“My life – like all lives – is mysterious, irrevocable, and sacred.” Wild (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Wild is an interesting film, and, on the whole, I liked it quite a bit. It’s great to see Reese Witherspoon digging in and acting again. I had begun to find latter-day Witherspoon (post-Walk the Line) a bit self-satisfied and, well, smug, and this based-on-a-true-story-as-turned-into-a-New-York-Times-bestseller role allows her to strip off the starry veneer and (mostly) give us some of the nuanced acting that her early career promised.

Where the film falters (at least for cynical me) is in what I would like to dub the Julie & Julia conundrum: a biographical film based on a regular ol’ person’s memoir, a tome that hangs on an oh-my-God-will-you-believe-THIS gimmick that makes great fodder for teary Oprah interviews or saucy segments on The View. In the case of, say, Julie & Julia, Amy Adams’ failed writer seems to declare, “Aw, what the heck! I’m just going to cook a different, fabulous Julia Child recipe every day and blog about it. I have no intention of becoming famous for it and leveraging it as a marketing hook to jump-start a literary career doused in flop sweat. Nope. Not me. I’m authentic.”

In the case of Wild, our protagonist Cheryl Strayed (interesting last name, given the subject matter) implodes after the sudden death of her beloved mother, throwing her marriage and her family and her English major lit aspirations (she’s a feminist because she references Erica Jong? that made me wince) in a garbage can, pouring kerosene on it, and lighting the whole kit and kaboodle on fire as she discovers the joys of sex addiction, heroin addiction, and just plain addiction. What saves her sullen, sputtering butt? Well, she just happens to see a guidebook to walk the Pacific Crest Trail (mind you, this is while sauntering into a drugstore for a pregnancy test ’cause she thinks she’s with child but not sure whose) and then determines that heading on a thousand mile vision quest will heal her soul. Oh, and if you didn’t know how rotten she was at this point, you later learn that she and her brother shoot her mother’s prized horse after mama’s death because they didn’t have the resources to care for it?!?! Um, how about offering it for adoption/rescue? Just a thought.

That preceding paragraph came across sh*ttier than I intended, but I’m leaving it there for all to ponder at will. It’s not this film’s problem, but our reality television/prurient tall tale tell-all culture has me wondering sometimes as to the veracity of stories like this one and the relative ease with which they translate from journal to blog to novel to Academy Award-glittering event film.

Regardless, Jean Marc-Vallee leaves behind any of his TV movie tendencies (see any of Jennifer Garner’s scenes in Dallas Buyers Club) and transforms the source material into cinematic poetry. The film is akin to a “memory play” where the central characters/audience float surreally in and out of present and past, and Vallee has a genius command of music and sound and imagery to evoke the kind of sense memory that snaps one back to happy and not-so-happy moments in time. Vallee and his game cast, which also includes a heart-breakingly luminous Laura Dern as Strayed’s/Witherspoon’s mother, allow for some marvelous bits of situational humor to shine through all the pathos – that is a real gift and essential for a movie like this, which could easily become a dark, cliched slog.

In the end, though, the movie lives or dies on Witherspoon’s epically back-packed shoulders, and her performance is a triumph. As she showed us so many years ago with her brilliant channeling of the What Makes Sammy Run? farce that is American politics (be it national, local, or … student council) in Election, Witherspoon with her jutting jaw, limpid eyes, and tortured/tortuous inner life excels when playing the unlikable. Pick Flick! Her Cheryl Strayed is raw-boned and relatable, someone whose misery has toxified her soul, not to mention anyone else’s within a five-mile radius of her.

Yet, Witherspoon never comes off maudlin, self-pitying, scenery-chewing. Her emotional collapse is chiefly internal (save some awkward heroin-den flashbacks that likely should have been left on the cutting room floor), and her trek along the rugged trail is believable and … kind of inept in its execution. Strayed makes lots of mistakes – think Cast Away in the woods which makes it all the more heroic in the end.

