Bookending March at the Maple Theatre

IMG_1171I was pleased to realize upon March’s conclusion that (in the US at least!) I only visited independent cinemas this month, and in an unintentional coincidence, trips to The Maple Theatre (pictured at right) north of Detroit bookended my spring break adventures abroad.

I did deliberately choose to catch The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel prior to spring break, where it stars a number of well-known elder British actors. And the sequel is more or less an excuse to let them act again in a beautiful location. It’s most notable for the central performances of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, given more dramatic space than in some of their other film portrayals, and Smith especially reminds the viewer of how much she can do with actual acting beyond just raising an eyebrow or giving a witty remark.

Last night I changed my earlier view and went back to the Maple to catch their last showing of Still Alice, the movie that gave Julianne Moore a well-deserved Academy Award and is now making its way out of theatres. As expected, the film is a showcase for Moore’s bravura and sensitive performance depicting a woman who faces a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Something that may have gone less noticed in the awards season conversation is the effective supporting cast that surrounds Moore, most notably Alec Baldwin as her husband and Kristen Stewart as her youngest daughter.

While the film inevitably feels like a “movie of the week” at a few moments and has a slightly overcomplicated plot (does Stewart’s character really need to live in California if she can conveniently make it home for most of the film’s major scenes?), Moore’s sympathetic and nuanced portrayal overshadows those deficiencies to create a poignant and powerfully thoughtful cinematic experience.

*** for both films


New Series: Theatrical Throwback Thursday

Since this has been a stellar year for keeping up investment in this blog, and taking it to steadier heights, I’ve decided to attempt to maintain a writing series for the remainder of 2014. Going off of some current popular social media trends, I will be presenting a weekly Theatrical Throwback Thursday and Film Flashback Friday, which also tie in to the two ongoing themes of this blog.

First up for the theatre section: a look back at my time studying at British American Drama Academy in London, England, which began ten years ago yesterday.

BADA 2004


It’s wholly accurate to say this experience solidified my partnership with the theatre. Never before had I been in such an immersive and appreciative theatrical environment, with countless productions going on across the city of London and a constant awareness of how the craft could impact us built right in to the curriculum. Fiona Shaw dropped by for a masterclass, Daniel Evans came two weeks later, our teachers casually spoke of Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and other acclaimed thespians. I had a weekly tutorial session with a character actress who’d had a well – known guest appearance on my favorite episode of a certain cult 1960’s television show, but I never got up the courage to ask her what being on the set was like.

We had regularly scheduled trips to see the latest theatrical offerings that season in London, with some being immediately memorable and some not so much. I was thrilled by surprise changes in the schedule, such as a trip to the Cheltenham Festival of Literature near Oxford that brought about a brief meeting with Neil LaBute, whose The Shape of Things I was preparing to direct the next semester back at Hampshire College, along with a quick meeting with acclaimed actress Joanna Lumley. All of this was jammed in to the first eight weeks of the program, when the focus was on conservatory – style classes during the day and the nights and weekends devoted to additional theatergoing and getting to know various attractions in Greater London… and quite a bit of going out on the town. All of us crammed in to an apartment building in fashionable St. John’s Wood, just two blocks from the local Tube station and in the midst of the city’s premier American expat neighborhood.

And then we took a weeklong break, just as the Election 2004 madness was nearing its climax back home, and the Red Sox had won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. I chose to go far, far away from London (and am very glad I did) but ought to have considered a more spontaneous group adventure, such as joining several guys in the program who went to the south of Italy. “The continent” continued to be our playground as we enjoyed what came to be seen as the heyday of cheap flights from the UK, just before climate change became a buzzword and various costs of living started a steadier and sharper increase that continues to this day – as I currently see in considering a trip back to the UK for spring break 2015.

We reconvened back at school ready to spend the remaining six weeks of the program focused on intensive production, where all of us had roles spread out over three full length shows scheduled to be performed over three consecutive nights at an off-West End/Fringe venue on the other side of the Thames River. One group of performers tackled Singer, another explored The Visit, and the third group, including me, examined Roberto Zucco, channeling intensity and French – American anxiety in a story of a disaffected protagonist and the individuals he encounters.

One day during the production process, The Facebook became available to students enrolled at Hampshire College and with a HAMPSHIRE.EDU address, and so I signed up for an account at the urging of my London classmates, with no knowledge of the cultural institution (and national obsession?!) the site would one day become.

For some reason those rehearsal – based days are less clear in my memory than the class experiences, although I warmly recall the excitement of rising to the crescendo of the performance, and not being shy of giving it our all since it was just one night only. And then everyone had to pack up and head out the next day, leading to a random experience for me of traveling on the London Underground with a bathrobe over my jacket, since there was nowhere else to put it in my luggage.

