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Stormy Day back in The Homeland

Trying to keep up the daily posts, at least until the end of the month, so for today I will keep it brief and say that it felt weird to be watching my home state Massachusetts get hit by a blizzard while I went about my business in sunny and cold Detroit. Maybe it’s because the “expected” weather pattern is generally the reverse geography for the storms… but this winter has had its own plans.

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Sometimes the time is right for a trashy film, and that time is usually January

Last night, a planned excursion to see Brighton Beach Memoirs for the first time ever instead became a trip downtown to the RenCen4 cinema to catch new release The Boy Next Door. Because it was that kind of Friday night, where I had a late realization of needing to blow off steam and do something more mindless instead of being verbally and intellectually stimulated.

As I walked into the Renaissance Center, I suddenly realized that I was also paying homage to Boy Next Door star Jennifer Lopez’s best film role (IMO), Out of Sight, which I discussed in a blog entry a year or so ago and features a key sequence (visible on YouTube and slightly NSFW) set right at the top of the RenCen itself. As I said in that prior entry, I felt that Lopez showed more potential in that film than in any of her pre-music film roles and would be interested to see a parallel universe representation of a world where she only focused on film acting.

But this is 2015, and Lopez is, of course, a multi-hyphenate entertainer and now “celebrating 20 years in the business” (more than that, really) according to at least one promotional article I saw about this movie. I do wonder what today’s teenagers must think of her, and if they even consider that she’s had a movie career. In contrast, I first saw her on film when I was 11 in one of my first R-rated movie in-the-theatre viewings.

Lopez also served as a producer on The Boy Next Door, and spoke in the press of feeling resonance with the script. But I wondered how much she saw in it actually made it into the finished film.

The story immediately zeroes in on Lopez portraying Claire, a separated mother of one teenage son, Kevin, and a literature teacher at her son’s high school. Claire is navigating the feelings of being in her 40’s and wondering what comes next. Her husband, played by John Corbett, comes around occasionally to see their son, but the mood is uneasy (and hastily explained!) between the spouses after a recent cheating scandal by the husband. It’s the perfect situation for nice new neighbor Noah (Ryan Guzman) to make an entrance and assume the role of kindly neighbor, mentor to Kevin, and initial lust object for Claire. The film’s trailer (and nearly all of its marketing) is highly transparent about where things go from there, and so I’ll leave my synopsis at that, except to add that stage star Kristin Chenoweth makes a rare screen appearance in a supporting role as Lopez’s BFF and senior administrator at their high school.

Lopez brings a mostly bland presence to the central role, although she certainly still looks good, and seems to be having fun with a few moments in the story. The plot detail of her being a classics teacher allows the script to inject a few bits of thoughtful and winking intelligence, particularly around The Illiad. Chenoweth adds some sweet and tart character-filled spice to her scenes before getting pulled into a predictable closing arc. Guzman possesses the swagger of his character from the first scene onward, but adds little acting nuance. Veteran Corbett isn’t allowed to make much of an impression.

It seems clear that the film has a future as a camp classic, and that’s exactly the lens that I chose to view it through. There wasn’t really any other option, since plot twists fly in and out like the wind, characters disappear and reappear at random, and there were several examples of very abrupt jump-cutting from one scene to the next. One case in point: the film decides that it wants to have the three men in Claire’s life all hang out together. But they just get one short scene to do that. Director Rob Cohen, a veteran in the Hollywood industry, shows that he hasn’t lost his action movie skills in several random but well-staged car chase sequences. I particularly enjoyed the initial setup for the film’s finale, in which one character thinks they are tailing the other, but that is not the case, and Cohen reveals the truth with a taut panning shot worthy of a Hitchcock movie or more nuanced mystery. The film shows its modest budget at times in the staging of scenes with few extras and not using a huge variety of locations.

If not for Cohen’s steady grip on the lens, this film would likely be even more forgettable. It’s good to see Lopez back on the big screen and tackling an age-appropriate type of role. I can’t view the film strongly due to its cluttered narrative and cheesy plot. But ultimately it fits right in to that DVD discount bin of films that are kind of fun (if you don’t want to admit it and/or think too hard) and perfect for a particular moment when you want to sit back, relax and enjoy a new project from a familiar star.

