Last Saturday, April 9th, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra presented an excellent selection of music to a sold out Michigan Theater.
The evening opened with "The Tall-Eared Fox and the Wild-Eyed Man," a piece written by Ann Arbor composer Evan Chambers. Inspired by traditional jigs, the strings section started with a jaunty tone and then transitioned into different breakdowns of the music, ending with an experimental section that pushed the boundaries of the jig into a more traditional and modern place.
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, featuring guest violinist Jinjoo Cho, was the second entry in the night’s concert. I was completely caught off guard by Cho’s tremendous performance, which was both technically complex but also emotionally packed. Her playing was simply astounding, breathtaking in the depth of emotion conveyed even as control of the instrument was maintained. I honestly don’t have the words to convey how absolutely delightful and absorbing Cho’s playing was. If Cho ever happens to visit Ann Arbor again, I would highly recommend attending. I will certainly be following her career with avid interest.
After a short intermission, the orchestra returned to perform Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Composed in 1917, this piece explores the character of each of the planets of the solar system, excluding Earth. Each character sketch is relatively quick, resulting in a piece that progresses quickly and holds the interest of even those unfamiliar with classical music. Even if you’ve never heard of The Planets, you’ve probably heard some clip of this influential and popular composition playing in the background of some piece of media.
The performance by the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra was a joy to attend. The Planets is a fun suite of music to start with, and the orchestra was clearly up to the challenges presented by the piece. Since the character of each planet is so distinct, I can only praise the A2 Orchestra for conveying a spectrum of emotions and concepts. From the jaunty "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," to the strident and somehow playful "Uranus, the Magician," the A2 Orchestra rose to the occasion and delivered an exceptional range of musical experiences. I was familiar with The Planets going into the concert, and I was surprised at how much of a difference there was between the recordings I’ve listened to and hearing the music in person. There’s a bit of personality or a depth of emotion that recordings just can’t capture. The journey the music takes you on through the solar system seems somehow more real when you’re sitting in the same room as the musicians.
The visualizations paired with the music made for an interesting experience, slightly reminiscent of Disney’s Fantasia. Visual artist Adrian M Wyard created the accompaniment using both NASA images and digital recreations of the planets. Pairing the music with images added a layer to the performance that certainly captured your attention, but that could sometimes border on distracting. I was surprised at how well Holst managed to capture the essence of the planets, particularly those closer to Earth, in 1917, when our knowledge of the solar system was so much more limited than it is today.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library.
For many famous entertainers, the scariest thing in the world is to see someone rushing at them and screaming, "Oh my god, it's you. I am your biggest fan!"
But apparently for a young Patsy Cline, just on the verge of becoming a country and pop music phenomenon, a down-to-earth woman and fanatic devotee was just what she needed to stay grounded in the lives of the people for whom her music was a joy, a comfort, and a reassurance that they were not alone in their trials and tribulations.
Two extraordinary performers bring comedy and pathos to the unusual friendship between Cline and a divorced Houston mother of two in Always ... Patsy Cline at the Encore Theatre in Dexter.
The play was conceived by Ted Swindley as basically a musical revue of Cline's beloved catalog of songs through the eyes of her friend Louise Seger. Though we know how the story ends, with Cline's tragic death in a plane crash in 1963 at a shockingly young 30 years old, this is primarily a rollicking, laugh out loud comedy balanced by the plaintive sadness of so many of Cline's songs.
Sonja Marquis is a blunt, in-your-face Louise Seger. She's the kind of woman who harasses radio DJs, bellows when she wants attention, drinks like a sailor, and loves sad old country songs. Marquis is hilarious as she struts across the stage telling her story, swaggering and joshing with the audience, doing broad imitations of the sorry men in her life, and charging ahead without a second thought to form a lasting friendship with a soon-to-be very famous star. But Marquis also brings a poignancy to Seger, a lonely women in a bad marriage when she first hear's Cline's remarkable voice. She drops everything to badger a DJ to play "I Fall to Pieces" over and over, knowing what solace it brings her. That roughness and bluntness combined with a deep warmth plays out in her mostly long distance relationship with Cline.