And, as for that horse situation (’cause you totally know THAT is what bothered me endlessly)? Strayed/Witherspoon is haunted by it (think Equus without all the weird Freudian freaky BS), and, as she journeys through California, animal life is a constant. A beautiful fox that very well may be the avatar of her late mother (the CGI was a bit clunky on that otherwise neat concept), an alpaca that she comes across in the wood (yeah, you read that correctly, but it leads to one of the film’s sweetest moments when she finds the grandma/grandson pair who care for the creature), little tree frogs that visit her in the night, and a whimsical encounter with a caterpillar. I’m sure I’m reading what I want to here, but Strayed’s/Witherspoon’s last words in the film are: “My life – like all lives – is mysterious, irrevocable, and sacred.” Damn right.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Still nursing a grudge over Paint Your Wagon? Jersey Boys (film adaptation)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Oh, for the love of all things holy, what went wrong with the film adaptation of Jersey Boys? I wish director Clint Eastwood would go back to yelling at chairs. I wasn’t sure he could get any more out of touch, and then I saw his film adaptation of the uber-popular Broadway show.

What is truly disappointing is that the stage musical (see my review of its Las Vegas residency here) is so expertly, effortlessly cinematic in its original incarnation. Intentionally episodic, Jersey Boys (live) glides along like a classic Cadillac from one Goodfellas-ish moment to another on the exquisite chassis of The Four Seasons’ hit songs.

Yes, the book is slight, but theatre director Des McAnuff knows that with enough pizzazz, flashy choreography, smooth-as-silk scene changes, and cheeky wit, the audience will be enraptured. Let the music speak for itself.

Eastwood on the other hand, while a self-admitted music-phile, makes the head scratching decision to bury the fizzy pop tunes under heaps of bad TV movie bio-drama. Seriously, did anyone bother to tell him this is a musical? Aren’t we past the point of self-consciousness over the genre, with ten-plus years of hit tuner films (ChicagoMama Mia!, Hairspray, Dreamgirls, Les Miserables) – not to mention tv series (GleeNashville) – under our collective belt?

Unfortunately, the majority of Jersey Boys‘ musical numbers on film are truncated to a verse and a chorus or used as background (playing on a radio!) while the actors – in bad wigs and later even worse old age makeup – struggle to make the life events of The Four Seasons interesting.

The ensemble cast soldiers through, but only Christopher Walken emerges completely unscathed. At this point in his career, that man could show up on an episode of The Bachelor and make it seem interesting.

Everyone else displays pained expressions as if they know Eastwood has ground this Tony Award-winning show to pulp. I was taken with Vincent Piazza (“Tommy DeVito”) and Erich Bergen (“Bob Gaudio”) who both exude a suitable amount of sparkle and nuance; I just wish they had been in a better movie. Sadly, John Lloyd Young (“Frankie Valli”), who won the Tony for his uncanny vocal pyrotechnics on Broadway, just seems constipated for the film’s entire 2 1/2 hour running time.

The only moment – and I mean the only moment – the movie truly comes alive is during the closing credits (!) sequence. Finally, we get a full-fledged musical number (“Oh, What a Night”), with joy and buoyancy and, yes, some cheesy backlot choreography. It’s like Eastwood grudgingly growled to his cast, “Okay, you can do some of this musical crap now. But it’s only at the end when people are walking out in disgust, popcorn stuck to their shoes. Anyone seen my chair?”

Maybe he’s still nursing a grudge about Paint Your Wagon and this is how he punishes us all? “Hey, you musical comedy kids, get off my lawn!”

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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.

Countdown: Shania Twain – Still the One

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Happy Valentine’s Day! 14 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton! The book is now (for however long THAT will last 😉 !) on Amazon’s list of top-selling “Guides and Reviews”!!