MY RATING: **

Appropriate Behavior and Familiar Faces

For the second year in a row, I had an experience of watching someone I knew “way back when” act in her feature film debut that is attracting significant industry attention and critical praise. This year it is Desiree Akhavan, last year it was Lupita Nyong’o. Both connections stemmed from my undergraduate years at Hampshire College.

Improv ClassAkhavan and I were two of ten students enrolled in a highly memorable (IMO) semester long study of improvisation (pictured at right) at Smith, which maintains its official status as a women’s college but welcomes students from the other four colleges in the region (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) to take courses that might augment their studies at their home school.

In this particular class, taught by now professor-emeritus John Hellweg, the setting and the content were equally rewarding and challenging. We met once a week in the college’s boathouse, which doubles as a classroom, and went well beyond the familiar scope of improvising (comedy) into exercises that had considerably more meaning and depth. Elements of mysticism, storytelling, masks and inventive chose your own adventure were all part of the journey. We also expanded the role of the classroom, frequently leaving the boathouse for site-specific exercises such as seen in the photo above, near the college’s campus center. The class inspired me to incorporate elements of improvisation into my directing and character – building work, and I haven’t forgotten about that process today, even though my theatre work tends to be more in the front office than the rehearsal room.

It doesn’t feel easy to put into words what the experience is like to watch someone you knew earlier in their life on a big screen, though I am sure others have had similar feelings. Somewhere between awe, surprise, amusement, pride, acclaim, a little envy, some memory, and ultimately an appreciation. Those feelings all came to my mind as I enjoyed Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan’s feature film debut in a writer/director/lead actor trifecta. The film continues to play at Cinema Detroit this week and I’m pleased that my neighborhood cinema is one of a handful of theatres nationally showing the film.

Akhavan stars as Shirin, a 20-something Brooklyn resident struggling with personal identity issues after breaking up with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), an at times forceful partner whom she “met cute” at a New Year’s party at some point in the recent past. Shirin aspires for a career in the film business, but after taking on a promising lead from a friend of a friend, she finds herself serving as a teacher to an afterschool program of very young (five year old) aspiring filmmakers. The events, along with her ongoing debate on if and whether to come out to her immediate family, add to a continuing sense of questioning for Shirin. But, with an assertive and bold temperament, she doesn’t sit around and mope, and part of the fun of the narrative becomes going along with Shirin to see what she does next, and how Akhavan’s own fresh writing deftly navigates gender, cultural and social stereotypes and expectations while putting a new spin on them against a contemporary New York City backdrop.

The film’s low-budget backdrop is apparent in some technical aspects of the story, such as lighting and sound, but doesn’t detract from the narrative. I might have appreciated some more clarity in the time shifting aspects of the narrative, but am not sure how that would’ve been best conveyed. As it stood in the finished film, it was sometimes difficult to tell where the action was in the linear timeline, and so it became like a mental jigsaw puzzle to put the different scenes together. Not a problem for me, just could have been smoother. Akhavan showed a committed hand in the direction of the film, eliciting assured and sharp performances from the whole ensemble along with herself. She demonstrates no hesitation in showing herself/the character in a potentially unflattering light, and ultimately, that added to Shirin’s endearing appeal and relatability, and is surely connected to why multiple press outlets have picked up on the film and her current contributions to pop culture.

And so how could I be anything other than impressed to see someone I knew way back when receive acclaim, interest and curiosity for her long-form debut? Here’s hoping that Akhavan has more stories up her sleeves and continues writing and producing in her assured, distinctive voice.

The Great Outdoors Welcomes the Cinema Lens

DFTI returned to the filmgoing life this past weekend with a pair of films set in the outdoors, and both showing very different aspects of what the surroundings can offer us.

The first film, Force Majeure, seen at the luminous Detroit Film Theatre, took a sharp look at how a seemingly minor event can perhaps irreversibly alter an interpersonal dynamic. This type of storyline is often seen with significant dramatic heft, such as The Impossible from a few years back, but rarely in subtlety, and that made it all the more intriguing.

We’re introduced to a Swedish family of four as they settle in to their long-awaited holiday in the French Alps. Dad’s a workaholic, Mom is career-oriented but staying aware of the family, and the kids are tuned in to the electronic generation, but happy to be there. A veranda mountaintop lunch near the start of their trip initially seems scenic and pleasant, until a loud crack is heard and an avalanche starts heading directly at them. Only problem is, Dad freaks out and leaves the other three out in the chill. It’s not a spoiler to say that everything is fine, physically, after that, but everything is not cool, mentally, following that development. The story dabbles in gender politics as the man and woman initially demonstrate differing opinions and memories of the incident, and they struggle to determine how they can best move on as a family from the situation.

