“Because genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” The Green Book and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Family is what you make it. Two holiday film offerings – seemingly disparate as can be – explore that notion with nuance, surprising gravitas, and humor to spare.

The Green Book is pretty darn magnificent. Just when you think you’re getting another magical Hollywood-cures-racism retro-tear-jerking fantasy, the film subtly indicts the prejudices that plague us all, without avoiding the fact that we have some grade-A hateful jackholes in our country who need to be taken down a notch … or eight. Viggo Mortensen runs just shy of coming off like a Hanna-Barbera character, but he is nonetheless lovably/adorably brilliant in one of his broadest roles to date. Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali is brittle, haunted, wry, and superb, and they make a heckuva duo. Oh, and the film still manages some retro-tear-jerking holiday magic too.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There is a strange sub-genre in well-meaning, liberal Hollywood: the crowd-pleasingly simple-minded, amber-hued “let’s overcome racism together in two hours” flick (The Help, Hidden Figures, The Blind Side, Driving Miss Daisy, on and on). There can be a tone-deaf, self-satisfied entitlement to the “white savior” trope in these films, and that is just as off-putting as the nasty institutional racism these movies overtly critique. I’m not sure Green Book, directed by Dumb and Dumber‘s Peter Farrelly of all people, entirely avoids this trap, but the performances of Mortensen and Mahershala (not to mention perpetually underrated Linda Cardellini as Mortensen’s stoic-but-free-thinking wife) raise the film’s profile significantly from Hallmark Hall of Fame pap to something more vibrant and compelling.

Depicting real-life jazz and classical pianist Don Shirley and his chauffeur/hired muscle Frank Vallelonga as they tour the Deep South in 1962 and encounter one well-heeled bigot after another, The Green Book draws its name from a guide that helped African-American motorists of the era tour the country with as little aggravation as the era would allow. Reportedly, Shirley and Vallelonga would eventually become lifelong friends, but that is the kind of factoid that becomes increasingly debated as a biographical film like this grows in popularity and collects more end-of-year trophies. So, who knows?

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As for the film’s central thesis, it is summarized in this comment by a member of The Don Shirley Trio when asked why Shirley would take them all below the Mason-Dixon Line in the first place: “Because genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” It’s the kind of line that sounds like it was penned expressly for the daily horoscopes, but in the context of Mortensen and Mahershala’s exceptional dynamic (not to mention today’s strange days), it takes on a heart-wrenching profundity.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is unlike any superhero film nor any animated film I’ve seen: inventive, whimsical, poignant, heartfelt, transporting, kinetic, inclusive, unashamedly odd, surreal, and funny as hell … a true comic book brought to life in the best possible ways. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is the superior film to the awards-baiting Green Book where issues of race, gender, identity, and inclusion are concerned.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Rife with the delightfully irreverent influence of producers/screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street), Spider-Verse introduces its audience to a new Spider-Man in the form of Afro-Latino Miles Morales whose ethnicity isn’t a gimmick or a plot point but just part and parcel to his character, that is, in addition to him being a teenager, a science prodigy, an artist, and a music lover. How about that?

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

After a multiversal quantum physics experiment gone awry, Miles finds himself surrounded by a Benetton ad’s worth of fellow Spider-people: neo-feminist Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (notably not “girl”), silver-haired ass-kicking Aunt May (cheekily voiced by Lily Tomlin), Untouchables-throwback Spider-Noir (another fun voice cameo, this time by Nicholas Cage), paunchy and midlife-crisis’d Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man, Japanese robotics expert Peni Parker and her sidekick SP//dr, and (for us animal nuts) an anthropomorphic pig Peter Porker / Spider-Ham. Miles’ mission – in addition to navigating his newfound super powers and his loving-but-demanding parents who want him to focus on nothing but his science academy studies – is to help these Spider Buddies save the world and return to their respective parallel Earths. A bit like The Wizard of Oz, in reverse, but with super villains and web shooters.

The movie has a visual language unlike anything seen in computer animation before, photo realistic yet simultaneously comic book flat: a bit Andy Warhol, a touch Roy Lichtenstein, a smidge Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, yet wholly original, breathtaking, and dreamlike. The film’s comic timing borrows liberally from Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, Pink Panther, and Tex Avery, while the narrative grounds itself in the polyglot humanity of modern day NYC. It’s an exceptional piece of pop art, and effortlessly leverages the best of superhero egalitarian metaphor to give the middle finger to MAGA nationalism. I can’t wait to see it again.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

Attention Must be Paid: Tipping Point Theatre’s “Ripcord”

Originally published by Encore Michigan.

One day you wake up, and you find you relate to characters and situations that just the other day felt safely, pleasantly distant and remote. In our home, we have a nightly ritual of watching an episode of a (now) classic sitcom right before going to sleep: Everybody Loves Raymond, Will & Grace, Friends, and increasingly The Golden Girls. I always had finite patience for the self-absorbed whimsy of Friends, and, now, I can barely stomach the show. Once, I thought Raymond’s Marie and Frank Barone were an affectionately nuanced portrayal of meddlesome parents; now, I completely relate to their affable frustrations over “young people” who don’t appreciate their elders’ hard-won advice and perspective. And The Golden Girls? Well, let’s just say, someone get the lanai and the caftan ready. I’m on my way.

It is through this lens, then, that I approached TippingPoint Theatre’s Michigan premiere of Ripcord!, a comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire (Pultizer Prize-winner for Rabbit Hole). Ripcord!, on its surface, is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? if written by someone who actually likes women. Similarly, the narrative is an escalating emotional arms race between two grand dames, aging in place and trapped in one location (in this instance, one of those “high end” independent senior living facilities). However, unlike Baby Jane, the women have agency from having “seen it all” (think Elaine Stritch’s seminal performance of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here”); they wear some kicky resort clothes (think Golden Girls with better tailoring and fewer shoulder pads … fun costume design by Shelby Newport); and no one gets served a pet parakeet on a platter (although there is a LOT of business with food being brought up from the cafeteria … I kept waiting).

