“Moms don’t ENjoy … they GIVE joy.” A Bad Moms Christmas

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A Bad Moms Christmas is the antithesis of Daddy’s Home 2. That doesn’t mean it’s much better, but at least it didn’t make me doubt my (already shaky) faith in humanity.

In full transparency, I didn’t see Bad Moms. I’m a wee bit tired of Hollywood’s reliance on the word “bad” in the titles of one-note “high concept” flicks these days – Bad Santa, Bad Words, Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses (close enough), etc. I’m all for truth in advertising but the gimmick has grown old. “Look! We’ve put ‘bad’ in an overly simplistic title, and you will see ordinary, middle-class citizens sticking it to the system by doing crrrrrazzzzy things!” Consequently, I let the first Bad Moms pass by without observation or comment.

I’m thinking that was a mistake, not because this particular “bad” treatment is any better or worse than the others but because the cast is actually quite delightful: talented and smart comedians slumming in sub-par sitcom material and spinning gold from dross.

Back to my comparison to Daddy’s Home 2, the “narratives” are more or less the same.  Take a junky hit comedy, spin off a holiday sequel, mix in some A-list talent to play the lead characters’ parents, season with some improbable holiday slapstick, and under-develop an otherwise interesting concept, re: the tension between Baby Boomers and their children on what the “ideal” holiday celebration could and should be.

Blessedly, A Bad Moms Christmas jettisons Daddy’s Home 2‘s tone deaf misogyny and its out-of-touch sensibility around the economics of modern living. The cast led by Mila Kunis (That 70s Show), Kristen Bell (Frozen), and Kathryn Hahn (Tomorrowland) is insanely likable. When you add in a rogues’ gallery of starry actresses playing their mothers – Christine Baranski (The GoodWife), Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Susan Sarandon (Tammy), not to mention one “bad” papa Peter Gallagher (Burlesque) – you have a very enjoyable if not intellectually stimulating night at the movies.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Justin Hartley (This Is Us) as a beautiful (and very funny) dim bulb Santa stripper and Jay Hernandez (Suicide Squad) as an admirably patient future son-in-law round out the talented cast.

Here’s the thing, though. I hope Hollywood – with all of its progressive liberal aspirations – someday finds a way to craft a film like this where women aren’t pitted against other women or generations aren’t pitted against other generations in some half-baked satirical broadside about the inability of human beings to coexist in a sensible fashion (and that doesn’t involve pratfalls and fart jokes).

Nonetheless, The cast here knows what they are in for, and they rise to the challenge with aplomb. Baranski, especially, deserves a Purple Heart, for taking the tired stereotype of the haranguing, overbearing Mama Rose and turning her into a sensitive portrayal of the insecurity that has plagued women (and mothers) for time immemorial in such a thick-headed patriarchal society. “Women don’t ENjoy. They GIVE joy,” she scolds her daughter (Kunis), a disappointment of a daughter who believes the perfect Christmas will be spent wearing pajamas all day and eating Chinese takeout. The line is written as a simplistic bromide from a control freak parent, but Baranski delivers it as a human being who believes deeply that this philosophy of contrived happiness at. all. costs. keeps societal wolves at bay. Baranski is truly a marvel in this film, simultaneously sitcom-silly while heartbreakingly authentic.

When the bad grandmoms are shipped off to Las Vegas at the film’s conclusion, I found myself (unlike my reaction to a similar final scene in Daddy’s Home 2) entertaining the notion that I might pay good money to see Bad GrandMoms in Sin City, because their story – that of women who have endured decades of foolishness yet still manage to find a laugh and a way to come out on top – is my idea of a night at the movies.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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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.

No yellow-and-black briefcases full of money nor aspiring warblers from Topeka: Howie Mandel live at Caesars Windsor

Howie MandelThe other day over lunch with my pal Neil Simon (the consultant, not the playwright) I started to elaborate on a point I made earlier (apropos of nothing) on a blog entry about Gone With The Wind, namely that I love comedians who can mix bawdiness with self-deprecation, raunch with childlike whimsy, spiteful take-down with satiric absurdity. If a comedian is just mean or arrogant or gross for the sake of achieving some false sense of superiority over his or her audience, I ain’t havin’ it.

