Could-have-been, should-have-been, might-have-been moments in time: Constellations at Theatre Nova

Originally contributed to encoremichigan.com

[Images from Theatre Nova’s Facebook page]

Big ideas in little moments. That seems to be Theatre Nova’s stock-in-trade, making effective use of its unconventional venue to feature new works (Clutter, The Revolutionists) that explore existential philosophy as expressed in the comic, poignant, tragic spaces between the rain drops of daily living. It’s a smart and essential artistic niche the organization has carved for itself.

Theatre Nova’s latest offering – Nick Payne’s award-winning Constellations – is in brilliant keeping with this artistic through-line, a breezy and compelling two-hander that runs a brisk intermission-less 70 minutes.

Directed with the surety of an actor’s eye by Theatre Nova founder Carla Milarch, the play depicts in non-linear fashion the ever-was and never-was moments in the romance, dissolution, reconnection, and tragic end of a young mumblecore couple in contemporary England. Marianne (a wide-eyed, sparkling Meghan VanArsdalen) is a Cambridge academic specializing in quantum mechanics and astrophysics whose disarming lack-of-filter is as charming as it is blunt. Roland (a shaggy, inviting Forrest Hejkal) is a beekeeper whose awkwardness in life and love yields to a compelling and heartbreaking loyalty as the piece progresses.

I dare not spoil any of the play’s twists and turns – and there are a few – but suffice it to say that Constellations applies string theory, multiversal philosophy, and the random/structured elegance of bouncing atomic particles to the seeming mundanity of daily living. If you’ve ever wondered how crossing the street five minutes later or using a harsher tone of voice in one conversation might impact the trajectory of your fate, this is the play for you. Similar territory has certainly been covered in any number of comic books, Twilight Zone episodes, and fantasy films (Sliding Doors, The Butterfly Effect, etc.) but never, that I can recall, in the guise of a two-person play.

Structurally, the piece repeats short scenic episodes, with a minor tweak each time – a shift in dialogue, a change in tone, a switch in timing – to reveal how different eventualities may work out for the couple. The production helps mark the break between each episode with a quick flash of light and sometimes a shift in hue. (I’m color blind, so I might have missed any more subtle lighting indicators.) There are interstitial, nebulous, ominous spoken-word exchanges between the two characters as well (think Greek chorus by way Stephen Hawking … for lack of a better description) that hint at an inevitable dark turn in their lives.

The respective occupations of each character underpin the play’s philosophy and help explain what might otherwise be confusing to the casual viewer. Marianne offers a giddy take on the exciting prospect of living in a “multiverse” where each decision we make creates another “branched world,” parallel versions of ourselves living out vastly different lives just because we chose one breakfast cereal over another. Roland’s beekeeping becomes a conflicting yet complementary metaphor for the finite nature of life, the ordered but surreal nature of community, and how our impending mortality sweetens/sours our daily acts. There is a particularly riotous sequence, beautifully played by the two leads, wherein Roland uses some fairly grotesque imagery from the mating habits of bees to offer Meghan a cumbersome but altogether winning marriage proposal.

The production is aided and abetted by economical set, sound, and lighting design (by Hejkal, Diane Hill, and Daniel C. Walker respectively) that evokes a dreamlike inner/outer life through bioluminous hues and a repetition of hexagons that evoke bee hives, human DNA, covalent structures, and outer space itself.

Any quibbles with the production are quite minor and will likely resolve after the jitters of opening night. A few sound and music cues were a bit too hushed; some Midwestern cadences (rarely) slipped into the very British dialogue; and the two leads, dripping in chemistry, had an initial physical stiffness that could be chalked up to the awkwardness of their characters’ burgeoning romance but read on opening night as being a bit uncertain how to fill the performance space.

I will also note that I had the joy of sitting with a group of students who were quite taken with the performance and with the play itself. I’m sure some fuddy duddies nearby were lightly annoyed at the unrestrained vocal responses given by these young people as the story revealed itself. I, for one, was delighted. It is a rare treat to watch a new audience discover its love of theatre and to have honest, visceral reactions to what they are observing. That is what theatre has always been about … and always should be about.

