‘Lights. Camera. Cure.’ Theatrical Event Raises Over $20,000 For American Cancer Society Relay For Life

Originally published by Encore Michigan and BroadwayWorld

Photo Credit: Lia DeBiasi [More photos here.]

Lights. Camera. Cure. – a special theatrical event held on Wednesday, February 6, that featured classic film hits as sung by local performers at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill – was a sell-out success with a capacity crowd of 400 patrons. The show raised over $20,000 for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life Canton-Plymouth.

Producer/director Denise Staffeld of Lake Michigan Credit Union observed, “Last year, we had a vision to do a Cancer Society fundraiser that celebrated the healing power of Broadway. We sold out the house, and raised over $15,000. I had hoped this year would exceed last, both financially and artistically, but I never anticipated this. I am so very grateful.”

[View the show finale “Come Alive” here.]

Music direction was by Kevin Robert Ryan, Director of Music and Liturgy at St. Thomas a’Becket Catholic Church. Jeff Mongrain, Sonny Teodoro, and Joel Walter rounded out the orchestra. Songs included numbers from movies like The Greatest Showman, The Lion King, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Mary Poppins, Dirty Dancing, Oklahoma!, First Wives Club, The Bodyguard, Aladdin, Quest for Camelot, Moana, Pearl Harbor, The Secret Garden, Fiddler on the Roof, The Jungle Book, and many more. 

Roy Sexton, director of marketing for the Clark Hill law firm, emceed the evening as well as performed. A published author of two books of film reviews Reel Roy Reviews, Sexton noted in his opening remarks that “film is a great unifier, helping audiences to escape the troubles of daily life and to aspire to something greater.”

The cast was comprised of semi-professional and professional talent from throughout Southeast Michigan’s theatre community: Shirley Auty, Denise Staffeld, Aimee Chapman, Christina Bair, Cathy Golden, Cathy McDonald, Caitlin Chodos, Noel Bittinger, Julzie Gravel, Bethany Basanese, Keri Mueller, Janine Creedon, Tracey Bowen, Diane Dimauro, Roy Sexton, Jeff Steinhauer, AJ Kosmalski, Bruce Hardcastle, Tim Chanko, Kurt Bowen, Tracy Neil, Carl Nielsen, Anna Nielsen, and David Dilsizian.

[Enjoy the cast’s take on “carpool karaoke” here.]

Kelvin Elvidge served as sound designer/engineer. Lia DeBiasi was the production’s stage manager, and Daniel Pocock assistant stage managed. There were special appearances by Tom Cassidy and Canton Township Supervisor Pat Williams opening remarks by Kim Scartelli, and event support by Megan Schaper (American Cancer Society) and Tammy Brown and Marion Rozum (Chicks 4 Charity.

Before the performance, there was a red carpet reception, with silent auction and desserts. A Facebook Live pre-show was hosted by Canton Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Paden and Stephanie Tierney. [View video here.]

American Cancer Society Community Development Manager Megan Schaper noted “This event truly embodies the motto attacking cancer from every angle. I was in awe of the show and I can’t wait to see and support what this show inspires these communities to do next.” Schaper supports Canton, Plymouth, Westland, Wayne, Ypsilanti, Livonia and Redford.

NOTE: I had an amazing time working on LightsCameraCure – honored to have been part of this exceptional evening where over $20K was raised for American Cancer Society. Thank you, Denise Staffeld and Kevin Ryan, for the opportunity. It was an incredible experience. This cast was divine!

Thank you to my sweet friends who came out and supported: Nikki Bagdady Horn, Lauren Crocker, Colleen McConnell Fowler, William Fitzgerald (longest journey – from CHICAGO!), Ashley Kryscynski, MSW, Michelle McAllister, Melissa Francis, Lori (Rundall) Compagner, Gabby Rundall, Pattie Curtis, Jim Paglino, Leo Babcock, Mary Newton, Nico LaFoudj, Christopher Tremblay, Ed.D., Sheri Hardcastle, and anyone I missed. ❤️

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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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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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.

