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Quirky, devastating, fantastic … But not all of the three combined 

I had the pleasure of returning to the State Theatre in Ann Arbor yesterday (which I’ve decided is my second favorite cinema in Michigan) for a screening of the new independent film “Captain Fantastic” starring the versatile yet always independent minded actor Viggo Mortensen.

Upon arrival at the State, I learned from a poster in the lobby that the cinema will soon be closing for a nine month renovation and remodeling, and, among other things, intends to reopen with four reconfigured screens in its upstairs space. I felt some wistfulness at hearing this news, as part of the State’s appeal for me has always been its quirkiness, as opposed to its neighbor the Michigan, which always tends to feel a little too polished. Since this was likely my last visit to the State in its current configuration, I took a moment to document it. I still feel that what would really be good is if downstairs tenant Urban Outfitters moved out and their space could be fully restored to its former glory as the State’s main screen … But who knows if and when that will happen.


As for the film itself, it seemed to serve as a metaphor for a large family journey, once it got over an initial overbearing quirkiness in the story. Some of the later moments struck some particularly powerful notes, notably around a grandfather character solidly portrayed by Frank Langella and an oldest kid character portrayed by British actor George MacKay, whom I previously saw at the State in an underrated film called “How I Live Now.” Through the whole story Mortensen anchors the film with a mix of whimsy, subtlety and authority. I might have enjoyed the culmination of the story even more if it kept going down an unexpectedly bleak route, but in the end a turn back towards the whimsical and hopeful (yet still realistic and honest) wrapped things up on an appropriately thoughtful note.

Reflecting on Square One

Square One's original logo. Image Source: Wikipedia

Square One’s original logo. Image Source: Wikipedia

My favorite children’s television show, Square One Television, first appeared to the television world 28 years ago today. Happy Birthday, Square One!

The show remains conspicuously absent from the DVD collections market, most likely due to a complicated copyright involving (then) Children’s Television Workshop and (now) Sesame Workshop. A fan site, SquareOneTV.org, which I formerly contributed to, seems to have gone offline. So the show’s Wikipedia page provides a thorough overview of what each episode was like and why people like me grew so affectionate for it. (and so upset when it suddenly left the airwaves in the fall of 1994.)

In the summer of 2006 I had the chance to meet one of the show’s core ensemble cast members who was appearing in an off-Broadway show I attended, and wrote about the experience on LiveJournal:

I got a front-row seat and read the program before the curtain went up. I scanned the cast list and was surprised to see a cast member (Cynthia Darlow) from Square One Television, one of my top-5 favorite childhood TV shows, was part of this cast. She displayed just the same brasyness and captivating theatricality that she had displayed in the show, and was a stand-out among the secondary characters of the show. Later, I was waiting around in the lobby and she happened to come out from backstage. We made eye-contact briefly and I decided to take a minor risk and say that I loved her work on Square One. She smiled broadly and said she always is charmed that people still remember the show and that it was “one of her best jobs” of her career with a very tight-knit cast and crew. She is also always amused that people my/our age still remember the show and can tell her how they watched it compulsively when it aired first-run. Once again it felt good to take a risk of approaching a celebrity, especially when Cynthia was as friendly as she is.

Square One briefly reappeared on television screens around the turn of the millennium as part of cable network Noggin (a joint venture between Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop) and its anthology series “The Phred on Your Head Show” – with segments from Square One intercut into the newer show, and perhaps most importantly, the show-within-a-show Mathnet, which was always my favorite part of the program, reappearing in full glory.

Mathnet

I was very excited to finally see the original Mathnet HQ in Los Angeles on a March 2013 visit to the area.

I owe a longer post on the enduring appeal of Mathnet – but it won’t be tonight! I will say that the show contributed greatly to my lifelong love of numbers and coincidences and mysteries and number sequences. And it indirectly introduced me to the theatre world at a young age, with one episode set in a Broadway house and all of the main actors coming from strong theatrical backgrounds.

