“If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Florence Foster Jenkins

[Image Source: WIkipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Sometimes Hollywood just makes sweet movies. Not often. Just sometimes. These are the movies that you remember from your youth, not completely great films, but kind-hearted ones where people’s common humanity is celebrated, where decency is rewarded, and where foibles are accepted and embraced, not pilloried in some sort of zero-sum football match – loving, slightly creaky movies you would have discovered at the far end of the television dial, some weekday afternoon, when you were home from school sick with the flu.

Two such movies are rolling through your local cineplexes now, quietly charming audiences in the shadow of more cynical, merchandisable fare like Suicide Squad. I happened to catch Florence Foster Jenkins and Pete’s Dragon in a double feature on a warm summer weekday afternoon, no flu required, and I’m glad I did.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pete’s Dragon is the much stronger film. The original 1977 Disney film combined one-dimensional animation, even more one-dimensional performances (who thought Helen Reddy was a good idea?), and treacly songs (“Candle on the Water,” anyone? nah, I didn’t think so) into a forgettable diversion consistent with the Mouse House’s lousy Me Decade offerings (Apple Dumpling Gang … blech).

The new Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery wisely jettisons everything from the original flick, save the boy and his dog … er … dragon conceit, giving us a smart and deeply affecting parable on ecology, tolerance, and the healing power of companionship. Pete (played with a feral wariness by Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in an unidentified Pacific Northwest woods when his parents run the family station wagon off the road to avoid hitting a deer (Bambi’s revenge?). Pete is discovered by large, green, furry, canine-like dragon whom Pete quickly names Elliot, after a puppy in a beloved book Elliot Gets Lost. (I said the movie was good; I didn’t say it was subtle.)

Years pass, and Pete and Elliot carve out a pastoral existence, spending their days at play in the woods, sheltered at night in a cave filled with the discarded refuse of humanity (think The Black Stallion meets The Goonies). However, this wouldn’t be a summer movie without some narrative tension, and it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some wholesome, well-intentioned, plucky, small-town intervention narrative tension. Along comes Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, a forest ranger, instantly more believable than the thousand false notes she played as an opportunistic theme park executive in Jurassic World, fighting a losing battle against the foresting company owned by her own fiance Jack (American Horror Story‘s Wes Bentley – about as creepily cardboard as he always is). Pete’s curiosity about these Disneyfied people gets the better of him, he reveals himself, and, in a series of predictable plot points, Pete and Elliot are separated by (in order) hospital rooms, child protective services, and Jack’s skeezy, gun-loving brother Gavin (Star Trek‘s sparkling Karl Urban, who knows how to play a ridiculous cad without chewing too much scenery).

Lowery borrows liberally from the Spielberg school of mid-80s family film-making, and Spielberg himself was beholden to an encyclopedic obsession with films of his youth. One might argue that every Spielberg children’s movie seems to be trying to right any emotional damage that Old Yeller may have caused a young Steven. Lowery even wisely sets Pete’s Dragon in a pre-cell-phone late 70s/early 80s (never completely defined), when a child would see nature with wonder and not as a backdrop by which to catch the latest Pokemon Go creature.

Elliot, the dragon, is a marvel of movie design and animation, rarely exhibiting any of the jarring disconnects from reality CGI can sometimes cause – the work here is fluid and warm and fantastic and heartbreaking. Elliot never speaks and relays sensitivities the way a dog or cat might, through undulating body language and heavy sighs, sideways glances and guttural noises. Elliot is at once the film’s center and periphery, a guide and a protector yet also a victim of the cruel whims of serendipity and fate … which is pretty consistent with how humans treat any and all animals, in fact.

And that is likely Lowery’s point. Robert Redford is cast as Grace’s father Meacham, the town eccentric whose claims of meeting a dragon in the woods decades prior have fueled a host of urban legends and have alienated him from all but the town’s youngest denizens. Early in the film, Meacham foreshadows what is yet to come with the line, “If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Toward the film’s conclusion, when it’s pretty damn evident there is a dragon living in the woods, Grace asks her father to tell her what really happened all those years ago. Meacham looks at Grace (after relating how Elliot hates guns … thank you!) and says, “I looked at that dragon. And he looked at me. And we were at peace. Something changed in me that day, and I could never look at you or any other creature the same way again.” Yeah, I cried buckets.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Florence Foster Jenkins on the other hand may change the way any of us ever look at amateur singers or any other aspiring creative type again. Or not. Long before American Idol, people in this country treated singing competitions like gladiator sport. We applaud and cheer the Susan Boyles or the Kelly Clarksons who may defy our expectations with voices like angels, but we guffaw and leer at the William Hungs or Sanjaya Malakars for whom “pitchy” is the best compliment anyone can muster. We can be exceedingly cruel as a culture; the dark side of our Horatio Alger tendencies.

The film, directed in workmanlike fashion by Stephen Frears (The QueenPhilomena), is a wartime snapshot of the title character’s days and nights as a wealthy patron of the musical arts in New York City and as a woefully untalented vocalist with a shockingly tin ear. Alas, as portrayed by Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash, Into the Woods), Jenkins comes off (no pun intended) as rather one-note. Not unlike an episode of the aforementioned American Idol, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are making fun of Jenkins or celebrating her unabashed moxie. Maybe I’m a bit simplistic, but trying to have it both ways with a character who cuts a more tragic than comic figure could be mistaken for cruelty.

In fact, Florence, (spoiler alert) on her deathbed, asks her dutiful (yet dubiously motivated) husband St. Clair (portrayed with surprising nuance by Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant) if all this time everyone has been laughing at her. It’s intended to be a devastating self-realization. In fact, everyone has been laughing at her, including us. The film takes comic glee is showing how Jenkins’ simian-like vocalizations send audiences into apoplexy, so it’s a bit tough (akin to emotional whiplash) to suddenly invoke our sympathy after indulging our baser instincts.

That said, the film is a pleasant lark with more sweet than sour at its core. Like the BBC production it is, the film is a clutch of fussy mannerisms and pop-eyed reaction shots. Streep is as hammy as we’ve seen her in years, if her Julia Child from Julie and Julia had spent a long afternoon with her Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. Grant does a fine job complementing and contextualizing Streep’s performance (partly it’s the design of his role as Florence’s major domo and consigliere), and there is a lot of joy in watching him out of love, sweetness, and survival clear one hurdle after another, shielding Florence from the worst of her detractors and hangers on. In hiring a new accompanist for his tone-deaf wife, St. Clair delineates to Cosme McMoon (a pleasantly neurotic Simon Helberg, playing a soft-spoken variation on his Big Bang Theory‘s Howard Wolowitz) some of the more eccentric rules of the house: “The chairs are not for practical use. They honor those who died in them. Are you fond of sandwiches? And potato salad? We have mountains of the stuff.” Grant’s delivery, a perfect blend of pragmatism, wonder, and self-interest, should have been the tone the entire film took.

