Countdown: Bangerz

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 10 days left until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Some nice early reviews from Roy’s readers…

  • Zach London: “I thoroughly enjoy your reviews. They are short, well-written, and insightful. For movies I have already seen, your reviews articulate things that my subconscious brain recognized but my conscious brain did not. Congratulations on this accomplishment!”
  • Michael Lesich: “I’ve been a fan of Roy’s movie reviews for some time. Armed with a sharp tongue, a quick wit, and an absolute love of movies and theater, Roy brings a passionate and independent voice to movie reviews. Whether you love-em-or-hate-em, Roy’s reviews are never dull. I’m just an average guy, but when I see a new movie, I often check out Roy’s review to get a sense of whether they are worth spending my hard-earned money and scarce time to see them. Grab the popcorn, a giant soda, and a pair of 3D glasses, and get ready to enjoy this book!”
  • Mary Shaull: “Roy Sexton is a brilliant, talented observer of film and life. He can say in a few words exactly what the rest of us wish we could say. He does it for us in this delightful book. Write on, Roy!”

Here’s a snippet of Roy’s review of Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz: “Lord, I’m tired of all the Miley-hatin’. She’s a cute gremlin of a girl trying to distance herself from a smothering Disney-funded-life, for which she should probably feel very grateful. But who can blame her for trying to express her own personality outside the pervasive marketing bubble of the Mouse House?”

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.

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

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

Twerking, tongue all a-twangle: Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Lord, I’m tired of all the Miley-hatin’. She’s a cute gremlin of a girl trying to distance herself from a smothering Disney-funded-life, for which she should probably feel very grateful. But who can blame her for trying to express her own personality outside the pervasive marketing bubble of the Mouse House?

The last time I felt this over-protective of a pampered, overpaid pop princess was was when Britney shaved her noggin and started hitting people over the head with umbrellas (ellas, ellas, ellas, ay!). Wow, I LOVED that period of Britney’s career!

And the first time I felt this way was when Madonna released the underrated Erotica album and overrated Sex book (and completely bat-sh*t movie Body of Evidence) to much over-heated media alarm during my sophomore year of college. Yeah, Britney and Madonna survived quite well (thank you very much) without my nerdish big brotherly over-worry…and I suspect Miley will too.

I don’t typically review music albums here (though I buy a lot of them). However, I have zero interest in the current slate of Oscar-bait Fall films. I do not want to watch Gravity‘s Sandra Bullock moon around, quite literally, as an astronaut divorced from her George Clooney-piloted shuttle (really?!?! who cast that one?!!?).  Nor do I want to suffer through Captain Phillip‘s Tom Hanks besieged by nautical pirates straight from central casting. (Now, if Johnny Depp’s fey, bejeweled Jack Sparrow made an appearance in either film, I might check them out, but no…)

SO, with that said, you, dear reader, are getting a micro-review of Miley Cyrus’ unfortunately titled CD (or whatever the download generation calls them) Bangerz. And, you know what? It’s freaking fantastic.

Why did Miley feel the need to twerk, tongue all a-twangle, in nude-colored underwear on MTV last month? ‘Cause no states, neither red nor blue, would set her free of her godawfully tangled Hannah Montana wig and the Disney-fied alter ego that it represented.

But you know what (again)? Ain’t nobody talkin’ ’bout Hannah now… so good on ya’, Miley!

How about the album? Hey, it’s a pop album, so it’s going to be a catch-all-of-crazy … and a darn infectious one. There are beautifully melodic offerings like album opener “Adore You” and monster hit “Wrecking Ball” (naked Miley video notwithstanding).

However, the real winners are when Miley lets her freak flag FLY – nothing like a liberal progressive redneck who doesn’t give one rat’s a$$ what any of us think, putting together an album on sale at both Target and Wal-Mart … with varying bonus tracks for retail!

What the heck does that preceding sentence mean? Check out “4X4,” Miley’s ode to monster trucks, with a special appearance by singer/rapper Nelly, that sounds like the track Jessica Simpson should have contributed to The Dukes of Hazzard soundtrack. Or “FU” (title self-explanatory) that sounds like a bizarro mash-up of The Scissor Sisters and The Sherman Brothers and that pretty much tells ex-fiance Liam Hemsworth that (without question) Cyrus is over him … and, for that matter, over all swaggering dudes by the sound of it.

