“But first they must catch you.” The Darkest Minds (film review) and Barn Theatre’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.” Richard Adams, Watership Down

When even our escapist entertainment reminds us of the dystopia in which we are currently living as Americans, you know things are dire indeed. This weekend we took in a Saturday night production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by our talented pals at Augusta, Michigan’s Barn Theatre and a Sunday matinee of the film adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel The Darkest Minds. Both were engaging diversions, and, yet, as I sat through both, I was reminded repeatedly of how disconcertingly life imitates art.

If there were ever a tale as old as time that functions as a parable of toxic masculinity, it is Disney’s take on Beauty and the Beast, adapted from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale first as an Academy Award-winning animated musical in 1991, then as a Broadway stage show in 1994, and finally as a live action film musical in 2017. And it’s made boatloads of cash in each iteration.

Andrea Arvanigian as Belle and Charlie King as Maurice in “Beauty and the Beast” at Barn Theatre.

Let’s see. Belle, a bookish beauty, is caught between two brutes: 1) a misogynistic and vainglorious hunter (Gaston) who sees her as a trophy to be bullied and berated into submission and 2) a literal beast of a man who forces an exchange of her imprisonment for her father’s freedom and locks her in his castle until she succumbs to his “charms.” It may as well be renamed “#MeToo: The Musical.”

As always, the Barn wows with their stagecraft, turning around a technically complex show with barely a week of rehearsal, all the while smiling and parking cars and mowing lawns and serving drinks and selling souvenirs. Be our guest, indeed!

I’d never seen the stage iteration, and I admit to having some difficulty with the first act which pads out the narrative with some forgettable numbers and comic bits and belabors the Beast’s darker impulses to the point that we  begin to lose the sense of isolation and loneliness that humanizes him in the films (not Alan Menken’s and Tim Rice’s finest work – Rice took over for the late Howard Ashman for the Broadway adaptation’s additional material). I now understand why Disney went back to the drawing board with last year’s live action flick, rather than adapt the stage version.

Swiped from Jamey’s Facebook page … sorry (not sorry)!

That said, Jamey Grisham as the titular beast does a lovely job working around those limitations and giving us a Beast who is more of a woebegone man-child than an outright Stanley Kowalski caveman. As I said to him following last night’s performance, his Beast was like a misunderstood pit bull who’d been left at the shelter too long. He looked at me quizzically, but, believe me, for an animal lover like me, that’s high praise. Jamey has the voice of an angel and moves beautifully, but arguably his finest moment is his quietest: when Belle reads King Arthur aloud to the admittedly illiterate Beast. The tender poignancy of Andrea Arvanigian’s Belle sharing a beloved tome with a creature who has never received the most basic of kindnesses is palpable. And the subtle canine physicality that Grisham brings to the scene (how does a Beast sit in a chair, anyway?) is heartwarmingly whimsical.

Albert Nelthropp as Gaston in Barn Theatre’s “Beauty and Beast.”

Albert Nelthropp has a true gift for balancing the cartoonish and the menacing as Gaston. He never misses a comic beat, has a voice (and articulation) that fills the cavernous Barn space, and possesses that rare ability to be likable without losing the utter despicability of his character. Penelope Alex is a lovely and warm Mrs. Potts, delivering the title tune in a soft and lullaby-like manner.

And Hans Friedrichs is having the time of his life as Maurice Chevalier-inspired major domo Lumiere. Few performers could be as elegantly hysterical with (basically) a flashlight strapped to the end of each arm. He and Samantha Rickard as his paramour-turned-feather-duster Babette are a hoot.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through August 10, with tickets available at www.barntheatreschool.org

Be sure to stick around for the Bar Show, a Barn Theatre tradition where the apprentices take over the Rehearsal Shed post-performance to deliver a kooky comic cabaret with polish and panache. Grisham directs and choreographs (is there anything this man can’t do?) with a zippy but inclusive efficiency.

Bar Show

The Disney theme continues with numbers from Coco, The Aristocats, and The Lion King, plus the lost number “Disneyland” from Marvin Hamlisch’s and Howard Ashman’s musicalization of Smile and a pretty epic opener “The Greatest Show” from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul‘s The Greatest Showman (which, for all intents and purposes, should be a Disney musical … but isn’t).

Video clips at the bottom of this post.

From musicalized misogyny on Saturday to a sci fi fable on Sunday about children locked in cages by the government, forcibly separated from their parents –  The Darkest Minds … I told you our entertainment choices this weekend seemed oddly ripped from today’s headlines. Or I just spend way to much time trolling CNN’s and MSNBC’s websites.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Darkest Minds has been unfairly pilloried by critics. It’s not awful. It’s not great either. The cinematic universe is now littered with Ray Bradbury-esque young adult future-shock franchises that aspired to the box office glory of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games but never quite made it past the starting gate: The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson, Divergent, I Am Number Four, and so on. Judging by ticket sales this past weekend, Darkest Minds will be in the trash heap of failed young adult film series as well.