The director, Ruben Östlund, adds numerous subtle artful touches throughout the story, such as a recurring piece of classical music, artistic framing with the characters in one corner of the image, and a careful control of performances range, as in one scene an action or objective may be implied but the next may be quite differently stated. He’s aided by capable and committed performers, particularly Lisa Loven Kongsli in the central role of the mother. I also appreciated how the film built to a surprisingly ambiguous conclusion, with two last-act surprises testing the will of the family as they prepare to make their way back to their Real Lives.

My Rating – new for 2015! – ***1/2 stars

The next night (last Saturday the 10th) I returned to The Maple Theater, perhaps this area’s second – most classiest film venue after the Detroit Film Theatre. I’m sure that the Friday DFT visit put me in the mood to go there again, and where there were several options on where to see Wild, the film of the night, this choice added to the experience.

maple theatreWith a movie at the Maple, it isn’t so much about the screening rooms themselves, which are clearly 70’s-80’s style slightly bigger than shoebox auditoriums – and very reminiscent of my hometown movie theatre – it’s the initial experience of going to the venue, which was refreshingly evident that night as a jazz concert (pictured at right) took place in the coffee/wine bar section of the building. It may be seen by some as a snobby touch, but for me, something like that is very important to set the tone of the evening and make it into more of an experience, especially in this day and age with so many forms of media and personal entertainment devices competing with each other (and us, as audience members) for time and attention.

The movie itself, Wild, was a great choice to begin my Hollywood film year, where I began my 2015 with several days back in the Northwest, where the majority of the film takes place, and had been in California prior to that. The film is quite obviously meant as a return to dramatic form for actress Reese Witherspoon, who also produced the project and has noticeably struggled with audience expectations of her film performances since winning an Oscar for Walk the Line back in 2005. Having followed Witherspoon’s career slightly since her earlier films in the mid-90’s, it seemed to me that this movie was her attempt to channel several of those earlier roles as well, such as doing nudity on screen for the first time since Twilight (no, not that Twilight), adding vampy looks and excessive makeup as she did in Freeway, and showing a mix of cunning, sweetness and resourcefulness as she did in Cruel Intentions. Needless to say, Witherspoon has just been rewarded for her efforts with an unsurprising Oscar nomination for Best Actress… but I think it will be more interesting to observe where she goes from here with her regained dramatic momentum.

I was not familiar with the story of Cheryl Strayed and her 1995 trek up the Pacific Crest Trail prior to seeing this film. I’m sure that it is a case of the book being better than the movie, but the movie version, while ultimately unfocused, did have some redeeming qualities. Director Jean-Marc Vallée creates an intriguing dream-like atmosphere by focusing on Cheryl (Witherspoon) and her immediate experiences hiking the trail, but often cutting away to memories from her past, many of which involve her late mother (Laura Dern) as a way of filling in her backstory. The frequent cutting away reached a point of being distracting for me as the story went on, and I would have preferred that it stop after a certain point. When it did get less frequent, about two-thirds of the way through the story, I found that added much more dramatic intensity to the immediate story. The film does an excellent job of evoking period detail from 1995, including spontaneous celebrations of Jerry Garcia’s life, now-anachronistic reliance on payphones, and a reminder of a very annoying pop song that was popular towards the end of that summer that I can’t find the title of.

Witherspoon expectedly performs well in the demanding lead role, but at times seems to be trying too hard to show and use range, perhaps going back to the idea that this was a pet project for her. Laura Dern creates a warm presence as the mother, but is not given much time to develop the part due to the constant back and forth of the story. Still, it was refreshing to see Dern appear in the film, as she often seems like an actress who doesn’t fit the stereotype of the Hollywood character actress and thus may not be seen onscreen as much as she could or should. Indie darling Gaby Hoffmann appears in a few scenes as a friend of Cheryl’s, and I would have liked to have seen more of her. The nature of the story doesn’t allow for a much more substantial supporting cast beyond that.

My Rating – **1/2

One Morning on a Train

I wrote a post on Wednesday morning meaning to post it later when internet connections returned. But here it is now instead.

