Honoring Women in many forms

The three films I’ve seen so far this year, as I maybe/maybe not get back into the “one film per week” routine, all focus strongly on the feminine experience, which feels appropriate and important as the Trump era begins in US government. (As we clearly saw yesterday with the widespread women’s marches around the country.)

Going in reverse chronological order, last night’s film of choice was the new 20th Century Women, which I caught back at the Devonshire Mall cinema, a place that would be my favorite local cinema if it wasn’t over a country border that requires often irritating logistics, not to mention a toll both ways. Anyway, I continue to appreciate the times that I do get over there, and this was the first time in awhile, probably over a year, although I had been to the mall – and not the cinema – at more recent times.

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So the film of choice was 20th Century Women, an ensemble piece that has arrived with some “buzz” into a semi-wide release, although I’m guessing it may be overlooked when the all-important Academy Award nominations are announced on Tuesday morning. A small ensemble cast – Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup and Lucas Zellman – anchors the film in a surprisingly robust way.

20th-century-womenThe film seemed unusual to me in that it built my interest in the characters, as opposed to starting early with a lot of information and then losing interest as the narrative goes on. Related to that, the characters seemed to exist in and out of the story, thanks to the use of voice-over, with several individuals offering audio perspective from later in their lives as the “immediate” visual played on the screen.

I was pleased to see the Santa Barbara area of California, a region I’m quite familiar with, be represented in the story, and a few visual shout-outs to locations in the area I’ve passed by numerous times. As well, the heart of the story seemed to be one that focused on the nuances of life and art of communication between individuals, which made it more relatable in some ways than your average film about misfits, which all of the characters clearly were.

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goodnight, 2016

and so a notorious year ends. It hasn’t been all bad for me personally, and if anything, I’m grateful to have turned around what could have been a bad year, more or less starting with an injury, into something more adventurous and ultimately optimistic.

It’s been particularly nice to end the year back here in “The California Homeland” of Marin County for the third consecutive year. It’s a good example of how time changes – five years ago I wouldn’t have said this winter visit would become a tradition – and maybe it sets a goal for 2017 of the past becoming the present again.

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The Unseen Best Actress

This week I had the pleasure of seeing one of my favorite actresses – and probably my favorite who is my own age – Rebecca Hall appear in a new film where she finally takes the leading role, after many films in high supporting or co-lead parts.

Hall dazzles in the titular role of Christine, starring as a determined reporter working her way up at a Sarasota, Florida news station in the summer of 1974. Christine openly and fiercely advocates for the professional positions she believes in, such as human interest stories and the actual art of the interview being something that is detailed and not brief, but she is constantly rebuffed by the male upper management of her station. It is hinted that Christine also suffers from an unspecified mental instability, which manifests itself in the paradox of her professional successes contrasting with her at-home life living with her mother and lack of additional social life.

The specificity of the story shines through choices in lighting, costuming, cinematography and sound design, all evoking a lurid (in retrospect) period of browns, muddy hues and too long or too straight hair. We also see a subtle but strong emphasis on gender politics and what the men in charge think the women (ranked below them) are capable of doing, vs. what the women actually want to do.

Through it all Hall carries the film strongly on her shoulders, with many specific character choices such as a lumbering walk, flat American accent, and shading the nuance between Christine’s tenacious professional ambition and interior hesitancy and tentativeness. The strands unify towards the end of the film as it leads to a shocking (but true to the real life story) conclusion.

Hall gives the strongest actress performance I’ve seen this year, though sadly I’m sure it will be overlooked come Oscar time.

Theatre, community and audience engagement

Community and audience engagement are intrinsically linked. The community supports audience engagement, while the audience engagement creates community and further involvement in other pursuits. In the theatre, the audience engagement sets the stage for the performance or event to be unique, distinctive and valuable to the community at large.

For me, the community and audience engagement are some of the most exciting aspects to theatrical life. There are opportunities to have great products and inside the theatre experiences, and they can be memorable, but they all have to begin with successful community and audience engagement. Crucially, those qualities generate response and create conversation, amongst audience members, staff, featured artists, and even passerby who may be unfamiliar with the company or specific show.

Community and audience engagement brings results and experiences for the theatrical venue. The qualities also create lasting memories and continued engagement for the patrons and artists. For the company itself, there is an opportunity to be more than just “that building on that street” or “that theatre I’ve never been to.” With solid community and audience engagement, the relationships become reciprocated. The venue gives back to its community and the community supports the venue in multiple ways, not just through philanthropy or attending specific productions.

