“I don’t like stupid.” A weekend of iconoclasts: Johnny Depp (Black Mass), Lily Tomlin (Grandma), and An Evening with Bill Maher

Bill MaherIt was a weekend of iconoclasts in Indiana as I spent the past two days in the Hoosier state with Johnny Depp, Lily Tomlin, and Bill Maher.

Well, I actually spent the past two days with my equally free-thinking parents who defy geographic boundaries, and we all took in movies and a show that featured these three performers.

Bill MaherNamely, Black MassGrandma, and An Evening with Bill Maher.

Bill Maher, explaining how he got into some controversy in a debate last fall with Ben Affleck (of all people), noted that he “just doesn’t like stupid things.”

Bill MaherAnd in his worldview, that idea encompasses any government or faith or group of self-important, judgmental blowhards who want to diminish the rights and freedoms of others, particularly those who chronically find themselves on the short end of every stick.

Susie and Bill

Susie and Bill

Fair enough. In fact, this notion of raging against stupid things defined all of this weekend’s entertainment.

Our first rule breaker of the weekend was Black Mass‘ Johnny Depp, so immersed in the look and feel of notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, one might suspect he forgot to pay much mind to character development along the way. You know Johnny – he loves those colored contacts, that pancake makeup, and disarmingly fake-ass teeth. At least in this film, we didn’t have to suffer through any zany chapeaus.

Regardless, it is an impressive if uneven performance in an impressive if uneven film. Bulger, not unlike cinematic forebear Hannibal Lecter, definitely doesn’t like stupid. The film, directed with a more-or-less sure hand by Scott Cooper, marries the gruesome and the sparkling in surprising and inventive ways, and Bulger, at least in Depp’s portrayal, exacts a delightfully cracked code of punishing the moronic. Early in the film, Depp as Bulger tells a meddling police officer, “Do you think I’d warn you when I’m going to hurt you? No, you won’t see it coming.” Throughout the film, anyone who breaches Bulger’s plainspoken code, right and wrong, inevitably finds themselves two or three scenes down the road on the wrong end of a gun or more likely bare-fisted death blows.

"Black Mass (film) poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Black_Mass_(film)_poster.jpg#/media/File:Black_Mass_(film)_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Black Mass details the rise and fall and disappearance of real-life Boston “Southie” gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Alas, familiarity breeds contempt, and we’ve seen too many fictionalized versions of this and similar stories over the past decade: The Departed, The Town heck, American Hustle. While Depp gives the role his all, it’s just not quite enough to take the film to fresh levels. He may have had too much reverence for the character (or for his prosthetics), and Bulger sometimes seems like a ghost in his own film.

However, Benedict Cumberbatch turns in some of his best work as Bulger’s starched straight-arrow politico brother, a successful senator from Boston. Benedict must have seen Depp’s cosmetic indulgence and headed 180 degrees in the other direction. Smart move. Cumberbatch resists the urge to play any predictable notes of sturm und drang. Cumberbatch gives us the consummate politician – likable, gracious, but with the kind of studied ethical ambivalence that makes looking the other way seem like moral high ground.

Joel Edgerton, as the brothers’ childhood friend, also does a fine job in a pivotal role as an FBI agent who may fancy himself the long arm of the law but, in the end, enjoys frequenting Miami discotheques with mobster buddies a bit too much. The point/counterpoint of the film comes from the devil’s gambit Edgerton plays, cutting a deal with Whitey to provide what ultimately proves to be specious intel to the FBI regarding his fellow crooks. By the time anyone realizes, the die is cast and decades have passed wherein Whitey Bulger builds an empire with his FBI buddy indeterminately complicit in the act.

Don and Roy and Susie between flicks

Don and Roy and Susie between flicks

Other standouts include Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Corey Stoll, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple, and W. Earl Brown. In fact, that is a big part of the film’s problem – too many characters, all well cast, but with not nearly enough time to develop fully. It is a testament to the performances and to the director that they stand out as they do.

