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A New Play plays the provocation card

This weekend’s entertainment/arts culture vulture journeys led me to take in two stories that both explored the art and challenges of what is known and unknown in any given situation, and how individuals work around those issues – or not – and maintain a sense of awareness in their possible confusion.

I’ll save the movie for a separate post; here is a focus on the play:

Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester, MI, is currently offering (just) the third professional production of Luce, a new play by JC Lee that premiered at NYC’s Lincoln Center last year. I learned that Lee had been a writer in residence for a year at my California hometown theatre, Marin Theatre Company.

The play is very much of the moment, with references to Facebook, mobile technology, teen obsession with texting, high school social dynamics and more. But the broad portrayal seen at Meadow Brook, while commendable, did not seem to fit with the ethos of emphasizing the smaller moments that the playwright was clearly going for.

Experienced and versatile local actress Serab Kamoo carries the show as Amy, Luce’s adoptive mother who wants nothing more than the best for her son. The rest of the cast gives strong effort to their roles, but I felt that only Kamoo truly convinced in her part. As Luce himself, Leroy S. Graham fares best with a monologue partway through the show, which is the only chance that the character has to truly speak for himself.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the show would have played differently on a smaller stage and with a more unified sense of direction. The script never spells our Luce’s specific intentions when his actions are called into question, but it never allows the character to get to the heart of the matter, either. Meadow Brook’s stage is well used in the design, with a clever conceit of a downstage area doubling as two locations thanks to some lighting maneuvering, but some of the intimacy of the drama is also lost in the wide space.

The play is performed without intermission and suffers from a sense of anticlimax. Several scenes close to the end could easily be the end, and when the last scene comes around, the resolution feels less satisfying than if the story had closed on a more ambiguous note. Similarly, since Luce’s true intentions are never made clear after his actions are called into question, a note of uncertainty might have driven the plot home in a deeper and more direct way.

All this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the play. I am always grateful when a theatre presents a new piece, and especially if it is something that stimulates a feeling of engagement and discussion.

The Great Outdoors Welcomes the Cinema Lens

DFTI returned to the filmgoing life this past weekend with a pair of films set in the outdoors, and both showing very different aspects of what the surroundings can offer us.

The first film, Force Majeure, seen at the luminous Detroit Film Theatre, took a sharp look at how a seemingly minor event can perhaps irreversibly alter an interpersonal dynamic. This type of storyline is often seen with significant dramatic heft, such as The Impossible from a few years back, but rarely in subtlety, and that made it all the more intriguing.

We’re introduced to a Swedish family of four as they settle in to their long-awaited holiday in the French Alps. Dad’s a workaholic, Mom is career-oriented but staying aware of the family, and the kids are tuned in to the electronic generation, but happy to be there. A veranda mountaintop lunch near the start of their trip initially seems scenic and pleasant, until a loud crack is heard and an avalanche starts heading directly at them. Only problem is, Dad freaks out and leaves the other three out in the chill. It’s not a spoiler to say that everything is fine, physically, after that, but everything is not cool, mentally, following that development. The story dabbles in gender politics as the man and woman initially demonstrate differing opinions and memories of the incident, and they struggle to determine how they can best move on as a family from the situation.

The director, Ruben Östlund, adds numerous subtle artful touches throughout the story, such as a recurring piece of classical music, artistic framing with the characters in one corner of the image, and a careful control of performances range, as in one scene an action or objective may be implied but the next may be quite differently stated. He’s aided by capable and committed performers, particularly Lisa Loven Kongsli in the central role of the mother. I also appreciated how the film built to a surprisingly ambiguous conclusion, with two last-act surprises testing the will of the family as they prepare to make their way back to their Real Lives.

My Rating – new for 2015! – ***1/2 stars

The next night (last Saturday the 10th) I returned to The Maple Theater, perhaps this area’s second – most classiest film venue after the Detroit Film Theatre. I’m sure that the Friday DFT visit put me in the mood to go there again, and where there were several options on where to see Wild, the film of the night, this choice added to the experience.

maple theatreWith a movie at the Maple, it isn’t so much about the screening rooms themselves, which are clearly 70’s-80’s style slightly bigger than shoebox auditoriums – and very reminiscent of my hometown movie theatre – it’s the initial experience of going to the venue, which was refreshingly evident that night as a jazz concert (pictured at right) took place in the coffee/wine bar section of the building. It may be seen by some as a snobby touch, but for me, something like that is very important to set the tone of the evening and make it into more of an experience, especially in this day and age with so many forms of media and personal entertainment devices competing with each other (and us, as audience members) for time and attention.

