“Sometimes joy has a terrible cost.” Theatre NOVA & The Ringwald Theatre’s filmed co-production of A New Brain

A NEW BRAIN by William Finn and James Lapine, produced by Theatre NOVA in collaboration with The Ringwald Theatre, via Broadway on Demand in June 2021. Artwork by Bob Hank.

A New Brain by William Finn (Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and James Lapine (Falsettos, Into the Woods, Passion) is one of those musicals held in rapturous, nay obsessive esteem by the theater community but is virtually unknown by anyone who doesn’t know the difference between stage left and stage right. (Cue Hanna-Barbera’s Snagglepuss.)

And that’s a shame. Written in 1998, following Finn’s harrowing ordeal with brain surgery, this musical roman à clef resonates now more than ever, with its themes of isolation and stifled creativity, a jaded and callous medical industry, a business community that literally works its employees to their deathbeds, and ultimately the redemptive power of just slowing the eff down.

If you’ve never heard the clever score (that is part pastiche, part light poperetta, and all wit) via cast album nor ever seen a live production, then you are in luck … no matter what part of the world in which you live or how “busy” your schedule. Theatre NOVA, in collaboration with The Ringwald Theatre, released a brilliant filmed co-production of A New Brain this weekend on Broadway on Demand.

(L to R): Jason Briggs, Vince Kelley, Diane Hill, Alaina Kerr, Richard Payton, Steve DeBruyne, Liz Schultz, and Arielle Crosby in A New Brain by William Finn and James Lapine produced by Theatre NOVA in collaboration with The Ringwald Theatre. Photo by Jake B. Turner.

From their press release:

By the Tony Award-winning authors of Falsettos, A New Brain is a life-affirming, heartfelt, often comical musical about a composer during a medical emergency. As doctors and nurses fly in and out of his room, trying to figure out what’s wrong with his brain, Gordon drifts in and out of consciousness as he contemplates his life, legacy, and the meaning of music – all while navigating his relationships with his best friend, mother, and boyfriend. A New Brain is an unexpectedly funny, relatable, and ultimately touching meditation on how beautiful the world is when we slow down enough to look.

With special permission and a unique COVID-19 Contingency License from Concord Theatricals, Theatre NOVA and The Ringwald Theatre shot the musical over a period of two weeks to ensure that all COVID protocols and safety procedures could be upheld. The cast spent the month of March learning and rehearsing the all-sung show over Zoom with music director R. MacKenzie Lewis. At the beginning of April, the cast transitioned to socially distanced and masked in-person music rehearsals at Theatre NOVA. Finally, with all of the cast and crew partially or fully vaccinated and all participants COVID-tested, director Vince Kelley and cinematographer Jake Turner rehearsed and shot the show over a 12-day period, scene by scene, with arduous planning about how it would all be stitched together in post-production. This schedule allowed them to have the fewest people in the theatre at once, but also provided very new experiences for the stage actors who were accustomed to rehearsing a play for 4-6 weeks. The crew and cast wrapped the filming on April 24.

Read that previous paragraph again. Go ahead. I’ll wait…

This production – which will be aired three weekends this PRIDE month of June (appropriate) – is one helluva feat of logistics and moxie. Yes, right now we are all starting to peek out our front doors like the Munchkins when Dorothy dropped that house on the Wicked Witch of the West. But several months ago, when this production was being devised, most of us still were more worried about buying groceries safely than figuring out how to stage and film a full-blown musical between two cross-regional theatre companies. Theatre people will not be contained. Remember that!

So I’d be impressed by this production under any circumstances. However, it’s so damn good that I forgot within minutes that this incredible crew had any constraints at all. That may be the best compliment I could provide. This gleaming production may have been forged in the fires of pandemic but it transcends the moment, reflecting our fraught human condition both today and tomorrow.

(L to R): Jason Briggs, Steve DeBruyne, Alaina Kerr, Diane Hill, Richard Payton, Vince Kelley, Arielle Crosby, Liz Schultz, and Jamie Richards in A New Brain by William Finn and James Lapine produced by Theatre NOVA in collaboration with The Ringwald Theatre. Photo by Jake B. Turner.

The cast includes Jason Briggs, Arielle Crosby, Steve DeBruyne, Diane Hill, Vince Kelley, Alaina Kerr, Richard Payton, Jamie Richards, and Liz Schultz. This ensemble is tight, both in their vocals and their stage relationships. Given the compressed/limited rehearsal and filming schedule, that is testament to their talent, professionalism, and performance history.

The production team includes Vince Kelley (director, costumer), R. MacKenzie Lewis (music director, musical tracks), Jake Turner (set designer, cinematographer, sound engineer, editor), Dan Morrison (lighting designer), Brandy Joe Plambeck (additional camera work), and Briana O’Neal (stage manager).

This is an all-star team, and it shows. The cinematography, lighting, sound, and edits are all on point. There is the occasional bit of mic buzz and a randomly disruptive cutaway shot or two, but on the balance the production is staged in a nicely polished way, balancing the visceral immediacy of live theatre with the more controlled and directive nature of film. It’s a pretty thrilling hybrid and great fun to watch performers heretofore only seen live in such a recorded setting.

Every actor has iconic moments. Kelley, being an actor himself, is clearly a director who knows how to frame actorly impulses to benefit both the individual performer and the overall needs of the narrative.

Payton has the heaviest lift, rarely leaving the stage, and he plays our protagonist Gordon with an impish poignancy and deeply layered inner life. Payton is so gifted, and one of his superpowers as a performer is bringing distinct clarity to the relationships his characters have with others onstage. That talent propels this piece to new heights, notably in his interactions with a crackling good Hill as Gordon’s mother and a luminous Kelley as his life partner Roger.

Hill’s numbers – both with Payton and solo – are all standouts: the wry neurosis of “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine,” the incendiary comedy of “Throw It Out,” and the smoldering regret of “Music Still Plays On.”

(L to R): Arielle Crosby and Vince Kelley in A New Brain by William Finn and James Lapine produced by Theatre NOVA in collaboration with The Ringwald Theatre. Photo by Jake B. Turner.

Crosby electrifies whenever she enters the picture as a wise and whimsical homeless person/Greek chorus. Her line delivery and physicality can be piercingly funny and deeply heartbreaking, depending on the moment, and her singing his divine.

Speaking of soaring vocals, someone get DeBruyne and Payton to record an album of pop standard duets stat. Kerr and Briggs are also great fun in a handful of ensemble parts, bringing deft comic chops and a much-appreciated nibble or two on the scenery.

The production design is sleek and efficient, with onstage lighting rigs that serve a host of purposes from operating room to MRI to nightclub bistro. Turner is wearing many hats, and the slick integration of cinematography and design roles is evident in the final product. Morrison does fine work with the lighting cues which remain overtly theatrical (appropriate for the piece) while honoring the more naturalistic needs of the camera.

And Lewis deserves special recognition for his music direction here. Onscreen at times and always accompanying the cast on piano, he has created a lush and enveloping soundscape without the benefit of orchestra or, well, much time. It’s a remarkable achievement.

(L to R): Richard Payton, R. MacKenzie Lewis, Diane Hill, Vince Kelley, Jason Briggs, and Liz Schultz in A New Brain by William Finn and James Lapine produced by Theatre NOVA in collaboration with The Ringwald Theatre. Photo by Jake B. Turner.

My only critique would be that the latter third – focused as it primarily is on the fevered imaginings of our hero’s coma-afflicted mind – doesn’t feel particularly differentiated from the rest of the show. Not dissimilar to, say, the “Loveland” sequence in Follies or the musical numbers in Rob Marshall’s film treatment of Chicago, this section of A New Brain should take on a heightened, nightmarish quality. Unfortunately, that isn’t quite achieved here – other than a sequin or two, not much is offered to signal we as an audience are trapped in Gordon’s dreamscape. I don’t know that I have a recommendation but this is where the post-production that film affords (versus stage work) might have aided and abetted. But it’s a minor quibble.