Here’s what Roy thought about the Las Vegas residency show Shania Twain: Still the One. “And I am not ashamed to admit that I cried buckets when she sang her signature tune ‘You’re Still the One’ to her horse, a horse I might add that, with no harness or apparent lead, followed her all about the stage like a puppy. Now that is some Vegas magic in which I can heartily believe.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Narrative of isolation and persecution: The Wolverine

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

People may have forgotten, but, for better or worse, this current cinematic superhero love affair began its decade-plus-long courtship with a little movie directed by Bryan Singer in 2000 … X-Men.

That movie introduced the world to a new kind of comic book film that made superheroes seem just like us but with just a few extra gifts (e.g. flight, claws, invisibility, flame-throwing…you know…the usual stuff). These imminently identifiable characters exuded angst and anxiety about trying to fit in, in spite of or perhaps in reaction to humanity’s general aversion to if not outright loathing of difference and of talent.

The movie also introduced many of us to a gifted Aussie named Hugh Jackman, whose truly exceptional musical theatre skills and talk show host charm somehow translated brilliantly to a scruffy, violent, pissed off, immortal Canadian named Logan, nicknamed “The Wolverine.”

Some might argue that it was Jackman’s likeability as the be-clawed mutant anti-hero that propelled the X-Men film series to global dominance. I would agree. And miraculously Jackman’s sparkling career has defied being derailed subsequently by some colossal missteps – both within that franchise as well as some other choices, namely X-Men: Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Australia, and … Kate & Leopold.

Now, coming off his Oscar-nominated triumph in last year’s Les Miserables (he should have won!), Jackman reunites with director James Mangold (Kate & Leopold‘s helmer, plus 3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line, among others) to return to his career-launching role in this summer’s The Wolverine.

So how is it? Quite good actually. Blessedly, like earlier films set in the X-Men universe, there is a focus on the narrative of isolation and persecution (as opposed to selling as many action figures as possible at Wal-Mart). Jackman’s inherent kindness always underlies/accentuates the deep-seated sadness and disappointment that Logan/Wolverine carries from his nearly 200 years viewing man’s inhumanity to man. It makes for a compelling characterization.

The film picks up where X-Men: Last Stand left off, with Logan living in isolation in the Yukon after having murdered true love Jean Grey to save the planet from her out-of-control telekinesis. (Just typing that sentence explains pretty much everything that was wrong with that prior film.)

I have to admit I gave a little cheer when Logan, in the film’s opening sequence, attacks a group of beer-sozzled, stupidly-entitled redneck hunters who have slaughtered his sole companion in the wilderness: a beautiful, (though clearly CGI) lumbering bear.

From there, the film then whizzes to Tokyo where Logan reconnects with a former mentor whose life he saved in the bombing of Nagasaki in WWII. As Chris Claremont/Frank Miller realized thirty plus years ago with their seminal Wolverine comic book miniseries, rigid/gracious/mannered Japan makes a marvelous setting to explore the anarchic/raging/righteously indignant traits of this character.

There is nothing terribly groundbreaking about the movie other than this: it is quiet and it is character-driven. Even though it is yet another big, overdone, popcorn-spewing comic book adaptation, there is a lot of deep-feeling dialogue and introspection. Good for Mangold. The movie works hard (sometimes too hard) to dissect how cruel we can be to each other and how a little kindness here or there can make all the difference in one person’s life.

There are some mistakes. The green-haired Viper villain (villainess? is that word even used any more?) should have been sent packing to some other (dumber) movie. And I certainly could have done without the clanging/clunky finale where Logan nonsensically gets his claws chopped off by a gleaming Transformer-esque Silver Samurai (sad misuse of that character) and then fights … and fights … and fights.

Regardless, 75% of the film is atmospheric and engaging and fun … and, hopefully, will give Jackman’s career a five year boost so he can do another musical or two … before he has to step into his mutant boots again.

