“My last chance to give you your first chance.” Cars 3

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Let’s be honest. The only reason Cars 3 exists (other than inspiring mountains of Mattel-manufactured die cast miniatures that will mint oodles of green) is to cleanse our collective palates of the tire fire that was Cars 2, a misguided attempt to reposition NASCAR-racing protagonist Lightning McQueen (voiced with languid charm by Owen Wilson) and grating sidekick Mater (voiced with overeager anti-charm by Larry the Cable Guy) as international men of mystery. In one fell swoop, Pixar not only managed to erase our fond memories of the genial, warm, albeit predictable first film but also created outright contempt for the franchise – or at minimum a ferocious desire to never see (or hear) Mater again. (Granted, that’s all in a day’s work for Larry the Cable Guy.)

Fortunately, Cars 3 is just the course correction Lightning McQueen and pals deserved, with a welcome pit stop for Mater’s character and more emphasis on the adorable Guido and Luigi as Lightning’s sidekicks-in-waiting. The film is a competent enterprise, never quite achieving the dizzying artistry of great Pixar flicks (Wall*E, Inside Out, Up), but pulling sweetly on that tried-and-true Pixar narrative thread of legacy, mortality, and the wistful ephemera of dreams deferred. We even gets some tear-jerking posthumous appearances by the late Paul Newman’s “Fabulous” Doc Hudson, a flinty/folksy voice from beyond reminding McQueen that winning isn’t everything but the family-we-make-in-life is.

Not unlike the pains of a certain obsolescence that haunt Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, and gang throughout the Toy Story series, McQueen also endures an existential crisis in Cars 3. Don’t worry, kids, this is not Ingmar Bergman territory, more Everybody Loves Raymond-lite manopause. Race after race, McQueen finds himself at the tailpipe end of a young upstart Jackson Storm (voiced with consummate smarm by Armie Hammer) and sees all of his longtime pals leave the circuit one by one. “How do you know when to retire? The kids will tell you,” Cal Weathers observes ruefully to McQueen.

After a nearly career-ending crash, McQueen goes into rebuilding mode, working with Sterling, a new sponsor played with oily glee by Nathan Fillion, and training with a too-too exuberant coach Cruz Ramirez (a sunny Christela Alonzo). It’s all pretty dear with one safe-silly training montage after another and maybe three too many jokes about McQueen being too ancient to understand new technology, lingo, fashion, etc.

But then Cars 3 does something interesting. Arguably even subversive. In a franchise that clearly gets its bread-and-butter by appealing to audiences for whom NASCAR races are high holy days and for whom Larry the Cable Guy may be the height of wit (yes, I know this sentence makes me sound like an elitist twerp … stick with me), the filmmakers treat us to a welcome dollop (or two) of “and she persisted” feminism.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ramirez and McQueen set off on a road trip to reclaim his racing mojo. Along the way, they encounter a force-of-nature school bus Ms. Fritter (voiced with fire and heart by queer feminist icon Lea DeLaria), who reigns supreme at a demolition derby.

It is here that McQueen experiences his first abject lesson that male pride ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

At the derby, Cruz Ramirez drives off with a trophy McQueen believes he rightfully deserves, and the two go their separate ways when Ramirez argues she has never been offered a chance to show what she is worth.

Is it still “white male privilege” when it’s in the guise of an anthropomorphized red race car?

Eventually, the pair reconcile when McQueen gets “woke” (that’s where the voice of Paul Newman comes in), and McQueen realizes the best legacy he can leave is by getting the h*ll out of Ramirez’ way in this new world. “This is my last chance to give you your first chance,” McQueen tells her, taking on the coaching mantle Doc Hudson once proudly held for McQueen. As you might expect (spoiler alert), Ramirez runs the film’s climactic race and kicks Jackson Storm’s … er … bumper.

Yes, I still have a teensy issue with the female character only getting her big break when it is offered to her by a male colleague. However, if that’s the narrative price to pay to gain an essential message that gender is irrelevant to talent and that everyone deserves their day in the sun (in the midst of a silly kids’ movie that seems chiefly designed to sell toys and backpacks), I’ll take it.