In the theatre as a whole, community and audience engagement are the keys to continued satisfaction and enrichment on all fronts. It is important to not forget about how the audience reacts to the theatre. Most importantly, the theatre is the nexus of community and audience engagement, and all crucial developments generate from that hub.

Home comes to the Big Screen

I’ve been interested in the film Manchester by the Sea, titled after and set within my hometown in Massachusetts, since it was first announced around two years ago. Originally planned to star Matt Damon, the film had an immediate air of prestige coming from acclaimed playwright and somewhat embattled filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, known for works including This is Our Youth and You Can Count on Me. As it turned out, Damon was not able to star in the film, but remained as a producer, and recruited his longtime friend Casey Affleck to take over the lead role. I would have liked to have been back on the North Shore to observe when they shot the film during the winter of 2015, which was exceptionally snowy and cold.

With this anticipation in place I was very excited when the film appeared on this year’s Windsor Film Festival schedule across the border in Canada, and thus made plans to attend a screening yesterday, creating an amusing irony of having to go out of the country in order to go home. This was perhaps doubly ironic as I was in Manchester itself just four weeks ago and enjoyed a more leisurely visit than my past couple of times being back, which had been just quick drive-throughs.

img_8431In general the film lives up to its pre-release and festival generated acclaim as a somber drama that isn’t afraid to go into more depth than other stories it might be similar to. The detailed tone is apparent from the opening scenes, when character beats are held just a second or two too long and/or a character says something they might be thinking but not say in a “conventional” setting. Affleck is on screen in nearly every scene and anchors the film with exceptional pathos; his character motivations are initially shrouded but gradually become clearer as the story goes back and forth in different time frames.

As a native of the area, it’s inevitably both amusing and irritating to see how Manchester itself is represented in the story, with a to be expected range of minor to moderate geographic implausibilities sprinkled in the narrative, along with a few glaring omissions or character choices that made it obvious the writer did not have roots in the area. However, the pleasure of seeing familiar locations and landmarks on screen (especially while watching it in Canada) goes without saying! Since it’s fun for me to examine, I’ll outline some of the film vs. reality impressions here.

  1. There’s not really a PC way to say this, but it’s doubtful (while not impossible) that a “working class” family as depicted in this story would actually live in Manchester, which has the highest household income of the North Shore area and is known for having large houses and estates and corresponding financial security. I continue to feel that the story ought to have been set in the neighboring and better-known town of Gloucester, which has a more diverse range of inhabitants and a closer connection to the art of the sea. Indeed, the film’s opening shot jumped back and forth between Manchester and Gloucester harbors in order to set the mood of the story. A key scene between two characters late in the film is also filmed in Gloucester, though the dialogue implies they are still in Manchester.
  2. When Affleck first arrives back on the North Shore, a scene takes place in the neighboring town of Beverly. He then says he has to “go up” to Manchester, which no one would say about the next town over. However, the statement makes sense when his character mindset is considered, having driven up from a town south of Boston on short notice.
  3. Subsequently, when Affleck first enters Manchester, where he’s meant to have grown up, he drives away from the town center and several well-known gathering places are not seen at all during the film including the town market and train station. A few other scenes in the film feature him driving around to make trips that would be more likely accomplished on foot.
  4. The town’s crown jewel Singing Beach is not seen in the film nor referenced in any of the dialogue.
  5. While the choice to have most of the characters use “Boston” accents fits in to the dynamic of the story, such accents are rarely heard in this part of the North Shore, and Hollywood in general still has not learned that those accents are very tightly concentrated to inner-ring towns around and some sections within Boston itself.

OK, continuing with the film itself. As Affleck’s character Lee experiences the story, he is tasked with looking after his nephew Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges. This character offers a very well-drawn depiction of mid-teenage years (he’s meant to be 16) and the delicate dance of making choices that relate to your family vs. your own personal journey and desires. Patrick’s arc also contains unexpected humor that enlivens the story, while the character also brings it back down to earth/the reality of the situation at a few surprise moments that add to the dynamic of the uncle/nephew relationship. The process of honesty and being “real” that is established early in the film is most sharply seen in the scenes with Patrick, and actor Hedges rises to the challenge with a strongly committed and revelatory performance. The film toys with sending Lee and Patrick’s relationship into “buddy/odd couple” comedy mode, and there are indeed several humorous moments, but then it comes back to reality with the empathy for both characters strongly intact. On the whole, the dynamic between both male characters made me notice that the film isn’t shy of going in-depth with masculine feeling and emotion, often glossed over in storytelling and popular culture, and that choice likely contributes to the richness of the drama.

Of the supporting cast, Michelle Williams is the obvious stand-out in a few strong scenes as Lee’s ex-wife. While her “Boston” accent is likely the most distracting of the cast (at least Affleck’s is authentic), she also carries the reality of the story and the challenge of character choices in context of the narrative.

