“But first they must catch you.” The Darkest Minds (film review) and Barn Theatre’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.” Richard Adams, Watership Down

When even our escapist entertainment reminds us of the dystopia in which we are currently living as Americans, you know things are dire indeed. This weekend we took in a Saturday night production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by our talented pals at Augusta, Michigan’s Barn Theatre and a Sunday matinee of the film adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel The Darkest Minds. Both were engaging diversions, and, yet, as I sat through both, I was reminded repeatedly of how disconcertingly life imitates art.

If there were ever a tale as old as time that functions as a parable of toxic masculinity, it is Disney’s take on Beauty and the Beast, adapted from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale first as an Academy Award-winning animated musical in 1991, then as a Broadway stage show in 1994, and finally as a live action film musical in 2017. And it’s made boatloads of cash in each iteration.

Andrea Arvanigian as Belle and Charlie King as Maurice in “Beauty and the Beast” at Barn Theatre.

Let’s see. Belle, a bookish beauty, is caught between two brutes: 1) a misogynistic and vainglorious hunter (Gaston) who sees her as a trophy to be bullied and berated into submission and 2) a literal beast of a man who forces an exchange of her imprisonment for her father’s freedom and locks her in his castle until she succumbs to his “charms.” It may as well be renamed “#MeToo: The Musical.”

As always, the Barn wows with their stagecraft, turning around a technically complex show with barely a week of rehearsal, all the while smiling and parking cars and mowing lawns and serving drinks and selling souvenirs. Be our guest, indeed!

I’d never seen the stage iteration, and I admit to having some difficulty with the first act which pads out the narrative with some forgettable numbers and comic bits and belabors the Beast’s darker impulses to the point that we  begin to lose the sense of isolation and loneliness that humanizes him in the films (not Alan Menken’s and Tim Rice’s finest work – Rice took over for the late Howard Ashman for the Broadway adaptation’s additional material). I now understand why Disney went back to the drawing board with last year’s live action flick, rather than adapt the stage version.

Swiped from Jamey’s Facebook page … sorry (not sorry)!

That said, Jamey Grisham as the titular beast does a lovely job working around those limitations and giving us a Beast who is more of a woebegone man-child than an outright Stanley Kowalski caveman. As I said to him following last night’s performance, his Beast was like a misunderstood pit bull who’d been left at the shelter too long. He looked at me quizzically, but, believe me, for an animal lover like me, that’s high praise. Jamey has the voice of an angel and moves beautifully, but arguably his finest moment is his quietest: when Belle reads King Arthur aloud to the admittedly illiterate Beast. The tender poignancy of Andrea Arvanigian’s Belle sharing a beloved tome with a creature who has never received the most basic of kindnesses is palpable. And the subtle canine physicality that Grisham brings to the scene (how does a Beast sit in a chair, anyway?) is heartwarmingly whimsical.

Albert Nelthropp as Gaston in Barn Theatre’s “Beauty and Beast.”

Albert Nelthropp has a true gift for balancing the cartoonish and the menacing as Gaston. He never misses a comic beat, has a voice (and articulation) that fills the cavernous Barn space, and possesses that rare ability to be likable without losing the utter despicability of his character. Penelope Alex is a lovely and warm Mrs. Potts, delivering the title tune in a soft and lullaby-like manner.

And Hans Friedrichs is having the time of his life as Maurice Chevalier-inspired major domo Lumiere. Few performers could be as elegantly hysterical with (basically) a flashlight strapped to the end of each arm. He and Samantha Rickard as his paramour-turned-feather-duster Babette are a hoot.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through August 10, with tickets available at www.barntheatreschool.org

Be sure to stick around for the Bar Show, a Barn Theatre tradition where the apprentices take over the Rehearsal Shed post-performance to deliver a kooky comic cabaret with polish and panache. Grisham directs and choreographs (is there anything this man can’t do?) with a zippy but inclusive efficiency.

Bar Show

The Disney theme continues with numbers from Coco, The Aristocats, and The Lion King, plus the lost number “Disneyland” from Marvin Hamlisch’s and Howard Ashman’s musicalization of Smile and a pretty epic opener “The Greatest Show” from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul‘s The Greatest Showman (which, for all intents and purposes, should be a Disney musical … but isn’t).

