“There are the hands that made us. And then the hands that guide the hands.” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

There are but a few movies in my life that so deftly balance abject horror and empathetic peril and heart-tugging poignancy that they reduce me to repeated fits of ugly crying: Dancer in the Dark, E.T., Watership Down, and now … Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3?!? I did NOT see that coming.

This latest Marvel installment in the lives of Star-Lord Peter Quill’s merry band of space-faring misfits landed in theatres about a month ago. I’m behind. Hell, I’m only halfway through Ant-Man and Wasp: Quantumania on DVD. (It’s not nearly as compelling.) Nonetheless, I will try mightily to avoid spoiler territory while still warning my animal-loving, humanitarian friends that this damn movie is TRIGGERING. But toward good (I hope) ends. Director James Gunn has somehow fashioned a high-flying summer blockbuster from a timely, haunting cautionary tale against the evils of eugenics and animal experimentation. The man swings BIG and it lands (mostly) in a powerful way.

The film centers chiefly around the beloved miscreant Rocket Raccoon – voiced terrifically again by an unrecognizable Bradley Cooper, giving classic film mobster with heart of gold vibes. We finally learn Rocket’s backstory (although fans of the early 80s Rocket Raccoon mini-series by Bill Mantlo will see that Gunn doesn’t stray far from that source material). Told in flashback as the team races to save Rocket’s life after a random attack by literal golden boy Adam Warlock (a pouty Will Poulter, criminally underutilized given the vast potential of THAT trippy godlike character), we bear witness to Rocket’s deeply disturbing origins. He is a sweet, gentle raccoon cub plucked from his pack by the menacing High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji walking a fine line between outright scenery chewing and method acting tortured madness) and turned into a cyborg killing machine through relentless surgical and emotional abuse and manipulation.

Rocket has an adopted family in the Evolutionary’s HQ – similar cast offs: an otter, a walrus, a bunny … at least I think that last one is a bunny. They love each other, they are kind to each other, and they lift each other up in the most daunting of circumstances. Think the Plague Dogs by way of Frankenstein. Linda Cardellini, per usual, is particularly luminous and warm as the voice of otter Lylla. She offers the film’s central thesis with this line: “There are the hands that made us. And then the hands that guide the hands.” In an era of such ugliness toward all creatures great and small in America, this message of “found family” or “framily” couldn’t be more needed.

When Rocket, still hopeful for a better life, volunteers a scientific insight the Evolutionary has overlooked, Iwuji turns all “no wire hangers” Joan Crawford and things get EVEN uglier. Ain’t that always the way? Sadly, Rocket’s pals bear the brunt of Rocket’s “punishment.” It’s one of the hardest things I’ve witnessed on screen in years. It’s a really tough watch. Be prepared. Is it kid-friendly? Probably not. Is it essential and brave of Gunn and sends a piercing message about how all beings deserve grace and kindness? Darn tootin’. PETA should send screeners of the film to every household in America.

Further note, for those who worry about such things as I do, there is a wonderfully redemptive “button” toward the end of the film, where the menagerie of remaining animals imprisoned by the Evolutionary are all rescued Noah’s Ark style to live the rest of their days in peace and happiness in the Guardians’ Knowhere HQ. I know that’s a spoiler, but it’s the kind of spoiler I like to know going in. So you’re welcome. At the film’s climax, Rocket does get his revenge on the evolutionary but not as you might expect, ultimately delivering the kind of compassion Rocket was never shown. Rocket solemnly intones, “You didn’t want to make things perfect. You just hated the way things are.”