Regardless, if you are seeking solace from a summer move season filled with smart aleck mutants and half-baked sequels, frat boy comedies and nihilistic explosions, go check out the dragon  (and Robert Redford) and stay for the potato salad (and Hugh Grant).

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Bonus: If you missed this summer’s production of Xanadu, enjoy this video footage!

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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.

“That outfit looks like Jimmy Buffett’s dust ruffle … or the wallpaper in a Long John Silver’s bathroom.” Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike-and-Dave-Need-Wedding-Dates-2016-Comedy-Movie-Inspired-by-a-true-storyI daresay we see too many Zac Efron movies in our household (evidence here and here and here). Perhaps an intervention is required. His cinematic output is not exactly transcendent, but it ain’t bad either. Efron has become the poster boy for pleasant-diversion, middlebrow-comedy, derivative filmmaking. And I suspect it’s a lucrative and easy life, with just an inordinate number of sit-ups and bench-presses required.

Efron can sing. He’s cornered a unique underdog, alpha-himbo comic niche. He’s man-pretty, in a distracted, dissipated, vacuous way. He can dance. Before the advent of sophomoric gross-out rom-coms, he would have probably been John Davidson. (If you’re under 40, Google him.)

But here we are. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. We saw it, ‘Murica, in a need to go see something stupid and funny and palate-cleansing after a busy theatre month. And it did the trick.

Throw Wedding Crashers, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Bridesmaids, Meet the Parents, and an episode of Animaniacs into a Cuisinart, and you’d get something approximating this flick. And that’s not a bad thing, because, what all of those influences have at their core (beyond the Post-Its and the poop jokes) is an inherent sweetness, an appreciation for the absurdity of the human condition, and a wily distaste for both the clusterf*ck ostentation of modern weddings and the phony pretense of “growing up.”

Based on a hyperbolic “true story” as can only exist in post-millennial internet-obsessed America, Mike and Dave tells the story of the Stangle Bros, puckish siblings locked in a self-destructive cycle of privilege, self-absorption, and arrested development. You see, these boys, as played by Efron and Pitch Perfect‘s Adam DeVine are sawed-off li’l Hollister-wearing muscle jocks whose daily life is spent in package liquor sales and whose evenings are occupied trying to make family gatherings more fun through a healthy heaping of fireworks, chemical influence, and general mayhem.

We all know these guys. They view themselves as not just the “life of the party” but the party itself, not realizing they leave scorched earth, tears, and exhaustion in their wake – their pursuit of spontaneity at all costs actually driving everyone in their orbit into increasingly rigid anxiety. The film sets this up in a clever way with an opening credits montage demonstrating the Stangle Bros’ “fun” like a glammed up highlights reel from the Jackass television show, juxtaposed later in the film with a grainy, home-movie montage showing what really happened.

The boys’ beloved sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard, a comic elf with nitroglycerine in her veins … hope she gets more work!) is getting married in one of those cost-prohibitive, vulgar “destination weddings” only seen in film … or on Facebook. Given the brothers’ propensity to ruin everything, Jeanie, her fiance (Sam Richardson, a wry and reserved powder-keg), and parents (the always dependable Stephen Root and Stephanie Faracy) insist that Mike and Dave bring actual dates to this event, under the false assumption that having women to “monitor” their foolish impulses will make any difference at all.

Of course, this being the world in which we now live, Mike and Dave post an ad on CraigsList (nothing bad ever happens via CraigsList, eh?), and a pair of lightning rods Alice and Tatiana answer the call (chiefly because they want the free trip to Hawaii). Into the Woods‘ Anna Kendrick (as Alice) and Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza (as Tatiana) are dynamite. I don’t think I could (or should) go so far as to suggest this trifle of a movie is feminist, but the way these two rip up the screen and any shred of dignity the brothers have left is a sight to behold. Needless to say, they do not take to their roles as “baby-sitters” and proceed to demolish the nuptials in ways the boys could only dream about.

Plaza particularly is a revelation, her banjo eyes and sardonic delivery bespeaking a world of hurt that someone so young should not yet have experienced. And don’t get me wrong, there is no poignancy in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates – like zero, like no attempt even made – but Plaza (and Kendrick too) do great work beyond the thin confines of the script to represent fully developed if utterly misdirected minds onscreen, giving the film a lift and, dare I say, import that is likely 100% accidental.

Oh, and the film adds a meddlesome cousin (Terry), who seems to exist simply to provide unnecessary narrative complication, but Alice Wetterlund (who could play Kate McKinnon’s sister) tears into the role with a fire that is delightful and necessary. The raging Id to Mike and Dave’s SuperEgo. She sizes up the boys’ wedding ensembles, reducing them to ash with one of the funniest lines in the film: “That outfit looks like Jimmy Buffett’s dust ruffle … or the wallpaper in a Long John Silver’s bathroom.”

There are about three cringe-worthy scenes, the kind which always seem to be plopped into these enterprises solely to create Tweet-worthy shock value, all easily excised when aired on TBS in two years. Just muddle through those sequences, and focus on the sparkle at play between Plaza and Kendrick and the way their work enhances and critiques the more heavy-handed bro-comedy of, say, DeVine, in particular. Efron remains a cipher in his own film, and I think that’s a conscious decision on his part. He is funniest in befuddled observation, and he has a lot of that to do here.

Now, if only Hollywood had been brave enough to make Alice and Tatiana DON’T Need Wedding Dates. I’d RSVP for that.

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Mike-and-Dave-Need-Wedding-Dates-MovieReel 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.

“It’s hard to feel grounded when even the gravity is artificial.” Captain Kirk, sweetie, darling: Star Trek Beyond and Absolutely Fabulous the Movie

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Turning a beloved television series into a motion picture event and expanding the small screen confines to cinematic vistas can yield remarkable results (The Untouchables, Addams Family Values, 21 Jump Street, Charlie’s Angels, Sex and the City) or abysmal ones (Coneheads, Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Wild Wild West, Sex and the City 2). Admittedly, it’s a tricky gambit, balancing the crushing demands of commerce and misplaced nostalgia with heightened expectations of scale and postmodern reinvention. There is bound to be disappointment.

So color me refreshed that two TV-based film reboots Star Trek Beyond and Absolutely Fabulous the Movie (viewed this weekend after finally digging out from a month or so of Xanadu preparation and performance) achieved more right than wrong on the big screen. Obviously, Trek has been at this movie blockbuster game longer than our intrepid British boozehound fashionistas Patsy Stone and Edina Monsoon, but, in both instances, the films translate all the character beats and shenanigans expected while sufficiently bringing our heroes into larger-than-boob-tube-life environs.

Star Trek Beyond continues the sleek, comic, well-acted renaissance begun by J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) with Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. Beyond copious lens flares and consummate 1960s-mod-for-21st-Century-millennials art direction, Abrams’ best contribution to the franchise has been a beautifully curated cast of actors (Into the Woods‘ Chris Pine, American Horror Story‘s Zachary Quinto, Harold and Kumar‘s John Cho, Dredd‘s Karl Urban, Paul‘s Simon Pegg, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Zoe Saldana, and the late Anton Yelchin of Fright Night) who leverage the iconic DNA of those d-list actors who came before (respectively, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, DeForrest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig), adding irreverent sparkle and authentic character development to give us a Trek with appeal that extends far beyond the madding comic-con crowd.

