“My lack of success is self-imposed.” Roman J. Israel, Esq.

When you are driving home after a movie (albeit loaded up on carbs and sodium from this insane food we Americans insist on eating at Thanksgiving) and you as a family are discussing how you would rewrite the script, chances are the film fails to fulfill its own potential. Such is the case with Denzel Washington’s latest Roman J. Israel, Esq. (If that title alone doesn’t warn you that you are in for an overreaching quirkfest, nothing will.)

Directed by Dan Gilroy, who helmed the far superior Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal, the movie tries to be too many things.

Is it a film – taking a cue from Melville’s classic short story Bartleby the Scrivener (kudos to my mom for reminding me of that piece) – wherein one person’s singular and single-minded belief system magically transforms all who come in contact with said person? This could be a genre unto itself – think: Erin Brockovich, The Pursuit of Happyness, Forrest Gump, Being There, Rain Main, To Wong Foo. Sometimes the tale ends tragically, often not, but just about every time, someone in the film walks away with an Oscar.

Or is Roman J. Israel, Esq. an allegorical cautionary tale of the dire consequences of material temptation – a Hitchcockian cat-and-mouse, sweaty-palmed, walls-closing-in thriller depicting a poor schlub caught with his hand in the cookie jar, thinking he’d finally “made it big”?

Or is the flick just another soap opera set in the paradoxical world of the American legal system, where nobility and opportunism make strange bedfellows?

Any ONE of those films would have been fine, particularly given the great character work Washington delivers as a sensitive yet obtuse attorney with a database-like brain, a penchant for keeping all written records on index cards, a fixation on jazz music, and a lion’s heart for civil rights and human equality. Washington’s Israel has been the back-office partner for a two-man law firm in Los Angeles, and, when the face of the practice is felled by a heart attack, Israel finds himself unemployed.

As in Nightcrawler, director Gilroy’s Los Angeles is a concrete jungle of oppression and temptation (photographed perhaps a bit too exquisitely). Israel offers his services first to an ACLU-like organization helmed by Carmen Ejogo’s Maya, but finds that the volunteer organization has neither the money nor the appreciation for what his generation has brought to the movement.

Israel ends up in a Faustian contract with Colin Farrell’s George Pierce who runs a criminal defense firm, a man more interested in the pricing model depicted in his slick brochures than in the rights of his hardscrabble clientele.

Israel’s sweet self-righteousness quickly is subsumed by the earthly pleasures of a regular paycheck, and when he finds himself using privileged information to gain a bounteous reward for the capture of an alleged murderer, his world spirals downward.

Yet, everyone who meets Israel transforms into a better human for some inexplicable reason, including Farrell’s character whose 180 degree turn gives the audience whiplash. As Israel’s world devolves, the other characters get religion (metaphorically speaking), but the film presents little compelling evidence as to why.

Oh, and all of this happens over just a three week period. Whew.

I wanted to love this move and to be moved by its message that “purity can’t survive in this world.” In fact, the movie is filled with bon mots like that: “my lack of success is self-imposed,” “hope don’t get the job done,” “each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” “gang sign? like that flag pin on your lapel?” That may be its biggest problem. It’s a movie of bon mots, adding up ultimately to not very much more than a big budget Hallmark Hall of Fame that fancies itself an expose of the seamy gonna-get-mine underbelly of modern Los Angeles. That’s a shame.

Whereas Nightcrawler was a gut punch to the Horatio Alger myth that underpins Americans’ preoccupation with sparkling capitalism, Roman J. Israel, Esq. fails to deliver a similar blow to the endemic racism and deal-making that undermines our faith in the criminal justice system. That movie has yet to be made. Let’s try less quirk next time.

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.

Wilde Awards 2017: If only I had Wink Martindale’s career …


Well, the 2017 Wilde Awards Ceremony is in the history books. And a truly special night celebrating the best of Michigan theatre is over … for another 365 days.

As a kid, I was obsessed with game shows and awards ceremonies, so to suggest that co-hosting last night with EncoreMichigan’s David Kiley was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream is no hyperbole. And more than a little dorky. If only I had Wink Martindale’s career.

I was humbled to be amongst such theatrical and critical talent last night, and to see so many personal friends receive well-deserved recognition last night affirmed that good people who work hard do earn the spoils. And my buddies still spoke to me after the show was over. #winning

Full list of winners and additional coverage here.



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

Encore Michigan photos by Richard Rupp

 

“It’s called the Reign of Terror, not the Reign of Agree-to-Disagree.” Theatre Nova’s Michigan premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists

K. Edmonds and Melissa Beckwith; Diane Hill in foreground. [Photo from Theatre Nova’s Facebook page.]

“Sigh. Gasp. Retort. Sometimes I say them, instead of doing them.”  – The Revolutionists’ Marie Antoinette (a sparkling, scene-stealing anarchic aristocrat in the delightfully daffy hands of Melissa Beckwith)

 

In a genius bit of cross-promotion, the Huron Valley Humane Society (which is as much animal advocacy organization as top rate animal shelter) partnered with Theatre Nova to hold (on August 24) a benefit preview of Theatre Nova’s latest offering The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson – a play as much about finding your voice in collaboration and commiseration with like-minded individuals facing the same wall of apathy, antipathy, and alienation as it is a time-bound period piece exploring the exigencies of the French Revolution.

