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

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

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

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

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

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

Susie and Bill

Susie and Bill

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

Don and Roy and Susie between flicks

Don and Roy and Susie between flicks

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

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

Roy and Susie waiting for Bill

Roy and Susie waiting for Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The party's over

The party’s over

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

The party's over

The party’s over

IMG_2730 IMG_2732

Bill Maher

Bill Maher

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

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


Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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

Talk of the Town features Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Thanks to Jennifer Romano and Talk of the Town! Read here. Quote from yours truly: “As my blog rolls into another year of entertainment, rife with comic book adaptations, sequels, Oscar bait, arena shows, and theatrical productions big and small, sometimes I wonder if I am choking the life right from this hobby of mine. Can you imagine if every time you saw a film that your OCD tendencies forced you to rush home, throw some quippy hoo-ha on the internet, and wait eagerly for 3.5 comments to appear? Ah, well, it’s still too much fun to stop now—anticipate Volume THREE Roy’s Movie Migraine shortly.”

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

BONUS: Enjoy this fabulous new blog entry from my mom Susie Duncan Sexton – provocative and fun! Read “Got (almond) milk? Books, movies, politics, culture, and AGRIganda” by clicking here.

Excerpt: “Regarding BUT HAVE YOU READ THE BOOK jazz, my mother ALWAYS asked that question. Guess what? She very seldom had actually read the books herself; I preferred to write my book reports based on the more enjoyable movie versions!”


Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Shaggy dog biting the hand that feeds: Randy Newman at The Palladium in Carmel, Indiana

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

The first concert I ever attended (at least that I remember) was when my parents took this eighth grader to see Bobby McFerrin at the much-vaunted Holidome in Crown Point, Indiana. Just take a moment and let that sentence settle in … and try to contain your envy. Yes, some kids in the late 80s went to see Madonna or Aerosmith or MC Hammer or New Kids on the Block, but for me it was Bobby McFerrin all the way. And this was before “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” So there.

The show was in the round, with just McFerrin and maybe a piano. I can’t recall. But with his phenomenal, otherworldly musicality, he rattled (largely acapella) through two hours of amazing numbers, not to mention his complete re-creation of the entire film The Wizard of Oz, including that iconic “I’m melting!” bit.

Flash forward, nearly 30 years (sigh), and I find myself yet again riding along in the backseat of my parents’ car, on our way to see another Baby Boomer mainstay Randy Newman, this time in Indianapolis. Nothing takes you back to the feeling of being a child like riding in the backseat of your parents’ car on a long car trip – that intoxicating mix of comfort and powerlessness as you cruise down the road listening to the squabbling and the laughter, to music you don’t recognize and familial history references you do. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.



So it is with this context that we took in Newman’s concert at Carmel, Indiana’s palatial music hall, the Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts. Such a musical hall Indiana has never before seen – a concert venue that looks like it was designed by M.C. Escher, if overdosed with Benzedrine by Liberace’s hairdresser, after visiting the Palace of Versailles or Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.” It really is beautiful and strange, with a byzantine entrance and egress system that made me feel like I was playing Milton Bradley’s Mousetrap.

However, there isn’t a bad seat in the house (nor a reasonably priced one), with Phantom of the Opera-esque box seats at every turn, polished cherry and marble floors, phenomenal acoustics and lighting, and super-cushy chairs.

As we sat there taking in the opulence, Newman lumbered on stage, after a loving introduction by Michael Feinstein himself. You see, Feinstein, a Columbus, Ohio native, helped get the Center established five or so years ago, alongside his husband Terrence Flannery, as a permanent monument to the Great American Songbook and to our musical theater traditions. The space also houses The Great American Songbook Foundation, which is very much worth visiting if you have some time to spare before a show there. They are great about arranging tours.

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

For over two hours, it was just Newman, his piano, and a very responsive audience. Newman isn’t quite the showman that McFerrin was/is – likely an unfair comparison since they’re such different artists, and I am judging them across a divide of 30 years. Ah well.

But what Newman lacked in showmanship, he made up in shaggy charm. He would periodically play wrong notes, stop, look up at the audience, shake his head, and say things like, “I never was a very good pianist.” Then, he would dive back into plunking out notes for many of his signature songs like “I Love L.A.,” “Short People,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”

A highlight for me was his performance of “Love Story (You and Me),” a Newman tune covered previously by artists as diverse as Harry Nilsson, Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte. The song is a poignant charmer and has not aged a bit. Newman delivered it with aplomb, his frogs-and-molasses voice the perfect accent to the song’s lilting, loping melody.

Newman peppered his set-list, which pretty much seemed made up as he went along, with anecdotes about his life as a child of Los Angeles, as a child of the 60s, and as a child of a movie soundtrack dynasty (he is the nephew of acclaimed film composers Alfred and Lionel Newman and the cousin of Thomas Newman). The casual vibe he affected was on the whole delightful, though a bit more preparation and variety would have benefited the slow-going second act.

