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.)

Albee from Dubuque

I’m disappointed that Edward Albee’s play The Lady from Dubuque, which he very specifically wrote about mortality, appears to be getting overlooked in the tributes following his death on Friday.

Oddly, on Friday evening, before learning of his passing, I told someone about the memory of seeing Maggie Smith perform in that very play in London at the end of March, 2007. Smith hasn’t appeared on stage since, so I’m especially grateful to have seen the production and met her afterwards, which I briefly chronicled in a LiveJournal post the following day, excerpted below.

After the show I was feeling adventurous, and we decided to go to the stage door to see if we could get Maggie Smith to sign our program. Surprisingly, we were the only fans there. We didn’t have too long to wait before she appeared. I decided to play the “USA tourist” role (partially owing to a slight nervousness of meeting a theatrical legend!) and said to her, “We’ve travelled all the way from the USA to see you tonight and would love it if you could sign our program!” She smiled graciously and said “Of course” with considerable genuineness. She really did seem to be just as warm and gracious as her actorly persona suggests, and said “god bless!” as she got into her waiting BMW, to which Mom replied “and God bless you, Dame Maggie!” — a fitting in-person tribute, and a true thrill to meet her as she’s probably my 2nd favourite British classical actress.

Letting the Music set the Place

Early in this past summer I was excited to be reminded (in person) of a healthy music store in West Chester, PA. Such stores are quickly (already?) becoming an endangered species, and so it was particularly satisfying to come back to this store and see it offering a wide range of music and other related selections. I thought that I was going to leave without purchasing anything, but lying near the cash register was a small boxed set of five compact discs highlighting “80’s Classics”. This seemed to be a perfect match for my upcoming long haul road trip, and so I purchased it. (Actually my mom bought it for me as a “getting on the road” present.)

As the driving spurts resumed, I continued to let my iPod shuffling set the mood for a little while after purchasing the set of discs, but that got old as I began to enter the long-haul westbound territory, and so I decided that the especially long haul across Nebraska (400 something miles) would be a great introduction to the set of music. I quickly appreciated that some care had been taken in selecting the choice and sequencing of music. The first song of each disc got things off with a bang of energy and the mood rolled along after that, mixing between slower tunes and higher energy pieces. I let the whole sequence of five discs play through on that first day and it was a GREAT way to enliven the scenery and pace of going through Nebraska, which eventually gave way to the arid plains and mild mountains of northeastern Colorado.

After the first listen, I expected that the music would time capsule itself to that stretch of driving through Nebraska, and it did, at first, as I tuned into other radio offerings and back to the iPod (along with bits of silence here and there) for a little while. But in an effort to continue the sonic variety, I ended up tuning back into the CD set sooner than I expected.

One song in particular (“Good Life” by a group called Inner City – never heard of them) took on the role of road trip theme song, as I began to listen to it at the start of each long-haul driving day and felt that it set the right upbeat mood. Now, a month and a half later, the song has settled into a role as emblematic of the whole summer, and while I’m not listening to it at the start of every day, it does bring a smile to my face, as many other songs do that quickly associate themselves with the time or circumstances that you first hear them in.

The Hell and The Light, The Water and The Ocean

My non-consecutive moviegoing double feature this weekend involved opposite ends of the current indie film spectrum. Both visits were at two different MJR (‘Movies Just Right”) locations relatively near my house; MJR has become my favorite cinema chain to support in metro Detroit thanks to its catchy jingle “it’s more fun at MJR” along with a tangibly LOCAL focus of its business, as the company is headquartered right here in Michigan and thus seems more committed to its constituents than AMC or some other chain.

FIMG_3689irst up was a visit to the 20-plex in Sterling Heights, which follows a template established in other MJR complexes but seems to do it especially well at this location, even though the surrounding area leaves a lot to be desired. In short, this complex has become my “destination movie” location of choice, even though it’s around 20 miles away from my house. The film I chose, Hell or High Water, has drawn considerable critical praise as a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale summer movie season, and it was easy to see why; the film mostly lived up to the hype for me.