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P.S. For my Ann Arbor friends, we had dinner at a new place around the corner from The Rave Theater (or whatever it’s called these days). The restaurant is Elevation Burger, and, for us vegetarians, they offer not one but two different kinds of handmade veggie burgers, both of which are excellent. We chatted with franchise owner-manager Mike Tayter for a bit, and the sensibility of the restaurant is very caring and conscientious and earth-friendly. I’m not a “foodie” in any sense (in fact, I hate that cloying expression) but I did want to pass along the recommendation.

Vegas magic in which I can heartily believe: Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, Whoopi Goldberg, and Shania Twain

Las Vegas [Photo by Author]

Las Vegas [Photo by Author]

I have a confession to make. I have never had much interest in visiting Las Vegas. Not sure why. Just haven’t.

I just returned from about six days in Sin City … and I’m still not sure I have much interest in the City or its Sins. I did have lots of fun, but I don’t gamble and I’d rather shop at Kohl’s or Target than Van Cleef & Arpels or Fendi. I’m not terribly crazy about crowds, and I am certainly not crazy about crowds of drunk party people who are play-acting some neurotic mash-up of The Jersey Shore and Keeping Up with the Kardashians while lounging about the hotel pool.

Paris Casino [Photo by Author]

Paris Casino [Photo by Author]

And, yet, there was much I did enjoy. For example, the famed Las Vegas “Strip” is what it is and has no shame about it. It’s like a humongous traveling carnival that set up shop and just never bothered to leave town. Furthermore, many individuals I met, notably fellow tourists in the audience at shows I attended and the Las Vegas residents staffing the various venues, were kind, friendly, and authentic…a refreshing throwback to a more gracious time, albeit with postmodern and progressive sensibilities.

Elvis and Cher? [Photo by Author]

Elvis and Cher? [Photo by Author]

What redeemed the experience was when I had the “a-ha moment” that I was surrounded by world-class Broadway-caliber entertainment and that I would be a big dummy if I did not avail myself of any of it. I always have been a bit late to the party on these kinds of things. Somebody who loves theatre and movies? Why did this realization not dawn on me sooner? Ah well.

Fortunately, given Las Vegas’ 24/7 operation and the churn of folks coming and going, there really was no shortage of opportunities or tickets once I caught on. As this blog is about reviewing entertainment and not about me being a travel snob, let’s get into the highlights.  My apologies for the rote, travelogue, day-by-day approach that follows, but my brain is mush and I’m all outta clever right now.

Whoopi [Photo by Author]

Whoopi [Photo by Author]

The Treasure Island casino and resort played host to Oscar-winner, comedian and pundit Whoopi Goldberg Friday night, and she was everything I’d hoped she’d be. Less a stand-up routine and more a master class in how to deal with a world that seems to go a bit more off the rails every day, Goldberg’s show was a delight. Just a smart, sensitive, spiky person sharing her sensibilities on a stark stage with only a stool, a bottle of water, and a microphone…and she was pretty transfixing. Only blemish on the evening was a poorly executed Q&A that devolved into a handful of audience members asking how to get tickets to The View and if they could come visit Goldberg at her home. Seriously. I – and the nice Canadians sitting all around me – wanted to crawl under our chairs.

Whoopi! [Photo by Author]

Whoopi! [Photo by Author]

Goldberg started the show by saying she had received flak for using “bad words” (e.g. profanity) in the past. Her response? “The only ‘bad’ word I won’t use is the word ‘stupid.’ That’s the only truly bad word I know.” LOVED that.

Hoover Dam [Photo by Author]

(Saturday was spent primarily visiting the Hoover Dam…the less said about that the better. Awe-inspiring feat of engineering; lots of stair climbing and winding through dank tunnels; hotter than h*ll…six hours of my life I ain’t getting back any time soon.)

Gospel Brunch [Photo by Author]

Gospel Brunch [Photo by Author]

Sunday started with what seemed like a good idea: gospel brunch at The House of Blues in Mandalay Bay casino. Meh. Again, we encountered the kindest people, but the food was cruise ship-esque mass-produced sludge and the musical performers were over-amplified, over-spiritualized, and just plain over-done. (I had hopes that we would stumble across a genuinely joyous experience like my parents had when they saw The Blind Boys of Alabama in Fort Wayne, Indiana a few weeks back, but, alas, we did not.)

