Les 7 doigts de la main

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Flipping Out

Every year Ann Arbor hosts a Summer Festival (http://a2sf.org/desktop/).  It is one of the greatest things (and there are many great things) about Ann Arbor.  For 3 weeks starting in mid-June the whole town turns out for nightly entertainment.  There are big-name draws (like Ira Glass and Bernadette Peters), free music, and, when it gets dark, movies.  There are also food booths, one of which is our nascent BBQ venture.  Suffice it to say I don’t go out with my husband much during this time.  So I take my 12 year old son to various events.  The Summer Festival sweetens the pot for family-friendly performances and only charges $10 for a child’s ticket.  So this encourages us to check out acts we wouldn’t otherwise see.

One such act is the Montreal-based “Les 7 doigts de la main.”  This group is a small, graceful circus.  The 7 members of this hardy band leap, twirl, flip and dance.  Here is a YouTube promo for their “Sequence 8” show we saw:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CumFUHSUSGQ.

It occurs to me as I write this that I am really blogging more about the Summer Festival than this particular group.  I have not seen many contemporary circus acts in general and as such am not quite sure how this troupe compares to other circus performers.  But we enjoyed ourselves.  The acrobatics were amazing.  So was the choreography, and the music.  When the group was not performing, twirling or dancing, however, it was just ok.  There was some banter on the part of the host that fell a little flat, and an act in which two performers stripped down to their underwear clashed with the spirit and tone of the other pieces.  But some of the performers, Alex in particular, were tremendous.  Many of the pieces are truly marvelous to view, and I recommend seeing this troupe if they visit a nearby venue.

Rating:  *** (out of ****)

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Emily Alone

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Home Alone

Emily Alone by Stewart O’Nan is a quiet book about an old woman, Emily, who lives in Pittsburgh alone.  Her husband died years ago and her children and grandchildren live far away.  Emily Alone painstakingly documents what old people face living independently – what Emily does, what she thinks, where she goes, who she goes with, and how she gets there.   It is a slow burn of a book, heartbreaking yet affirming.

There isn’t much of a plot, but that makes sense, as retired people don’t have a heck of a lot of activity.  When I started the book I assumed that much of the book would consist of flashbacks to fill in Emily’s life, so we would get to know about her life, how she met her husband, her marriage, and her children.  The author avoids this, and I think he is right to do so.  We can’t escape from Emily’s current existence – how she perseverates about a scratch on her car, her fear of falling when she walks her dog, how she plans for her grandchildrens’ visits, how she enjoys chatting with her maid when she cleans the house.  Although a quiet book, it is absolutely worth reading.

Rating: *** (out of ****)

Before Midnight

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Scenes from a Marriage

So now I get to blog about a second movie by one of my favorite directors, Richard Linklater (here’s the first (https://amorganresearch.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/bernie/).  For those unfamiliar with this talky trilogy, in Before Sunrise Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet on a train in Europe and spend the day together.  In Before Sunset they reunite years later and Jesse debates whether to leave his wife and child for Celine.  Before Midnight again fasts forwards some years, and now Jesse and Celine are together living in Europe, have children, and are on vacation in Greece.  In my opinion, Before Midnight is easily the best film of the series.  Here’s why.

As the great film columnist A.O. Scott notes in the New York Times, (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/movies/the-hard-work-in-before-midnight-amour-and-other-films-and-shows.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)  there is a reason why most romantic films end when the marriage begins.  After boy gets girls, what’s to watch?  Anyone who has been married for a long time knows that marriage isn’t glamorous.  Often, it is petty and mundane.  Before Midnight exposes the long slog.

As with Before Sunset, Hawke, Delpy and Linklater wrote the screenplay.  They were nominated for an Academy Award for Before Sunset and I hope they are nominated again since the writing is fantastic.  The Greek setting is idyllic.  Both Delpy and Hawke are tremendous  The directing style is patient.  Most of the movie consists of long takes of Jesse and Celine talking.  Other movies are chock full of fast takes, numerous characters, and lots of action.  Before Sunset respects its characters and its audience.

Jesse and Celine each have long-standing issues.  He feels guilty that he seldom sees his son from his first marriage and she feel conflicted about her career and resentful about having to do most of the childrearing.  As the layers of their marriage are peeled back, we go from friendly flirtation to full-on war.  Although this is not an enjoyable film to watch, it is a worthwhile film, and it made me think about marriage in general, and my marriage in particular.  Rare is the film that induces this kind of introspection.  Bravo to Linklater, Delpy and Hawke.

Rating:  **** (out of ****)

Mr. Mom

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The Importance of Good Casting

I’m sorry to say I missed Mr. Mom when it came out.  This despite the fact that 1) 80s comedies are my thing and 2) 80s comedies WRITTEN AND/OR DIRECTED BY JOHN HUGHES are particularly my thing.  (BTW, one of the great things about this blog is I learn a bit about film luminaries.  John Hughes is certainly one and he is from… Lansing!  No wonder all of his movies always had a Midwestern bent.)  In any event, despite its incredibly dated comedic premise, Mr. Mom holds up.