Theatre NOVA and The Ringwald’s A New Brain is a revelation, attesting to the talent, ingenuity, and collaboration in our Southeast Michigan theatrical community. It is a show for the ages and should not be missed. Per one lyric in the number “And They’re Off,” “sometimes joy has a terrible cost.” Given the past year, we’ve all paid an extraordinary price for our safety and that of our loved ones. We all deserve a bit of joy now, so do yourself a favor and purchase a ticket for A New Brain.

A New Brain will be available ON DEMAND on June 5, 6, 12, 13, 19, and 20. Tickets are $25 per person. Ticket-holders may watch the show on Broadway On Demand on their computers, tablets, smartphones, and TV via the Broadway on Demand App, using AppleTV, Roku, all compatible Amazon Video devices. For tickets, visit www.TheatreNOVA.org.

From Theatre NOVA’s Facebook page – pictured: Payton
From Theatre NOVA’s Facebook page – pictured (L-R): Crosby, Kelley, Payton

From their press release:

Theatre NOVA is Ann Arbor’s resident professional theatre company. Its mission is to raise awareness of the value and excitement of new plays and playwrights and provide resources for playwrights to develop their craft by importing, exporting, and developing new work.

The Ringwald Theatre is based in Ferndale, and its mission is to engage diverse audiences through fresh, risk-taking theatrical experiences.
This activity is supported in part by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

From Theatre NOVA’s Facebook page – pictured: DeBruyne
From Theatre NOVA’s Facebook page – pictured: Briggs

Vince Kelley (Director) just returned to the Detroit area and is very happy to be back. After a lifetime of telling people what to do, he decided to legitimize his behavior and try his hand at directing. With decades of acting under his belt, Vince has performed all over Metro Detroit, a few places in New York City, and a handful of National Tours. One day about a decade ago Joe Bailey from The Ringwald asked if he would be interested in costuming a production of “Hurlyburly” and since then he’s enjoyed working behind the scenes. Making his directorial debut at The Ringwald helming “Company” in 2018, that show also starred Richard Payton and Diane Hill. Vince is looking forward to what show he can direct Richard and Diane in next. Maybe “Escape to Margaritaville?”

From Theatre NOVA’s Facebook page – pictured: Hill
From Theatre NOVA’s Facebook page – pictured (L-R): Payton, Kelley

R. MacKenzie Lewis (Music Director, Tracks) is the composer/music director for Eastern Michigan University’s School of Communication, Media, and Theatre Arts and a lecturer and accompanist with the School of Music and Dance. Favorite projects outside of university life include music directing and orchestrating the National Tour and Off-Broadway premiere of “The Berenstain Bears Live! In Family Matters, The Musical,” “Titanic” and “Gypsy” at the Hangar Theatre in New York (Broadway World Award, Best Music Direction); “A Little Night Music” at the Performance Network (Wilde Award, Best Music Direction); “Legally Blonde” at MSU (Pulsar Award, Best Music Direction), “Irrational” (Composer, Wilde Award, Best New Script); and “Romance in Hard Times” with William Finn at the Barrington Stage Co. He composed music for the shows “Wings of Ikarus,” “Jason Invisible,” and “Mockingbird” (two Helen Hayes nominations), all of which were commissioned and premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.. Lewis has also composed the musicals: “Video Games: The Rock Opera,” “Treasure Island,” “Pinocchio,” “A Very British Christmas,” “Sugar Plum Panto,” “The Elves and the Schumachers,” and “Soaring on Black Wings,” a world premiere with Ben Vereen.

William Finn (Music/Lyrics/Book) is the writer and composer of “Falsettos,” for which he received two Tony Awards, Best Book of a Musical (with James Lapine) and Best Original Score. He has also written and composed In “Trousers,” “March of the Falsettos,” and “Falsettoland” (Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, two Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards, two Drama Desk Awards, the Lucille Lortel Award, and Guggenheim Fellowship in Playwriting). Mr. Finn wrote the lyrics to Graciela Daniele’s “Tango Apasionado” (music by the great Astor Piazzolla) and, with Michael Starobin, the music to Lapine’s version of “The Winter’s Tale.” His musical “Romance in Hard Times” was presented at The Public Theater. Recently, he wrote “Painting You for Love’s Fire,” a piece commissioned and performed by the Acting Company, based on Shakespeare’s sonnets. For television, Mr. Finn provided the music and lyrics for the Ace Award-winning HBO cartoon “Ira Sleeps Over,” “Tom Thumb and Thumbelina,” “Pokey Little Puppy’s First Christmas,” and, with Ellen Fitzhugh, two “Brave Little Toaster” cartoons. Mr. Finn has written for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and The New Yorker. A graduate of Williams College, where he was awarded the Hutchinson Fellowship for Musical Composition, Finn now teaches a weekly master class at the NYU Tisch Graduate Program in Musical Theatre Writing. His most recent projects include “Elegies, A Song Cycle” (Lincoln Center), “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which had a three-year run on Broadway and has been produced nationally and all over the world, and “Little Miss Sunshine” with James Lapine. For the past four years, he has been the Artistic Head of the Musical Theatre Lab at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

From Theatre NOVA’s Facebook page – pictured (L-R): Payton, Kerr, Schultz
From Theatre NOVA’s Facebook page – pictured: Richards

James Lapine (Book) was born in 1949 in Mansfield, Ohio, and lived there until his early teens when his family moved to Stamford, Connecticut. He attended public schools before entering Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he majored in History. He went on to get an MFA in Design from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. After graduate school, he moved to New York City, where he worked part-time as a waiter; a page and tour guide at NBC; a free-lance photographer and graphic designer; and an architectural preservationist for the Architectural League of NY. One of his free-lance jobs was designing the magazine of the Yale School of Drama, Yale/Theater, then edited by Rocco Landesman and Robert Marx. The dean of the School of Drama, Robert Brustein, offered Lapine a full-time job designing all of the printed materials for the School of Drama and the Yale Repertory Theatre as well as a faculty position teaching a course in advertising design. While at Yale, his students urged him to direct a play during the annual January period when both faculty and students undertook a project outside of their areas of study or expertise. At their suggestion Lapine directed a Gertrude Stein play, “Photograph.” The play was five acts, and just three pages in length. Assembling students and friends, the play was presented in New Haven and came to the attention of director Lee Breuer, who helped arrange for a small performance space in Soho to present the work for three weeks. The production was enthusiastically received and won Lapine an Obie award. Lapine was approached to create a new piece for the Music-Theatre Group. He wrote and directed a workshop version of “Twelve Dreams,” a work inspired by a Jungian case history. The play was later presented at the Public Theatre and revived by Lincoln Center Theatre. Lapine eventually left the visual arts for a career in the theatre where he has also written and directed the plays “Table Settings,” “Luck, Pluck and Virtue,” “The Moment When,” “Fran’s Bed,” and “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing.” He has written the book for and directed Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Into the Woods,” “Passion,” and the multi-media revue “Sondheim on Sondheim.” He also directed “Merrily We Roll Along” as part of Encores! at New York City Center. With William Finn, he has collaborated on “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland,” later presented on Broadway as “Falsettos,” “A New Brain,” “Muscle,” and the soon to be produced, “Little Miss Sunshine” which will open at 2nd Stage Theatre. On Broadway, he has also directed David Henry Hwang’s “Golden Child,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Michel Legrand’s “Amour, “and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” He directed Jenny Allen’s solo piece “I Got Sick and Then I Got Better” with Darren Katz. Lapine directed the 2012 Broadway revival of Annie. He is co-producing and directing the upcoming HBO documentary “Six By Sondheim,” which is due to be released this winter. In the Spring of 2014, Lincoln Center Theater will produce his stage adaptation of the Moss Hart memoir, “Act One.” Lapine has also directed several productions off-Broadway as well as three films. He is the recipient of three Tony Awards, five Drama Desk Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2011, he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. Lapine is a member of the Dramatist Guild Council and, for the last twelve years, has been a mentor for TDF’s Open Doors Program. He is also on the board of Ars Nova Theatre. He currently lives in New York City.