Emmi Veinbergs becomes Patsy Cline. Standing on a honky tonk stage with a four-piece country band, Veinbergs shows that she has mastered every inflection of Cline's plaintive but clear and ringing voice. Cline was one of the first crossover country stars. Her distinct phrasing and soft Southern accent made her records appealing beyond the then narrow Southern country-western fan base. Veinbergs has the voice down perfectly and she also captures the way Cline swayed as she sang while avoiding the broad arm gestures of other singers. Veinbergs also bears a strong resemblance to the singer.
The catalog of great Patsy Cline songs provides an entertaining cabaret of music by some of country's greatest songwriters, who stood in line hoping that Cline would deign to sing their songs. Veinbergs does drop-dead renderings of "Crazy," "Sweet Dreams," "She's Got You," and "If You've Got Leavin' On Your Mind." She also covers Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" and the Kitty Wells hit "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."
Cline sings that song in the honky tonk where she meets her No. 1 fan Seger. She is singing along to music on a jukebox, growing distant and wistful because Cline is also a fan and her life plays out the drama in Wells' record as her songs will in the lives of millions of listeners just like Louise Seger.
In a later scene in Seger's kitchen, where Cline has been shanghaied, the two women lay out their grievances through songs, particularly "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray" and "Crazy." Veinbergs' singing and Marquis' humorous commiseration are brilliant demonstrations of the emotional power of country music to express the most basic human needs and provide solace.
These two fine actresses under the direction of Thalia V. Schramm get to the heart of the matter in these two scenes where a common understanding is played out with special delicacy. Dan Mikat is the music director and Veinbergs and the band would be welcome at the Opry any time.
The Encore set designed by Kristen Gribben is amazing in its detail and flexibility. In one part of the stage is a typical 1950s style kitchen, small but tidy. The rest of the stage is a wood paneled honky tonk that also doubles for the Grand Ole Opry stage. It is nicely detailed with photos, Schlitz promotional lights, and other bar room details.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
"Always ... Patsy Cline" continues Thursdays at 7 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Saturday and Sundays at 3 pm through May 8, at the Dexter Musical Theatre Company in downtown Dexter. For tickets, call (734)268-6200.
Great theater has the power to magically take us to another place and time and introduce us to the most interesting and colorful people.
This weekend the Power Center is being transformed into Noo Yawk City, circa 1950s. Specifically it's the "devil's own street" Broadway with gamblers, chorus girls, and missionaries out to save their souls in a dynamic, eye-popping production of the beloved musical classic The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance production brings it all together: superb singing, beautiful choreography, sharp humor, and a flexible set and lighting that makes good use of the large Power Center stage.
Guys and Dolls is a "musical fable" that makes lovable mugs of the denizens of Broadway based on the streetwise stories of Damon Runyon with a book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Loesser created one of the finest scores and some of the most loved songs in the Broadway repertoire, drawing on a variety of styles, rhythms, and vocal arrangements. Loesser brought high class music to the lives of the city's "less reputable" residents.
Big musicals are always about strong collaboration. Here director Mark Madam, musical director and conductor Cynthia Kortman Westphal, and choreographer Mara Newbery Greer have put all the pieces together to bring out the best in their student cast.
The story is familiar. Nathan Detroit, proprietor of the "oldest-established, permanent floating crap game" in New York, is having trouble finding a place to host a dice game for a visiting Chicago gambler Big Jule. He is also trying to maintain relations with his "doll" Adelaide, star chanteuse of the Hot Box Nightclub.
Slick, suave, and daring gambler Sky Masterson is back in town and Nathan thinks he's found a way to raise funds to rent a space by betting that babe magnet Masterson will not get a nod from the uptight Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul Mission.
This simple plot creates the frame for all that music, complex dance routines, comedy, and romance, and the UM cast seems to be savoring every minute of it.
Will Branner brings a rich baritone and a bit of swagger to Sky. He moves smoothly, as he should, from confirmed playboy to romantically devoted swain. He does a fine job on "Luck Be a Lady."
He meets his match in Solea Pfeiffer's Sarah Brown. As Pfeiffer moves from uptight missionary to a dame in love she handles a sweet transition from operatic soprano to a more modulated popular voice. She is especially effective when Sarah lets her guard down on a trip to devil-may-care Havana (pre Castro). Pfeiffer completely embodies the music and lyrics of "If I Were a Bell," a giddy realization that she's falling in love.
