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Home comes to the Big Screen

I’ve been interested in the film Manchester by the Sea, titled after and set within my hometown in Massachusetts, since it was first announced around two years ago. Originally planned to star Matt Damon, the film had an immediate air of prestige coming from acclaimed playwright and somewhat embattled filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, known for works including This is Our Youth and You Can Count on Me. As it turned out, Damon was not able to star in the film, but remained as a producer, and recruited his longtime friend Casey Affleck to take over the lead role. I would have liked to have been back on the North Shore to observe when they shot the film during the winter of 2015, which was exceptionally snowy and cold.

With this anticipation in place I was very excited when the film appeared on this year’s Windsor Film Festival schedule across the border in Canada, and thus made plans to attend a screening yesterday, creating an amusing irony of having to go out of the country in order to go home. This was perhaps doubly ironic as I was in Manchester itself just four weeks ago and enjoyed a more leisurely visit than my past couple of times being back, which had been just quick drive-throughs.

img_8431In general the film lives up to its pre-release and festival generated acclaim as a somber drama that isn’t afraid to go into more depth than other stories it might be similar to. The detailed tone is apparent from the opening scenes, when character beats are held just a second or two too long and/or a character says something they might be thinking but not say in a “conventional” setting. Affleck is on screen in nearly every scene and anchors the film with exceptional pathos; his character motivations are initially shrouded but gradually become clearer as the story goes back and forth in different time frames.

As a native of the area, it’s inevitably both amusing and irritating to see how Manchester itself is represented in the story, with a to be expected range of minor to moderate geographic implausibilities sprinkled in the narrative, along with a few glaring omissions or character choices that made it obvious the writer did not have roots in the area. However, the pleasure of seeing familiar locations and landmarks on screen (especially while watching it in Canada) goes without saying! Since it’s fun for me to examine, I’ll outline some of the film vs. reality impressions here.

  1. There’s not really a PC way to say this, but it’s doubtful (while not impossible) that a “working class” family as depicted in this story would actually live in Manchester, which has the highest household income of the North Shore area and is known for having large houses and estates and corresponding financial security. I continue to feel that the story ought to have been set in the neighboring and better-known town of Gloucester, which has a more diverse range of inhabitants and a closer connection to the art of the sea. Indeed, the film’s opening shot jumped back and forth between Manchester and Gloucester harbors in order to set the mood of the story. A key scene between two characters late in the film is also filmed in Gloucester, though the dialogue implies they are still in Manchester.
  2. When Affleck first arrives back on the North Shore, a scene takes place in the neighboring town of Beverly. He then says he has to “go up” to Manchester, which no one would say about the next town over. However, the statement makes sense when his character mindset is considered, having driven up from a town south of Boston on short notice.
  3. Subsequently, when Affleck first enters Manchester, where he’s meant to have grown up, he drives away from the town center and several well-known gathering places are not seen at all during the film including the town market and train station. A few other scenes in the film feature him driving around to make trips that would be more likely accomplished on foot.
  4. The town’s crown jewel Singing Beach is not seen in the film nor referenced in any of the dialogue.
  5. While the choice to have most of the characters use “Boston” accents fits in to the dynamic of the story, such accents are rarely heard in this part of the North Shore, and Hollywood in general still has not learned that those accents are very tightly concentrated to inner-ring towns around and some sections within Boston itself.

OK, continuing with the film itself. As Affleck’s character Lee experiences the story, he is tasked with looking after his nephew Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges. This character offers a very well-drawn depiction of mid-teenage years (he’s meant to be 16) and the delicate dance of making choices that relate to your family vs. your own personal journey and desires. Patrick’s arc also contains unexpected humor that enlivens the story, while the character also brings it back down to earth/the reality of the situation at a few surprise moments that add to the dynamic of the uncle/nephew relationship. The process of honesty and being “real” that is established early in the film is most sharply seen in the scenes with Patrick, and actor Hedges rises to the challenge with a strongly committed and revelatory performance. The film toys with sending Lee and Patrick’s relationship into “buddy/odd couple” comedy mode, and there are indeed several humorous moments, but then it comes back to reality with the empathy for both characters strongly intact. On the whole, the dynamic between both male characters made me notice that the film isn’t shy of going in-depth with masculine feeling and emotion, often glossed over in storytelling and popular culture, and that choice likely contributes to the richness of the drama.