(Needless to say, the packed house of Greater Ann Arbor animal advocates left the theatre fired up, galvanized, and inspired.)

Yours truly, Penny Yohn, and Kim Elizabeth Johnson enjoying the pre-show reception

Like Clutter, another entry this season at Theatre Nova, The Revolutionists is both memory play and call-to-action with a nice slathering of meta-absurdity across its surface. Playwright Gunderson brings together four women (some historical figures, some composites) in one small room at the height of France’s Reign of Terror to discuss their truths, their narratives, their plights as free-thinking women in a society that seeks revolution and equity but not when it comes to the distaff side of society. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Literally. (Bernie Bros, anyone? Too soon?)

The aforementioned Marie Antoinette, Caribbean revolutionary Marianne Angelle (a grounded, heartbreaking, and damn funny K. Edmonds), and Jean-Paul Marat’s assassin Charlotte Corday (a fiery, spiky, compelling Sara Rose) find themselves in the chambers of playwright Olympe De Gouges (a fabulously neurotic Diane Hill … channeling just a hint of Hillary’s steely resolve?), seeking a writer to help them finish their stories. It is unlikely that these women would have ever interacted IRL (“in real life,” as the kids say), but Gunderson has great fun imagining what might have transpired. For example, she rehabilitates and humanizes Antoinette as a 1% victim of misunderstood and misrepresented intention (the heroine of Stephen Schwartz’ classic ditty “Meadowlark” if played by Carol Kane), never quite letting her off the hook for her tone-deaf excess. It’s a marvelous hat trick, aided and abetted by Beckwith’s revelatory performance.

Director David Wolber has stacked the deck with a to-die-for cast (in fact, most of them do meet the guillotine at some point – or multiple points – during the show), and he wisely let’s them run like hell with their roles, shaping and pacing the narrative for maximum funny and maximum heartache.

K. Edmonds and Sara Rose [Photo from Theatre Nova’s Facebook page]

The challenges facing these women in 1793 aren’t terribly different from those facing women in 2017, and that’s a damn shame. The language is purposefully anachronistic, and Wolber’s staging – coupled with the dreamlike design of Daniel C. Walker (lighting), Carla Milarch (sound … seriously, download right now the equally anachronistic, breathtaking pop songs by French group L.E.J. which are used interstitially and at intermission), and Forrest Hejkal (set, costumes, props, hair) – smartly positions the play as an allegorical comic nightmare, cautioning us that history sure as hell repeats itself. As Cordray warns her compatriots at a moment when they seem to be sliding into fearful ambivalence and losing their collective moral compass, “It’s called the Reign of Terror, not the Reign of Agree-to-Disagree.” Touché.

The Revolutionists runs at Theatre Nova through September 17. Don’t miss it. Tickets at www.TheatreNOVA.org

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Yours truly with Kim Elizabeth Johnson

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

“Don’t be afraid to give a compliment.” Mary J. Blige’s Strength of a Woman Tour at Michigan Lottery/Freedom Hill Amphitheater 


Twenty-five years ago, a goofy white kid, a freshman at Wabash College (me) walked into a Target store in Crawfordsville, Indiana and took a look at the cover of Mary J Blige’s now-iconic What’s the 411? debut album and thought, “THAT looks interesting!” instantly buying it and listening to it on repeat ever since.

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In fact, the album was more than interesting. It was a revelation. Other generations had Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner as a soulful voice that crossed R&B and pop and rock boundaries to express a deep-seated pain over an intolerant and misogynistic world. My generation has Blige. She was to hip hop what Kurt Cobain was to rock, a disaffected iconoclast gleefully turning Top 40 convention on its collective ear.

Two and a half decades later, I finally had the opportunity to see Blige live – at the Michigan Lottery/Freedom Hill amphitheater. (By the way, this is a marvelous venue, with nary a poor sight line and a fantastic array of amenities.)


Blige put on a killer show. As you can imagine, she “leaves everything on the field,” as sports pundits are prone to say. The show highlighted all of the hits, from her debut album through equally landmark LPs My Life and Share My World, on to her latest offering Strength of a Woman, also the title of this tour.

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The set design was minimal, with some fun digital projections recounting the looks and styles of her storied career, and her remarkably tight backing band knew just when to get out of the way of her freight train of a voice.

If there was a theme to the evening, it was that women survive and thrive despite the pain and duresss of a society stacked against them.  Blige has been famously unlucky in love, and she isn’t afraid to throw shade at any man in the audience who views women as a disposable commodity. One of her fieriest moments was recent album cut “Special Place in Hell,” dedicated to all the swaggering, self-absorbed cowboys out there. And, unsurprisingly, classic feminist anthems like “Not Gon’ Cry,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” and “My Life” were delivered with a fiery urgency that kept them as fresh and timely as the day they were recorded.

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Blige’s opening act, Destiny’s Child alum LeToya Luckett, carried a similar thene through her set list. While Luckett lacked the visceral authenticity of the show’s headliner, she landed her musical critique of a society that fails to honor its women. As she observed, “Don’t be afraid to give a compliment…must be something insecure about you if you can’t.”


Well, I am not afraid to give credit where credit is due. And tonight’s performance was a scorcher. Do not miss this tour if it passes your way.


Thanks to the venue’s Tina Genitti for being the consummate host this evening. My friend Aaron Latham and I had a remarkable time!

