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The Avengers Endure

I’ve written before here about my enduring appreciation of The Avengers (NOT The Marvel Avengers.) On June 25th of last year, an inevitable day came to pass when series star Patrick Macnee died at age 93 of natural causes after a long and full life. I held off from viewing any episodes for four or five months after that, as I wasn’t sure if knowing that Steed (the central character) was no longer with us would affect my perception of the many episodes he left behind and continuing to watch the show.

When I did pull out the DVDs again, I deliberately chose a Steed centric episode from what many fans consider the series’ best season, its last in black and white, to honor Macnee in my mind. To my surprise, the episode endured in nearly the same way as before, and I even felt I was looking at it with fresh eyes. This could have been because of a long gap in viewing episodes, the changed circumstances without Macnee, my long-lasting appreciation of British culture on the whole, or some other reason entirely. Whatever the case, not only did the episode continue to feel like “visual comfort food” – my occasional term for watching the show – it still felt fresh in the present day, now just over 50 years after it was first transmitted.

2015 Timehop recollection of a 2007 visit to an AVENGERS filming location in England.

2015 Timehop recollection of a 2007 visit to an AVENGERS filming location in England.

In the past couple weeks, for one reason or another, that appreciation has grown into a celebration, as I’ve watched more episodes in a month-long time frame (or so) than over the past five years. They all continue to be emblematic of the 1960’s era in which they were made. However, based on certain aesthetic choices of the series producers, perhaps centered around decisions to have limited extras and not too much rooting in that same era, the episodes can come forward in time and still remain just as entertaining and relevant. If Steed and his various partners were seen dancing in Swinging London or hanging out at a Stones or Beatles concert (which they may have done in their off-screen time), the impression would be more nostalgic and arguably dated.

As it is now, the shows stand on their own terms, and they are each like little mini-films within themselves, as more than one writer about the series has come to observe. And I know I’m not the only one for whom this continuing appreciation of this series endures.

London Cinema becomes a Sneak Preview Opportunity

My time in London is now in the rearview mirror and I hope to be back there again soon. Or at least sooner than 7 years from now!

As befitting a world class cultural center, my visit allowed for taking in of two films not yet released in the USA.

The first, Ex Machina, was an excellent and positive example of mismarketing. I recall the film’s trailer promising an explosive and somewhat action packed adventure and suggesting that the movie would be a familiar “rise of the machines” type action drama.

But the real film turned out to be a surprisingly intimate and provocative drama, with a few traces of action, that asks timely questions about the nature of intelligence and humanity. While the debate between man and machine is also covered along the lines of Blade Runner or some other of its cinematic cousins, this film also adds a gendered element where the machine is considered a female, while (her) observers and makers are male. In its use of an artificial or foreign female protagonist, the film recalls last year’s Under the Skin and could be seen as a continuation of that same story.

Domnhall Gleeson stars as a young prodigy seemingly randomly picked to spend a week at the secluded lab of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who is a senior ranking member of his unnamed software and computer development company. The film drops us right in to the arrival and meeting of the minds, and wastes little time on unnecessary exposition. What follows stays in the realm of eerie plausibility as Gleeson meets Isaac’s latest artificial intelligence creation, the mysterious and inquisitive Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. Ava presents as female, leading to an eventual attraction between the two characters.

Although Isaac’s role could easily descend into a Dr. Frankenstein – ish extreme, his subtle portrayal, with several modern touches, ensures that the audience continues to think of him as an equal and not maniacal player in the equation between the central trio. Sonoya Mizuno also joins the fray in a minimalistic supporting turn, with one great out of left field moment.

The film eventually forces itself into a dramatic denouement along the lines of what one might suspect as the story goes on. But it never loses its initial air of intrigue and thoughtful (and somewhat plausible) integrity.

My Rating: ***1/2

The second film, I Am Michael, has attracted modest attention in the US press, from what I have seen, and seems to be awaiting an official release date as it slowly makes the festival rounds. It features a trio of well – known actors in the leading roles, with James Franco tackling the central role – and real person – Michael Glatze, a former gay activist who dramatically renounced his homosexuality and instead turned to a life as a Christian pastor in Wyoming, complete with bible school education. Zachary Quinto costars as Glatze’s long-term partner, with Emma Roberts appearing late in the film as a woman who becomes Glatze’s heterosexual partner.

I was not familiar with Glatze’s story, which was described in a New York Times article a few years back that served as the basis for this film. At some point I learned that Glatze had spent time at a Buddhist meditation center in Colorado where I have also spent time, and I might have met him, so that curiosity drew me in to see the film.

Franco appears to renounce his recent run of comedic (self-parodying) performances, which likely reached its peak or nadir with the Christmas spectacle The Interview, in this role. Instead of a smirking and self-satisfied attempt to channel a person, I again saw a real acting performance, with close attention paid to conveying Glatze’s internal struggle of how to define himself in the world.

Though Roberts and Qunito’s screen time is limited, both actors maintain the drama of the story arc. I haven’t seen much of Roberts’ work in other films, but did feel that she was particularly successful here in playing a more adult-oriented character, also presumably based on a real person.

The Buddhist connection that made me curious about the film is given limited exploration, and features primarily in a section of the film that feels like it rushes through what happens next in Glatze’s life after he breaks from his gay lifestyle. Veteran actress Daryl Hannah, who seems to have disappeared from films in recent years, appears briefly as the mediation center’s director.

The integrity and commitment of the performers felt somewhat let down by a poorly thought out script, which drew several (presumably) unintentional laughs from the audience in response to multiple instances of cliched dialogue. It seems inevitable that biopics also devolve into a run of greatest hits of the particular person’s lives.