Video clips at the bottom of this post.

From musicalized misogyny on Saturday to a sci fi fable on Sunday about children locked in cages by the government, forcibly separated from their parents –  The Darkest Minds … I told you our entertainment choices this weekend seemed oddly ripped from today’s headlines. Or I just spend way to much time trolling CNN’s and MSNBC’s websites.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Darkest Minds has been unfairly pilloried by critics. It’s not awful. It’s not great either. The cinematic universe is now littered with Ray Bradbury-esque young adult future-shock franchises that aspired to the box office glory of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games but never quite made it past the starting gate: The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson, Divergent, I Am Number Four, and so on. Judging by ticket sales this past weekend, Darkest Minds will be in the trash heap of failed young adult film series as well.

That’s a bit of a shame, as I found its depressing and ominous qualities oddly … refreshing (?). It is necessarily discomforting in today’s world to watch a piece of popcorn entertainment depict young children forcibly ripped from their parents’ arms and sent to internment camps for being “different” (albeit in this instance for having super powers). Yes, we’ve covered this territory a lot; hell, it’s basically the same premise Marvel’s X-Men have been milking for nearly sixty years. Yet, it remains timely. Sadly timely.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film probably would have worked better as a bleak TV series – something you watch on NetFlix on a grey Sunday afternoon, while still in your pajamas and eating an entire box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In her first live action film (after Kung Fu Panda), Jennifer Yuh Nelson has assembled a capable and transfixing cast, even if they are in servitude to a fairly pedestrian and episodic script. A luminous and haunting Amandla Stenberg (Rue from the original Hunger Games) plays telepathically gifted Ruby Daly – as in all of these sorts of films, she is the Christ/Skywalker/Superman-like “one who will save us all.”

Stenberg is a star in the making, so her mere presence makes the film far more interesting to watch than it should be. A la Dorothy in Oz, she has a band of scruffy friends – Harris Dickinson as dreamy love interest Liam, Skylan Brooks as cerebral Chubbs, Miya Cech as mute Zu – who aid and abet her adventures. The foursome are by far the best thing in the film with a chemistry that deserves a far better vehicle to showcase it.

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They are on the run from a rather confusing collection of government entities and rebel factions that have sprung up in the wake of a nationwide virus that has killed 90% of America’s children and left the remaining 10% with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Uplifting, eh?

Of course, all the adults – well-meaning and earnest Mandy Moore (that’s pretty much her range right there), glowering Gwendoline Christie (sadly sans her shiny Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet), and West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford being all West Wing-y as, yes, the President – are on a mission to collect the super kids to do … well … something? Take over the world? Kill the remaining kids? Clean boots and grow vegetables? Heck, I have no idea.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Arguably, the best outcome for the tens of people who will have walked past Mission: Impossible or Mamma Mia! to go see The Darkest Minds is that some of them might be inspired to pick up the far superior Watership Down by Richard Adams and give it a spin.

Ruby improbably finds a paperback copy in an abandoned shopping mall, reads it to her compatriots, and then repeats ad nauseum Adams’ narrator’s memorable caution to “Prince Rabbit” that “all the world will be your enemy.”

Sadly, these days, those words seem more prescient than ever. So much for escapist entertainment.

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

 

 

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

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

“Page-turners they were not.” Star Wars: The Last Jedi, A Christmas Story Live!, and the failure of marketing

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There are few pieces of holiday entertainment about which I am more excited than the arrival of a new Star Wars flick or a live television musical event, and, yet, somehow, it took me a good week get around to watching Disney/LucasFilm’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi and soon-to-be-Disney-corporate-stablemate FOX’s A Christmas Story Live! In part, that is because we insane monkeys (humanity writ large) feel the absurd need to cram ALL POSSIBLE JOY and festivity into the four-plus week span between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, leaving January a bleak and empty month of snow drifts and credit card bills. Consequently, the things we might put at the top of our list under any normal circumstances slide depressingly to the bottom of our “must do”s.

