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Multiple forms of Whiplash at the movies

So apparently I lied about being done with my moviegoing for the year, and this morning I ended up at the recently opened MJR cinema in Troy for a screening of Whiplash, a film I had tried to see a few times over the past month.

I think it’s very cool that MJR has their own theme song, a great nod to movie theatre traditions of the past. Here it is on YouTube:

The song reminds me greatly of the Loews Theatres jingle I grew up with, also viewable on YouTube:

Back to Whiplash

The film is much darker than what I had expected, focusing right in on promising music student Andrew Naiman (Miles Teller) and his struggle to fit in at a prestigious music conservatory in New York City. Soon after his arrival, Andrew encounters a teacher (JK Simmons) who notices his talent, and recruits him to be part of an upper-level band. But Andrew soon learns that the teacher excels at pushing his students to the brink, in order to get the most out of them, and Andrew finds himself making changes in his life and becoming increasingly, fanatically, focused on the music.

The film evokes a complicated line of thought recalling mentors and teachers one might have had, and how much they pushed you/their students to be successful. A more subtle thread in the story looks at trust and forgiveness – if we are bothered by some thing or action that a person caused, can we even speak with or trust them again? And finally, how much do you/I/we want to achieve for a lifelong dream? I know I have felt all of those sensations at different times in my life.

Native Detroiter Simmons (recently interviewed by the Free Press about the film and his hometown connections) captivates in a demanding multifaceted role. Perhaps most impressively, just when I thought the film had closed up his character, and the storyline, a third act appears that turns his character around and fills in the shadings, while also setting up a provocative finale.

I wasn’t familiar with Teller prior to this film, although I see from IMDB that he’s become quite well known thanks to several big hits aimed at audiences slightly younger than me. He scores a 10 on the music scenes, thanks to his existing musical background and a similar ferocious intensity, but I felt that he didn’t fully inhabit some of the dramatic scenes of the film. Admittedly, that may have been part of the point, where the character was getting so consumed by his work as to neglect other parts of his life.

The supporting cast includes few well – known names, save for veteran actor Paul Reiser as Andrew’s dad. Reiser hasn’t changed from his affable presence as seen on 1990’s television and several films in that decade, and I felt that touch was just what the role needed, where his son faces such high personal stakes.

The film’s story is conducted in a broadly familiar way, and so I could tell where the narrative was going, with a few exceptions. However the intensity of the story is such a surprise, with a powerful punch, that I often still was on the edge of my seat. Hope that the film continues to stay in the awards season conversation.

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Film Flashback: Insurrection

Continuing my series of posts focusing on the Star Trek: The Next Generation adventures on the big screen, the 16th anniversary of the crew’s third cinematic foray, Insurrection, is coming up next Thursday.

Once again I was excited to see my favorite space crew on the big screen, and proceeded to see their latest voyage three times during its original cinematic release. First up was an opening day screening at the then – new Showcase Cinemas Lowell, which was just coming up to its first anniversary of opening. I remember it was a winter concert night at my high school (which I was performing in) a few towns away from Lowell, so my dad picked me up and we rushed to the cinema and then hurried right back so I could make it to the evening event. Unfortunately, that rushed state led to me leaving my first point and shoot camera there in the movie theatre, and I was unable to recover it, which disappointed me and my parents as it contained a few photos that could not be replicated. (why did I even take it into the theatre? probably to take a picture of the poster… interesting how those things stand out in the memory…)

A week later, my dad and I caught the film a second time on Opening Night of the new and long – awaited Loews Theatres Liberty Tree Mall. I remember feeling disappointed that Insurrection was shoehorned into one of the complex’s smallest screening rooms, even though it was just in its second week of release. We would get to know the rest of the complex very well over the next several years.

This film serves as half of the answer to a regional trivia question in that it was one of the two final films to screen at the Loews Liberty Tree Mall twin cinema, which closed down after screenings on December 17, 1998, to make way for the new 20-plex.

Finally, I saw the film a third time in St. Johnsbury, VT, near the end of that month, with my mom and several other friends. I highly doubt that St. J’s Star Theater has changed much since that screening!

Insurrection DVDIt’s been awhile since I’ve actually watched Insurrection, and I’m aware that it has a bit of a “meh” reputation among fans. The film’s location photography in the Mammoth Lakes region of California stood out to me on those early viewings, with lush greenery and icy blues serving as fitting evocations of an alien planet. Veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith again delivered an expert tapestry of musical images to drum the story along and serve as a backdrop for the crew’s continuing mission. But I agree with a sentiment that I once saw somewhere indicating that this film shows the Next Generation crew at their most natural. They don’t have to ramp up the violence to show they can kick some ass and bring in box office, they don’t have to compare themselves to other Star Trek crews, and they don’t have to do a victory lap on their way out of the spotlight, they can simply be present in the story, and relate to each other with humanity and consideration. (The last point is something that the actors continue to do well in real life, as seen in writeups of their convention appearances over the last several years, and I saw for myself when I met Marina Sirtis here in Michigan a year and a half ago.)