I stuck around Europe through the Christmas holiday in 2004, eventually returning to the US on the 28th of December after an unusual “Eurotrip” with Contiki tours where I was the only American in the group of 30 or so young people, and the trip was half sights I had seen before (Paris, Rome) mixed in with some new territory (Amsterdam and Munich) while traveling by bus throughout the journey. It’s an understatement to say it was a very wistful flight home to Massachusetts.

What’s interesting to me now, ten years later, is what the BADA experience led to, or, alternatively, what I might not have done if I had not been accepted to BADA and/or chose not to attend, I most likely…

– would not appreciate or be as immersed in the theatre world as I am in the present day.
– would never have moved to Marin County or (maybe) anywhere in the Bay Area.
– would never have moved back to London in the first half of 2007 for a second, more independent stint of theatre life.
– would not have explored Europe to the extent that I have.
– would not have seen as much of the UK.
– would not have met a dizzying array of well – known actors, including, but not limited to: Diana Rigg, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins (I really ought to have written them down at some point.)
– would not have discovered Humble Boy, a play by Charlotte Jones that kicked off my Div III experience at Hampshire the following fall.
– would not have geekily and happily explored filming locations used in The Avengers and other 1960’s television shows.
– might not have embraced the Facebook world as an early adapter.
– might look at theatre from more of a distance, without an understanding of the immersion and cultural relevance of the art.

In this case it is abundantly clear that the choices we make and the opportunities we get have long shadows and lasting effects, and I continue to be grateful for my time at BADA.


Quartet of New Year Filmgoing

So far I’ve caught four films at the movies in the New Year, but it may be until February (at least) before I see a film that was actually released in 2014.

This year I have decided to keep a spreadsheet of the films i see at the movies in an effort to better keep track of them and retain a memory of what I saw when.

So, the filmgoing year began with PHILOMENA, which I felt was an appropriate way to return to the movies after experiencing some personal loss at the end of the old year/start of the new year. A story that appeared to be standardly sentimental at first took on a more intriguing feel of mystery as it went on. The mystery didn’t come so much from a “whodunit” feel, and was more along the lines of “what’s going to happen next?”which is often more compelling, dramatically. 

ImageJudi Dench was unsurprisingly excellent in the title role, bringing many layers to a complicated storyline, and subtly playing with the initial impressions of a “twee old lady” to create something more complex. However, I did think at times during the film that it’s unfortunate she doesn’t seem to often have the opportunity to create EVEN MORE complex characters on film (versus what she does on stage) – the most recent cinematic example possibly being her work in Notes On A Scandal back in 2006.

Steve Coogan shone brightly in a dual role of co-writer and co-star here, showing none of his comedic talents that he is known for and keeping things quite straight, even more serious at times, throughout the story. From his many credits related to the film (writer, producer, co-star, optioned the story, etc) one can tell that the material struck a chord with him.

I was interested to learn that this movie marked the first time that Dench has portrayed a real, living person onscreen. The experience seems to have resonated with her, and it’s been sweet to observe the real Philomena Lee participate in some of the movie’s press events and publicity activities, which will probably continue in a modified form leading up to the Oscars, for which Dench recently netted a deserved Best Actress nomination.

Next up for me was SAVING MR. BANKS, a film that I wanted to enjoy, and would have liked a lot more if it had been made differently.


The film’s stars meet the veteran stars at the premiere. I hadn’t seen this image until today and love it!

The film tells the not previously explored on film story of the making of MARY POPPINS, focusing on the challenges that existed between author PL Travers’ interpretation of the work versus Walt Disney’s vision of what the film adaptation should be. Travers and the studio went back and forth on visions and agreements for over 20 years (!) before the film was finally released in 1964.

For some inexplicable reason, the writer decided that this already compelling and familiar story needed to be augmented by a narrative from Travers’ childhood detailing her recollections of growing up with a difficult father in Australia. I might not have had a problem with this if it was told in a traditional part 1/part 2 narrative, but the film constantly intercuts between the two stories throughout the entire film, causing me to lose interest in the total story because it keeps getting muddled between the two time periods. Additionally, some threads of the later (1960’s) narrative are not given time to develop in a way that could leave things clearer for the audience and make it into a more meaningful film experience. (Perhaps this is why the film was almost completely shut out of the recent Oscar nominations in spite of it being a clear and obvious tailor-made contender for awards.)

Having said that, it was delightful to see Emma Thompson back in a leading role for the first time in several years. Thompson has spoken often in press interviews for the film of her pleasure in getting to play a complex part – and it was clear to see she has been enjoying the various publicity endeavors for the film, from singing along at various events tying into the film’s music to her recent throwaway appearance at the Golden Globes last weekend.