P.S. By the way, there is a lovely short preceding Cars 3. It is called LOU, and, as surreal as it sounds, the piece details how a haunted “lost and found” box breaks an ugly cycle of bullying on an elementary school playground. A welcome message for today’s America as well. Happy Fourth, y’all!

__________________________

[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.

 

Shaggy dog biting the hand that feeds: Randy Newman at The Palladium in Carmel, Indiana

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

The first concert I ever attended (at least that I remember) was when my parents took this eighth grader to see Bobby McFerrin at the much-vaunted Holidome in Crown Point, Indiana. Just take a moment and let that sentence settle in … and try to contain your envy. Yes, some kids in the late 80s went to see Madonna or Aerosmith or MC Hammer or New Kids on the Block, but for me it was Bobby McFerrin all the way. And this was before “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” So there.

The show was in the round, with just McFerrin and maybe a piano. I can’t recall. But with his phenomenal, otherworldly musicality, he rattled (largely acapella) through two hours of amazing numbers, not to mention his complete re-creation of the entire film The Wizard of Oz, including that iconic “I’m melting!” bit.

Flash forward, nearly 30 years (sigh), and I find myself yet again riding along in the backseat of my parents’ car, on our way to see another Baby Boomer mainstay Randy Newman, this time in Indianapolis. Nothing takes you back to the feeling of being a child like riding in the backseat of your parents’ car on a long car trip – that intoxicating mix of comfort and powerlessness as you cruise down the road listening to the squabbling and the laughter, to music you don’t recognize and familial history references you do. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.

Palladium

Palladium

So it is with this context that we took in Newman’s concert at Carmel, Indiana’s palatial music hall, the Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts. Such a musical hall Indiana has never before seen – a concert venue that looks like it was designed by M.C. Escher, if overdosed with Benzedrine by Liberace’s hairdresser, after visiting the Palace of Versailles or Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.” It really is beautiful and strange, with a byzantine entrance and egress system that made me feel like I was playing Milton Bradley’s Mousetrap.

However, there isn’t a bad seat in the house (nor a reasonably priced one), with Phantom of the Opera-esque box seats at every turn, polished cherry and marble floors, phenomenal acoustics and lighting, and super-cushy chairs.

As we sat there taking in the opulence, Newman lumbered on stage, after a loving introduction by Michael Feinstein himself. You see, Feinstein, a Columbus, Ohio native, helped get the Center established five or so years ago, alongside his husband Terrence Flannery, as a permanent monument to the Great American Songbook and to our musical theater traditions. The space also houses The Great American Songbook Foundation, which is very much worth visiting if you have some time to spare before a show there. They are great about arranging tours.

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

For over two hours, it was just Newman, his piano, and a very responsive audience. Newman isn’t quite the showman that McFerrin was/is – likely an unfair comparison since they’re such different artists, and I am judging them across a divide of 30 years. Ah well.

But what Newman lacked in showmanship, he made up in shaggy charm. He would periodically play wrong notes, stop, look up at the audience, shake his head, and say things like, “I never was a very good pianist.” Then, he would dive back into plunking out notes for many of his signature songs like “I Love L.A.,” “Short People,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”

A highlight for me was his performance of “Love Story (You and Me),” a Newman tune covered previously by artists as diverse as Harry Nilsson, Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte. The song is a poignant charmer and has not aged a bit. Newman delivered it with aplomb, his frogs-and-molasses voice the perfect accent to the song’s lilting, loping melody.

Newman peppered his set-list, which pretty much seemed made up as he went along, with anecdotes about his life as a child of Los Angeles, as a child of the 60s, and as a child of a movie soundtrack dynasty (he is the nephew of acclaimed film composers Alfred and Lionel Newman and the cousin of Thomas Newman). The casual vibe he affected was on the whole delightful, though a bit more preparation and variety would have benefited the slow-going second act.