For me, Richard Pryor wins out every day over Eddie Murphy. Kathy Griffin or Joan Rivers get the prize over Lisa Lampanelli or Sarah Silverman. I’d rather spend an afternoon with Stephen Colbert, Lewis Black, or Whoopi Goldberg than Dane Cook, Kevin Hart, or Bill Maher (maybe). The list goes on.

(Maher may be the exception that proves the rule for me as his egomania, misogyny, and dyspepsia often serve as a brilliant counterpoint to the political zingers he is attempting to land…but he still gives me a headache.)

Howie MandelI’d never really given much thought to how I feel about Howie Mandel, though. Like Gallagher or Carrot Top, he made my junior high self laugh with abandon over the funny voices and the latex gloves on his head, the germaphobia and the OCD. I never watched St. Elsewhere – he may have been genius there. I just don’t know. I adored his charming children’s show Bobby’s World in the 90s, and it always amused me greatly that his helium-voiced alter ego also doubled as the vocalizations for Gizmo in Gremlins and Skeeter on Muppet Babies.

As I got older, Mandel just seemed to disappear into the margins. I may have unfairly lumped him into the buffoonish band of novelty comics, or maybe he just became complacent, hosting game shows (Deal or No Deal) and talent contests (America’s Got Talent) and shaving his head and growing silly-looking “soul patches” on his chin.

How wrong I was.

Howie MandelLast night, we had the pleasure of taking in his stand-up routine at Caesars Windsor in their much-vaunted Colosseum room. (Let me say, though, that the room does not live up to the marketing hype, resembling a giant pole barn and with an entrance/egress system that functions more like a giant game of Milton Bradley’s Mousetrap than an efficient/pleasant welcome/farewell to the audience. It is a claustrophobe’s and a process engineer’s nightmare.)

Regardless, Mandel presented a remarkable show, reminding, at least this viewer, what made Mandel great in the first place. His routine on Saturday night was a mix of prepared and improvised material, free-wheeling in its delivery and free-ranging in its topics. With a boyish pluck, Mandel brought down the house, riffing on audience members’ foibles and any information they recklessly volunteered. His silliest and funniest moments came at the expense of two security guards downstage who seemed more interested in staring at each other than in protecting the funnyman. Yet, Mandel was never mean nor cruel; he was ever-playful and as hard on his own eccentricities as those of the targeted audience members.

Howie MandelMandel was plenty “blue” in his material, but it never offended as he comes across more as a little kid laughing at his own farts than a skeezy old man who bullies those around him with dirty jokes. You know the type I mean, right? You’ve seen such pricks (sorry for the colorful euphemism) at your high school reunions or at family picnics? “Hey, you, listen to something really filthy here. Does it make you uncomfortable? Yeah? Good! I win!” Mandel’s not like that at all, thank goodness.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for his tone-deaf opening act Shuli Egar, a correspondent from The Howard Stern Show, who came off as a hateful little creep and who seems to think life is there for his ridicule and contempt. There were pockets of laughter during his set, but mostly it was a pretty flat affair that could be best described as Don Rickles/Cheech & Chong/Ray Romano as re-written by Attila the Hun. My advice to him? Ditch the hipster glasses that make him look like mean bird, make fun of himself more, and let us see his tortured inner life that makes him so despise his outer one. THAT would be interesting. (Let me add – Stern I’ve always loved. See rationale in opening paragraphs above. This toadie of Stern’s? Not so much.)

Howie MandelBack to Mandel. He shared with the audience that earlier on Saturday he had become a grandfather for the first time, and, rather than coming across as cloying or preachy (a la someone like Bill Cosby), he used said news in clever and irreverent ways to introduce such tried and true Mandellian topics as … his omnipresent fear of germs; the torture of being on the road 24/7; his love for his wife as expressed by torturing her daily with public tomfoolery; the highs and lows of being part of nationally beloved reality shows on the Peacock Network (En…BEEEE….Ceee!); and so on.

Seeing Howie Mandel live is an interesting phenomenon. A forgotten comic (at least to me) becomes vital, vibrant, possibly even essential in that setting. The electricity of his intelligence and his wit, the kindness in his heart, and the acerbic view he projects toward this ridiculous planet make him very winning, indeed. I’m sure the TV shows and the merchandise and the appearances rake in the moolah, but here’s hoping the third act of Mandel’s storied career gets him back on stage, alone and live, with no yellow-and-black briefcases full of money nor aspiring warblers from Topeka.

