“You’re always sorry. And there’s always a speech. But we no longer care.” Dark Phoenix (and another thought or two on Hugh Jackman’s The Man. The Music. The Show. in Detroit)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Perhaps Dark Phoenix was a creative casualty of corporate wrangling via the finalized Disney/Fox combination that brought the previously Fox-licensed X-Men characters fully back into the Mouse House’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Perhaps the X-Men movies should have called it a day (no pun intended) with the far superior Days of Future Past. (Don’t get me started on the candy coated cluster that was its follow-up Apocalypse.) Perhaps longtime writer/new-time director Simon Kinberg should have just stuck with the writing (though that isn’t very good either in Dark Phoenix and not up to par with his previous work). Or perhaps we all are just (finally) suffering from movie superhero fatigue.

All I know is that Dark Phoenix is a soapy bore, not unwatchable by any means, but not a hellvua lot of of fun either.

I began this week taking in erstwhile Wolverine Hugh Jackman’s sunny, zippy one-man The Man. The Music. The Show. at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, and I ended the week with this X-Men: Last Stand retread that made me long for Hugh to show up and sing a few more Peter Allen-penned show-tunes while swiveling his bedazzled 50-year-old-hips. Hugh was a wise man to finally walk away from this sputtering franchise and spend the summer doing what he does (and loves) best. Thank you, X-Men, for giving Hugh his start in this country … and, 20 years later, for setting him free.

Dark Phoenix attempts to right the wrongs of Last Stand, an over-baked muddle from 13 years ago that first told the tale of mutant Jean Grey’s descent into madness via a cosmic-based parasitic “Phoenix force.” I know to non-geeks it sounds absurd, but the original “Phoenix/Dark Phoenix” story-line by Chris Claremont and John Byrne from the late 70s is a beloved one, revolutionary in its day for its exploration of gender issues, agency/autonomy, and how absolute power can corrupt absolutely.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Don’t get me wrong. Dark Phoenix tries. Really, really hard. And that’s part of its problem. Too self-serious by half, yet slapdash in its execution, the film takes a solid cast – Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, and Sophie Turner (as the titular antihero) – portraying classic Marvel characters, all lovingly re-established in a fresh, postmodern way with X-Men: First Class, and squanders the whole shebang with heaps of illogical character motivation and turgid dialogue. As Fassbender’s Magneto cautions his bromantic rival James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier: “You’re always sorry. And there’s always a speech. But we no longer care.” True dat.

It’s a shame. It truly is. The series could have gone out on a high-note, pulling all the topsy turvy threads of time travel, lost souls, and marginalized identity into one super nova of an ending … if they’d just have followed the blueprint of the original damn comics. Seriously, look at how many Oscar winners/nominees are in the cast; yet, at times, I thought I was watching Guiding Light: The Mutant Years.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

C’est la vie. The plot, as it is, details how young Jean Grey was orphaned (or was she?) by telepathic powers run amok. Charles Xavier rescues her (or does he?) and raises her as his own, always wary of the limitless powers at her disposal. One epic space shuttle tragedy later, a now-adult Jean Grey finds herself imbued with the nuclear power of a thousand solar systems, but she really just wants to mope around, glare a bit, and throw her enemies into the sides of buildings. Chastain as some alien despot with the albino aesthetic of Edgar Winter seeks Jean’s newfound power for herself. And, blah, blah, blah … more moping, more glaring, more throwing.

Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique notes to Xavier, “By the way … we women are always saving the men around here. You might want to change the name of this group to X-WOMEN.” Now, THAT’s a movie I think I would have preferred to see. And, as poorly written as that line is, it says something about Lawrence’s uncanny abilities that it lands like the best zinger you’ve ever heard from a Noel Coward comedy. Otherwise, Lawrence is clearly just collecting a paycheck here, waiting for her contract obligations to final run out.

Photos taken by my parents Monday night in Detroit

Back to Hugh. If Dark Phoenix truly is the death knell of the X-Men movie universe, perhaps the rest of the cast should follow suit and launch their own respective concert tours. As noted here earlier, his show is an absolute delight … and also a bit surreal, given that it is the culmination of Jackman’s wildly varied career, plus a melange of influences and experiences close to his heart. It is, in essence, a two-hour midlife crisis, Vegas-style, but a kicky, charming, loving, unmissable one. [Photo album here.]

What I also learned this week is that there are two kinds of people: those who know that Hugh Jackman sings … and those that don’t. As to the former, all I had to do was mention I saw him in concert, and they rattled forth rapturous perspectives on which songster Hugh they loved the most: Les Miserables, Greatest Showman, Oklahoma, The Boy from Oz … all of which were featured in Monday night’s show. As to the latter, I was met with a quizzical gaze and a “what did he do for two hours?!”

