“Our blackness is the weapon they fear.” The Hate U Give (film review)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A young woman, torn between two worlds, discovers her voice and her resolve and becomes a champion of her people in the face of tyranny. This trope has long-defined a good chunk of young adult fiction from The Wizard of Oz to The Hunger Games, Alice in Wonderland to Divergent. However, those works use allegorical fantasy to safely distance the reader from the tumult of real-life. Oh, and those works all feature a female protagonist who is white. There may be a sidekick or two of color, but that’s it.

Angie Thomas jettisons the allegory and brings us face-to-face with the racism, sexism, and economic disparity crippling our country in her young adult novel The Hate U Give (title courtesy of a 2Pac lyric), now sure-handedly adapted into film by director George Tillman, Jr. (Soul Food, Barbershop, Notorious).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

African-American teen Starr Carter – portrayed in the film with exceptional fire and presence by Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) – is a luminous and high-potential presence at Williamson, her all-white, upper-class high school . Her principled parents (Girls Trip‘s Regina Hall and Fences‘ Russell Hornsby delivering just the right mix of haunted bravery and pragmatic compassion) have kept the family residing in neighboring Garden Heights – a hardscrabble community riddled with gun violence, drug lords, and countless dead ends – to remain close to their roots, but they drive their kids to Williamson to give their progeny a leg up on their education. I suspect there is a lot that could be written about those parenting choices (pro and con), but that is the narrative conceit around which The Hate U Give‘s story revolves.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

One night, after attending a house party in her home town, Starr witnesses one of her dearest and oldest friends (a heartbreakingly charming Algee Smith – Detroit) gunned down in a routine traffic stop. The narrative then tracks her challenges overcoming her own fears and those of her parents – re: taking a stand and testifying – as well as her burgeoning realization that her well-intentioned but myopic classmates don’t know the first thing about the daily dangers Starr faces in her own neighborhood.

Tillman’s film is a gut punch, particularly in its nuanced first hour, as we are introduced to Starr’s world(s) and trace the tricky balancing act she performs every day. If there is a flaw in the film, it is that – due to the time-limitations of film versus novel – the Williamson side of Starr’s life is relatively unexplored and her school chums remain ciphers, chiefly providing the occasional plot complication and little more.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The supporting cast is exceptional: Selma‘s Common as Starr’s loving but arguably hypocritical policeman uncle who collects a paycheck while (sort of) accepting the party line to “shoot first, ask questions later”; Captain America‘s Anthony Mackie as a local drug lord who was once best buds with Starr’s father and whose children remain Starr’s pals; Riverdale‘s KJ Apa wringing his Archie Andrews best from an underwritten role as Starr’s boyfriend; and singer Sabrina Carpenter (“Thumbs“) as one of Starr’s besties who devolves into the junior version of Laura Ingraham before Starr’s very eyes.

Apparently, I will spend this autumn in the multiplex in a puddle of tears. A Star is Born gutted me, and, now, The Hate U Give had the same impact. The latter film grows increasingly predictable as it reaches its climactic moments, but it is so well-executed with such authenticity and is so sensitively relevant to the callous and cruel days in which we are living that I found myself having about 12 ugly cries through its running time. I attribute that, not only to Tillman’s confident and workmanlike direction, but to performances – particularly Stenberg’s, Hall’s, and Hornsby’s – that stubbornly refuse to embrace cinematic escapism. This family is a loving one, rife with disagreements, but ultimately wanting to rise above the fray and simply live.

We all want that. We all need that. We all deserve that. Yet, every day when I read the headlines, that seems to be an increasingly unattainable pipe dream.

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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.

 

“There’s a problem on the horizon. … There is no horizon.” Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“You’re confusing peace with terror.” – reluctant Death Star engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen)

“Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.” – power-hungry Imperial overlord Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)

It’s December again. And in the new merchandise-mad, money-hungry cycle that Lucasfilm’s corporate parent Disney has established, it’s new Star Wars movie time too. May is now Marvel’s month, and that makes me a little sad. Summer was Star Wars season when I was a kid, so I equate that long-stretch of warm weather as the period you escaped the rigid confines of public school and caught up with Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, Darth, and friends, reenacting big screen adventures in the backyard or poolside. Unless we all plan to ride Tauntauns across Hoth’s frozen tundra (#nerdjoke), ain’t too much role play happening in the backyard this holiday season.