Nonetheless, I hope this film finds an audience when it does reach the USA, if only for a closer look at several hardworking actors and a dramatic look at sexual identity, which remains a topic that is rarely seen in mainstream cinema.

My Rating: ***

Personal Blog: Seven years since I last left the North American Continent

November 19 has been a somewhat bittersweet anniversary for the last several years, as this day of the year (in 2007 – now 7 years ago) was the last time I was off the North American continent. This is significant primarily because the preceding 8 years saw a wide range of international travel adventures for me… but nothing since 2007. I’m happy the extended hiatus will be ending next March, and, obviously, to be continuing with domestic travel in the present era.

Nonetheless, the anniversary made me recall blog writing before and after that 2007 international flight, and so I turned to LiveJournal to look at the entries again, and re-post them here. It’s worth noting that my theatregoing on that visit included War Horse, which went on to be an international smash, acclaimed film, and is still playing today in London.

November 19, 2007 – “Country Coda Prior to The Journey Home”

It’s a misty morning here in the suburbs of Surrey. The view from my family friends’ house — of thatched brown roofs, tiny streets, and wide swaths of greenery — is suitably “English” to be visually comforting and a relaxed coda for this trip. I’ll be making the journey over to Heathrow via train and bus in time for a 7pm flight that’s due to return to MA at around 10pm EST.

The last few days in London continued to be jam-packed, between seeing two more plays (War Horse, a family drama, and The Country Wife, a raucous Restoration comedy), going around to other parts of the city I hadn’t visited before, including Speaker’s Corner and the area around Spitafields’ Market, and spending time with friends. It concluded with some souvenir shopping yesterday morning and while it was slightly disconcerting how easy it was to $pend (as is often the case in London…) I’m confident I made good purchases of mostly books. I was struck by a wave of sentimental nostalgia, since I’m not sure when the next time I’ll be back here in England will be. However, as was the case when moving out of London in April, it’s double-sided by the reality here of high costs of living, high taxes, vast difference in standards of living and an increasingly tight-knit government…but overall, it’s intriguing to ponder, and I did devote some research to possible theatre grad schools back here, just to consider.

I’m grateful to have been able to take the time for this trip and, as always, to have made the most of the endless artistic experiences here.

November 20, 2007 – “Home in Massachusetts and Staying for Awhile”

I got back to the States around 10pm last night and had a remarkably easy travel/flight process – the speediest airport check-in I’ve ever had (at Heathrow Airport of all places), a cordial customs greeting, somewhat tasty airplane food, and decent films to watch. Even an hour’s delay in taking off from Heathrow didn’t make the flight late getting to Boston.

Am experiencing the usual slightly surreal feelings of being home again, especially where I was walking around rural England yesterday and am in rural Beverly today. I’m sure the adjustment process will ease over the course of this week…

jp london bridge 2007

An old-school (pre-camera phone) selfie

Reminded of encounters with other Dames

Writing about Helen Mirren reminds me of my chance meeting with Dame Eileen Atkins, originally summarized in a LiveJournal entry on February 16. 2007:

Yesterday I was dropping my theatre resume off at a North London theatre (the Almeida, where The Shape Of Things originally premiered). As I was leaving the building, I noticed the actress Eileen Atkins, who has the lead role in their current production, casually standing outside the theatre. 

I thought for about a millisecond, and then looked right at her and said “I love your work!”. She then said “Are you American?” — funny how she could tell instantly, though I had read that she likes Americans and working in the USA. We proceeded to chat for a 10 mins or so genuine conversation first about theatre work at the Almeida; she seemed genuinely interested in my theatrical aspirations and suggested that I approach the artistic director in person and thought he might need some assistants…?! 
I then asked her a little bit about her career, which she was happy to share including a new film she’d just shot in Rhode Island. She quipped “you seem a bit young to know about my work” but then I explained that Cold Comfort Farm is one of my favorite films, and she smiled and agreed, also adding that she had originally been up for the grandmother role, not the cousin part, but John Schlesinger made a last minute casting switch and had let her know while she was performing a Virginia Woolf one woman show. It was coincidental and inspiring to be able to just chat with someone like her, and definitely keeps me in the “right location, right time, right liveliehood” frame of mind heading into the weekend.

And meeting Diana Rigg on November 26, 2004, also originally posted on LiveJournal (I later had the pleasure of seeing her act onstage at the Old Vic three years later)…

Am still on a high from meeting Diana Rigg this evening. She is by far my favorite British actress and getting to meet her in person, even though it was just a brief conversation, is the icing on the cake for the whole experience here. Her daughter Rachel Stirling had a starring role in the second show I saw today called Anna and the Tropics and she clearly inherited her mother’s strong stage presence, easily rising above the material that was already dramatically rich. Earlier today I’d had a feeling that Diana might attend the performance…was surprised that turned out to be correct! She was sitting just two rows ahead of me in the theatre and I recognized her instantly, although the rest of the people sitting nearby were either being blissfully ignorant or courteous of her, so I followed their example even though I really wanted to say something of admiration as I walked out for the intermission right behind her. Once the show ended it became a “now or never” moment. I went out again only a few feet behind her but then she sat down in the foyer, probably to wait to congratulate her daughter. So I went ahead but was thinking “should I or shouldn’t I?”, having heard via the Avengers.TV forum that she sometimes prefers privacy over recognition. But once I saw an older woman go up to cordially greet her and Diana receiving her very warmly, that sealed it. I went back over to her table and kept it simple, saying “your daughter was excellent. I love your work.” (That’s all there is to say, really.) She seemed genuinely appreciative, giving me a warm smile and saying “thank you” in a friendly theatrical tone to me that gave a sense of her stage experience even through voice. It was enough to send me running to the bus stop (and I could have gone on down the street home) with a huge smile.