As visceral and immersive as the film is, it just isn’t quite the gut punch I’d hoped. The narrative gets lost in a thicket of Scorsese-light subplots focusing on Bulger’s many “business ventures” (hailai! vending machines! sending weapons to the Irish Republican Army!), when what we most needed to see and explore were the serpentine interpersonal relationships of the two brothers, their family and their friends.

Giving us a much richer portrayal of an original gangster is Lily Tomlin in Chris Weitz’ charming ball of familial toxins Grandma. Tomlin plays a writer and academic whose longtime partner recently died, whose daughter has stopped speaking to her, and whose granddaughter turns to her in a moment of crisis. The film takes the form of an inter-generational road trip (which we’ve seen too many times before – and as recently as, say, Tammy or The Guilt Trip), but in this case sharp writing, smart feminist sub (and super) text, and flesh and blood authenticity transform cliché into revelation.

"Grandma Movie Poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Grandma_Movie_Poster.jpg#/media/File:Grandma_Movie_Poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There will be a host of boneheads out there who will stubbornly refuse to see this film because Tomlin’s granddaughter has turned to her grandmother to help her pay for an abortion. Damn, I’m tired of knee-jerk closed-mindedness. Honestly, it’s not a film about abortion. It’s a film about humanity – those of us living in the here and now, faced with darkly comic daily tragedies that only the mundane can bring.

We have become a country of squawkers who so viciously judge everyone else’s choices in the abstract that we’ve completely forgotten the real people behind those choices, people struggling to get lives back on track or to fulfill their deepest potential. You know what? The path any of us take to get there is no one’s damn business. This film celebrates that notion, warts and all.

The film suffers from some clunky transitions, endemic of the low-budget indie, but, on the whole, Tomlin and the film really zing, heightened by the deft help of a supporting cast that includes … genius, heartfelt Marcia Gay Harden as Tomlin’s loopy, jagged little pill of a careerist daughter; Judy Greer earnest and raw as Tomlin’s frustrated girlfriend; Julie Garner, a saucy millennial dandelion as Tomlin’s suffering, sputtering, spiraling granddaughter; firecrackers Laverne Cox and Elizabeth Pena (in her last role) as a couple of Tomlin’s cronies; and Sam Elliott as an open wound of an ex-husband, all swagger, self-righteousness, and melancholy.

But ultimately this is Tomlin’s show. This film is the perfect synthesis of the platform she has championed for decades: we are all outsiders on this planet, and no one more so than women. Why define and limit opportunity based on rudimentary biological constructs? Why is every choice women make questioned and challenged, and emotional, financial, clinical, occupational resources are funneled away in those moments when they are most needed, out of some kind of institutionalized patriarchal spite.

A quiet storm of misanthropic joy, Tomlin wages a postmodern Sherman’s March, across Los Angeles, in pursuit of the meager dollars needed to fund her granddaughter’s procedure. She suffers no fools gladly – from a standoff with John Cho in a pretentious coffee shop that displaced a women’s clinic (you haven’t lived until you see Tomlin write “f*ckhead” in spilled coffee on a snooty barista’s floor) to a heart-wrenching (and crazy funny) defense of her granddaughter when they finally arrive at the actual clinic where the procedure will be performed. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but what a pro-life little princess does to express her “love of humanity” (with Tomlin on the receiving end) is as telling as it is hysterical.

Roy and Susie waiting for Bill

Roy and Susie waiting for Bill

Tomlin’s character is a broken heart in bullet-proof armor, fed up with a society that undervalues humanity, especially anyone who lives on the margins, pigeonholed by age, gender, sexuality, or, hell, hairstyle.

Bill Maher, may walk a similar path through life, at least as evidenced by his stand-up routine. As the host of Politically Incorrect and Real Time, Maher has always wielded snark like a machete, cutting down rigid, conservative political idiocy at every turn. Whereas a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert are a bit more equal opportunity, taking as many digs at Democrats as Republicans, Maher saves most of his ire for Republicans, championing any underdog he sees persecuted by increasingly shrill right-wing pundits and blowhards.

Bill MaherMuch like Tomlin’s Grandma, Maher’s routine Saturday night at the Fort Wayne Embassy took no prisoners.  With an impish and childlike glee, Maher swung for the fences, excoriating the pompous asses currently running for president. I’ll let you figure out who his chief targets were. One hint: all of them.