This latest installment, ably directed by The Fast and the Furious-franchise vet Justin Lin with a seamless stylistic transition from Abrams’ offerings, is all-popcorn all the time with one dizzying set piece after another. In fact, the first act firefight between The Enterprise and the swarm-like armada of Krall is so manic the audience is likely in need of Dramamine for the rest of the picture. A strange hybrid of Darth Vader and The Beast from Beauty and the Beast, Krall is played adequately by an unrecognizable Idris Alba (Luther) … continuing the regrettable habit of the Abrams-era Trek films wasting fabulous actors – Eric Bana, Benedict Cumberbatch – as half-baked, forgettable villains.  Krall is after some cosmic doodad so he can destroy a Federation space station called Yorktown (if MC Escher had designed the Death Star in partnership with the Wizard of Oz and The United Colors of Benetton). Y’see, Krall hates the Federation for, in essence, stealing a plot point from the movie Event Horizon (kidding, sort of), and his scheme to destroy them borrows heavily from Return of the Jedi‘s Moon of Endor sequence with a sprinkling of Avatar‘s don’t trust anyone/unity vs. divisiveness narrative polemic. I admit that last bit resonated a bit more than it probably should have, given the GOP’s national mob rally … er … convention this past week.

To be honest, the plot doesn’t matter (in a good way) as the film borrows its retro structure from classic Trek episodes when the core crew gets split up planet-side and pairs off in unconventional ways to defeat the big bad wolf and demonstrate how diversity brings strength, ingenuity, and great one-liners. We get a fun new character in Kingsman‘s Sofia Boutella (“Jaylah”), a resourceful ghost-faced alien/feminist warrior with an affinity for gangster rap (“classical music” to the rest of the crew, or, as she states, “I like the beat and the yelling”) who, more or less solves every crisis single-handedly. And probably deserves her own film (#ImWithAlienHer).

absolutely-fabulous-the-movie-poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of an inconsequential plot, Absolutely Fabulous the Movie is as fizzy as a freshly opened bottle of Bollinger champagne and with just as little nutritional value. Like Chris Pine’s Kirk and company, Jennifer Saunders’ Eddy and Joanna Lumley’s Patsy wink at the camera, knowing full well the audience is as interested in how they ridicule the source material as celebrate it. AbFab ran in the early-to-mid 90s on the BBC and on Comedy Central (with a few additional seasons and TV movies for good measure into the 2000s). The series relentlessly skewered celebrity-culture well before it was such. a. thing. (Thanks, TMZ and Perez Hilton and Kardashians … for nothing.) And Patsy and Edina with their chemically-altered lives and propensity for fashion-victimhood anticipated the solipsism of shallow, egomaniacal dunderheads like The Real Housewives, Sarah Palin, The Bachelor, Justin Bieber, and, um, Donald Trump. (I’d vote for Joanna Lumley any day – her Botoxed ire for any who dare ask her to smoke outside is worth the price of admission alone.)

This Abbott and Costello for the Reality TV age couldn’t have re-emerged at a better moment. Their bewilderment over and preoccupation with a world that values youth and shiny objects over pretty much anything/anyone with even the slightest shred of substance is as timely an allegory as we can get. The film relates Eddy’s desperate need to right her PR career (“I do PR, darling. Lots of PR things.”), leading her to a series of random celebrity encounters, like an R-rated Muppet Movie, with Jon Hamm, Joan Collins, Dame Edna, Graham Norton, Chris Colfer, Emma Bunton, Lulu, Gwendolyn Christie, and a bunch of other celebs vaguely familiar if you’ve ever spent any time on BBC America. Eventually, her spiraling hysteria results in model Kate Moss falling off a balcony and disappearing into the Thames (don’t ask), and Eddy finds herself on the wrong-end of a media maelstrom for the catwalk siren’s possible “murder.”

There are endless opportunities for materialistic sight-gags as heinous fashion is celebrated as high art, and Lumley regularly steals the show, particularly when she dresses up as a man – a swaggering Tom Selleck with a blonde pony-tail, eviscerating insufferable machismo –  to woo a dowager empress on the French Riviera. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, anyone? All the series favorites return, including Julia Sawalha as Eddy’s long-suffering/happily martyred daughter Saffron (who has a number of surprisingly delicate character turns as she wrestles with her own aging and her complicated familial relations), Jane Horrocks (Little Voice) as Eddy’s craftily inept assistant “Bubble,” Celia Imrie (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) as Eddy’s frosty rival Claudia Bing, June Whitfield as Eddy’s exasperated/instigating mother, and Mo Gaffney as Saffron/Saffy’s myopically liberal step-mother Bo.

The film, like the original series, is cluttered with indecipherable in-jokes, though the movie blessedly cuts down on TV AbFab‘s tendency toward sloppy ad libs and muttered asides that could occasionally make for a frustrating (American, that is) viewing experience. Regardless, the film succeeds beautifully on multiple levels: reinvigorating our interest in Patsy and Eddy as a sozzled Didi and Gogo for our self-obsessed internet days, eviscerating a 1%-er culture that sacrifices humanity for Chanel, and, most surprisingly, layering in a tender and poignant assessment of society’s tendency to pillory those who fall at the crossroads of age and gender (#ImWithHerAndPatsyAndEddy).

As Chris Pine’s Kirk intones at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond, “It’s hard to feel grounded when even the gravity is artificial.” Well, said, Kirk, sweetie, darling. Well said.

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5 Sebastian Gerstner Jenna Pittman Kristin McSweeney Logan Balcom Paige Martin as Muses and KiraReel 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.

“What’s escrow?” Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A couple of years ago, I really kinda hated the movie Neighbors with Zac Efron and Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen. I mean it got under my skin and creeped me out and gave me a stomachache because I couldn’t understand why people liked it so much. In that sense, it was probably more effective than I accepted at the time.

Yet, somehow I still found myself drawn to its sequel, the recently released Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. I had a profoundly unexpected reaction to this film, a movie that I would’ve otherwise suspected to be a completely superfluous studio money grab: I adored it. It is as crude and toxic as its predecessor, yet somehow is a perfectly redemptive bookend. Neighbors 2 is a counterpoint to its predecessor’s bromantic orgy of debauchery. It is a rowdy feminist anthem for acceptance and tolerance with a firm belief that, no matter how ugly life gets, anyone and anything can be saved (not in the religious sense but in the humanistic one).

As before, Rose Byrne is the secret weapon, her flinty worry creating comic sparks in the most absurd circumstances. Rogen does fine being Rogen, but he is aided and abetted by Byrne’s ability to be grounded and believable and cartoonish all in the same instance. You believe Byrne is a caring parent, a fretful homeowner, and a person striving for relevance in a world that can’t wait to leave us all in the dust. She’s magic.

