“America is just one big strip club.” Hustlers, IT Chapter Two, and Theatre Nova’s latest production Admissions

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    “… the ‘Horatio Alger myth’: a teenage boy works hard to escape poverty. Often it is not hard work that rescues the boy from his fate but rather some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty. The boy might return a large sum of lost money or rescue someone from an overturned carriage. This brings the boy—and his plight—to the attention of a wealthy individual.” – Wikipedia entry on author Horatio Alger
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    “America is just one big strip club … You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers
  • “From one angle … motherhood can be viewed as one long journey of overcoming obstacles. I salute mothers everywhere who overcome obstacles with grace, courage and tenacity. … There was this huge obstacle in the way that needed to be fixed for my daughter’s sake.” – amalgamation of quotes from scandal-ridden Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman
  • “Motherhood is a kind of madness.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

America is a “land of opportunity,” that is, if you are on the right side of the carnival game. This fall’s cinematic completion of Stephen King’s classic novel It, directed again as a labor of love by Andy Muschietti, opens with a grown man defeating a little girl in one such street fair contest and then magnanimously leaning down, whispering in her ear “thank you for letting me win,” and handing her the ugly stuffed frog (I think it was a frog?) he receives as a prize. It is as warm a moment as it is pandering, the young man’s buddy looking on admiringly. As the two men wander away, they lock in an embrace. Things aren’t what they seem. Moments later they are victims of one of the most brutal gay bashings I’ve seen on screen, the result of malevolent Pennywise the Clown’s supernatural influence on an already provincial, ugly, small-minded Maine town. (Truth be told, small-minded small towns are one of King’s favorite literary targets, God love him). There’s your American dream, folks, in one cynical, tragic, and heartbreaking 15 minute sprawl. [King based the incident in his novel on a real-life hate crime in Bangor, Maine, in 1986, at a time when few people would publicly address such horror.]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hustlers, written and directed with sizzle and sass by Lorene Scafaria, brings Jennifer Lopez, the actor, back on screen in a fiery mama lion performance, the likes of which we haven’t seen from her in years. Lopez is a multi-hyphenate talent and by all accounts a pretty likable human being, but she has not been willing to play anything other than that on screen in a long time. Her stripper den mother Ramona avails herself of the 2008 financial crisis and the ugly stew of capitalistic greed, toxic masculinity, rampant misogyny, female objectification, and weaponized sexuality that seems to be Wall Street’s stock-in-trade (if the movies are to be believed … paging Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko). Imagine if Magic Mike were written and produced by the team who put together The Big Short.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ramona and her pals (a dynamite ensemble that includes Crazy Rich AsiansConstance Wu, Akeelah and the Bee‘s Keke Palmer, and Riverdale‘s Lili Reinhart with crackerjack supporting turns by Julia Styles, Trace Lysette, Mercedes Ruehl, and singers Cardi B and Lizzo) gleefully (and illegally) flip the script on predatory men, drugging them, dragging them to strip clubs, draining their corporate credit cards, and leaving them in a heap of deflated machismo, far too embarrassed to press any charges. The women’s motivation? A mix of revenge, justice, and primarily a desire to provide better lives for their daughters, grandmothers, and other women in their lives.

[Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

The third leg of that “American dream”? College education and that carnival game that is the admissions process are addressed with incisive wit, searing criticism, and deft balance in the timely Michigan premiere of Joshua Harmon’s play Admissions by Ann Arbor’s Theatre NOVA, directed with aplomb by David Wolber. (Note: this show must be a beast to learn and to mount, with its zig-zagging clutch of monologues and whiplash inducing reversals of philosophy. I suspect Wolber and cast must share the kind of  brainpower required to complete the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in record time.)

Hill and Burcon [Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

In Admissions, a cheerfully smug couple Sherri and Bill, both working in administration at a New England prep school (Diane Hill and Joe Bailey, both at the top of their games here), are faced with the consequences of their own best liberal intentions to create “balanced diversity” at Hillcrest (the setting of the piece) when their own son, a student there, is wait-listed for Yale University. Their boy Charlie – a brilliant whirlwind of well-meaning confusion and privileged petulance in Jeremy Kucharek’s thoughtful performance – is passed over by Yale in favor of his best friend at Hillcrest (and the child of his parents’ best friends), a young man of color, whom Charlie believes to be “less accomplished than himself.” As you can imagine, in the grand tradition of school-based satiric comedies like God of Carnage or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, matters escalate and spiral quickly. Cynthia Szczesny as Sherri’s befuddled assistant and Sarah Burcon as Sherri’s best pal Ginnie serve as a kind of de facto Greek chorus, highlighting the absurdity of the situation and the dire consequences of good intentions that are as ego-driven as they are divorced from day-to-day reality.