The incredibly dated comedic premise:  Dad stays home with kids, Mom goes to work.  Hilarious!  But it actually is.  Part of the reason the film still works is the casting.  Both Michael Keaton, as the Dad who loses his job in an auto downsizing, and Terri Garr, as the Mom who goes back to work, are great.  The jokes may be stereotypical but they are funny (Dad doesn’t know how to do laundry, gets hooked on soap operas, plays Bridge with the girls, while Mom goes to work in power suits with floppy bow ties).  Jeffrey Tambor has a bit part as an oily car guy, the kids are appealing, and … get this … the movie was actually filmed in Detroit!  (this film was made before favorable tax credits reduced the practice of shooting on location).   For a good time check out Mr. Mom.

Since I am now officially out of feedback about Mr. Mom, I wish to briefly ruminate on the topic of why some comedies remain funny over time while other movies that were hilarious when they came out seem impossibly dated 10 years later.  I’ve long thought that comedies that are set in a prior time/genre (Animal House, Blazing Saddles, Some Like It Hot) hold up.  But Mr. Mom is unabashedly dated.  There are lots and lots of families nowadays in which the Mom works and the Dad stays home.  This has ceased to be a sufficiently amusing premise to warrant an entire film.  So why is it still funny to watch a vacuum manhandle Michael Keaton?  I don’t know.  Such is the alchemy of the movies.

Rating:  *** (out of ****)

Frances Ha

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If A Reviewer Falls Asleep During a Movie…

So here’s the question given that I’m new to this blogging gig:  if I fall asleep during a movie, can I still write a review?  First, some backstory.  I went to Frances Ha when my 12 year old son was at an appointment, then the Y, and then jazz band – all in downtown Ann Arbor.  He could WALK between activities ON HIS OWN.  No driving was needed.  It is difficult to adequately explain how unusual this is.  A perfect 2 1/2 hour window miraculously appeared.

I saw the movie at the historic Michigan Theater (http://www.michtheater.org/), and enjoyed live organ music, popcorn with REAL BUTTER, and – get this – a beer!  Never have I had a beer during a movie – and inside the movie theater, no less.  The Michigan Theater recently acquired some strange license permitting this (you pay a one-time fee of $5 for a “Simple Access” Membership).

I enjoyed the beer, popcorn, and live organ music far more than the movie, which I suppose I should now discuss.  Frances Ha was directed by Noah Baumbach and written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, who stars.  Although I like some of Noah Baumbach’s work, particularly The Squid and the Whale, he specializes in films about privileged, nebbishy characters (Greenberg being the most noted example.)  In Frances Ha Gerwig plays Frances, a 27 year old college graduate who is foundering.  The movie follows Frances for about a year as she flails (she is an aspiring dancer) and fails.

I’m not sure what made the movie so sleep-inducing.  I always have a harder time describing why films don’t work then why they do. Frances is annoying.  Her friends, who like Frances are privileged 20-something New Yorkers, are annoying as well.  The plot, like Frances herself, meanders.   Given that I was asleep for a good part of the movie I obviously can’t speak to what I missed.

In the end, the movie didn’t matter.  Sitting in the gilded glory of the Michigan Theater with old-school organ music, popcorn, and beer, was bliss.  Sometimes, it’s all about the wait.

Rating: ** (out of ****)

The Interestings

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The Road Not Taken

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is a buzzy book.  Having read lots of great reviews and several of Wolitzer’s prior books, I reserved my copy at the library and waited a month or two.  My ship book came in last week.

It was worth the wait.  The Interestings is the best book I have read in 2013 thus far.  The theme of the book is The Road Not Taken.  The book starts at an Arts Camp in the Berkshires and follows a handful of smart, sophisticated characters from adolescence through midlife.  What happens when we think we are, excuse the expression, Hot Shit when we are young, and we fail to succeed? This happens to everybody to some degree;  part of the heartbreak of growing up is the realization that the sky is not the limit, that talent is rare, that we will not become a professional baseball players or ballerinas.  What happens when we commit to a relationship, but always wonder what would have happened had we chosen someone else?  The Interestings successfully explores these questions.

Part of the reason I liked the book so much is that it is a theme that I – a 48 year old woman who just had a mini-midlife crisis via a disastrous short-lived job change – can relate to.  But it is more than that.  The Interestings succeeds on many levels.  The characters are wonderful.  The plot is strong.  The book is engagingly written.  Parts of it are laugh-out-loud funny.  And the theme, as I mentioned, is great, interesting (as befits the title!), thought-provoking, and beautifully realized.

Rating: **** (out of ****)

The Good House

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Drunk Dialing and Driving

I read The Good House in a day.  Here is the first sentence:  “I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions.”   Loved the lead!  Liked the book.

The novel recounts the travails of Hildy Good, a successful realtor in an affluent North Shore Boston suburb.  Hildy is a townie, and the novel deftly explores what it’s like to live in a town overrun by wealthy newcomers seeking “authenticity.”  Having grown up in this kind of town, I can relate.

But the main theme of the book is alcoholism.  Hildy is recently out of rehab, which she grudgingly went to after an intervention from her family.  Have I mentioned that this book is funny?  A funny book about alcoholism which poignantly relates the collateral damage of the disease is no easy feat.