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

“If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” Baby Driver

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Increasingly, we seem like a society of hermits, coexisting in our own separate little digital bubbles – a self-enforced solitude sparked either by anxiety or exhaustion or a combination thereof. We interact with each other via screens and emojis and Snapchat filters and snarky GIFs … but we never truly connect.

Maybe I’m just a cranky old man, but I’m fascinated and annoyed by how many people I see grocery shopping, commuting, eating lunch, and so on without ever removing their ubiquitous iPhone earbuds, as if the most mundane activities must all be accompanied by one’s own personal soundtrack or as if to signify to any and all passers-by, “I am not someone who wants to speak to you, to interact with you, or to acknowledge your existence.”

And it is with this conceit that Baby Driver, the latest opus from gonzo director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, World’s End), turns the genres of both the movie musical and the car chase thriller on their respective ears. Literally.

In the titular role of “Baby,” Ansel Elgort (The Fault In Our Stars, Divergent, Carrie) takes full advantage of his pouty good looks – which veer from insolence to wonderment and back again – and of his overgrown puppy dog 6’4″ frame to portray a Millennial whose tortured childhood has led him to a life of a crime as the supremely gifted getaway driver for a smooth-talking, Teflon-coated Atlanta crime boss (a delightfully Yuppified Kevin Spacey).

You see, Baby suffers from tinnitus, acquired as a wee lad in a horrific car accident when his squabbling parents squabbled just a bit too much and neglected to see they were about to ram into the back of a semi. And music – as supplied by a suitcase full of old iPods – is the only thing that soothes his ringing ears (and aching heart).

Furthermore, his love of vintage pop, rock, and jazz helps him escape the personal horror that is chauffeuring Spacey’s gang of sociopaths, which includes a magnificently bonkers Jon Hamm (Million Dollar ArmMad Men) and a less magnificently/more annoyingly bonkers Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained, Annie), from heist to heist. Baby, as portrayed in a star-making turn by Elgort, is nearly mute (by choice) and rarely removes his headphones (nor his sunglasses) which irritates just about every Gen Xer/Baby Boomer in his immediate orbit.

What aggravates them even further is that, shielded as he is in his own little tune-filled universe, he is savvier, is a more skilled driver, and is more in command of the details in his environment than all of Spacey’s goons put together. It’s a sly commentary on the evolution/devolution we see generationally in America today.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Similar to Bjork’s Selma in Lars von Trier’s brilliant Dancer in the Dark, Baby’s world is a seamless auditory marvel as day-to-day sounds and movements morph into musical cues he hears through his headphones and vice versa. The car chases (aplenty) are all choreographed to the tunes in Baby’s head, often to the chagrin – and bodily harm – of his passengers. (Baby even turns on windshield wipers in time to the music, when there isn’t a drop of precipitation in the sky.)

The novelty of Baby Driver is in Wright’s direction and staging, if not so much in the plot itself. Perhaps predictably, Baby is a gangsta with a heart of gold, saving what cash he can from his jobs to care for his deaf foster father (portrayed with great affection by CJ Jones) who is confined to a wheelchair. As cloying as that plot detail sounds, it actually is quite affecting and grounds the movie nicely. Baby meets cute with a sunny waitress named Debora, portrayed by a luminous Lily James (Cinderella), and, in turn, Baby plots his (of course) doomed escape from a life of crime.

Things don’t go easily for Baby (nor should they), and the film’s final act gets a bit too bloody for its own good. As a Dolly Parton-quoting postal worker foreshadows to Baby when, unbeknownst to her, he is casing her workplace for an upcoming robbery, “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”

Nonetheless, Baby Driver is a high-octane summer blast, with choreography that would make Gene Kelly swoon (albeit involving a rogues’ gallery of classic cars and rat-a-tat machine guns) and with a soundtrack to die for. Any film that manages to incorporate Blur’s quirky “Intermission” into an ominous set-piece, that can use Dave Brubek’s “Unsquare Dance” to make a routine coffee run seem Fosse-esque,  and that can find a way of making Young MC seem hip again is ok in my book.

It’s only a shame that Wright didn’t just go ahead and have his thugs burst into outright song – I mean he has hammy-a$$ singers Spacey, Foxx, and Elgort, not to mention Paul Williams (!) in his cast. At times, Baby Driver seems like more of a musical than La La Land did. Maybe a movie mash-up of Guys and Dolls and The Fast and the Furious is next on Wright’s cinematic agenda. If so, I’ll be there.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

Ann Arbor Summer Festival: Colin Mochrie & Brad Sherwood – Scared Scriptless Tour

Like the old E.F. Hutton commercials, when Rebecca Biber speaks, everybody listens. Or, more appropriately, when my musically gifted pal Rebecca Biber invites you to attend a local arts and culture event, you go because she has lovely, free-thinking, quirky taste that is always spot on.

Rebecca and I bonded over the years, performing together in a number of local productions, but our friendship has transcended the generally ephemeral “summer camp” nature of most casts (“I’ll write you! I promise! We’ll be best friends foreeeeeverrrrr!!”). She’s even contributed a time or two to this blog right here … when she thought my take on a particular film might have been a bit misguided. Now, that‘s a strong friendship.