Detroit always looks best from ... Canada?

Detroit always looks best from … Canada?

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view.

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

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

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]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“The error in man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.” Godzilla (2014)

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]

Godzilla, Warner Brothers’ reboot of the classic Japanese movie monster, is exhausting. Don’t get me wrong. I was highly entertained, even entranced, but I also feel like I was just hit over the head by a 2X4 for the last two hours.

Like the similar postmodern reinvention in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (or even, for that matter, this spring’s Noah), Godzilla, directed with a surprisingly sure hand by relative newcomer Gareth Edwards, is positioned as pointed popcorn allegory for how abysmally we humans treat this planet and the ungodly vengeance Mother Nature should unleash on us self-important ants.

In all fairness, Toho Studios’ original Godzilla series took its cues from a mid-century world traumatized by the threat of nuclear Armageddon (as evidenced by the real-life bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima), so Edwards is just following that argument to its logical post-9/11, post-global warming, post-Inconvenient Truth conclusion.

The 2014 edition (let’s all just agree to forget the inane Jurassic Park-meets-Independence Day debacle that was 1998’s Matthew Broderick-starring effort) is a tension-filled marvel. Edwards wisely gives us plenty of footage of the titular “monster” and his battles with the Mothra-esque MUTO creatures, but he keeps the shots murky and smoke-filled, the pacing methodically coiled, and the shocks Hitchockian in their “did I see that or didn’t I?” simplicity. Alexandre Desplat’s score is brain-thumpingly martial.

The narrative is straight-up Saturday afternoon matinee with a healthily cynical gloss of 21st century ecological nightmare. The first half of the movie is all set up as we are introduced to a scientist (a hammy Bryan Cranston saddled with an epically bad hairpiece … guess the budget got eaten up by CGI) who loses his wife (Juliette Binoche) in a tragic nuclear power plant accident that may or may not be giant-lizard-related. Flash-forward 15 years, and Cranston’s now-adult son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, all grown up from his Kick-Ass years and looking like a steroidal Joaquin Phoenix) has tired of his papa’s conspiratorial theories as to what really offed mama.

There’s a gibberish-spewing Japanese scientist (an awfully wooden Ken Watanabe) and a gibberish-spewing British scientist (the always crackerjack Sally Hawkins) and an authoritatively gibberish-spewing American general (the genius David Strathairn who could make tax code seem fascinating).

At one point in the film, Watanabe says to Strathairn: “The error in man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.” (I loved that!)

I kept expecting Kevin McCarthy or Gene Barry to show up wearing fedoras covering up their sweaty brows as they rattled through unnecessarily expository dialogue (see: 1953’s War of the Worlds or 1954’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers… but preferably if you are 10 years old and it’s 1982 and there is nothing else on television).

Of course, Taylor-Johnson has chosen a military career, much to the chagrin of his academic dad. He is returning from service in some unidentified locale, eager to reignite all-American family time with his perpetually anxious wife (Elizabeth Olsen, spinning gold out of a thankless role) and his toddler son. As mayhem ensues and the various screaming creatures destroy Honolulu … and Las Vegas … and San Francisco … somehow Taylor-Johnson’s character managers to be in every setting, save the day, and find another means of transport to get him closer to home. Ah, Hollywood logic.

But, here’s the thing … it all works, pretty marvelously. There are no winky-nudge-nudge sexist/racist/xenophobic Michael Bay-style jokes/asides/quips and the carnage (while PG-13 friendly) is believable and haunting (and any movie that blows up Las Vegas is ok in my book). The pacing is ominous and steady and relentless, and, without being a shrill polemic, the film reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that how we treat (or mis-treat) this planet has dire consequences for us all …

In this case, primordial creatures who’ve lived in the earth’s core for eons until the lure of radioactive weapons and waste draw them out will obliterate us all in some kind of H.P. Lovecraft/Ray Bradbury fever dream … but, hey, I said it was an allegory!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Supercross, Part Deux: AMA Monster Energy Supercross at Detroit’s Ford Field

IMG_0633IMG_0642Me? Write about sporting events? Yeah, I don’t think so.

