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Contrasting Cinematic Experiences

I’ve written before about how the venue is just as important as the film itself in my moviegoing experiences. I was reminded of those preferences in my choices for filmgoing this weekend.

First up on Friday night was acclaimed director Richard Linklater’s latest offering, Everybody Wants Some!! – currently playing an area exclusive engagement at The Maple Theatre. I continue to feel that “The Maple”, as it seems to now preferred to be called, offers the best all-around filmgoing experience in the area, with three screens (so not too many showings), a large bar and restaurant space adjacent to the theatre itself, and said secondary space offering a generous menu of fillings and libations. The screening rooms themselves are modest, although this visit finally allowed me to visit their largest screen, which I had somehow kept missing in my between 5 and 10 previous visits to the theatre. It’s understandable that the newest releases go right to that screen, as it is exceptionally wide, and so that’s where this film was.

It takes awhile for Linklater’s new film to settle into the filmmaker’s familiar and perceptive groove about humanity and relationships, as seen in his other films such as Boyhood and the Before… series, but it eventually does. The story follows a group of jock-ish guys at a Texas university just before their classes start in the fall of 1980. We are introduced to the central character, Jake, played by Blake Jenner, just as he arrives at their would-be fraternity house shared by all the baseball team members. We follow their escapades as the clock ticks down to the start of classes, going from discos to rodeos to campus parties and various games in between.

The film really succeeds at delivering and conjuring the experience of early (or any stage) college life, from the run-down house “donated by the town to the university” to the question of what someone wants to get out of their experience, and if they’re doing it on their own, in a relationship, or developing a posse of friends and neighbors. Several scenes are aided by a pulsating period-perfect soundtrack, most notably in several sequences at an area discotheque.

I think I would go see the film again because of this very visceral and lived-in quality that the film offers – although college is now behind me personally, the film still offers something to aspire to and appreciate.

FullSizeRenderNext on my list was a trip over to the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights. This complex is a remnant of a (now badly dated IMO) 1990’s trend to build theatres as big as they could be. On the plus side, the extensive array of screens allowed for my film of choice, Midnight Special, to be right there; it’s not showing in a huge variety of area locations at the moment. Needless to say, going back to the corporate filmgoing structure felt very different from the Maple Theater the previous evening.

This film offered a strong throwback to late 1970’s styles of filmmaking, best seen through Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and other similar stories by other directors. The director Jeff Nichols seems to be a rising talent, and while this was his first film that I have seen, I heard good things about previous works such as Mud and Take Shelter.

In this story, the audience dives right in to an “on-the-run” style plot, following drivers Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) as they ferry Roy’s son Alton off to an unknown destination and away from a cult-like environment called “The Ranch.” To say more would be to give away the plot as it unravels – so I’ll just say that I really enjoyed the nostalgic throwback aspects of this film, and crucially how the story itself left lots to the imagination, the key role of artistry and interpretation.

Good Men and True

Last Friday night I enjoyed a belated first visit to Hamtramck, Michigan’s Planet Ant Theatre, a small venue that has an ambitious slate of provocative plays. As sometimes happens, I’d wanted to go to this theatre earlier on and didn’t. But it was rewarding to be able to make the time to attend the Opening Night of this particular production.

The publicity materials for the show take care to spell out the basic premise of the play (what if a trio of protagonists from some of Shakespeare’s well-known works meet up in a single story?), but, delightfully, don’t give a sense of the creativity and free spiritedness of the production. The play has received additional press attention in a positive review by John Quinn of Encore Michigan and a feature article running in The Detroit News.

For me personally, the show was a delightful mash-up and reminder of a more creative side of theatre that I sometimes feel sad to not see very often in the professional world. This approach that I speak of is one that is not afraid of taking risks, rolling with the possibilities of a prompt or suggested activity, and being comfortable with the dramatic ambiguity or simply not knowing how a creative exercise might turn out. This was a hallmark of some of my most memorable improvisation and creative discovery based courses over the years, and in some cases, audience attending, such as at San Francisco’s BATS Improv.

In Good Men and True the four actresses (Jaclynn Cherry, Kez Settle, DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton and Jackie Strez) perform confidently and comfortably as their roles undergo various switchups and moving of layers, literally and figuratively. Their vocal and physical inflections and character choices from the first moment on stage show a strong command of the material and willingness to take risks. I look forward to remembering the fresh and exciting feel of their play – and the associated creative confidence they project with the material – for some time.

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.