So, per Rebecca’s recommendation, off we went arm-in-arm this past Saturday night to Ann Arbor’s Power Center to view an Ann Arbor Summer Fest performance by improv comics Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood. The duo is arguably best known for their work on ABC’s comedy game show Whose Line Is It Anyway? hosted by Drew Carey, adapted from the original BBC series, and running from the late 90s through the early 00s. The show was recently revived … yet again … on the CW, with Aisha Tyler as its host and many of the same cast members.

[Dropping some knowledge, courtesy of Wikipedia: “The title of the show itself is a comedic riposte to another radio show that moved to television, What’s My Line, merged with the title of a 1972 teleplay (and eventual theatrical play) Whose Life Is It Anyway?“]

Confessional: I don’t much care for improv comedy. It always seems rather half-a**ed and much funnier to the performers than it is to the audience, like observing self-indulgent, marginally witty children sweatily play in the backyard. I also rarely watched the tv show in any of its incarnations, though, admittedly, when I did, I thought the performers displayed an impish sparkle and zany glee that transcended any quibbles I had with the genre.

I’m happy to report, that, on the whole, Rebecca’s recommendation as well as my heretofore superficial appreciation of the Whose Line cast were validated by Saturday’s show.

Mochrie and Sherwood’s “Scared Scriptless” (cute name) show runs a brisk 90 minutes. (The older I get, sometimes, that is the only selling point I need.) It is a warmly, lovingly shaggy mess of around half a dozen “improv games” (don’t worry – that phrase usually turns by blood to water too) that involve audience members, both onstage and through solicited topics/suggestions.

As I understand, many of these games were also played as part of the TV program, so longtime fans will be greatly rewarded by “sound effects” (two audience members supply silly noises in audio accompaniment to the onstage shenanigans), “confessional” (wherein Sherwood has to confess to a fictitious crime by guessing via a series of increasingly absurd clues what Mad Libs-style topics the audience has given Mochrie), and “puppets” (whereby two audience members maneuver Mochrie and Sherwood about the stage in reaction to their Looney Tunes repartee). It is a testament to the duo, who have been touring for fourteen years, that these exercises remained fresh and joy-filled. Sherwood particularly seemed to take great delight in the audience interaction and the comedic challenges placed before him, say, when he and Mochrie were forced to traverse blind-folded and barefooted across a mouse-trap strewn stage telling a story where each of their exchanged lines had to begin with a subsequent letter of the alphabet.

My favorite segment, though, involved Sherwood and Mochrie inventing lyrics to a randomly selected popular tune within the context of a particular scenario (for some reason they lived in a place called “Needlepoint Land,” but them’s-the-nonsensical-breaks with improv). Mochrie ably demonstrated that he is no songsmith, but Sherwood was a revelation, with a strong musical comedy voice and a jaw-dropping ability to invent clever, bizarre, and authentically funny rhyming lyrics on-the-spot. Loved. That.

If these sweet-natured, good-hearted improv clowns find their way to a town near you, give them a shot. Sit in the balcony, as we did, if you want to avoid getting yanked onstage and being forced to honk like a goose or to sing a Beatles ditty. Oh, and if Rebecca Biber suggests you check out a certain entertainer or show, go do it. You won’t be sorry!

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Save The Date! August 28 at West Bloomfield’s Berman Center for the Performing Arts: Encore Michigan’s 2017 Wilde Awards will celebrate the best and brightest that Michigan theatre has to offer!  “Publisher David Francis Kiley and actor Roy Sexton will co-host the award show.” Yeah. You read that correctly. Heaven help us all. More info here.

“We had another remarkable season of wonderful performances, new scripts, touring shows, and it all makes the voting extremely difficult,” says Kiley. “It’s difficult every year, and there is a lot of debate among the critics after we have scored each show that we review for technical and artistic expression. … There are going to be many improvements to the show. The entertainment is going to knock people’s socks off, and the award show aspect is going to nip along at a faster pace. We are making sure there is more adequate bar service, which was a bit of a problem in 2016. This is going to be a show that not only the industry is going to want to come to, but theater lovers. It’s going to be a fun, fun night.”

And, if all else fails, apparently there will be better bar service. 🙂

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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.

“You view the world through a keyhole.” Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“You view the world through a keyhole,” intones an  eyebrow-less (and bald) Tilda Swinton (Trainwreck), as the Ancient One – yet another in her long-line of eyebrow-less fortune cookie-philosophizing androgyne Yoda-lite characters – in Marvel Studios’ latest offering Doctor Strange.

Let’s face it, her synthetic ethereality is a lock for movies like this. How she isn’t sitting beside Stan Lee (on a bus, in a plane, on a boat, in a car) for every single one of his corny, ubiquitous cameos in these Marvel flicks is beyond me.

The recipient of her philosophical guidance in the film is one Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, August: Osage County, The Fifth Estate, Star Trek Into Darkness), every bit her interplanetary match in the wide-eyed, chiseled-cheek-boned, glacial-foreheaded race for cinematic space alien beauty. Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, an egomaniac neurosurgeon whose egomania is totally justified by his remarkable skills in the operating room. Cumberbatch’s Strange wisely takes a page or two from the Robert Downey, Jr./Tony Stark “charming spoiled cad” playbook, layering in a welcome dollop or two of dyspepsia, contempt, and petulance.

As in any fairy tale … er … Marvel movie, our hero has a tragic flaw: Strange is a jerk.