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.

True family values: Saving Mr. Banks (PLUS – Steve Jobs, Vivien Leigh, and The Way Way Back!)

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]

Christmas is rough. It’s an emotionally, physically, financially exhausting gauntlet. And, please, no “reason for the season” kickback. I can’t take anymore cornpone trumped-up “War on Christmas” and “you better honor my good old fashioned values” talk when someone dares to suggest this end-of-year retail bonanza is anything but an overhyped, overbaked marketing ploy foisted on us all.

(And I might add: that internationally embarrassing and entirely unnecessary dust-up about the Southern-fried dipsticks in Duck Dynasty and their inane social views has about finished me off on any and all “values talk” at this point. Sarah Palin, you should be proud – your insidious, brain-dead buffoonery is complete. The nation has become completely addle-headed. Cue spooky lightning bolt and thunder effects.)

I love my time with my family over the holidays – the movies and card games with my parents in Indiana, the quiet moments after the holiday has passed at home in Michigan enjoying the new gifts and getting ready for shiny Baby New Year’s imminent arrival. Unfortunately, this year Typhoid Roy hit and I managed to infect everyone in my path with the ugliest cold/flu hybrid this side of a Michael Crichton novel. Consequently, our standard film marathon was trimmed to just one flick – the delightful Saving Mr. Banks – while the rest of the holiday was spent dozing with visions of NyQuil and Kleenex dancing through our heads.

Fortunately for us, Banks is a keeper. The film is an exploration of the unending challenges Walt Disney faced convincing author P.L. Travers that he and his film studio would respect the spirit of her literary creation in bringing Mary Poppins to cinematic life. The movie suffers from a rather conventional narrative structure with a few too many clunkily intrusive flashbacks to Travers’ girlhood in dusty rural Australia. Overall, though, Banks is a gem.

Emma Thompson takes the fussy personage of Travers and spins comedic (and dramatic) gold from the character. Travers’ unease with the Mouse House’s carnival huckster ways leads her to throw barrier upon barrier in Disney’s unceasing path. The poignant joy of the film is the discovery as to why Travers is so resistant … and I’m not going to spoil your potential “fun” (fun being debatable, as I suspect you will shed as many tears as I did).

She is well met in Tom Hanks who succeeds marvelously in the unenviable task of taking on the iconic role of Walt Disney himself. With a twinkle in his eye, Hanks resists the urge to play too far to the cuddly “Uncle Walt” end of the spectrum, tempering his portrayal by hitting all the right notes of Disney, the canny businessman. Hanks and Thompson dance a fine tango of two strong personalities, scarred by life but undeterred in their respective visions.

The supporting cast is outstanding, including Paul Giamatti as Travers’ relentlessly cheerful driver, Jason Schwartzman as one of the songwriting Sherman Brothers, Rachel Griffiths as a Travers’ family member who may (or may not) have inspired the Poppins character, Kathy Baker as Disney’s impish executive assistant, Bradley Whitford as the put-upon screenwriter, Ruth Wilson as Travers’ long-suffering mother, and most notably Colin Farrell as Travers’ beloved, fancy-free, ultimately tragic father.

Farrell is in great respect the heart and soul of the film, turning in a deeply felt and moving portrayal of a father, whose steady diet of whimsy and rye leads him to a number of questionable if well-intentioned parenting decisions.

Ultimately, the film serves as a Valentine to true family values, the ones whereby we in the present try to honor the spirit and aspirations of our forebears. Travers is depicted lovingly and honestly by Thompson as an artist who struggles to make meaning of a fractured childhood, exploring the written word to create an indelible flight of fantasy that could provide sanctuary to others like her and that would honor and redeem the father she dearly loved.

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]

Postscript…

Given that rampant illness kept me generally confined, there are a few home viewing options to mention. Jobs with Ashton Kutcher (!) in the title role as Apple’s storied founder is a meandering dud. Everyone in the cast seems to have done less research than reading half a Vanity Fair article on Silicon Valley’s hey day, mumbling their lines ‘neath shaggy 70s ‘dos. I was bored silly and I don’t think that was the influence of my cold medicine.

