“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.


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.

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

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

“The U.S. Army might not care about art, but they sure as sh*t care about gold!” The Monuments Men

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I am the sort of person that, if I see a forlorn Lego mini-figure abandoned in a snowy mud puddle as I’m leaving the movie theatre, will “rescue” it, put it in my pocket, wash it off when I get home, and set it on a shelf in our over-crowded basement alongside sundry other “misfit toys.”

(Yeah, that happened tonight.)

So, George Clooney’s latest directorial effort The Monuments Men, in which a ragtag team of sentimentally minded art lovers bands together to snatch classic sculptures, paintings, and other works from the fiendish grip of the Nazis in World War II, spoke to this “leave no stuff behind” part of my soul. (I likely need an intervention.)

A less rambunctious hybrid of Raiders of the Lost Art, Inglourious Basterds, National Treasure, and Clooney’s own Ocean’s 11 trilogy, The Monuments Men is b-movie silliness disguised as a “based on true events” prestige picture. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The plot, which is a bit wispy, concerns Clooney’s character convening a number of his aging buddies (museum curators, architects, and scholars who include Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Matt Damon, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin, and John Goodman) for one last great adventure, taking on Nazi forces in the latter days of the war and returning lost works to their original owners (both private collectors and museums).

Y’see, the film posits that Hitler, a failed painter turned insane dictator, is hoarding as much of Europe’s great art as he can get his grubby mitts on, aiming to populate a proposed “Fuhrer Museum” with his haul. I don’t know how accurate that is – it very well may be – but it conveniently offers the film its “stop Darth Vader’s Death Star at all costs” whiz bang roller coaster motivation.

The film does stop periodically in its “gang of great joes making the world safe for democracy/creativity” whimsy to ground us in the stark realities of the era (albeit rather superficially). A few characters do not emerge unscathed; we see varied references to the darkest atrocities of the Nazi regime; and Clooney, at the film’s conclusion, has a marvelous speech delivered to a captured SS officer sharply illustrating both the broad scope and ugly futility of Hitler’s hate-filled tyranny.

Largely, however, the film is a frolic and a throwback to a simpler cinematic era. In fact, some of the movie’s most salient observations emerge from comic throwaway lines. At one point, when “The Monuments Men” (they actually were called that) unearth a ton of gold bricks (the entire Nazi treasury) alongside some stolen art, the joint chiefs swoop in and take credit for the find. Goodman intones, “The U.S. Army might not care about art, but they sure as sh*t care about gold.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I have to say that I adore latter-day Bill Murray (I wasn’t as much a fan of his younger days, post-Saturday Night Live.) He has transitioned from shaggy, petulant misanthrope to a warm, world-weary presence. Maybe I am just as exhausted by this planet now as he has always been, but I find his gentle emotional dyspepsia completely identifiable. He even accomplished the impossible for me and made his film sidekick Bob Balaban tolerable … and even kinda cute.

Cate Blanchett, so good in the recent Blue Jasmine, has another great, if more understated turn here, as a frustrated art curator who may or may not be a Nazi sympathizer. She has to pull off a tricky part that is one part 40s spitfire moll, one part “Marian the Librarian,” and two parts tortured aesthete. She does a fine job, quietly grating and heartbreaking at the same time.

Continuing my track record of crying at the darndest movies, I found myself weepy (and snotty) a couple of times. (I won’t tell you where, though one may involve Jean Dujardin and a horse and one may include Clooney’s aforementioned speech.) Yup, add The Monuments Men alongside Star Trek Into Darkness, Captain Phillips, and even The Lego Movie as films that made me (and likely no other humans on the planet) cry.

Countdown: Shania Twain – Still the One

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Happy Valentine’s Day! 14 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton! The book is now (for however long THAT will last 😉 !) on Amazon’s list of top-selling “Guides and Reviews”!!