  • He’s punished for it:  while driving his fancy sports car like an entitled and distracted prat, Strange finds his elegant surgeon hands crunched to paste in a grinding car accident.
  • He seeks redemption: under the tutelage of Swinton’s Ancient One, he learns some gobbledygook about not letting fear hold one back, realizing that what gets one here won’t get one there, and identifying who might have moved one’s cheese … or something that sounded vaguely like the counsel of a bad business self-help book one might be forced to read in an MBA class.
  • AND, voila!, he gains magical superpowers (plus, a nifty cape that behaves a bit like the mischievous, yet helpful, mice in Cinderella).

It’s all great fun with just the right touch of solemnity – the latter, no doubt, chiefly a contribution of the one-note, award-winning Brit gravitas that Swinton and Cumberbatch bring to everything they do. Director Scott Derrickson has cast the film exceedingly well. We also have Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) as Strange’s medical peer, confidante, and, yes, sometimes girlfriend (we can’t have everything). McAdams brings spark and wit, fire and intelligence, elevating Strange’s backstory in a compelling and heartfelt way. Mads Mikkelson (who seems consigned to always have black or bloody tears emanating from his unearthly peepers – see: LeChiffre in Casino Royale) is capably understated as Strange’s villainous foil Kaecilius. Benedict Wong (The Martian) delivers wry comic timing as Strange’s tutor/librarian/sidekick Wong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) successfully counterbalances Wong with ambivalent notes of resentful admiration toward Strange as friend/rival Mordo, foreshadowing intriguing future conflict.

Strange is visually sumptuous, taking the MC Escher stylings of Inception or Interstellar, losing the ponderous Christopher Nolan self-righteous self-aggrandizement, and amping up the kaleidoscopic fun. Skyscraper-lined city blocks fold upon themselves like origami; mirror images bend and twist and deceive; entire galaxies devolve into motes of dust. This movie is trippy, playfully updating, for the Millennial crowd, gonzo artist Steve Ditko’s 1960s psychedelic visuals of Doctor Strange’s original four-color adventures. Like Marvel’s recent Ant-Man, Doctor Strange succeeds by embracing the free-wheeling whimsy in its source material, but grounding the proceedings (and its audience) in our common humanity and the very real consequences of our bad judgment.

I have a confession to make. For the past month or maybe longer, I have not much felt like writing. Or had much interest in seeing movies for that matter. The results of our recent election (not to my liking) have thrown me for a bit of a loop. Additionally (and from a completely selfish perspective), in the past few weeks, I’ve had some heartbreak in my theatre life, we have had some of the mind-numbing/back-breaking “Money Pit” unforeseen distractions that all of us share as middle-aged homeowners, and I find myself looking down the barrel of an impending holiday season that (any more) seems to bring more mania than holly jolly.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yet, I keep thinking about that line from Swinton’s Ancient One character. Albeit cliched, the line is spot on (as cliches often are): we do view the world through a keyhole, a self-constructed self-pitying sliver of perspective, forcing us to lose the moment and live out-of-sync with our loved ones, with our surroundings, and with ourselves. That is the magic of loud, plastic, silly, allegorical movies like this. Every fable has its very important lesson, and we should never be too old to listen.

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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.

 

“Life is about putting it out there … and then swatting it away.” Sisters (2015)

Sisters_movie_poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s latest movie yukfest Sisters is more of a yuckfest. Ever since the seismic arrival of Kristin Wiig’s Bridesmaids, Hollywood has been smitten with this arguably unremarkable, though infinitely profitable, thesis: “Hey, women can be raunchy too!”

Yup, anybody can act like an 8th grader, regardless of one’s gender. The problem is that notion, in and of itself, is just not terribly interesting and, for anyone over 40 in the audience, can just seem kinda sad.

People forget that Bridesmaids and subsequent films like Anna Kendrick’s Pitch Perfect (the first one), Melissa McCarthy’s Spy, or Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck embraced debauchery with an anarchist’s glee and a feminist’s humanism. These films suggest that the great equalizer – across any number of markers: race, age, socioeconomics, faith, ethnicity, and, yes, gender – is our fundamentally base nature alongside our desire and ability to rise from the muck occasionally and do something kind or profound or, well, witty. You can poop in a sink, but you better make it matter.

Tina Fey’s Mean Girls was an early blueprint for these flicks, a sharp-edged, warm-hearted comic bottle rocket of a film in which gender meant everything and nothing, depicting the killing fields of the high school cafeteria where reductive reasoning and shallow judgment form the principle power currency. It’s a perfect film because it is a) gut-bustingly funny and b) discomfortingly trenchant.

Unfortunately, Sisters is only intermittently both, and it never fully gels. It has a lazy feel about it, as if old pals Fey and Poehler watched Risky Business and Sixteen Candles over a box of wine and thought it would be a lark to mount a Gen X mash-up tribute with middle-aged burnouts in the central roles.

As ideas go, that’s not the worst (nor freshest) high concept to come down the pike (see Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion), but it sure as heck needed more work before hitting cinemas this past weekend, aspiring as Sisters did to serve as Force Awakens’ counter-programming.

Fey and Poehler play against type as the titular siblings, with Fey as a “brassy” (her words) and hard-partying beautician/single mom and Poehler as a straight-arrow and newly divorced nurse/animal rescuer. Fey exclaims at one point, “Life is all about putting it out there,” to which Poehler mutters, “And then swatting it away.”