The movie itself, Wild, was a great choice to begin my Hollywood film year, where I began my 2015 with several days back in the Northwest, where the majority of the film takes place, and had been in California prior to that. The film is quite obviously meant as a return to dramatic form for actress Reese Witherspoon, who also produced the project and has noticeably struggled with audience expectations of her film performances since winning an Oscar for Walk the Line back in 2005. Having followed Witherspoon’s career slightly since her earlier films in the mid-90’s, it seemed to me that this movie was her attempt to channel several of those earlier roles as well, such as doing nudity on screen for the first time since Twilight (no, not that Twilight), adding vampy looks and excessive makeup as she did in Freeway, and showing a mix of cunning, sweetness and resourcefulness as she did in Cruel Intentions. Needless to say, Witherspoon has just been rewarded for her efforts with an unsurprising Oscar nomination for Best Actress… but I think it will be more interesting to observe where she goes from here with her regained dramatic momentum.

I was not familiar with the story of Cheryl Strayed and her 1995 trek up the Pacific Crest Trail prior to seeing this film. I’m sure that it is a case of the book being better than the movie, but the movie version, while ultimately unfocused, did have some redeeming qualities. Director Jean-Marc Vallée creates an intriguing dream-like atmosphere by focusing on Cheryl (Witherspoon) and her immediate experiences hiking the trail, but often cutting away to memories from her past, many of which involve her late mother (Laura Dern) as a way of filling in her backstory. The frequent cutting away reached a point of being distracting for me as the story went on, and I would have preferred that it stop after a certain point. When it did get less frequent, about two-thirds of the way through the story, I found that added much more dramatic intensity to the immediate story. The film does an excellent job of evoking period detail from 1995, including spontaneous celebrations of Jerry Garcia’s life, now-anachronistic reliance on payphones, and a reminder of a very annoying pop song that was popular towards the end of that summer that I can’t find the title of.

Witherspoon expectedly performs well in the demanding lead role, but at times seems to be trying too hard to show and use range, perhaps going back to the idea that this was a pet project for her. Laura Dern creates a warm presence as the mother, but is not given much time to develop the part due to the constant back and forth of the story. Still, it was refreshing to see Dern appear in the film, as she often seems like an actress who doesn’t fit the stereotype of the Hollywood character actress and thus may not be seen onscreen as much as she could or should. Indie darling Gaby Hoffmann appears in a few scenes as a friend of Cheryl’s, and I would have liked to have seen more of her. The nature of the story doesn’t allow for a much more substantial supporting cast beyond that.

My Rating – **1/2

Her, Him or Them? (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby)

The film criticism will likely continue to keep a slower pace over the next few months, but I’ll still be doing it.

The Birmingham 8, formerly my distant arthouse/indie film destination, is now a local destination of choice. And so I made another visit there yesterday to catch The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, the first installment of a trilogy of films telling the same story.

Having known about the “bigger picture” of the other films, I question the necessity of this one, subtitled Them, after seeing it. The story gets a detailed outline in this two hour version, but there are multiple instances where it feels like something is missing, or it’s an awkward switch from one perspective to another. I can’t completely tell if the decision to truncate the longer versions was solely a commercial decision, though I’m glad to know that the full version will still be coming to theaters in October, and hope that it will appear locally – perhaps again at the Birmingham 8.

eleanor rigbyJessica Chastain and James McAvoy give passionate performances as the central couple, subtly shading their characterizations as the story jumps around in time, showing both their initial attraction and later distancing after an (unseen) traumatic event. As the title character, Chastain particularly impresses with her initial free-spiritedness changing to a trauma-induced restraint and (seeming) coldness, until she (as the character) begins to let the changes settle in and re-focus her life. McAvoy does the opposite challenge, both in reacting to Chastain’s changes and conveying his own redirected journey.