Jersey Boys [Photo by Author]

Jersey Boys [Photo by Author]

The day ended, though, in spectacular fashion with Jersey Boys at Paris casino. If you see nothing else, go see this one. Compelling, smart, and funny, the show is like Goodfellas on disco roller skates. I like Frankie Valli’s voice – Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You (double preposition aside) is about as perfect a song as can be – but I wouldn’t say I’d had much interest in seeing/hearing how the Four Seasons came to fame, tragedy, fame, and more tragedy. How wrong I was. The juke box musical format has seemed a bit lazy to me in the past, but here it is perfection as if Bob Gaudio/Bob Crewe’s compositions were always meant for the stage. Scene transitions were whirling dervish marvels, with director Des McAnuff using spare lines and crisp, efficient movement to drive energy and propel the narrative along. Travis Cloer as Valli and Rob Marnell as Gaudio were standouts in that rarest of rares: a completely perfect cast. Not one clunker in the bunch.

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

Monday and Million Dollar Quartet at Harrah’s. Another juke box musical and another Tony Award winner, but this one about the rare night at Sun Records when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins all converged for their first and only collective jam session with impresario Sam Phillips. I admit I don’t like any of those rockabilly performers, with the exception of a few of Cash’s songs, but I was curious about the show and still a bit euphoric from Jersey Boys so I gave it a shot. I wasn’t disappointed, though it fell a bit flat in the shadow of the previous night’s offering.

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

The show is surprisingly slight at just 75 minutes with what is effectively another 15 minutes of encore (and shameless mugging) for the audience. However, all of the principals were marvelous, walking a fine line (apologies to Mr. Cash’s arguably most famous tune) between impersonation and characterization. At my performance, Lewis was played by an understudy, who, while excellent, suffered from the giddy overeagerness of someone getting one shot at their role. The show, though, belongs to the Phillips character, who serves as narrator and tragic hero, as we the audience witness what may very well be his last great hurrah. Marc D. Donovan utterly charmed in the role, simultaneously breaking your heart and energizing you with a huckster’s world of possibilities.

Shania [Photo by Author]

Shania [Photo by Author]

Finally, Tuesday brought Shania Twain’s resident performance at Caesar’s Palace. You may recall the precedent Celine Dion set five years ago, when Caesar’s built a state-of-the-art arena just for her. Said arena now is a revolving (not literally rotating, though in Vegas, that very well may be next) showcase for Dion as well as Elton John, Rod Stewart, and now Shania Twain. I was fortunate enough to be on the front row seated with a delightful couple from South Dakota and another wonderful soul from Nebraska. Somehow we all bonded almost instantly which just added to the fun. Twain’s show is all VEGAS! baby with the singer flying in on some zany motorcycle contraption, her own personal horses thundering across the stage live (inches from our particular happy band of audience members), a million costume changes, and, yes, SHANIA in block letters the size of, well, city blocks descending during the finale in full klieg-light glory from somewhere in outer space (as far as I could tell).

Caesar's Palace [Photo by Author]

Caesar’s Palace [Photo by Author]

Twain was in fine voice but a bit of a raw nerve in light of her personal problems over the past few years…which in some way added a much-needed relatability to her heretofore beautiful but kinda chilly glamazon stage presence. She was at her best, when she worked the room, engaging with her fans, delighting that a girl who probably wasn’t even born during Twain’s 90s heyday knew all the lyrics to every song, and even pulling our new Nebraska friend on stage to celebrate his birthday.

Home Again [Photo by Author]

Home Again [Photo by Author]

AND I am not ashamed to admit that I cried buckets when she sang her signature tune “You’re Still the One” to her horse, a horse I might add that, with no harness or apparent lead, followed her all about the stage like a puppy . Now THAT is some Vegas magic in which I can heartily believe.