The latest entry in the series is being dubbed a standalone “Star Wars story” in that it is not tied into any particular trilogy of films. Rogue One fleshes out a throwaway reference in the original 1977 film (now known as A New Hope), explicating how the plans for the original “Death Star” make their way from Imperial architects to the shiny dome of one bee-booping droid R2-D2.

It’s a clever (and wisely capitalistic) conceit, and, for the most part, the film satisfies the inquisitive fifth-grader in us all, acting out a scenario many may have tried to imagine 30-some years ago using piles of Kenner action figures.

Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have concocted a blockbuster that is one part The Guns of Navarone with a sprinkling of Saving Private Ryan and one part The Wizard of Oz with a dollop of Little Orphan Annie, blended with a whole heaping helping of deep geek references to the infrastructure and mythology of the original Star Wars films – heavier on the 70s/80s entries, but not entirely neglecting the better parts of thee 90s/00s flicks. Rogue One is a darker journey (in a-not-terribly-shocking SPOILER alert, let’s just say things don’t end particularly well for the new characters), exploring the bowels of the Star Wars universe and setting up the oppressively fascistic milieu of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. I mean the Rebel Alliance has to rebel against something, right?

Much has been made in the news (well, FoxNews … ironic, since Fox used to own the franchise) about the filmmakers’ social media critique of President-elect Donald Trump and of their allusions to the frightening similarities between the fantasy world concocted by George Lucas and the hateful xenophobic power-grabbing of our real-world politicians. Let it be said that there is nothing in this film that satirizes directly the shenanigans of this past fall as we head toward January’s inauguration. How could there be? The film was shot in 2015, with a mountain of special effects to achieve in post-production until now. However, in these fraught days of dubiously motivated cabinet appointees, tumultuous international relations, heartbreaking Middle East conflict, and cyber-attacks of an unprecedented (NOT “unpresidented”) scale, I found it difficult to enjoy the escapist “fun” of a band of scruffy rebels fighting unscrupulous bureaucrats, planet-hopping at a dizzying pace, engaging in bloody street battles across crowded and dusty marketplaces, and hacking into monolithic computer systems to release state secrets. But maybe that’s just me.

Rogue One is entertaining and gives us longtime fans a lot of intriguing backstory upon which to chew for months to come. I fear that the casual viewer will find it too talky and somber by half, waiting for the trademark space dogfights to kick in. And they do – the last 45 minutes are a doozy. For us Star Wars nuts, the “palace intrigue” will be a hoot, albeit a bleak hoot, with effective reappearances by Darth Vader (voiced again by James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin (creepily CGI-reincarnated Peter Cushing, looking like a refugee from The Polar Express).

The series newcomers blend in well, if not leaving any lasting impressions. Felicity Jones, so good in The Theory of Everything,  is haunting if a bit dour throughout as protagonist Jyn Erso. She is yet another in the long line of Star Wars orphans, abandoned by parents more invested in political statements than child-rearing; consequently, she has a reason to be rather glum. Like The Force Awakens‘ Rey (Daisy Ridley), she is a welcome addition to a series that hasn’t always celebrated strong, independent, adventuring women. Her father Galen Erso (a soulful Mads Mikkelsen) is the chief designer of the much-vaunted Death Star, and his change of heart puts both him and his family at great peril when he flees the project, hiding out as a moisture farmer on some forgotten planet. (The Roy of 30+ years ago would have been able to remember all of the planets named/visited in Rogue One. Present-day Roy? No clue. Nor do I care.) The Empire, led by Orson Krennic (a rather forgettable Ben Mendelsohn in a stiff, starchy, heavily-creased white cape that implies there are neither fashion designers nor irons in space) tracks Galen down and drags him back to work, leaving Jyn effectively orphaned for a really long time.