Joseph Sammour plays the less refined street tough Nathan Detroit (as suggested by his name). He fidgets, he worries, he talks tough, but he's really a softie, madly in love with his Miss Adelaide. Sammour is both charming and sly as Nathan but he rises to the occasion on his big musical moment with Adelaide, "Sue Me," which he turns into a warm testimony of his devotion.
Any production of Guys and Dolls hinges on a great Miss Adelaide, the comic spark and the emotional draw of Loesser's songs. Hannah Flam is an outstanding Adelaide: adorable, loud, gawky, and thoroughly convincing. Her musical highlights are many from the Hot Box revue numbers "A Bushel and a Peck" and "Take Back the Mink" to her duet with Pfeiffer on "Marry the Man Today." But the tall, imposing Flam makes her biggest impression on "Adelaide's Lament." She's funny but also poignant when she sings that romantic troubles are enough "to give a person a cold."
The musical really kicks into gear with "Fugue for Tinhorns" in which Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southside and Rusty Charlie tout contrapuntally why they "have the horse right here." Noah Weisbart as Nicely-Nicely, Wonza Johnson as Benny, and Tyler Leahy as Rusty handle the complex musical and lyrical blending expertly.
Weisbart and Johnson team up for the song "Guys and Dolls" and make like a seasoned vaudeville team, both in fine voice and comic timing. Weisbart is outstanding as he leads the rollicking "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat." A nicer Nicely-Nicely couldn't have been cast.
Cameron Jones has a standout moment as Arvide, the older mission leader and father figure for Sarah. Jones sings a tender "More I Can Not Wish You" in a heart-rending tenor voice, each word sharply defined.
Under Westphal's direction the musical numbers are fresh and believable and the orchestra performance is bright and strong while never overpowering the singers.
Greer's choreography is rhythmically precise and effectively handles the numerous styles that Loesser uses from show-biz tap dance to the sensuous Latin movements of Havana to an aggressively stylized crap game. It all works, the student dancers bring rich life to every scene.
Sets by Edward T. Morris and costumes by Jessica Hahn and Michayla Van Treeck capture the period with simplicity but effectively. A special note should be made of Mark Allen Berg's lighting which is effectively used with the choreography to create a sense of drama and punctuate the rhythms.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Guys and Dolls continues at the Power Center on the U-M main campus at 8 pm on Friday, April 15, and Saturday, April 16, and 2 pm on Sunday, April 17. For ticket information, call 734-764-2538.
**Update 4/18/16 - Big Fun has had to cancel their scheduled appearances for this week. They were intended to appear as part of a panel discussion Monday, April 18 at 7 pm at the AADL, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Eclipse Jazz, and the music of Miles Davis as a prelude to the screening of the film Miles Ahead at the Michigan Theater. They were also scheduled to perform at the Necto in a special pre-screening reception on Thursday, April 21 at approximately 6 pm. This piece has been edited to reflect the cancellation of these performances.**
The baby boomer generation discovered jazz in the late sixties primarily because rock bands of the day incorporated elements like horn sections, the Hammond B-3 organ, hand percussion, Eastern Indian instruments, and funky rhythms into popular music.
Miles Davis became the pivot point in the contemporary jazz of the day, conversely influenced by Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and Sly Stone. To reach a wider audience, Davis employed fresh-thinking younger musicians to create groundbreaking jazz fusion music that revolutionized how people thought about jazz; to its detriment for some, but ear opening for many others.
The local band Big Fun is now reintroducing this music to the boomers, and giving young listeners a taste of what this style of jazz still represents. Though a scene in the jazz rock music still very much exists and is technologically evolving, Big Fun stays true to the original concept.
Named after a Miles Davis album of the same name, Big Fun runs the gamut of the music the famed trumpeter created from the late sixties up to the mid-to-late seventies. They are recreating those period pieces from recordings like In A Silent Way, A Tribute To Jack Johnson, the quintessential Bitches Brew, and On The Corner.