I had, perhaps unfairly, found Maher a bit misogynistic in the past. I love that he comes to the aid of all creatures great and small – he is a longtime board member for PETA. However when it came to women, it has often felt like he left his conscience and consciousness in some back hallway of the Playboy Mansion.

Saturday night’s show went a long way toward correcting that perception, as 90 to 95% of his routine actively subverted conventional concepts of gender and sexuality. He nailed a bit on how different cultures define and imprison women via the sartorial choices dictated by fashion or religion.

However, in the show’s final minutes, Maher took a strange left turn that seemed to be an ill-advised concession to menopausal chauvinists – which is too bad cause there weren’t any that I could spy in the beautifully diverse sold out crowd. He went down a strange path of wondering when “his group” – apparently men who date women half their age – would be “celebrated,” going on to re-enact Cialis and Viagra advertisements. It was as unconvincing as it was odd and overreaching – “Look at me! I may be a liberal, but I’m a baby boomer man, and I dig the ladiiiiieeesss.” Whatever. I’m not buyin’ what you’re sellin’, Maher.

Bill MaherI will admit that embedded in his concluding riff was a keen observation that a certain group of men are still driven entirely by preoccupation with their nether regions and not with their brains. Yet, unlike any other era, they have access to a medical industry and clinical research to make their pubescent dream$ reality.

However, it was, to say the least, murky, as to whether Maher saw himself with pride as part of the crumbling Casanova club or as their court jester. It was a strange note of ambivalence to end an otherwise scorchingly consistent evening of social insight and tolerance.

To watch any comedian for two hours is a bit of a marathon. It’s a lot to ask of them, and it’s a lot to ask of the audience, but Maher rose to the occasion, and, with the assistance of a handy notebook full of laminated pages, he kept the momentum coursing through a wide array of topics, chiefly political though not exclusively.

We were also offered brief glimmers of what his upbringing was like in a Catholic home raised by two liberals who always championed the poor and the downtrodden. He didn’t open his veins for the audience – he’s anything but a memoirist. Yey, by showing us a peek into what sounded like an idyllic and inclusive home, he revealed that underneath whatever emotional Kevlar he has strapped on, there is a sweet and wounded heart beating inside.

His relentless barbs take on a different tone in that context. The marginalized kid is Maher, and this is his ultimate revenge fantasy on all the dopes who bullied him in life. It’s like Death Wish with jokes as his weapons and idiot politicians as his prey.

The party's over

The party’s over

Maher opened with some well-deserved digs at Indiana in 2015, much to the delight of the capacity crowd. About Hoosier leaders like Governor Mike Pence, Maher crowed, “Why, they don’t have the book learning to get into a tractor pull!” To be among thousands of like-minded liberals from across Northeast Indiana (I mean, I’ve never seen the Embassy so packed) was a revelation for my parents who often feel isolated and sad for holding such progressive beliefs in the community – a place that seems to buy (and spread) the thick, sticky, divisive, fear-mongering balm Fox and Friends slops across the land every A.M.

The party's over

The party’s over

IMG_2730 IMG_2732

Bill Maher

Bill Maher

Maher’s words electrified a big room of open brains, thirsting for a different kind of dialogue, one where we could talk, laugh, commiserate, re: the significance of global warming or to deride and dismiss hypocritical ravings of multiple-married conservatives who fail to see how their behavior undermines their beloved institution of wedded bliss.

Sitting in that huge performance space of the Embassy, encrusted as it is in gilt and cherubs and velvet – an artifact of another time; being part of a crowd of raving regular folks who happened to dig tolerance and laughter; having been informed by two films the night before that questioned how we see ourselves and how we measure the success of a life fulfilled, I thought, “Hey, am I at a kind of big tent revival? Evangelism for the Anti-Elmer Gantry age? Well, sign me up for another round.”

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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.