And then there is Zac Efron. Not long ago, if you’d asked me if he could mature beyond a dreamy-eyed slab of beef into a thoughtful, nuanced actor, I would have given you a definitive “no.” How wrong I was. He is so poignant in this film, with a deft, surgically precise comic touch – the rare alchemy that can only happen when a character is played at the crossroads of disaffected heartbreak and well-intentioned vacuousness.  If Montgomery Clift and Judy Holliday had had a love child, it would be Efron’s character Teddy in this movie. He beautifully captures the nauseous yearning everyone feels with the passing of the comfortable, bohemian structure of college days. Efron’s Teddy is the little boy lost fraternity brother who had put so much of his energy and time into building superficially “timeless” bonds that he now is completely bewildered by the cruel, corrosive velocity of adulthood.

Through this lens, we are introduced to a sorority that moves in next door to Rogen and Byrne, causing no end of formulaic mischief, duplicating the narrative arc of the prior film. In this go-round, though, the story is shot through with a bold sense of millennial feminism, the kind of kids who want independence and tolerance, but don’t understand how vile their ageist, tech-obsessed lifestyles can be.

Chloe Grace Moretz is the sorority ringleader, and she is the perfect foil for Efron, who initially serves as house advisor to the girls. Moretz carries the same optimistic arrogance and uncertain certainty that Efron projected in the last film, with a sense of urgency and wrongheaded-determination that propels the film as her sorority sisters proceed to torture Rogen and Byrne. You see, the young couple are selling their cute bungalow to upgrade to a cookie cutter dream home, but have no idea that, when their current home is in “escrow,” the incoming buyers have 30 days to back out of the deal (if say, a sorority moves in next door and trashes the place). The film does such a fabulous job lightly skewering the hipster “mommy and daddy” culture, one foot stuck in their own college days and the other in a highly mortgaged plastic grave.

Dave Franco appears again as Efron’s best friend and fraternity brother, and there is a gently sweet subplot of Franco’s engagement to his longtime boyfriend, with Efron seamlessly stepping into the role of best man and abandoned confidante. There is a lovely “why is this a big deal?” to their interactions that bespeaks an American evolution that should give us all hope.

The film is plenty crass, with a boatload of cringe-worthy moments, but I found it such a loving and inclusive enterprise, as if someone had taken the blueprint from Neighbors and overlaid it with a healthy dose of Bridesmaids, that I am still smiling. I suspect my opinion will run counter to that of many fans of these sorts of films because we are living in a country that continues to see women as frightening, as something “other” to be ridiculed, demeaned, and contained. This film turns that wrongheaded notion on its head, unleashing the unapologetically jubilant female id and reminding us that we are all humans, frightened of what tomorrow may bring, attempting to enjoy whatever happiness we can today. #ImWithHer

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Zac-Efron-32Reel 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 can do this all day!” Captain America: Civil War

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel’s latest offering Captain America: Civil War made me a bit cranky. The film is perfectly fine – good-to-great, in fact. So, why do I feel bowed and broken by the 2.5 hour superhero slugfest?

Returning to this fan-favorite character – after their exceptional work raising the genre to dizzying, political potboiling heights with Captain America: The Winter Soldier director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo now take on the unenviable task of adapting a year-long Marvel Comics event (2006’s Civil War) that encompassed hundreds of characters and decades of lore and centered on a contentious feud between Captain America and Iron Man over the very civil liberties that are sliding off the rails in the present-day 2016 presidential election.

Importing this plot, that benefited extensively from comic readers’ knowledge of Marvel Comics’ 50+ years of canon, into a popcorn blockbuster cinematic universe still in its infancy is no mean feat.

More or less, the Russos succeed brilliantly. The directors deftly juggle a baker’s dozen of colorfully clad Avengers, throwing some new ones into the mix (Marvel has to set up Phase 27 of this merchandising empire, naturally!), yet somehow still retaining focus on the character (Chris Evans’ Captain America) around whom the film ostensibly revolves.

Thank heavens for THREE factors which prevent the enterprise from becoming the kind of overpopulated, unholy, confusing movie slog we tend to associate with Marvel’s Distinguished Competition: 1) the Russos balance their reverence for the comics source material with a surgical ability to excise the nerd-centric minutiae, capturing the essence of this allegorical battle for the soul of America; 2) the filmmakers smartly realize Captain America works well onscreen as a sweet-natured, noble everyman whose motivation will always be, first and foremost, that of a 98-pound weakling out-of-touch with the ways of the modern world yet not giving one damn if his desire to put down bullies of every stripe sets him at odds with current mores; and 3) Chris Evans.

Yes, Robert Downey, Jr.’s motormouth Tony Stark (Iron Man), whose oily hustle as a Tin Woodman on steroids is all sparkle and no soul, slapped the verve into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the first place. (He is dynamite, and, while his rust is starting to show, it plays well through that character’s arc as the cynical pragmatist of The Avengers.) However, my money for the heart and soul of these films is and always will be on Evans’ Captain America.

The best bits of the extended Marvel television universe (Agent Carter, later seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) took root in the Captain America films, and the strongest humor and the most heart-tugging pathos have always centered around the character. Captain America: The First Avenger is as kind, humane, and inspiring a film as Marvel has produced, and Winter Soldier was a crackling spin on America’s obsession with a stalwart greatness we’ve never actually possessed.

So why am I a bit crabby this afternoon after viewing Civil War? Maybe it’s just because the pollen count is woefully high here in Michigan. Or the fact that summer is suddenly barreling down upon us, with the idea of five months of yard work less-than-thrilling.

It’s certainly not because there are any issues with Civil War‘s cast, a collection of champs as fine as they come: Scarlett Johansson (bringing Black Widow new levels of compelling internal conflict), Sebastian Stan (a haunted, hulking Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (his gleaming loyalty cut with a sly anxiety as Falcon), Jeremy Renner (a world-weary Hawkeye), Don Cheadle (a world-wearier War Machine), Paul Bettany (with a nice touch of metallic angst as The Vision), Paul Rudd (welcome comic relief as Ant-Man), Elizabeth Olsen (dodgy Slavic accent notwithstanding as the tortured Scarlet Witch), newcomers Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland (a glowering, intense Black Panther and a cagey yet-wheeling Spider-Man respectively) and a whole busload of “non-supers” caught in (or causing) the cross-fire (William Hurt, Emily VanCamp, Martin Freeman, Daniel Bruhl, John Slattery, Alfre Woodward, Marisa Tomei, Hope Davis).

There is not one false note among them – which is remarkable given that many of these pros receive mere minutes (if not seconds) of screen time. They all make the most of every moment, neither chewing the scenery nor fading into the background amidst all the pyrotechnics. That is a testament as much to the Russos’ direction as it is to the respective actors’ abilities.