Of the supporting cast, Michelle Williams is the obvious stand-out in a few strong scenes as Lee’s ex-wife. While her “Boston” accent is likely the most distracting of the cast (at least Affleck’s is authentic), she also carries the reality of the story and the challenge of character choices in context of the narrative.

I would see the film again, and you should too when it comes to general release and likely Academy Awards season acclaim at the end of this year.

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Familiarity breeds Excitement

It was such a “wow” moment when Peter Pan/Bonanza bus first introduced wifi service on their buses around 2010, and it was also quite glitchy. Now in 2015 I’m enjoying it without a second thought, and an expectation that it will be smooth!

The computer distracts me from the extremely familiar sights along this Boston —> Martha’s Vineyard bus ride. I was trying to determine in my head how many times I’ve taken this bus ride in my life, and would go for somewhere between 50 and 100, not as much as I might expect, but if you add in private car trips of that same route, the number might go into the thousands.

I remember feeling disappointed when the character of the final stretch of highway (I-495 and MA 25) changed around ten years ago with a switch from side of the road to overhead signs, making it seem to me less like a rural route and more like a standard American highway or freeway. There was also a time when I was a vocal pre-teen passenger and encouraged my parents to vary the route since this stretch of road seemed too boring and repetitive to me, so we’d go via Providence RI and then loop back to it, or join the road at a slightly northern point of the usual onramp in Raynham.

But in the present day, with my not based in Massachusetts life, traveling along the highway – along the whole Boston to Martha’s Vineyard route, really – is the equivalent of an eager mental checklist, and it continues to get me every time.

Exited Boston? Yep.

Turned onto Route 24? Yep.

Curved turn onto 495? Yep.

Transition to 25? Yep.

still to come: cross the Bourne Bridge, go through two rotaries, a few small towns, and one ferry ride…

Bourne Sign

One of the last highway signs before the Bourne Bridge onto Cape Cod

Happy Birthday to Ms. Carly Simon!

Singer, erstwhile Martha’s Vineyard neighbor/charitable resident, and all-around accomplished artist Carly Simon starts a new decade today, which makes it an appropriate moment to re-post an entry I wrote last fall about her enduring appeal.

I’m also glad to be posting this while on Martha’s Vineyard!

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I’ve never posted about the #WCW (Women Crush Wednesday) social media trend, but this seems like an appropriately random time to start. The natural starting point for me at least is the enduring appeal of singer – songwriter Ms. Carly Simon, whose music I grew up with, and was semi – fixated on for a time in my younger years. (I acknowledged that in a solo performance a few years ago and was surprised by the warm reaction.)

Anyhow, Simon recently posted a picture on her Instagram account that exemplified her continued aura of beguilement, at least for me. The picture shows her on Lambert’s Cove Beach on Martha’s Vineyard, not far from her home. That beach is also a favorite destination for my family members and I when we can get in – usage is generally restricted during the high summer season. In the picture, Simon seems to strike just the right pose of slight amusement and satisfaction, clearly enjoying the moment but not gloating in it. (It would be a perfect album cover shot for her if she had an upcoming release waiting in the wings.)

This picture perfectly fits Simon’s role in my current musical tastes – someone whom I “come back around again” to from time to time, to paraphrase one of her well – known lyrics, but don’t fixate on with regularity. Nonetheless, her music and persona continue to be emblematic of Martha’s Vineyard, the family homestead, for me, and presumably in a similar way for others. I didn’t shy away from occasionally watching her 1987 concert at Menemsha if I’m feeling homesick, and her song Never Been Gone remains the most iconic example of being home in Massachusetts. A handful of her songs have additional family or home region associations for me.

So that picture brought a brief resurgence in my appreciation of her work, which has been more on the periphery recently as she has maintained a lower public profile over the last several years. Her children Sally and Ben now take the lead in the family business, which she often supports during their Vineyard shows, and I last saw her join Ben onstage three years ago in Edgartown.

Her music remains emblematic of a certain special or cherished time and place, and I’m sure it will always be that way for my family members and I.

