Star Trek: Live in Concert with the Grand Rapids Symphony … one part Marx Brothers, one part Royal Shakespeare Company, one part Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon.

12079688_10206862455778854_5846344351949275749_nI wasn’t sure what to think of the proposition of watching the Grand Rapids Symphony performing the soundtrack to J.J. Abram’s 2009 Star Trek reboot live while the film played on a screen above. The idea sounded intriguing, but it also sounded like it had the potential for a nerd-centric train wreck. (Star Trek: Live in Concert was the October 17 installment in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Symphonicboom Series at DeVos Performance Hall.)

DeVos Performance Hall ... or the U.S.S. Enterprise?

DeVos Performance Hall … or the U.S.S. Enterprise?

Conservative, yuppified Grand Rapids is one of those places that, in my head, is the antithesis of anything a Ann Arbor liberal like me would, could or should enjoy (totally closed-minded of me … I get it).

Yet, when you’re there, it’s all gleaming spires, clean streets, pleasant people (saw a LOT of “Ready for Hillary” and “Feel the Bern” buttons and bumper stickers, so I suspect my prejudices about the region are all kinds of wrong), and well-curated on-street art installations. It’s actually a very nice town.

And the joy of watching a woman dressed in full Klingon regalia sitting right beside a snooty, Eileen Fisher-garbed symphony patron pleased every ounce of my soul.

Chris Pine at James T. Kirk

Chris Pine at James T. Kirk

The performance itself was an amazing experience. For anyone who loves movies and music and appreciates the alchemic power when those two worlds collide, this presentation style is pretty epic and completely moving.

The Grand Rapids Symphony exhibited a precision and a coherence akin to the finest symphony orchestras (not that I’ve heard that many, but these guys are on point). In fact, I rapidly forgot there was even an orchestra on stage (strange praise, I realize), as their fine work blended so seamlessly with the images and dialogue being projected on the screen. Likely, this kind of production is the closest any of us will come to watching an orchestra actually record the soundtrack for a blockbuster film.

Star Trek‘s director J.J. Abrams, much like his inspirations George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and their legendary cinematic partnership with John Williams, has hitched his directorial star to a singular composer: Michael Giacchino. Smart fellow. Giacchino’s fusion of jazz-style sketches and orchestral bombast is as distinctive as it is compelling, an approach that lovingly augments and accentuates Abrams’ reverence for all the Gen X sci fi classics.

Zachary Quinto as Spock ... Winona Ryder as his mom?

Zachary Quinto as Spock … Winona Ryder as his mom?

I had always had an appreciation for Giacchino’s work (The Incredibles soundtrack is a particular favorite), but, hearing his Star Trek score performed live, I was able to grasp more of its thematic nuance and playful fun (lots of great homages to the classic Star Trek Theme and other incidental cues).

With the benefit of a live orchestra, there were colors and light between the notes that one fails to appreciate seeing the film in its original state. The copious talent of this symphony, guest-conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulus, coupled with their evident respect and delight for Giacchino’s sprightly work, made for a transporting experience.

(No, I’m not going to make a stupid “Beam me up, Scotty” teleporter joke here. Nope. Though I will admit that the performance left me quite “energized” … see what I did there?)

Eric Bana as Nero

Eric Bana as Nero

Oh, and the movie itself? That ain’t bad either.

It’s been quite a while since I revisited this particular Star Trek installment, and, much like when I caught The Wizard of Oz again on the big screen at the Michigan Theatre a few years ago, I had an entirely different appreciation.

Not unlike that 1939 classic, this film stands on its own, not just as fantasy, but also as a really funny, super-clever, swashbuckling comedy. Abrams and his exceptional cast appropriately genuflect before their source material but aren’t afraid to work in some winking criticism of the franchise’s cornier, paste-board legacy.

Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), and Karl Urban (Bones) channel the hammier tics of their forebears, while bringing a rich inner life that their respective characters never enjoyed until this point. One part Marx Brothers, one part Royal Shakespeare Company, one part Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon. And it works beautifully.