That’s a bit of a shame, as I found its depressing and ominous qualities oddly … refreshing (?). It is necessarily discomforting in today’s world to watch a piece of popcorn entertainment depict young children forcibly ripped from their parents’ arms and sent to internment camps for being “different” (albeit in this instance for having super powers). Yes, we’ve covered this territory a lot; hell, it’s basically the same premise Marvel’s X-Men have been milking for nearly sixty years. Yet, it remains timely. Sadly timely.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film probably would have worked better as a bleak TV series – something you watch on NetFlix on a grey Sunday afternoon, while still in your pajamas and eating an entire box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In her first live action film (after Kung Fu Panda), Jennifer Yuh Nelson has assembled a capable and transfixing cast, even if they are in servitude to a fairly pedestrian and episodic script. A luminous and haunting Amandla Stenberg (Rue from the original Hunger Games) plays telepathically gifted Ruby Daly – as in all of these sorts of films, she is the Christ/Skywalker/Superman-like “one who will save us all.”

Stenberg is a star in the making, so her mere presence makes the film far more interesting to watch than it should be. A la Dorothy in Oz, she has a band of scruffy friends – Harris Dickinson as dreamy love interest Liam, Skylan Brooks as cerebral Chubbs, Miya Cech as mute Zu – who aid and abet her adventures. The foursome are by far the best thing in the film with a chemistry that deserves a far better vehicle to showcase it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

They are on the run from a rather confusing collection of government entities and rebel factions that have sprung up in the wake of a nationwide virus that has killed 90% of America’s children and left the remaining 10% with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Uplifting, eh?

Of course, all the adults – well-meaning and earnest Mandy Moore (that’s pretty much her range right there), glowering Gwendoline Christie (sadly sans her shiny Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet), and West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford being all West Wing-y as, yes, the President – are on a mission to collect the super kids to do … well … something? Take over the world? Kill the remaining kids? Clean boots and grow vegetables? Heck, I have no idea.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Arguably, the best outcome for the tens of people who will have walked past Mission: Impossible or Mamma Mia! to go see The Darkest Minds is that some of them might be inspired to pick up the far superior Watership Down by Richard Adams and give it a spin.

Ruby improbably finds a paperback copy in an abandoned shopping mall, reads it to her compatriots, and then repeats ad nauseum Adams’ narrator’s memorable caution to “Prince Rabbit” that “all the world will be your enemy.”

Sadly, these days, those words seem more prescient than ever. So much for escapist entertainment.

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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.

 

 

“Droid, please.” Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

With the clarion blast of John Williams’ trademark fanfare, a militaristic waterfall of brassy notes, Star Wars returns to the silver screen in “Episode VII,” otherwise known as The Force Awakens.

Director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Super 8) has been entrusted (wisely) by the slick branding minds at the Mouse House, LucasFilm’s new owners, to inject the franchise with a postmodern jolt of nostalgia-fueled adrenaline, after the late 90s/early 00s prequel series failed to sustain fanboy adoration.

Let me add that I find some of the rampant hatred of Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith (oh, those names) a bit disingenuous, lemming-like, and arguably age-ist. We nerds were all lined up in geeky hysteria to devour those films, debate their merits, and consume every last bit of merchandising. Were we thrilled with the films? Not totally. Were they ponderous, meandering, and wooden? Heck, yeah. Did we care? No, because we loved this bizarre universe that was less sci-fi and more Land of Oz with its blend of preposterous names (Count Dooku?), anthropomorphic machinery, fuzzy Muppet-y sidekicks, and simplistic delineation of right from wrong.

Now, we all want to kick George Lucas to the curb, like some previous homeowner who had terrible taste in shag carpeting since we know so much better with our Ikea coffee tables and stainless steel appliances. We seem to be saying, “Go away, you doddering old man. We don’t care if you created all of this from broad cloth. You’re tiresome.” That bugs me. A lot. Maybe it’s because I’ll likely be 50 years old when this latest trilogy wraps up or because I will be forever grateful to Lucas for all the backyard adventures he fueled for this plucky only child, but I think he deserves a break and our gratitude.

…That said, I’m sure glad he didn’t direct this latest installment.

Abrams is not the most ingenious of directors. If Spielberg and Lucas, his most immediate forebears, were consummate recyclers of B-movie tropes (Indiana Jones, Jaws, and, yes, Star Wars), then Abrams is, at best, a fabulous remixer. He takes the Spielberg/Lucas greatest hits, adds a dash of irony, self-satirizing humor, marketing panache, and copious lens flares in a transfixing gift for cinematic misdirection. Take his two Star Trek films, for instance.  Great fun, right?  Yet, there is not one original thought between them that wasn’t already expressed a hundred times over in earlier Trek films and series. Into Darkness is pretty much a remake/reinvention of one of the better films Wrath of Khan infused with the earth-bound whimsy of the best Star Trek … The Voyage Home.