It’s my third morning on a train this year – interesting to realize that the previous trip (Ann Arbor – Los Angeles) was earlier this year, where it feels like longer.

In contrast to my observations in 2012, Amtrak now seems more comfortable in the digital age. This long distance train still does not have a wifi service, and who knows why, but there are plenty of people using their digital devices and not blinking an eye. I think that coming into a snowy atmosphere, with accumulation being constant and building as we head East, adds a different flair to the atmosphere.

The bus driver from Detroit to Toledo was certainly one of the most democratic drivers I have ever had on public transportation. He asked the full bus to “not use profanity” if we/they were talking on cellphones, and then initiated a vote as to whether people would like to get concessions at a convenience store prior to boarding the train in Toledo. We did, and it proved to be a good move.

I found (as I had expected) that the initial travel experience brought back sharp flashbacks of my earlier visits to Michigan, before I was a resident in the state and had not gotten to know it as well as I do now. In particular, being back in the same places – the Detroit and Toledo Amtrak stations – brought back very clear memories of what I had done in the previous visits there, such as calling California friends – so I called one of them – and observing Ohio’s old – style porcelain highway signs, which have now been replaced at some point in the last couple of years. And being resident in Michigan, with its troubling bumpy roads, made me notice the smoothness of I-75 immediately after crossing the state line.

As for the rest of today, since I’ve just gotten over the mesmerizing quality of observing the passing snow, I’m hoping that the lack of internet distractions gives rise to some productivity on my assortment of homework assignments due in December….

Amtrak in the Digital Age

Tonight I will re-board Amtrak’s Capitol Limited train for the first time since 2012. My previous trip on that route, which was coming to Michigan rather than from it, also marked my last post in a previous blog. And so I thought I’d re-post that entry here. I will be turning off my smartphone tonight.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 29, 2012
Return to Amtrak in the Digital Age

I did not realize how much of a distraction this iPhone would become tonight. Something about having it along is making me see tonight as just another digital night. EXCEPT that the 3G signal disappeared around Harpers Ferry, and seems unlikely to return until Pittsburgh at the earliest. I now see how Internet dependent the phone is, as if I did not know that already. Unfortunately, the same situation is running rampant like a virus across the train – I see at least half of the passengers tangled up in their digital devices . People are still taking in the scenery, but now it is dark and some have already fallen asleep.

While the aforementioned digital issue has given this trip a different feel, it has certainly still been memorable. My second ever visit to Washington DC allowed more flexibility than the first, which was coincidentally the last time I did this train itinerary. The US Capitol building was within reach, though securely guarded, and I took it all in with some surprise at the scope of The District. Perhaps my close knit (native New Englander) geographic orientation also extends to my perception of the capital city. I am sure that is the case, where it is a similar scenario when 2 inches on a Massachusetts map does NOT equal 2 inches on a … New Mexico map. The physical sensation of seeing more of DC was grandiose, and more about the WOW feeling than a question of melodrama.

Now the focus turns to the great state of Michigan, site of intense political scrutiny today and at least SOME fallout or backlash tomorrow. I have greatly enjoyed my previous stays in the state, especially this past August going from the distant lands of the UP all the way down to the Ohio border. This time the focus will return to the city of Ann Arbor and its immediate vicinity, and I am sure that being there with the University in full swing will be just as memorable with a Leap Day fresh spin.

Theatregoing Quartet

Today is #LoveTheatre day over on Twitter. So it’s a perfect time to recount my quartet of theatregoing experiences so far this week, and reiterate my satisfaction that the rest of the week will be spent working shows here at The Hilberry Theatre.

The majority of the show viewing has been right here on campus in midtown Detroit, and it’s a great treat to have so many options right here at my fingertips.

A Song for Coretta, which recently concluded its run at the Studio Theatre, offered a contemporary and fresh voice to the local theatre community. The play tracks the stories of five women who assemble at Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, drawn there by a large communal desire to pay their respects to the recently deceased Coretta Scott King. The play explores the variety of stories that each women possess and an eventual commonality they can all face.

Director Billicia Hines made her Wayne State theatre debut with this production, and she brought a sensitive precision to the staging of each sequence in the play, making a one-act piece have many more dimensions than one might expect at first glance. The capable and committed ensemble of women knew how to express their characters, most vividly seen in a climactic sequence expressing the stories of two of the women who had been hesitant to speak prior to that point.