Eventually, the nascent Rebel Alliance seek the adult Jyn out. Jyn is now a felon, living the Lucasfilm equivalent of Orange is the New Black after being raised by cyborg Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker in his typical scene-killing-ham mode). You see, the Rebels want Jyn to help them find her pa, get the plans for whatever the Empire is cooking up (“That’s no moon!”), and save the day. Along the way, Jyn meets cute with Cassian Andor (a pleasant but uncharismatic Diego Luna) and his comically nihilistic robot buddy K-2S0 (voiced delightfully by Alan Tudyk, proving that he is always the MVP of any movie in which he – or his pipes – appear). The trio collect a band of good-hearted and refreshingly diverse misfits (actors Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen – all turning in credible, nuanced character turns) on their way to the inevitable denouement, setting up neatly the opening sequence of A New Hope.

Rogue One is stingier with the whimsy than other Star Wars films. The humor is sardonic, not Saturday Matinee side-splitting. As the Death Star baddies use their new toy for target practice, noble Cassian scans the incoming cloud of debris and destruction and mutters, “There’s a problem on the horizon. … There is no horizon.” It gets a laugh, but not a hearty one. Perhaps, we in the audience are just a bit too worried about our own horizon these days to find the humor any more.

Maybe I will go play with my old Kenner toys in the backyard, frostbite be damned. I need the escape.

“It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.” – Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) when asked how can she live in a world where Imperial flags oppressively dominate the landscape

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[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.

“Surrounded by the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is to the “Harry Potter” cinematic universe what Captain America: The First Avenger is to the “Marvel” one. Bear with me here. In the obvious, both films are set in a golden-hued America of yesteryear where art deco glitter and workaday charm belie a dark societal underbelly of xenophobic, segregated bullying. In a more esoteric way, both films are surprising throwbacks to a slower paced, quieter, more subdued (escapist fantasy and overindulgent special effects notwithstanding) kind of film-making, where whimsy and poignancy meet and where heartbroken underdogs have their day.

I like cinema like that – Frank Capra, The Wizard of Oz, Howard Hawks, Saturday matinee cliffhangers, and so on, and even latter day homages like The Rocketeer or Dick Tracy. Modern audiences aren’t always sprung on this kind of retro storytelling – though Fantastic Beasts‘ box office returns seem to buck that trend.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series (and the movie adaptations) focused, in a Brit boarding school milieu, on young wizarding students overcoming adversity, championing inclusion, and saving the day. Goodbye, Mr. Chips meets The Once and Future KingA Separate Peace meets Bewitched. Directed by longtime series helmer David Yates, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – a Harry Potter prequel of sorts that explores the American side of this magical world, nearly a century earlier (1926 to be exact) – is a different animal altogether (pun intended).

Newt Scamander (portrayed by Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne with the same shaggy-dog, twitchy, social misfit schtick he employed in The Theory of Everything) is a Hogwarts dropout who has dedicated himself to rescuing, rehabilitating, and protecting the mythical, magical animals of this world, woebegone creatures that neither muggle nor wizard seem to treat with honor or respect. He ventures across the pond for mysterious reasons, and some of his furry and feathered friends escape his watchful eye to frolic in a Jazz Age Manhattan. Spirited hijinks ensue, with surprisingly genuine peril and minimal lowest-common-denominator slapstick. In fact, Redmayne frets that these runaway critters are now “surrounded by the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” If Al Gore and PETA collaborated on a Harry Potter backstory, I suspect it wouldn’t be too different from the screenplay J.K. Rowling crafted here. Again: ok by me.

Redmayne is joined by a fabulous rogues’ gallery of character actors:

  • Katherine Waterston, suggesting Maura Tierney’s introspective authority as a low-level American wizard cop;
  • Dan Fogler, the Putnam County Spelling Bee-Tony winner bringing limited comic relief as a sadsack “Non-Maj” and wannabe baker along for the ride;
  • Alison Sudol, breathily transfixing – a Marilyn Monroe with Jessica Chastain’s flint – as Waterston’s mind-reading sis;
  • Ezra Miller, delivering the film’s most refreshingly unsettling moments as a glowering, abused Jimmy Fallon doppelganger (with an Oliver Cromwell haircuit) concealing a deep, dark secret;
  • Samantha Morton, always so ethereally captivating, this time as an ominous, muckraking evangelical;
  • Jon Voight, another great presence, when not getting tripped up by his own politics, ironically cast as a William Randolph Hearst-ish proto-Trump;
  • Carmen Ejogo, stately and evocative as the president of American wizarding society, tangled  in her own bureaucratic machinations;
  • Ron Perlman, nearly unrecognizable as an  Edward G. Robinson-ish mobster troll (literally, a troll), who runs muscle and intel from the murky corners of a Grimms’ fairy tale speakeasy;
  • And Colin Farrell, arguably the best of the bunch, having an understated field day, full of stylish gravitas, as Newt’s chief nemesis, maneuvering chess pieces to ignite a race war between wizards and humans.

Unlike other entries in the Harry Potter canon, Fantastic Beasts unfolds less like a picaresque and more like a candy-colored potboiler. (Technicolor noir?) Why is Newt in America? What is the political endgame for the various players introduced? Why is there such loathing and fear for these beautiful, mischievous creatures Newt hides and hauls around in a battered brown suitcase, a valise that magically hides a portal to Rowling’s version of the world’s grooviest “no-kill” shelter? By the film’s predictably cacophonous denouement (my only criticism), many answers are provided, but enough dangling threads are left to tee up (no doubt) another (very profitable) series of films. I think I’ll be packing my suitcase to tag along.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[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.

Count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. Fox’s #GreaseLive!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like Grease (in any of its musical forms – Broadway, film, community theatre, drunken karaoke). And I ain’t never gonna like Grease. There are some catchy songs, and Rizzo is pretty much a Teflon-plated hoot no matter who is applying Stockard Channing’s time-tested performance template (even if Channing herself seemed like a 45-year-old playing that role). Yet, the book (in its countless revisions) can’t decide if it wants to be corny, contrived, plastic sock-hop nostalgia or crude, crass, grimy locker room ick. The character development rarely rises above that of an Archie comic – an uneasy mix of satire, camp, and canonization. And the climactic message of “be yourself … no, wait, don’t be yourself … tease, your hair, slap on Spandex pants, and strut around like an inebriated race horse” (which could describe Danny’s arc as much as it does Sandy’s) is, shall we say, problematic?

So, I came at Sunday’s Grease Live! – Fox’s gambit in the ever-escalating live televised musical arms race – with a bit of trepidation and a whole heap of hate-watching ire in my arsenal. Said arsenal remains unused this Monday morning. The show was actually kind of … good? Maybe I can deploy my ire for the Iowa caucus?

As in the days following NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!, and The Wiz Live! (think we could retire the “live” and the exclamation marks, folks?), there will be a lot of digital “ink” spilled and memes/GIFs posted, some fawning, some hypercritical, but one can’t deny that this new genre – that is neither really live (Live!) nor filmed, neither organic/authentic nor polished/accomplished, neither bad nor good – is a happening that energizes viewers, inspires conversation, and piques our collective cultural interest in stage musicals again.

Let it be said that none of the musicals performed to date are anything I would have chosen to perform or to see, left to my own devices. To me, these shows are all tired, shopworn, and clichéd. All have been filmed and/or performed live on television before, and, with the exception of The Wiz, those prior adaptations were more or less already considered definitive. The next wave of shows coming down the pike – Hairspray (?!) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – just affirms that conclusion, though Rocky Horror’s casting – gender-bending an already bent show – may prove intriguing.

For all intents and purposes, these shows are less theatre, more stunt spectacle, as if a monster truck rally and a high school theatre department collaborated for a production that none of us really want to see again but can’t not watch. NBC/Fox could give a fig what theatre snobs think. These shows are a throwback to a time when The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind aired annually on network television, when people didn’t think twice when three (!) different television adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella aired over the years, or when plays like Twelve Angry Men could hit Broadway and be a live television event and a major motion picture in rapid succession. It’s called event programming – it’s always existed, it’s always drawn eyeballs and made money for the networks, it’s always had corporate sponsors (Alcoa! Coca-Cola! Frigidaire!) …  and viewers have always said their era was better than the one in which we find ourselves now.