An artist of Newman’s caliber with such an accomplished history in pop, theater, and movie music is pretty much just going to do whatever the hell he wants, so that’s just fine. It is unlikely he will come this way again, so we are grateful we got the chance to see him.

Newman at piano

Newman at piano

I never realized just how many songs the man has written about cities and/or states: Baltimore, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Louisiana. And he performed them all. They follow a similar formula, with snarky verses that alternate with hypnotic repetition of said geography’s name. He worked in a wink and a nod to his Hoosier hosts, noodling through “On the Banks of the Wabash” and “Back Home Again in Indiana,” at one point looking around the beautiful Palladium and cheekily observing, “What a dump.”

His show was riddled with his caustic takes on religion and politics, government and capitalism. That was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise conservative community, so I’m sure a few spiky letters to the editor will arrive at the Indianapolis Star this week.

Yet, if he had really wanted to drive a stake through the heartland, he should have played one of my personal favorites, his theme “That’ll Do” from Babe: Pig in the City. While originally sung by Peter Gabriel, their voices are rather interchangeable at this point, so I think Newman delivering this subtle ode to kindness and to compassion and, well, to pigs would have been the perfect punctuation mark on his performance in factory farming Indiana (sad example here). We thought about shouting the title “That’ll Do” (like some rowdy concert-goers shouted “Free Bird” when I saw Tracy Chapman at the Wabash College Chapel years ago), but then we realized he might misunderstand, think we were telling him he was done for the evening, and then walk off stage.

Newman, ever the iconoclast, also worked in his shots at corporate giant Disney, letting us know in no uncertain terms, that while he has appreciated the opportunity, he hasn’t always been thrilled with the artistic limitations imposed. In a funnier bit, he commented how frustrating it is to score something such as a toy soldier falling into a drawer, adding that there is a good 20 minutes of Toy Story he’s never seen, because that particular section didn’t require any musical scoring. He then launched into a fine rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” one of the sharpest musical moments of the evening. Again, I wouldn’t have minded hearing a slightly more obscure tune from the Toy Story saga, the beautiful and heartbreaking “When She Loved Me” (originally sung by Sarah McLachlan and written by Newman).

I guess it is a sign that I am more of a fan than I knew, having left the show enjoying what I heard but wishing for more songs than time had allowed.

Feinstein and Sexton

Feinstein and Sexton

As a final note, we realized after the show was over, that we had been seated in a box next to Michael Feinstein and his family and some potentially uber-wealthy donors. No doubt we probably would have been a bit better behaved had we known this – not putting our feet on the backs of chairs, nor taking flash photos, nor snapping our chewing gum. We are so classy. Regardless, after he finished schmoozing Daddy Warbucks and Co., Feinstein was kind and gracious enough to take a photo with us and to chat for a bit, though I suspect the cleaning crew was dispatched to our vacated box immediately.

Do take a moment to check out Feinstein’s Foundation and the great work they’re doing there, and if you feel like sending a donation to preserve our musical history and keep art alive, I’m sure it would be appreciated. If you find yourself in Indianapolis, definitely stop by for a visit or show. It’s worth it!

________________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. 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 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.

You’ve got a friend in me: Captain Kangaroo, blogging buddies, and movies

Captain Kangaroo

Captain Kangaroo

Facebook is fun! As some of my colleagues might tell you, I fought social media tooth and nail about five years ago, but now I can’t imagine a world without it. It breaks down barriers, opens minds, and disseminates interesting information like no other channel.

My pal Nick Sweet, a crime novelist born in England and now living in Spain, tagged me in a blog chain and asked me to answer the following questions. You can read his original post here.

But me being me … I can’t just do what I’m told. So I’m going to intersperse my answers with pages from another one of the “reviews” I wrote in my toddler years – this time about an episode of my beloved Captain Kangaroo. In fact, I adored the show so much I have my own autographed photo of Bob Keeshan as the Captain. (And you can check out Baby Roy’s take on The Bullfighter and the Lady here – thanks to my mom for saving these whimsical pages from my youth.)