I only realized a few years ago (possibly on moving to Michigan) that Square One included many references to Michigan and the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, where its creators attended college. So from an early age I had many little snippets of Michigan lore seeping into my brain, most notably centered around U of M life and my current area code, 313, which once covered the entirety of Southeastern Michigan. To that I just say… “wow!

And it’s a perfect segue to the other birthday I learned is today, which is the state of Michigan itself! 178 years young! MLive asks its readers to guess how well they know the state.

Personal Blog: You Just Don’t Know – A Sharp Focus on the Big Picture

I was intending to make a post referencing The Penny Seats successful opening night last night and my pleasure in being part of the production and initial opening festivities last night. The show enjoyed a sold out crowd and was spotlighted in a new review from Encore Michigan, the state’s premiere source for theatre news and goings – on.

But, as sometimes happens after a festive occasion, I got a curveball in my email as I set off back to Detroit last night, with news that an acquaintance has contracted the Ebola virus.
So that has been on my mind today, as the reality of a serious world health situation hits home and gains a personal face.

Boyhood – a tribute to and exploration of life

I was very pleased to catch Boyhood on its opening day (Friday) at the Michigan Theater in an “exclusive Ann Arbor area engagement.” It’s amazing and impressive that a film like this stayed under the radar for so long (at least to the general public) until its release was confirmed sometime late last year or earlier this year.

The genesis behind the movie is now well – known, and so I won’t recap it here. I will add that the storyline achieves its goal of serving as a narrative time capsule of the past 10 – 12 years. Somehow director Richard Linklater had the foresight to offer lingering shots on various cultural objects – whether a Game Boy, older model car, Harry Potter release party, a bulky cordless landline phone, hit song from a particular year, etc – that the audience can recognize and relate to, or in some cases laugh at and be like “wow, I can’t believe I used that, or that thing was so common back then.”

From the very first shot of the movie, we are right there with the development and growth of Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. The film tracks the journey of, but never feels like a spectator in, Mason and his family’s growth over the next 12 years. We meet his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), his mother (Patricia Arquette) and his distant father (Ethan Hawke). The parents are divorced with the mother taking primary custody, and her career and life path initially dictates the geographical range of the film as they move across Texas, the kids’ father comes in and out of their life, As Mason matures, he moves into the more direct focus of the narrative, and the last third or so of the film focuses on his own development in claiming an artistic life and stepping off on his own – into interpersonal relationships, career development, and a new life in college.

This was easily the most humane movie I’ve seen since Toy Story 3, with its tear-jerker of an ending, back in 2010. And this film touches the heart in a similar and different way, showing that life is relatable in its small, poignant, important moments, and drawing emotional truth, recognition and reflection from those same narrative themes.

On an industry – watcher note, it’s fascinating to see known actors Arquette and Hawke age on-screen; we can chart their growth in individual films over the years, of course, but never before in the same movie. Meanwhile, Coltrane and the younger Linklater mature into thoughtful young people, with a reflective poignancy present in their earlier in life scenes. Several actors move in and out of the narrative, and I wondered what that must have been like to come back to a project after a gap, or leave it after a year or two of working on it.

The film offers a fuller view of Texas than is usually seen on screen. Linklater directs with a steady hand, never letting a particular moment or theme overwhelm the narrative, or the story to be taken over by sentimentality or something that isn’t rooted in realism.

Best film of my year so far. I’m sure it will be hard to top. I almost don’t want to see another film this year after seeing this one.

boyhood cast

The cast and director as seen at the recent New York premiere.

A most missed man

most wanted manEarlier this week I returned to the State Theatre to catch current release A Most Wanted Man, which is notable, in an unfortunate and unforeseen (of course) way, for offering the last starring role of Philip Seymour Hoffman. The stars promoted the film at Sundance earlier this year, just a few short weeks before Hoffman’s sad and widely – covered in the media death. The film proceeded with its release, though it’s unclear to me how large of a rollout it will get.