In parallel to the flashbacks to Rocket’s origin, the Guardians are scrambling in real time to find one MacGuffin after another that will save Rocket’s life. It’s all done in epic, manic, classic rock-soundtracked style – per prior films in the series. Gunn ensemble standby Nathan Fillion has great fun as a stoic, slightly dim, very uncollegial security guard, dressed like the Michelin Man … in creamy yellow. The best comic bits are offered by Guardians Drax (Dave Bautista, a lovely goof throughout), Mantis (Pom Klementieff, who does earnest rage better than anyone), and Nebula (Karen Gillan, who arguably has had the best arc of all in the series, never losing her ill-tempered ferocity but layering in beautiful moments of grudging compassion). At one point, Mantis cuts Nebula to the quick when Nebula has been disparaging Drax’s value as a teammate: “He makes us laugh. And he loves us. How is that a liability?” It’s a wonderful time capsule moment, capturing the dynamic authenticity of this great trio.

The film is far too long – I’m not sure what could have been cut, but a 30-minute shorter run time would have made the flick more of a jet-fueled roller coaster. Chris Pratt just seems worn out as Star-Lord at this point. He appears to have one note – one might call it “smugging” (read: smug mugging). It’s fine. It serves the role, but I think he (and we) need a break.

All in all, go for the incredibly deep message around animal autonomy, stick around for the day-glo shenanigans, enjoy your popcorn, and then have a thoughtful conversation at home about the crucial role we all must play in being better caretakers for all living beings. Bambi ain’t got nothing on Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3.

Of freak flags and time warps: The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show

Originally published by EncoreMichigan.com

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show is a bit of an artifact of its time, when queer culture and camp were avant garde, subversive, and downright frightening to most of America. Mike Pence notwithstanding, today we’ve seen such a mainstreaming of O’Brien’s core shock tactics (gender fluidity, B-movie tropes taken to their kinkiest extremes, gay panic, sophomoric raunch) that the show almost seems like a cuddly, family-friendly enterprise. I guess we can thank Andy Warhol, John Waters, Madonna, RuPaul, Logo TV, and Sacha Baron Cohen for that? When Drag Race – the likeliest heir to Rocky Horror’s legacy – is one of the most popular reality shows in America, you know we’ve turned a corner, even if the daily headlines, Fox News, and the comments section of any given Yahoo! news story lead us to believe otherwise. Hell, Fox themselves aired a (not very good) TV remake of Rocky Horror starring trans actress/activist Laverne Cox  … in response to Carrie Underwood playing Maria in NBC’s Sound of Music Live!?! Strange days indeed.


[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

Ferndale, Michigan’s The Ringwald gets all of this. This milieu is their stock-in-trade. In fact, I can practically feel their collective eyeballs roll as they read that opening paragraph. Consequently, it is assured that Ringwald will do something unique with the material, while honoring the nostalgia factor that keeps Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials alike coming back year-after-year to this show and its classic film adaptation. The film, of course, starred Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, and Susan Sarandon in career-launching roles with a million toast-strewn midnight-movie showings.


[Wallace, Harris, Gagnon, Jacokes – image by author]

Directed with aplomb by Brandy Joe Plambeck (also brilliantly pulling out all the stops as exposition- spouting character Dr. Scott), The Ringwald’s Rock Horror Show does not disappoint. Tied loosely to the bicentennial anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (I wondered why everyone was doing these kinds of shows in the middle of summer – well, I’m seeing this one), The Ringwald’s production is a damn party. Yes, O’Brien’s book reads like a series of MadLibs pages strung together and makes about as much sense. However, the songs are sublime, and they are beautifully delivered here – kudos to Jeremy St. Martin’s music direction. The bonkers characters are a scream for talented actors like Ringwald’s to play. No bit of scenery remains unchewed; no audience member unaccosted. And it’s divine.


Defying convention, Plambeck transplants the show from a rambling gothic castle into a seedy biker bar, covered in punk rock graffiti and serving (non-alcoholic) drinks to audience and cast members – with smart, solid, economic scenic design from Stephen Carpenter. It’s a genius and immersive move. Squeaky clean (or are they?) Brad and Janet – representing the dreams and aspirations of middle-America to live boring, Instagram-friendly lives – stumble into said bar from the rain to use the pay phone after their car dies. While there, Brad and Janet meet a sordid cast of characters, all of whom are easy-to-judge but hard-to-avoid and totally at home in this setting. What Plambeck’s approach loses in outright spooky weirdness, it makes up for in sheer Muppet-y anarchic charm.