Here’s what Roy thought about the Las Vegas residency show Shania Twain: Still the One. “And I am not ashamed to admit that I cried buckets when she sang her signature tune ‘You’re Still the One’ to her horse, a horse I might add that, with no harness or apparent lead, followed her all about the stage like a puppy. Now that is some Vegas magic in which I can heartily believe.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Vegas magic in which I can heartily believe: Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, Whoopi Goldberg, and Shania Twain

Las Vegas [Photo by Author]

Las Vegas [Photo by Author]

I have a confession to make. I have never had much interest in visiting Las Vegas. Not sure why. Just haven’t.

I just returned from about six days in Sin City … and I’m still not sure I have much interest in the City or its Sins. I did have lots of fun, but I don’t gamble and I’d rather shop at Kohl’s or Target than Van Cleef & Arpels or Fendi. I’m not terribly crazy about crowds, and I am certainly not crazy about crowds of drunk party people who are play-acting some neurotic mash-up of The Jersey Shore and Keeping Up with the Kardashians while lounging about the hotel pool.

Paris Casino [Photo by Author]

Paris Casino [Photo by Author]

And, yet, there was much I did enjoy. For example, the famed Las Vegas “Strip” is what it is and has no shame about it. It’s like a humongous traveling carnival that set up shop and just never bothered to leave town. Furthermore, many individuals I met, notably fellow tourists in the audience at shows I attended and the Las Vegas residents staffing the various venues, were kind, friendly, and authentic…a refreshing throwback to a more gracious time, albeit with postmodern and progressive sensibilities.

Elvis and Cher? [Photo by Author]

Elvis and Cher? [Photo by Author]

What redeemed the experience was when I had the “a-ha moment” that I was surrounded by world-class Broadway-caliber entertainment and that I would be a big dummy if I did not avail myself of any of it. I always have been a bit late to the party on these kinds of things. Somebody who loves theatre and movies? Why did this realization not dawn on me sooner? Ah well.

Fortunately, given Las Vegas’ 24/7 operation and the churn of folks coming and going, there really was no shortage of opportunities or tickets once I caught on. As this blog is about reviewing entertainment and not about me being a travel snob, let’s get into the highlights.  My apologies for the rote, travelogue, day-by-day approach that follows, but my brain is mush and I’m all outta clever right now.

Whoopi [Photo by Author]

Whoopi [Photo by Author]

The Treasure Island casino and resort played host to Oscar-winner, comedian and pundit Whoopi Goldberg Friday night, and she was everything I’d hoped she’d be. Less a stand-up routine and more a master class in how to deal with a world that seems to go a bit more off the rails every day, Goldberg’s show was a delight. Just a smart, sensitive, spiky person sharing her sensibilities on a stark stage with only a stool, a bottle of water, and a microphone…and she was pretty transfixing. Only blemish on the evening was a poorly executed Q&A that devolved into a handful of audience members asking how to get tickets to The View and if they could come visit Goldberg at her home. Seriously. I – and the nice Canadians sitting all around me – wanted to crawl under our chairs.

Whoopi! [Photo by Author]

Whoopi! [Photo by Author]

Goldberg started the show by saying she had received flak for using “bad words” (e.g. profanity) in the past. Her response? “The only ‘bad’ word I won’t use is the word ‘stupid.’ That’s the only truly bad word I know.” LOVED that.

Hoover Dam [Photo by Author]

(Saturday was spent primarily visiting the Hoover Dam…the less said about that the better. Awe-inspiring feat of engineering; lots of stair climbing and winding through dank tunnels; hotter than h*ll…six hours of my life I ain’t getting back any time soon.)

Gospel Brunch [Photo by Author]

Gospel Brunch [Photo by Author]

Sunday started with what seemed like a good idea: gospel brunch at The House of Blues in Mandalay Bay casino. Meh. Again, we encountered the kindest people, but the food was cruise ship-esque mass-produced sludge and the musical performers were over-amplified, over-spiritualized, and just plain over-done. (I had hopes that we would stumble across a genuinely joyous experience like my parents had when they saw The Blind Boys of Alabama in Fort Wayne, Indiana a few weeks back, but, alas, we did not.)