A second Wayne State show, Peter Pan, concludes its run with three more performances this weekend at the Bonstelle Theatre. It was a pleasure to watch this show alongside an extremely energetic young audience. The script is a new adaptation by author Janet Allard, with a particular focus on the Peter – Wendy relationship and the timeless goal of “never growing up.”

Nearly all of Wayne State’s undergraduate theatre ensemble is given a chance to shine in this production, both in central and supporting roles. Actress Maggie Beson brings impish charm to the stage as Peter, paired with Luke Rose’s dual roguish ways as Captain Hook and Mr. Darling. The set design skillfully morphs from nursery to water to forest over the span of an hour and twenty minutes. And several actors literally reach new heights through the magic of flying wire technology, moving up, down and around through the air.

A third Wayne State show, All In The Timing, will be opening on Friday night; I attended an early dress rehearsal. One look at Max Amitin’s schoolhouse funhouse set lets the viewer know they are in for a wild and fun ride, filled with David Ives’ trademark wit and humor. (you’ll just have to come see the show to find out more about it.)

Finally, our northern neighbor The Ringwald Theatre has debuted a fresh and notable contemporary work. The company is currently offering the Michigan premiere of Stupid Fucking Bird by Aaron Posner, billed appropriately as a contemporary riff on The Seagull. This play was the best thing I have seen at the Ringwald, with a notable and provocative focus on character, atmosphere and wordplay.

A tight ensemble, led by Jonathan Davidson as Con, proceeds to riff on Seagull in contemporary tones, and with occasional knowing asides to the audience. The playwright’s three act structure is also honored, which helped lend an intriguingly epic feel to the evening, with two intermissions and bitter cold and snow outside the storefront doors. Several moments in the play, particularly those that focus on Mash, played by Vanessa Sawson, incorporate winsome music and story through song. However, the story comes back around to dramatic heights, primarily thanks to Kelly Komlen as Emma, who lends imperious height to her maternal role. I hope the word gets out about this production and that it is seen as a major coup for the Ringwald!

From the cosmos to the mind

This past weekend’s filmgoing spanned two countries (and more onscreen) and went from the wide galaxy to the inner mind.

I turned my first visit to Downtown Detroit’s RenCen 4 cinema into a Yelp review, visible in standard form here but I will re-post it below in italics.

I picked the wrong movie (INTERSTELLAR) for my first visit here, but think I will be returning from time to time for the convenience and mostly pleasant experience.

The cinema is nestled in to the checkerboard of the Ren Cen, on the second level of the main atrium area. Signs direct you where you need to go from any of the main entrances, although you need to look closely, as the cinema is highlighted in a different font color than the rest of the signage. A weird circular atrium area is immediately outside the cinema itself, but it does have a small seating area and actual display of the movie posters currently showing; the latter detail seems to be an increasingly lost art of moviegoing.

I was very surprised by the inexpensive $8.50 admission, especially on a Friday night. The box office and concession employees seemed happy and comfortable working as a team. Concessions are also on the lower end of average prices; I paid $5 for a medium popcorn that had smaller kernels than your average offering, and was thankfully not overflowing. The theatre also offers Little Caesar’s pizza slices and cocktail choices, which I may take advantage of on a future visit.

Parking in the nearby Beaulieu Garage is just $2 with validation – be sure to ask for this sweet deal when you buy your ticket! And be sure you’ve parked in the right garage, where the Atwater Garage is confusingly adjacent to the Beaulieu’s entrance. If you’re getting to the cinema via the People Mover, the Ren Cen of course has its own stop.

Finally, the screening rooms themselves. The one I visited, second from the left, was shockingly small by modern standards, with the now-anachronistic “bowling alley” style seating layout and a narrow wide screen. Although this arrangement is not well suited, IMO, for blockbuster-style visually expansive movies such as INTERSTELLAR, I can see it working okay in other settings. Just be sure to sit closer to the front of the room, as long as you are comfortable with that.

The theatre seems selective with its programming, not always grabbing what’s expected to be the #1 movie of the weekend. I’m not sure if this was a trend this fall or has lasted for a longer period of time.

Once I got settled in to the smaller than current standards viewing arrangement, I felt it was an ultimately comfortable experience, and continued to appreciate the ease and opportunity of coming to see a film downtown, rather than driving to Royal Oak, Southfield, Dearborn or some other metro area location. It is this ease, and the pleasant, welcoming demeanor of the staff, that will probably draw me back to the RenCen for another film before too long.