From Theatre NOVA’s Facebook page – pictured (L-R): Payton, Schultz

Cast:

Jason Briggs (Richard)
Arielle Crosby (Homeless Woman)
Steve DeBruyne (Doctor)
Diane Hill (Mother)
Vince Kelley (Roger)
Alaina Kerr (Waitress/Nancy D.)
Richard Payton (Gordon)
Jamie Richards (Mr. Bungee)
Liz Schultz (Rhoda)

Production Team:

Director/Costume Designer: Vince Kelley

Music director/musical tracks: R. MacKenzie Lewis

Set design, cinematographer, sound engineer, editor: Jake Turner

Lighting design: Dan Morrison

Additional Camerawork: Brandy Joe Plambeck

Stage Management: Briana O’Neal

From Theatre NOVA’s Facebook page – pictured: ensemble

Todd Haynes wept: Ringwald’s Murder She Podcast … Baby One More Crime

Richard Payton as Jessica Fletcher

“Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.”

“Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different—a supplementary—set of standards.”

“The connoisseur of Camp [finds pleasure] in the coarsest, commonest pleasures, in the arts of the masses.”

Susan Sontag

Some of us old geezers might recall that auteur filmmaker Todd Haynes once directed a biographical film treatment of Karen Carpenter’s life – Superstar – using only Barbie dolls. Either Mattel or Karen’s creepy brother filed a cease and desist, and the film has only seen the light of day in bootleg copies on eBay.

Fortunately, Ringwald Theatre’s latest offering Murder She Podcast … Baby One More Crime has just arrived to fill that void.

Part of me doesn’t want to write a word as I don’t want to spoil any of the loopy fun for you. How do I net this out? Sublime Richard Payton channels Angela Lansbury‘s TV classic amateur sleuth/crime novelist Jessica Fletcher, now hosting an au courant pandemic “true crime” podcast. Pop singer Britney Spears, the recent subject of a tell-all documentary (#savebritney) appears to have been abducted and possibly murdered.

Spoiler alert, but as the cat is out of the bag via Ringwald‘s promotional materials, local legend Dave Davies is arguably the perfect thespian stand-in for Ms. Spears. He may be worth the price of admission alone. Never ridiculing his character, but fully in on the joke as to how absurd it is that he is playing the “Toxic” songstress, he is an absolute riot, both in TikTok style “found footage” and in podcast interview mode. I dearly hope there is a sequel.

Ringwald’s merry band of usual mischief makers is on hand in supporting roles. Joe Bailey is a gleeful Sherriff Amos Tupper, Fletcher’s dim bulb sidekick whose outsized adoration of Spears leads to a series of comedically nonsensical allegations. Suzan M. Jacokes is understated genius as harried producer Andrew Lark. Joel Mitchell nails Gene Smart, a store clerk whose great tragedy in life is being assigned his least favorite cash register. Nicole Pascaretta channels the sheltered charms of Britney’s baby sis Jamie Lynn. Dyan Bailey commands her moment as a Linda Ellerbee (remember her?) style newscaster. And Donny Riedel and Cory Shorter nicely round out the team as (respectively) hellzapoppin superfan Chris Crocker and louche hairdresser Jeffrey Bean.

The genius of the Ringwald is that they mine every aspect of pop-culture for mash-ups that are as unexpected as they are strangely logical. These are smart people using silly situations to comment on the real life comic tragedy of modern America. Susan Sontag meets Charles Busch meets Carol Burnett.

But back to the Barbie dolls. One of the great pleasures of seeing Ringwald’s evolution in pandemic is the way they are leveraging video production, one of the highlights of their prior stage work. Brandy Joe Plambeck deftly directs (with assistance from Dyan Bailey, Vince Kelley, and Katy Schoetzow) from a jam-packed script by Kelley and Matthew Arrington. Much like last winter’s Have Yourself a Misery Little Christmas, their filmed format has allowed the troupe to step up their production values exponentially. In that context, the lunacy has a beautifully heightened quality. The polish is in nice juxtaposition to the camp.

As for the dolls, when Sheriff Tupper devolves into his multiple theories surrounding Britney Spears’ disappearance, the reenactments are staged using Barbie dolls, playhouse furniture, and assorted other pink plastic accoutrements. It adds a layer of meta-commentary on American materialism and shallow celebrity obsession that is chiefly comic but more than a bit haunting. As another layer, the sequences employ the chilling orchestral version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” from Promising Young Woman’s pitch perfect soundtrack. And if you have been wise enough to check out that essential film, the Barbie doll scenes take on an even more devastating quality.

Back to Payton for a minute. Ultimately, his Jessica Fletcher is the ringmaster of this circus. Payton’s anarchic intelligence is like a wildfire across every scene. He is both eye of the hurricane and instigator. And his impish genius elevates any and all material he touches. I can‘t see him perform enough. Utter brilliance.

And do yourself a favor and stick through the credits. The cast vamps through Britney’s seminal hit “Baby One More Time.” You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Joe Bailey shimmy in a door frame.

The Ringwald’s press release follows, including dates and ticket information.

The Ringwald Theatre is pleased to announce the release of their latest show, Murder, She Podcast: Baby One More Crime. Several Ringwald favorites have come together to (safely) film The Ringwald’s follow-up to their smash Yuletide release, Have Yourself a Misery Little Christmas. As with that show, Ringwald stalwarts Vince Kelley and Matthew Arrington return as writers.

In Murder, She Podcast: Baby One More Crime, bestselling author, amateur sleuth, and trenchoat aficionado Jessica Fletcher is recording her latest podcast with her trusty sidekick and co-host, former Sherrif Amos Tupper, at her side. Today’s topic is the mysterious disappearance of music sensation Britney Spears. Where has the Pop Princess gone? Is it just a disappearance, or is something more sinister at play? As the investigation deepens, you will be asking, “Where’s Britney, bitch?”

Murder, She Podcast: Baby One More Crime was developed prior to the release of the Framing Britney documentary. The Ringwald firmly stands in support of the pop icon, and shares this piece of art with love and affection.

Murder, She Podcast: Baby One More Crime stars Richard Payton as Jessica Fletcher, Joe Bailey as Sherriff Amos Tupper, Suzan M. Jacokes as Andrew Lark, Joel Mitchell as Gene Smart, Nicole Pascaretta as Jamie Lynn Spears, Donny Riedel as Chris Crocker, Cory Shorter as Jeffrey Bean, and a super special secret guest star as Britney. Brandy Joe Plambeck directed with assistance from Dyan Bailey, Vince Kelley, and Katy Schoetzow. All safety precautions were observed during filming.

Tickets for Murder, She Podcast: Baby One More Crime are available at www.theringwald.com at three different giving levels: $20, $50, and $100 and can be purchased Friday, April 16 through Sunday, May 2nd. The performance will be available to stream through May 10th. Once you purchase your ticket, an email will be sent to you which will include links for Murder, She Podcast: Baby One More Crime and a virtual program. The video is hosted on Vimeo. You can watch on your phone/computer/tablet or, if you have the capability, you can stream the production to your smart TV.