From the very first scene (a long wraparound shot of a Texas town that has clearly seen better days) it is clear that the story will be told in a distinct way. We follow two brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, as they approach and perform several bank robberies in similarly desperate looking towns. But as the nuances continue to unfold for the film itself, it’s clear that the story will not be a simple or action packed revenge tale. Audience allegiance seems to shift constantly between the two brothers, although Pine is ultimately presented as the more sympathetic character. Add in a veteran sheriff portrayed by Jeff Bridges at his most grizzled and muffled (with an overdone Texas accent) and the recipe is in place for a slow-burning character study.

The film benefits from a constantly shifting moral compass that doesn’t settle in one place. Although the ultimate outcome for one character appears without much surprise, the way in which it’s reached continues the impression of being willing to go the extra mile (literally) and not choose the easy route for any outcome. This trend continues as the film reaches its ultimate (and surprisingly non hyper violent) conclusion, as the emphasis is placed on the humanity as much as it can be.

The following evening brought a trip to MJR’s complex in Chesterfield, which I’d previously experienced at an awkward transition moment early this year when they were in the process of converting to increasingly customary reclining and reserved seating. This time, the dust had settled and the cinema was moderately busy. (I was amused that the evening ticket price is 50 cents less than the complexes closer to Detroit, reflecting its location in the farther ‘burbs.)

Not really sure why I chose to catch The Light Between the Oceans aside from an appreciation for location based period drama and the work of the central acting trio: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz. Weisz in particular seems to just get better and better with each film I see her perform in. Amusingly, this film also put Weisz and Vikander face to face; the last two Bourne female leads facing off in a different universe.

Although I walked in with a retrospective appreciation for director Derek Cianfrance’s earlier work – seen in films Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines – after the film started I was quickly reminded of the overwrought subtext and directorial choices present in those films … and they reappeared here on an even larger scale. It was difficult to get invested in the character and emotion of the story – though undoubtedly lushly filmed and acted with high commitment – when everything is heavily telegraphed in the narrative. An epilogue scene was particularly awkward, both in its hastiness and tidying up of the plot.

My response may also be due to this film falling victim to the “most of the story is telegraphed in the trailer” increasingly common problem among films these days, so that the story’s unfolding was less of a WHAT is going to happen and more of a WHEN is this going to happen. I ought to have just come in for the second hour of the film as it was, but at least the story was told well and with obvious gusto.

JP on JB

Thanks to a personal connection with the Bourne series (as recapped in my previous post), I will always think fondly of it. But I knew from mixed publicity and a certain lack of interest among my peer group that Jason Bourne would most likely be a toss up, which probably accounts for my relative delay in seeing the film. While I had hoped to catch the film in an iconic and nostalgic Martha’s Vineyard single screen cinema, instead I ended up seeing it back in my Michigan hometown as a re-introduction to that twin cinema and starting my effort to enjoy my town more.

Perhaps inevitably due to the long gap between previous Matt Damon led Bourne adventures, the film seems to force itself to catch up to 2016 with a plot that mixes some “greatest hits” of previous stories in the series alongside some forced contemporary relevance. While the film enjoyed a few tight moments like the old times, overall I felt like it could have gone further in-depth with the story, but was held back by possible script changes, studio interference or pressure to have a certain story element in the film in place of another. The last point was most glaringly obvious in the inclusion of a rather strained “social media” plot angle, along with a wavering focus on Bourne himself, who came to feel more like a side character rather than the protagonist. It probably did not help that the film does not really explore Bourne’s perspective on the events, except for one sharp moment when he reacts to a character’s demise and later when he takes more control of the story and turns the tables on the agents who are pursuing him. But the latter moment was undone by a gratuitous and tacked-on car chase sequence that adds little to the story.

Casting of the newcomers in the film was serviceable if not outstanding. Joan Allen’s presence as the mature and committed agent Pamela Landy was sorely missed, and it’s a shame they couldn’t bring her back in some form after a thankless cameo in the “sidequel” The Bourne Legacy four years ago. Tommy Lee Jones phones it in, with a few brief exceptions, as the unsurprisingly malintentioned CIA director. Recent Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander is believable for the most part as a hotshot CIA agent, but the film made no explanation of her obvious Swedish origins (or if it did, I missed them) – and she did not project the nuances that I so enjoyed in her breakout film Ex Machina.

To its credit, the film makes me want to revisit the original trilogy, so I think I will spend some time doing just that…