The movie is not the action packed drama teased in the trailer, but instead takes a more thoughtful and process – oriented approach to its storyline. Eventually the events proceed in a manner similar to, but not quite as stylistically pleasing as, the adaption of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, written by the same author. This film lacks a compelling narrative structure that has made some of the author’s other works, most notably The Constant Gardener, more memorable in their cinematic adaptations.

Nonetheless, the story remains timely and topical. Hoffman takes the central role as Günther Bachmann, head of a Hamburg, Germany based spying agency. Bachmann and his associates, which include character actor Daniel Bruhl, are charged with monitoring a Chechen immigrant who has recently arrived in Germany via illegal means. The immigrant, Issa, has business he wants to attend to with a local banker (Willem Defoe) while his situation attracts the attention of a young lawyer played by Rachel McAdams. Meanwhile, Gunther deals with increasing tensions between himself and fellow CIA/Stasi-type operatives, including an American representative played by Robin Wright. While it’s great that Wright’s involvement with House of Cards has given her a reinvigorated career profile, her role here seems too similar to that show, and it feels like her distracting brunette bob was an afterthought attempt by the producers to further differentiate her character. The “and” credit before her name is a further giveaway that her role will not be central to the plot but will come in at a few key scenes.

As for the rest of the cast, the marquee names acquit themselves well. Dafoe offers a tonal opposite from his role in The Grand Budapest Hotel earlier this year, and where he’s someone I often think of as playing villainous or “heavy” type characters, this role’s emphasis on uncertainty and more emotional angles seemed to be a refreshing change of pace. McAdams doesn’t seem to have aged at all since her initial breakthrough roles 10 years ago (!) and presents a mostly-convincing German accent for her scenes. Her infectious smile and good humor, widely used in other films, are rarely seen here.

Hoffman performs his role in German – accented English and displays the same unrivaled intensity that made him so renowned and acclaimed in the business. His absence hangs over the film like a melancholic cloud from the beginning, although I found myself getting immersed in the story and forgetting, for a bit, about the outside circumstances around him. The evocative final shot of the film is a fitting finale for his cinematic presence. (He will return, however, in the upcoming Hunger Games continuing chapters.)

The film’s problem lies in its lack of a compelling storyline. And while Issa ultimately becomes the central character, the “most wanted man,” the character is seen almost completely in solemn, very serious scenes, and given little room to grow or develop empathy with the viewer, which may be a joint fault between the writer and the performer. The situation with Issa is established with urgency, and there is a strong opening sequence establishing the character’s arrival in Hamburg, the security presence in the city, and why the characters might be interested in following Issa. But things slow waaaay down after that, and it’s difficult to sustain interest in what the story holds for the characters. However, some twists and turns involving the lawyer, and who knows what in relation to whom, ultimately manage to keep things interesting.

The film is drenched in ominous colors of grey, black and steel. As I noted above, the characters rarely break a smile. There is an intriguing balance of power constantly shifting and changing gears in the story. But the film as a whole has to be one that you are in the mood for, with lots of gloom and seriousness and definitely not a choice for a light night out.

First films of my 30s

After a birthday-related filmgoing and local hiatus, I returned to Southeast Michigan on Thursday evening, ready to resume my summer filmgoing in what’s become the season of the anti-blockbuster, both for me and, somewhat, for the national box office.

I suddenly remembered that Garden State was the first film I’d seen of my 20s, back at the good ol Embassy Cinema in Waltham, MA, and so it seemed natural that Zach Braff’s new release, Wish I Was Here, take the honor of the first film of my 30s.

On a side note, I later saw Garden State again at the Odeon West End in London on its UK premiere later in 2004, with Braff and Natalie Portman in attendance, and members of the band Zero 7 sitting in the same row as me. I recall enjoying the sensation of already knowing the film was memorable and on its way to being a cult classic.

I’m not sure Wish I Was Here will enjoy that same reputation. I haven’t followed Braff’s career closely in the last 10 years, but he seems to have had some natural ups and downs, and his decision to Kickstart the film may also haunt him.