The Poehler/Fey dynamic has always been natural and warm if dangerously “in-jokey” – and that is true here as well. They have some sparkling moments, notably as they learn that their parents (a wry and believable Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) have sold the family home and moved to a pastel-hued, swingin’ yuppie condo complex without any warning to either daughter. With the kind of cracked passive aggressive logic that only occurs in movies like this, Fey and Poehler, unbeknownst to their folks, decide to have one last raging blow-out party (with all their former high school cronies) in the old homestead two days before its sale closes.

So, of course, the house gets completely destroyed in a simplistically escalating Rube Goldberg series of party hijinks. The kind of absurd crap that. does. not. happen. in. real. life. Has anyone actually ever witnessed a washing machine fill an entire home and its surrounding yard with copious bubbles because someone poured a whole bottle of detergent in the drum? No.

A rogues’ gallery of SNL and Comedy Central alums puts in appearances, to varying degrees of success. Samantha Bee, Kate McKinnon, Rachel Dratch, and Chris Parnell all suffer from underwritten roles with lame jokes and even worse ad libs. Bobby Moynihan is just plum obnoxiously unfunny as a past-his-prime class clown. The character is supposed to be moronic, but in Moynihan’s hands he is teeth-gratingly so.

Maya Rudolph has a Teflon-like ability to rise above (and rescue) just about any material, and she soars as a suburban doyenne who at first glance seems to be an assured Queen Bee bully but whose inner life is more longstanding adolescent alienation than smug superiority. John Cena continues to surprise with comedic home-runs, after this summer’s Trainwreck, as a stoically cerebral drug dealer with a soft spot for Dirty Dancing. John Leguizamo shows up as a skeezy former high school boyfriend of Fey’s, and, while he is always a welcome presence, his talents seem wasted here. Mad TV‘s Ike Barinholtz gives the movie its sweetness as a bemused potential beau smitten with Poehler’s quirky, self-conscious charms.

The film stumbles toward a resolution that is as forced as it is predictable. Fey’s character has a daughter (a painfully mincing and whiny performance from Madison Davenport) who hates her mother’s arrested development and is forced to couch surf from friend’s house to friend’s house since Fey can’t manage to keep a roof over their heads. The inevitable confrontation of mother and daughter and sister and parents is utterly contrived, borrowing equal bits from an episode of Lassie, Animal House, and The Family Stone.

Ultimately, Poehler fares best in the film, bringing poignant bite and rag doll charm to her role. It’s a shame that she and Fey (with director Jason Moore and screenwriter Paula Pell) couldn’t have worked out a better movie to feature Poehler’s character, focusing less on the shock humor and the messily filmed bacchanalia and more on the tricky web of love and fear shared between siblings, sisters trapped by the hollow promises of high school juvenilia – two emotionally stunted Gen X Americans for whom those scruffy, mixed-up four years of public education are the alpha and omega of intellectual and social development.

Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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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.

 

Still seeking answers: Trumbo (2015)

Trumbo

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This is a strange time, n’est-ce pas? Yet, when you look at human history, has there ever been a moment unblemished by manufactured turmoil, cruelty, prejudice, and hate? I don’t mean to be nihilistic, but I suspect every generation wonders if they are living the “end of days.” And I don’t just mean Justin Bieber’s inexplicable re-ascension to the top of the charts.

Didn’t you have that moment in history class where you were astounded that humanity collectively allowed something blatantly horrific to happen? The holocaust. Slavery. The Salem witch trials.

Or that there were times where we turned our backs and willfully denied the humanity of others? Women’s right to vote. Segregation through the Southland. Marriage equality.

Or that we found wartime justification in the mass slaughter of our fellow beings? Atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hirsoshima. The conflict in Vietnam. Rwandan genocide.

And let’s not forget ongoing issues like the cruelly monolithic factory farming that is driving the climate itself to hourly nervous breakdowns.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Xenophobia runs amok. Religious fanaticism of all stripes rules the day. A paralyzing fear of “the other” (name a category, any category) cripples us. Outright, politicized hatred wrapped in disingenuous, fear-mongering appeals to the gun-loving, Bible-thumping walking dead to fight for their rapidly “eroding” rights. I’ll say it again: one’s loss of cultural hegemony is not an incursion. It’s a re-balancing.

For me, one of the darkest chapters in American history has always been the bureaucratic bullying perpetrated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in overreaction to the so-called “Red Scare” against Communism in the Eisenhower years. This period always troubled me because it seemed to be the most likely to be repeated. We can argue the nobility of governmental intention then, but the march into fearful groupthink was truly “un-American” and continues to be.

Yet, here we are again.

“Are you a good American and not a Communist?” has now become “Are you a good patriot and do you wear a flag on your lapel?” Back then, anyone who had ever had any affiliation or any interest in socialism or Communism was seen as a potential threat to the “Homeland.” Sound familiar? Sometimes, I wonder if Sarah Palin or Rupert Murdoch scribbled into a Mad Libs page on “the ideal American” the words Christian, reactionary, culturally illiterate, gun-loving, white, married with too many children, hunting, climate change denying martyr – and that, if we’re not careful, the wrong people in power will make sure that those of us not fitting into such a narrow paradigm will be marginalized into oblivion.