I likely did not realize on first viewing that the “guest stars” for this installment drew heavily from the theatre world, where most of the regular cast members also have roots. It would be interesting to see some alternate universe mashup where Donna Murphy and F. Murray Abraham suddenly launched into dramatic monologue faceoffs with Patrick Stewart, Gates McFadden, Brent Spiner and the rest of the cast.

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.

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

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 fall of the dollar house, and those that still support it

Yesterday I was pleased to discover the CInemark 16 on the border of Oakland and Macomb counties, and its selection of second – run movies that may or may not have arrived on DVD, but in this case, were still showing on the big screen.

I find this style of moviegoing to be a lost art. Not so in the Midwest, but very much so in my New England home turf, and on the other coast as well. 

It’s unfortunate, because I remember 15 – 20 years ago, second run movieplexes were still very widespread in New England. If I missed something at Danvers 6, it would show up later on at the Warwick Cinema, and maybe after that at the Cabot Street Cinema, and the same thing could be seen within a range of different small towns around Boston. 

Nowadays, a kid growing up on the North Shore will go to the Liberty Tree Mall 20, which I’m sure is showing its 15 years of age, and the Gloucester Cinema is still hanging in there. Other spots have either changed (the Warwick Cinema was re-born as a classy cinema restaurant within the past year) or closed down, with the Cabot Street Cinema sadly for sale.

And so it’s been refreshing to know that tradition of seeing movies past their initial expiration date continues here in the Midwest, as I initially saw in Dayton, Ohio, several years ago and now see to be true around Detroit. Although I bought a ticket for a movie yesterday, I didn’t actually go in (!) but will consider the $1.50 as a donation to the complex. I’ll look forward to finding the right time to go back.

From the archives: Equus in London, March 2007

Intending to write a commentary about Daniel Radcliffe’s recent film What If, I instead found myself recalling when I saw him perform live onstage at the Gielgud Theatre in London, in a role that drew significant media attention. Thankfully, I wrote about the performance on LiveJournal a few days later…

This production lives up to the hype, in nearly all elements. Coming into the Gielgud Theatre with a significantly better seat than when I saw Frost/Nixon, I was immediately struck by the scope of the set. A plain proscenium stage had been turned into an almost theatre-in-the-round style area, with a central elevated level that could be turned if needed surrounded by openings off stage, symbolizing stable doors, and also, perhaps, different tracks of life from which Alan and Dysart could proceed onto when the show concluded. There were also audience members seated above the stage in a semi-circle to continue the effect of observation. Lighting design stood out from the beginning, as the show opened with Radcliffe proceeding centre stage with one of the horses (actually a performer in costume with a large head of a horse) and being symbolically isolated from all, just a kid and his horse.

Richard Griffiths came onstage as soon as the play began and almost never went off, requiring great concentration on his and the audiences parts. But he succeeded in so many ways, stepping in front of Radcliffe’s press-attention (as other reviewers have noted) to deliver a complex portrayal of Martin Dysart, sympathetic psychotherapist. In Griffiths’ hands, Dysart became a warm filter, or magnifying glass, through which the audience could observe and comment on the actions of the play. He also conveyed Dysart’s shifting motivations and impassions over the course of the story. Initially he was eager to take on a new client and thought that he could relatively easily break through to Alan, leaving the job done and the Strang family reunited together again. But in the reality of the narrative, Dysart only continues to be more and more buried in his work, developing more and more distance from what little home life he has and throwing himself into talking with his clients. This predicament was both noble and tragic, and Griffiths’ slightly remorseful line inflictions highlighted his character’s personal challenges throughout the show.

Daniel Radcliffe deserves enormous kudos for being bold enough to step out of the Harry Potter typecasting into a role so different from what his fans (and critics) are accustomed to seeing him in. He almost completely pulled off the part, in my opinion. I’m sure that he could project from experience in the early scenes of Alan demonstrating his jaded-teenagerdom life and his disdain for his family and friends. However, the characterization often seemed to end there. When Alan was supposed to be younger, or more intimate with his friends and family, Radcliffe continued to speak in a forceful tone (not quite a monotone, more of a vocal strain) that showed his built up anguish, but not his scared-ness beneath that anxiety. I wanted to see him dive deeper into the psychological problems that Alan faces. However, I suspect (or hope) that his character investigations might continue as the show’s run goes along. He remained completely committed and in the moment with the stage actions, especially in the scenes that are causing the most controversy. Also, the relationship between him and Richard Griffiths was strongly balance – counterbalanced in their scenes together. At the curtain call it was clear that they are dependent on each other but enjoying the process, as they preceded centre-stage with their arms around each other, like a grandparent-grandson relationship might be.