Captain 1

Part of my task as assigned by Nick is also to “pay it forward” and acknowledge some bloggers that I love – please check out their work …

  • My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s fabulous free-thinking blog about animals, culture, empathy, and understanding here.
  • Beth Kennedy’s charming musings about yesterday and today at I Didn’t Have My Glasses On.
  • Lovely Kat Kelly Heinzelman’s thoughts on family, friends, and baseball at RedSoxLady35.
  • Gabriel Diego Valdez’ careful analysis of film, culture, and social politics at Basil Mariner Chase.
  • And my fellow thespian JP Hitesman’s energetic romp through local theatre offerings at Theatrical Buddha Man.

All five blogs are engaging and challenging and informative and rich – written by kind and thoughtful souls, hoping for a better, kinder world.

Captain 2

And here are my answers to Nick’s questions …

What am I working on?

What am I not working on? Between my daily life as a legal marketer, communicator, and strategic planner and my “free time” writing this blog, getting the word out about the Reel Roy Reviews book, proudly promoting my mom’s marvelous output as an author and a columnist and an animal rights activist, trying to be a good friend and family member, sharing a loving home and minding two nutty mutts, keeping up with my weekly comic book addiction, acting in and supporting local theatrical efforts, going to concerts and movies and plays, buying an ungodly amount of cds and dvds, and on and on, I’m not sure which end is up most days!

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Stealing this from the press release about the book … “I try to respect that (for the most part) these are show business professionals putting (ideally) their best feet forward and that they are human beings with hearts and souls and feelings. I hope I never seem cruel. I don’t mean to be. These writings are off-the-cuff and journal-style and come from as positive a place as I can muster….Approach everything and everyone honestly and with positive intent and offer candid feedback with an open heart and as much kindness as possible.”

Captain 3

Why do I write what I do?

Also stealing from the release (lord, I’m lazy today) … “Film is an encapsulated medium. Whether 90 minutes or three hours, a movie tells one story-beginning, middle, and end-introducing you to new friends, enemies, and locales in an efficiently designed delivery mechanism. With a good film, I feel you get the experience of reading a novel (whether or not the film is in fact based on any work of literature) in a highly compressed fashion. … In the best movie-going experience, your brain leaves your body for a bit, you take a mini-vacation to places you might not otherwise ever see, and you return to your regularly scheduled life a bit changed, perhaps enlightened, and hopefully re-energized.”

How does your writing process work?

John laughs that he thinks I write my reviews as we’re still in the parking lot of the theatre. There is some truth to that. I’ve always been annoyingly analytical while watching a movie or a play or a concert – what choices were made, why, what do they say about the artist or about our culture? So all of that stuff is swirling in my head, and I quite literally have to purge it when I get home, or I lose track of the ideas and find myself on the cranky side. So, the minute we walk in the house, I grab the laptop, head upstairs, plunk myself on the bed, and exorcise these crazy thoughts.

Captain 4

___________________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. 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 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.

___________________

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.

Supercross, Part Deux: AMA Monster Energy Supercross at Detroit’s Ford Field

IMG_0633IMG_0642Me? Write about sporting events? Yeah, I don’t think so.

IMG_0635As a result, you are just getting some random, blurry iPhone photos, illustrating our second AMA Monster Energy Supercross event in as many weeks, this time at Detroit’s own Ford Field.IMG_0645

(Last week’s event at Daytona International Speedway gets a shout-out here.)

IMG_0643This weekend, Supercross returned to the Motor City after a six-year absence, which was an odd gap since Motown has always brought sold-out crowds … but nonetheless we’re glad to see it back at Ford Field.

IMG_0638So, who won the big event tonight? James Stewart. No, not this James Stewart. THIS James Stewart.

Watch out, ESPN – here comes Reel Roy Reviews.

___________________

IMG_0635IMG_0634Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events!

IMG_0636In 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.

Visiting another planet – EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival, Dandelion Communitea Cafe, Magic Bands, Cafe Verde, and Daytona Supercross

Lady and the Tramp go green

Lady and the Tramp at EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival (Photo by Author)

Orlando, Florida is like visiting another planet. A plastic, overpopulated, abundantly colorful, manic far-satellite where they charge you a quarter every time you take a breath.