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]

The Way Way Back on the other hand is a witty and touching romp, detailing the travails of a poor sad-sack kid stuck at a summer beach house with his mother (the always dependable Toni Collette) and her stultifyingly arrogant, menopausal-jock-bully boyfriend (the also great Steve Carrell playing the drama for once and eerily reminding me of some relatives whom I would just as soon forget). It’s one of those “aren’t we proud to be an indie film!” movies with a lo-fi pop-punk soundtrack and plenty of glowering, but there is much sweetness afoot, particularly when the boy finds his muse in Sam Rockwell’s scruffy water park lothario.

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]

Finally, I read a book. Yes, a book! Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by Kendra Bean. In both visual and written detail, the book rhapsodizes over the talent, beauty, and ambition of the once and forever Scarlett O’Hara. Leigh’s dynamism leaps off the page. The author stumbles a bit with a near canonization of Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier, whom I’m not convinced was as saintly as implied. Regardless, the book is an exuberant and frothy look at a true star who blended celebrity and craft with genius-level precision and who left this world too soon, haunted by a career that lends itself too easily to wildly veering swings of colossal fame and crushing rejection.

Post…postscript…

To come full circle, happy 45th wedding anniversary today (December 28th) to my parents Susie and Don Sexton – I’m very proud of them! And, yeah, it happens to be my birthday today too. I told you the holidays are something for my family! Thanks for reading…

Fa …. a long, long way to run: The Sound of Music Live! (2013 NBC event)

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A lot of ink (and, one might argue, blood) has been spilled in the intervening days since The Sound of Music Live! starring country/pop superstar and American Idol Carrie Underwood reaffirmed NBC as a destination for “Must See TV.”

It’s taken me a bit of time (for once) to digest all of my thoughts – less about the show and more about the absurd level of snotty, glib, social-media fueled schadenfreude it seemed to generate.

Just when I thought this telecast (which I enjoyed by the way – more on that in a moment) would be another casualty of America’s silly “culture wars,” along came news that it was one of the most highly viewed shows in recent memory.

The chief driver of controversy and ratings? Ms. Underwood herself, who somehow has become as big a cultural lightning rod as my beloved Miley.

Seriously, watching my Facebook feed Thursday night, I found it fascinating that so many of my “Red State” friends, for whom the Wal-Mart sponsored production’s selection of Underwood seemed targeted, dug in their heels and proclaimed they didn’t like “different” and “it wasn’t like the movie” and “how dare they replace Julie Andrews” (whom I should add herself replaced Mary Martin from the stage show). Conversely, my “Blue State” friends all saw this as some Tea Party conspiracy to send Broadway to the Dark Ages and “bring Hee-Haw to high culture.” (And, yeah, they also didn’t like that is wasn’t Julie Andrews. There goes Underwood, finally bringing this country together again!)

Really? Really, folks? Just unclench and enjoy that someone is trying something new –  ironic, I know, given that this particular show is a pretty musty, overdone piece of musical theatre malarkey, but just go with me here.

I applaud producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for attempting – and succeeding – at the herculean task of getting a three hour, live musical performed, mostly without a hitch, on prime time television to blockbuster viewership. Last time that happened? Fifty years ago with another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical – Cinderella – which I might also add committed the “sacrilege” of casting a “hot young thing” in place of another actress who had originated the role (albeit in an earlier TV version). Guess who? Yup, Julie Andrews was “replaced” by Lesley Ann Warren, who was not only a bit dodgy as an actress but not that remarkable a vocalist either.