I guess I’m a bit sour because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has started to feel like all work, no play. (And we know what effect that had on Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Not good.) The early films were rife with a joy of discovery and a whimsy that is starting to dissipate around the edges. The evolution of this vast Marvel machinery – all the cogs and spokes and wheels and widgets from the movies to the ABC shows to the NetFlix series to the tie-in books and cartoons and merchandise – is a wonder to behold but can also seem stiflingly corporate. It’s become terribly self-serious, all gravity, no air – each Marvel film trailer now peppered with phrases like “nothing will ever be the same,” “forget everything you know,” “this is the moment everything changes.”

The unrelenting bigness seems antithetical to the “little guy taking on the world” joie de vivre that makes Captain America such a special and uniquely American creation. As Evans’ Cap often declares in these films, to comic effect under the most dire of circumstances, “I can do this all day!” Unfortunately, where the Marvel empire is concerned, that sounds like more of a menacing declaration of war than a scrappy assertion of hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“True what they say of little boys … born without the inclination to share.” Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

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At the mid-point of Zack Snyder’s action figure fever dream Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (holy bejeezus do I still hate that title!), Diana Prince (a.k.a. Wonder Woman) sizes up a surly, grizzled, poster-child-of-arrested-development Bruce Wayne and posits, “True what they say of little boys … born without the inclination to share.”

That cutting insight could describe our current presidential primary carnival as much as it does the central conflict in DC Comics’ latest cinematic opus. Delivered as it is by one of the most compelling characters in the film (a sleek yet playful Gal Gadot), it becomes the closest thing Dawn of Justice has to a thesis statement.

Picking up where the financially successful but emotionally hollow Man of Steel ended, Dawn of Justice attempts to rationalize the rampant, inane video game violence which concluded the earlier film by doubling down (hate that expression) on that narrative misstep. Whereas Man of Steel started compellingly but quickly devolved into a scrap pile of muddy fight scenes, jarring explosions, and broken toys, Dawn of Justice attempts to rationalize such lazy film-making by leveraging it to create character motivation. In short, Superman knocked down one of Batman’s buildings, and the Dark Knight is pissed.

Yet, here’s the thing, Dawn of Justice, unlike Man of Steel, ends up being more than just the sum of its testosterone addled parts. It’s actually rather good and kind of fun, and, accidentally or on purpose, it is the ideal allegory for a year (make that an era) in which we as a nation are much too cynical to accept whatever good comes our way (or that others do on our behalf), hellbent as we are to turn every moment, every accomplishment, every person into a chance to rip at the seams of our own cultural fabric – where “culture wars” play out across keyboards and cable TV erupting in violence in shopping malls and school cafeterias.

I know I’m in the minority on this film. Yet, the way we as a nation all have fallen all over ourselves (like lemmings?) decrying Dawn of Justice since its debut – that the film is some colossal cinematic f*ck-up the likes of which we haven’t seen since Liz Taylor thought that a lot of eyeliner would make her suitably Egyptian in Cleopatra –  exemplifies how breathlessly hyperbolic we’ve all become. I hypothesize, in fact, that may be what this film is trying to say to us: that we are a nation of provincial villagers wielding pitchforks and torches, ever-ready to tear apart our would-be heroes and saviors.

Maybe that’s why no one likes this flick?

The physical showdown between Batman and Superman serves as the centerpiece of the film’s marketing, but I think that sales job does a disservice to the actual battle that grounds the film: a philosophical one. Admittedly, Snyder is not as nuanced a hand as, say, Christopher Nolan, and said philosophical debate (self-determination vs. paternalism; agnosticism vs. faith; xenophobia vs. inclusion; aggression vs. hope) gets bogged down pretty quickly in soap opera theatrics and stunning but emtpy-calorie IMAX compositions. Regardless, I applaud Snyder for trying and for giving us a film with more layers than its current audience may be willing to see.

Hey, this is saying something coming from me because, heretofore, I’ve seen Snyder as a hack, and I know I’m swimming upstream given the critical and popular vitriol Dawn of Justice has received. The film is not without its problems – it’s too long by 30 minutes, fight scenes are about as cluttered as a utility room junk drawer, the plot tries to be All the President’s Men meets The French Connection using Tinker Toys and Silly Putty, and the proceedings are just way too darn earnest and self-serious. However, for a film the conception of which is just a step or two above a Saturday morning cartoon (seriously, any movie that uses “versus” in the title has two strikes going in the door), I was pleasantly surprised by how entertained I was, by the thoughts the film generated, and by the performances therein.

As noted, Gadot brings a joyous fire to her regrettably limited screen-time. (If nothing else, Dawn of Justice should have us all pretty geeked for Wonder Woman next year – I predict it will be the Captain America of the DC Cinematic Universe, emotionally resonant and full of heart and wit. At least, I hope so. Warner Brothers has a rare gift for squelching a good thing.) Ben Affleck is a strong presence as well, marrying his innately louche bearing with an expressively sad anger. He is by far the most physically imposing Batman we’ve ever seen on film, at times dwarfing Henry Cavill’s Brylcreem’d Superman. Cavill always looks like he stepped from a comic book page, though it’s obvious he struggles mightily to overcome the darkness of the material to give Kal-El his requisite homespun nobility. The glimmers of kindness and of regret which Cavill ekes out are a tonic, and one can only hope the stifling gloom of Dawn of Justice and Man of Steel relents in future installments, and we get to see a more joyous (and jocular) Superman in action.

The supporting cast is a galaxy of pros from Amy Adams’ plucky if kinda dour Lois Lane to Laurence Fishburne’s blessedly lively Perry White (one zinger: “The American conscience died with Robert, Martin, and John.”) to Jeremy Irons’ perpetually (and comically) perturbed Alfred Pennyworth. Irons deserves a medal for wringing the film’s very few laugh-out-loud moments from his second banana asides with Bruce Wayne. Snyder should go back and study those scenes which deftly balance the “end-is-nigh” gravitas he so loves with a world-weary-wit that the audience desperately needs. Diane Lane does her worried best with a thankless damsel-in-distress turn as Superman’s ma Martha Kent, and Holly Hunter is constipated fun as a Washington bureaucrat who can’t decide if Superman is an angel from heaven or a devil in spandex.

Jesse Isenberg’s Lex Luthor is the controversial flash point in this production. Either you love him or you hate him. I suspected I would want to throw my popcorn every time his smug rictus graced the screen. In fact, the opposite was true. I never found him “ha-ha” funny for a moment (not sure if I was supposed to), but I thought he ably balanced layers of disconcerting smarm and sociopathic guile like a malevolent, drunken pledge-master at a fraternity rush party. His performance is polarizing, but it worked for me, in a film that seemed as much a critique of destructive male ego run amok as it was itself a filmic artifact of destructive male ego run amok.

I’m giving Snyder more credit than he likely deserves. I’ve seen little evidence in any of his other movies of any kind of sincere feminist impulse, but somehow (inadvertently?) in Dawn of Justice he has given us a superhero film that skewers the wanton recklessness of male posturing. As Diana (Gadot) somberly observes at the film’s conclusion, “Man made a world where standing together is impossible.” Now, if the filmmakers could just let Wonder Woman wear something other than a star-spangled bathing suit, we’d be getting somewhere …

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img_4560Reel 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.

