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Peak Filmgoing

I haven’t been to my once-regular hangout, The Redford Theatre, at all this year, and it seems unlikely that I’ll go over there before the school year concludes in a few short weeks. The likely reason for this is the lingering satisfaction – even nearly a year later – of getting to see my favorite James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service at the Redford on the big screen last June.

After seeing the film onscreen once before – and coming close to seeing it onscreen nearly 20 years ago in 1998 at the Brattle Theatre back in Cambridge – I was still excited to see it again. Reasons were similar to why I am often drawn to reissues or revival screenings: the immediacy of the cinematic experience can’t be replicated in your home or in a lighter setting. That’s especially true with this Bond movie, which offered a level of intensity and character that was arguably unmatched until Casino Royale appeared on screens 37 years later.

The previous screening, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, offered the excitement of 007’s 50th anniversary year and took place in October, 2012. I’d made a special trip to the city for the event, and was not disappointed – mostly – except for the fact that a key sequence of the film was completely missing from the print that they showed. Thankfully that did not happen at the Redford and the emphasis was on the quality of the experience, complete with old-style intermission as is customary with their classic film showings.

Of course another part of the appeal of this experience stemmed from having visited the primary filming location itself, as referenced in my YouTube clip below, high in the Swiss Alps. I’m currently looking in to making a return visit there, just over 10 years after when I previously went, and am hoping it will work out.

So with the peaks of an experience like that with OHMSS, why would (or how could) I top that? It’s nothing against the Redford, though, and they continue to be a strong resource and community member of Detroit.

Audiences Await World Premieres, in Michigan

It was a special treat this week to focus again on theatregoing instead of my currently more customary filmgoing. It was also intriguing and exciting to be able to see two world premiere plays right in my (relative) backyard.

img_8280First up was a trip back out to The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, well-known for its founder, actor Jeff Daniels, and its role as a cornerstone of the economy in Chelsea, a small yet well-settled town that is more or less the end of the metro Detroit sprawl as one heads west towards Kalamazoo, Chicago and other south/westerly points. The “Rose” makes a point of presenting new work – their fall play which I had also seen was a first-time presentation – but this time they did things particularly well with a strong script and production. In fact, I feel this play was one of the best I’ve seen in the entirety of my nearly four years living in Michigan.

Smart Love told a relatable story of a recent widow, Sandy, who at first glance appears to be doing OK at getting on with her life following the recent death of her husband. We’re introduced to her in the midst of a night spent with new boyfriend Victor at her home, said to be in the Detroit area. Just when things seem like they’re going to continue in a pleasingly domestic manner, Sandy’s son Benji appears at the door, urgently knocking and urging his mother to let him inside, even though it’s the middle of the night and they haven’t seen each other for a number of months. Benji is a scientific researcher at MIT (coincidental for me as a Massachusetts native) and chooses to come back to Michigan as he is eager to share some new creative developments related to his career and research.

And the story unspools from there, in surprising and often thought-provoking directions. Never going too far into the provocation category, the play stays in realistic gravity thanks to Kamoo, one of this area’s finest actresses IMO, who sells every moment from surprise to tenderness to anger to contemplation and beyond. The rest of the cast holds strong with the material and the twists and turns of the story. The key dramatic questions stay grounded in humane and familial realism, which was helpful to me as an audience member.

The second show of the weekend enabled a very belated first visit to Matrix Theatre Company in southwest Detroit. This group is thoroughly grounded in the tight-knit community of the city, and I’d intended to attend one of their shows on a couple times during the past few years, but didn’t make it until now. This play, Intentions, by Abbey Fenbert, looked at a small community of residents in an intentional living house outside Chicago. I wondered at times how the drama would reveal itself, and at multiple occasions the scenarios reminded me of the on-campus housing environments at my own college, where issues of green living, creating with purpose, entanglements with housemates and questions of how to conduct oneself in the outside world are often hot topics.

A mostly youthful five person ensemble cast keeps the tables turning on each other, and the script knew how to keep things fresh without falling into tropes of just two people talking or the scene going on too long. While some story elements were fairly predictable in my eyes, there was an appealing continued emphasis on nuances and the value of relationships. Several scene transitions carried the story along in its silent moments, as well.

Overall an appealing pair of newer plays, each with their own quirks and appeal, that I’ll continue to remember and appreciate for their origins right here in Michigan.

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.)

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.

Changing lanes of a thoroughfare

It’s coming up to one year ago that I first ventured east on Mack Avenue in Detroit beyond the comfortable confines of the city’s midtown district. At that time, the street seemed to be a forlorn and past its prime place. The feeling was likely accentuated by that day’s last snow of the season, a sensation I have recalled in the past couple of days with similarly cold weather and mild amounts of end of season snowfall.