The book is worth reading because of the character of Hildy.  The plot, which has to do with an implausible friendship between Hildy and a young Mom new to the town, is OK.  But it doesn’t matter.  Hildy is a wonderful character, and well worth getting to know.

Rating:  *** (out of ****)

2012 Tonys

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Go, Neil, Go

The Tonys are an oddity;  an awards show ostensibly honoring Broadway which stars TV and film stars.  There is a reason for this.  Most Broadway stars (Kelli O’Hara, Sutton Foster, etc.) are well known within the world of theater, but hardly household names outside of it.  And the Tonys are All About Eve Ratings.   The theater powers that be understand people are more likely to watch an awards show featuring marquis presenters.  The more people watch the Tonys, the more likely it is that at least some of those people may actually attend a Broadway performance at a later point.  Given that Broadway ticket prices are easily over $100 per show and often hit $250, (not including the exorbitant costs of traveling to and staying in NYC) marketing Broadway is quite a challenge.

In fairness, most of the presenters were stars who have done theater (or starred in a show about theater, or a cappella music – hello Anna Kendrick!)  Chief among them is host Neil Patrick Harris, who has had a charmed career.  One of the few child actors to successfully transition to adult star (he was Doogie Howser!), he is a major TV star, with legit theater creds.  This was his 4th hosting gig for the Tonys, and he just agreed to host the Emmys this Fall.   This year the Tonys had the best ratings they’ve had in 4 years, a 20% spike from 2012.

Given that the show features excepts from the nominated musicals, the evening’s caliber depends on their quality.  This year the quality was good (particularly Matilda, Kinky Boots and A Christmas Story).  The producers had the good sense to spotlight Pippin, which I have raved about elsewhere.  Neil did a great job hosting, and killed it with the opening number.  Cyndi Lauper stole the show (twice!) with her acceptance speech for Kinky Boots and her performance of True Colors.   There was a skit mid-show about Smash-like cancelled NBC shows featuring former Broadway performers.  The concept of this skit was funnier than the execution, but it was good the connection between Hollywood and Broadway was acknowledged.

The rest was of the evening was … fine.  The producers were reluctant to cue the music to cut the speeches and the evening dragged as a result.  But on balance the Tonys were well done – watchable, entertaining and a good snapshot of Broadway’s finest.

Stranger Than Fiction

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On My Top Ten List

My 15 year old son had never seen Stranger Than Fiction.  So last night we watched it.   Over the years I have seen this movie many times.  It is one of my all time favorites.  Here’s why.

Amazing Acting.  All the performances are first rate.  Will Ferrell plays a straight man (in fact, the ultimate straight man – an IRS tax collector) who unwittingly becomes the main character in a novel.  Other actors include Emma Thompson as the writer of the novel with a major case of writer’s block, Queen Latifah as her assistant, Maggie Gyllenhaal as a tax-averse baker, and Dustin Hoffman as an English professor/occasional lifeguard.  All are a joy to watch.  Truly.

Wonderful Writing.  The movie is all about art, life, and the intersection of the two.  The story is creative, unusual and thought-provoking.  Unlike most films, the ending is extremely strong.

Surreal Soundtrack.  The quirky soundtrack helps set the tone of this odd, wonderful film.

My son asked me whether this movie received any critical acknowledgement when it came out in 2006.  My understanding is that it was fairly under-the-radar but over the years has garnered support.  With this post, I am attempting to add to the buzz (hey I may be a little late but it’s my blog!)  See Stranger Than Fiction.

Rating:  **** (out of ****)

Mud

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Boy Heaven

When I was little, I loved adventure stories.  My favorite author was Jules Verne.  I still have fond memories of repeated readings of The Mysterious Island, a classic desert island yarn.  If you like adventure stories, Mud will appeal.

The story follows two teenaged boys, Ellis and Neckbone, both of whom live in riverside rural poverty and have dodgy family situations.  They discover a fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), living on an uninhabited island in the middle of the Mississippi.  Mud is on the lam, having committed a crime to protect the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).  Adventures ensue.

In my Bernie review, (https://amorganresearch.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/bernie/) I mentioned how glad I am to see Matthew McConaughey take on interesting roles which test his range.  His performance as Mud is outstanding.  Mud is charismatic, but crazy, with a rats nest of hair and terrible teeth.   Mud is likeable, yet deeply flawed, and as the narrative arc of the film unfolds the boys realize this.  The other actors are strong as well, particularly the boys.  In the tradition of many “girlfriend” roles (see the Bechdel test, http://bechdeltest.com/) Reese Witherspoon’s part is underwritten and as a result the scenes featuring Juniper are weak.

Also, Mud drags a bit.  As my friend Barbara said, we could have done with a few less scenes of the boys boating up and down the river.  Some of the story lines are unresolved, or edited in a confusing way that leaves the viewer a little, well muddled.   But these are small points.  It is always a pleasure to see a movie which defies easy categorization and is made free from the constraints of the big studios.  Mud is worth seeing for McConaughey alone. But also for an unusual and artfully constructed Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn reboot.

Rating:  *** (out of ****)