The Ringwald opened the doors to their Ferndale location 13 years ago on May 11, 2007 with Fatal Attraction: A Greek Tragedy. Quickly, The Ringwald became a mainstay of Detroit’s theatre community. Past highlights include: Head Over Heels, Clue, Company, Merrily We Roll Along, The Rocky Horror Show, Heathers The Musical, The Legend of Georgia McBride, Mr. Burns: a post-electric play, Angels in America, Into the Woods, A Streetcar Named Desire, August: Osage County, Mercury Fur, The Book of Liz, and Evil Dead: The Musical.

“I’m a blunt instrument, and I’m damn good at it.” Mary Poppins Returns, Bumblebee, and Aquaman

For the past few years now, Disney and Lucasfilm have had a lock on the holiday blockbuster season with a little, revived franchise named Star Wars. Alas, the wheels fell of that wagon when the underrated, under-performing origin story Solo debuted in theatres this May with a thud, and there was no end-of-year galactic adventure to follow.

Into this December’s “let’s thumb our noses at Oscar bait” box office breach rushed Warner Brothers’/DC’s Aquaman, Paramount’s Transformers prequel Bumblebee, and Disney’s own Mary Poppins Returns. By some strange twist of fate, the fish king roundly beat the giant robot and the buttoned-up British nanny in ticket sales in their collective first weekend of release.

I am certain that all of these popcorn epics will clean up, though, in the gray and dreary vacation days following Christmas, as they each bring a great deal of heart, just enough ingenuity, and a comforting if lightly derivative familiarity.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Still. Today or never. That’s my motto.” – Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) in Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns is, yes, practically perfect. Predictable and formulaic? Mayhaps. But it doesn’t matter. You’ll laugh and cry, occasionally scratch your head … at times all three simultaneously. You’ll love it nonetheless … in great part due to Emily Blunt’s bonkers, measured, heartfelt commitment to the title role.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Not dissimilar to Disney’s decades-later reboot Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mary Poppins Returns feels like a subtle remix on the original film’s greatest hits.

The screenplay by David Magee dutifully follows the same story beats as Julie Andrews’ flick – for example:

  • a crabby dad (little Michael Banks, portrayed poignantly by Ben Whishaw, all grown-up and repeating the sins of his father, but in a mopey/angsty widower way);

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

  • a politically woke sister (Emily Mortimer’s Jane Banks, the sunniest class warrior you’ll ever see, taking the place of Glynis Johns’ suffragette Mrs. Banks);
  • some lost soul children who need to rediscover the joys of imagination;
  • a no-good banker (Colin Firth, all sleazy charm as nothing says holiday kids movie like the threat of foreclosure!);

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

  • a winking-wise lamplighter instead of a chimney sweep (Lin-Manuel Miranda being slightly less insufferable and overeager than usual … and, yes, he raps, sort of … once);
  • and a finale that swaps out balloons for kites, and throws in Angela Lansbury for good measure … in case you’d forgotten about Mary Poppins‘ knock-off Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The score by Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) is perfectly fine, but follows a similar path as the script, presenting new numbers that evoke the overly familiar tunes of yore and serving similar narrative purposes. “Spoonful of Sugar” becomes “Can You Imagine That?” to get the ornery kids to embrace bathtime. “A Cover is Not the Book” (the best number in the new film) is an animated fantasia a la “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is an ode to the unappreciated lamplighters (who even do some BMX- style bicycle tricks?!?), not unlike “Step in Time.” And so on.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Rob Marshall’s direction (Into the WoodsNineChicago) is effective, if workmanlike, evoking the past film through iconography, color palette, choreography, and overall composition. Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t wow as much as it sedates the viewer, and the film never quite escapes the physical confines of the sound-stages upon which it was obviously filmed.

In the end, though, this is Blunt’s show, and she is an absolute pip. I could watch her read the phone book as Mary Poppins, with a knowing glance here, an arched eyebrow there, and a master plan to make all of us decent again. And that is why we all need a movie (and a damn nanny) like Mary Poppins Returns.

“The darkest nights produce the brightest stars.” – Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) in Bumblebee

If you’d told me the tone-deaf, garish, migraine-inducing, jingoistic Transformers film franchise would eventually yield one of the sweetest, warmest, funniest, family-friendliest “girl-and-her-[robot]-dog” coming-of-age yarns since, say, the Paddington movies, I’d have sold you my vintage Hasbro figures for $1. But here we are. Bumblebee, the sixth (!) installment in this series, jettisons director Michael Bay (praise be!), adds nuanced and charming leading lady Hailee Steinfeld, and delivers a lovely cinematic homage to simpler sci-fi allegories of the Spielbergian 80s.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Travis Knight, Oscar-nominated director of Kubo and the Two Strings, picks up the reins from Bay, working from an almost pastoral (!) script by Christina Hodson that wisely puts human/robot emotion and familial interaction before special effects and mind-numbing battle sequences (although there are still about two or three too many of those).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Borrowing liberally from producer Steven Spielberg’s own E.T. (and at this point, that’s just fine), the plot relates Autobot warrior Bumblebee’s arrival on earth, circa 1987. Within moments, the big, yellow, bug-eyed ‘bot finds himself used and abused by the American military (sparkling John Cena, wryly channeling every “shoot first, ask later” cinematic armed forces cliche). Bumblebee is eventually, inadvertently rescued from a junkyard by a plucky, sweet teenage girl Charlie Watson (Steinfeld) looking to rediscover the love of her deceased father at the bottom of a bin of used auto parts. Unsung Pamela Adlon is harried brilliance as Charlie’s befuddled and exasperated mother Sally.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Steinfeld is still coasting a bit on her stellar Edge of Seventeen performance as a misunderstood adolescent with a dazzling heart of gold buried under a sullen, surly, glowering pout. I guess this is her niche, for now, and it works to great effect in Bumblebee as well.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Two broken souls – in this case pubescent and robotic – heal one another by giving voice to the underdog and by waving a Breakfast Club fist in the face of institutional repression. I dug it. And the exquisitely curated soundtrack of late FM 80s hits adds an unexpected and refreshing layer of musical-comedy-esque commentary to a movie about giant robots taking over our planet.

“I’m a blunt instrument and I’m damn good at it.” Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) in Aquaman

I enjoyed Aquaman a lot, but could have used about 30 minutes less of blurry aquatic battles and about ten minutes more of authentic wit. Nonetheless, this is a visually stunning film that never takes itself too seriously and with the wisdom to assemble a world-class cast. Throw The Once and Future King, Black Panther, Tron, Flash Gordon, Jewel of the Nile, Krull, Thor, Big Trouble in Little China, Hamlet, and Lord of the Rings into a Mad Libs blender and you yield this wonderfully loony pic.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Momoa is nothing but utterly charming in interviews. A great actor? Meh. But a star? Absolutely. That said, he looks great, but I couldn’t help feeling like some of his best lines likely landed on the cutting room floor to make way for more CGI soldiers riding giant seahorses. That’s a shame. The best parts of this film are the human parts. Nicole Kidman deserves a medal for making the Splash-meets-Terminator opening sequence of her Atlantean queen meeting cute with a Maine lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), playing house, and popping out a half-breed sea-prince baby not only palatable, but poignant and downright thrilling.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Taken at a superficial level, the plot is almost identical to Black Panther‘s. Two beefy men square off to rule a hidden, technologically advanced kingdom with the “bad guy” claiming his rule will right the wrongs of the outside world (in Black Panther, it was racial divide, and, in Aquaman it is pollution and global warming). Black Panther has more nuance in its conflict and thereby the stakes are higher.