Bailey, Hill, and Kucharek [Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns the narrative takes, but, suffice it to say this is neither a play the MAGA crowd will love nor one any Bernie Bros will embrace. Admissions casts a pretty scathing eye on us all and the mechanisms we craft to make a better world in our own images (whatever we believe those images to be). The title, of course, is a play on words: the literal use of “admissions” in terms of higher education and the figurative in terms of those honest truths we can’t bear to say out loud. A special shout out to Daniel C. Walker’s brilliant and economical use of Theatre NOVA’s warm, inviting, but challenging physical space. The use of a turntable to contrast home and office is smart, efficient, and (perhaps unintentionally) symbolic of the topsy turvy nature of the play itself.

[Admissions runs through October 13 and tickets may be purchased at www.theatrenova.org.]

And now back to It, Chapter Two. The first film nailed the pastoral qualities of youth in America, with that bubbling, malevolent, churning undercurrent of impending adulthood, cultural manipulation, and familial and societal abuse that Stephen King does so very well. The second film – not dissimilar to the second half of the 1990 ABC mini-series – suffers structurally in that the Losers Club are reunited in adulthood, seemingly all amnesiac to the horrifying events of their youths at the hands of ugly townspeople, parents, bullies, and Pennywise himself. It, Chapter Two is at its strongest in flashbacks to the children of the first film, filling in the gaps of the fateful summer depicted in Chapter One.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

That said, the adult cast of Chapter Two – including Mamas Jessica Chastain, Trainwreck‘s Bill Hader, X-Men‘s James McAvoy, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransome, and Andy Bean – do yeoman’s work selling the turmoil of adults, who have successfully “forgotten” the abuses of small town American living to achieve material success (if not emotional happiness) in the “big city.” Pennywise, brilliantly played again to maximum creepiness by Bill Skarsgard, is the inversion of the Horatio Alger myth and more likely a corollary to the true American experience. It is not a helping hand magnanimously offered that pulls someone up the corporate ladder, once said individual has demonstrated his or her “heart of gold;” it is fear, it is persecution, and it is one heaping chip on one’s shoulder, propelling us onward toward “happiness,” the achievement of which may never be all it’s cracked up to be.  If there’s a through-line in the three very disparate entertainments I took in this weekend, it’s that.

  • “The essential and defining characteristic of childhood is not the effortless merging of dream and reality, but only alienation. There are no words for childhood’s dark turns and exhalations. A wise child recognizes it and submits to the necessary consequences. A child who counts the cost is a child no longer.” – Stephen King, Salem’s Lot.

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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.

“When you are careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself.” The Greatest Showman

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This may seem a quaint notion, but sometimes it’s nice to have a movie that is simply affirming and joyous and a celebration of what can be best in the human spirit. That is The Greatest Showman‘s raison d’etre. The subject of PT Barnum‘s now-controversial life may seem an unlikely vehicle for such a film, but that is indeed what we have with Hugh Jackman‘s latest. I absolutely loved this movie.

With music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, composers of La La Land and the recent Christmas Story Live!, the film will never be accused of being high-art, but then that is not what Barnum‘s stock-in-trade was either. With our present distaste for circuses and with the revisionist history that sees Barnum as less of an inclusive and big-hearted entrepreneur and more of an unethical and selfish opportunist, viewers are best-served to check those preconceptions at the door and approach the film as if Barnum is a mythological figure from American folklore, a la Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Barnum (Jackman) chides a theatre critic who has no use for the ringmaster’s brand of populist entertainment, “A theatre critic who can’t find joy in the theatre. Now, who’s a fraud?” It seems to be as much a definition of Barnum’s artistic philosophy as a caution to Twitter trolls in the audience ready to hate on The Greatest Showman‘s gee willkers approach to American cultural history.

Helmed by first-time director Michael Gracey (who had a reported assist from Logan‘s James Mangold) and with a screenplay written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Beauty and the Beast), the film offers a cursory look at the significant and recognizable moments in Barnum’s life, like story beats in an oft-told fable … with a heaping helping of Horatio Alger-ism: we Americans can be whoever and whatever we want to be, regardless how checkered our pasts (hell, just look at the White House and Capitol Hill).

This is not a detailed, cynical, warts-and-all biopic but rather a heartfelt and inspirational allegory (bordering on the twinkling best of Hallmark Hall-of-Fame‘s legendary output) that material success cannot substitute for authentic love. And that is just fine.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hugh Jackman is totally in his element, throwback as he is to a Hollywood of another era where corny was not only king but was embraced and celebrated by the masses. It is a refreshingly positive (albeit whitewashed) take on a legendary American captain of industry – the kind of story-telling that was prevalent in 1950s Tinseltown technicolor fantasias … or that librarians used to read aloud to us third-graders in our elementary school reading circles.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

However, The Greatest Showman is smart enough to supercharge the proceedings with a percussive, propulsive, almost martial, contemporary pop score to hook a generation of audiences weaned on High School Musical or Glee.