Constellations is a rare treat, well-timed with Valentine’s Day just peeking around the corner – a thinking person’s romantic comedy about reality and consequence. The direction by Milarch is pitch perfect, capturing the nuances of multiple variations on a theme and making easy-to-follow and deeply affecting what, in less capable hands, could have been a muddled mess. Yet, it is the stars of Constellations (pun intended) who make this must-see entertainment. Van Arsdalen and Hejkal give as good as they get, presenting beautifully flawed, profoundly moving characterizations through a swirl of could-have-been, should-have-been, and might-have-been moments in time. Together they are a revelation.

Constellations runs from January 26 through February 18 at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor, MI 48103. Tickets: www.theatrenova.org or 734-635-8450.

_______________________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“My lack of success is self-imposed.” Roman J. Israel, Esq.

When you are driving home after a movie (albeit loaded up on carbs and sodium from this insane food we Americans insist on eating at Thanksgiving) and you as a family are discussing how you would rewrite the script, chances are the film fails to fulfill its own potential. Such is the case with Denzel Washington’s latest Roman J. Israel, Esq. (If that title alone doesn’t warn you that you are in for an overreaching quirkfest, nothing will.)

Directed by Dan Gilroy, who helmed the far superior Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal, the movie tries to be too many things.

Is it a film – taking a cue from Melville’s classic short story Bartleby the Scrivener (kudos to my mom for reminding me of that piece) – wherein one person’s singular and single-minded belief system magically transforms all who come in contact with said person? This could be a genre unto itself – think: Erin Brockovich, The Pursuit of Happyness, Forrest Gump, Being There, Rain Main, To Wong Foo. Sometimes the tale ends tragically, often not, but just about every time, someone in the film walks away with an Oscar.

Or is Roman J. Israel, Esq. an allegorical cautionary tale of the dire consequences of material temptation – a Hitchcockian cat-and-mouse, sweaty-palmed, walls-closing-in thriller depicting a poor schlub caught with his hand in the cookie jar, thinking he’d finally “made it big”?

Or is the flick just another soap opera set in the paradoxical world of the American legal system, where nobility and opportunism make strange bedfellows?

Any ONE of those films would have been fine, particularly given the great character work Washington delivers as a sensitive yet obtuse attorney with a database-like brain, a penchant for keeping all written records on index cards, a fixation on jazz music, and a lion’s heart for civil rights and human equality. Washington’s Israel has been the back-office partner for a two-man law firm in Los Angeles, and, when the face of the practice is felled by a heart attack, Israel finds himself unemployed.

As in Nightcrawler, director Gilroy’s Los Angeles is a concrete jungle of oppression and temptation (photographed perhaps a bit too exquisitely). Israel offers his services first to an ACLU-like organization helmed by Carmen Ejogo’s Maya, but finds that the volunteer organization has neither the money nor the appreciation for what his generation has brought to the movement.

Israel ends up in a Faustian contract with Colin Farrell’s George Pierce who runs a criminal defense firm, a man more interested in the pricing model depicted in his slick brochures than in the rights of his hardscrabble clientele.

Israel’s sweet self-righteousness quickly is subsumed by the earthly pleasures of a regular paycheck, and when he finds himself using privileged information to gain a bounteous reward for the capture of an alleged murderer, his world spirals downward.

Yet, everyone who meets Israel transforms into a better human for some inexplicable reason, including Farrell’s character whose 180 degree turn gives the audience whiplash. As Israel’s world devolves, the other characters get religion (metaphorically speaking), but the film presents little compelling evidence as to why.

Oh, and all of this happens over just a three week period. Whew.

I wanted to love this move and to be moved by its message that “purity can’t survive in this world.” In fact, the movie is filled with bon mots like that: “my lack of success is self-imposed,” “hope don’t get the job done,” “each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” “gang sign? like that flag pin on your lapel?” That may be its biggest problem. It’s a movie of bon mots, adding up ultimately to not very much more than a big budget Hallmark Hall of Fame that fancies itself an expose of the seamy gonna-get-mine underbelly of modern Los Angeles. That’s a shame.

Whereas Nightcrawler was a gut punch to the Horatio Alger myth that underpins Americans’ preoccupation with sparkling capitalism, Roman J. Israel, Esq. fails to deliver a similar blow to the endemic racism and deal-making that undermines our faith in the criminal justice system. That movie has yet to be made. Let’s try less quirk next time.