The Star Gatekeepers of Martha’s Vineyard are fading into the Menemsha Sunset

The recent death of Mike Nichols, well-chronicled in various newspapers, but most notably to me in a Vineyard Gazette article, reinforces a feeling I’ve had over the last few years.

Martha’s Vineyard’s celebrity gatekeepers – those who come to the island and value their privacy, aren’t intruded upon, but are also willing to stand up for community causes and events when they choose – are disappearing. In his passing on, Nichols joins Art Buchwald, William Styron, Mike Wallace, Katherine Graham, Walter Cronkite, Patricia Neal and others of the literati/glitterati set who were known for their visiting/residing and support of the Island.

To me as a lifelong part-time Island resident/visitor, these were all people who appreciated what the Vineyard has to offer. More importantly for the locals, they weren’t shy about using their cache to improve the life and resources of those who are there on the Island full – time, which was and is perhaps best seen in the long-running Possible Dreams Auction for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

But who will take their place? Others remain, with Carly Simon perhaps seen as the primary standard bearer.

But there aren’t really many people my age, or a little older than me, who are taking up the mantlepiece as the celebrity statesman. I don’t know if that’s a pro or con for an island that values its own individual community. But I do know that it’s a change that will continue to be subtly felt.

Film Flashback: Hocus Pocus!

As another Halloween proceeds towards a gusty climax here in Detroit, it seems appropriate to look back to a film that has come to define this holiday for many members of my generation.

Hocus Pocus also stands out in my personal cinematic history in that it was the first film I ever observed shooting, thus becoming my unofficial first extra-ing gig.

As an impressionable eight year old, it was very exciting to see bright Hollywood set lights on a familiar street not far from my family’s home in downtown Salem. The production had come into the area for a couple weeks of location shooting, turning a community center off Salem Common into a school, a house not far down that road into a main character’s residence, the Common itself into a brief visible character, and various areas around the city into backdrops for several short exterior sequences. They may have also traveled into nearby Marblehead for a few shots – I don’t recall for sure.

The film’s visit in October 1992 also happened to take place in the 300th anniversary year of the notorious Salem Witch Trials, so there was an extra – large level of pomp and circumstance around the town. The annual (and seemingly endless if you are a resident) Haunted Happenings festival was well underway.

I do clearly recall standing in front of the Old Town Hall with a modest crowd as the cameras rolled on an early evening crowd scene. The director asked us to make a lot of noise as he did a couple of panning shots, and so we willingly obliged. It was fascinating and surprising (again, eight year old point of view) to see the large construction lights illuminating a familiar area that didn’t usually get that much attention.

I also remember observing the film crew in residence around town for a week or two before and after the town hall scene, with much curiosity directed towards the film trucks around Salem Common and the presence of extra cars and crew members around other familiar locations. At the time, Massachusetts did not enjoy its current status as a regular destination for Hollywood filming, and so it was A Big Deal for anyone in the area to observe the production activities.

A handy Boston.Com guide to the local filming of the movie — amusingly claiming that “it’s a little known fact that some scenes of the film were really shot in Salem” — reveals that the filming I recall was the scene leading into the film’s Halloween party sequence. The filming locations are also referenced in another article, and I’m sure there are others.

Fans of the movie might not know or recall that the finished film arrived in theaters in the summer of 1993, just a few days before my 9th birthday, and was not a box office hit. Why Disney chose to bring an obvious fall – themed film into theaters at that time of year is inexplicable. The film eventually found its longevity in the home media market, first through a video release and then through a regular seasonal presence on cable channels.

A bit of film nostalgia and history on the now 21 year old movie:

  • Its IMDB trivia page says that star Bette Midler considers this movie to be her favorite film project.
  • Co-star Sarah Jessica Parker was just five years away from starting her most iconic and well – known role in Sex and the City, but was also an industry veteran by this point in time.
  • Third trio member Kathy Najimy performed a role originally intended for Rosie O’Donnell and led the cast representation at a 20th anniversary screening last year.

hocus-pocus illustration

The music brings me back to the Playhouse

As part of an extended stay back on my family homeland of Martha’s Vineyard, I was excited to attend a show at the Vineyard Playhouse, the island’s resident professional theatre, for the first time in several years.

playhouse

This show, Search: Paul Clayton, took a historical docudrama look at an individual who was involved with Bob Dylan’s early career and genesis as a musician. Sadly, Clayton committed suicide in 1967 at the age of 36. He had humble beginnings here in Massachusetts (New Bedford) and then developed an affinity for the state of Virginia after attending school in the Charlottesville area. Later, he migrated for New York City and the early days of the folk music movement, where he remained until his untimely death.