This simplistic approach with its anachronistic score is surprisingly effective, at times both insidiously engaging and pleasantly disarming. Highlights include rousing opener “The Greatest Show,” no-business-like-show-business anthem “Come Alive,” bromantic stomp-duet “The Other Side,” swoony/lurchy ballad “Rewrite the Stars,” and rafter-rattling curtain call “From Now On.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The bones of the story are not dissimilar to those of Barnum!, the 1980 Cy Coleman Broadway stage musical starring Jim Dale and Glenn Close, but the proceedings couldn’t be more fresh or modern. Disney Channel alumni Zendaya and Zac Efron deliver lovely paper doll turns in this 21st century panto-play. Michelle Williams is luminous, simultaneously distant and winsome – arm candy with an iron will – as Barnum‘s stoic wife Charity.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The supporting cast is rounded out with a strong team of stage alumni who relish every moment of this big-screen cartoon. Kealla Settle as Lettie Lutz, the “bearded lady,” is one to watch. Her mid-movie barnstormer “This is Me” brings down the house with a can-you-hear-the-people-sing intensity that should leave you exhausted and enraged and damned “woke” … if you have any heart at all.

The filmmakers (tom) thumb their noses at depth, knowing that the best celebration of Barnum’s life as a huckster purveyor of humbug would be to deliver free-wheeling holiday escapism that energizes and enthralls. Yet, embedded within the cotton candy fluff is a timely and haunting message of acceptance and understanding and compassion.

Sociopolitically, the film does continue the troubling trope of “beautiful white dude as multiculti savior.” However, it marries that message to a final act comeuppance for Barnum. Per the film, Barnum’s fatal flaw is always looking past the talent in his midst to see who else might be coming through the door, breaking the most important of hearts in his unyielding aspiration for validation from an American elite that continually rejects his kind. After a final act tragedy, Barnum’s family of freaks confronts him with this brutal truth, licking their wounds, rallying the troupe, and reminding us all that the greatest show exists with those who’ve been loyal to us all along.

It’s all quite obvious and Hollywood-shallow self-serving, but I admit I cried and cheered and stomped my feet. Sometimes the corniest message – the most heartfelt one – is the one we all need to hear again and again. As Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind (in an ethereal if underdeveloped portrayal by Rebecca Ferguson) warns Barnum, “When you are careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself.” Family is what you make it, true success begins at home, and there is a place at the table for us all. Amen. #thisisme

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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.

He’s a quick study. Nightcrawler (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I love it when matinee idols are finally brave enough to let their real freak flags fly. Joaquin Phoenix, Nicholas Cage, Heath Ledger, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise.

And now Jake Gyllenhaal.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s always been pretty nutty, from Donnie Darko to last year’s Prisoners, but this fall’s Nightcrawler takes the cake. (The less said about Bubble Boy the better.) With his now emaciated frame and anime-esque bug-eyes, Gyllenhaal channels the feisty, manic desperation of someone who has bought too fully into Horatio Alger self-starting mythology.

As Louis Bloom, a wannabe cameraman selling to René Russo’s equally desperate television producer prurient footage he takes of mutilated bodies all over Los Angeles, Gyllenhaal not only pulls himself up by his bootstraps, he takes the boots off, throws them over his head, and sets them on fire.

At times, this darkly satirical tale reminded me of To Die For, Gus Van Sant’s 90s treatise on our preoccupation with fame and success at any price. However, Nightcrawler takes that film’s thesis and modernizes it to meet the relentless gluttony of our 24/7 news-cycles.

The film opens with Bloom stealing scraps of metal to resell, positioning him as a literal and figurative parasite on society. When Bloom comes across a grizzly traffic accident, he observes Bill Paxton, in fabulous character actor mode, filming said scene to resell to local media … another kind of societal parasite. And, as Bloom repeatedly notes throughout the flick, he’s a quick study.

Gyllenhaal’s google eyes light up as he ogles Paxton’s very expensive camera equipment and shiny news van, identifying a potential opportunity for himself. The movie tracks Bloom’s meteoric rise as he finds no end of salacious footage to capture, sometimes manipulating crime scenes to achieve the optimal money shot.

This is one of those movies, like There Will Be Blood or Dogville or Dancer in the Dark, that plumbs the depths of human misery so fully that I feel a little embarrassed to admit how much I love it. But, wow, I love this movie.

Russo, exuding world-weariness, is the perfect counterpoint to Gyllenhaal’s rampant ambition – she is a TV veteran who has seen it all, done it all, and is over it all. Their scenes together are dynamite, Gyllenhaal’s hyperactive puppy jumping around Russo’s exhausted big dog. My apologies to Russo for the analogy, but it is apt.

This film is an exquisite indictment of our preoccupation with “reality” television – the uglier the scene, the more the eyeballs watching it. We have become a society that is all about overnight box office, Nielsen ratings, virality. The film is more subtle than this review may indicate. But it is squirmy. It is funny. And it is devastating. I highly recommend it

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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.