The Blanche and Baby Jane of Ripcord! are Abby (played with broken glass sparkle by Ruth Crawford) and Marilyn (a heartbreakingly impish Susan Craves). Abby has lived in the same room for four years, mostly alone, as her brusque bravado drives off anyone unfortunate enough to be assigned her roommate. Along comes Marilyn, a ray of sunshine with an iron will – Little Orphan Annie as designed by Sun Tsu. In the 80s, yes, Abby would have been played by Bea Arthur, and Marilyn by Betty White. In this contemporary milieu, Crawford and Craves couldn’t help reminding me of Jane Lynch and Carrie Fisher, respectively. I’m uncertain whether that was intentional on the part of director James Kuhl and his production team or just happenstance, but that dynamic contrast in type and in look works really well.

Marilyn is determined to melt the permafrost around Abby’s cold heart, and Abby is hell-bent to get this bounding golden retriever puppy-meets-Marquis de Sade jettisoned from her life forever. Or,at least have her relocated to a newly vacated room downstairs. Consequently, they place a bet. If Marilyn can scare Abby (who claims no fear), she gets the better bed in their room with an epic view of the park and all the sunlight she can stand. If Abby succeeds in making the relentlessly chipper Marilyn angry, Marilyn vacates the premises, only to be seen at the occasional bingo night. Hijinks ensue.

As plays go, Ripcord! is, in fact, more sitcom than Broadway. The narrative is too episodic by half, and thinly drawn supporting characters come and go primarily as forgettable story beats and harmless complications. However, Abby and Marilyn–built as they are on familiar, near-mythological archetypes (broken monarch, trickster god) – are the show. Lindsay-Abaire wisely commits the lion’s share of the piece to exploring the debilitating isolation and the liberating joys of aging, as evidenced through the pranks, shenanigans, and outright cruelty these women exact upon one another.

At the end of the day, neither Abby nor Marilyn much gives a rat’s-patootie what anyone thinks of them. That is refreshing. Otherwise, we would have yet another tired male-crafted narrative pitting one woman against another. Ripcord! pulls just shy of that, offering a study of two humans who have suffered devastating setbacks, chiefly at the hands of their own spouses and/or children, and who find themselves thrown together like randomly assigned college roommates in their “golden years.” Together, they discover their authority and their appreciation for each other through the artificial tension such circumstances naturally bring.

All of that said, this is the kind of show that TippingPoint does so well. Acerbic, witty, expertly paced, and polished, Ripcord! rarely misses a beat. At Saturday night’s performance, there were some minor flubs here and there, and an actor or three stepped on each other’s lines–all of which will disappear as the run progresses and this already incredible ensemble tightens the performance. Director James Kuhl has cast the show expertly, with two leads who take the sitcom tropes the script hands them and turn in masterfully crafted, compelling character turns – believable humans who are as delightful, maddening, confounding, and damn funny as any family member you may get trapped with at a Thanksgiving dinner.

Dez Walker is great deadpan fun as Scotty, the nursing attendant and foil for the worst these two rivals can dish out. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but let’s just say their warfare may or may not include skydiving, haunted houses, surprise relatives, muggings, CraigsList phone pranks, and drug-laced peach cobblers. Walker’s reactions to it all are priceless and pleasantly understated. At times, I felt I was watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon brought to life.

Vanessa Sawson, Jason Bowen, and Patrick Loos round out the cast, playing an assortment of family members and haunted house performers (there is an ironic joke in there somewhere). They all do fine work and have some sharply comic moments. Bowen is comedy gold as said mugger who devises an unfortunate and hysterical use for the “legs” in his pantyhose mask.

The ensemble suffers at times, however, from tonal inconsistency. Whereas Craves, Crawford, and Walker imbue their characters with a believability and a subtlety that contrasts nicely and, at times, poignantly with the proceedings, the other performers occasionally devolve into a broader comic style that felt a bit jarring. It’s a minor quibble and is as likely a function of the play’s construction as the performance itself.

The cast is aided and abetted by clever, kitschy, surprising production design. As noted, the costumes by Newport are divine. The efficient and evocative set by Monika Essen is comprised of a series of modular units that can serve as the independent living facility, haunted house, park, etc. Essen supplements the physical set with some eye-popping projections and some nifty animation, all of which creates a captivatingly immersive experience.

Sonja Marquis has a blast with the sound design, weaving techno, hip hop, and some delightfully daffy dance remixes (Carmina Burana? BRILLIANT!) into the musical cues. I would love to download that soundtrack. I particularly appreciate that Marquis resists the urge to employ “age appropriate” music (whatever the hell that would even mean) and delivers a rocking score that gives as good as it gets and adds a fantastic level of manic urgency to the leading characters’ conflict. I also geeked out that the poster and program cover (by graphic designer Quintessa Gallinat) go for POP! over lace doilies, with a fab Roy Lichtenstein spin on the play’s iconography. Well played, TippingPoint!

If, like me, you feel your age every time you read a headline, turn on the radio, or just get out of bed in the morning and if you wonder sometimes whether all this running about and people-pleasing we do in life really matters, you will love Ripcord! If you think these experiences and feelings are still tucked away behind the nebulous and protective curtain of “your future,” then you must see Ripcord! Now. Let’s kick ageism in its collective ass. This isn’t a play about “old people.” This is a play about all of us and the need for kindness and empathy and acknowledgment in. the. moment. Attention must be paid

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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.