12122656_10206862538300917_654733001025449790_nWatching the film again and enjoying Abrams’ kicky reinvention of these campy icons, I am now even more intrigued to see what he does with this December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens re-launch.

In fact, I was struck by how his Star Trek is a delightfully shameless swipe of Star Wars: A New Hope: a galactic madman (Darth Vader or Nero?) roaming the galaxy, astride a planet-destroying machine (Death Star or Narada?), while a rogues’ gallery of rebellious do-gooders – sparky farm boy (Luke Skywalker or James T. Kirk?), smart-mouthed neo-feminist (Princess Leia or Uhura?), coolly logical mentor (Obi-Wan Kenobi or Spock?), long-in-the-tooth scalawag (Han Solo or Bones McCoy?) – and their various comic sidekicks assemble to destroy the Big Bad and save the day.

12072661_10206862455618850_6847623126827410694_nThrow in a very Star Trek time travel conundrum, – that has the side benefit of literally rebooting an infinitely marketable, utterly toyetic franchise – and you have a super-sized sci fi Star Wars-ish blockbuster. My comparison may be stretched a bit, and the Star Trek vs. Star Wars people will have all kinds of minutiae upon which they’ll feel the need to correct me, but I think I’m on to something. 🙂

J.J. Abrams’ take on the socially conscious Star Trek mythos is much more Buck Rogers-esque escape than Communist Manifesto-commentary. And that may be why I enjoy it so much, so his version of Star Wars has my curiosity piqued indeed.

Thanks to Lori Rundall for her thoughtful wedding gift of the tickets to see this provocative meld of cinema and live music. If you get a chance to take in such a show, I highly recommend it, regardless the film or the composer or the venue!

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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.

“Oh, facts and opinions, who can tell them apart?” Pixar’s Inside Out

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

When it comes to Pixar, I’m a sucker for their more esoteric/existential offerings: Up, WALL-E, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles. If you had told me twenty years ago that there would be an animation super-company that synthesizes the works of Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Chaplin … and Abbott & Costello for mass-market, blockbuster consumption, well, I would have simply replied, “Why are we here?” (Cue existentialist rim shot.)

No film in the Pixar canon, though, can compare for sheer WTF meaning-of-life audacity to their latest Inside Out. I loved this movie for its gentle heart, its minimalist humor, and its sly message that all emotions are valid and essential, not just that most-favored nation: technicolor, buoyant, “have a blessed day” joy.

The film details the awkward transition of a sweet, beloved only child (Riley, charmingly voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) as she and her parents relocate from their small-town home in Minnesota to the big city life of San Francisco. The transition isn’t an easy one, as the family’s belongings are lost mid-transit, Riley finds herself missing friends and activities from her previous life, and her new school offers little reprieve. Complicating (or causing?) these challenges are a series of misadventures from the voices living in Riley’s head.

When I saw the first preview several months ago, I admit I was dubious about the central conceit: that our emotional inner life can be distilled into five warring character traits: Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). From the looks of things, I feared that Pixar had swiped the concept of that odd 70s construct Mr. Men and Little Miss, whereby we Me-Era kindergartners learned about our thorniest of emotions and the need to share and play well with others via a series of easy-to-read, infinitely merchandised board-books. And lest we not forget the acid trip “Free To Be You and Me” musings of holiday specials from Rankin/Bass and Sid and Marty Krofft where the fight for one’s psychological well-being could be enacted through feuding Claymation characters representing weather fronts or trippy sea monsters and Phyllis Diller witches. How we Gen X’ers survived, I’ll never know.

(We also had the short-lived, early 90s sitcom Herman’s Head, likely crafted by someone weaned on the animated output of the Children’s Television Workshop but with a naughtier spin, in which a young writer had every decision dictated by a group of wise-cracking Jiminy Crickets cohabiting in his cranium. Interestingly, that show, like Pixar’s Inside Out, was executive produced by Disney.)