The story focuses on Clayton’s music and some personal entanglements in a manner reminiscent of the recent film Inside Llewyn Davis. However, this story is ultimately told in a more upbeat way, in spite of Clayton’s personal difficulties and challenging social relationships. We meet his parents, briefly, a few of his New York acquaintances, and most importantly, the young singer Bob Dylan, played with winsome charm by Jared Weiss. Peter Oyloe as Clayton shifts back and forth between a narrator role and embodying Clayton. The show also includes a nod to the digital media age (I assume that’s how it was intended) in an early sequence using computer projected images and a digitized voice. The projection elements contribute to the story for about three-quarters of the show, most notably in a back projected road trip sequence.

While I sometimes have mixed opinions about musicals, this one moved right along, for the most part, and was carried by the commitment of its actors and uniqueness of the staging, with minimal props and a simple proscenium stage. It seems to be an excellent way for the recently renovated Playhouse to show off their new capabilities and facilities following a renovation.

I might have enjoyed it more if the songs all contributed to the advancement of the story (some did and some didn’t) and if the script chose to end at the downbeat suicidal moment, which is portrayed on stage. The ensemble demonstrates a tight cohesion in their musical performances, and some members slip in and out of different characters, which was entertaining if not always clear. Special credit must be given to Jaime Babbitt for a gusto-filled performance which she wasn’t shy of enlivening with a classic New York accent.

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Music was also a central theme of the late – summer blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, which I caught with a friend in Maine at the beginning of this week. The film followed a familiar template origin story for its ragtag band of heroes, and it’s inevitable that a sequel will soon appear for the team. However, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a big studio film that took such an unusual approach to incorporating music into its plot, and I’m sure that will stand out the most in my memory of the film.

Sassy tuneful nostalgia

I’m offering some short hot off the press impressions of an appearance this evening from singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler at the Ann Arbor Ark, which also functioned as a very belated first visit for me to the acclaimed local music venue.

Wheeler, who has long been a familiar presence on my family’s playlist, continues to shine in the live setting, treating the audience like old friends. However, this isn’t to say that she loses focus on the music — it seemed to be quite the opposite, as she worked very specifically from a (presumed) outline of songs from her catalog. She was quite generous in offering a range of personal anecdotes that mostly focused on East and West Coast experiences, whether walking with her wife and animals at Horseneck Beach in Massachusetts or driving the long haul from Seattle to California destinations (Petaluma and Santa Monica both got specific shootouts) and writing a song or two along the way. She expertly segued her narrative so that the last quarter or so of her concert focused solely on the music, after plenty of laughs and chat in the earlier part of the evening.

I’m pleased that Wheeler included “Driving Home” – one of my favorites of her recordings – and a few other of her older songs. She offered a subdued interpretation of “Aces”, another older tune, earlier in the evening, leading me to think she was choosing not to use her higher register, but later selections showed that range to still be in place and in excellent form.

Of course I also appreciated the strong New England feel of the concert. She even included her song “When Fall Comes to New England”, which was a frequent sight on my iPod playlist for a time, most notably during a series of driving commutes in Western Massachusetts in the summer and fall of 2007.

She got the most reaction out of the (nearly sold out) crowd before her final song, which she humorously prefaced with a “fake final” song of her fan favorite “Potato” (yes, that’s the song name) – explaining that she doesn’t like the forced tradition of the singer leaving and then being called back to the stage for “…just one more.” And so she proceeded with the most heartfelt tune of the evening (wish I knew the name) written in honor of her father’s 75th birthday.

Although some might say that Wheeler flies under the radar in her music career, she seems just fine with that and willingly capable of doing whatever she wants with her music, with a loyal and appreciative fan base that is right there cheering her on.