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Her, Him or Them? (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby)

The film criticism will likely continue to keep a slower pace over the next few months, but I’ll still be doing it.

The Birmingham 8, formerly my distant arthouse/indie film destination, is now a local destination of choice. And so I made another visit there yesterday to catch The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, the first installment of a trilogy of films telling the same story.

Having known about the “bigger picture” of the other films, I question the necessity of this one, subtitled Them, after seeing it. The story gets a detailed outline in this two hour version, but there are multiple instances where it feels like something is missing, or it’s an awkward switch from one perspective to another. I can’t completely tell if the decision to truncate the longer versions was solely a commercial decision, though I’m glad to know that the full version will still be coming to theaters in October, and hope that it will appear locally – perhaps again at the Birmingham 8.

eleanor rigbyJessica Chastain and James McAvoy give passionate performances as the central couple, subtly shading their characterizations as the story jumps around in time, showing both their initial attraction and later distancing after an (unseen) traumatic event. As the title character, Chastain particularly impresses with her initial free-spiritedness changing to a trauma-induced restraint and (seeming) coldness, until she (as the character) begins to let the changes settle in and re-focus her life. McAvoy does the opposite challenge, both in reacting to Chastain’s changes and conveying his own redirected journey.

The central pair is supported by a handful of supporting characters, and the film feels like it could be an intimate stage play at times with that narrow yet compelling focus. And I suspect that the full version (subtitled Him and Her) may feel like a reverse-persepctive novel brought to film.

Viola Davis, who previously appeared onscreen with Chastain in The Help, stands out in the supporting cast. (Why is Davis not top lining a film???) She delivers several initial tart lines with relish, and easily conveys a seasoned (yet weary) point of view as a college professor interacting with Eleanor and trying to get her back on her feet. Isabelle Huppert appears in a rare English – speaking role as Eleanor’s French mother, who seemed to always have a glass of wine in her hand. Oddly, the full view of the character is only expressed in scenes when she is not with Eleanor, but I suspect that is a writing trick to show what family members do and don’t say to their other relatives. Similarly, William Hurt conveys restraint as Eleanor’s father, but isn’t given a chance to show his full feelings until the very end of the film.

Additional supporting roles are filled by Jess Weixler, Ciaran Hinds, Nina Arlanda and Bill Hader. I’m sure that the full film gives more shadings to each of those roles, although Weixler and Hader do get a few notable scenes in the abbreviated take, and Hader also shows a surprising ease with the drama, given his status as a better – known comedy actor.

It is unfortunate that economics seemingly dictated the release of this abbreviated version of the story, but I’m relieved to know that the full film will still appear, where it received an apparently appreciative festival response and would certainly stand out as a novel take on how to tell a cinematic story.

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Familiarity breeds appreciation

Yesterday brought two currently rare examples of seeing people I know perform onstage – and in film. Initially thought it was the first time that had happened in over two years, but I now recall there have been a handful of occurrences since leaving the Bay Area (where that situation was much more frequent.)

In the afternoon I cheered on friends from The Penny Seats for their annual “Five Bowls of Oatmeal” performance given in collaboration with local non-profit 826michigan, which is itself, coincidentally, an offshoot of a San Francisco-based organization. This event was the culmination of several weeks of writing workshops with 826 volunteers and local middle school aged students, collaborating with the students to write short plays that (VERY IMPORTANT) had to have oatmeal incorporated into them. And the students succeeded! Many writers were in the audience yesterday to see their work and be (humorously and thoughtfully) interviewed in between some of the plays.

Of course for me there was an extra appeal in the performance: seeing my friends take on new and often outlandish roles, like a loaf of bread, a winter storm, a few babies, children who are budding actors, police officers and various types of food (just to name a few…) with everyone clearly having a great time loosening up and honoring the student’s written word. I can’t forget to mention the creative cartoon-style props and thoughtful attention to sound design that were an integral part of the complete performance.

In the evening I again ventured to the State Theater (quickly becoming my most frequently visited local cinema) to see the acclaimed film 12 Years A Slave, featuring college friend Lupita Nyong’o in a key supporting role. I’m not exaggerating when I mention that Lupita has received considerable press attention for her work in this film, with corresponding Oscar buzz. A quick Google search yielded many recent examples including 3 from the past 10 days (!) which I will link to here:

The New York Times highlights Lupita’s fashion sense
The LA Times checks in with Lupita as the Oscar season begins
and most honorably…
The Springfield Republican interviews several of our Hampshire professors about their experiences working with Lupita.

The Republican’s opening comment that “But for those who knew her when she was a student at Hampshire College, the applause is nothing but expected” resonated with me for obvious reasons, as I was always impressed with Lupita’s dedication to her/our college pursuits that I observed, and am happy to observe support for her continuing to come from our alumni community.

Where both of the observations in this post stem from college theatre connections, it makes me feel very grateful for my time at Hampshire College. Relatedly, there’s a good chance I would not be here in Ann Arbor right now if I hadn’t gone to Hampshire… but that’s for an alternate reality science fiction-style post.

The film – 12 Years A Slave? Easily one of the most intense, visceral and harrowing films I’ve ever seen in the movie theatre. I’m sure those feelings were connected to knowing that the story is based on a real event, combined with a sad knowledge of slavery’s reality and heavy footprint in history. It’s a film that generates quiet contemplation (there are no words, really) although I am sure it will be a recurring presence in the film awards season ahead.

An esteemed cast gave power to the characters, with Chiwitel Ejofor in the devastating lead role (and seeming to make a comeback of sorts after being less visible on screen for the past several years), easily rising to the front of Best Actor conversations, while several well-known actors offered supporting portrayals of varying importance to the story.

I had some quibbles with a few technical aspects of the film, but can’t deny that director Steve McQueen brought a powerful tone, emotional resonance and consistency to the story.

“12 Years” is definitely not an easy film to absorb, but one that is clearly a must-see, if you are up for it.