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Honoring Women in many forms

The three films I’ve seen so far this year, as I maybe/maybe not get back into the “one film per week” routine, all focus strongly on the feminine experience, which feels appropriate and important as the Trump era begins in US government. (As we clearly saw yesterday with the widespread women’s marches around the country.)

Going in reverse chronological order, last night’s film of choice was the new 20th Century Women, which I caught back at the Devonshire Mall cinema, a place that would be my favorite local cinema if it wasn’t over a country border that requires often irritating logistics, not to mention a toll both ways. Anyway, I continue to appreciate the times that I do get over there, and this was the first time in awhile, probably over a year, although I had been to the mall – and not the cinema – at more recent times.

cineplex-devonshire

So the film of choice was 20th Century Women, an ensemble piece that has arrived with some “buzz” into a semi-wide release, although I’m guessing it may be overlooked when the all-important Academy Award nominations are announced on Tuesday morning. A small ensemble cast – Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup and Lucas Zellman – anchors the film in a surprisingly robust way.

20th-century-womenThe film seemed unusual to me in that it built my interest in the characters, as opposed to starting early with a lot of information and then losing interest as the narrative goes on. Related to that, the characters seemed to exist in and out of the story, thanks to the use of voice-over, with several individuals offering audio perspective from later in their lives as the “immediate” visual played on the screen.

I was pleased to see the Santa Barbara area of California, a region I’m quite familiar with, be represented in the story, and a few visual shout-outs to locations in the area I’ve passed by numerous times. As well, the heart of the story seemed to be one that focused on the nuances of life and art of communication between individuals, which made it more relatable in some ways than your average film about misfits, which all of the characters clearly were.

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Contrasting Cinematic Experiences

I’ve written before about how the venue is just as important as the film itself in my moviegoing experiences. I was reminded of those preferences in my choices for filmgoing this weekend.

First up on Friday night was acclaimed director Richard Linklater’s latest offering, Everybody Wants Some!! – currently playing an area exclusive engagement at The Maple Theatre. I continue to feel that “The Maple”, as it seems to now preferred to be called, offers the best all-around filmgoing experience in the area, with three screens (so not too many showings), a large bar and restaurant space adjacent to the theatre itself, and said secondary space offering a generous menu of fillings and libations. The screening rooms themselves are modest, although this visit finally allowed me to visit their largest screen, which I had somehow kept missing in my between 5 and 10 previous visits to the theatre. It’s understandable that the newest releases go right to that screen, as it is exceptionally wide, and so that’s where this film was.

It takes awhile for Linklater’s new film to settle into the filmmaker’s familiar and perceptive groove about humanity and relationships, as seen in his other films such as Boyhood and the Before… series, but it eventually does. The story follows a group of jock-ish guys at a Texas university just before their classes start in the fall of 1980. We are introduced to the central character, Jake, played by Blake Jenner, just as he arrives at their would-be fraternity house shared by all the baseball team members. We follow their escapades as the clock ticks down to the start of classes, going from discos to rodeos to campus parties and various games in between.

The film really succeeds at delivering and conjuring the experience of early (or any stage) college life, from the run-down house “donated by the town to the university” to the question of what someone wants to get out of their experience, and if they’re doing it on their own, in a relationship, or developing a posse of friends and neighbors. Several scenes are aided by a pulsating period-perfect soundtrack, most notably in several sequences at an area discotheque.

I think I would go see the film again because of this very visceral and lived-in quality that the film offers – although college is now behind me personally, the film still offers something to aspire to and appreciate.

FullSizeRenderNext on my list was a trip over to the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights. This complex is a remnant of a (now badly dated IMO) 1990’s trend to build theatres as big as they could be. On the plus side, the extensive array of screens allowed for my film of choice, Midnight Special, to be right there; it’s not showing in a huge variety of area locations at the moment. Needless to say, going back to the corporate filmgoing structure felt very different from the Maple Theater the previous evening.

This film offered a strong throwback to late 1970’s styles of filmmaking, best seen through Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and other similar stories by other directors. The director Jeff Nichols seems to be a rising talent, and while this was his first film that I have seen, I heard good things about previous works such as Mud and Take Shelter.