I struggled if and how to summarize the film, having originally began this review on Friday, but will plow ahead now on Monday afternoon.

hudson braff

Braff stars as Aidan, a down on his luck actor in the Los Angeles suburbs who is getting by on the patient goodwill of his wife (Kate Hudson) and financial support from his father (Mandy Patinkin) to make sure his two children proceed with their education at a local Jewish school. But, in an inciting event, Aidan learns his father has developed a terminal illness, thus forcing Aidan and Sarah to find new ways to support their family. This quickly leads to a new arrangement where Aidan takes over as homeschool teacher of the children, while trying to navigate the tricky emotional ground accompanying his father’s illness and a tense relationship with his underachieving brother, played by Josh Gad.

The movie is an overstuffed mixed bag, with several well – filmed vistas of Los Angeles and surrounding Southern California areas giving way to an overly complicated plot that ought to have been run through a simplification machine. While some reports suggest that Braff sought his Kickstarter funding in order to make the movie “he wanted,” I agree with other claims suggesting that he should have proceeded with additional edits, particularly around an unnecessary thread that has his character reimagined as a valiant superhero. Those sequences loosely tie in with an additional plot thread for Gad’s character to attend Comic Con and demonstrate extreme nerdness. Such inclusions fade into somewhat awkwardly placed, though heartfelt, family sequences, concerning Patinkin’s character, Hudson’s job and the educational plight of the children. Braff and Hudson are allowed two scenes as a couple that are refreshingly simple and intimate; both are highlights of the film.

Only Hudson rises above the material, in a surprising comeback-worthy performance showing sympathy, empathy and grace, seemingly many distances away from her earlier romantic comedy work. I found myself initially irritated by Patinkin’s monotone-type performance, but have appreciated its subtleties in thinking about the film as a whole.

The anticipation surrounding the film reminds me of similar circumstances surrounding Braff’s 2006 vehicle The Last Kiss, also awaited with anticipation and received tepidly following its release that fall. I never saw the movie, but they both make clear that filmmakers face steep challenges in living up to an acclaimed early work.

Returning to the Ann Arbor 20 earlier today for this weekend’s top film helped me to find the motivation to complete the earlier musings. My friend Gabe also posted comments on the same film today.

scarlett lucy

 

Scarlett Johansson headlines Lucy, a both simple and high-concept tale from director Luc Besson treading some of Besson’s favorite narrative themes (see La Femme Nikita, The ProfessionalThe Fifth Element, et al) and some other recent films exploring the power of the human mind including 2011’s Limitless, along with action-heroine films such as Johansson’s own Avengers contributions and others like Saoirse Ronan’s Hanna.

For Johansson the role continues an impressive series of recent performances that really ought to be linked in their thematic and character similarities. (In this film, the phrase “under the skin” is even included within one of her lines.) The actress has capably shown that she’s ready and willing to step beyond her sex symbol image and move into a new phase of her career where she opens a film on her name alone and carries the content energetically from starting reel to closing scene.

This story follows the travails of Lucy, an American tourist in Taiwan who finds herself thrust into murky circumstances around drug smuggling and modest espionage in the country. She’s selected against her will, along with three hapless men, for inclusion in a drug testing program stretching the limits of the human brain to use 100% of its potential. After some initial awkward adjustments to her enhanced capabilities, Lucy embraces her powers with a mixture of assertiveness, curiosity and dread, but the smugglers are still on her trail as she hooks up with some French would-be Interpol agents.

Morgan Freeman co-stars (in a somewhat thankless role) as a brain scientist whom Lucy identifies as the one she wants to interact with and present her case to. Eventually all roads lead to Freeman and associates’ laboratory, conveniently in Paris.

The film is augmented by a light sense of fanaticism, as seen in Besson’s inclusion of multiple stock footage excerpts focusing on human evolution, and a sequence near the end of the film where Lucy bends the narratives of space and time. As well, the scenes are interrupted to show Lucy’s progression towards using 100% of her brain capabilities in a total comic-book style design.