Increasing their footprint slowly but surely over the past three years, Big Fun was born out of a concept from music instructors at the University of Michigan who saw a need for this kind of jazz filling a void. Trumpeter Mark Kirschenmann and keyboardist Steven Rush sport plenty of credentials as instructors and performers, but thought it was time to team up and give the public music that influenced their thinking as young players.
Kirschenmann has directed the U-M Creative Arts Orchestra for close to a decade. His electronically driven horn sound employs all the modern laptop, digital pedal, and looped sounds possible, but without losing the soul of his instrument. His style is much more earthy than alien, although deep labyrinth excursions are not beyond his purview. He has also been heard with E3Q featuring his wife, the innovative cellist Katri Ervamaa and percussionist Mike Gould, and with the Jon Hassell-influenced ensemble Electrosonic.
Steven Rush is one of our most ambitious local musical heroes. He directs the Digital Music Program at U-M, leads the band Quartex for Sunday evening worship services at the Canterbury House, and presents various electronic and world music sessions. Deeply into Eastern Indian vocal and percussion, he is equally influenced by Brian Eno, Sun Ra, Robert Ashley, Cecil Taylor, Phillip Glass, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Morton Subotnick, John Coltrane and Blue Gene Tyranny. His personality is as freewheeling as his imagination.
Big Fun has performed at the Canterbury House, appeared during the 2015 Edgefest at the Kerrytown Concert House and recently at Encore Records. They also played the recently renovated Residential College in the famed Keene East Quad Amphitheatre, the building where Kirschenmann teaches regularly. It is also the venue where Eclipse Jazz used to host their legendary “Bright Moments” series of innovative creative improvised concerts.
As a witness to the East Quad performance, it’s easy to say Big Fun pulls no punches regarding the authenticity of the music they are portraying. With healthy doses of improvisation, Kirschenmann and Rush stretch out the music without breaking it. Electric bass guitarist Tim Flood pushes with band with ostinato pulses and a powerful persona that belies his smaller, slight build – he is at the center of driving this locomotive.
Brothers Jeremy and Jonathan Edwards do not so much work in tandem as much as they fulfill crucial roles. Electric guitarist Jonathan has the John McLaughlin sound of the era down to a science. He fills in cracks and enhances the overall sound portrait. Drummer Jeremy can be serene and understated, whip up a whirlwind, play deep pocket grooves or anything in between. Tenor or soprano saxophonist Patrick Booth and hand percussionist Dan Piccolo fill roles held in the Davis bands by David Liebman and Steve Grossman, or ex-Ann Arborite the late Jumma Santos and Badal Roy respectively. Their ethnic underpinnings are as important as Ravi Shankar’s contributions to The Beatles.
Michael G. Nastos is a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is on the Board of Directors for the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
It’s been a while since the world has heard from Ann Arbor’s foremost purveyors of throwback power-pop, Starling Electric. Originating in 1997 as frontman and songwriter Caleb Dillon’s solo project, Starling eventually grew into a full-fledged band, releasing debut album Clouded Staircase in 2006. The band’s psych-tinged jangle-pop drew accolades from national notables like Guided By Voices and the Posies, and Starling became something of a live staple in Ann Arbor and Ypsi. But the band essentially disappeared from the public eye in 2014, when Dillon left Ann Arbor to travel the country for a bit. Fortunately, however, Dillon has returned to Michigan. And with his return comes the long-awaited release of a new Starling record, Electric Company, which has been in the works since 2010.
From track one of Electric Company, it’s an immediate relief to have Starling back in action. Album opener “No Clear Winner” announces itself with the sound of a needle drop and four blaring, distorted guitar chords backed by John Fossum’s majestic drums. Dillon structures the main body of the song in classic Pixies fashion. A quiet verse backed by acoustic guitar and synth accents repeatedly builds to a driving, anthemic chorus. “I don’t know what I control / I don’t know what I can hold,” Dillon sings, articulating themes of uncertainty that have the slightly more graceful feel of willing surrender when backed with music this contagiously bombastic. Dillon cheekily describes the album as “powerless pop,” and the wordplay fits.