In this story, the audience dives right in to an “on-the-run” style plot, following drivers Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) as they ferry Roy’s son Alton off to an unknown destination and away from a cult-like environment called “The Ranch.” To say more would be to give away the plot as it unravels – so I’ll just say that I really enjoyed the nostalgic throwback aspects of this film, and crucially how the story itself left lots to the imagination, the key role of artistry and interpretation.

Marin County (still) relies on Golden Gate Transit

Coming to the end of a visit back to my “California homeland” of Marin County, my Yelp page has turned into a blog for this trip. I looked again at a Yelp review I wrote in 2011 of the local transit provider. It was quite wordy!

I’m coming to the end of 2 1/2 years of relying on GGT for a regular Marin to SF commute and returning home back over the bridge.

If you commute on a typical 9-5, Monday-Friday, schedule, GGT has your number. Very efficient and frequent service, especially on routes 4, 24, and 54, from various North Bay locations. As noted with the 4, they seem to have a soft spot for Mill Valley commuters, and I’m not exactly sure why that is. In the afternoons, I’ve often seen back to back 4s where one is very crowded and the next one not at all. Lack of information as to the next bus at SF stops can be irritating, although I have heard that they are working to update this in the near future. Last fall, they introduced a new fleet of ultra-modern larger buses that seem to be in service mostly on the Sonoma County routes.

They also offer service to the East Bay on routes 40 (express) and 42 (local). I have taken those buses a few times and find them to be mostly efficient. It’s nice to not have to pay the Richmond Bridge toll. A discount when going on to BART would be appreciated.

On the other hand, late night and weekend buses are another story. The 101 semi-express bus (which was surprisingly only introduced in 2009) stops running after 8pm, leaving the only options as the 70 to Novato or 80 to Santa Rosa, which alternate on the half hour up to 10pm and ONLY run once per hour following that time until 1am. Also after 10pm, the buses will make Every. Single. Stop. along Route 101, including an awkwardly long initial jaunt through Sausalito and awkward stop-over in Marin City, as they proceed north. (The buses do seem to have done away recently with the long layovers in Marin City, although the northbound 22 – a local route – still halts for no apparent reason in San Anselmo.) As you might imagine, this long journey home can be excruciating when you either just want to get home or don’t have anything to read or write on the bus. Those same “basic” routes (so named by GGT) are often populated by a considerably more diverse cast of characters than the typically business suited commute bus rider.

It’s no secret that Clipper (formerly TransLink) cards will give you a discounted fare on GGT, but I am surprised how many people seem to still not know that. GGT seems to be aware of where their income comes from, as they claim that Clipper can not be used for the popular AT&T Park ferry, when it most certainly could if you tag in and out at Larkspur.

On the ferry, the service is also reliable and comfortable. The early morning departures and 5:00 hour returns from/to Larkspur are filled with strong representation from the financial district. It’s always amusing to notice how the ferry becomes a tourist line between 10am and 3pm or so, and then thins out drastically for the last few runs back to Marin after 7pm. But why does it not run later than 9:30pm??? (More on that later…) Meanwhile, weekend ferries never run on time and seem to be populated with a large number of passengers who have either never been on the boat(s) before, treat it as a party boat complete with beers or other beverages, or are only there every few months.

As you can tell, GGT is well organized and mostly supportive of its riders and clientele. They even have “advisory committees” for bus and ferry passengers to participate in.

But as a frequent and loyal rider – admittedly with no other public transportation option – I have a few persistent questions:

1) Why continue with the constant raising of your fares? I moved to Marin in early 2009; San Rafael – San Francisco was $7.28 roundtrip on TransLink cards. Now it is $8.40. Not everyone can afford the constant rising in costs, and I don’t believe the haughty statement that it “keeps pace with inflation” – having some stability or consistency with these costs would be welcomed.

2) Don’t assume that everyone who is on GGT goes to SF for business. It’s clear that the schedulers may think that, based on the ratio of commute to general bus service.

3) Give us more options to get home to Marin at night. As stated above, the 70 or 80 can be excruciatingly long or an unappealing prospect. What about one or two buses around 11pm that go direct to San Rafael? Or Santa Rosa? Marin residents deserve more options. Not everyone here has a car or the luxury of being able to drive across the bridge as they please. I read somewhere that there was once a late night Friday and Saturday ferry to Larkspur. Why not bring that back?