Zadan and Meron have pretty much led the charge over the past twenty years bringing the American musical into the broader popular consciousness of film and TV. And, yes, one of their gimmicks is creative and unconventional casting that gets them sponsorships, studio green lights, and viewership. Vanessa Williams and Jason Alexander and Chynna Phillips in Bye Bye Birdie. Kathy Bates in Annie. Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston in Cinderella. Bette Midler and Cynthia Gibb in Gypsy. Richard Gere and Renee Zellwegger and John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Oscar-winning Chicago. And, yes, John Travolta (and Michelle Pfeiffer) in Hairspray. (NOTE: many of these folks were not necessarily considered musical stars before these productions, but are now.) Would these productions have been artistically “better” with Broadway vets in those roles? Probably. Would these films have gotten made, let alone watched and enjoyed by millions, without these stars? Nope.

And, furthermore, Audrey Hepburn was cast over Andrews in My Fair Lady, the Hollywood penance for this decision in turn landing Andrews Mary Poppins and, I suspect, Sound of Music, which had been written for Broadway for Mary Martin (yes, JR Ewing’s mom who made a name among American viewers for playing a boy – Peter Pan). And should Barbra Streisand have played the lead in the film Hello Dolly! or Lucille Ball Mame? And don’t even get me started on Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (the latter of whom is cuter in the role than people give credit). And I’m not sure I was that nuts about Beyonce in Dreamgirls, though I did adore another American Idol – Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson – for her contributions to that film.

What’s my point – other than showing off all the useless and opinionated knowledge I carry around in my noggin? I’m not quite sure, other than everyone chill the freak out!

How was the show? It was fine – not revelatory but not a train wreck either. Quite the contrary. Yes, Underwood is not an actress, but she is a presence with a pleasant personality and a marvelous voice – all of which seemed to suit the rather bland, nun-lite role of Maria, if you ask me. (I kept thinking of Gwen Stefani the whole time for some reason – they vaguely resemble each other and I also love this riff by Stefani on “The Lonely Goatherd” – truly, check it out!)

Before I get labeled an Underwood apologist, let me say I have always been rather neutral about her. I hate American Idol. I love that she’s a vegan and an animal rights activist, vocally opposed to factory farming and ag gag bills. I find her preening, showy religiosity annoying – yes, we get it – you’re so “blessed.” I adore that she is a social progessive who believes in equal rights for all, including ardent support for gay marriageI do not like country music (unless it’s poppy stuff like Shania or Taylor). I enjoy Underwood more when she’s singing about smashing a cheating boyfriend’s car than when she’s imploring for “Jesus to take the wheel.” (She does seem to sing about motor vehicles a lot, come to think of it.)

The producers wisely surrounded Underwood with a cast of pros (True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer’s rigid and kinda dull take on Captain Von Trapp notwithstanding). Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess and Laura Benanti as the Baroness were the absolute rock star standouts of the night. I hate “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” but I was in tears from McDonald’s rendition. And Benanti was a sparkling delight, humanizing what could have been a villainous turn. She has a perfect light yet intelligent touch for this kind of production – I hope they do more with her. The kids were all fine and avoided the cloying, insufferable trap into which so many productions can fall. Newcomer Michael Campayno was marvelous in the tricky role of turncoat boyfriend Rolf.

The set design was sublime – beautifully detailed but consciously theatrical. And I got a visceral thrill when the cast would glide from one locale to another through an open door or a raised curtain, most notably when the family leaves their home for the climactic Nazi rally.

My criticism of the evening? Those d*mn creepy Wal-Mart ads that seemed designed to appeal to some modern, overpopulated, Midwestern yuppie family that buys too much crap and communicates in dull, cutesy quips via their cellular devices when they are one. room. away. from each other. Argh!

Why do people love this musical? And feel so fiercely protective of it? I’m not quite sure – there are much better shows out there, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s many other offerings. There is a strange princess element – young nun finding love with a stodgy rich man in a castle. An inversion of the Beauty and the Beast tale? Or is it the nightmare panic that the Nazi element offers, including the pulse-pounding (and clever) escape from that oppressive regime while singing the oddly creepy “So Long, Farewell.” Not sure, but clearly a lot of folks love this darn story, so bully to NBC and the production team and the cast for their accomplishment and for giving the Wal-Mart generation a glimpse of another era.

Let’s hope for more live theatre on network TV … and less Wal-Mart.