Aquaman telegraphs its punches, so it is quite obvious from the minute Aquaman’s/Arthur Curry’s half-brother Orm (a dolphin-sleek Patrick Wilson) enters the screen that he is basically a nogoodnik, regardless his sweet speeches about keeping the seven seas free of man-made detritus. He’d like to buy the world a Coke, as long as you keep the plastic six-rings, than you very much. But, with Aquaman, the fun is in the journey, not necessarily the destination. And Wilson is terrific, by the way.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Director James Wan (Furious 7, Insidious) takes his sweet time getting us to Arthur’s inevitable victory over and acceptance by both land and sea. The visuals are sumptuous, even if the running time is gluttonous. There are moments of true wonder – any time Momoa communes with the creatures of the deep, for instance – and, on the balance, the film is a joy for those who have hoped DC could really start having fun with their characters.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The pitch perfect Wonder Woman seems less like an anomaly now and more like the beginning of a new, humane, inclusive direction for DC’s movies. I’ll consider my 2.5 hours watching Aquaman an investment in that future.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, in 2018, we traded one time-worn, bloated Star Wars entry for three heartfelt, loving, and, at times, inspiring homages to other past fantasy hits. I think that’s a decent, if safely unimaginative, return.

_____________________

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.

“A little town called persistence.” Pitch Perfect 3

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m not a fan of extraneous sequels to sweetly self-contained high-concept comedies. I loathe cash-grab second or third chapters to the kind of original, fresh, humanistic sleeper hits which dumbfound Hollywood execs who believe the only way to climb the corporate ladder is by churning out one superhero opus after another. Often, the follow-up overemphasizes any buzzy kitsch that defined the first film and buries any shaggy underdog appeal in a mountain of glib slapstick and opportunistic product placement.

To me, Pitch Perfect 2 was, ahem, a perfect example of this commercial phenomenon, taking Rebel Wilson’s free-spirited second-banana “Fat Amy” and turning her into the unfunny, overexposed Mater (see Pixar’s Cars 2 … no don’t) of a cappella singing franchises. Poor Anna Kendrick (Into the Woods, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates), normally a luminous scene-stealer in any film, didn’t stand a chance.

I’m happy to report that Pitch Perfect 3, while still utterly unnecessary, is a fabulous course correction to the enterprise, featuring the sweet harmonies and girl-power shenanigans of the now graduated-from-college “Barden Bellas” in all their goofy show choir glory.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Directed by series-newcomer Trish Sie and written by Kay Cannon and Mike White, the threequel takes us on a European road trip as the Bellas, generally dissatisfied with the let-down of workaday adult life, stage one last hurrah, joining a USO tour alongside a surly power-pop-punk quartet (led by delightfully arch mean girl Ruby Rose), a Li’l John-adjacent rap act, and a mullet-wearing bluegrass jug band. What could have been a cliched let-down (European road-trip … really?) ends up a zingy meringue (albeit still pretty cliched) in the capable hands of the film’s solid cast.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The vocals, as ever, are impeccable and guilty fun, as the Bellas aca-remix one overplayed pop radio ditty after another. The ensemble is populated with pros (Anna Camp, Hairspray‘s Brittany Snow, True Grit/Edge of Seventeen‘s Hailee Steinfeld, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Chrissie Fit, Alexis Knapp) who know how to spin sitcom stereotypes into compelling and relatable human beings.

Blessedly, Kendrick is again in the driver’s seat narratively. The film reorients the series-focus back to her Beca character, still exhibiting outsize talent in a mediocre world that doesn’t know what to do with a whip-smart woman who isn’t particularly interested in playing reindeer games.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yes, series regulars Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins also return as caustic a cappella competition commentators who seem to have landed in the Pitch Perfect films on their way to a Christopher Guest satire (e.g. Best-in-Show, A Mighty Wind). When asked by Kendrick where they came from when the duo materializes from thin air on an Air Force tarmac, Banks deadpans, “A little town called persistence.” They are a total hoot, even if they do appear to be in an entirely different film from everyone else.

There is a jarringly odd subplot involving Daddy’s Home 2‘s John Lithgow (must he be in every movie this holiday season?) as Fat Amy’s sleazy Eurotrash high-stakes criminal father, and it’s a testament to the film and to Lithgow and Wilson that their rapport works as well as it does. The subplot seems tonally out-of-place with the rest of the proceedings, but it does give rise to a truly killer aca-cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” by the Bellas. The number runs twice in the film, and it is so sharply executed that it could have appeared a third time and not overstayed its welcome.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Pitch Perfect 3 is a holiday trifle but a welcome one as it marries genuine wit and heart with a celebration of friendship and song and female agency that is always needed onscreen. A fourth entry in the series seems inevitable, and I won’t complain (much). The easy, warm, and inclusive dynamic of this cast is one I will gladly leave on repeat.

____________________________

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“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).

____________________

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

____________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“It’s hard to feel grounded when even the gravity is artificial.” Captain Kirk, sweetie, darling: Star Trek Beyond and Absolutely Fabulous the Movie

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Turning a beloved television series into a motion picture event and expanding the small screen confines to cinematic vistas can yield remarkable results (The Untouchables, Addams Family Values, 21 Jump Street, Charlie’s Angels, Sex and the City) or abysmal ones (Coneheads, Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Wild Wild West, Sex and the City 2). Admittedly, it’s a tricky gambit, balancing the crushing demands of commerce and misplaced nostalgia with heightened expectations of scale and postmodern reinvention. There is bound to be disappointment.

So color me refreshed that two TV-based film reboots Star Trek Beyond and Absolutely Fabulous the Movie (viewed this weekend after finally digging out from a month or so of Xanadu preparation and performance) achieved more right than wrong on the big screen. Obviously, Trek has been at this movie blockbuster game longer than our intrepid British boozehound fashionistas Patsy Stone and Edina Monsoon, but, in both instances, the films translate all the character beats and shenanigans expected while sufficiently bringing our heroes into larger-than-boob-tube-life environs.

Star Trek Beyond continues the sleek, comic, well-acted renaissance begun by J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) with Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. Beyond copious lens flares and consummate 1960s-mod-for-21st-Century-millennials art direction, Abrams’ best contribution to the franchise has been a beautifully curated cast of actors (Into the Woods‘ Chris Pine, American Horror Story‘s Zachary Quinto, Harold and Kumar‘s John Cho, Dredd‘s Karl Urban, Paul‘s Simon Pegg, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Zoe Saldana, and the late Anton Yelchin of Fright Night) who leverage the iconic DNA of those d-list actors who came before (respectively, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, DeForrest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig), adding irreverent sparkle and authentic character development to give us a Trek with appeal that extends far beyond the madding comic-con crowd.

This latest installment, ably directed by The Fast and the Furious-franchise vet Justin Lin with a seamless stylistic transition from Abrams’ offerings, is all-popcorn all the time with one dizzying set piece after another. In fact, the first act firefight between The Enterprise and the swarm-like armada of Krall is so manic the audience is likely in need of Dramamine for the rest of the picture. A strange hybrid of Darth Vader and The Beast from Beauty and the Beast, Krall is played adequately by an unrecognizable Idris Alba (Luther) … continuing the regrettable habit of the Abrams-era Trek films wasting fabulous actors – Eric Bana, Benedict Cumberbatch – as half-baked, forgettable villains.  Krall is after some cosmic doodad so he can destroy a Federation space station called Yorktown (if MC Escher had designed the Death Star in partnership with the Wizard of Oz and The United Colors of Benetton). Y’see, Krall hates the Federation for, in essence, stealing a plot point from the movie Event Horizon (kidding, sort of), and his scheme to destroy them borrows heavily from Return of the Jedi‘s Moon of Endor sequence with a sprinkling of Avatar‘s don’t trust anyone/unity vs. divisiveness narrative polemic. I admit that last bit resonated a bit more than it probably should have, given the GOP’s national mob rally … er … convention this past week.