The central pair is supported by a handful of supporting characters, and the film feels like it could be an intimate stage play at times with that narrow yet compelling focus. And I suspect that the full version (subtitled Him and Her) may feel like a reverse-persepctive novel brought to film.

Viola Davis, who previously appeared onscreen with Chastain in The Help, stands out in the supporting cast. (Why is Davis not top lining a film???) She delivers several initial tart lines with relish, and easily conveys a seasoned (yet weary) point of view as a college professor interacting with Eleanor and trying to get her back on her feet. Isabelle Huppert appears in a rare English – speaking role as Eleanor’s French mother, who seemed to always have a glass of wine in her hand. Oddly, the full view of the character is only expressed in scenes when she is not with Eleanor, but I suspect that is a writing trick to show what family members do and don’t say to their other relatives. Similarly, William Hurt conveys restraint as Eleanor’s father, but isn’t given a chance to show his full feelings until the very end of the film.

Additional supporting roles are filled by Jess Weixler, Ciaran Hinds, Nina Arlanda and Bill Hader. I’m sure that the full film gives more shadings to each of those roles, although Weixler and Hader do get a few notable scenes in the abbreviated take, and Hader also shows a surprising ease with the drama, given his status as a better – known comedy actor.

It is unfortunate that economics seemingly dictated the release of this abbreviated version of the story, but I’m relieved to know that the full film will still appear, where it received an apparently appreciative festival response and would certainly stand out as a novel take on how to tell a cinematic story.

End of Summer Arts Binge

So I want to keep up the blog chronicling, but I’m not feeling motivated to go into detail about my arts exploits this past weekend. So I guess the answer is to do a paragraph and see what happens.

Friday evening September 12 brought my first visit to the Village Players of Birmingham back up in my now-neighbor Oakland County. Their current production, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, is an adaptation of the same-titled film by Pedro Almodovar. I’d heard about this musical when it appeared on Broadway in late 2010, but it was not a huge success there, and doesn’t seem to have picked up steam on the regional circuits, so props to Birmingham for choosing to showcase it as their season opener. I have also followed some of Almodovar’s work (and briefly met him personally in 2007), but have never seen this film.

This was a gutsy production paying direct homage to Almodovar’s love of bold colors, Spanish women and passionate characters. Costume design highlighted the aforementioned colors, with lots of reds and big 80s hair. Set design was an interesting hybrid of small and large scale, with the company’s modest proscenium stage decorated with pop-art style drawings on the walls and small suggestions of living areas in the forefront of the stage. As well, the orchestra was creatively nestled in above the play-space and behind a wall. The large ensemble cast seemed pleased to be giving voice to such enthusiastic material, with the actors in the central roles standing out.

But the script remained flimsy and tangential, with a meandering plot switching around to multiple characters, and little time devoted to creating a central protagonist. Often it seemed that when allegiances could build to one specific character, it was time to switch over to another one. Or, a different, and less likable character would take over the focus from someone that seemed more interesting.

Nonetheless, a fun show and great excuse to see a new to me company.

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Saturday night brought a trip over the border to see Howie Mandel perform at the (overrated) Caesars Colosseum. I could write a separate entry about the challenges of this particular performance venue… Roy summarizes them well. I was not pleased that it took nearly an hour to depart the complex, between a protracted awkward group shuffle out of the auditorium, going back through the casino complex, and then slowly snaking down the levels in the crowded free parking garage. I’ll keep my eye on the future offerings at Caesars, but might think twice before actually going in there again.

Happily, Mandel offered an upbeat and “extended” routine for the receptive audience. The native Canadian was clearly excited to be back in his home province. He didn’t offer too much personal background (a feature in a Michigan City newspaper about his previous night’s performance did) but that may have been due to his excitement over becoming a grandfather earlier that day which, naturally, was a big topic in the first half of his routine.

The “homecoming” theme stuck throughout the one hour or so long performance, where Mandel didn’t seem to shy away from being personal, yet funny, and treated the audience like his friends. Towards the end of his performance, he claimed that we were even getting an “extended version” because of being there in Ontario. And he gave a brief nod to his iconic Bobby character, which was my first introduction to his work.

windsor skyline

The Windsor skyline as seen from Detroit, with Caesars visible at the far left.