Getting back to the film, INTERSTELLAR, I was impressed (again) by Christopher Nolan’s bold and enormous vision, but felt that this film ultimately overreached and stayed at a cool distance from the viewer… or at least this viewer.

Matthew McConaughey continues his recent acclaimed streak in the lead performance, showing more humanity than ever before (although I did not catch DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB) in the role of Cooper, a veteran NASA astronaut who is led into a mission to save humanity from a dusty, uncertain future. A respected supporting cast unevenly filled out the other central roles. Anne Hathaway seemed more ill at ease than confident in the role of a co – pilot scientist, who is connected to Michael Caine back on Earth as her character’s father and the principal behind the scenes architect of the mission. Caine offered a familiar and comfortable presence, but no unique shadings, to a character he has portrayed before, and I longed for a sense of menace or uncertainty that he’s displayed in some of his other Nolan projects. Jessica Chastain, in really the third lead role, continues to maintain an impressive command and intensity of the screen, but was subject to wide and sometimes incomprehensible swings in character.

Among the secondary supporting cast, John Lithgow makes a notable appearance as a relative of McConaughey’s, while Ellen Burstyn has an extended cameo as another primary character, and a Surprise Hollywood Veteran (an unbilled and well – known actor) appears in a few crucial scenes. Actor Wes Bentley, who seems to be enjoying a modest career revival, also appears as an underdeveloped character.

Technically the film is a masterwork. Nolan and company reach their biggest heights on a series of uncharted planets and universes, including a tidal wave toting water planet, an icy world that is not hospitable to many forms of life, and several variations on what the Earth’s landscape might look like at some point in the future.

While the story makes every effort to tell a humane story, and succeeds at points, I couldn’t shake a broader feeling of distance and observation, thus preventing my full identification with the story. I do have to wonder if the tiny confines of the RenCen cinema affected my perception of the film, and if my opinion would be different having seen it on an IMAX or stadium seating style large format screen.

Yesterday brought an encore visit across the river for one of the final screenings featured in this year’s Windsor Film Festival. I would have liked to have seen more of the films that this festival offered, but am satisfied with having seen at least two.

The Sea has film prints in such short supply that WIFF had to show one with German subtitles. Made in 2013 with Irish backing – and on location along the coast of that country – the film features a notable ensemble of British actors, including veterans Ciaran Hinds, Charlotte Rampling, and Sinead Cusack, younger veterans Natascha McElhone, Rufus Sewell, Bonnie Wright (moving on from Harry Potter fame), and a trio of even younger newcomers.

This film also shows a fine sense of technical craftsmanship, especially for a directorial debut. Shifts in time are keenly delineated with strong differences in filming style, fades in and out of memory, and occasional uses of creative segues between the time periods. An often plaintive musical score adds depth by being selective as to when it fades in and out, and chooses to feature violin solos that also serve to accentuate different thematic strands of the narrative.

The three elder veteran actors offer expectedly strong portrayals, although the two women fare better than Hinds. Rampling, who is always a welcome and intense presence onscreen, and I had the pleasure of seeing onstage in a 2004 production (referenced within this past blog post) brings focus and attention to the role of an innkeeper who knows more than she lets on. However, the character is not a kindly Miss Marple type, and Rampling effectively balances a sense of sharp awareness with a feeling of the character’s past and wider presence. Cusack has a smaller part, but knows just how to bring a brittle awareness to her scenes, which are all opposite Hinds. As for him, he has a difficult role, and only partially succeeds in evoking a sympathetic portrayal. Apparently the source novel adds more shadings and rationale to his character.

Natascha McElhone seems not to have aged at all since her string of mid – 1990’s art house and Hollywood releases, such as Surviving Picasso, Ronin, Mrs. Dalloway and The Truman Show, among others. She portrays a character that is seen by others rather than given her own voice, but succeeds in the portrayal. Sewell has less success as an eccentric womanizer – his role could have been simplified without problems for the narrative. Wright, unrecognizably grown up from her Harry Potter role as Ginny Weasley, also embodies a “seen” character, but is allowed a few moments of strength.

I didn’t feel that this film offered a completely satisfying narrative, but I certainly enjoyed the chance to see the veteran performers shine in new material.

What does Romeo and Juliet mean to you?