IMG_0635As a result, you are just getting some random, blurry iPhone photos, illustrating our second AMA Monster Energy Supercross event in as many weeks, this time at Detroit’s own Ford Field.IMG_0645

(Last week’s event at Daytona International Speedway gets a shout-out here.)

IMG_0643This weekend, Supercross returned to the Motor City after a six-year absence, which was an odd gap since Motown has always brought sold-out crowds … but nonetheless we’re glad to see it back at Ford Field.

IMG_0638So, who won the big event tonight? James Stewart. No, not this James Stewart. THIS James Stewart.

Watch out, ESPN – here comes Reel Roy Reviews.

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IMG_0635IMG_0634Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events!

IMG_0636In 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; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana.

Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Visiting another planet – EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival, Dandelion Communitea Cafe, Magic Bands, Cafe Verde, and Daytona Supercross

Lady and the Tramp go green

Lady and the Tramp at EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival (Photo by Author)

Orlando, Florida is like visiting another planet. A plastic, overpopulated, abundantly colorful, manic far-satellite where they charge you a quarter every time you take a breath.

Last year, we visited Orlando’s sister kitsch-world Las Vegas, and, in 2014, we made our return to Central Florida after a three year hiatus.

It is just as delightfully suffocating as I recall.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually find comfort in super-commercialized, super-merchandised, super-programmed environments. (Some day I will be brave enough to post photos of our basement filled with sentimental, entertainment-themed tsotchkes culled from years of visiting the Disney Bubble and places like it.)

But it is a rather exhausting place to be, making one ever more grateful for the quiet moments amidst a pile of dirty laundry and credit card receipts when one finally returns home.

Call her MISS Poppins!

Call her MISS Poppins! (Photo by Author)

The “polar vortex” continues to grasp at the edges of impending springtime, and our weather was rainy and downright cold most of the time. (I even bought an over-priced knit hat at Disney’s Old Key West gift shop … to wear alongside cargo shorts and flip flops. Quite a look, if I do say-so myself … like a drunken Gorton’s Fisherman at a frat party.)

Nonetheless, we hit the outlet malls, the gift shops, and the tourist traps like the good capitalist lemmings Orlando requires.

Some highlights:

I’m not much for “food and wine festivals,” but we happened upon EPCOT’s annual International Flower and Garden Festival. What I would have otherwise thought would bore me to tears was actually delightful – if topiaries artificially contorted into the familiar shapes of classic Disney characters is your thing. Surprisingly, it was mine. Who knew? I wonder if my neighbors will mind this summer when I turn our hedges into the cast from Toy Story? (View the full photo album here.)

Kermit and Piggy promote good eating ... and their new movie

Kermit and Piggy promote good eating … and their new movie (Photo by Author)

Even better than the mouse-eared horticulture was the fact that Disney went all out with vegetarian and vegan fare throughout the festival. Each stop around EPCOT’s trademark World Showcase offered at least two or three vegetarian/vegan options and they were good. My favorite was this weird buttery tart scalloped eggplant thingie with a warm beet salad. Yeah, Top Chef‘s Tom Colicchio I will never be – I wouldn’t even be able to describe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and make it sound enticing.

The update to EPCOT’s Test Track is less an overhaul and more a redeco, with the cornier aspects replaced with sleek digital effects and black-light piping everywhere. It works well, though at times I felt I was zooming around Tron‘s rec room.

Kouzzina by Cat Cora at Disney’s Boardwalk was sublime as always … at least food-wise. The chef stopped by our table and worked out an incredible Mediterranean vegetarian spread just for us. Our server, though, seemed to have woken up on the corner of Cranky and Crabby Avenues, while some fellow waitstaff thought it would be nifty to tell the kids at a nearby table to throw their flatware to the ground repeatedly, screaming “Opa!” every time. I may be getting too old for this…

Woody salutes you

Woody salutes you at EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival (Photo by Author)

Disney continues to tinker with ways to make you feel even more cash-poor and over-managed during and after your visit. Maybe I am just old and cranky, but I feel they have passed the tipping point in this regard. A one day visit to one park is now over $100 a ticket and there is very little that is new or engaging at this point. In fact, there are visible signs of deterioration and “cast member” malaise at every turn.