4) You’ve bought two brand new ferries to add to the fleet within the past two years. Why not use them on the weekends and permanently retire the older Spaulding vessels?

5) Be more transparent about yourself, GGT.

6) WHY DO YOU NOT OFFER A MONTHLY PASS??? YOU SHOULD.

I’ve enjoyed my time with you, GGT. I know you can be better. I look forward to seeing you mature.

And if you read this far, here is a throwback video to one of my many Golden Gate Bus rides across the bridge…

Sometimes I miss that British way of saying things

Just received a form email from British Airways, and their distinct phrasing caught my eye. Wouldn’t it be nice if USA organizations sent emails as straightforward (yet stylish) as this.

Dear JP,

You have previously confirmed you would like to receive information about the latest offers, products and services from British Airways.

We are currently carrying out some housekeeping on our database and we’d like to ensure you are still happy to receive this information.

If you wish to continue receiving communications from British Airways, you need do nothing further. If you no longer wish to hear from us, you can unsubscribe here

Yours sincerely,
Customer Services

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

Getting back to Blogging, and Detroit Culture Vulture-ing

My first few days back in Southeast Michigan have brought a lot of driving, reunions, food, logistics, and just one film. Time will tell if I’m able to get this blog back up to regular speed. I think it is doable.

The one film, Amy, is clearly one of the most powerful entertainment (as opposed to human rights or other subject) documentaries I’ve ever seen. Using a combination of home movies, existing concert and interview footage, and present day voice-only interviews with the singer’s family and friends, the film charts the rise and fall of singer Amy Winehouse, who achieved her widest fame for her “Back to Black” album around 2007, before falling into a cycle of drug and alcohol abuse that eventually led to her premature death in 2011.

The success of the film, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Asif Kapadia, lies in its ability to refocus the narrative about Winehouse from a one-hit punchline into a full complex person. The viewer walks away with a clear and devastating understanding of how the acquisition of fame changed her life and what those around her could and could not enforce to make sure she was still herself.

Visits with Secret Agent Friends

Paying homage to The Avengers (at one of the series' primary filming locations) while back in London.

Paying homage to The Avengers (at one of the series’ primary filming locations) while back in London.

My recent visit back to England gave me some nostalgia over my original introductions to British culture, which came in the visual entertainment format of The Avengers television show and the James Bond film series. So I decided to re-visit some of their output during some downtime back here in the USA.

First up was the Avengers fourth season episode entitled A Surfeit of H20. This story comes right in the middle of the series’ best season, and it made me quite unsettled when I watched it in my younger years. It seems to take a more unique spin on the standard Avengers formula than the episodes surrounding it, with two particularly eccentric guest allies complimented by two particularly devious guest villains. As always, the story is anchored the inimitable Patrick Macnee as the suave John Steed and Diana Rigg as his stylish partner Emma Peel. As an aside, the episode’s plot gets summed up rather well via Tumblr.

In the modern era it is intriguing for me to look back (or rather look again) at many of the episodes which were frequent childhood/younger years viewing material for me. This had its ebbs and flows, coming first with the series showing regularly on the A&E network around 1990, and then a few years later on the Encore Networks “Mystery” channel from around 1995 to 97. The point is that I got to know the material very well.

But, of course, with the now-older personal perspective, the material seems … different. wittier. more classic as time goes on. Those feelings felt particularly evident in the case of this episode, which, as I mentioned, spooked me when I was younger with its atmospheric black and white sequences, but now more amused me. At the same time it stands as a hallmark of the series’ black and white filmed era, with a tight attention to detail, location filming, and carefully chosen guest stars.

Avengers DVD setNext up was a look at one of the color episodes of the Emma Peel era, Something Nasty in the Nursery. This is another one that I remember particularly enjoying when I was younger, but somewhat neglecting in the years since.

The story takes a more pedestrian slant than most of the earlier tales in the series, but it’s indicative of the general campier and goofier direction of the series at this point in the production history. Steed and Mrs. Peel are tasked with discovering why top secret “hush hush” secrets are (again) leaking from higher-up government operatives. Turns our that the men in question had (conveniently) all been disciples of one Nanny Roberts, who later oversaw development of “GONN”, the Guild of Noble Nannies, a seemingly well-mannered finishing school for ladies in training. But it turns out that the current leaders of GONN, a Mr. Goat and Miss Lester, have other plans.

