“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.

Adrift in a sea of male menopause: Two Muses’ production of Jake’s Women

And presenting: ALL of Jake's Women. His girlfriend, his therapist, his sister, his wife, his late wife, his daughter aged 21 and 12. November 14-December 7. A heartwarming comedy by Neil Simon. [Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery.]

And presenting: ALL of Jake’s Women. His girlfriend, his therapist, his sister, his wife, his late wife, his daughter aged 21 and 12. Through December 7. [Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery.]

Playwright Neil Simon has always seemed to me like a man adrift in a sea of male menopause. The man sure can write a very funny line (I often think his work is best served in a musical comedy setting), yet he seems preserved in Swinging 60s amber, a throwback to another time when the whole country fantasized about living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and found humor in delicatessen euphemisms and sitcom-sexualized comedies of error.

 

Simon’s semi-autobiographical memory play Jake’s Women, thereby is an interesting conundrum. First produced in 1990 and starring Alan Alda, the show is Simon’s post-mid-life-theatrical-crisis-writ-large. Simon literally and figuratively exorcises the the ghosts of women who have influenced and shaped his work. Take that, Joan Baim! And that, Marsha Mason! And that … Elaine Joyce?!? In the wrong hands, the play could be an exercise in misogyny at worst or farcical foolishness at best – a kind of Borscht Belt version of Fellini’s 8 1/2 (itself later staged/musicalized by Maury Yeston as Nine).

I am happy to report that the sparkling ensemble in Two Muses’ current production of Jake’s Women (directed by Bailey Boudreau) hits all the right notes. Given that Two Muses’ mission is to promote and celebrate the artistic contributions of women, this play is an inspired and intriguing choice. In lead actor Robert Hotchkiss, the production gives us a sensitive and grounded Jake, informed and haunted as much by modern life/sensibilities as he is by any kind of cooked-up gender war.

Jake’s marriage to whip smart corporate warrior Maggie is failing as he has never gotten past the death of his first wife Julie. The past and present collide as Dickensian specters (wives, daughter, therapist, sister, paramour) shadow Jake’s every move, given vibrant, intrusive life by his crumbling mental state. Jake as a writer is forever trapped in his own head, revisiting the past as a means of understanding the present yet never truly living in any moment. Jake’s laptop computer is an omnipresent stage symbol of the wall he puts between himself and the rest of humanity. I suspect anyone with a smart phone can relate to that.

As Maggie, Amy Morrissey provides the perfect counterpoint to Jake’s neuroses. She has a tricky task of playing Maggie both in the present day and as an idealized Maggie from the early days of their relationship. The actress shows great warmth and humor for the material but is never sidelined by Simon’s more misogynistic tendencies. Maggie is a person first and foremost, as she intones to Jake in one of their later conversations.

The ensemble work is particularly strong in this production. Charlotte Weisserman as Jake’s 12-year-old daughter Molly beams with a mischievously angelic presence – as does Barbie Weisserman as Jake’s sister, the chaotically big-hearted filmmaker Karen. (No shock there I supposed as Charlotte clearly has inherited some lovely, natural stage gifts from her talented real-life mom Barbie.)

Some of the production’s most emotionally affecting moments come from the theatrical mother-daughter team of Meredith Deighton as Jake’s late wife Julie  and Egla Kishta as college-age Molly. The familial dynamic achieved between Alexander, Kishta, and Hotchkiss during the play’s second act is remarkable – deeply felt with a comfort and ease rarely seen on any stage.

It wouldn’t be a Neil Simon show without some broad comic relief. Margaret Gilkes is sharp-edged fun as Jake’s saucy therapist Edith, aided and abetted by some of the script’s best zingers, which Gilkes nails with Elaine Stritch-y aplomb. Luna Alexander as Jake’s of-the-moment mistress has the show’s most raucous scene  (think The Odd Couple‘s Pigeon Sisters by way of The Jersey Shore‘s Snooki and Jwoww), and she wrings every bit of rimshot glee from her second act moment.

Like the majority of Two Muses’ output, the production values are spot-on, with clever and efficient use of the space, detailed but never overdone set dressing, classic character driven costuming, and an evocative lighting plot.

Back to Jake:  Hotchkiss builds his character beautifully, giving us a broken soul who is not just relatable but a lot of fun to watch. Jake’s journey is a difficult one to convey on stage, rife with potentially self-indulgent pitfalls, but Hotchkiss is very smart, warm, and wry and never panders to the audience or to his character’s many, many flaws.

Jake follows a similar arc to Company‘s Bobby, never sure who he really is and only finding motivation by pinging off the input of others. Unlike Sondheim, however, Simon offers Jake a bit more redemption. Hotchkiss does a fine job walking Jake’s circuitous path as he realizes that snark and witty wordplay do not healthy flesh-and-blood relationships make. The play’s script leaves us with an ambiguously happy ending, as Jake and Maggie set off to resolve their differences, but the rich performances by Hotchkiss and Morrissey overlay that denouement with a believable and honest sense of the couple’s future chances.