Yet, there was something else about both Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! … I wasn’t that excited to see either. The messaging and advertising surrounding both events couldn’t have “buried the lede” worse, and I believe that the “backlash” or audience disappointment in both is less a result of the quality of the work (both are actually excellent in wildly divergent ways) and more a result of misaligned promotional efforts.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Did you know Christmas Story Live!, brilliantly directed with military precision and classic Broadway charm by Scott Ellis and Alex Rudzinski, was a musical by Oscar-winning Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) before you started watching? We theatre geeks did, but all of the commercials promoting the three-hour event conveniently bypassed that there would be, you know, singing and dancing galore. As a result, Twitter lit up like the “dumpster fire,” which internet trolls accused the show of being, with self-righteous indignation that “childhoods were being ruined” by the introduction of “musical numbers” to such a “great classic.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Let’s also note, for the record, that the original 1983 Christmas Story (which is a pretty perfect confection, even if it suffers from some now-tone-deaf misogyny and racism) was a flop that only found life in video store rentals and through HBO’s habit back then of running forgotten films 38 times a day. It has become beloved, but that doesn’t mean some tinkering couldn’t benefit the timeworn tale.

It’s an absolute shame that audiences didn’t embrace this new production, and I can only hope that this TV-musical finds its own cult following on YouTube or NetFlix or whatever venues now allow 8-year-olds to watch any piece of entertainment to the point of nausea. The cast for A Christmas Story Live! was sublime, from a warm and winning Maya Rudolph and Chris Diamantopoulos as the parents to a crackling Jane Krakowski and Ana Gasteyer as the teacher and Mrs. Schwartz respectively. Nary a beat was missed, and even the to-be-expected line flubs (“purkey”) were handled with grace and aplomb. The role of Ralphie was split between a lovely and magically omnipresent Matthew Broderick (adult narrator Ralphie) – who mixed just the right holiday cocktail of sentiment and cynicism – and a remarkable Andy Walken (child Ralphie) – who buried all annoying “look at me” child actor tics in a star-making performance that propelled every scene with heart and raw talent. Walken is one to watch.

(By the way, broadcasters, please cut down the number of in-show commercials. You’re killing the momentum and joy of a stage-show-on-TV by shilling for Old Navy every 8 minutes.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Much like FOX’s production of Grease Live!, the camera whizzed and swooshed from interiors to back lot streetscapes to fantasy playgrounds and back again accompanied by a literal army of extras who populated each locale with verve. Standout numbers included Gasteyer’s “In the Market for a Miracle,” Rudolph’s “What a Mother Does,” Diamantopoulos’ “A Major Award,” Krakowski’s “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” and the children’s ensemble “When You’re a Wimp.” The musical expands on the original film’s notions of inclusion balanced with the bittersweet comic realities of half-remembered holiday times, giving the female characters an agency and authority lacking in the 1983 script and discovering shades of sympathy for both the bullies and the bullied on the playground and in life. (Including PSAs for folks to go out and adopt rescue dogs like those amazing canine thespians portraying the Bumpus hounds didn’t hurt either.) It’s just a shame FOX was too chicken to promote the musical honestly and directly. I triple-dog-dare the execs to rethink their approach if there is a next time, but I’m sure the suits will blame the show itself and not their mishandling of its promotion.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

My lumps of coal aren’t only reserved for FOX’s marketing team, but Disney/LucasFilm’s as well. (For those Star Wars fans who have patiently – or impatiently – read through my analysis of A Christmas Story Live!, thank you. Now go watch it, and fast forward through the commercials.) The ads for Star Wars: The Last Jedi were nigh inescapable. No shock there. Disney has pretty successfully re-established the franchise as a holiday tradition – first with 2015’s The Force Awakens, then last year’s Rogue One – and that means advertising the bejeezus out of each new film’s imminent arrival.