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Little Roy and Friends

That’s what Abrams does, and that’s just fine. The instinct for escapist self-preservation is Hollywood’s bread and butter, and, with the assured success of Force Awakens, Abrams is sure to be Tinseltown’s favorite son.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens gives us everything we want, with few surprises. While every other Star Wars film has debuted in May to provide air-conditioned cinematic asylum from the hottest days of the year, Force Awakens arrives just in time for Christmas. Not unlike those Disney Park rides that dump you right into a gift shop so you can load up on memory-preserving souvenirs, this film seems built to send you packing to Toys R Us posthaste for some last minute stocking stuffers. Just like the holidays, Force Awakens showers us with familiar, comforting indulgences.

X-Wing and Tie Fighters engaged in balletic dog fights, every sound effect you remember well-preserved but with new paint jobs so you’ll have to capture the newest miniature versions for your personal fleet at home. C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker) are still fussy as ever, but with a little third-act intrigue to keep you guessing. Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) remains adorable as a Golden Retriever on two legs who happens to be really adept at piloting the Millennium Falcon. Han (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher – who looks like she’s about to crack a joke every time she speaks, thank goodness) are a little grayer and wizened, mercifully winking at the proceedings but also providing much-needed flesh-and-blood poignancy. Any tears I shed were all due to the two of them – both from my joy at seeing them in these iconic roles again and in their ability to inhabit those characters, thirty years later, so effortlessly.

The plot (spoiler … well, 38-year-old spoiler) is pretty much a carbon copy of Star Wars: A New Hope,  itself ripped off just two movies later for Return of the Jedi. Scary fascists (this time called “The First Order”) in matching outfits can’t tolerate free-thought or weirdly-featured cantina-frequenting creatures, so they build a big ol’ planet-sized armageddon machine; and Dorothy and The Tin Man and The Scarecrow and The Cowardly Lion blow it up real good and save the universe (for now). Actually, that sounds a bit like rhetoric from the Republican presidential debates. Maybe a disenfranchised Lucas is moonlighting for Trump these days?

Damn, Force Awakens is fun, though. Seeing beloved characters in a place and time you’ve worshipped since you were a kid is akin to the perfect extended family reunion … that is, if you liked your extended family. Abrams is a canny filmmaker. He uses the free-pass such familiarity brings to introduce a new generation (literally and figuratively) of characters who end up carrying the torch quite nicely. Furthermore, Abrams layers an Empire Strikes Back-style ominous gloom over Force Awakens’ Saturday matinee escapades – a sense of forboding that holds welcome promise for future installments.

Adam Driver (Girls) channels Millennial angst as antagonist Kylo Ren – imagine Darth Vader with ADHD. Oscar Issac (Inside Llewyn Davis) is all Errol Flynn swashbuckling swagger as pilot Poe Dameron.  John Boyega (Attack the Block) as turncoat Stormtrooper Finn and newcomer Daisy Ridley as scrappy orphan Rey are the heart and soul of the film. Like the film’s viewers, these two actors have grown up admiring the fantasy and the fiction of the Star Wars universe. Consequently, they bleed respect, wit, and warmth for their characters and for the heroic quests they get to play, yet they escape the overly reverent quagmire that afflicted prequel stars Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen. (Boyega’s seemingly ad libbed “Droid, please.” to the equally affable, Chaplinesque, volleyball-shaped robot BB-8 exemplifies his free-wheeling, contemporary comic approach.)

I will also commend Abrams for bringing us our most diverse Star Wars cast yet, offering a galactic reflection of our earthly life today. About time.

It wouldn’t be Star Wars without an action-figure phalanx of oddball spirit guides and gleamingly militant heavies (played by a Love Boat-sized cast of “special guest stars”). Spotting them is like playing a space-faring game of Where’s Waldo? Look, Daniel Craig is a cheeky Stormtrooper! Look, Max Von Sydow is Alec Guiness! Look, Gwendolyn Christie is a cheeky chrome-plated Stormtrooper! Look, Domhnall Gleeson is Peter Cushing! Look, Andy Serkis is Gollum-channeling-The-Wizard-of-Oz! Look, Lupita Nyong’o is … Yoda?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will satisfy all you playground Han Solos and Leia Organas and Luke Skywalkers. Indeed, the 12-year-old boy in me was transported … a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In that sense, Abrams and crew did their job flawlessly. But this installment was easy. The audience was waiting and appreciative to see the old band back together, playing the classic tracks we know and love.

The trick for the upcoming films (to mix Abrams’ Star franchises blasphemously)? To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no (hu)man has gone before.

I look forward to it.

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Roy_Star_WarsReel 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.