This episode lacks the memorable style and depth of some other installments, and has a number of continuity errors (or simply bad edits) that detract from its appeal. A side plot involving an ultra upper class toy shop is more intriguing than the primary plot. But the story continues to show the series’ careful, deliberate and tasteful attention to style – especially in the color era – with vibrant hues bouncing off the screen and distinctive characterizations that live up to what writer Rodney Marshall calls the “subversive champagne” of the series, where dramatic layers are presented subtly with a slightly humorous edge.

Finally, my re-viewing extended to a pair of James Bond films made thirty years apart – Casino Royale and The Spy Who Loved Me. But I will save those thoughts for another post.

London Theatre Doubleheader

What a treat it is to be back in a place where I can choose my theatregoing based on the venue’s reputation – and my previous experiences seeing shows there – rather than the title itself.

That’s just what I did for two plays yesterday at the Royal Court and Almeida theatres at opposite ends of London. I joined the legions of tube and on foot commuters in the interim period with an extended stop at Leicester Square, which just happened to be on full showman mode with the UK premiere of Cinderella.

IMG_1002But back to the plays. First up was How To Hold Your Breath, running at the Royal Court. In some ways it was difficult to follow exactly what was going on in this story, but as the tale went on, it became clear that was part of the point. We’re introduced to Dana (Maxine Peake), a woman who appears to be in her 30’s or 40’s and is struggling to make ends meet. In the beginning of the story, she may or may not have sold herself for romance with Jarron (Michael Shaeffer), but (since this is a play!) they have an argument that sets the plot in motion and leads to Dana thinking that Jarron also holds supernatural powers which haunt her as the story goes on.

Dana brings her sister and roommate Jasmine (Christine Bottomley) into the action, and is trailed by a mysterious librarian (Peter Forbes) as her journey goes on. The supernatural thread expands with the story, leading to a series of arresting and memorable physical images near the climax when Dana is isolated against an army of people also suffering from her plight.

Because the plot meandered from point to point, it was difficult to tell when the conclusion was being set up and led to the story feeling anticlimactic for me – it would have surely been more effective with a dramatic denouement in the image described above, for instance. However, the design team offered a crackerjack sense of compactness, with backdrops rising on top of each other in the modestly sized Royal Court stage, and effective hints of sound design sprinkled throughout the narrative.

When the script by Zinnie Harris played with its lines and a sense of repetition, also near the end, that also created a feeling of taut anxiety and uncertainty. Although in a broader sense the play remained successful simply from showing two strong female leads and the sense of a realistic world nestled within current events.

(If I knew more about current political affairs in Europe I might have appreciated the play more, but I certainly felt like it could still be appreciated on its own merits.)

_________

In the evening I ventured back up to the Almeida Theatre in north-central London’s Islington district. Their current production, Game, drew me in with its promise of a unique viewing experience, and convenient “late show” 9:30pm start – the performances are actually twice per night because it’s a short length play. The show has drawn strong reviews from all major local sources.

The show takes a provocative premise and really runs with it. We’re introduced to a young couple moving into an affordable house and getting to know their new living quarters. But it immediately becomes apparent that their presence in the house is part of a sadistic plot for members of the public to improve their shooting skills. In a sharply constructed 60 minute viewing experience, we’re given a sense of what the couple must endure to live in that environment and how their efforts to live a “normal” life are severely compromised. Although the voyeuristic shooters remain somewhat thinly drawn, they get a moral conscience with one character who rises in importance during the story.

I’m sure I will remember the show most for the novelty of its staging, in which the Almeida’s modestly sized auditorium was reworked into a series of arcade style viewing experiences, with the audience (divided into three or four separate sections) seated on backless benches looking in at the central set. Viewing was also augmented by medium sized televisions above the set, and all of the scenes not involving the couple took place in areas that are part of the audience seating area, with the images being transmitted to those in other sections. Finally, the audio of the experience was through headphones rather than live listening, and the actors had to expertly coordinate between their lines onstage and off, and sometimes overlapping.