“We may be evolved, but down deep we’re still animals.” Disney’s Zootopia

Zootopia

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This political season is arguably the most distressingly fascinating one I can ever recall. Whether #ImWithHer or #FeelingTheBern or #MakingAmericaGreatAgain or #DumpingTrump, the vitriol and shenanigans, the dramatic tension and circus-world comedy, and the reality-television-fueled debasement of what it even means to be “presidential” are as titillating and train-wreck exhilarating as they are shocking and horrifyingly confounding.

Into this topsy-turvy world, where GOP elephants compare “hand”-sizes and Dem donkeys trade an endless stream of cocktail napkin memes, comes a funny little kids’ movie from Disney, an animated fable with mobster rodents and badge-wearing rabbits, hustling foxes and pencil-pushing sheep (who may or may not be political wolves). Disney’s latest effort Zootopia may very well be the allegory for our times, a medicinally incisive piece of camp that pierces the heart of our political juvenilia, not as a heavy-handed polemic but as a frothy noir merringue that still manages to offer timely (and timeless) critique of our national propensity toward ugliness, be it in the form of sexism, racial profiling, class distinctions, ageism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, crass marketing, leveraging abject fear to erode any and all civil liberties, or, yes, speciesism.

If George Orwell’s Animal Farm had been reimagined by Bugs Bunny‘s Chuck Jones, you’d have Zootopia, as close to classic Looney Tunes‘ satirical irreverence as middle-class-family-friendly Disney may ever get. 

“Zootopia” (the place) is an urbane promised land where anthropomorphic animals of all species coexist amicably – think Richard Scarry’s Busytown on steroids or Watership Down, Jr., with predator and prey working and playing side-by-side and setting a far better example than humans can ever seem to manage. Zootopia is a Manhattan-esque place, brimming with hustle and bustle, composed of boroughs distinguished by their unique climates (e.g. polar, rainforest, desert, etc.)

Judy Hopps (effervescently voiced by Once Upon a Time‘s Ginnifer Goodwin) is a brave bunny who defies her expected station (as a carrot farmer) to become a cop (a role typically taken by larger, more aggressive male creatures, like cheetahs and buffalo). As in human life, Hopps is quickly marginalized (for her gender and her size) by her co-workers, assigned the menial task of traffic duty.

Yet, something dire is afoot in this magical land, and the balance of animalia power is challenged as traditional “predator” animals revert to more violent ways of the past. (This is still a Disney movie, so that basically means angry eyes and lots and lots of snarling.) Lt. Hopps seizes the moment, and, with the aid of a con man fox named Nick Wilde (Bad Words‘ Jason Bateman, finding his animated doppelganger), cracks the case.

Or do they? That‘s really where the cheeky fun begins as the third act of the film inverts all of our notions of Zootopia, landing a stinging indictment of how society offers a phony face of inclusion and acceptance as long as things run smoothly with safety, security, and prosperity ostensibly guaranteed for all.  The minute the “natural order” (which we mindlessly take for granted) is revealed as the wobbly house of cards it actually can be, all bets are off, and life starts to resemble a Trump rally or a Promise Keepers meeting or Hitler’s Nuremberg, with fiery, fearful rhetoric of us-versus-them, boundary walls, torture, and police states. Zootopia – accidentally or intentionally or both – holds a mirror to this truth and presents its audience, young and old, a cautionary hopefulness that we can still pull ourselves from the mire.

Yet, the magic of this film (not unlike similarly smart animated fare like The Lego Movie, Inside Out, or Wall*E) is that the message never comes at the expense of entertainment  (maximizing impact and influence). This picture is just so. much. fun. In addition to Goodwin and Bates, there is sparkling voice work from Thor‘s Idris Elba (Police Chief Bogo, a blustering water buffalo), Whiplash‘s J.K. Simmons (Mayor Lionheart, a scheming king of the jungle), Jenny Slate (Bellwether, the mayor’s browbeaten lamb assistant … lion and the lamb, get it?), Nate Torrence (Officer Clawhauser, a dispatch policeman cheetah for whom food is quite literally love), and Alan Tudyk (Duke Weaselton, a shifty little informant weasel). Uni-named pop star Shakira rounds out the cast playing uni-named pop star Gazelle, nailing some witty moments as a well-intentioned if misguided celebrity trying to bring cross-cultural unity through superficial lip-service. (Sounds like some recent Oscar speeches, eh?)

Zootopia is a visually stunning film throughout, and one viewing will unlikely do justice to the rich detail (and hidden references) of this animal planet. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) have realized a sumptuously immersive world here that is simultaneously transporting and sobering. Mayor Lionheart exclaims, “We may be evolved, but deep down we’re still animals.” These words (other than the disparaging implication of “animal”) are as true (if not truer) of we humans, struggling through as fractious an historical moment as many of us may see in our lifetimes. Zootopia may just be the tonic we all have needed. Lt. Hopps notes repeatedly through the film – as much warning as mantra: “Zootopia … where anyone can be anything!” Maybe we Americans should give that idea a shot again? What do you think?

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img_0083Enjoy this recent radio show, featuring The Penny Seats (and yours truly!) … “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris: Feelings that Connect Us All” – https://t.co/E9YMfoZN0C

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.

Baby Roy’s brushes with fame 

  
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P.S. Old Roy will be appearing in a new show, starting next week! Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris! Join us Thursday evenings, from February 11 through March 3, for the mesmerizing music, humor, and sentiment of the one and only Jacques Brel. Originally performed off-Broadway in 1968, this show has enjoyed continuing success, and was revived Off-Broadway in 2006, to considerable acclaim. We are performing it as a dinner theatre event in partnership with Conor O’Neill’s Traditional Irish Pub and Restaurant. Thus, you can purchase dinner-and-a-show tickets for just $20 each (dinner seatings begin at 6pm), or show-only tickets for $10. Curtain at 7:30pm in Conor O’Neill’s Celtic Room. Seating is limited, to get your tickets now! www.pennyseats.org

Count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. Fox’s #GreaseLive!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like Grease (in any of its musical forms – Broadway, film, community theatre, drunken karaoke). And I ain’t never gonna like Grease. There are some catchy songs, and Rizzo is pretty much a Teflon-plated hoot no matter who is applying Stockard Channing’s time-tested performance template (even if Channing herself seemed like a 45-year-old playing that role). Yet, the book (in its countless revisions) can’t decide if it wants to be corny, contrived, plastic sock-hop nostalgia or crude, crass, grimy locker room ick. The character development rarely rises above that of an Archie comic – an uneasy mix of satire, camp, and canonization. And the climactic message of “be yourself … no, wait, don’t be yourself … tease, your hair, slap on Spandex pants, and strut around like an inebriated race horse” (which could describe Danny’s arc as much as it does Sandy’s) is, shall we say, problematic?

So, I came at Sunday’s Grease Live! – Fox’s gambit in the ever-escalating live televised musical arms race – with a bit of trepidation and a whole heap of hate-watching ire in my arsenal. Said arsenal remains unused this Monday morning. The show was actually kind of … good? Maybe I can deploy my ire for the Iowa caucus?

