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Reflecting on Square One

Square One's original logo. Image Source: Wikipedia

Square One’s original logo. Image Source: Wikipedia

My favorite children’s television show, Square One Television, first appeared to the television world 28 years ago today. Happy Birthday, Square One!

The show remains conspicuously absent from the DVD collections market, most likely due to a complicated copyright involving (then) Children’s Television Workshop and (now) Sesame Workshop. A fan site, SquareOneTV.org, which I formerly contributed to, seems to have gone offline. So the show’s Wikipedia page provides a thorough overview of what each episode was like and why people like me grew so affectionate for it. (and so upset when it suddenly left the airwaves in the fall of 1994.)

In the summer of 2006 I had the chance to meet one of the show’s core ensemble cast members who was appearing in an off-Broadway show I attended, and wrote about the experience on LiveJournal:

I got a front-row seat and read the program before the curtain went up. I scanned the cast list and was surprised to see a cast member (Cynthia Darlow) from Square One Television, one of my top-5 favorite childhood TV shows, was part of this cast. She displayed just the same brasyness and captivating theatricality that she had displayed in the show, and was a stand-out among the secondary characters of the show. Later, I was waiting around in the lobby and she happened to come out from backstage. We made eye-contact briefly and I decided to take a minor risk and say that I loved her work on Square One. She smiled broadly and said she always is charmed that people still remember the show and that it was “one of her best jobs” of her career with a very tight-knit cast and crew. She is also always amused that people my/our age still remember the show and can tell her how they watched it compulsively when it aired first-run. Once again it felt good to take a risk of approaching a celebrity, especially when Cynthia was as friendly as she is.

Square One briefly reappeared on television screens around the turn of the millennium as part of cable network Noggin (a joint venture between Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop) and its anthology series “The Phred on Your Head Show” – with segments from Square One intercut into the newer show, and perhaps most importantly, the show-within-a-show Mathnet, which was always my favorite part of the program, reappearing in full glory.

Mathnet

I was very excited to finally see the original Mathnet HQ in Los Angeles on a March 2013 visit to the area.

I owe a longer post on the enduring appeal of Mathnet – but it won’t be tonight! I will say that the show contributed greatly to my lifelong love of numbers and coincidences and mysteries and number sequences. And it indirectly introduced me to the theatre world at a young age, with one episode set in a Broadway house and all of the main actors coming from strong theatrical backgrounds.

I only realized a few years ago (possibly on moving to Michigan) that Square One included many references to Michigan and the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, where its creators attended college. So from an early age I had many little snippets of Michigan lore seeping into my brain, most notably centered around U of M life and my current area code, 313, which once covered the entirety of Southeastern Michigan. To that I just say… “wow!

And it’s a perfect segue to the other birthday I learned is today, which is the state of Michigan itself! 178 years young! MLive asks its readers to guess how well they know the state.

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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.

Birdman impresses but also overrates

I eagerly joined the first preview crowd to catch Birdman at the Main Art Theater last Thursday night, but it took me awhile to write it up here. Probably because the film felt like it fell victim to its own hype, while still being a solid and impressive feat.

Michael Keaton stars in a role with deliberate parallels to his well – known Batman alter ego. “Has – been” actor Riggan (Keaton) has chosen to adapt the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for the stage, in a bid to restore his artistic creed to a variety of audiences and prove that he can be a triple-threat actor, writer, director… plus financier and more. He is backed up by a motley crew of associates, including a troubled daughter (Emma Stone), an ex who seems somewhat still interested in him (Amy Ryan), a loyal assistant (Zach Galifianakis) and a trio of actors supporting him on the stage: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu stages the film in almost one uninterrupted take, a choice that initially was disorienting, exciting for awhile, and ultimately felt like it wore out its welcome. Apparently the actors had to match choreographed movements in order to maintain the fluidity of the visual story. Iñárritu is one of several credited writers on the script, and the story can’t seem to decide if it wants to focus solely on Keaton’s character, Riggan, and his challenges, or show the side of a satirical backstage drama, casting attention on the strong egos and challenges coming from every direction within a theatre production.

The film also includes numerous fantastical elements that initially seem to be a homage to Star Wars, but later take on an unclassifiable approach. Eventually the film itself seemed to become a male – led version of Black Swan, where Keaton, like Natalie Portman’s character in the earlier film, continues to feel competition and torment coming from a wide variety of sources, and struggles with a way to achieve balance. I might have appreciated the film more if it had dared for a darker ending than the one it contains, which felt tacked – on and overly hopeful.

Ultimately the film stands out as a technical achievement and a return to form for the esteemed Keaton, who has called it the most challenging performance of his career. While the supporting cast is not given much time to shine, especially as the film goes on, they do make impressions, especially Norton, Stone and Watts, leading to an ensemble feel and knowing acknowledgment of the challenges and rewards of show business.

An actress lightens up and the summer screens get tuneful

I often forget that British actress Keira Knighley is one year younger than me. She has more or less pigeon-holed herself into a dour screen persona that rarely expresses a happier state of mind, which also makes her seem older than her age. So when she does lighten up, as in the current release Begin Again, it’s a breath of fresh air.

I was pleased to catch an early screening of this film at Landmark’s Main Art Cinema in Royal Oak, which often gets first dibs on independent film releases in the Detroit area. Knightley gets top billing as Greta, a British ingenue who is making her way in New York City with her rapidly ascending rock star boyfriend, played by Adam Levine. One night, a series of circumstances leads her to a grungy club somewhere in the city, where her path intersects with Dan (Mark Ruffalo) – a down on his luck music executive who feels like her song could hit the big time.

The rest of the film follows their journey to get Greta’s record made, which takes several twists and turns as she does not want to sacrifice her own vision while Dan navigates a modest midlife crisis. They are joined by several memorable characters as the film unfolds, including James Corden as a friend of Greta’s, Mos Def as Dan’s business partner, Halle Steinfeld as Dan’s estranged daughter and Catherine Keener as Dan’s estranged wife.

The film is a cheery tale that is hard to be critical about… but I’ll try to make a few comments. It bears a number of similarities to the director’s previous film, Once, and could almost serve as a sequel to that project with Knightley taking the role of the female singer in the previous film. There are probably too many montages in the film, with most accompanied by songs from the soundtrack, as the story attempts to cover a large amount of narrative in a 90 – 100 minute time frame.

The storytelling does yield one interesting choice in the use of a “flash-forward/flash-back” structure to set up both Greta and Dan’s story lines. I always appreciate when films or plays choose that particular narrative, as it keeps the audience members guessing and anticipating, and sometimes creates some surprises along the way. As well, the film keeps the audience guessing if Greta and Dan will keep things platonic or get to know each other on a more intimate level.

In spite of the formulaic approach, the actors seem to be having fun with their process, with Ruffalo taking on a familiar character (in the context of his previous roles) but showing more humanity and older mentor-style energy than before. Keener only gets a few notable scenes, but continues to maintain her strong screen presence and mature character persona. Steinfeld leads the rest of the cast, and while more emphasis is placed on her character in the first half than the rest of the film, she continues to show strong command of her roles and great potential for future opportunities.

I’m sure this film will take its seat as the Summer Indie Crowd Pleaser of 2014.