I used to think we’d learned from the cruel missteps of something like the 50s “blacklist” which, under the auspices of the House Un-American Activities Committee, destroyed the careers and lives of many actors, writers, directors, and other creative types just because they were believed to think differently than the imposed norm. These days, I’m not so sure.

I was hopeful, then, that Trumbo, the new biopic of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo with Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) in the title role, would be a tonic for this troubled age, the kind of film that uses its historical frame to challenge our present-day complacency. It isn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a perfectly fine, workmanlike piece of biographical fluff. It’s a bit troubling, maybe ironic, though, that a film about a sparklingly incisive screenwriter has such a lousy, predictable screenplay, including the now-standard “I’m a famous person who lived a troubled life, and I get to end the film treatment of said existence by making a cliché-laden speech and getting an award” denouement (see: A Beautiful MindThe Theory of Everything).

Cranston, who, to me, is overrated and rather uneven as an actor (sorry, not a Breaking Bad fan), does a credible job and is one of the film’s bright spots. Depicting the act of writing which, at best, is a task of isolation and at worst one of alienation, is not something that translates readily to the beat-driven narrative which film requires. How do you open up someone’s mind with its insecurities and egomania, triumphs and failures, engaged in the solitary exercise of communing with a blank piece of paper and make it interesting? Fortunately, Trumbo had his share of eccentricities – writing from the bathtub to ease an aching back; a mustache that gave Salvador Dali a run for his money; owlish horn-rimmed glasses; chain-smoking from a jeweled cigarette holder – allowing Cranston to play up the actorly tics on his way to finding Trumbo’s spiky inner life.

The film falls on the horns of its own noble intentions, however, depicting a world where Trumbo is the liberal white knight tilting at the windmills of an increasingly conservative Hollywood establishment as represented with fang-gleaming glee by Hedda Hopper (an impishly fun Helen Mirren) and lumbering thuggishness by John Wayne (J.A.G.’s David James Elliott, miscast but weirdly endearing – Elliott doesn’t look a d*mn thing like Wayne, but he gets the silly voice right … sort of … and gives the role a kind of Frankenstein’s monster likability). The performers are having a lark, and, like a zippy Halloween masquerade, they are fun to watch, until you think about the proceedings a bit more than you should. The simplicity with which director Jay Roach (Recount, Game Change, Austin Powers, Meet the Parents, Mystery Alaska) approaches this complex philosophical conflict at the tinny heart of Hollywood commerce is practically chiaroscuro and altogether disappointing. As ridiculous as Hedda Hopper was and as destructive as her caustic PR-meddling may have been, I’m pretty sure she had a bit more nuance than Elvira Gulch.

It’s a shame that the direction and script are so shallow, never rising above TV-movie grade, because the supporting cast offers some great character turns. Louis CK with his “find a cloud for every silver lining” dyspepsia gives some much-needed gravity to the proceedings. He has far too little screen time as the perfect deflation for Trumbo’s hyperbole. The film lazily assumes its audience enters with a common understanding of how horrific the blacklist and its underlying philosophy was (is) and fails to capture the sticky claustrophobia that those victimized by it likely felt. Fortunately, CK with his defeated bearing and hopeful hopelessness grounds the proceedings by establishing the emotional stakes at play.

John Goodman plays, well, the same part he’s played his whole career as a blustering, heart-of-gold purveyor of cinematic filth. And that’s just fine. He can get away with it. He has a unique gift for simultaneously being a pixie and a bag of cement. Alan Tudyk is fine, all wide-eyed, button-downed anxiety as a fellow screenwriter, to whom Trumbo gives the credit for the Oscar-winning Roman Holiday when Trumbo has been all but written-off. Elle Fanning as Trumbo’s daughter offers a nice bit of spark to her father’s flinty charm – their few exchanges depict a rich familial dynamic that isn’t really present in the script.

This brings us to Diane Lane, as Trumbo’s long-suffering wife Cleo. Said simply, it’s likely the worst performance I’ve seen her give. I don’t know if it’s the screenplay or Lane or both, but, to steal a quip from my mom who observed, “It’s like Lane prepared for the role by watching too many episodes of The Donna Reed Show.” There is a lot of squinting and posturing and mincing, a bit of juggling (literally!), some boxing (not kidding!), and … well … that’s about it. I suspect there was a much more contentious dynamic between Cleo and her husband, whose admirable ethics caused years of economic and social strife for his entire family, as he engineered ways to undermine the stultifying effects of the Hollywood blacklist. Sadly, we just don’t get to see any of it. The film would have been stronger if we had. And Lane would have had something to play, other than juggling glassware (literally!).

According to the film, Trumbo’s Oscar wins for Roman Holiday (uncredited) and for the beautiful ode to compassion (and animal rights) The Brave One lit a spark under Hollywood to push back and challenge the blacklist’s economic stranglehold. Additionally, Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman who looks like Douglas if you squint and sounds like Douglas if you’re deaf) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel, playing the famed director as if he were auditioning for the villain role in Dr. No) were among the few Hollywood establishment players to buck the system and give Trumbo a chance, thumbing their noses at the suffocating evil of the Washington witch hunters.