[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

The bar is run by one Dr. Frank N. Furter who uses sex as a weapon AND a floor show. In a welcome bit of gender-blind casting, Suzan M. Jacokes takes on the role. Her acting style seems pneumatically engineered for an outsized, cartoonish part like this, and she doesn’t disappoint. While nuance may not be her forte, she has power, polish, volume, and command to spare. You can’t look away. I did miss some of the slithering insinuation we typically associate with the role, but Tim Curry’s gonzo performance will always cast a long shadow. Jacokes deserves plaudits for stomping it to the ground and making it uniquely her own. She’s like the caffeine-addled lovechild of Gloria Swanson and Rodney Dangerfield. She nails the anthemic “I’m Coming Home” number, with just the right hint of Liza/Judy-ish “little girl (boy?) lost” pathos.


[Wallace, Gagnon – image by author]

Matthew Wallace and Jordan Gagnon as Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, respectively, are an absolute delight, setting aside the faux innocence often brought to the roles and bringing a postmodern loopy assuredness that is fun to watch. Their love/hate dynamic in “Dammit Janet” and later “Super Heroes” is touching, thoughtful, and refreshingly believable, particularly in the midst of such a carnival-esque enterprise. Their characters benefit best from the updated locale. The hedonism of a late-night, dead-end watering hole on a stormy night (and with no vehicular escape) would indeed lead to some relationship topsy-turviness.


Brad and Janet arrive smack in the midst of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s experiments (in a bar?) to genetically engineer the perfect man and sexual plaything “Rocky.” Garett Michael Harris as Rocky turns in an eye-poppingly nimble performance that is more Iggy Pop than Tab Hunter. He’s terrific.


[Riedel, Bailey, Sulkey – image by author]

Janet takes up with Rocky; Frank takes up with Brad (and Janet). Brad and Janet’s former science professor Dr. Scott arrives in a wheelchair (and glittering pumps) to drop a whole sh*t-ton of backstory. Frank reveals that he and his fellow bar denizens are actually space aliens (!) who left their mission behind to get freaky with earthlings. Servants Riff Raff (effectively underplayed by Donny Riedel) and Magenta (Dyan Bailey – imbuing Magenta’s “over it” personality with her trademark Kathleen Turner-esque a$$-kickery) shoot up the bar with ray guns and demand a return to their home planet. Brad and Janet escape, sweetly acknowledging their love and their need for one another. Finis. Whew.


The ensemble work (Colleen Bielman, Ryan Kayla, Peggy Lee, Rebecca S. Mickle as “The Fantoms”) is exceptional, and the group numbers (“Time Warp,” “Floor Show”) really pop in The Ringwald’s tiny space. Efficient and effective choreography is provided by Molly Zaleski. Articulation in the group numbers sometimes gets muddled, but most of the audience knows these songs backwards and forwards so that can be forgiven. Austin Sulkey makes a fabulously exasperated/exasperating Columbia, whose love of delivery boy Eddie (a swaggering RJ Cach) ends in tragedy. Costuming on both Columbia and Eddie is great as they look like they just stepped off Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” video. Vince Kelley has done remarkable sartorial work here across the board, tying the updated setting’s aesthetic with the imagery we are accustomed to seeing in this show. Clever stuff.

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]


Peggy Lee (no, not that Peggy Lee) deserves a special shout out for her work as “Fantom Flo.” She hauntingly delivers the show’s opening and closing numbers (“Science Fiction Double Feature” and its reprise). Her voice is exquisite – clear and crisp and evocative.

Lee also embraces “biker chic” better than anyone else in the cast, save ursine narrator David Schoen, who greets every audience member at the door, brings you to your seat, may pull you up on stage, and is completely “Hell’s Angel” intimidating in a totally adorable way.