I would see the film again, and you should too when it comes to general release and likely Academy Awards season acclaim at the end of this year.

The Fifty Thousand Pound Allegory

The other night I once again found myself pulling out the stalwart and timeless DVDs of The Avengers. This time my attention was drawn to an episode near the end of Emma Peel’s second and final season, entitled The 50,000 Breakfast. I wanted to watch it initially based on a remembrance of the episode’s unusual music score, which does not recur as much as some others do in other episodes of the series and thus, stands out more on its own. I did not expect on revisiting the episode at this particular moment in time to see a clear allegory for the present uneasy political moment in the USA.

In the story, our heroes Steed and Mrs. Peel encounter a team working for the mysterious and accomplished Litoff Organization, focused on finance in Central London. Of particular note in the present era comparison are the two lead individuals they interact with from the company. One person is Miss Pegram who is not given a specific job title but is clearly the woman in charge, an idea which is quite revolutionary for 1967. In the other camp is company butler Glover, whose exact raison d’etre for being part of the company is not made clear by the script (well, I guess he’s Mr. Litoff’s butler, but Mr. Litoff is never seen) and so Glover stands as a bastion of an older time, where men and women had more traditional and formal gender roles. Near the end, when Glover is revealed to have malicious negative intentions that place him aligned with the rest of the villains, he presents a brief and strikingly abrupt (for the rest of the series) monologue, claiming that he “want(s) to be ill mannered and rude and uncouth, and order people about, especially women. I look forward to being excessively rude to a considerable number of handsome women!” – and so he is obviously, with the present day parallel, an elder Donald Trump, while Ms. Pegram, with ambitions to conquer the “man’s world” of finance and accomplishment, clearly evokes Hillary Clinton.

And that is another of many ways that The Avengers remains both timeless and ahead of its time.

The Cover Letter

… is not so intimidating once you actually sit down and write it.

Over the past 10+ years of theatre work experience, I have focused on positions that combine production and artistic engagement. In my current work at Wayne State, the experiences have built on each other in a satisfying and enriching way. My first year of the Theatre Management focused on building skills (in areas such as box office and house management along with general marketing and publicity) which then transitioned into leadership tasks in the second year. In the current third and final year, those duties have gone a step further to include mentoring of younger students and colleagues along with a more involved role in audience engagement, artistic and general management planning to ensure a successful season.

Some of my earlier theatre production positions centered around stage and artistic management, and as a continuing AEA member I am well aware of best practices for successful production. Those management roles occasionally branched beyond the theatrical realm, most satisfyingly in two years of involvement with a noted film festival in Marin County, California.

All of these theatrical positions stemmed from an earlier in life interest in acting and directing, and it’s clear that this position allows for a melding of many artistic engagements along those realms. The role of the theatre in its community has become increasingly important to me in recent years both as a patron and a worker, and I am particularly interested in ways that the theatre/arts organization can serve and interact with its surroundings, beyond just being a building or organization that presents material for the community and into a relationship that demonstrates genuine reciprocity and commitment.

Embracing the Unknown

I thought this would be a good excuse for a trio of posts with “unknown” in the title … because increasingly these days in the world it seems to be a contrast between an (induced?) fear of the unknown and embracing the challenges of the unknown.

I’m heading right into the unknown as it appears, consisting of a delicate balance between focusing on the nuts and bolts and processes of the last year of my MFA program … and looking ahead to The Unknown of what lies beyond that experience. As part of the challenge, I’ve begun regularly reviewing various job listings websites. The two most prominent ones for my theatre/performing arts fields are frequently updated, with the subscription-based one probably carrying a bit more cache than the open submission one.

Part of the challenge and opportunity of the unknown field of these decisions is simply within the art of embracing the challenge. That effort has become clear to me as two positions that I felt particularly interested in and well qualified for have appeared on either side of the USA. For me, seeing those jobs listed generated a positive reaction mixed with a bit of self-doubt … am I (are you) good enough for that position? That experience and choice? Going down that unknown road?

It might seem a little obvious to declare that it IS worth that effort and experience to apply, take the interview, step out of the comfort zone and so on … but I think part of this particular moment and process is embracing and striding forward into that unknown.

Snowden stayed unknown

My first impression of Joseph Gordon-Levitt came 22 years ago with the Disney summer flick Angels in the Outfield. Who would have thought that the energetic kid at the center of that story would grow up to be a versatile, accomplished and respected acting force? Indeed, it seems he’s had the market cornered on a late summer/early fall release for the last five years, with titles including 50/50 (written by a fellow Hampshire College alum), LooperPremium Rush, Don Jon (which he himself wrote and directed), The Walk, and now Snowden, directed by Oliver Stone. The point in mentioning those films is that Gordon-Levitt has subtly and solidly established an impressive versatility, especially for someone who “grew up” in the acting business.