Grease Live! had the spectacle part down pat. There were clever fourth-wall-breaking behind-the-scenes commercial breaks and scene transitions (grimacing host Mario Lopez and those runaway golf carts notwithstanding). The film-worthy indoor/outdoor sets and the acres of Warner Brothers’ backlot dedicated to the production, including a full-fledged amusement park, were incredible (rainstorms notwithstanding). I would love to know how they accomplished the seamlessly gliding transitions from one fully-realized location to the next – notably the transitions from Rizzo’s Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom to a glitzy USO stage and back (Keke Palmer’s star turn on forgotten number “Freddy My Love”) or from gleaming 360 degree art deco diner to “Teen Angel” heaven (Carly Rae Jepsen’s otherwise forgettable new tune “All I Need Is An Angel” and BoyzIIMen’s shaky “Beauty School Dropout”).

Hamilton helmer Thomas Kail’s direction of all the musical numbers (aided and abetted beautifully by Glee alum Zach Woodlee’s loving choreography) was sharp, purposeful, and epic, furthering the narrative in clever ways (Jordan Fisher’s “Those Magic Changes” an early delight, detailing Danny Zukko’s failed efforts to “fit in”) and providing flashy, eye-popping showstoppers (“Summer Lovin’,” “Greased Lightnin’,” “Born to Hand Jive,” and the finale “You’re the One That I Want/We Go Together” all crackled with a frenetic music video energy … and that’s a good thing). And the costumes (and instantaneous costume changes)?  To die for.  Frothy, cute, and kinetic.

The cast – made up of Disney Channel refugees, Grease movie alumni, and a handful of legit stage stars – wasn’t always able to match the technical prowess, and I suspect Kail was wisely hedging his bets by layering on the gloss and the wow, so we didn’t notice (or care) when a cast member hit a sour note (rarely) or performed their dialogue like they were reading the side of a cereal box (often). Vanessa Hudgens’ Rizzo was the star of the night. Her Rizzo may have lacked pathos, but she added a layer of heartbroken outsider sweetness (not unlike what Laura Benanti brought to Sound of Music’s “Baroness”) that was an appealing counterpoint to all the gum-cracking sass. She infused “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” with a welcome playfulness that kept the song from devolving into sheer meanness (as it often does).

The aforementioned Keke Palmer brought presence and poise to her Marty, quietly driving every scene in which she appeared, and Jepsen was appealingly forlorn as pink-haired loser Frenchy. The Pink Ladies, generally, kept the enterprise afloat, with a loveable sauciness that unfortunately was unmatched by the rather forgettable T-Birds. Not a moment stood out for the greasers, though Aaron Tveit’s Danny Zuko was a singing/dancing marvel. He is arguably the most accomplished musical vet of the cast (Next to Normal, Les Miserables), and it showed, in both good and bad ways. He hit every mark, sang like an angel, and nailed every move and gesture and pose … but he didn’t seem to be having one darn bit of fun. He lacked an impish sparkle that would have sold the performance for the ages, which is a shame, as he did bring a hunky empathy and kindness that actors typically don’t give the role, distracted as they often are with the pompadour and the leather jacket and the cars and the mythically phony “50s-ishness” of it all.

Julianne Hough is not my cup of tea. Never has been. Like Tveit, she has the technical know-how (particularly where movement is concerned) but she has this inherent bland unlikeability that I can’t ever quite get past. Yet, in the case of this production, that quality served her and the show well (to a degree). I’ve never understood why Rizzo, in particular, hates Sandy so much, so quickly. The nebulously defined rivalry over Danny just never works (and is too sexist anyway). So, having a lightly annoying Sandy to motivate a less bullying Rizzo worked for me, whether that was intentional or just a happy accident of chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Saturday Night Live’s Ana Gasteyer was stoic perfection, as the malaprop-spewing Rydell High principal, and Wendell Pierce was fun as an archetypically pompous and inept coach/gym teacher. Didi Conn (Frenchy in the original film) and Eve Plumb (“Jan Brady”) offered spry cameo turns, and Jessie J (England’s answer to P!nk) did a serviceable job performing the iconic “Grease (Is the Word)” over the opening credits – a tune originally sung by Frankie Valli and written by Barry Gibb for the 1978 film. Never mind that the lyrics to “Grease (Is the Word)” make absolutely no sense (the term “word salad” springs to mind) nor do they have any discernible connection to the plot; the tune’s catchy, we all know it, and it’s perfectly marketable as a pop single. Money, money, money!