As in the days following NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!, and The Wiz Live! (think we could retire the “live” and the exclamation marks, folks?), there will be a lot of digital “ink” spilled and memes/GIFs posted, some fawning, some hypercritical, but one can’t deny that this new genre – that is neither really live (Live!) nor filmed, neither organic/authentic nor polished/accomplished, neither bad nor good – is a happening that energizes viewers, inspires conversation, and piques our collective cultural interest in stage musicals again.

Let it be said that none of the musicals performed to date are anything I would have chosen to perform or to see, left to my own devices. To me, these shows are all tired, shopworn, and clichéd. All have been filmed and/or performed live on television before, and, with the exception of The Wiz, those prior adaptations were more or less already considered definitive. The next wave of shows coming down the pike – Hairspray (?!) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – just affirms that conclusion, though Rocky Horror’s casting – gender-bending an already bent show – may prove intriguing.

For all intents and purposes, these shows are less theatre, more stunt spectacle, as if a monster truck rally and a high school theatre department collaborated for a production that none of us really want to see again but can’t not watch. NBC/Fox could give a fig what theatre snobs think. These shows are a throwback to a time when The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind aired annually on network television, when people didn’t think twice when three (!) different television adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella aired over the years, or when plays like Twelve Angry Men could hit Broadway and be a live television event and a major motion picture in rapid succession. It’s called event programming – it’s always existed, it’s always drawn eyeballs and made money for the networks, it’s always had corporate sponsors (Alcoa! Coca-Cola! Frigidaire!) …  and viewers have always said their era was better than the one in which we find ourselves now.

Grease Live! had the spectacle part down pat. There were clever fourth-wall-breaking behind-the-scenes commercial breaks and scene transitions (grimacing host Mario Lopez and those runaway golf carts notwithstanding). The film-worthy indoor/outdoor sets and the acres of Warner Brothers’ backlot dedicated to the production, including a full-fledged amusement park, were incredible (rainstorms notwithstanding). I would love to know how they accomplished the seamlessly gliding transitions from one fully-realized location to the next – notably the transitions from Rizzo’s Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom to a glitzy USO stage and back (Keke Palmer’s star turn on forgotten number “Freddy My Love”) or from gleaming 360 degree art deco diner to “Teen Angel” heaven (Carly Rae Jepsen’s otherwise forgettable new tune “All I Need Is An Angel” and BoyzIIMen’s shaky “Beauty School Dropout”).

Hamilton helmer Thomas Kail’s direction of all the musical numbers (aided and abetted beautifully by Glee alum Zach Woodlee’s loving choreography) was sharp, purposeful, and epic, furthering the narrative in clever ways (Jordan Fisher’s “Those Magic Changes” an early delight, detailing Danny Zukko’s failed efforts to “fit in”) and providing flashy, eye-popping showstoppers (“Summer Lovin’,” “Greased Lightnin’,” “Born to Hand Jive,” and the finale “You’re the One That I Want/We Go Together” all crackled with a frenetic music video energy … and that’s a good thing). And the costumes (and instantaneous costume changes)?  To die for.  Frothy, cute, and kinetic.

The cast – made up of Disney Channel refugees, Grease movie alumni, and a handful of legit stage stars – wasn’t always able to match the technical prowess, and I suspect Kail was wisely hedging his bets by layering on the gloss and the wow, so we didn’t notice (or care) when a cast member hit a sour note (rarely) or performed their dialogue like they were reading the side of a cereal box (often). Vanessa Hudgens’ Rizzo was the star of the night. Her Rizzo may have lacked pathos, but she added a layer of heartbroken outsider sweetness (not unlike what Laura Benanti brought to Sound of Music’s “Baroness”) that was an appealing counterpoint to all the gum-cracking sass. She infused “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” with a welcome playfulness that kept the song from devolving into sheer meanness (as it often does).

The aforementioned Keke Palmer brought presence and poise to her Marty, quietly driving every scene in which she appeared, and Jepsen was appealingly forlorn as pink-haired loser Frenchy. The Pink Ladies, generally, kept the enterprise afloat, with a loveable sauciness that unfortunately was unmatched by the rather forgettable T-Birds. Not a moment stood out for the greasers, though Aaron Tveit’s Danny Zuko was a singing/dancing marvel. He is arguably the most accomplished musical vet of the cast (Next to Normal, Les Miserables), and it showed, in both good and bad ways. He hit every mark, sang like an angel, and nailed every move and gesture and pose … but he didn’t seem to be having one darn bit of fun. He lacked an impish sparkle that would have sold the performance for the ages, which is a shame, as he did bring a hunky empathy and kindness that actors typically don’t give the role, distracted as they often are with the pompadour and the leather jacket and the cars and the mythically phony “50s-ishness” of it all.

Julianne Hough is not my cup of tea. Never has been. Like Tveit, she has the technical know-how (particularly where movement is concerned) but she has this inherent bland unlikeability that I can’t ever quite get past. Yet, in the case of this production, that quality served her and the show well (to a degree). I’ve never understood why Rizzo, in particular, hates Sandy so much, so quickly. The nebulously defined rivalry over Danny just never works (and is too sexist anyway). So, having a lightly annoying Sandy to motivate a less bullying Rizzo worked for me, whether that was intentional or just a happy accident of chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Saturday Night Live’s Ana Gasteyer was stoic perfection, as the malaprop-spewing Rydell High principal, and Wendell Pierce was fun as an archetypically pompous and inept coach/gym teacher. Didi Conn (Frenchy in the original film) and Eve Plumb (“Jan Brady”) offered spry cameo turns, and Jessie J (England’s answer to P!nk) did a serviceable job performing the iconic “Grease (Is the Word)” over the opening credits – a tune originally sung by Frankie Valli and written by Barry Gibb for the 1978 film. Never mind that the lyrics to “Grease (Is the Word)” make absolutely no sense (the term “word salad” springs to mind) nor do they have any discernible connection to the plot; the tune’s catchy, we all know it, and it’s perfectly marketable as a pop single. Money, money, money!

In the end, that’s all Grease Live! was every really about anyway. This isn’t great art. This isn’t Great Performances. (Hell,  that high-minded PBS program is underwritten by the Koch Brothers now, isn’t it?) These “live” musicals are an exercise in commerce with a light veneer of artistic pretense. Take some songs you know and a premise you vaguely recall from your youth, mix in a Fantasy Island’s gaggle of dubious “talents,” layer on some high-paying sponsors, promote the sh*t out of it, and count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. #Captalism_Live!

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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.

“Just because you see me on TV, doesn’t mean I’m more enlightened than you.” Shatner’s World … We Just Live In It! at MotorCity Casino’s SoundBoard (Detroit)

William ShatnerLast night we saw William Shatner. Yes, THAT William Shatner. Priceline Negotiator. Denny Crane. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Captain Kirk. Cringe-worthy purveyor of spoken word psychedelia. He offered his one-man show Shatner’s World … We Just Live In It (originally presented in a limited run at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre) at Motor City Casino’s SoundBoard venue.