While not a super weighty nor completely original cinematic work, this film is worth noting for Besson “returning to form” and embracing his cinematic roots, a keen sense of design and enthusiasm in the work, and, as I noted above, Johansson continuing to develop a new assertiveness in her performances that will undoubtedly serve her well in the future.

Third Person Drama

My series of weekend late shows at the State Theatre continued last night with the new release Third Person.

The film is begin sold as “from the writer/director of Crash” and shares many similarities with that 2005 opus, which I found interesting on first (and possibly only) viewing, but is definitely a film that has not aged well.

Liam Neeson takes the central role as an accomplished writer, Michel, who is working hard on his latest novel, but is also working through some changes in his personal life, having decamped to Paris for an extended rendezvous with a  younger flame (Olivia Wilde) and left his wife (Kim Basinger) behind in the USA. We are introduced to several secondary characters as parallel story lines quickly take shape.

In New York City, an estranged couple (Mila Kunis and James Franco) engage in a custody battle over their young son, with the support of a lawyer (Maria Bello) and several additional characters. Meanwhile, in Italy, an American businessman (Adrian Brody) meets a mysterious local woman (Moran Atlas) and is drawn into her current predicament that eventually takes them to several places across Italy.

The stories intercut with each other and with the continued development of Neeson and Wilde’s storyline, so that you know they will eventually be linked in some way, and that connection is revealed at the very end of the film.

Only problem was I guessed the connection about a third of the way into the film – and it becomes increasingly clear if you pay attention to various visual clues.

Haggis displays a similar heavy-handed approach here as seen in his earlier films, which I feel might have been initially appreciated but now are greeted with less enthusiasm. I felt that most of the actors struggled to commit to their roles, with Kunis being a particularly glaring example of trying to give A Serious Performance … and not convincing me. (In contrast, her subtle, intense dramatic role in Black Swan continues to stand out in my memory.) I felt that Brody showed the most commitment to the material, which is interesting as his storyline initially seems the most tangential, but becomes the most endearing of the three.

On a related note, WHERE HAS KIM BASINGER BEEN? Her appearance here is criminally brief, but serves as a sharp reminder of her talents. I felt that she and Neeson should have spun themselves off into a separate movie focused on an age-appropriate romance or adventure. On the opposite side, JAMES FRANCO CONTINUES TO BE EVERYWHERE and strained credibility in his role as an accomplished New York painter, with his usual smirk lurking below his serious expressions.

Neeson acquits himself well, but suffers from a contrived role. It’s refreshing to see him stepping back into adult dramas after (what feels like) several years of only focusing on action movie work. I hope that other audiences will be reminded of his earlier work – and potential for future roles – with this performance. I felt that Kunis and Wilde ought to have switched roles, where the actresses’ strengths might have been more visible in their opposite parts. As it is, Wilde enjoys several sharp – tongued script moments but suffers from an overabundance of gratuitous girlfriend scenes, with accompanying nudity.

Curiously, one of the film’s best scenes sees Wilde and Neeson visit a Parisian dance club, where they briefly interact with some locals and express their intimacy through dance and silence, accompanied by a new track from Moby. The scene shows an easy comfort with simplicity, and what’s said and isn’t said, that the rest of the movie, with its overwrought and heavy – handed exposition, sorely lacks.

The new song’s video doubles as an extended informercial for the film:

You'd be drawn to a film with a cast like that, right?! (photo from IMDB)

You’d be drawn to a film with a cast like that, right?! (photo from IMDB)

Can’t/Must Stop the Train

 

Film poster courtesy IMDB

Film poster courtesy IMDB

Snowpiercer has arrived as curious anomaly or antidote to the summer movie season. Its cold, dark winter setting makes it seem more appropriate for a holiday season release, and a pointedly grim atmosphere clashes with the sunshine currently widely present outside movie theaters. But a relatively star-studded cast, with at least two Oscar winners and three Oscar nominees, plus two current popcorn-movie leading men, lends some credence to the summer release plan.