To be honest, the plot doesn’t matter (in a good way) as the film borrows its retro structure from classic Trek episodes when the core crew gets split up planet-side and pairs off in unconventional ways to defeat the big bad wolf and demonstrate how diversity brings strength, ingenuity, and great one-liners. We get a fun new character in Kingsman‘s Sofia Boutella (“Jaylah”), a resourceful ghost-faced alien/feminist warrior with an affinity for gangster rap (“classical music” to the rest of the crew, or, as she states, “I like the beat and the yelling”) who, more or less solves every crisis single-handedly. And probably deserves her own film (#ImWithAlienHer).

absolutely-fabulous-the-movie-poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of an inconsequential plot, Absolutely Fabulous the Movie is as fizzy as a freshly opened bottle of Bollinger champagne and with just as little nutritional value. Like Chris Pine’s Kirk and company, Jennifer Saunders’ Eddy and Joanna Lumley’s Patsy wink at the camera, knowing full well the audience is as interested in how they ridicule the source material as celebrate it. AbFab ran in the early-to-mid 90s on the BBC and on Comedy Central (with a few additional seasons and TV movies for good measure into the 2000s). The series relentlessly skewered celebrity-culture well before it was such. a. thing. (Thanks, TMZ and Perez Hilton and Kardashians … for nothing.) And Patsy and Edina with their chemically-altered lives and propensity for fashion-victimhood anticipated the solipsism of shallow, egomaniacal dunderheads like The Real Housewives, Sarah Palin, The Bachelor, Justin Bieber, and, um, Donald Trump. (I’d vote for Joanna Lumley any day – her Botoxed ire for any who dare ask her to smoke outside is worth the price of admission alone.)

This Abbott and Costello for the Reality TV age couldn’t have re-emerged at a better moment. Their bewilderment over and preoccupation with a world that values youth and shiny objects over pretty much anything/anyone with even the slightest shred of substance is as timely an allegory as we can get. The film relates Eddy’s desperate need to right her PR career (“I do PR, darling. Lots of PR things.”), leading her to a series of random celebrity encounters, like an R-rated Muppet Movie, with Jon Hamm, Joan Collins, Dame Edna, Graham Norton, Chris Colfer, Emma Bunton, Lulu, Gwendolyn Christie, and a bunch of other celebs vaguely familiar if you’ve ever spent any time on BBC America. Eventually, her spiraling hysteria results in model Kate Moss falling off a balcony and disappearing into the Thames (don’t ask), and Eddy finds herself on the wrong-end of a media maelstrom for the catwalk siren’s possible “murder.”

There are endless opportunities for materialistic sight-gags as heinous fashion is celebrated as high art, and Lumley regularly steals the show, particularly when she dresses up as a man – a swaggering Tom Selleck with a blonde pony-tail, eviscerating insufferable machismo –  to woo a dowager empress on the French Riviera. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, anyone? All the series favorites return, including Julia Sawalha as Eddy’s long-suffering/happily martyred daughter Saffron (who has a number of surprisingly delicate character turns as she wrestles with her own aging and her complicated familial relations), Jane Horrocks (Little Voice) as Eddy’s craftily inept assistant “Bubble,” Celia Imrie (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) as Eddy’s frosty rival Claudia Bing, June Whitfield as Eddy’s exasperated/instigating mother, and Mo Gaffney as Saffron/Saffy’s myopically liberal step-mother Bo.

The film, like the original series, is cluttered with indecipherable in-jokes, though the movie blessedly cuts down on TV AbFab‘s tendency toward sloppy ad libs and muttered asides that could occasionally make for a frustrating (American, that is) viewing experience. Regardless, the film succeeds beautifully on multiple levels: reinvigorating our interest in Patsy and Eddy as a sozzled Didi and Gogo for our self-obsessed internet days, eviscerating a 1%-er culture that sacrifices humanity for Chanel, and, most surprisingly, layering in a tender and poignant assessment of society’s tendency to pillory those who fall at the crossroads of age and gender (#ImWithHerAndPatsyAndEddy).

As Chris Pine’s Kirk intones at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond, “It’s hard to feel grounded when even the gravity is artificial.” Well, said, Kirk, sweetie, darling. Well said.

___________________________________

5 Sebastian Gerstner Jenna Pittman Kristin McSweeney Logan Balcom Paige Martin as Muses and KiraReel 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.

“Been waiting for someone to tell me the color of MY wind.” Vanessa Williams at Detroit’s Motor City Casino Sound Board

Vanessa Williams 4Vanessa Williams is an interesting figure in pop culture. One of the most (only?) successful (post-pageant winners) of “Miss America” … Lee Meriwether notwithstanding?

Sound Board 2Yet, can she still be considered “Miss America” when she was de-crowned after her Penthouse pictorial scandal mid-way through her reign?

Yet, she was reinstated this year because even the “Miss America” people realized that, in this day and age of Gaga and Miley and … Trump, that maybe zapping the title of one of the few contestants to actually have a viable career (Grammy/Tony-nominations, Top 40 hit songs, a freaking Disney theme) was kinda dumb?

Sound BoardShe’s had starring roles on just about every ABC dramedy of the past 15 years (e.g. Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives), and she has become, more or less, America’s b-list sweetheart.

Heck, she even plays Alan Cumming’s love interest now on The Good Wife – that’s a pair of celebrities who unexpectedly crawled from our nation’s puritanically judgmental margins to stand triumphant in the hazy comfort-glare of middle-America’s beloved boob tube. And they play a couple (sort of). Now that is something!

Vanessa WilliamsSo, when I got a panicky email from Ticketmaster last week, breathlessly urging me to “buy one-get one free” of her still copiously available tickets for Sunday’s performance at Motor City Casino’s “Sound Board” night club, you betcha I snapped up two.

And I’m so glad I did.

Her show is like a comfortably chunky, still stylish, but totally retro sweater in the back of your closet. It is 90-minutes of timeless nostalgia, a little funky and a lot soothing with a smidge of regret that whatever you thought you would be doing years later and however you thought you’d be changing the world just didn’t quite happen. And that’s ok. (This may be one of my worst/most confessional metaphors ever.)

Vanessa Williams 2Williams was one of the stand-bys in my mix-taped 90s/00s life soundtrack: from the Teena Marie-lite blast of her debut The Right Stuff through the adult-contemporary fog of The Sweetest Days, through the edgy post-divorce Alanis-ish angst of Next through her reinvention as a Broadway Baby in Into the Woods, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Sondheim on Sondheim, culminating in the inevitable (and kinda genius) post-relevance cover songs albums Everlasting Love and The Real Thing.

I’ve stuck by Williams, as a singer and as an actor – a performer who always embraced an underdog’s moxie and the reprobate’s swagger, from her sparkling turn in the ABC TV-adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie to the standout scenery-chewer in soapy melodrama Soul Food.

Vanessa Williams 5Her stage show hit all those notes, covering the hits we love and the ones we’ve forgotten: “Dreamin’,” “Love Is,” “Oh, How the Years Go By,” “Betcha Never,” “The Sweetest Days,” “Colors of the Wind,” and, of course, signature torch song “Save the Best for Last.”

Every number was delivered with smooth sophistication and aplomb, with the polish of a performer who dove into the muck, climbed out if it, and narrowly avoided a life of cruise ship dinner theatre performances (but still carries a few of those blue plate special, “so happy to be here with you fine folks” tics).

Her band is a tight jazz and R&B combo, and they have played with her for 20+ years. It shows. With two keyboardists, two guitarists, and one drummer as well as two dedicated backing vocalists and additional vocals from some of the instrumentalists, Williams received exceptional musical support. The band showed such range, from disco to blues, ballads to soul; they could do it all … gorgeously.