Tongues in Trees*: Ignorance is not bliss – a new appreciati​on for Ann Arbor’s Summer Festival

Ignorance is Not Bliss

Ignorance is Not Bliss

When Pat and Marjorie Lesko approached me after my recent book-reading at fabulous local treasure Bookbound and asked if I would like to be a regular contributor in their pages, I was thrilled.

[Alas, this is likely the last contribution I shall make. Another story for another day.]

However, their movie review slot was already taken. (Phooey! but if you want to read my views on popcorn epics, please check out my blog at www.reelroyreviews.com…oh, right, you’re already here!) So they said to me, “How about culture? You’re a theatre guy. You must love to write about culture. I mean, this is Ann Arbor!”

“You got it!” I sheepishly replied, fearful to reveal my true colors as a pop maven who prefers “The Harlem Shake” over Shakespeare, The Mighty Thor over Jane Austen, and Kathy Griffin over the ballet.

[You can read my first contribution to The Ann Arbor Independent about Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre by clicking here.]

Pat, ever the good journalist, could see right through my ruse. “You haven’t gone to anything here, have you? No festivals, no art installations, no opera?” The jig was up. I suspected that my seven-year-successful-dodge of anything of artistic substance was about to come to a crashing halt.

Her next comment surprised me even more: “Good! Then you’re a blank slate. Write about that!” And like rat-a-tat Rosalind Russell from screwball classic His Girl Friday, she gave me a quick “Off you go!” and clicked off the receiver.

So … here I go. May as well start at the top … Top of the Park, that is.

Entering its 31st season, Ann Arbor’s famed Summer Festival was founded in 1984, and Top of the Park, the free outdoor cornucopia of movies and concerts and activities is arguably the fest’s most famous component. Of course, the festival is so much more, running from June 13 to July 6 with many ticketed offerings sprinkled about Ann Arbor, in addition to the outdoor events. (You’ve already read about Lily Tomlin’s opening weekend concert in The Ann Arbor Independent – I wonder if Pat would let me do those interviews in the future? Hmmm. I better be a good kid!)

If you want to find yourself overwhelmed, just check out the festival’s comprehensive website at www.a2sf.org – talk about sensory overload.

Ann Arbor Summer FestivalIf I have any (feeble) defense to offer for our household’s neglect of this Ann Arbor mainstay, it may be that, for a Tree Town neophyte, all of this activity can shut down a person’s central cortex. If you don’t know where to start or even how to navigate the various locations and parking challenges therein, you might be tempted to just to head to the Rave or Quality and watch the latest Channing Tatum/Michael Bay/Pixar offerings with their predictable start times, easy access, and pre-digested storylines.

However, the evil geniuses at the festival must have anticipated this quibble, and they have introduced a mobile app (free!) that can be your pocket guide to all things Fest related. Having done a quick spin through the app, they nailed it. It’s easily searchable, responsive, social, interactive and with just the right amount of content to help you have a good time. Kudos!

So, now that I have no excuses, I turn to the people who may shake their heads in shame at my ignorance but love me anyway – my long-time Washtenaw County-based pals – for some much-needed guidance and advice. (I won’t divulge who, but I did have one comrade-in-arms who emailed, “I have never been there [Summer Fest] either. Don’t tell anyone!”)

Rebecca Hardin, associate professor at U of M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment (not to mention someone who has suffered playing my spouse in The Penny Seats’ production of What Corbin Knew and helps host the fabulous radio show It’s Hot in Here on WCBN, Friday from 12-1 pm), offers,  “Highlights of past summer festivals, for me, include the acrobats from Australia towering over assembled crowds on enormous stilts, swaying among the roofs of Rackham, the Michigan League, and the Alumni Center, in brightly colored clothes. I also loved the eruption of local talent ‘from the ground up’ during a Bollywood flash mob dance moment…just look for ‘Bollywood flash mob connects communities’ on YouTube. Nothing compares to the chance to see local bands like Hullabaloo, eat local brands like Sylvio’s Organic Pizza, and just be, together with so many other Ann Arborites, grateful for the beautiful evenings.”

Clearly, Rebecca’s comments get to the heart of what makes Ann Arbor – and any of its various activities like Summer Fest – so special: spontaneity, creativity, involvement. And what a wealth of opportunities there are.