Ah, what didn’t he do? Tap dancing to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”? Check. Channeling his best Gene Kelly for a Singin’ in the Rain homage? Check. Working through what felt like some Freudian confessionals about family, romance, and fatherhood? Check. Offering a salute to the atrocities experienced by the aboriginal peoples of his Australian homeland, complete with didgeridoo? Check.

There were some missteps Monday night. A blown mic … or three. Some faulty projection screens. Heartfelt but at times overly fawning tributes to Detroit (we ate it up … but at times it got a bit thick). A strangely sequenced second act that seemed to jettison the chronological overview of the first act for a random grab-bag of themes and ideas. I also admit that I wouldn’t have minded a bit more attention paid to his Tony-winning role in The Boy From Oz. The medley of Allen’s more obvious (for American ears) pop tunes was understandable as was the Rip Taylor-style vamping in the audience; yet, I longed for more of Peter Allen, the brilliant singer/songwriter and a bit less of the theme park character flash on display. That said, these are all minor quibbles in an otherwise extraordinary evening.

My hunch is that our singing, dancing, jazz-hand flinging former-“Wolverine” will be riding this arena-gig until the wheels fall off. The Hugh Jackman on display Monday night was simply too exquisitely blissed out not to, and, as a result, I’m sure he will be playing every arena, concert venue, and state fairgrounds into which he can get his twinkly visage booked. Given what I just experienced this afternoon watching Dark Phoenix, that’s one damn smart career move!

[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.

Whip and nae nae, compassion and inclusion. A beautifully revitalized The Wiz (Live!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ve always been an Oz-nut for as long as I can remember. Oh, the annual viewings of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz every holiday season (pre-VCR/DVD/YouTube era, you got one shot, once a year!). I read the books backwards and forwards and mentally catalogued all the fantastic creatures, political intrigue, and oddball illustrations. (“Dorothy Gale” was my “Harry Potter.”) Occasionally, I would delve into other adjacent fantasy lands like Narnia or Wonderland when I needed to cleanse my palate. I devoured any and all minutiae about what motivated L. Frank Baum to write the series (hint: he was pretty irritated with scandal-ridden American politics … go figure).

Championing Gregory Maguire’s postmodern, animal-rights-skewing reimagining of the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I eventually viewed that recent stage musical adaptation twice (though I think it misses the mark when it comes to Maguire’s prescient political allegory). I obsessed over all the trivia I could find on the various cinematic and stage and television journeys over the rainbow and across the Yellow Brick Road. I even love The Boy from Oz – apropos of nothing.

Oh, did I collect STUFF! Stuff upon stuff always competing for space with my ever-growing piles of Star Wars and comic book ephemera as well. Oz has generated mountains of merchandise in the past 100+ years: toys, dolls, figurines, posters, and, yes, those ubiquitous-in-the-1980s Franklin Mint plates. I have a couple of those hand-painted platters (thanks to my gracious parents) … but where and what was the “Franklin Mint” exactly? Does anyone really know? Was it just in some dude’s basement and his name was Franklin?

However, if pressed to pick one corner of Oz-mania that is my absolute fave, the moment that cemented my fascination with the various permutations of this quintessentially American fantasy series? That would be The Wiz, and particularly the 1978 Sidney Lumet-directed film version starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor, and Lena Horne. It’s a polarizing entry point to be sure. While the stage version of Charlie Smalls’ musical was a huge and historic Tony-winning hit in the early 70s, the film was a colossal bomb, vilified for the liberties it took with the source material, and there was a bit of ageist/sexist foolishness over Lumet casting then 33-year-old Diana Ross as Dorothy. (“Too old,” the people cried! I’d love to be 33 again …)

I wrote at length on The Wiz in an embarrassingly fawning love letter in my first book (not humble-bragging – just telling you where you can find it). The movie isn’t without its flaws – too long, kinda dreary, covered in the depressing pseudo-sexual grime that seemed to permeate films of the “Me Decade.” Yet, I would argue that it is the very moodiness of the film, coupled with a Quincy Jones-produced funk bottle-rocket of a score, that gets closest to the populism with which L. Frank Baum approached his work. In that sense, one might suggest that The Wiz movie, remembered chiefly as an unmitigated pop culture misstep, was actually the purest distillation of the grim essence at the original novel’s core.

However, nobody but me likes the nearly forty-year-old flick, so it was high time for a multimedia teardown and rebuild of The Wiz. I’m happy to state that NBC’s live televised holiday musical (from Craig Zadan and Neil Meron who brought us the turgid Peter Pan Live! and the better-but-still-sort-of-moribund Sound of Music Live!) did a fine job reestablishing The Wiz for a new generation.

Director Kenny Leon, aided and abetted by choreographer Fatima Robinson and script doctor Harvey Fierstein, wisely approached the work not as sacred text but as an opportunity for reinvention and reinvigoration. Some of the updates worked beautifully, particularly the orchestrations which, originally (film and stage), were very much “of the moment” (dated R&B, disco) so a refresh was not only in order but essential. Other tweaks fell flat (iPads, sushi, referring to the silver slippers as “kicks”) – a good rule of thumb? If it’s going to sound corny five years from now, chances are it already sounds corny now.