When I went to bed last night, visions of this D-level A-lister dancing around in my head, I was ready to write a snotty piece, dismissing his overeager schtick, rampant hamminess, cloddish sexism, sweaty egomania, and twitchy insecurity.

In the cold, hard light of this January day, I think, “Who am I to make fun of 84-year-old Hollywood legend William Shatner?! Granted he’s far from my favorite starship “Captain.” Patrick Stewart, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula, and Chris Pine are all far ahead in that line-up.

Shatner's WorldPlus, I’ve always found Shatner a rather desperate presence, sharing the same kind of icky balsa wood machismo that plagued contemporaries like Burt Reynolds, Robert Conrad, and Lee Majors throughout the 70s and 80s. Regardless, he’s sustained an acting career across stage and screen for sixty years; he’s a best-selling author; and he’s an icon. That is something to celebrate; yet, all that “Shatnerism” gets in the way of respecting his work and always has.

I was curious to see if Shatner’s World would allay or compound that conundrum. The answer, quite honestly, is that it did both. Whereas a Star Trek alum like George Takei has revealed a comic impishness and a (more or less) refreshing layer of self-mocking irreverence in the latter years of his career, Shatner has gleefully become more bloated, arrogant, and self-mythologizing as the years have passed. He capitalized on this to greatest effect as bloviating Denny Crane in Boston Legal, but he was aided in that enterprise by co-star James Spader (who could make an avocado interesting) and to some degree by Candice Bergen (whom one could argue is kind of the female Shatner when it comes to smart aleck self-absorption). His quirky Priceline “Negotiator” persona is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of Denny with a teaspoon of mannered Kirk-isms and a healthy portion of “drunk uncle at your family reunion.”

IMG_3769(My favorite Shatner moment remains The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” wherein his character is convinced that gremlins – which only he can see – are dismantling a plane in mid-flight. If there ever was a place for Shatner’s hyperventilating hyperbole and pop-eyed claustrophobia, it was the black-and-white world of Rod Serling.)

Shatner’s World – the show – is like a cocktail party guest who lingers about 45 minutes too long. The first hour is fun, frothy, and full of empty calories. Shatner, with his squatty shenanigans, fancies himself a raconteur – the dirty-joke-telling kind who went out of style when they retired Johnny Carson’s guest couch. For precisely sixty minutes, Shatner’s creative retelling of an upbringing with a loving, middle-class, Jewish family in Montreal is engaging. He uses slide projections, video clips, and an office chair in rather ingenious and theatrical ways to illustrate key moments (e.g. the office chair doubles as a motorcycle and a horse at various points in the show).

IMG_3754His sentimental, albeit self-aggrandizing, descriptions of his early days in the entertainment industry are captivating, damn funny, and, I suspect, patently false: he worked with good buddy Christopher Plummer (who knew?) at Stratford (Canada), and supposedly saved the day once as Plummer’s understudy in Henry V; he, in his estimation, single-handedly turned Broadway bomb The World of Suzie Wong into a long-running comic hit; he, according to Shatner, gave an Emmy-caliber performance in an unnamed Playhouse 90 episode until legendary co-star Lon Chaney, Jr., started rattling off stage directions as if they were dialogue; Shatner discovered the glories of leadership and horsemanship starring as Alexander the Great (!) in a film none of us had ever heard of.

Dammit. I’ve fallen into making fun of him. I said I wouldn’t. Yet, that’s part of Shatner’s studied charm. He knows you want to mock him, so he does it first, but then he twists every anecdote into a celebration of self, of the sheer force of will that has allowed him to transform marginal talent and blandly handsome features into more success and longevity than any of his detractors have or ever could achieve. It’s rather fascinating in fact – like a piece of performance art or a social experiment to which we’ve all been subjected yet remain unaware of its grand design. In this day of virulent social media and steroidal self-promotion, is Shatner any worse than the rest of us? Or was he simply our forebear? A pop culture Thomas Edison to Kim Kardashian’s Steve Jobs?

IMG_3743As Shatner’s World proceeds into its second hour, the focus grows more diffuse and the self-celebration harder to take. He glosses over his Star Trek years, oddly enough, dedicating as much (if not more) time to his dubious career as a recording artist. This turns out to be a canny decision, though, as it allows Shatner to end the show (and reconnect with his flagging audience) with a “song” titled “Real,” co-written with country star Brad Paisley. It’s a pretty tune (spoken word overlay notwithstanding) and offers Shatner a chance to encapsulate his raison d’etre as vainglorious underdog, aptly noting: “Just because you see me on TV doesn’t mean I’m more enlightened than you.”

It is this struggle with external perception and internal reality that brings much-needed (and sometimes head-scratching) pathos to the evening. He owns the fact that he can be a lousy husband and a half-assed father, sharing anecdotes that are equal parts aspiration and humiliation – a little Father Knows Best, a little Honeymooners, and a little War of the Roses. He acknowledges that he isn’t always beloved by his co-stars, with a riotous bit where he allows Takei to call Shatner a sh*t while simultaneously suggesting Takei might not be all the sweetness and light he wants us to believe. Brilliant. He isn’t afraid to show us his infamous struggles with money either, the kind of struggles that led him back to Star Trek (films) in the 70s (when sci fi nostalgia wasn’t the sure thing it is today), to an endless stream of comic book convention appearances, and to doing casino gigs like the very one witnessed at SoundBoard last night.

IMG_3761Finally, the aspect of Shatner’s life that surprised and troubled me most was (is) Shatner’s adoration of animals. Complete shock to me. Images of Shatner with his beloved dogs, horses, and other creatures fill his slide show and his repartee, and the joy in his eyes is palpable. He speaks meaningfully about the special language and kinship one can only feel with and for animals and how they can tell us all we need to know if we’d only listen. Yet, he then talks about how he “studs” his prize pets (equine and canine) to this day, going into great detail about all the awards he’s received and money he has made from the practice. He also relays a lengthy anecdote about the “horse of a lifetime” – his spirit animal, if you will – whose existence he ruined by breeding, the creature consigned to unending days of isolation and misery as a result. Shatner seems to indicate deep regret, and he expresses hope that the horse, in his final moments, forgave Shatner; but he follows this heartbreaking moment by regaling us with tales of the horse’s award-winning progeny.

Is Shatner looking for redemption or rationalization? This horse tale is arguably the most unintentionally revealing moment in the evening. A sensitive and empathic soul may lurk beneath all that Shatner bravado, but he is so preoccupied by a maddeningly retro belief in what he thinks we expect of masculinity that he can’t quite let that soul breathe and evolve and teach. He wants to embrace his mistakes, but he is too afraid that those mistakes, if authentically understood, will make him less compelling. It’s a shame. Those mistakes make him more compelling. Maybe when he’s 94 years old, we’ll get that show. He’ll still be going strong, kept aloft by a self-sustaining gale of monomania.

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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.