Set in the not-too-distant future, with references to an inciting event said to take place right here in 2014, the film tells the story of the last survivors on Earth who have been hauled together on an endless train ride, following a failed attempt to balance out the planet’s climate problems. The train is a microcosm of what’s left of humanity, but also shows the lingering tensions and anxieties of such relationships.

We’re introduced to the lower-class members of the train who are forbidden from moving forward thanks to on-train law enforcement. Occasionally they are addressed by Mason (Tilda Swinton) – a warden of sorts who tries to be somewhat humane to them at times, and maybe has a conflict between what she is doing and what actually happens to the lower-class individuals.

The first scene makes it clear that Curtis (Chris Evans – doing a total 180 from his “Captain America” life) is the ringleader of the rear-class citizens. He and a few friends including Edgar (Jamie Bell) are working to determine a way to get to the front of the train, aided by some assistance from Gilliam (John Hurt) – an older passenger who helped construct the train. A community of families is also evident in the group, with Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewan Bremmer) emerging as key representatives from that section of the population.

Because some of the players, Curtis included, have been trapped in the back of the train for so long, they have some misgivings about actually going ahead with their attempt to go to the front of the train. But several incidents and plot developments arrive in quick succession, and so Curtis takes the lead of going off into their unknown. The group quickly learns that they will not have an easy journey and that the train is more complex than any of them could have imagined.

I am impressed that a film like this, which could be summarized as “The Matrix on a train,” attracted such a star-studded cast. While a few performers (John Hurt, Ed Harris) offer variations on similar roles in their past or archetypal roles, others such as Evans and Swinton offer distinctive portrayals very different from previous performances in their filmography. Character distinctions are further highlighted by all of the rear-class citizens having some form of grime and muck on their body, while those closer to the front of the train have flawless skin. This is most sharply realized in a surprise cameo from Allison Pill as a teacher who seems to have a heart of gold, in spite of the circumstances (but does she?)

Director Joon-ho Bong makes his English-language debut with this release, and his Korean roots are evident in the choreography of fight scenes and use of actor Kang-ho Song in a key role. However, several of those same fight scenes take the violent elements longer than American audiences might be used to, and certain plot elements that might be suggested are actually visually explored, thus making the film hard to watch at times. The greater plot element of a class system on a contained environment is notable, and continues to find relevance in the present era.

I felt that same artistry contributed to the success of the film at other times, as in several moody sequences through the lesser-known (to the lower class citizens) areas of the train where ambient noise and active visuals take the place of dialogue, a sudden left-turn moment in a classroom car on the train, and a climactic sequence with a well-known actor appearing as the mastermind behind it all. The dark train ride is occasionally supplemented by beautiful cinematography of an endlessly snow-covered landscape, and the pace of the film does not feel rushed or locked into a blockbuster-style showdown at the end of the story.

I can’t recommend this film with gusto due to the high violent content and several derivative plot elements, but I feel that it will sustain itself as a notable release from this year. It’s great to see the cast members committing to their parts – though Swinton is always memorable in her roles. I particularly hope that the movie continues to stand out on Evans’ filmography, as he capably turns away from the “American Hero” role he’s become known for, and shows more depth and commitment to the part than possibly any other role he has done before.

Summer Solstice Arts Binge

I spontaneously yet purposefully structured this year’s Summer Solstice as an opportunity to focus on local culture and arts offerings. I felt that the harsh winter made Detroit – area culture rescind into the background for me more than I would have liked – though it was probably more a case of having to seek it out more directly – and so I am happy to see various cultural festivals and outdoor attractions now back in force. (Including my current project of working on The Penny Seats production of Elektra, due to open on July 10.)

First up was a drive to Detroit to check out this year’s edition of the River Days Festival. (I was in the city during last year’s festival, but did not attend for unknown reasons… I think that was the first time I went over to Windsor instead. Shows how times and priorities change!)