This is a production put together by people who clearly love this show. The stage manager Holly Garverick shouts out all of the expected audience participation lines from the back of the house, encouraging the audience to interact with the proceedings, a la those midnight movie house showings throughout the 70s and 80s. One thought: let’s all retire yelling “slut” whenever Janet’s name is mentioned onstage. It may be tradition, but, in these “I’m With Her”/#MeToo days, it feels all kinds of misogynistic wrong.


[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Audience members are encouraged to purchase (for a nominal fee) a bag of props (playing cards, rubber gloves, party hats, bells, glow sticks, newspapers, kazoos, “Time Warp” dance instructions) to use at key moments during the show. Garverick may want to help with that a bit, as well, as the opening night audience didn’t seem terribly keen on using any of those goodies, save the newspapers.


On August 4, The Ringwald will perform the show in a special midnight performance, again to evoke those high school years when people convinced their parents it would be ok for them to go take in a showing at the witching hour.


[Riedel – image source: The Ringwald]

Why has Rocky Horror been such a success all these years? I often wonder. However, The Ringwald’s production reminds us that, while the show may not be Pulitzer Prize-winning material, it champions underdogs and misfits, encourages all of us to let our freak flags fly, and envisions a world where inclusion of any and all is the ideal … in one really weird package. That is why. And that message is more important than ever before. Vive la difference.


The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show runs until August 6. For tickets, go to http://www.theringwald.com


Lauren Crocker and Roy Boy

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.

Funky college professors who change your life … The Carolina Chocolate Drops with Grace & Tony at Ann Arbor’s The Ark

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Carolina Chocolate Drops [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Effervescent. Witty. Intelligent. … Force of nature! These are the best words I can devise to describe Carolina Chocolate Drops’ performance Wednesday night at Ann Arbor’s The Ark.

If you aren’t familiar with this group, stop reading this right now, go to YouTube and check out their stuff. I have never seen so raucous a crowd at The Ark as I did last night, jubilant and joyous and energized by the band’s world-class musicianship and delightfully irreverent intellectualism.

This group of multi-hyphenate performers have mined hundreds of years of musical history: folk, roots, hip-hop, spiritual, blues, country, bluegrass, and even Celtic rhythms to create an intoxicating brew of acoustic, string driven, pop delights.

The drum!

The drum!

While the lineup of the group has undergone some changes in recent years, lead singer Rhiannon Giddens is a mainstay. (One of the night’s biggest laughs came when she stated, “A certain pop star came on the scene a few years back [the similarly named Rihanna] … and pretty much ruined my life … I wear clothes, though.”

Giddens is a marvel. As much accomplished actress as she is exceptional vocalist and amazing instrumentalist, she breathes life into songs that veer wildly from a 200 A.D. war chant to Blu Cantrell’s one-hit-wonder “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops).” She makes every song her own. With wide-eyed wonder, heartfelt intelligence and charm, and an impish smile, she delivers raw roots vocals with operatic technique, all while playing nearly every stringed instrument on stage from mandolin to banjo. Many of last night’s selections focused on the mistreatment of women through the ages and the essential reclamation of female power. That may sound stuffy. It ain’t.

The band!

The band!

The talents of this quartet cannot be overstated. The Chocolate Drops’ nearly two hour set flew by. Opening with the propulsive and gripping “Country Girl” through their encore “Cornbread and Butterbeans” (which was aggressively  – and quite humorously – requested all night long by one notably vocal fan), the set was a dynamic and earthy array of the group’s best work with a handful of undiscovered gems tossed in for good measure.

I felt like I was at a fabulous party that I never wanted to end. The Chocolate Drops were relaxed and authentic, gracious and inclusive. Their repartee between songs (and during!) was both instructive and hysterically funny, like that of funky college professors whom you adore for making you laugh … and changing your life.

(The Chocolate Drops also gave some local dancers the opportunity to hit the stage and interpret their music as they were playing it. If there ever was a textbook definition of a “happening,” this was it.)