Last year, we visited Orlando’s sister kitsch-world Las Vegas, and, in 2014, we made our return to Central Florida after a three year hiatus.

It is just as delightfully suffocating as I recall.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually find comfort in super-commercialized, super-merchandised, super-programmed environments. (Some day I will be brave enough to post photos of our basement filled with sentimental, entertainment-themed tsotchkes culled from years of visiting the Disney Bubble and places like it.)

But it is a rather exhausting place to be, making one ever more grateful for the quiet moments amidst a pile of dirty laundry and credit card receipts when one finally returns home.

Call her MISS Poppins!

Call her MISS Poppins! (Photo by Author)

The “polar vortex” continues to grasp at the edges of impending springtime, and our weather was rainy and downright cold most of the time. (I even bought an over-priced knit hat at Disney’s Old Key West gift shop … to wear alongside cargo shorts and flip flops. Quite a look, if I do say-so myself … like a drunken Gorton’s Fisherman at a frat party.)

Nonetheless, we hit the outlet malls, the gift shops, and the tourist traps like the good capitalist lemmings Orlando requires.

Some highlights:

I’m not much for “food and wine festivals,” but we happened upon EPCOT’s annual International Flower and Garden Festival. What I would have otherwise thought would bore me to tears was actually delightful – if topiaries artificially contorted into the familiar shapes of classic Disney characters is your thing. Surprisingly, it was mine. Who knew? I wonder if my neighbors will mind this summer when I turn our hedges into the cast from Toy Story? (View the full photo album here.)

Kermit and Piggy promote good eating ... and their new movie

Kermit and Piggy promote good eating … and their new movie (Photo by Author)

Even better than the mouse-eared horticulture was the fact that Disney went all out with vegetarian and vegan fare throughout the festival. Each stop around EPCOT’s trademark World Showcase offered at least two or three vegetarian/vegan options and they were good. My favorite was this weird buttery tart scalloped eggplant thingie with a warm beet salad. Yeah, Top Chef‘s Tom Colicchio I will never be – I wouldn’t even be able to describe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and make it sound enticing.

The update to EPCOT’s Test Track is less an overhaul and more a redeco, with the cornier aspects replaced with sleek digital effects and black-light piping everywhere. It works well, though at times I felt I was zooming around Tron‘s rec room.

Kouzzina by Cat Cora at Disney’s Boardwalk was sublime as always … at least food-wise. The chef stopped by our table and worked out an incredible Mediterranean vegetarian spread just for us. Our server, though, seemed to have woken up on the corner of Cranky and Crabby Avenues, while some fellow waitstaff thought it would be nifty to tell the kids at a nearby table to throw their flatware to the ground repeatedly, screaming “Opa!” every time. I may be getting too old for this…

Woody salutes you

Woody salutes you at EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival (Photo by Author)

Disney continues to tinker with ways to make you feel even more cash-poor and over-managed during and after your visit. Maybe I am just old and cranky, but I feel they have passed the tipping point in this regard. A one day visit to one park is now over $100 a ticket and there is very little that is new or engaging at this point. In fact, there are visible signs of deterioration and “cast member” malaise at every turn.

Compounding the frustration is this new invention called the “Magic Band” which would make Orwell faint. With great cheerful fanfare (one of the few times I saw downright joy from a Disney employee this trip) you are issued these micro-chipped bracelets adorned with the silhouette of Mickey’s head. These bracelets (conveniently linked directly to your checking account) are your “keys to the world” whereby your every move, purchase, encounter is tracked, measured, predicted, and modified. In fact, while wearing the d*mn thing, I even had a story about them pop up on my iPhone.

Disney's Boardwalk on an overcast evening

Disney’s Boardwalk on an overcast evening (Photo by Author)

The concept is that they make everything easier as you don’t have to carry a wallet or keys and you just touch “mouse-to-mouse” on any kiosk or cash register or door around the mammoth resort. I didn’t like it, and I wonder how Disney CEO Robert Iger would take it if I show up next time with jar full of quarters and an abacus. I may try that.