An artist of Newman’s caliber with such an accomplished history in pop, theater, and movie music is pretty much just going to do whatever the hell he wants, so that’s just fine. It is unlikely he will come this way again, so we are grateful we got the chance to see him.

Newman at piano

Newman at piano

I never realized just how many songs the man has written about cities and/or states: Baltimore, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Louisiana. And he performed them all. They follow a similar formula, with snarky verses that alternate with hypnotic repetition of said geography’s name. He worked in a wink and a nod to his Hoosier hosts, noodling through “On the Banks of the Wabash” and “Back Home Again in Indiana,” at one point looking around the beautiful Palladium and cheekily observing, “What a dump.”

His show was riddled with his caustic takes on religion and politics, government and capitalism. That was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise conservative community, so I’m sure a few spiky letters to the editor will arrive at the Indianapolis Star this week.

Yet, if he had really wanted to drive a stake through the heartland, he should have played one of my personal favorites, his theme “That’ll Do” from Babe: Pig in the City. While originally sung by Peter Gabriel, their voices are rather interchangeable at this point, so I think Newman delivering this subtle ode to kindness and to compassion and, well, to pigs would have been the perfect punctuation mark on his performance in factory farming Indiana (sad example here). We thought about shouting the title “That’ll Do” (like some rowdy concert-goers shouted “Free Bird” when I saw Tracy Chapman at the Wabash College Chapel years ago), but then we realized he might misunderstand, think we were telling him he was done for the evening, and then walk off stage.

Newman, ever the iconoclast, also worked in his shots at corporate giant Disney, letting us know in no uncertain terms, that while he has appreciated the opportunity, he hasn’t always been thrilled with the artistic limitations imposed. In a funnier bit, he commented how frustrating it is to score something such as a toy soldier falling into a drawer, adding that there is a good 20 minutes of Toy Story he’s never seen, because that particular section didn’t require any musical scoring. He then launched into a fine rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” one of the sharpest musical moments of the evening. Again, I wouldn’t have minded hearing a slightly more obscure tune from the Toy Story saga, the beautiful and heartbreaking “When She Loved Me” (originally sung by Sarah McLachlan and written by Newman).

I guess it is a sign that I am more of a fan than I knew, having left the show enjoying what I heard but wishing for more songs than time had allowed.

Feinstein and Sexton

Feinstein and Sexton

As a final note, we realized after the show was over, that we had been seated in a box next to Michael Feinstein and his family and some potentially uber-wealthy donors. No doubt we probably would have been a bit better behaved had we known this – not putting our feet on the backs of chairs, nor taking flash photos, nor snapping our chewing gum. We are so classy. Regardless, after he finished schmoozing Daddy Warbucks and Co., Feinstein was kind and gracious enough to take a photo with us and to chat for a bit, though I suspect the cleaning crew was dispatched to our vacated box immediately.

Do take a moment to check out Feinstein’s Foundation and the great work they’re doing there, and if you feel like sending a donation to preserve our musical history and keep art alive, I’m sure it would be appreciated. If you find yourself in Indianapolis, definitely stop by for a visit or show. It’s worth it!


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.

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.

There is nothin’ like a dame…who deserves a better movie: Philomena

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Is it strange that I prefer my Judi Dench (DAME Judi Dench, if you’re nasty) shaken and not stirred? I wish they hadn’t killed her off last year in Skyfall so I could anticipate her next round of icily maternal spy-mastering and forget the dreck that is Philomena.

OK, this British tragicomic trifle isn’t that bad but it ain’t that good either.

I had high hopes for this one as I always enjoy Dench (she could read the phone book for all I care) as, unlike some UK thespians, she cuts through the pretense and offers her perfect cadence, crisp diction, and profound stares in an earthy and relatable way.

Pairing her with the reliably wry and delightful Steve Coogan (see: Hamlet 2 … no, really, see Hamlet 2 … right now!) seems inspired. And, while I’m not much a fan of director Stephen Frears – whose movies just seem scruffily overwrought to me, The Queen notwithstanding – he is a workmanlike director whom I assumed would be wise enough to just wind his actors up and start the cameras rolling.

All that said, Dench and Coogan are just fine, but the script is sorely lacking. This would have been a marvelous hour-long holiday special teleplay on Masterpiece Theatre or something, but as a nearly 2-hour film, the thin material is stretched to its breaking point. Dench and Coogan look quite bored for about a third of the film, to be honest – and so was I.

The plot, as it is, concerns a young girl in 1950s Ireland who finds herself “in the family way” as they say and is slapped in a nunnery to have the child, endure assorted abuses, do a lot of the nuns’ laundry (yeah…really), and then have her toddler torn from her arms and sent to America to live with a wealthy couple. Flash forward to the present, said toddler now would be 50 years old, and Dench is hellbent to find him and finally meet him, with the assistance of recently “sacked” journalist Coogan.