But what really intrigues me is the total 180 degree turn in impressions of Mack Avenue in the year since. I now drive at least a segment of the road on a (week)daily basis for my regular commute, but the length of time spent on the street has gotten progressively shorter as my displeasure with the street has increased. It seems there’s no other street in Detroit that is essentially a very wide one lane road (well, there are a few, but they’re not on my regular itineraries except one other) – and drivers that constantly disregard the rules of said road and pass you on the right and then come to an abrupt stop. I’ll admit that I’ve joined this game on a few occasions – if you can’t beat them, join them – but my underlying displeasure with the road itself (not to mention its potholes, poor paving and other peculiarities) means that I limit my time engaging with it to as little as possible.

And yet, all of this is in stark contrast to that wide open desolate feeling of just one year ago.

Inspecting…

It’s good to be sitting in the dark here in the Hilberry Theatre instead of sitting in the quiet at my house while the acting company puts the finishing touches on our current production, Inspecting Carol, before it enjoys Opening Night and a (total) three week run beginning Friday night.

This is somewhat keeping me away from focusing on end of the semester writing assignments, but that’s clearly par for the course at this point. If anything, it is pleasing to note that the tail end of the semester seems to be delivering more focus for me than at other times so far during this academic year. Perhaps there is something to be said for working under pressure and deadlines in a collaborative environment.

Continuing with my recent theme of “focusing in on the minutiae” I’d like to note an odd, but fun experience while driving into work this morning. As opposed to the aggression of eight days ago, which I noted in a corresponding blog post, this time I was much more “go with the flow”, although I had decided that today would be my weekly stop at the Tim Horton’s on the way into work. (I’ve come to treat it as a game of sorts to not go there every day.)

Not long after departing the Tim Horton’s (which was having a clusterfuck parking lot moment, so I’d parked in the adjacent lot), I flipped radio channels to my semi-regular station 93.9 and the song I’d thought and hoped might be playing was right there on the station!

Of course, this is as much a commentary on the station’s possible lack of variety as it is to my own keen intuition – a Jedi Mind Trick of sorts – but it still was a nice coincidence.

Yesterday's sunset from the office window

Yesterday’s sunset from the office window

Focusing in on the Minutiae

Some blogs do a great job of focusing in on the little details, the big moments in their author’s memories that seem to stand out in their author’s memories. Or maybe they have been embellished for detail and only the author knows the truth. In any case, this is a detail that I feel like my writing is only periodically successful with, and it’s something I’d like to work on. So I present this entry in a deliberately more active style.

Today, the Monday before Thanksgiving break, had that “ehh…” feeling that most Mondays tend to have. It was likely amplified for a variety of reasons, including our impending time off from the academic calendar (which will start tomorrow night for me), the sense of just hanging around after my midday class concluded, and, broadly, Michigan’s sudden shift back into winter weather this weekend, with up to a foot of snow in some parts of the state, and a relatively mild dusting here in metro Detroit.

Two brief interactions over the course of my day (which hasn’t ended yet, so there could be more!) made me feel like I had an invisible “(YOU CAN) TALK TO ME!” stamp on my face.

A recent morning view from Tim Horton's

A recent morning view from Tim Horton’s

In the first instance, I ordered my usual beverage at my on-the-way-to-work Tim Horton’s (where I’ve just recently crossed over into being “a familiar customer”), and an older man in his 40’s or 50’s was sitting near the counter. He suddenly started talking to me about gas prices and how it is notable that Michigan prices have recently fallen to around $1.75 per gallon or higher (which completes a cycle of up then down that started at the beginning of this calendar year.) I replied with some standard conversation and seemed to surprise him when I said the lowest gas prices I remember are around 89 cents per gallon in the late 1990’s.

I’d also like to note my impressed feeling that this Tim Horton’s location is often a hangout for US-Canadian Border Patrol officers.

In the second instance, I’m in my work elevator, which is generally the usual spot for awkward silences, since it draws a mixture of faculty and students. The fellow passenger actually engaged me in conversation, and I don’t remember what it was about! I do remember a similar instance sometime last week where the elevator briefly stopped in its path and seemed to be deciding whether to actually get stuck or continue, (it did proceed) – but the next day, the power went out in the building for at least an hour, and I wondered if that was a precursor.