Compounding the frustration is this new invention called the “Magic Band” which would make Orwell faint. With great cheerful fanfare (one of the few times I saw downright joy from a Disney employee this trip) you are issued these micro-chipped bracelets adorned with the silhouette of Mickey’s head. These bracelets (conveniently linked directly to your checking account) are your “keys to the world” whereby your every move, purchase, encounter is tracked, measured, predicted, and modified. In fact, while wearing the d*mn thing, I even had a story about them pop up on my iPhone.

Disney's Boardwalk on an overcast evening

Disney’s Boardwalk on an overcast evening (Photo by Author)

The concept is that they make everything easier as you don’t have to carry a wallet or keys and you just touch “mouse-to-mouse” on any kiosk or cash register or door around the mammoth resort. I didn’t like it, and I wonder how Disney CEO Robert Iger would take it if I show up next time with jar full of quarters and an abacus. I may try that.

We made our way to a long-time favorite – no Magic Bands required: Dandelion Communitea Cafe, a progressive vegetarian/vegan restaurant well outside the white-gloved, four-fingered reach of the Mouse. If you’re an animal-loving, adventurous vegan/vegetarian, this place is heaven. And, if you’re not, you will be after leaving. The food is so good, and the people are just delightful and authentic and caring. Try the “hunny mustard tempeh nuggets” – seriously. Do it. Your stomach … and chickens … will thank you. Dandelion’s motto is “If anything can go right … it will.” Good for them. I have to remember that now that I’ve returned to snowy Michigan where the sport du jour is “car swallowing/tire shredding-pothole dodging.”

Reducing our carbon footprint ... on our way to a gas-hazed motorcycle race

Reducing our carbon footprint … on our way to a gas-hazed motorcycle race (Photo by Author)

Our rental Prius (we really were hippies on this trip) also transported us to Cafe Verde in New Smyrna Beach en route to Supercross at the Daytona Speedway. (Yeah, you read that sentence correctly.) Cafe Verde is a relaxing, vegetarian/vegan-friendly establishment with a wide-range of Mexican and Italian-adjacent menu items. Eggplant struck again, as my favorite item was this dip made from said vegetable pureed along with … some other stuff. Told you I’m not a cook, but I know what’s tasty!

We wrapped up our long weekend of vegan-living by hanging out on the Daytona International Speedway track with a gaggle of Supercross fans. We have eclectic tastes to be sure.

Daytona Supercross

Daytona Supercross
(Photo by Author)

Supercross, for the uninitiated, is a sport whereby a bunch of pleasant young fellows (who seem to hail primarily from Florida, California … and Australia?) ride rumbling dirt-bike motorcycles across a man-made muddy track with an endless series of ramps and ruts and hills and peaks (oh my!). These riders are as much acrobats as racers as they sail through the air with the greatest of ease. And, as you can imagine, the people-watching is priceless with a refreshing cross-section of humanity united in their love of standing out in the cold on a steeply banked Daytona track watching these gentlemen and their flying machines.

As much fun as we had, it’s always good to be home again. And I guess that is the best part of taking any trip. (As a side note, I think I’m going to bury my souvenir Magic Bands in a lead-lined box in the backyard for fear of Uncle Walt tracking me on any and all my grocery trips to Meijer.)

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language, and Crazy Wisdom in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Countdown: Shania Twain – Still the One

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

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

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

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

An instantaneous, good-hearted sense of community: The Package Tour with New Kids on the Block, 98 Degrees, and BoyzIIMen

[Image by author]

Time plays such strange tricks with the mind. It feels like a week ago that I was in eighth grade hearing New Kids on the Block’s signature hit “Hangin’ Tough” for the first time. Or two days ago when BoyzIIMen’s “Motownphilly” rocketed across my car radio in college. Or yesterday when 98 Degrees (and an equally neophyte Christina Aguilera) contributed those requisite, catchy, and sometimes extraneous two bonus pop songs at the end of a mid-90s Disney animated musical, in this case Mulan.