How wrong I was! (And apologies for the digression into artifacts of my childhood – Inside Out is so good, you can’t help but plumb the depths of your youth upon exiting the theater.)

The film does share its DNA with earlier cinematic/television efforts to explain psychology to kids and adults alike, but it is also very much its own unique creation. Director Peter Docter (who helmed Up as well as Monsters, Inc.) is in his element constructing richly detailed mythology for us all to understand and appreciate the colors (quite literally) of our emotional responses. With Inside out, the primal depth of Up (I dare you not to watch the opening sequence of that film and find yourself in poignant Ingmar Bergman puddle) finds a new home in the Rube Goldberg whimsy of Monsters, Inc. as Docter and his team give us an Oz-like travelogue through the various geographies in one’s brain.

After a mix-up involving some precious long-term memories, sending Riley on a prepubescent spiral of self-doubt, Joy and Sadness find themselves on the unlikeliest of road-trips, navigating Riley’s id, ego, and superego in order to right a sinking ship.

There are many clever asides and surprises along the way, and I dare not spoil a one. I will note, however, that I guffawed loudest at a bit where Joy stumbles over what appears to be a large box of placards, jumbling them all. She comments, “Oh, facts and opinions, who can tell them apart?” In these contentious times, truer words may have never been spoken in an animated film.

At the halfway point, the heartbreaking soul of the film makes his shaggy, sad-sack appearance. Richard Kind is exceptionally voice-cast as Riley’s elephant-nosed, cotton candy-bodied, cat-tailed imaginary friend Bing Bong. As Riley’s life has evolved, Bing Bong has become a stranger in a strange land, a Didi/Gogo whose tears take the form of cellophane-wrapped candy pieces. As he assists and occasionally misleads Joy and Sadness from the dark recesses of Riley’s brain, he insinuates his way into the audience’s heart, and his ultimate sacrifice (not saying what) is as devastating a moment as you’ll see in cinemas this year. (At least it was for this weirdo who still personifies all of his childhood toys and can’t bring himself to part with a one.)

The film’s final message for us all? (One I find so very important.) Every feeling is valid and shapes who we are. Sadness is as crucial as joy, anger as essential as fear or disgust. To force happiness when it isn’t immediately evident is to cause even greater sadness and disruption. Embrace who you are and how you feel in the moment, and embrace that honesty in others as well. We will all be that much happier as a result.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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

Step into the Way-Back Machine: The Book Thief and Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In my estimation, there are chiefly two types of films for young people:

There are the ones where a kid’s innocent yet wary POV on a grown-up world helps both adults and children better understand how tender and tenuous our collective grasp on daily reality truly is (e.g. To Kill a Mockingbird, Babe, The Black Stallion, E.T.).

And then there are those where sheer nonsensical anarchy takes over and society is seen through a colorfully madcap lens to rationalize how unfair and frustrating life can be (e.g. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Toy Story, The Princess Bride, The Incredibles).

 

Today, I saw fine examples of each form: The Book Thief (on DVD) and Mr. Peabody & Sherman (still in theatres).

The Book Thief somehow escaped my attention last fall when it was released. I think it was unjustifiably lost in a shuffle of Oscar hopefuls and critical muckraking (the latter of which appeared perilously close to sour grapes pettiness regarding the runaway success of the young adult novel by Markus Zusak on which the film is based).

Starring Geoffrey Rush (who turns in a refreshingly nuanced and subtle performance) and Emily Watson (always magnificent, walking that fine line between heartwarming, poignant and world-weary) and introducing Sophie Nelisse, The Book Thief offers a look into the atrocities of Nazi Germany from the perspective of a child growing up in a small town where survival is the primary concern.

Akin to essential classic The Mortal Storm, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan (if you’ve never seen it, you must), The Book Thief relates the sweaty, creeping terror of totalitarian Nazi rule as it insinuates itself into the daily lives of everyday citizens. I remember thinking as child, “How could German citizens let this happen?” Both The Book Thief and The Mortal Storm do a wonderful and chilling job of showing that progression.