Martinis and Little Caesars pizza ... only at Motor City Casino

Martinis and Little Caesars pizza … only at Motor City Casino

Carmen Ruby Floyd

Carmen Ruby Floyd

She also featured back-up singer Carmen Ruby Floyd (an accomplished Broadway vet in her own right) who delivered a knock-out “Creole Love Call,” from the Broadway revue After Midnight.

Martinis and Pizza 2Williams gave us a few carefully guarded insights into her tabloid storybook life, just teasing enough to let us know she hates her ex-husbands (still), loves her current (third), thinks her four kids are the best things she’s ever done, and really thinks Stephen Sondheim and Barbara Cook are the bees’ knees.

She did bring down the house with one joke in particular, noting that after Williams performed Oscar-winning “Colors of the Wind” at the Academy Awards, Whoopi Goldberg quipped, “I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me the color of my wind.”

Vanessa Williams 3The highlights for me of this stellar show? A one-two punch of Pocahontas’ “Colors of the Wind” and encore “Harvest for the World” (Isley Brothers). The lyrics for both detail, in a strikingly similar blend of the hopeful and the cynical, how this world and its resources and those inhabiting the Big Blue Marble demand an appreciation and a respect that transcend the commercial, the crass, and the opportunistic.

I know that Williams has always championed progressive causes, and I’m guessing she’s a longtime friend of Mother Earth, but from her delivery of these two numbers, I daresay she is about as “eco-friendly” and socially conscious as they come. Can’t beat a pop legend who takes the time to wring a social message or two from her back catalog of hits.

Thanks, Vanessa – come back to Motown soon, please!

____________________________

Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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 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.

“My Love Will Not Let You Down.” Ricki and the Flash

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What are the odds that two movies in a row, which we’ve viewed over Labor Day weekend, are about failed and/or struggling musicians trapped in a pop-rock Ragnarok in the San Ferndando Valley?!?! Is the dusty, dingy Valley the new cinematic shorthand for a career in retrograde?

Last night, we suffered through Zac Efron suffering as pretty boy DJ with no club to call home in We Are Your Friends. And tonight in Ricki and the Flash, Meryl Streep (!) channels her inner Joan Jett as a rocker who flees her Hoosier home in pursuit of guitar god glory in the City of Angels, achieving neither top 40 success nor familial respect in the tortuous/torturous process.

Directed by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), Streep’s is the better film, though by a narrow margin (believe it or not – both flicks are worthwhile and an interesting double feature).

As a rock star, Streep with her bizarre hair braids and unconvincing tattoos is about as believable as I would be playing, say, Axl Rose.

As a failed rock star, whose abject heartbreak and hand-to-mouth hardscrabble anxiety are telegraphed in every blink of her limpid eyes and whose well-heeled Indianapolis-based family has given her the “Hoosier Hospitality” cold shoulder for their perceived abandonment by her decades earlier, she is pure movie gold.

In another era, the sudsy plot – with a side of Freudian mama bashing – would have been a B-movie tear-jerking barn-stormer for a Susan Hayward or a Bette Davis. A mother flies the coop on her three beatific babies and their hunky nebulously-though-fruitfully employed businessman papa (as played by Kevin Kline … who seems trapped in celluloid Indiana … wasn’t In & Out set in Greencastle of all places?). She lives in bohemian filth, playing nightly gigs at a sad-sack bar for the same half-dozen patrons, including a moony-eyed barkeep with a heart of gold. She loves/hates/loves the bassist in her band (a surprisingly charming and heartfelt Rick Springfield), and, one day, when her daughter’s husband walks out on her the way the mama had walked out on the family years prior, our heroine heads back to Indiana to set things right with her broken brood.

Oh boy.

However, Demme and Streep both acknowledge they aren’t working with the deepest narrative here, and they bring their A-game, supported by an exceptional ensemble, that also includes a luminous Audra McDonald as Kline’s second wife, a clear-eyed feminist in Yuppie dragon lady clothing. Her limited scenes with Streep crackle with the energy of two women (in life and onscreen) who have fought and lost and won an endless series of skirmishes in ‘Murica’s ongoing gender wars. I would like an entire movie of the two of them just talking … or reading the phone book … or smacking stupid dudes upside their stupid heads.

Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer acquits herself reasonably well alongside her mom. She doesn’t have Streep’s impish energy or insidious inner-life. Gummer is saddled with a lot of bed-headed moping in the movie, but her chiefest strength is in the quiet observation she brings to each scene. She has her mother’s presence but it is calibrated to silence as opposed to activity. Interesting to watch.

The film resolves its central conflicts as you might expect – a little contrived and a lot predictable. Regardless, with Streep’s deft character work and that of her cast-mates, you are so invested in these mixed-up souls onscreen that, while you know exactly what’s coming, you can’t take your eyes away from the journey.

The purest moment of unadulterated authenticity occurs early in the film’s final act when Streep stops her band in the middle of their set and appeals to the female patrons of the bar as to how crappy it can be to be a woman and a mother in this society. She rails against a world where you “miss one kid’s concert, one play and you’re an awful mother for life. Men? You can get away with anything…but not us.” This moment, in conjunction with her recent spicy turn as the Witch in Into the Woods, represents Streep’s zone – declaring hard-earned truth with passion and fury as a woman, as a parent, as a person.

At the film’s conclusion (yes, set at a wedding – shocker), Streep serenades the crowd with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” She croons …

At night I go to bed
But I just can’t sleep
I got something runnin’ around my head
Ooh that just won’t keep

In the silence I hear my heart beatin’
Time slippin’ away
I got a time bomb tickin’ deep inside of me
Girl all I want to say

I keep searchin’ for you darlin’
Searchin’ everywhere I go
And when I find you there’s gonna be just one thing that you gotta know

One thing you gotta know

My love, love, love, love, love, love, will not let you down
My love, love, love, love, love, love, will not let you down

In part, she is singing to those who’ve judged her rightly and wrongly – her children, her former husband, his new wife, the snooty wedding guests – but ultimately she is (and always should be) singing for one person: herself.

____________________________

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 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.

“But just because they think differently, that doesn’t mean that they do not think.” Exodus: Gods and Kings, Into the Woods, Annie, Big Eyes, and The Imitation Game

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“But just because they think differently, that doesn’t mean that they do not think.”

So says British wartime mathematician (and accidental spy) Alan Turing (as portrayed in The Imitation Game with comic grace and heartbreaking nuance by Benedict Cumberbatch) to a police detective investigating Turing on indecency charges during the post-war years.

Turing offers this hypothesis in revelation, not over his sexuality per se, but to this even deeper secret: that he, through his divination of modern computing, broke Nazi codes that provided crucial intelligence for the allies to win the war. His theorem on diversity of thought processes is offered when he is asked, “Do machines think?” Yet, his conclusion above applies to his life, or for that matter to any life, lived on the margins.

Buddha 1

My parents with Buddha

The film’s central hypothesis is that those who are most overlooked (if not reviled) become those who bring the change we most need. And this mantra applies in some part to every film I saw this holiday break, from Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandals-and-Bible-verse epic Exodus: Gods and Kings to Rob Marshall’s long-gestating adaptation of Stephen Sondheim tuner Into the Woods to Tim Burton’s almost-but-not-quite-there kitsch docudrama Big Eyes to, yes, even Will Gluck’s unnecessary yet surprisingly pleasant reinvention of that cloying chestnut Annie. (In the thirty years it took us to get one cinematic Into the Woods, we’ve had three versions of Annie … but I digress.)

“Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?”

