the name, at which time the man got out of the car, lifted the dog roughly by the collar, smacked it on its side, and said, “We’re goin’ home.”

So, who wants to kidnap a Shih Tzu with me? Yes, we drove back through the neighborhood to confirm that he and “Bear” do live there. And, after work yesterday, I drove by the house again where the dog lives, and I met the teenage boy who clearly loves him very much. Let’s hope for the best.

If you want to know where I got this love for all creatures great and small, please check out my mom’s latest wonderful blog entry “that is my medicine” here.

And read about friend Beth Kennedy’s adoption of “Nacho the Cat” here!

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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.