Next up was INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the latest film from the Coen Brothers, which I felt like I’d been hearing about for well over a year – though maybe it’s only been a year – and was pleased to finally see in its finished form. After seeing it I also reflected on how the Coens are masters in creating truly cinematic experiences where their story takes you away to a distinct time and space, and it takes… some time to come back to reality after the film. Or the experience lingers in your mind. Or both.


GIF courtesy of Vogue article on the film.

This story exuded an authentic and weary sensibility looking at the competitive and colorful Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960’s. I could obviously identify with the narrative thread of “artist traveling with a cat” – and the presence of the cat in the story turned out to be an intriguing barometer of Llewyn, the main character’s, moral compass. The story was bleak at times but never in an unforgiving way, and boasted a keen sense of detail throughout the story. Not to forget about the catchy songs paying tribute to the era, some featuring the talents of Justin Timberlake in a role far away from his well-known pop persona, but clearly highlighting his musical ability.

This film and the next one had me noticing the nuances of screen pairings and couplings, where Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan again appeared onscreen following an earlier – and drastically different – pairing in the 2011 film DRIVE. Similarly, in the film discussed below, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams again appear opposite each other just a year after sharing scenes in the also drastically different THE MASTER. It got me thinking about what that must be like for the actors themselves – familial? cordial? old home week? distant? – and if other audience members pick up on the reuniting. (Based on press reports and interviews it seems that both instances were friendly and enjoyable for each pair of actors.)

So, that brings me to HER, seen yesterday back at the reliable Quality 16 – though it’s a film more appropriate for the downtown venues of the Michigan or State Theatres. I’m still feeling awestruck from this film and likely will continue to feel that way for several days. I also feel like it vaulted to the top of my top films in 2013 list, and can see I’m not alone in that sensation. Why did it resonate? It tells a futuristic yet realistic tale with nothing but humanity – no sensationalism, no whirlwind special effects, a strong look at the lead character’s life and story arc, and intense commitment from the principal actors.

ImageHER looks at the life of Theodore Twombly (great character name), thoughtfully played by Joaquin Phoenix and even more so when you realize that many scenes were him acting alone, similar to other 2013 releases GRAVITY and ALL IS LOST but told in the most down to earth style of the three. Theodore struggles with his life after his longtime love (Rooney Mara, continuing to show impressive character depth and command of the screen) leaves him. I should add that Theodore and his ex’s storyline is conveyed almost completely in flashback, yet in a completely opposite and more resonant way from SAVING MR. BANKS. And when the two characters meet in person again, it drives the point of the whole story home in a powerfully abrupt moment. Theodore has a few other women in his life, with Olivia Wilde appearing in a  well-used blind date cameo role, and Amy Adams supporting him as a neighbor and close friend. Adams continues to show versatility and command in her roles, bearing in mind that this was released in tandem with her (ahem) showier part in AMERICAN HUSTLE. She also gets to deliver one of the movie’s best lines – in a stellar screenplay – which I’ll quote here:

“We are only here briefly. And while we’re here, I want to allow myself joy.”

That line also seems to capture the story arc between Theodore and his personal OS, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. I don’t want to go into detail about their storyline here, since I feel that you have to see the film to experience it. But I will say that it is very humane and resonant, with an eerily realistic feel to it when you consider how much time people in the present era (myself included) spend looking at their mobile devices, laptops, large screen televisions…

A few “industry observer” type notes on this film:

  • It’s really interesting to note that Johansson was actually a late replacement for the voice role after filming had been completed, where British actress Samantha Morton had originally voiced the role, and apparently been present with Phoenix on-set in many scenes… but then director Spike Jonze felt in post – production that the part needed to go in a different direction.
  • The film is one of few recent films to make use of locations actually in Los Angeles, although augmented by some additional scenes shot in Shanghai. A recent Los Angeles Times article made note of this as California struggles to retain its dominance in film production in the face of extensive tax credit/rebate production programs in place in other US states.
  • The film’s score is composed by Arcade Fire, possibly their first contribution to film scoring, and reflecting a trend of better known for pop/rock composers dabbling in film scoring.
  • I was impressed with the film’s vision of a future expanded Los Angeles regional subway system (and the region is on its way to something like that) – and others have also taken note of the vision, as Gizmodo explains in this article.

To conclude I feel that HER shows an honesty and simplicity rarely seen in modern filmmaking, and reminiscent of an old favorite ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND – which I can’t believe is 10 years old this year. It will be hard to top a film experience like that, but that’s part of the fun of filmgoing – always keeping an eye for that Next Big Thing, and noting the sensations along the way.