Night at the Museum 2

My parents with Ben Stiller

So sings The Baker’s Wife (portrayed with lilting restraint by an ever-impressive Emily Blunt) at a penultimate moment in the swirling, spiky postmodern fairy tale pastiche that is Into the Woods. Her character, literally defined by name as a possession (Baker’s Wife) finally claims one moment in life for herself, and the exhilaration and the horror of this gender-fried crossroads quite literally leads her off a cliff.

Paddington

Me and Paddington

 

 

 

 

“Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?” Amen. Each successive Christmas holiday reminds me of this in no uncertain terms. This festive season arrives faster and faster every year, in a sh*t-storm of commercialized mania and accelerated/accumulated guilt. Like Dickens’ Scrooge, I feel the calendar pages ripping away as I age mercilessly with each card I write or present I wrap in mindless tradition. Quite literally, in fact. My birthday and my parents’ wedding anniversary are plunked smack in the middle of Christmas and New Year’s – the special, silly times of card games and Old Saint Nick seem to recede ever more into the rear-view mirror, as gray hairs dot my scalp, my waist ever expands, and my knees crackle and creak.

Annie 2

The cast of Annie … and my folks!

One of the seasonal traditions that still holds charm for me and for my family is going to the movies, escaping into the darkness of the cineplex, our faces lit only by the glow of a movie screen, as we lose ourselves in the fictional lives of twenty foot people, exploring their cinematic metaphors for the pain of our real lives, as they are indifferent to the din of our popcorn chomping.

 

(Someone in cyberspace just looked up from their computer/iPad/iPhone/whatever and said, “This isn’t a review? What is this??” Nope, it’s a blog – my blog and I’m writing about the films I saw this week through the present state of my heart. Get over it. I would argue that’s how most of us view movies – not through clever analyses of cinematography or semiotics but by how films make us feel.)

We were blessed with a banquet of great choices at the movie house this year, and these flicks made up, in part, for the inexorable sadness of seeing another year slip past.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

If time and temperament allow, I might write in more detail someday about one or all of these, but, for the nonce, I’m going to just jot out quick thumbnail reviews of each. These were the kinds of Leonard Maltin-esque blurbs I posted on Facebook a few years ago that prompted people to ask me to start a blog in the first place. It feels right to exercise (exorcise?) those muscles again …

Exodus: Gods and Kings is a return to triumphant form for director Ridley Scott. People have dismissed the film as ponderous and pedantic, but, they are missing the point. Biblical stories are richest and at their most compelling when told from a humanistic/historical perspective. That’s not blasphemy, you ring-dings – that’s inspiration. Christian Bale’s everyman-Moses is a believable portrait of a man at odds with himself and with a society he has outgrown. The narrative of Moses’ uncertain certainty that a new future and a new legacy must be paved for his children and his children’s children is subtly, deliberately told (or as subtle as a CGI-filled spectacle with skies that rain frogs can be). Joel Edgerton (his unfortunate resemblance to Nancy‘s Sluggo notwithstanding) as Ramesses is a fine match for Bale, telegraphing beautifully the earnest indignation of a king whose kingdom evaporates beneath his spray-tanned feet. The film’s key misstep is casting John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver as the Pharaoh and his Queen. WTF?!? I giggled every time the duo popped a kohl-rimmed eye onscreen. I’m a fan of color-blind casting – and that goes both ways – so I don’t buy into any of the controversy surrounding this film … but those two just stuck out like sore, overpaid Hollywood thumbs in an otherwise entertaining epic.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Into the Woods is a perfectly manicured Hollywood treatment of the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical. It isn’t as hermetically sealed as the wonderful yet claustrophobic Sweeney Todd, but it does suffer from a similar staginess. Director Rob Marshall can’t quite shake the stiffness of his TV-movie origins as he takes his spectacular cast from live locales to sound stages and back again. Fortunately, he has stacked the deck with a cast to die for. Nearly everyone (with the exception of a wan Johnny Depp as the wolf) rocks it – notably the aforementioned Blunt as well as Chris Pine as Prince Charming, Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, and, of course (!), Meryl Streep as feminist-whirlwind-in-blue-haired-mischief as The Witch. Go for the spectacle but stay for her climactic number “Last Midnight,” which she delivers as a kind of last word tour de force on the B.S. that is Freudian mother-bashing.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Annie is getting a lot of venom it doesn’t deserve. Folks, it’s not a very good musical to begin with. The 1982 John Huston movie is a bloated, abysmal mess. The 1999 Disney TV movie sequel (yes, directed by Rob Marshall – go figure) is an improvement because, like Into the Woods, they cast the darned thing correctly…but the show is just clunky in its bones. So I, unlike many of my Gen X peers, didn’t sweat it that Jay-Z and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith decided to produce a reinvented “modern” Annie. (Jay-Z scored a genius hip-hop hit over a decade ago when he sampled the treacly “Hard Knock Life” and turned that song on its square head.) With that said, I enjoyed this latest take on the trice-told tale (not counting the various direct-to-video sequels). Yes, the movie suffers from a kiddie-movie dumbing down of its game stars Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne, and Quvenzhane Wallis. If I saw one more spit-take with a mouthful of food from one of them I was going to scream – not funny … never funny … no one in real life ever. does. that. Stop it, Hollywood. Regardless, the Sia-produced remixes on the classic tunes offer a fun refresh (at least to my Tomorrow-beleaguered ear), and I, for one, enjoyed Diaz’ albeit-hammy-but-grounded Miss Hannigan. (Sorry, I am not a fan of Carol Burnett’s sloppy slurring take on the character in the original film. Another note to Hollywood: fake, floppy drunkenness? Stop it. Not funny.)

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Big Eyes? I think we all can agree those forlorn waifs with the saucer eyes are a pop culture trend best forgotten. However, the idea of mining America’s en masse lemming-like attraction to bad taste as a metaphor for cultural atrophy? THAT I can support. Alas, Tim Burton only gets us part of the way. Amy Adams does a credible job as the questionably talented but unquestionably victimized artist Margaret Keane. Unfortunately, the script imports some shallow truisms of Atomic Age misogyny from a very special episode of Mad Men, and Burton lets Christoph Waltz as Margaret’s megalomaniacal hubby Walter chew the scenery into balsa wood splinters. (Waltz becomes more of a Looney Tunes character every day.) Always delightful Terence Stamp gets all the film’s best lines as a New York Times art critic simultaneously horrified, bemused, and validated by America’s collective tackiness. The film has a chance to say some powerful things about creativity and gender and the crush of patriarchal economics … but it just implies them.

Movie 1

Me.

And back to The Imitation Game, in some respects the strongest of this overall decent pack of films. Cumberbatch, like those saucer-eyed waifs, lets his peepers do most of the talking. His Alan Turing is insufferably arrogant yet heartbreakingly winsome. The ache of his difference, his left-field intelligence, his sheer other-ness is conveyed through those haunted, limpid orbs of his. Keira Knightly (who usually makes me want to throw myself through a plate-glass window) is full of restrained charm. She is the counterpoint to Turing’s existence: another outsider – this time for her gender – whose outsized intelligence is marginalized and pooh-poohed, until these two spectacular oddballs find one another … and save the world. The script is thin at times (confusing at others), but Cumberbatch and Knightly make a crackerjack pair. Their final scene together is both tender and shattering.

Movie 4

End scene.

Any of my snark aside, all of these films are worth visiting and revisiting. The holidays are always a time of reflection, and the movies can be an important and therapeutic part of that process. We’ve got a week until we ring in 2015, so go spend some time in far off lands or heightened realities and see what they open in your own heart. More from Into the Woods

“Someone is on your side. Someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot. They are not alone. No one is alone.”

________________________

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.