(And as an adult in post-millennial America, both films give me pause about where some of our political and business leaders might try to take us.)

Rush and Watson’s characters, not altogether altruistically, take lost soul Liesel (played by Nelisse) into their home. Liesel’s birth mother is a socialist who gives her daughter and son up, ostensibly for the children’s safety; the brother is lost to some unidentified ailment en route to their new home. As the film proceeds, we realize that flinty Watson and flaky Rush are actually deep-feeling souls whose private disgust over the direction Nazi Germany takes is balanced with an equally heart-wrenching desire to protect their adopted daughter, their unconventional life, and those human beings who enrich their existence, including a young Jewish man (ably played by Ben Schnetzer) who camps out in their basement to avoid persecution.

The film’s title is a nickname for Liesel, whose character is illiterate at the film’s outset but who learns the liberating power of language and free thought from the books she is able to swipe, despite Nazi attempts to limit citizens’ access to certain literature, art, and music.

John Williams’ score as always is lush and evocative and practically a character unto itself.

There is great supporting acting work throughout, including Barbara Auer as the mayor’s kindly wife who has her own literary secrets, Nico Liersch as Liesel’s charmingly unconventional best friend, and Roger Allam as, yes, the omniscient narrator Death. It is this latter aspect that gives the film its emotional resonance and sharp edge. Death is not spooky or malevolent but practical and even kindly, giving young and old alike a reminder of our inevitable mortality and that every moment should be lived as authentically and kindly as life will allow.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Now, on the other end of the family movie spectrum, we have Mr. Peabody & Sherman, based on my personally favorite segment of Jay Ward’s 1960s TV classic series Rocky & Bullwinkle.

For those unfamiliar with the concept (or how unlikely it is that I am pairing this movie with The Book Thief – just the luck of the draw in today’s viewings!), Mr. Peabody & Sherman relates the tale of a genius bespectacled pooch who adopts a not-so-genius bespectacled boy, invents a time machine (among many other scientific breakthroughs), and takes his son on many educational excursions throughout history.

The premise from the TV show essentially remains the same in this big screen adaptation, including Mr. Peabody’s endless series of painfully-so-unfunny-that-they’re-actually-funny puns and the crackpot Looney Tunes-meets-Your Show of Shows-era-Mel Brooks/Sid Caesar takes on historical figures as varied as King Tut, Marie Antoinette, Agamemnon, and George Washington.

The drawback for me would be DreamWorks Animation’s needless obsession with fart/poop/butt jokes. There were at least a dozen too many; they were jarring and dumb and an ugly distraction from what was otherwise clever and charming.

As in any good kids’ flick, despite the cartoon mania, there is a very real and haunting tension: that the adopted (and clearly adored) Sherman will be taken away from his doting canine father Mr. Peabody because the conventional world cannot accept such an arrangement.

Allison Janney does fine voice work as a beefy busybody social worker who will stop at nothing to upend their happy life, and Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann (someone needs to cast them as a live action movie couple stat!) are starched-shirt-hysterical as a rival set of parents (think God of Carnage-lite) whose bullying daughter is bitten by Sherman at school. (Hence the overreaction of all the “sensible” humans that a dog is raising a boy as his own son.)

Mr. Peabody throws a dinner party to try to settle the matter in a civilized fashion, the kids monkey with the Way-Back Machine, something wonky happens to the space-time continuum, and all sorts of silliness ensues.

Directed by Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little), Mr. Peabody & Sherman is weighed down by its own episodic structure as we careen among historical eras, and, sadly, the ending is the typical lazy “let’s blow some stuff up and regurgitate some nonsensical pseudo science to wrap everything up” conclusion that Hollywood always tacks on these kinds of films.

But for a few brief and shining moments, Mr. Peabody & Sherman breaks through the absurdity and offers sweet-natured messages of tolerance and joy and, yes, like The Book Thief, the necessity of free thought and the critical importance of family, no matter how left-of-center.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.