In the end, that’s all Grease Live! was every really about anyway. This isn’t great art. This isn’t Great Performances. (Hell,  that high-minded PBS program is underwritten by the Koch Brothers now, isn’t it?) These “live” musicals are an exercise in commerce with a light veneer of artistic pretense. Take some songs you know and a premise you vaguely recall from your youth, mix in a Fantasy Island’s gaggle of dubious “talents,” layer on some high-paying sponsors, promote the sh*t out of it, and count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. #Captalism_Live!

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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.

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.

This isn’t Disney’s first dance in Oz: Oz the Great and Powerful

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So I have always loved The Wizard of Oz. Not just the 1939 MGM classic film, but all of the books and the various spin-offs/prequels/sequels/reboots/homages/ rip-offs over the years. I even adore Sidney Lumet’s infamous box office disaster The Wiz.

And, now, we have the latest in a long line: Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful. This isn’t Disney’s first dance in Oz. The company, including Walt himself, has rather famously circled the property since the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Most notably, Disney tried to create a movie Oz franchise nearly 30 years ago with the dark and kinda creepy Return to Oz, a movie I also really liked, given its thematic commitment to L. Frank Baum’s original books. But it too was box office poison. (In fact, if I recall, the original Wizard of Oz was pretty tepidly received in its day.)

So how will this James Franco tentpole fair? Disney seems to have its marketing machine in high gear (though that didn’t much help last year’s John Carter) and the subject matter and approach align well with other recent hits like Tim Burton’s bloated-but-uber-successful Alice in Wonderland. I’m guessing this may be the first Oz film to be an unequivocal box office smash in its original run.

Too bad it’s just not a better film.

I enjoyed a lot of it, but the whole thing feels trapped in a CGI/soundstage bubble. There’s just not enough genuine humor, wit, or tension to make it feel like anything but a mammoth cash grab from the Disney empire.

(Note: theme park competitor Universal owns the rights to Broadway musical Wicked, which takes a similar “what happened before Dorothy got there approach.” I couldn’t help reflecting that this was Disney’s attempt to get their version of the story told first, make buckets o’ cash, and then get cracking on some new animatronic theme park attractions before Universal even leaves the starting blocks. Hmmmm…)

Rachel Weisz as one of the three witches of Oz is the only one who seems to be having any fun at all. I’m not a fan, but she gives her Evanora a nice zippy crackle that the rest of the film lacks. James Franco is in fully charmy/smarmy “Franco!” mode, and he’s perfectly serviceable. Mila Kunis alas seems to sleepwalk through her rather pivotal turn as Evanora’s sister – I won’t spoil the surprise, though I understand the merchandise from the Disney Store already has. And Michelle Williams as Glinda has a cute moment or two but mostly seems to be channeling a fluffier version of her uncanny Marilyn Monroe impersonation from My Week with Marilyn.

That is a whole mess of Oscar winners/nominees for this enterprise to be as flat as it is. However, there are a couple of reasonably cute CGI sidekicks – China Girl and a flying monkey named Fenley. They get the best lines but unfortunately seem like refugees from the inevitable Wii U video game to come.

Director Sam Raimi, unfortunately left most traces of his adventurous and sardonic wit with the Spider-Man franchise, and this overly long film suffers for it.  Seriously, cut 20 minutes from this behemoth and there would have been a really good Wonderful World of Disney TV movie in there. Somewhere.

Yes, the movie will make a lot of moolah. Some people may even enjoy it…I will say the exciting conclusion almost made me forget how bored I was by the first 90 minutes of set up. And I daresay we won’t have to wait another 30 years for Disney’s next bite at the Oz apple. Sigh.