This sets up what is arguably the dullest road trip on film. (I kept hoping for them to cross paths with The Guilt Trip‘s much funnier though critically maligned duo Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, but, alas, no.) Coogan and Dench go to America, have some funny exchanges on the back of an airport go-cart thing, have some more fish-out-of-water interactions at the hotel omelette station, and then find her son … via the INTERNET (?!?!). They couldn’t have accomplished that remaining in merry old England?

Then they episodically interview a number of folks with whom her son had interacted over the years, get some sad news (which I won’t spoil), chase down some more people, and then race back to England for a throw down with the nuns who treated Dench so shabbily. THAT last part I enjoyed, and it’s the moment when Coogan finally comes alive with that wild-eyed, exasperated, ticked off Brit thing he does so well.

The movie traffics in a few horrendous mid-90s cliches and attempts to say some deep things about gender, age, class, and faith, but it all comes off as a pencil sketch of a movie that could have been so much more.

I did very much enjoy the movie’s point of view that the intent and the reality of organized religion couldn’t be farther from one another, yet there was nothing groundbreaking nor bold in the telling. Cruel and hypocritical people use the umbrella of the church to get their jollies doing cruel and hypocritical things in the name of “morality.” Irritates the living daylights out of me but I would rather watch a movie tackle that pernicious issue in a stronger, more confident manner.

I seem to be saying this a lot lately, but these actors deserve a much better film. You can plaster “based on a true story” on any flick, but, if the proceedings aren’t compelling, well-written, or thoughtful, you may as well just pick up a copy of Reader’s Digest and save yourself a trip to the theatre.

“Pray for the best; prepare for the worst” – Prisoners

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In post-9/11 America, paranoia and violence, xenophobia and religion have become a toxic brew. It is in these murky waters that the new film Prisoners trucks.

The movie is directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve who shows a surprising level of fair-mindedness for our nation’s current warts-and-all rugged surburban survivalism. The atmosphere is overcast and thick, defined smartly by the bleak Midwestern weather that typically blankets the Thanksgiving holiday.

Even that choice is symbolic – for what are we truly thankful anymore when real (or imagined) bogeymen lurk around every corner … and we are armed to the teeth to shoot them (as well as any neighbors who get caught in the crossfire)?

I can’t even begin to summarize the mobius strip of a plot in the limited space here. (That’s what Wikipedia is for, after all!) The long and the short of it is that two families  – one deer-hunting, Jesus-loving, stranger-phobic and the other yuppified, highly-educated, inclusive – venture across their tract home lawns to break bread on Thanksgiving only to find the young daughters of each brood seemingly vanish into thin air.

The prime suspect is RV-driving, greasy-haired, 80s-glasses-wearing Boo Radley-in-training Paul Dano (a mumble-mouthed marvel). And, as you have no doubt gathered from the trailers, hot-headed Hugh Jackman, for whose character violence is a deep-seated expression of his faith, abducts the supposed kidnapper and brutally tries to “Gitmo” the truth out of him.

The sad reality – and the film’s ultimate revelation – is that there is no black and white “truth,” in even the most horrific of circumstances, and violence only begets … well … more violence. I won’t spoil the “fun” as it were, but there are surprises (but blessedly not M. Night Shyamalan-style SHOCKS!) aplenty. The twists are all logical and integral to the plot, leaving the viewer with the perspective that if only the characters, in their rush-to-CNN/Fox-News-judgment, had slowed down for just one minute, they would have seen the real picture much sooner.

The film is a series of muted grays – visually and emotionally. Just when you feel certain in your philosophical alignment with one character (say, Jackman’s righteously raging papa) or another (say, Jake Gyllenhaal’s “facts will set you free” police detective), the story – like life – ebbs and flows and leaves you questioning your … faith.

At times, the film is a bit obviously symbolic in the way early Hitchcock could be: rain = sadness and torment, frost and snow = frustration, children = innocence lost, plaid = middle class. Yet, there is also extraordinarily complex thematic work here that I will be mulling for days.

Most notably, at the heart of the film, there is a jigsaw puzzle of faith and disillusionment and self-determination. The mantra “pray for the best; prepare for the worst” gets repeated at least a half dozen times by Jackman and occasionally by Gyllenhaal. The irony is (without ruining the film) that all of Jackman’s prayer and preparations actually make things worse while Gyllenhaal’s agnostic “slow and steady wins the race” approach proves (arguably) best in the end.

This is a mightily powerful film, extremely well acted. The powerhouse cast also includes Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard (who brought me to tears for some reason nearly every time he was onscreen), Len Cariou, and an especially crackerjack Melissa Leo (about whom I potentially could write another entire entry but only by completely spoiling the intricate plot).

I don’t know how I will feel about this film tomorrow or next week or next month (my parents who viewed it Friday warned me about that) but I am so glad I saw it. I suspect this film will become a dark and unsettling touchstone for our era, and I hope one that will cause those brave few among us to question their deeply ingrained assumptions/prejudices about their fellow man.

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

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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.