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

The Movies We Loved in 2014 — By Friends of the Blog

Proud to be in such esteemed company! Thanks, Gabriel, for including me! Here’s my contribution – be sure to read the complete blog post at Gabriel’s site …

_________________________

Nightcrawler
by Roy Sexton

The movies this year that spoke to me at the most instinctive and visceral levels all seem to focus on people living in the margins, people faced with a world that chews them up and spits them out, people who won’t go down without a fight. Bad Words, Foxcatcher, Whiplash, Still Alice, and Nightcrawler all still resonate with me for these reasons – I was immersed in those five cinematic, corrosive worlds and I can’t (won’t) shake them off.

Perhaps this reflects a midlife dyspepsia on my part, but these films captured my feelings toward a culture that seems more combative by the minute. In a strange way, they gave me hope – that there are others (the respective filmmakers) who view things as I do.

As individuals, we are all one bad day away from utter collapse, but a kind word, a career opportunity, a tough life lesson, a toxic moment might save our souls, while still damning us to hell.

Of these five films, Nightcrawler haunts me most. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo are dynamite as two sides of the same Horatio Alger coin. Americans can be opportunistic and relentless to a fault, but the film never writes these characters off as sick parasites. We are them, and they are us. Bathed in noir blue light, Gyllenhaal’s predatory hustle is a fractured fairy tale of the American Dream as it exists today. Everyone wants to be an American Idol, a Snooki, a Kardashian. We don’t like admitting it, but we want to be something, to be remembered, perhaps at any cost. Nightcrawler is a cinematic allegory for the ages – of the lengths we can go to survive and thrive – giving us the antihero our troubled times deserve.

_________________________

Roy Sexton is a theatre actor and movie critic based out of Ann Arbor, MI. He writes witty, insightful film reviews at Reel Roy Reviews, you can check out his books, and he is closely involved with The Penny Seats theatre company.

_________________________

Read the original post …

Gabriel Diego Valdez

We don’t tune into awards shows to be told what the best movie is. That’s not why they’re so popular. We tune in to disagree, to do it with friends and family around us, because the real show that night is what’s happening in front of the TV – it’s your arguments for and against the choices being made. It’s your chance to stand up for the movie you feel closest to and defend it.

My own views on movies are shaped by the people I’ve gotten to make and discuss movies with over the years, the critics I read or the actors I pay attention to. So I asked them – What was your choice for best film of 2014? What movie most connected with you? Which one will you take forward with you into the rest of your life? I’m excited to see both some expected choices and…

View original post 4,860 more words

He’s a quick study. Nightcrawler (2014)

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I love it when matinee idols are finally brave enough to let their real freak flags fly. Joaquin Phoenix, Nicholas Cage, Heath Ledger, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise.

And now Jake Gyllenhaal.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s always been pretty nutty, from Donnie Darko to last year’s Prisoners, but this fall’s Nightcrawler takes the cake. (The less said about Bubble Boy the better.) With his now emaciated frame and anime-esque bug-eyes, Gyllenhaal channels the feisty, manic desperation of someone who has bought too fully into Horatio Alger self-starting mythology.

As Louis Bloom, a wannabe cameraman selling to René Russo’s equally desperate television producer prurient footage he takes of mutilated bodies all over Los Angeles, Gyllenhaal not only pulls himself up by his bootstraps, he takes the boots off, throws them over his head, and sets them on fire.

At times, this darkly satirical tale reminded me of To Die For, Gus Van Sant’s 90s treatise on our preoccupation with fame and success at any price. However, Nightcrawler takes that film’s thesis and modernizes it to meet the relentless gluttony of our 24/7 news-cycles.

The film opens with Bloom stealing scraps of metal to resell, positioning him as a literal and figurative parasite on society. When Bloom comes across a grizzly traffic accident, he observes Bill Paxton, in fabulous character actor mode, filming said scene to resell to local media … another kind of societal parasite. And, as Bloom repeatedly notes throughout the flick, he’s a quick study.

Gyllenhaal’s google eyes light up as he ogles Paxton’s very expensive camera equipment and shiny news van, identifying a potential opportunity for himself. The movie tracks Bloom’s meteoric rise as he finds no end of salacious footage to capture, sometimes manipulating crime scenes to achieve the optimal money shot.

