Blog Archives

Mastery of Merchant Ivory

In an attempt to blog more, I’m looking back at a blog post that I started just over a year ago. A bit embarrassing to realize that I never posted it, but why not do so now, with some more context added?

A year ago, the Merchant-Ivory classic film Howard’s End appeared at The Maple Theatre in Bloomfield, Michigan, for a one week re-release celebrating an impending 25th anniversary and digital restoration. Somehow I learned of the screenings, probably thanks to my regular scouting of film listings and moviegoing itself serving as a stress relief at that particular time.

I recall being retrospectively impressed by the film’s use of scale, most notably seen in the lush cinematography and music score. Most of the central cast – Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter and others – felt like they are not as active in the present day, or more selective about their projects (probably a mixture of both) and so looking back at their previous work felt especially revelatory.

The theatre itself – one of my favorites in the metro Detroit area – contributed to my enjoyment as well, where it only has three screens with carefully crafted film choices and isn’t oriented towards mass market entertainment.

Howards End

It feels a bit funny to say that The Remains of The Day was one of my favorite films as a kid … but it was. Somehow I never got to see its immediate Merchant Ivory cinematic universe predecessor Howard’s End all the way through as a whole film … until today at The Maple Theater, which is screening it as part of a special limited run re-release.

I’d forgotten how intricate the Merchant Ivory world was, with elements bursting out of the frame and suggesting a wider visual and active world beyond the story. Such depth was particularly apparent in this narrative, with three parallel stories intertwining, intersecting and then branching out into their own narratives.

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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.)

JP on JB

Thanks to a personal connection with the Bourne series (as recapped in my previous post), I will always think fondly of it. But I knew from mixed publicity and a certain lack of interest among my peer group that Jason Bourne would most likely be a toss up, which probably accounts for my relative delay in seeing the film. While I had hoped to catch the film in an iconic and nostalgic Martha’s Vineyard single screen cinema, instead I ended up seeing it back in my Michigan hometown as a re-introduction to that twin cinema and starting my effort to enjoy my town more.

Perhaps inevitably due to the long gap between previous Matt Damon led Bourne adventures, the film seems to force itself to catch up to 2016 with a plot that mixes some “greatest hits” of previous stories in the series alongside some forced contemporary relevance. While the film enjoyed a few tight moments like the old times, overall I felt like it could have gone further in-depth with the story, but was held back by possible script changes, studio interference or pressure to have a certain story element in the film in place of another. The last point was most glaringly obvious in the inclusion of a rather strained “social media” plot angle, along with a wavering focus on Bourne himself, who came to feel more like a side character rather than the protagonist. It probably did not help that the film does not really explore Bourne’s perspective on the events, except for one sharp moment when he reacts to a character’s demise and later when he takes more control of the story and turns the tables on the agents who are pursuing him. But the latter moment was undone by a gratuitous and tacked-on car chase sequence that adds little to the story.

Casting of the newcomers in the film was serviceable if not outstanding. Joan Allen’s presence as the mature and committed agent Pamela Landy was sorely missed, and it’s a shame they couldn’t bring her back in some form after a thankless cameo in the “sidequel” The Bourne Legacy four years ago. Tommy Lee Jones phones it in, with a few brief exceptions, as the unsurprisingly malintentioned CIA director. Recent Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander is believable for the most part as a hotshot CIA agent, but the film made no explanation of her obvious Swedish origins (or if it did, I missed them) – and she did not project the nuances that I so enjoyed in her breakout film Ex Machina.

To its credit, the film makes me want to revisit the original trilogy, so I think I will spend some time doing just that…

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.