It’s clear that the writer, Mike Bartlett, intended for his piece to be cultural commentary in our ever – expanding age of reality shows and celebrity obsession. I would say that he and the design team, led by director Sacha Wares, succeed in balancing a sense of satire and one of nervous drama.

While it’s possible this show experience would be different if it was a longer or less radically conceived piece, I think it was right in tune with the challenges of today and how things could turn if we collectively don’t take more humane charge of our future lives.

Sometimes the time is right for a trashy film, and that time is usually January

Last night, a planned excursion to see Brighton Beach Memoirs for the first time ever instead became a trip downtown to the RenCen4 cinema to catch new release The Boy Next Door. Because it was that kind of Friday night, where I had a late realization of needing to blow off steam and do something more mindless instead of being verbally and intellectually stimulated.

As I walked into the Renaissance Center, I suddenly realized that I was also paying homage to Boy Next Door star Jennifer Lopez’s best film role (IMO), Out of Sight, which I discussed in a blog entry a year or so ago and features a key sequence (visible on YouTube and slightly NSFW) set right at the top of the RenCen itself. As I said in that prior entry, I felt that Lopez showed more potential in that film than in any of her pre-music film roles and would be interested to see a parallel universe representation of a world where she only focused on film acting.

But this is 2015, and Lopez is, of course, a multi-hyphenate entertainer and now “celebrating 20 years in the business” (more than that, really) according to at least one promotional article I saw about this movie. I do wonder what today’s teenagers must think of her, and if they even consider that she’s had a movie career. In contrast, I first saw her on film when I was 11 in one of my first R-rated movie in-the-theatre viewings.

Lopez also served as a producer on The Boy Next Door, and spoke in the press of feeling resonance with the script. But I wondered how much she saw in it actually made it into the finished film.

The story immediately zeroes in on Lopez portraying Claire, a separated mother of one teenage son, Kevin, and a literature teacher at her son’s high school. Claire is navigating the feelings of being in her 40’s and wondering what comes next. Her husband, played by John Corbett, comes around occasionally to see their son, but the mood is uneasy (and hastily explained!) between the spouses after a recent cheating scandal by the husband. It’s the perfect situation for nice new neighbor Noah (Ryan Guzman) to make an entrance and assume the role of kindly neighbor, mentor to Kevin, and initial lust object for Claire. The film’s trailer (and nearly all of its marketing) is highly transparent about where things go from there, and so I’ll leave my synopsis at that, except to add that stage star Kristin Chenoweth makes a rare screen appearance in a supporting role as Lopez’s BFF and senior administrator at their high school.

Lopez brings a mostly bland presence to the central role, although she certainly still looks good, and seems to be having fun with a few moments in the story. The plot detail of her being a classics teacher allows the script to inject a few bits of thoughtful and winking intelligence, particularly around The Illiad. Chenoweth adds some sweet and tart character-filled spice to her scenes before getting pulled into a predictable closing arc. Guzman possesses the swagger of his character from the first scene onward, but adds little acting nuance. Veteran Corbett isn’t allowed to make much of an impression.

It seems clear that the film has a future as a camp classic, and that’s exactly the lens that I chose to view it through. There wasn’t really any other option, since plot twists fly in and out like the wind, characters disappear and reappear at random, and there were several examples of very abrupt jump-cutting from one scene to the next. One case in point: the film decides that it wants to have the three men in Claire’s life all hang out together. But they just get one short scene to do that. Director Rob Cohen, a veteran in the Hollywood industry, shows that he hasn’t lost his action movie skills in several random but well-staged car chase sequences. I particularly enjoyed the initial setup for the film’s finale, in which one character thinks they are tailing the other, but that is not the case, and Cohen reveals the truth with a taut panning shot worthy of a Hitchcock movie or more nuanced mystery. The film shows its modest budget at times in the staging of scenes with few extras and not using a huge variety of locations.

If not for Cohen’s steady grip on the lens, this film would likely be even more forgettable. It’s good to see Lopez back on the big screen and tackling an age-appropriate type of role. I can’t view the film strongly due to its cluttered narrative and cheesy plot. But ultimately it fits right in to that DVD discount bin of films that are kind of fun (if you don’t want to admit it and/or think too hard) and perfect for a particular moment when you want to sit back, relax and enjoy a new project from a familiar star.

MY RATING: **

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.