This is one of those movies, like There Will Be Blood or Dogville or Dancer in the Dark, that plumbs the depths of human misery so fully that I feel a little embarrassed to admit how much I love it. But, wow, I love this movie.

Russo, exuding world-weariness, is the perfect counterpoint to Gyllenhaal’s rampant ambition – she is a TV veteran who has seen it all, done it all, and is over it all. Their scenes together are dynamite, Gyllenhaal’s hyperactive puppy jumping around Russo’s exhausted big dog. My apologies to Russo for the analogy, but it is apt.

This film is an exquisite indictment of our preoccupation with “reality” television – the uglier the scene, the more the eyeballs watching it. We have become a society that is all about overnight box office, Nielsen ratings, virality. The film is more subtle than this review may indicate. But it is squirmy. It is funny. And it is devastating. I highly recommend it

________________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Pray for the best; prepare for the worst” – Prisoners

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In post-9/11 America, paranoia and violence, xenophobia and religion have become a toxic brew. It is in these murky waters that the new film Prisoners trucks.

The movie is directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve who shows a surprising level of fair-mindedness for our nation’s current warts-and-all rugged surburban survivalism. The atmosphere is overcast and thick, defined smartly by the bleak Midwestern weather that typically blankets the Thanksgiving holiday.

Even that choice is symbolic – for what are we truly thankful anymore when real (or imagined) bogeymen lurk around every corner … and we are armed to the teeth to shoot them (as well as any neighbors who get caught in the crossfire)?

I can’t even begin to summarize the mobius strip of a plot in the limited space here. (That’s what Wikipedia is for, after all!) The long and the short of it is that two families  – one deer-hunting, Jesus-loving, stranger-phobic and the other yuppified, highly-educated, inclusive – venture across their tract home lawns to break bread on Thanksgiving only to find the young daughters of each brood seemingly vanish into thin air.

The prime suspect is RV-driving, greasy-haired, 80s-glasses-wearing Boo Radley-in-training Paul Dano (a mumble-mouthed marvel). And, as you have no doubt gathered from the trailers, hot-headed Hugh Jackman, for whose character violence is a deep-seated expression of his faith, abducts the supposed kidnapper and brutally tries to “Gitmo” the truth out of him.

The sad reality – and the film’s ultimate revelation – is that there is no black and white “truth,” in even the most horrific of circumstances, and violence only begets … well … more violence. I won’t spoil the “fun” as it were, but there are surprises (but blessedly not M. Night Shyamalan-style SHOCKS!) aplenty. The twists are all logical and integral to the plot, leaving the viewer with the perspective that if only the characters, in their rush-to-CNN/Fox-News-judgment, had slowed down for just one minute, they would have seen the real picture much sooner.

The film is a series of muted grays – visually and emotionally. Just when you feel certain in your philosophical alignment with one character (say, Jackman’s righteously raging papa) or another (say, Jake Gyllenhaal’s “facts will set you free” police detective), the story – like life – ebbs and flows and leaves you questioning your … faith.

At times, the film is a bit obviously symbolic in the way early Hitchcock could be: rain = sadness and torment, frost and snow = frustration, children = innocence lost, plaid = middle class. Yet, there is also extraordinarily complex thematic work here that I will be mulling for days.

Most notably, at the heart of the film, there is a jigsaw puzzle of faith and disillusionment and self-determination. The mantra “pray for the best; prepare for the worst” gets repeated at least a half dozen times by Jackman and occasionally by Gyllenhaal. The irony is (without ruining the film) that all of Jackman’s prayer and preparations actually make things worse while Gyllenhaal’s agnostic “slow and steady wins the race” approach proves (arguably) best in the end.

This is a mightily powerful film, extremely well acted. The powerhouse cast also includes Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard (who brought me to tears for some reason nearly every time he was onscreen), Len Cariou, and an especially crackerjack Melissa Leo (about whom I potentially could write another entire entry but only by completely spoiling the intricate plot).

I don’t know how I will feel about this film tomorrow or next week or next month (my parents who viewed it Friday warned me about that) but I am so glad I saw it. I suspect this film will become a dark and unsettling touchstone for our era, and I hope one that will cause those brave few among us to question their deeply ingrained assumptions/prejudices about their fellow man.