We made our way to a long-time favorite – no Magic Bands required: Dandelion Communitea Cafe, a progressive vegetarian/vegan restaurant well outside the white-gloved, four-fingered reach of the Mouse. If you’re an animal-loving, adventurous vegan/vegetarian, this place is heaven. And, if you’re not, you will be after leaving. The food is so good, and the people are just delightful and authentic and caring. Try the “hunny mustard tempeh nuggets” – seriously. Do it. Your stomach … and chickens … will thank you. Dandelion’s motto is “If anything can go right … it will.” Good for them. I have to remember that now that I’ve returned to snowy Michigan where the sport du jour is “car swallowing/tire shredding-pothole dodging.”

Reducing our carbon footprint ... on our way to a gas-hazed motorcycle race

Reducing our carbon footprint … on our way to a gas-hazed motorcycle race (Photo by Author)

Our rental Prius (we really were hippies on this trip) also transported us to Cafe Verde in New Smyrna Beach en route to Supercross at the Daytona Speedway. (Yeah, you read that sentence correctly.) Cafe Verde is a relaxing, vegetarian/vegan-friendly establishment with a wide-range of Mexican and Italian-adjacent menu items. Eggplant struck again, as my favorite item was this dip made from said vegetable pureed along with … some other stuff. Told you I’m not a cook, but I know what’s tasty!

We wrapped up our long weekend of vegan-living by hanging out on the Daytona International Speedway track with a gaggle of Supercross fans. We have eclectic tastes to be sure.

Daytona Supercross

Daytona Supercross
(Photo by Author)

Supercross, for the uninitiated, is a sport whereby a bunch of pleasant young fellows (who seem to hail primarily from Florida, California … and Australia?) ride rumbling dirt-bike motorcycles across a man-made muddy track with an endless series of ramps and ruts and hills and peaks (oh my!). These riders are as much acrobats as racers as they sail through the air with the greatest of ease. And, as you can imagine, the people-watching is priceless with a refreshing cross-section of humanity united in their love of standing out in the cold on a steeply banked Daytona track watching these gentlemen and their flying machines.

As much fun as we had, it’s always good to be home again. And I guess that is the best part of taking any trip. (As a side note, I think I’m going to bury my souvenir Magic Bands in a lead-lined box in the backyard for fear of Uncle Walt tracking me on any and all my grocery trips to Meijer.)

___________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language, and Crazy Wisdom 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.

“Destroy anything that’s different…” The Lego Movie

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]

“Destroy anything that’s different,” exclaims one of the ubiquitous yellow-faced citizens of The Lego Movie‘s Orwellian-metropolis Bricksburg … employing such a chipper voice that he may as well be ordering a $37 cup of coffee or watching a mindlessly mind-numbing sitcom (which, by the way, he does).

This is how the deftly satirical “kiddie movie” opens, with the peppy denizens of a perfectly ordered society (constructed from little plastic bricks) extolling the virtues of conformity and their brain-dead escapist indulgences (like instruction manuals, caffeinated beverages, and reality TV).

As this gonzo movie opened, I wondered for a moment if I was watching Toy Story … or South Park. The Lego Movie, directed with sharp wit and a kind heart by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), has both worlds in its DNA, along with bits of Wreck-It Ralph, Who Framed Roger RabbitThe Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and the granddaddy of “toys that come to life and teach us important life lessons” flicks Raggedy Ann and Andy’s Musical Adventure. However, it never feels derivative for a second.

With a hero’s quest screenplay that seems like it was written by Joseph Campbell on crack, the movie details the journey of a lowly schlubb named Emmett (Chris Pratt) who revels in the petty details of his mundane, ordered, predictable life but who also can’t avoid the empty ache of loneliness. One thing leads to another, including finding a magic brick (the cutely named “Piece of Resistance”) that will inspire creativity and save the day from the villainous Lord Business (Will Ferrell), a shameless capitalist who spends his days plotting how to keep all the Lego-heads busy and bored and static.