This festival is a great way for the city to turn its eye to the river, which seemed more blue and inviting than ever, and there was a similar festival apparently taking place on the other side in Windsor. Multiple ships were plowing the waters, some seeming to party more than others, and there was even a Tall Ship at dock, which had come down from a point in the Saginaw area. 

I don’t usually post travel-blog type photos here but I feel compelled to share a few highlights since it was such a scenic day:

ImageImageImageImageImage

As I enjoyed the sights, I couldn’t help recalling what the same vista had looked like just five months ago:

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But it’s the wrong time of year to focus on a view like that 😀

I might have stayed longer in the city, but had made a decision earlier in the day to stop by Tipping Point Theatre in Northville to finally catch a production at that company. Their current production, The Red King’s Dream, will be running for one more week in its US premiere.

Written by a Canadian playwright, this script reminded me very much of Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, which my friends and colleagues The Penny Seats produced in their inaugural season three years ago, and later seemed to enjoy a brief revival of interest, with productions popping up in San Francisco and New York City, and probably a few other places. As for this show, I’m not sure if it will enjoy continued productions, but Tipping Point seems to appreciate it.

It follows the story of Steven, a classic loner type who works diligently in his crowded apartment to created indexes for an overbearing boss. The boss figure, a domineering woman, often visits him and clearly exerts a strong control over his actions and activities. He’s also often visited by a close friend who lives nearby, and his mother calls him, but there seem to be no other people in his life. One day, an attractive woman, Zoe, moves into his building and they meet by chance. Steven begins to feel an attraction to Zoe, but because he’s so socially inexperienced, he isn’t sure if he wants to reveal that attraction or not. Naturally, everyone’s relationships with Steven come to a head in a climactic dinner party scene. The script also includes some not well thought out (IMO) references to Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland (hence the title) although that element does give a chance for the actresses to sport some great costumes in bookend-type scenes.

Sooo… this show struck me as something I’d usually refer to as a “crowd pleaser,” meaning that it can appeal to a wide audience but won’t necessarily end up on a critic’s top 10 list. All four actors deliver committed performances, although Zoe (Maggie Mayer) isn’t really given a chance to speak for herself until the final scene. The script often ventured a bit too readily into slapstick or “oh I can’t believe he said that” moments, and the awkwardness of the Steven character could have been easily suggested rather than so obviously spelled out.

Image

 

On the other hand, the set design, as seen in the above image, could have been a character in itself, with a richly detailed checkerboard floor, hundreds of books carefully set in locations around the 3/4 thrust stage, and a hint of offstage activity as well.

Later in the day, back in Ann Arbor, I paid a visit to the unique Carriage House Theatre for the first time. This group shows an impressive commitment to challenging works. This summer they plan three productions, and their first one, Phedre, was enjoying a sold-out closing performance.

I tried not to compare the production too much to the filmed-theatre version I saw in 2009 with Helen Mirren in the lead role. This time the action was much more immediate, with just a small suggestion of a set and the actors doing their best to let the words speak louder than their actions. I don’t feel like I want to single out a particular moment in this production, but I was impressed with the actors capability and commitment. 

Attending the production gave me the stamina I was looking for to finally attend an installment of the State Theatre’s monthly midnight movie series. After noticing, wanting to attend, and ultimately not making it to screenings of films including 2001Fight Club and Wet Hot American Summer, this time the movie of the night was Serenity, which is now (gulp) nine years old but was met with much anticipation when it was released in late September 2005. Several friends from Hampshire College and I eagerly attended one of the first screenings at CInemark Hampshire Mall soon after it opened.

But despite that early anticipation, the movie’s box office returns disappointed, and no further sequels were made, though the film’s storyline leaves the possibility open.

And so in 2014 I was/am looking at the film in a historical context … would it be more successful if it was released today? (perhaps.) could Joss Whedon’s vastly increased celebrity and cache impact a future revival of this show? (probably.) did this show contribute to the now popular binge watching trend, where its predecessor Firefly TV series was under appreciated in initial airing but became hugely successful on DVD? (yes.) was the show and movie a launching pad for greater success for the actors involved? (mostly, from what I can tell.)