The play runs through December 7 at Two Muses Theatre. Two Muses Theatre performs in the Barnes & Noble Booksellers Theatre Space, 6800 Orchard Lake Rd, West Bloomfield, MI  48322, South of Maple (15 Mile). Enter the bookstore, and the theatre is on the left. Tickets can be purchased online here or by calling 248.850.9919 (Box Office Hours: By phone:  10am-5pm.  In person at the theatre, 60 minutes prior to all performances.)

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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.

Empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache: Laura Benanti at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club

Benanti with my mom and me

Benanti with my mom and me

On this Tony Award weekend, we had the privilege of meeting a fabulous Tony-winner – Laura Benanti – last night at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club.

The Columbia Club

The Columbia Club

You might recall last fall that I was a staunch defender of NBC’s production of The Sound of Music (click here), which I thought suffered unfairly from a lot of social media-fueled schadenfreude. The one element that did not need defending, by me or anyone else, because it was universally lauded as perfection, was the performance by Laura Benanti as the Baroness.

Roy and Susie with poster

Roy and Susie with poster

I am happy to report that she is even more terrific in real life.

Benanti with my dad

Benanti with my dad

Throughout her fizzy cabaret show, not a note is missed – musically, comedically, thematically. She is one of the most engaging performers I’ve ever had the privilege to observe.

But even more importantly, she is kind and down-to-earth and real.
My mother and I accidentally ran into her at the elevator right before her performance. Rather than keep her distance, she walked right over to us, and with an effervescent smile, queried, “You’re coming back, aren’t you?” Of course we were! And, even though she had a two hour set to get herself psyched up for, she stood there and talked to us for several minutes.

 

 

 

I might add that she is just as gracious with all of her fans following the performance in what otherwise can be sometimes awkward for both audience and performer: the dreaded meet and greet. She takes time with each and every one and genuinely connects with all.

Almond with me and my mom

Almond with me and my mom

With my starstruck gushing aside, what about the performance itself? It is such great fun – a brilliant blend of soaring vocals, crack comic timing, cheeky irreverence, and poignant character analysis. The essence of what makes cabaret such a viable art form.

The Big Room

The Big Room

Benanti is marvelously aided and abetted by her amazing musical director Todd Almond who is as much sidekick and partner as accompanist, composing the original tunes, vocalizing with Benanti, and offering the periodic witty aside. And, by the way, he is equally personable, following the performance, happily taking my loony suggestions of pop nuggets they can skewer in their act – notably, my latest obsession Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea’s “Problem.”

Why, might you ask was I so bold to suggest such a silly song for these accomplished musicians to perform in their act?

Susie and Roy Capone

Susie and Roy Capone

 

Well, for someone like Benanti who moves seamlessly between My Fair Lady‘s “On the Street Where You Live” to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” to Nine‘s “Unusual Way” (mesmerizing!) not to mention Sisqo’s “The Thong Song,” it seems a logical addition.

What you may gather from the preceding paragraph is that Benanti’s show is a gutsy synthesis of her tastes and style and identity. She wears all these songs easily … which is a remarkable gift. She is always herself yet simultaneously channeling a wild array of characters.

Benanti and me

Benanti and me

 

This tour is captured live on her album “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention,” recorded at 54 Below, formerly the iconic disco Studio 54. My recommendation? Buy this album now, and enjoy it like you would a cast recording before going to see a Broadway show. The album is remarkable, but seeing Benanti act and sing these songs live is something not to be missed. There are enough variances between the album and the show to keep things interesting, and I won’t spoil the surprises here. If she comes to your town, run (don’t walk) to see her.

Most compelling is the manner in which Benanti paints a picture of her life as a perpetual (though fiercely independent) underdog. About someone so talented and beautiful, that may be hard to believe, but the reality is she has always been a quirky theater kid on the outside looking in. Amusingly, she lays bare the personal turmoils of a young girl listening to cast albums, learning to play the ukulele, and dressing up as obscure musical theater characters for Halloween.

Cheers

Cheers

 

(She also isn’t afraid to go off script, poking gentle fun at the more provincial elements of the Hoosier-land where she was performing. I love my home state, but I give Benanti many props for gently reminding her audience that tolerance and compassion and humanity are essential regardless your background or beliefs. And if one can get that message across with a smile on one’s face, it makes an impact.)

I leave you with a clip of her singing “Mr. Tanner,” a forgotten gem by Harry Chapin. This number was a highlight for me both when I first listened to the recording as well as during the live performance. It definitely gives you a sense of her empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache. Enjoy!

[All photos by Don Sexton – more here.]

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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.