(excerpt from an article in progress that will run in the program for The Hilberry Theatre‘s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet)

Romeo and Juliet. In fair Verona. Two star crossed lovers. In fair Verona where we set our scene. Deny thy father and refuse thy name. Two households both alike in dignity. A plague o’ both your houses! But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Is there a Shakespeare production that has greater iconic impact and resonance? This one occupies a special place in literary minds. But this fascination takes many forms.

Consider film. Older audiences recall, and younger audiences might be familiar with, the 1968 cinematic version by Franco Zefferelli, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey portraying the lovers. In the 1990’s, filmgoers were treated to the romance again, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes in the leads. Now, in 2014, that once modern portrayal is almost 20 years old and has begun to age. A more recent adaptation, with Douglas Booth and Hallee Steinfeld in the lead roles, was less well received following its choice to not incorporate all of Shakespeare’s traditional dialogue.

The story’s first true home is arguably right here in the theatre, and the play has been seen six times here at the Hilberry. With a play so familiar, we continue to look for ways to tell the story in a fresh and appealing way.

Director Blair Anderson itends for this version intends to be a postmodern approach to the classic, with an increased emphasis on the perspective of Juliet. In conceptualizing the story, Anderson notes that “different generations have different emotional contexts.”

Scenic Designer Tonae Mitsuhashi has fashioned a festival of light for this production, with many lines of string coming into center stage. The costumes will also take on the modern flair.

We hope this production will carry on the lovers’ story to new audiences through our ongoing student matinee series. Such a story can still find relevance in our frenetic modern world and cause audiences to pause to reflect on historical romance and the role of citizens and culture.

A Master Builder stacks the deck of drama

The Detroit Film Theatre reopened for the season last night with Wallace Shawn’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play The Master Builder, here called Master Builder for its cinematic iteration. I joined a large crowd there tonight (and may have been the youngest member of the audience) for its second screening.

master builderShawn stars as the titular character, a manipulative architect who has long been used to bossing around his staff and family members, including a possibly mentally distressed wife, played by Julie Hagerty in a role worlds away from her more well – known comedic performances. It is quickly made clear that the Master Builder is on his deathbed, but he appears to have no remorse or last wishes. As the film opens, he’s visited by a colleague (Andre Gregory) who seems to have some unfinished business, but their conversation does not go completely satisfyingly for either party. Much pathos lingers in the air from all the characters and the old house setting, which appears in quick exteriors to be somewhere in New York or New England.

After a particularly intense moment, a mysterious woman (Lisa Joyce) appears, all dressed in white. She and the Master Builder have a lengthy conversation about an incident where they may have met ten years before. This particular section of the script is expertly tonally sculpted as the mood moves from somber to humorous – and back again – sometimes over just a few lines. Joyce, an actress whom I’m not familiar with, brings a luminous intensity to her role. Looking like a pop singer out for tennis in her white shirt and very short shorts, she seems to bring out a youthful side of Shawn and his character as they quickly focus on how they met before and what the Master Builder needs to do at the present moment. But they are still under the weary watchful eyes of his wife, and Hagerty continues to surprise with her intensity and range of emotional feeling as her role in the story becomes clearer.

Other coverage of the film suggests that Shawn made some modest changes to the play in adapting it for the screen. Unfortunately I have not seen it performed live in order to comment, but the general mood and feel reminded me greatly of a similar Ibsen story, John Gabriel Borkman, which I had the good fortune to see in a 2007 London production starring Ian McDiarmid, of Star Wars fame, and Penelope Wilton, of Dowton Abbey and numerous other film/television projects. (hey, look, that production is referenced on its directors website!)

Shawn and company have created a captivating film. Scenes are generally focused on two characters, with a few brief exceptions, but move fluidly from one segment to the next. Director Jonathan Demme has an extensive and acclaimed resume in film. I found his early scenes involving a hand-held camera to be overly kinetic and dramatizing, but appreciated a later focus on natural light in the scenes and a shift to letting actors do the talking and storytelling.A late sequence involving unshown off camera objects was an effective nod to the probable limitations of the stage.

The film unsurprisingly holds the story’s dramatic intensity through the entire length of the film without betraying its stage roots. Shawn seems to have achieved a timeless quality with the text, and where heis known for his immersive adaptations of other works, such as Vanya on 42nd Street, this one will join them in continuing to hold a rightful place in the theatrical – cinematic pantheon.