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Sunday brought another trip over the border, this time at the “northern passage” Port Huron/Sarnia crossing point, bound for the iconic Stratford Festival and a long-overdue (for me) first visit there. I was pleased that this trip came about through my new community at Wayne State University and is an annual excursion.

Initially I was not excited that our play of the day would be the overly familiar Midsummer Nights Dream. But this version dared to be modern with the material, incorporating such timely topics as gay marriage, deaf characters, multiple ethnicities and cross – gender/nontraditional casting freely into an exuberant take on the well – known tale. The production also offered the strongest take on the Theseus & Hippolyta scenes that I’ve ever seen, thanks to committed work from stellar actors.

The Stratford experience, clearly designed to be similar to its UK sibling/cousin, is also a winner, with the festival theatres located just beyond a wider than you’d expect downtown area, with most shops clearly, but cheerily, catering to the festival’s tourist trade, and taking care to ensure that the patron’s experience is a memorable one.

Whether or not to embrace the “Life of Crime”

I returned to Birmingham 8 again this evening to catch Life of Crime, in a deliberate choice to see the new Elmore Leonard adaptation right in the author’s own backyard. It’s a shame Leonard did not live to see this film through to its release, though he receives an “executive producer” credit, as the film was finished shortly before his death last year. The film is set right here in Oakland and Wayne counties in Michigan, but was filmed in Connecticut. I could tell the difference, but also noticed a few Michigan – local touches placed onscreen at random moments, such as a sign for Interstate 696.

The filmmakers ought to have licensed my friend Zach’s same-titled song for use at some point during the movie. Instead they rely on a series of tunes from the 70’s, when the film is set, and an appropriately vintage tinged music score by the Newton Brothers.

life of crime posterThe film serves as an origin story for three characters also seen in Rum Punch/Jackie Brown (another Leonard story), previously played by Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro and Bridget Fonda, and portrayed here by Mos Def, John Hawkes and Isla Fisher. This story doesn’t make an overt attempt to tie the characters together, or match the portrayal to the previous actor, but I found it fun to know how “they aged” and are seen later on “in their lives”, since Jackie Brown (which I saw again in the theatre earlier this year) takes place 20 years after these events. And I’m sure that if the viewer looked closer at this portrayal, there may indeed be some links to tie it to the later story.

As it is, the main story of this film follows Mickey, a suburban housewife somewhere in Oakland County who is at wits end with her older husband, played by Tim Robbins. Circumstances leave Mickey at home one day, where she is kidnapped (not a spoiler) by Def and Hawkes over to a nearby house and essentially held for ransom. Meanwhile, her husband has flown down to the Bahamas to meet up with “friend” Melanie (Fisher) and other dubious associates. The characters find themselves in an increasingly complicated web where actions are not what they seem and there are several switchbacks leading towards a winking finale.

I found the film to be redeemed by its third act. Prior to the story setting up its conclusion, things with Mickey and her captors pitted against her husband and associates seemed to be going in an increasingly predictable and slightly unpleasant line. However, Melanie introduces a series of complications — as she also does, later, in Jackie Brown — that take the story to an unpredictable and wacky edge. This last third is also where Aniston is given her best opportunity to shine, as the earlier part of the story finds her seeming dour and confused.

An unrecognizable Will Forte isn’t given much chance to show his comedy roots in a mostly serious supporting role as “a family friend” who has eyes for Aniston. Robbins, looking much older, carries effective presence in his scenes, but seems to drift in and out of the story. Another reviewer pointed out that the role directly contradicts Robbins’ well – known sociopolitical views, but that is what we do for our art… Getting back to the earlier point, I feel that the trio of Hawkes, Def and Fisher fare the best throughout the film, especially in their last few scenes when they can relax in the roles and be in on the joke.

On the whole the film only seems to settle in that last third. If the filmmakers had set up this tone earlier, and let the pieces fall into place in more of a coy manner, along the lines of Get Shorty, they would have done themselves a favor. I think the film is still worth seeing in a “wait for the video” type of way and with an awareness of the unevenness. And if Def, Hawkes and Fisher want to team up with Jackson, DeNiro and Fonda, they’d really have some fun.