However, the ads for Last Jedi overplayed the “trust no spoilers, for there be amazing twists and turns here” hyperbole. We nerds who grew up anxiously awaiting the familial, Shakespearean revelations offered by each subsequent episode of the previous two trilogies walked into Last Jedi ready to gobble up a smorgasbord of “galaxy far, far away” secrets: who was Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis); who are Rey’s parents; why has Luke Skywalker withdrawn from life; how does Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) keep her armor so dang shiny; why is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) such a pouty brat? The marketing for the film had us all whipped into a lather that had nothing to do with the actual film Rian Johnson gave us, and that also is a damn shame. We do get a few of these answers, but mostly Johnson challenges whether or not any of those questions should be asked in the first place.

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Was the film too long by half, suffering from a meandering and episodic structure that seemed more suited to the small screen than the large? Perhaps. Did Johnson riff on The Empire Strikes Back‘s structure in a similarly derivative way to J.J. Abram’s lifting passages wholesale from A New Hope for Force Awakens. Kinda. Was it disappointing that Johnson basically thumbed his nose at our expectations for the same regurgitated Joseph Campbell hero-quest stuff that has fueled every Star Wars movie to date?  Damn straight. And rather exhilarating as well. Like cold water in one’s face on a mid-December evening.

I admit I was bored silly at times, and I nervously giggled at some (perhaps intentional) Spaceballs-esque series-self-satire. (Could that New Order/Resistance three hour-long-slow-ass chase through space be any weirder?). However, I also appreciated that – yes, not unlike A Christmas Story Live! – Johnson mines and reinvents the source material, jettisoning the self-satisfied reverence holding it back and embracing the core essence of what hippie Baby Boomer filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg and Henson were trying to achieve with their 70s and 80s cinematic fantasias. Lucas always came this close to feminism and to embracing diversity in his films, but always fell short, leaving us with the same white male space-knights-in-shining-armor we’ve always had. Johnson, with Last Jedi, gives us a Star Wars allegory rich with thorny and difficult implications for modern-day America.

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An “evil empire” propping up and propped up by the one-percent (note: I hated the “casino planet” sequence in Last Jedi, until I realized how truly subversive it is) aims to squash the “spark” of individuality across the galaxy. They are challenged at every turn in Last Jedi by a rag-tag band of characters who wouldn’t be out of place among the human cast of Sesame Street … or a Benetton ad: a feisty female mechanic (Kelly Marie Tran) who isn’t going to suffer any fools gladly; an “I’m-With-Her” battle-scarred princess-cum-general (Carrie Fisher) who leads with wit not super-powers; a purple-haired-don’t-nobody-mansplain-to-me admiral (Laura Dern) who carries her own agenda with no apologies; a fighter pilot (Oscar Isaac) who gets his impulsive swagger handed back in shreds by Fisher and Dern and likes it; a former Stormtrooper (John Boyega) who finally learns that love not self-aggrandizing-self-sacrifice is true heroism; and a nascent Jedi who learns that the lessons she needed were in her own heart all along (Daisy Ridley).

The cast, for the most part, is great, saddled with a talky script that fails to match the pure swashbuckling-zip of previous films in the series. Blasphemous as it may sound, I wasn’t  particularly taken with Fisher’s performance, which appeared to run the gamut from sort-of-exhausted to “I’m so tired of this sh*t.” Mark Hamill, on the other hand, delivers a career-best turn as a defeated and curmudgeonly Luke Skywalker for whom life has been crueler and less rewarding than the once optimistic farm boy had ever anticipated. Hamill is no Sir Alec Guinness (by a long shot). Yet, it is interesting and a tad surreal to see Hamill now playing the cranky Jedi mentor to a young whippersnapper (Ridley) at roughly the same age Guinness was when he appeared in a similar role (Obi Wan Kenobi) in A New Hope.

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I exited the theatre from The Last Jedi disappointed and ambivalent. However, as I reflected the next day, I realized I was doing a disservice to the film Rian Johnson made because it didn’t align with the film I expected. I daresay it deserves a second viewing, on its own merits and divorced from its own discombobulated marketing campaign.

As one character (who shall remain a surprise for those who haven’t seen Last Jedi) wryly observes about a stack of old Jedi training manuals, “Page-turners they were not.” Both The Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! are more thoughtful and challenging than the easy and comfortable “page-turner”  nostalgia pitched in their respective marketing campaigns. I hope they both get their due.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.