Maple Theatre

Visiting the Bloomfield Great Lakes Coffee (inside the Maple Theatre), January 2015

A detailed blog post could be written about the venue where I am writing at this moment, known as the Great Lakes Coffee Company. It is a small chain of fair trade coffee shops in the metro Detroit region, and this location also has a beer and wine license. In the past I have enjoyed another of their locations adjacent to The Maple Theatre in Bloomfield Hills, where I took the picture displayed here at one of their very classy jazz evenings, but it is no longer as convenient a trip for me in my current living arrangement.

Nonetheless, this location on Woodward Avenue in Detroit could easily be seen as a hipster capital of Detroit, and I once heard it referred to as “capital of the New Detroit” (though I forget who or what said that) – meaning that the people who have flocked to Detroit within the past 5 years are more likely to turn up here than long-time residents. A friend says that the venue once served as a music club, and it’s easy to see its roots with exposed brick walls and rough hardwood floors. For a time I felt like I was watching the place change, as it instituted an awkward reserved seating policy involving hosts and table service, and seemed to want to deliberately elevate itself to a fast-casual type of place. I also felt like I didn’t particularly want to associate with that “new Detroit” energy (although I admit I could be seen as part of that same crowd) coming here and being seen, just because.

But … things seem more relaxed this time around, and it’s only the second or third time I’ve been here since returning to Detroit for the school year. I can’t tell if this is a permanent relaxation or increased comfort among the venue itself, but I think it does warrant a return visit sometime down the road.

A New Play plays the provocation card

This weekend’s entertainment/arts culture vulture journeys led me to take in two stories that both explored the art and challenges of what is known and unknown in any given situation, and how individuals work around those issues – or not – and maintain a sense of awareness in their possible confusion.

I’ll save the movie for a separate post; here is a focus on the play:

Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester, MI, is currently offering (just) the third professional production of Luce, a new play by JC Lee that premiered at NYC’s Lincoln Center last year. I learned that Lee had been a writer in residence for a year at my California hometown theatre, Marin Theatre Company.

The play is very much of the moment, with references to Facebook, mobile technology, teen obsession with texting, high school social dynamics and more. But the broad portrayal seen at Meadow Brook, while commendable, did not seem to fit with the ethos of emphasizing the smaller moments that the playwright was clearly going for.

Experienced and versatile local actress Serab Kamoo carries the show as Amy, Luce’s adoptive mother who wants nothing more than the best for her son. The rest of the cast gives strong effort to their roles, but I felt that only Kamoo truly convinced in her part. As Luce himself, Leroy S. Graham fares best with a monologue partway through the show, which is the only chance that the character has to truly speak for himself.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the show would have played differently on a smaller stage and with a more unified sense of direction. The script never spells our Luce’s specific intentions when his actions are called into question, but it never allows the character to get to the heart of the matter, either. Meadow Brook’s stage is well used in the design, with a clever conceit of a downstage area doubling as two locations thanks to some lighting maneuvering, but some of the intimacy of the drama is also lost in the wide space.

The play is performed without intermission and suffers from a sense of anticlimax. Several scenes close to the end could easily be the end, and when the last scene comes around, the resolution feels less satisfying than if the story had closed on a more ambiguous note. Similarly, since Luce’s true intentions are never made clear after his actions are called into question, a note of uncertainty might have driven the plot home in a deeper and more direct way.

All this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the play. I am always grateful when a theatre presents a new piece, and especially if it is something that stimulates a feeling of engagement and discussion.

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.

Falling Slowly Onstage

The touring version of Once: The Musical is now in residence at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre through February 15th. Since that’s just up the street from me, I attended their first preview performance on Tuesday night.

I’d forgotten that the play originally began its dramatic life at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) back in Cambridge. It’s not surprising that the play found further success, where ART has successfully repositioned itself over the last few years (under the shrewd leadership of Diane Paulus) as a major feeder of new or reimagined stage work into the Broadway and national theatre conversation.

Of course, Once takes its story from the movie of the same name. If you’ve seen the film, you know the basic story about the Guy meeting the Girl who inspires him to refocus on his songwriting and use his songs to convey his emotions… and that doesn’t change here on the stage. The play does, however, adroitly open up the story to more of an ensemble production, with a modest band starting the experience with pre-show songs and several scenes featuring ensemble members (either in one or multiple roles) interacting with the protagonists.

The play also creatively invites the audience to come more directly into the story, in that drinks are served onstage before the start of the show and during the intermission. My friends and I enjoyed the pre-show option, and I found it to be a fresh and fun way to get into the story, standing onstage for a few minutes with fellow audience members, and then being allowed to stay there for a few more minutes while the cast came onstage and began their pre-show medley.

I can’t say that the story creates a revelatory level of dramatic depth. But I would say that the play is worth attending for its fun and fresh onstage experience, and the chance to take in some very well-done acoustic songs in a refreshingly intimate story setting.