Beth Kennedy, Ann Arbor teacher and blogger (check out her witty ididnthavemyglasseson.com for a nostalgic yet fresh look at life in Michigan), concurs, “I love the music, people of all ages getting up to dance together, uninhibited,  feeling the rhythm. I love that they moved it from ‘top of the park’ on top of the parking structure down to street level and never went back up to the cement wasteland. That change alone puts people in a very festive and friendly mood. The beer garden is nice … I have never seen anyone unruly while there … a good thing. Most events are free, except for a few headliners. As a teacher, I adore that they have had the children’s bands perform here, giving them a friendly open space to play, with a receptive audience. I do wish there were more food stand choices, but those seem to be growing each year. Free movies at dark are great with classics and cult films. I will add that family ones are challenging because most kids are asleep by that time but that is just a consequence of Daylight Savings Time, alas!”

The challenges of kids, movies, and late sunsets seem to be a common refrain.

Ian Reed Twiss, an Ann Arbor resident and the pastor at Saline’s Holy Faith Church, remarks, “When the weather’s good, Summer Fest is a lot of fun to hang out and just listen to music. They have had some great high-wire and circus-type acts out on the green as well.  When we were childless, we used to go for the outdoor movies too, but haven’t done THAT in a while. We haven’t participated in any of the ticketed items at, say, The Power Center, but the offerings look great.” (As an aside, Ian mentioned another event to pass along. Summer is a month of fun but it can also be a great time to re-establish community. “et al,” a group aiming to create an inclusive and affirming environment for LGBT individuals and families in the Saline community through education and legislative advocacy and support, hosted a Gay Pride event on June 20, at Mill Pond Park in Saline.  It was a meet-and-greet, and local political leaders attended. It was co-sponsored by the Saline High Gay Alliance “Spectrum” and Diversity Circle. Thanks, Ian!)

Top of the Park definitely is the gateway for most attendees to Summer Fest’s offerings overall. One downside is that there seems to be some disconnect between the ticketed fare and what people commonly think of when they hear the words “Ann Arbor Summer Festival.”

Rebecca Biber, local music instructor, pianist, and conductor, remarked, “Is that where they have Top of the Park?  I have enjoyed an outdoor movie on occasion, because there is beer for the adults and the audience tends to have good camaraderie, yell out lines, and so on.  And some of the local bands are good.  Actually, this month on my birthday, the Fest is featuring two bands I have been meaning to see for years: The Crane Wives and the Ragbirds.  If you are up for some on-site research, I would love to drag you along.”

[Note: I did attend and it was fabulous!]

Well, look at that? My Summer Fest dance card is starting to fill up.

Linda Nyrkkanen, founder (and baker) at Flour Lab, Inc. (if you see her at the farmer’s market in Kerrytown, you must buy her cookies, eat immediately, and then buy some more), echoes Rebecca’s perspective, “I must confess that I am not a regular attender either, although I have been to a few of the free movies at Top of the Park.  The first one was the Wizard of Oz back when I was in college, and it was pretty magical seeing my favorite childhood movie under the stars with my friends. And fast forward to current times – we saw E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial a few years ago with our friends Sean and Rachel.  So fun! I don’t know if this helps you or not, but just wanted to share my limited experience.  I know the musical performances are great too, but it’s the outdoor movies that hold the most memories for me.  I think you and John should definitely try to catch one this year.”

Now that I have my marching orders, keep an eye out – you may just see us wandering about, iPhones in hand, scrolling through the many offerings, looking bedraggled, possibly dehydrated, but with big smiles on our faces as we’ve finally immersed ourselves in one of Ann Arbor’s signature events: “The Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s mission is to present a world-class celebration of arts and entertainment that enriches the cultural, economic, and social vitality of the region.” Well, all right – sounds good to me! See you next fall, Channing Tatum!

[P.S. Wonder what the heck “Tongues in Trees” indicates? One of the first monologues I ever delivered on-tage 20 years ago in Wabash College’s production of “As You Like It” directed by Michael Abbott – click here … not me reading it, but you get the drift.]

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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.