Elsewhere, “Permanent Vacation” will burrow itself right into your eardrum and refuse to vacate your brain within five seconds of deploying its simple, catchy opening rhythm guitar riff. If there’s a single on the album, this is it; the bright, polished production and chug-a-lugging rhythm make it one of those songs that demand to be blasted with the windows down on a warm-weather road trip. Another highlight, “Jailbird Joey,” embraces somewhat sludgier production, with Christian Blackmore Anderson’s lumbering bass dominating in the mix. Dillon particularly shows his talent for orchestration on the propulsive closer “Start Again,” which interweaves trumpet, piano, mellotron-generated woodwinds, and some jazzy guitar lines to gorgeous effect.
The centerpiece of the album–both figuratively and literally, at track eight of 16–is “Jesus Loves the Byrds,” a brief but stunning tribute to one of Dillon’s foremost musical influences. The instrumentation on the downtempo tune is simple, but a wistful acoustic guitar arrangement and the quintet’s lush harmony backup vocals make a stellar combination. As Dillon drops lyrical references to “Eight Miles High” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (and likely makes a cheeky reference to the Byrds’ cover of “The Christian Life” in the title), it’s easy to slip into the same reverent, borderline-religious mood with which Dillon seems to approach the Byrds.
However, outside of that one unabashed paean to Starling’s influences, Dillon doesn’t wear his muses on his sleeve as much as usual on Electric Company. Where Clouded Staircase so often sounded like a mixture of lost tracks from the Byrds and Guided By Voices themselves, on Electric Company Dillon has developed a clearer authorial voice. He still loves the Byrds’ riffs, the Zombies’ chamber-pop arrangements, the Beach Boys’ harmonies, and Guided By Voices’ maddeningly succinct lo-fi pop genius. But on Electric Company Dillon synthesizes those top-flight guiding lights into something that’s more distinctly his own. It’ll be fascinating to see where he goes next, but hopefully the wait will be less than a decade this time.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He prefers his pop with at least a little jangle in it.
Electric Company will be available April 15 on Starling Electric’s Bandcamp and major streaming services.
For the first time ever in Ann Arbor, the annual Banff Mountain Film Festival sold out. It’s not surprising for the festival to sell out in places like Denver or Salt Lake City, with populations of over a million people, but in Ann Arbor there are usually plenty of seats. Not so this year, as 1,650 people filled the Michigan Theater’s main auditorium Sunday night, eager to view the breathtaking selection of films that comprise the festival.
Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, named for the national park in Canada that hosts it and for The Banff Centre, is a celebration of stories about profound journeys, unexpected adventures, and ground-breaking expeditions. The main event takes place over nine days in Canada, but then select films from the festival go on world tour. Ann Arbor has been lucky enough to be a stop on the tour for many years now. The three-and-a-half hour event features a dozen films of various lengths along with a raffle and an intermission where attendees can peruse booths set up by sponsors of the event and learn more about the festival itself. I’ve gone to the festival for the past five years and the films are always a breath of fresh air in the dreary days of April: from mountain biking to base jumping to heli-skiing to rock climbing to white water rafting, the scenery shown is stunning, the stories told are amazing, and the physical prowess required to do the things captured on film is unbelievable. I leave feeling inspired, relaxed, and with many new travel destinations on my list each year.
This year’s tour opened with The Important Places, a film by Forest Woodward that juxtaposed his father’s aging with his own move away from their home in Colorado to the city. Ultimately, Forest and his dad recreate a rafting trip on the Colorado River that his father had taken 30 years before, in an attempt to reconnect: with each other, with the land, and—for Forest’s father—with his younger self.
In the 5-minute film DarkLight mountain biking at night was made even more amazing by neon lights emphasizing the silhouettes of the bikers, and of the dust they kicked up as they sped across rock outcroppings. The lighthearted film Paradise Waits featured two phenomenal skiers showing off their skills in Wyoming and Alaska while Girls Just Wanna Have Fun blared in the background.