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Grace & Tony [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Opening act, alt-country/folk/steampunk husband/wife duo Grace & Tony may have been an acquired taste for some. I loved them! By the time they played their last number, they had completely won me over. (I listened to their CD November in the car today on my way to work, and I highly recommend it – ethereal, zany, and compelling.)

Tony White (brother of The Civil Wars’ John Paul White) knows how to work his hipster winsome charm in service to songs inspired by such diverse topics as Stephen King’s book Salem’s Lot, Frankenstein’s monster, and a couple of serial killers who sold cadavers to universities in the 1800s. These topics sound ghoulish, but Tony (and Grace!) sold these cracked ditties with such saucy glee that the audience was in the palm their hands by the time the Chocolate Drops took the stage.

Thanks to our dear pal Rachel Murphy who introduced all of us to the Carolina Chocolate Drops music. And I, in turn, hooked my parents on the group and have given several copies of their spectacular CDs as gifts.

A plug for The Ark: this is a fabulous, nonprofit venue staffed by volunteers, bringing in internationally known performers many times a week. Definitely check out their schedule, and take in a show there first chance you get!


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.

They don’t like the questions science asks: Frankenweenie

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

Around the mid-way mark of Tim Burton’s new stop-motion Disney animated feature Frankenweenie, a suitably creepy but charming, Vincent Price-esque public school science teacher observes, “People like what science gives them…they don’t like the questions it asks.” Pretty heady, philosophical stuff for a kids’ feature.

Tim Burton seems to run on two speeds – 1) cold-blooded yet warm-hearted, allegorical goth fairy tales that offer finely spun, darkly whimsical takes on the human condition (see: Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Ed Wood, even Sweeney Todd) or 2) sophomoric, recklessly morbid, crassly violent, meandering cinematic sketches that may start vigorously but skid to flat conclusions, running on their own self-satisfied fumes (see: Alice in Wonderland, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, and, the worst of all, Mars Attacks). His other films fall somewhere along that continuum, with Beetlejuice, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and Batman Returns being the other standouts. I admit a soft spot in my heart for this past summer’s box office misfire Dark Shadows. It wasn’t really very good, but I kinda loved it.

So where does Frankenweenie fit in? Unfortunately, the film squanders a beautiful and loving and elegiac first two thirds with a third act that devolves into borderline hateful, truly unpleasant movie monster cliché (no doubt aspiring, rather, to cheeky b-movie homage…and failing). The movie tells the story of a kind but forlorn, science-obsessed boy who loses his beloved dog (and only friend) while being forced to “fit in” and play a game of baseball. By the way, I found that a telling autobiographical moment for the self-professed, long-time outcast Burton. This boy, a typical Burton anti-hero, is inspired by the aforementioned science teacher and resurrects said pooch a la Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein.

The dynamic between the boy (named Victor) and his devoted pup Sparky is completely engaging and fun. Further, the supporting characters, from Victor’s next door neighbor girl (voiced by Burton mainstay Winona Ryder) to Victor’s parents (voiced by two more Burton regulars Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) are likable and interesting. As  all Burton productions do, the movie borrows its aesthetic and left-of-center worldview from Edward Gorey. All of that works beautifully, reinforcing the importance of family, animals, and open-mindedness in a world that is often quick to judge and demean. The film cleverly works in conceits from the original Frankenstein and other genre works, from a villainous mayor named Van Helsing to a gloomy windmill that dominates the town’s landscape to angry villagers who are intolerant to difference of any kind…that last part added a spooky parallel to life in post-millennial America.

HOWEVER, and this is a BIG however. The film takes such a strange tonal shift in its last third that it ruins the promise of the kind-natured, delicate story-telling it had achieved to that point. Suddenly, the film veers into Godzilla/Gremlins/Pet Sematary-lite ugliness and loses the good will it engendered…for this viewer at least. Such a shame. Imagine the first hour of Edward Scissorhands jumping to the last half hour of Mars Attacks, and you will understand my disappointment.