The rest of the cast was somewhat victimized by the thinly-drawn nature of the supporting characters in the script. However, Jenny Auggiter (as the magistrate), Joanna Christie (as Alan’s girlfriend), and Jonathan Cullen (Alan’s dad) all invested meaningful levels of psychological realism in their portrayals. All three of them carefully balanced a level of character inquiry and being in the moment with a full awareness that in reality there would not be a clear, immediate resolution to the plot.

In conclusion, this version of Equus is a compelling evening of theatre. Although it’s not quite as good as the hype machine may have lead you to believe, it certainly lives up to the publicity, and Griffiths’ and Radcliffe’s double-act stands high as a professional theatre example of actorly collaboration and rich investment in full dramatic art.

A Highly Theatrical week in London (flashback from February, 2007)

Again cut and pasted from live journal. I’d like to combine these recent two archival entries into a “then and now” post to be made here on this blog.

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One of the best things about this particular week was that each day was theatre centered, 

On Monday night, I caught one of the final performances of Therese Raquin, a mesmerizing thriller that was the best directed show I’ve seen since returning to London. Last year I was similarly impressed by Pillars of the Community done by the same director. The show was preceded by an intriguing Q&A session with the two main female stars, and it was fascinating to see them “out of character” and then completely inhibiting their roles just 45 minutes later. 

Tuesday night I finally made it down to the Battersea Arts Centre, a boiling pot of contemporary theatre work. Every Tuesday night they have an “after-hours masterclass”, which is essentially a short lecture about a different topic of theatre-dom. This week it was playwriting, taught by Julian Fox, and I was pleased to get back in the groove of creative writing, crafting a stream of consciousness piece and then editing it down to something more concise. It will also likely be an effective precursor for a “play in a day” writing workshop which I’ll attend all day tomorrow at the Soho Theatre. On the way home I ran into a friend from Hampshire on the tube (the number of coincidences needed to make that work was extraordinary) and we exchanged contact info to hang out sometime soon.

Earlier on Tuesday night, I got a 24-hours notice email about a special question and answer session that would happen the following evening at the Old Vic Theatre. It sounded like a perfect way to get more professional advice about theatre company work, so I emailed back that I wanted to attend. Wednesday mid-day brought a reply that the event was “regretfully fully booked”. On hearing that news, I felt both annoyed that they had given such short notice, and also ambitious and daring – I really wanted to hear what those people had to say. So I decided to go anyway. 

Getting into the event was much easier than expected; I simply walked up to the stage door of the theatre, signed in, and then went upstairs to a top floor rehearsal room, and joined the crowd already there to hear the panel. Their advice was fascinating and informative – some of it familiar, others consisting of pr/marketing/publicity angles I had not considered. 

Thursday night brought a trip down to the Shunt Theatre, located underneath London Bridge railway station, to see my former professor Mick Barnfather’s show that he directed, called Bitches Ball. I’d seen an earlier version of the play when I was here in December, 2005, which had been focused on the physical comedy and overly grotesque elements of the storyline. Mick had let me know that this version was quite different, and I was impressed how he (and the actors, presumably) had changed the focus of the play completely. They went from deriding the main character, Mary, to humanizing her and making her story captivate the audience as she had various misadventures along her career track to being an actress. I thought that some deliberate parallels were drawn to current “actresses” who are in fact more famous for only being in the gossip pages. The performances were typically high-energy and as they’d just finished a UK tour, I sensed a contentness of being back in London.

The SPACE for the show was INCREDIBLE. I walked into a dimly lit long corridor that had the appearance and atmosphere of a subliminal cathedral, with very little lighting and lots of stone and some brick in the walls. I could see a light at the end of the tunnel (literally) which turned out to be the performance space, a large room converted into the equivalent of an indoor ampitheatre. One rounded the corner to reach the bar area, also carved into the walls with ease, and flanked by numerous tables lit by candles, as there was very minimal natural lighting in the entire club. It felt like a film set inhabited by extras there to enjoy the atmosphere (instead of just to be seen) and I have full intentions of going back there for a drink and show again sometime.

Tonight it’s back to the Donmar Warehouse for a production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman with Ian McDirmid (better known as Star Wars’ Emperor Palaptine) taking the lead role.

Tomorrow I’ll return to the Soho Theatre for a special “write a play in a day” workshop, which should be exciting and a fun opportunity to meet some like-minded peers.

On Sunday afternoon, am planning to see the final performance of Rock’n’Roll by Tom Stoppard. I hope it will be better than the last play of his I saw, which was the aptly named Travesties in SF.