The feature film of the evening was Across the Sky, the story of rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold, the first people to complete the Fitz Traverse in Patagonia, Argentina in one go. It won the award for Best Film on Mountain Climbing at the festival this year, and it truly was an incredible story. The two men spent almost a month in Patagonia before their hike, waiting for a weather window to open up so that they could attempt the Traverse. Skilled as they were, journeys such as the one they completed always come with unexpected twists and turns, and this one was no different. From gale-force winds to ice-coated handholds, their trip was as much a feat of mental strength as it was of physical. Caldwell and Honnold’s senses of humor and positive outlooks were not only amusing throughout the film, but inspirational to me after it ended, too.
The highlight of the second half of the show was Eclipse, a multifaceted film about a group of “eclipse-chasers” seeking the perfect photograph. Photographer Reuben Krabbe had had a vision of capturing a skier in front of an eclipse for years and knew that such a shot was a once in a lifetime chance. As the eclipse neared, he and a team of guides and professional skiers headed up to the Arctic, pursuing what seemed to be an impossible dream. For Krabbe to get the shot, not only did he have to find a spot from which to shoot that would work, but the weather had to be clear so that the eclipse could be seen and so the skiers could ski safely—and the weather is not usually clear in March in the Arctic. The shot that he ultimately captures is worth the weeks spent huddled in igloos, battling frigid winds, and rescuing sunken snowmobiles. The film won Best Snow Sports Film at the festival this year.
The festival concluded with a 60-second parody film: an advertisement for Nature Rx, the cure for irritability, boredom, and apathy, which gave many audience members a good chuckle. The Banff Film Festival will be back in Ann Arbor next April and, if this year is any indication, buy your tickets to this delightful event in advance!
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library and would love to go mountain climbing in Patagonia, but never wants to heli-ski.
This Friday night you can enjoy an evening of entertainment by Monty Python, Shakespeare, Lin Manuel-Miranda, and Lerner and Lowe when Skyline High students present "Get Hype: An Evening with Skyline Theatre."
Selections include songs from “The Pirates of Penzance” and “My Fair Lady” and modern hits like “Avenue Q” and “Hamilton.” In addition to well-known favorites, a few lesser-known gems are featured from shows like “Blood Brothers,” cult classics like “Batboy,” and a scene from a personal favorite of the director called “The Explorers Club.”
“We have 20 students performing throughout the night and each of them get a couple of moments in the spotlight,” said director Brodie H. Brockie. “We have so much talent at Skyline that, unfortunately, sometimes even really talented students never quite get a featured role, but this format gives everyone a chance to shine.”
The cast for “Get Hype” includes Desirae Nelson, Evan Murphy, Jacki Boswell, Theo Billups, Vanessa Noble, Leah Bauer, Peter Dannug, Hayla Alawi, Emily Naud, Sam Waterhouse, Amanda Wilhoit, Isabella Preissle, Cassie Ritter, Emma Gerlinger, Christina Holder, Emily Benedict, Jianmarco Barbeau, Riley O’Brien, Ava Chamberlain, and Kristina Kimball. Student stage managers Ryann Patten and Katier Arnett make sure things are running smoothly behind the scenes.
The event serves as a fundraiser for the Skyline Friends of the Arts to offer scholarships for theatre students hoping to attend the International Thespian Festival this summer at the University of Nebraska.
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Friday, April 15 at 7:30 pm in the Experimental Theatre at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor. Admission is free, but a $10 donation is suggested.
The highly unconventional sci-fi film Midnight Special opened in most theaters nationwide this past weekend, coinciding with the opening of another highly unconventional sci-fi film, the ultraviolent “first-person shooter” Hardcore Henry. The two films could hardly have been marketed more differently. Hardcore Henry has been widely promoted, preceded by opening-night “Ultimate Fan Events” (can a movie no one has seen yet even have ultimate fans?), while Midnight Special has hardly been marketed at all. The Henry marketing team seems out to convince the world that the next cult classic is upon us. This may well be true; I haven’t seen it yet. And although I expect to have a blast when I do, I doubt extremely that it will even begin to hold a candle to the singularly awe-inspiring experience writer-director Jeff Nichols has crafted in Midnight Special.
The film follows a father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who possesses bizarre powers. The boy can communicate with electronics in eerie ways and occasionally undergoes episodes during which his eyes glow and he communicates mysterious information to those who gaze back at him. However, due to his condition he can’t be outside during the daylight, leading Roy and his companion Lucas (Joel Edgerton) to transport Alton only by night. The already harrowing situation is compounded by the fact that our protagonists are on the run–from the FBI, the NSA, and a Mennonite-esque religious sect who consider Alton the imminent instrument of their salvation.