Jersey Boys [Photo by Author]

Jersey Boys [Photo by Author]

The day ended, though, in spectacular fashion with Jersey Boys at Paris casino. If you see nothing else, go see this one. Compelling, smart, and funny, the show is like Goodfellas on disco roller skates. I like Frankie Valli’s voice – Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You (double preposition aside) is about as perfect a song as can be – but I wouldn’t say I’d had much interest in seeing/hearing how the Four Seasons came to fame, tragedy, fame, and more tragedy. How wrong I was. The juke box musical format has seemed a bit lazy to me in the past, but here it is perfection as if Bob Gaudio/Bob Crewe’s compositions were always meant for the stage. Scene transitions were whirling dervish marvels, with director Des McAnuff using spare lines and crisp, efficient movement to drive energy and propel the narrative along. Travis Cloer as Valli and Rob Marnell as Gaudio were standouts in that rarest of rares: a completely perfect cast. Not one clunker in the bunch.

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

Monday and Million Dollar Quartet at Harrah’s. Another juke box musical and another Tony Award winner, but this one about the rare night at Sun Records when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins all converged for their first and only collective jam session with impresario Sam Phillips. I admit I don’t like any of those rockabilly performers, with the exception of a few of Cash’s songs, but I was curious about the show and still a bit euphoric from Jersey Boys so I gave it a shot. I wasn’t disappointed, though it fell a bit flat in the shadow of the previous night’s offering.

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

The show is surprisingly slight at just 75 minutes with what is effectively another 15 minutes of encore (and shameless mugging) for the audience. However, all of the principals were marvelous, walking a fine line (apologies to Mr. Cash’s arguably most famous tune) between impersonation and characterization. At my performance, Lewis was played by an understudy, who, while excellent, suffered from the giddy overeagerness of someone getting one shot at their role. The show, though, belongs to the Phillips character, who serves as narrator and tragic hero, as we the audience witness what may very well be his last great hurrah. Marc D. Donovan utterly charmed in the role, simultaneously breaking your heart and energizing you with a huckster’s world of possibilities.

Shania [Photo by Author]

Shania [Photo by Author]

Finally, Tuesday brought Shania Twain’s resident performance at Caesar’s Palace. You may recall the precedent Celine Dion set five years ago, when Caesar’s built a state-of-the-art arena just for her. Said arena now is a revolving (not literally rotating, though in Vegas, that very well may be next) showcase for Dion as well as Elton John, Rod Stewart, and now Shania Twain. I was fortunate enough to be on the front row seated with a delightful couple from South Dakota and another wonderful soul from Nebraska. Somehow we all bonded almost instantly which just added to the fun. Twain’s show is all VEGAS! baby with the singer flying in on some zany motorcycle contraption, her own personal horses thundering across the stage live (inches from our particular happy band of audience members), a million costume changes, and, yes, SHANIA in block letters the size of, well, city blocks descending during the finale in full klieg-light glory from somewhere in outer space (as far as I could tell).

Caesar's Palace [Photo by Author]

Caesar’s Palace [Photo by Author]

Twain was in fine voice but a bit of a raw nerve in light of her personal problems over the past few years…which in some way added a much-needed relatability to her heretofore beautiful but kinda chilly glamazon stage presence. She was at her best, when she worked the room, engaging with her fans, delighting that a girl who probably wasn’t even born during Twain’s 90s heyday knew all the lyrics to every song, and even pulling our new Nebraska friend on stage to celebrate his birthday.

Home Again [Photo by Author]

Home Again [Photo by Author]

AND I am not ashamed to admit that I cried buckets when she sang her signature tune “You’re Still the One” to her horse, a horse I might add that, with no harness or apparent lead, followed her all about the stage like a puppy . Now THAT is some Vegas magic in which I can heartily believe.