So, last Sunday I caught Gordon-Levitt’s latest work as the titular character in Oliver Stone’s new Snowden, which chronicles the recent past of its subject, with some modest Hollywood embellishments here and there.

As Edward Snowden himself, Gordon-Levitt mostly exercises restraint, in an effort to portray the seemingly mellow international man of (dubious?) renown as accurately as possible. He’s supported by a range of drawn from real life characters, most notably Shailene Woodley as his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills, but also including Rhys Ifans, Timothy Olyphant and several additional character actors.

I enjoyed seeing Snowden, and appreciate its efforts to provoke and document Snowden’s story in itself, and his effect on world affairs. But thinking about it again a few days after the fact makes the overly Hollywoodized elements of the story stand out more, such as a strong focus on Snowden’s love life as a moral compass. Such choices seem to have been done as a negative effect on the actual nuts and bolts of the story, in that there was not much opportunity to discern how Snowden himself was processing the information he came into contact with, and what was driving him to make the fateful decision to leak the information to the public.

Of course, Snowden’s story was told without pretension and artifice in the documentary Citizenfour, which this movie references, and I had caught at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center near the end of 2014. I guess the existence of the documentary gave this film an odd redundancy, in that it could have gone further, but didn’t, and yet it was still well-done.

Into the Complete Unknown

After some misgivings caused by the previous three films then appearing at cinemas much closer to me after I’d driven a modest distance to see them, I decided to resume my filmgoing geohopping this weekend in Royal Oak and Clinton. After all, it’s a nearly 20 year habit for me to go to the film (and not wait for it to come to me) – so it’s unlikely that it will slow down anytime soon.

img_8005First up was the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, which is always a pleasure to visit at night thanks to its dramatic and classically lit up marquee. I also appreciate how they publicly advertise their upcoming films and events, not just for the next week, but for the next month or two.

New film Complete Unknown is another tour de force for actress Rachel Weisz, who has recently become one of my favorite actresses to watch. (Not that I did not like her before; she’s just become even more watchable with a mastery of technique, inflection and presence.) In this story she takes on the role of Alice (not her real name) – a woman who has shape-shifted her way through at least nine different guises over a span of 15-20 years, because … what? The story doesn’t really tell us why Alice chooses to live such a transient and challenging life, and at times it was hard to suspend the disbelief and buy into the narrative. Weisz sells it strongly by mostly underplaying the whole thing; she’s not there to be an avenger or superwoman, she just wants to blend in.

An awkward framing device introduces us to Michael Shannon’s character, Tom, who is soon revealed to be an old connection of Alice’s. It’s a minor spoiler to say that she has arranged the whole encounter so that she can see him again after a 15 year gap. Incidentally the underplaying was at its best in their first one on one encounter, when Tom frustratedly wonders how and why Alice has even sought him out again. Instead of matching his intensity, Weisz goes the other way with the characterization into a cool and composed slight aloofness that keeps the narrative going and allows more questions to rise. However, the plot point that they hadn’t seen each other “in 15 years” really ought to have been raised up to 25 years, since both actors are obviously in their mid 40s and it strained credibility to think they’d last encountered each other when they were around 30, especially as the dialogue touched on high school and hometowns.

A fun transition sequence in a New York City nightclub, set to the strands of the Chemical Brothers, allows the two leads to leave the club on their own and the story to boil down to just the two of them. This is where the story ought to have started all along. The film takes on an air of momentary unpredictability as they head off on their own … only to encounter veteran actress Kathy Bates, who cameos in a sequence that feels more like an outtake, but keeps up the fun of the story. It is soon revealed that she is married to none other than Danny Glover, and the experienced elders have some fun with their small roles before Tom and Alice go off on their own again.

At this point the film becomes very reminiscent of Certified Copy from several years ago, as the viewer is left to question how far the characters might go with their renewed connection, and the action is intercut with a few brief dream-like sequences that question whether they are being imagined or not. While the eventual ending may be seen as unsatisfying, it does continue with the ambiguity and not tying things up neatly.

It’s good to see Shannon, known for his intensity, loosening up a bit here in more of an “everyman” role. And Weisz carries the film along with a mix of gestures and emotions and feelings, always aware of what she is doing and also the cost of her actions.

This commentary got longer than I expected (I must have enjoyed engaging in the material … so I’ll save this weekend’s second film for a separate post.)