The smartest thing the production team did was cherry pick from both the stage and film scores. Quincy Jones, when he was working on the film, saw that Smalls’ score, even then, needed an overhaul, notably the Scarecrow’s signature tune: the percolating and devastating “You Can’t Win” – foreshadowing Jones’ future blockbuster collaborations with Michael Jackson on the albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad – replaced the stage production’s aimless “I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday.” Happily, in this latest production “You Can’t Win” won out, and the Elijah Kelley’s adorably nimble performance as the Scarecrow benefited.

Robinson’s choreography cleverly incorporated many au courant moves but in subtle fashion. Oz has always been a cracked mirror reflection of American society, so moves like “whip” and “nae nae” – not to mention some seriously fierce Emerald City voguing – spicing up Ozzians’ onstage pogoing was smart and fun.

The cast was perfection throughout. Newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy married a steamroller voice with righteous fire that was fun to see. Finale “Home” was a knockout. She seemed a bit lost in the quieter, softer moments of the show, but those skills will come with experience. For a broadcast theatrical debut, she ran rings around Peter Pan Live’s Allison Williams, though admittedly that bar was so low that it sits in a sub-basement somewhere next to Brian Williams’ career.

Queen Latifah gave as good as she got as a gender-defying Wiz. Vocally, she wasn’t quite up to the role, but from sheer presence? There was no taking that stage away from her.

Intentional or not (and I suspect intentional with Leon’s and Fierstein’s involvement), there was an interesting statement in having the traditionally male role of The Wiz played by the indomitable Latifah. In the guise of the strutting, swaggering Wiz, everyone called Latifah “sir,” until it was revealed that The Wiz was not actually a he but a she. When Dorothy’s scruffy companions exclaimed their horror, Dorothy wheeled on them, exclaiming, “There is nothing wrong with being a woman,” and then spun back to The Wiz and chastising, “But there is everything wrong with being a liar.”

I don’t know what to make of the moment, but, in its narrative context of self-actualization and self-discovery and self-worth, it offers an interesting commentary on the relevance/irrelevance of gender, the importance of humanity and honesty, and the authentic roles women can and do play in leadership and in the accountability of others. I dug it.

In this reboot, women ruled Oz. Not just Dorothy and The Wiz, but Mary J. Blige’s Evillene was a pip. She frolicked dangerously close to the land of overacting, but it’s to be expected from a role that, while serving the primary narrative impetus (“kill the witch”), only has about 10 minutes of actual stage time. Her number “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is a highlight in the score, and the gospel rave-up that Blige delivered did it proud. Blige running around in a half-hoop skirt and stiletto boots that looked like they could serve double duty as murder weapons only added to the, er, fun. And, in one of the few actual LOL moments of the evening for me, Blige had an Abott-and-Costello-esque word battle with a lackey that sparkled with perfect comic timing.

Uzo Aduba’s Glinda had even less stage time than Blige but an even better song in the gorgeous, hauntingly inspirational “Believe in Yourself.” I’m sorry, Aduba, but no one can touch the incomparable Lena Horne in my mind for her soaring, effortlessly fierce performance of that number in the film, but you made it your own. The sweetly schoolmarm-ish way Aduba (Orange is the New Black) approached the role was distinctive and effective, even if her dress looked as though it were made of a million fuzzy, glowing yellow pipe cleaners.

Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the original stage production, was a thoughtful addition as Aunt Em, establishing the show’s central thesis in fine fashion with opening ballad “The Feeling We Once Had,” an undulating gut punch of a song, simultaneously channeling the remorse for life lost and hope for life yet to live. Glee’s Amber Riley nailed the playground chant whimsy of “He’s the Wiz,” barreling through the number like her life depended on it. Her acting and enunciation could still use a bit of work, but her powerhouse voice made up for those flaws.

If the show’s authority and presence came from the women in the cast, the zip and the play came from the men. David Alan Grier’s Lion had the most fully realized performance of the night – not a beat was lost, not a note was missed. The show was fully alive whenever he was onscreen; he kept things moving at a clip (which was a blessing given half the three-hour running time was made up of commercials … though, happily, that creepy Walmart family was MIA this year); and any consistent comedy in the production came from him. Elijah Kelley (Hairspray) was an adorable wee dervish as the kind-hearted Scarecrow, and pop star Ne-Yo was all country-fried charm and deep feeling soul as the Tin Man. His “What Can I Feel” was a tear-jerking marvel.

From classics like “Ease on Down the Road” to the jubilant (and timely) “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day,” the cast of The Wiz Live! performed the showstoppers with vital urgency, as declarations that life can be better – should be better – and that it takes all of us, with the right sense of compassion and of adventure, to get there. I think L. Frank Baum would have been proud. I know I was.

Little Roy

Little Roy

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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.