Of course “We Can’t Stop” (which alongside fellow Hollywood-progeny Robin Thicke’s “Parallel Lines” was an inescapable 2013 summer anthem) is zanily fantastic. But the album standout is (unfortunately) a bonus track “On My Own.” This is Miley’s big pop anthem, a hybrid of the best stripper-pole-Britney-Spears and persecuted-dance-pop-Michael-Jackson. I can’t get enough of that song.

There are many other great tracks: the Pharrell Williams-produced “#getitright” (I hate that hashtag gimmick and I hate boudoir come-on songs, but darn if this one isn’t catchy) or uber-pissed-off stomper “Do My Thang” or delightfully subversive “Someone Else” (which has Madonna-esque fun interpolating 1 Corinthians 13:4 … you know, that whole “Love is patient, love is kind” claptrap).

It’s a fun album and possibly a great one. Who cares what Miley had to do to get our attention! It worked. It made me buy the CD, and I’ve been listening to it all week.

And one more thing… As much as I love Annie Lennox, Sinead O’Connnor, Kelly Clarkson, and all the other pop divas who have thrown acid in Miley’s face, all of their critiques come off as sour grapes. This next generation-post-feminist-icon-in-the-making is “doing her own thang” and telling all of us to go take a flying leap … as we line up eagerly in the check-out line to buy her special edition CD … with bonus tracks!

Oh, what hath J.K. Rowling wrought? Beautiful Creatures

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Oh, what hath Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling wrought? The thudding, relentless march of young adult fantasy novels featuring wizards and witches, vampires and werewolves, orcs and angst has consumed bookshelves and movie screens for over a decade now.

And for every cinematic blockbuster adaptation – Twilight (blech) or Hunger Games (groan) – the Netflix superhighway is littered with non-starters like The Golden Compass, Lemony Snicket, I Am Number Fourand Percy Jackson.

Where does Beautiful Creatures, the latest attempt to create a pubescent tentpole franchise sprinkled with pixie dust and Stridex, fit in that continuum? Well, artistically, it’s a lot of fun with a full wink and a smirk at its self-important teenage-targeted forebears…which, commercially, of course, means it will be a big ol’ flop.

Director Richard LaGravenese, who showed such promise with his directorial debut Living Out Loud, does a credible job here, though his pacing is more workmanlike than inspired. Wisely, however, he has stocked his film with a host of Oscar winners/nominees, including Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, and Jeremy Irons as well as talented Emmy Rossum (of Phantom of the Opera-fame) and delightful character actors Margot Martindale and Eileen Atkins.

The cast has a ball with their plummy roles as witches and warlocks debating some incomprehensible nonsense about whether or not young “caster” Lena (played with minimal pretense and maximum warmth by newcomer Alice Englert) will usher in a dark or light age. Doesn’t really matter because the cast is so engaging.

Most noteworthy is Lena’s young “mortal” boyfriend Ethan, portrayed by another newcomer Aiden Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is a perfectly postmodern blend (perhaps too self-consciously at times) of Anthony Perkins and James Dean if channeled through the face and voice of Leonardo DiCaprio (with bits of Dougray Scott and James Franco thrown in for good measure). Weird, I know. But true. And he is transfixing. I suspect his career will be one to watch.

I think what I enjoyed most is the fact that the film is sending up its young adult fiction conventions and cliches all while reveling in them. LaGravenese, doing double duty as screenwriter (other credits include my personal favorites The Ref, A Little Princess, and Unstrung Heroes), weaves in smart and fun allusions (and plenty of overt references as well) to some more substantial literary contributors like Kurt Vonnegut, Harper Lee, Charles Bukowski,  William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams.

Set in a small South Carolina backwoods town, Beautiful Creatures uses its corn-pone, crispy-fried, Dixie-goth setting to send up “Red State” religious and intellectual ignorance and fear. Some of it is a bit too “on the nose,” even for my broad and cynical tastes, but I liked that the filmmakers were willing to bite their thumbs at the very audiences who may be flocking to see this film. My favorite line? When young Ethan relates about the local library, “This is my church, this is where my family comes to worship what’s holy: ideas.” Good for him.