I wish this film had been better. I wish we were left with a clearer understanding of what motivated all of the players, both the “good” and the “bad” (whatever those terms even mean). I wish I knew what “messages” were so troubling in the screenplays of the time. I wish I knew why people with one kind of power (political) were so threatened by the free speech of those with another kind of power (celebrity) that they were compelled to shred the very Constitution they claimed they would die on their swords to defend. Trumbo doesn’t help us with these answers. I wish it did. We need these answers, now more than ever.

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DemsReel 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.

 

“Been waiting for someone to tell me the color of MY wind.” Vanessa Williams at Detroit’s Motor City Casino Sound Board

Vanessa Williams 4Vanessa Williams is an interesting figure in pop culture. One of the most (only?) successful (post-pageant winners) of “Miss America” … Lee Meriwether notwithstanding?

Sound Board 2Yet, can she still be considered “Miss America” when she was de-crowned after her Penthouse pictorial scandal mid-way through her reign?

Yet, she was reinstated this year because even the “Miss America” people realized that, in this day and age of Gaga and Miley and … Trump, that maybe zapping the title of one of the few contestants to actually have a viable career (Grammy/Tony-nominations, Top 40 hit songs, a freaking Disney theme) was kinda dumb?

Sound BoardShe’s had starring roles on just about every ABC dramedy of the past 15 years (e.g. Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives), and she has become, more or less, America’s b-list sweetheart.

Heck, she even plays Alan Cumming’s love interest now on The Good Wife – that’s a pair of celebrities who unexpectedly crawled from our nation’s puritanically judgmental margins to stand triumphant in the hazy comfort-glare of middle-America’s beloved boob tube. And they play a couple (sort of). Now that is something!

Vanessa WilliamsSo, when I got a panicky email from Ticketmaster last week, breathlessly urging me to “buy one-get one free” of her still copiously available tickets for Sunday’s performance at Motor City Casino’s “Sound Board” night club, you betcha I snapped up two.

And I’m so glad I did.

Her show is like a comfortably chunky, still stylish, but totally retro sweater in the back of your closet. It is 90-minutes of timeless nostalgia, a little funky and a lot soothing with a smidge of regret that whatever you thought you would be doing years later and however you thought you’d be changing the world just didn’t quite happen. And that’s ok. (This may be one of my worst/most confessional metaphors ever.)

Vanessa Williams 2Williams was one of the stand-bys in my mix-taped 90s/00s life soundtrack: from the Teena Marie-lite blast of her debut The Right Stuff through the adult-contemporary fog of The Sweetest Days, through the edgy post-divorce Alanis-ish angst of Next through her reinvention as a Broadway Baby in Into the Woods, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Sondheim on Sondheim, culminating in the inevitable (and kinda genius) post-relevance cover songs albums Everlasting Love and The Real Thing.

I’ve stuck by Williams, as a singer and as an actor – a performer who always embraced an underdog’s moxie and the reprobate’s swagger, from her sparkling turn in the ABC TV-adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie to the standout scenery-chewer in soapy melodrama Soul Food.

Vanessa Williams 5Her stage show hit all those notes, covering the hits we love and the ones we’ve forgotten: “Dreamin’,” “Love Is,” “Oh, How the Years Go By,” “Betcha Never,” “The Sweetest Days,” “Colors of the Wind,” and, of course, signature torch song “Save the Best for Last.”

Every number was delivered with smooth sophistication and aplomb, with the polish of a performer who dove into the muck, climbed out if it, and narrowly avoided a life of cruise ship dinner theatre performances (but still carries a few of those blue plate special, “so happy to be here with you fine folks” tics).

Her band is a tight jazz and R&B combo, and they have played with her for 20+ years. It shows. With two keyboardists, two guitarists, and one drummer as well as two dedicated backing vocalists and additional vocals from some of the instrumentalists, Williams received exceptional musical support. The band showed such range, from disco to blues, ballads to soul; they could do it all … gorgeously.

Martinis and Little Caesars pizza ... only at Motor City Casino

Martinis and Little Caesars pizza … only at Motor City Casino

Carmen Ruby Floyd

Carmen Ruby Floyd

She also featured back-up singer Carmen Ruby Floyd (an accomplished Broadway vet in her own right) who delivered a knock-out “Creole Love Call,” from the Broadway revue After Midnight.

Martinis and Pizza 2Williams gave us a few carefully guarded insights into her tabloid storybook life, just teasing enough to let us know she hates her ex-husbands (still), loves her current (third), thinks her four kids are the best things she’s ever done, and really thinks Stephen Sondheim and Barbara Cook are the bees’ knees.

She did bring down the house with one joke in particular, noting that after Williams performed Oscar-winning “Colors of the Wind” at the Academy Awards, Whoopi Goldberg quipped, “I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me the color of my wind.”

Vanessa Williams 3The highlights for me of this stellar show? A one-two punch of Pocahontas’ “Colors of the Wind” and encore “Harvest for the World” (Isley Brothers). The lyrics for both detail, in a strikingly similar blend of the hopeful and the cynical, how this world and its resources and those inhabiting the Big Blue Marble demand an appreciation and a respect that transcend the commercial, the crass, and the opportunistic.

I know that Williams has always championed progressive causes, and I’m guessing she’s a longtime friend of Mother Earth, but from her delivery of these two numbers, I daresay she is about as “eco-friendly” and socially conscious as they come. Can’t beat a pop legend who takes the time to wring a social message or two from her back catalog of hits.

Thanks, Vanessa – come back to Motown soon, please!

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Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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.