Along the way, as in all such narratives, Emmett is joined by a ragtag group of allies – Wyldstyle (saucy Elizabeth Banks), Vitruvius (wizened yet whimsical Morgan Freeman), Batman (a very funny and very vain Will Arnett who nearly steals the show), and assorted other residents of the bottom of the toy bin (including an adorable cat/unicorn hybrid named Uni-Kitty that captured my heart … darn you, Alison Brie!). Oh, and Liam Neeson is a comic delight as a quite literal “good cop/bad cop” who chases our intrepid heroes all about Legoworld.

The plot is intentionally inconsequential and dripping with juvenilia (by design), all as set-up for a reveal that is a telling critique of our arrested development era. I don’t want to spoil it (though I think anyone over 12-years-old will see it coming), but the filmmakers offer a spot-on (though never mean-spirited) critique of adults (like yours truly) who can’t let go of the playthings of their youth but who have also put those material goods on such a pedestal they have forgotten what made those items special and treasured in the first place.

In this transformative moment, we see who we are (and shouldn’t be) today: a society that prizes ironic sentiment over real-time connection, materialistic perfection over messy emotion.

The movie zaps our middle-class, cookie-cutter lifestyle where everyone loves the same song, the same drinks, the same clothes, the same rules and where everyone overuses the word “awesome” to nauseatingly hyperbolic levels. In fact, the characters are lulled, as if by the Greek Sirens of yore, by an ear-wormy disco cheer-anthem (written by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh) that infinitely repeats the chorus “Everything is Awesome.” The Lego Movie, an incisive allegory disguised in the Trojan Horse of a children’s film, seems to caution, “If everything is awesome, then nothing truly is.”

If, like me, you still have your Atari 2600 in the basement: Wreck-It Ralph

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]

Does Disney’s latest animated foray Wreck-It Ralph live up to the peppy pixelated promise of its retro fun trailer? Not quite. Is it an enjoyable pre-holiday diversion with a lot of heart to accompany its endlessly merchandisable premise? Absolutely.
A shameless amalgam of Disney’s own Toy Story, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Tron, this film deftly imagines a world in which video game characters (from across thirty years of canon beloved by Gens X & Y, Millennials, and beyond) live, laugh, argue, and play after the neighborhood video arcade takes its last round of quarters for the evening. Clever touches and pop cultural references abound, with the Donkey Kong-esque titular character Ralph, warmly voiced by the ever-reliable John C. Reilly, trying to shake off three decades of villainy to gain acceptance from his digital cohorts.

The film has a bit of a rambling quality that occasionally makes it seem longer than its brief 90-minute running time. However, all threads add up to a meaningful and (nearly) moving denouement. As Ralph ventures across a number of video game settings in search of exoneration, he meets a cast of fully-realized, quirkily lovable characters voiced beautifully by the likes of Jane Lynch, Sarah Silverman, Alan Tudyk (sounding eerily like Alan Sues, who portrayed a very similar character in 1977’s Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure), Jack McBrayer, and Edie McClurg.

The movie is fun but not overly funny, warm but not always engaging, clever but not always smart. If, like me, you still have your Atari 2600 in the basement…if, on a rainy day, you plug it in for a heated round of Frogger…if you have ever wondered what those miraculous constructs of “1”s and “0”s are up to when said console is on its shelf, then, you will bask in the arcade-lit glow of Wreck-It Ralph. However, you will probably also reflect back on how much more robust were your own childhood imaginings of characters like Q*Bert or Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde.
P.S. Making Wreck-It Ralph a must-see is the animated short that precedes it: Paperman. A gorgeously black-and-white, seamless blend of traditional and computer animation, the piece tells the tale of a young man smitten with a young woman he briefly meets at a train station and how he reconnects with her through the persistent, magical aid of a fleet of pesky paper airplanes. Sounds silly? You bet. Will the music and the lovingly drawn characters bring a tear to your eye? Count on it.