Don’t even get me started on Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson’s more entertaining-than-it-had-any-right-to-be reality hit show Newlyweds…and, alas, we all know how that one turned out. They were doomed the moment Jessica feigned confusion over what “Chicken of the Sea” actually was. In her defense, it is a very odd and rather disgusting brand name if you think about it.

So last night The Package Tour with BoyzIIMen, 98 Degrees, and New Kids on the Block (now saddled with the unfortunately cumbersome, test-marketed acronym NKOTB) at the Palace of Auburn Hills was a surreal though vibrantly fun evening of music and wistful nostalgia.

BoyzIIMen [Image by author]

Neither these 40-something-year-old “boy band”-ers (wow, what a dumb genre name) nor their audience (myself included) are getting any younger. The singers still power gamely through the hits, even if the lyrics now make them (and us) wince a bit, and they move as if their knees and joints aren’t aching like heck. I found it difficult just to stand for three hours; I can’t imagine if I had been jumping from one fog-encased, hydraulic moving platform to the next.

Evening openers BoyzIIMen were the strongest vocally, singing many of their hits a cappella without one sour note, truly amazing in an arena the size of the Palace filled to the rafters with screaming fans.

Us with 98 Degrees [Image from VIP Nation]

98 Degrees were charming as well. We had the added benefit of attending a meet and greet with the group before the show. They were gracious and authentic and kind to all. I was suitably impressed by how “un-star-like” they all were. As when I saw Shania Twain in Las Vegas a few months back, sat on the front row, and bonded with now friends Mike G. and Linda and Randy K., the close proximity to celebrities created an instantaneous, good-hearted sense of community.

Us with “Super Fan” Katy from Cadillac
[Image by author]

We befriended a 98 Degrees/NKOTB super-fan Katy from Cadillac, Michigan who showed us the meet-and-greet ropes. Why do I share this? As a testament to the band’s generosity of spirit, when Katy approached the table, Jeff Timmons, without missing a beat, shook her hand and said, “Hi Katy! Great to see you again! How is your son doing?” as if they were just catching up after running into each other in the produce aisle of their local grocery store.

And in performance, this audience connection carried over nicely. For about an hour, Timmons along with brothers Nick and Drew Lachey (a Dancing with the Stars champ) and sometime politician and Occupy Cincinnati activist Justin Jeffre (seriously, he was even arrested!) worked the crowd, winking at their latter day reality TV personae that have eclipsed their days as pop music icons.

NKOTB [Image by author]

The evening was efficiently produced with no delays between acts, so, when NKOTB took the stage promptly at 9 pm, the crowd was in a frenzy. Donnie Wahlberg seems to have taken his place as ringleader with all the dynamics we’ve seen in his acting (he’s actually better than brother Mark in my opinion) now on display in his musical efforts as well.

At times, it felt as if all the performers had watched Magic Mike a few too many times and had committed too much of Matthew McConaughey’s skeezy “hey ladies…” dialogue to memory. AND, minor quibble VIP Nation, but next time when folks sign up for the 98 Degrees “Meet and Greet” and you hand out the perfunctory gift bags, please have a few men’s t-shirts on hand. No matter how XXL the shirt, a woman’s tank top shirt is still a woman’s tank top shirt. And, no I’m not even using it when I do yard work.

As a sure sign that we were old and attending what was in essence an “oldies” concert, we left early. Not because we didn’t love the show. We did. But our feet were tired…and have you tried to get through that Palace traffic at the end of an evening?

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

Las Vegas [Photo by Author]

Las Vegas [Photo by Author]

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

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

Paris Casino [Photo by Author]

Paris Casino [Photo by Author]

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

Elvis and Cher? [Photo by Author]

Elvis and Cher? [Photo by Author]

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

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

Whoopi [Photo by Author]

Whoopi [Photo by Author]

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

Whoopi! [Photo by Author]

Whoopi! [Photo by Author]

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

Hoover Dam [Photo by Author]

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

Gospel Brunch [Photo by Author]

Gospel Brunch [Photo by Author]

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

Jersey Boys [Photo by Author]

Jersey Boys [Photo by Author]

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

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

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

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

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

Shania [Photo by Author]

Shania [Photo by Author]

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

Caesar's Palace [Photo by Author]

Caesar’s Palace [Photo by Author]

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

Home Again [Photo by Author]

Home Again [Photo by Author]

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