The State was at least 3/4 full for the screening, and the audience was more like a live audience at times, eagerly responding to twists and turns in the plot. Seeing the film again left me with an active looking-back feeling, where something I/you appreciated some time ago is right there in front of you, and so associated sensations and memories come back… but then it’s time to return to the present.

 

Saturday Night Doubleheader

It felt like my old days of Bay Area arts-going as I enjoyed a live performance followed by a film in close proximity to each other (and walking distance from my apartment!) in downtown Ann Arbor this evening.

First up was an Ann Arbor Summer Festival kick-off appearance from Ms. Lily Tomlin – a Michigan native and (obviously) esteemed performer who does not act or present like the stereotypical/imagined 74 year old. Tomlin seemed to relish being onstage, frequently walking around with her hands outstretched like a very dedicated power walker, and easily slipping in, vocally and physically, to various characterizations from her catalogue. She also incorporated several video segments into her monologue, mixing a bit of older excerpts with some material that may have been conceived especially for this show. Perhaps most impressively, she delivered her whole 90 minute set as an extended monologue, barely pausing for breath on a handful of occasions and never needing to look at a card or any sort of prompt.

While I enjoyed the opportunity to see a legend like Ms. Tomlin onstage, I didn’t feel 100% connected to her material and felt that I might not be in the intended age range and/or demographic that she is gearing towards. I don’t hold that against her at all and am grateful for the chance to see her live, as she always has projected intelligence, fun and good humor in the various television and film projects I have seen her in over the years.

On my way back towards my apartment from Hill Auditorium, I noticed that my erstwhile favorite art house, The State, had some new films on the lineup, including Cold in July, which happened to be starting its late show right when I was in front of the cinema. So I ventured inside.

cold in julyThis film oozes Texas character, and at times seems like a sibling to No Country for Old Men as it tracks another trio of Lone Star State characters seeking vengeance for mysterious – and not clear until the final reel – acts. It is also based on a book, though I had not heard of the title.

Subtlety is the name of the game as the plot unspools, with Michael C. Hall in the central role projecting resoluteness alternating with uncertainty. He is strongly supported by older veterans Sam Shepard, who needs no introduction but really shines here after window-dressing in his August: Osage County cameo appearance, and an initially unrecognizable Don Johnson poking fun at his suave reputation, and then going deeper as the story goes on. Up and coming celebrity progeny Wyatt Russell makes an appearance late in the film as a key character, and isn’t given much to do or say, but projects strong screen presence. Character actress Vinessa Shaw gets the major female role, and while unfortunately she isn’t given much to do, she continues to demonstrate an intelligent screen presence that I first noticed way back in Hocus Pocus.

The familiar plot concerns the ricochet effects that happen to Hall and Shaw and their son after Hall suddenly shoots an intruder in their home late one night. The first quarter of the film covers standard police procedural territory, and then things turn more interesting after that, leading to a predictable, though well thought out explosive finish. The story doesn’t really tie up all of its initial loose ends, but it seems to be more concerned with the mood and impact of the violence. I guess that means more realism, and some of the scenes – and Hall’s remorse and uncertainty alternating with resolve – recall the recent Blue Ruin.

Technical elements of the film are solid if not outstanding, with the most detail seemingly on the 1989 period setting. Fitting in with the subtlety, and possibly low budget, I liked that most of the elements were suggested rather than fully realized, such as old cars tooting around the dusty Texas town, a night drive to the Houston area with only a distant highway sign giving a sense of place, and the finale initially beginning offscreen, but audible, and the main character moving into the forefront of the action. I could have done without, or preferred a different, music score from the at times heavy-handed cues that were used, emphasizing classical music and speaking for some of the character motivations in place of dialogue. I appreciated the act by act structure of the plot, in that it was well defined, and again feel that morality tales such as these are great fits for late shows on a Friday or Saturday night.