The less said about the film’s plot, beyond the above summary, the better – and to some degree, even that brief description almost gives too much away. That’s because one of the key drivers behind Nichols’ story is uncertainty. We’re thrown into the narrative and allowed to figure things out on our own. There is exposition, but it’s doled out slowly and naturally as the characters converse. We’re often forced to draw our own conclusions in the moment until a better answer comes along, both about smaller plot concerns as well as the overarching question of whether Alton is an alien, a religious savior, or just a freak.
However, thanks to Nichols’ excellent direction of a strong cast, the nature of the relationships between the characters is never in question. Shannon, best known for colorful performances in films like Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel, and Nichols’ own Take Shelter, here underplays to extraordinary effect. Roy’s all-consuming love for Alton is right there in Shannon’s eyes from frame one, to the extent that Shannon probably could have made this movie work just fine without a word of dialogue. Lieberher gives an excellent performance, precocious by the nature of his character but never showy or unnatural. Edgerton and particularly Kirsten Dunst are also terrific in their supporting roles. Everyone in the film is cast in a resolutely unglamorous role, forced to prioritize emotion over ego, and they rise to the challenge to tell a powerful story.
“Unglamorous” is a good word to describe Nichols’ vision overall. He summons the steamy Texas and Louisiana backwaters the characters speed through with such accuracy one can almost feel the humidity in the air. His pacing and tone are perfectly pitched, masterfully juggling the tension of the chase with graceful scenes of familial tenderness among the protagonists. And – oh yes – this is a sci-fi movie, and there are some spine-tingling supernatural moments rendered with judicious use of CGI. But unlike Christopher Nolan, whose genre films effectively crank both family drama and visual spectacle to the max, Nichols dials back and lets the audience lean in a bit to embrace a sense of wonder instead of bombarding us with emotional and sensual stimulus.
The cumulative effect is extraordinary, building to a protracted, breathtakingly beautiful climax that brought tears to the eyes of even this usually stoic moviegoer. One wonders what Nichols might do with a budget bigger than Midnight Special’s modest $18 million, but hopefully the director’s marvelous restraint isn’t just a product of financial necessity. However, the film's relatively low profile compared to Hardcore Henry, its main genre competitor this weekend, is likely a more direct result of budgeting. And that’s a shame, because it seems likely that Midnight Special will remain a lot more compelling a decade or two from now than Henry’s admittedly audacious technological gimmick. Midnight Special’s greatest strength is its humility, its unassuming and unpretentious genius. Here’s hoping that doesn’t hold it back from well-deserved recognition as one of 2016’s very best films.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.
"Midnight Special" is now playing in select theaters including Rave Cinemas Ann Arbor and Quality 16. Check theater's websites for showtimes.
In the summer of 2015, the University of Michigan sold more than 7,000 instructional films owned by the Askwith Media Library to the public. The films had been used in campus classrooms from the 1940s to the 1970s and represented a variety of forgotten media formats – including 16mm and VHS. The collection was unique in its subject matter and scale, but having digitized the titles, U-M sold the films to gain shelf space.
Local film lovers, collectors, and treasure-hunters flocked to the sale, seizing the opportunity to own these rare films. Some shoppers lamented the loss of such a sizable collection; the films would now be spread among many owners and would not be preserved as a group. But no one could deny the price tag, as film prices started at just $1. So, film cans and VHS tapes were carried home by the armful and the collection was dismantled.
And that was it – until now.
A local Ann Arborite, Frank Uhle, has coordinated an amazing opportunity to see the films from this collection reunited on screen. The Festival of Found Films from the Vault will be a celebration of 16mm films purchased at the U-M sale. Uhle is calling out to all those who shopped the sale, and asking them to bring their best purchases to be screened together at Bona Sera Café in downtown Ypsilanti. Anyone interested in screening one of their treasures from the film sale at the event should contact Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Expect to see funny, strange, and surprising films, all projected on Uhle’s own 16mm projector – a special experience for all! You can bring films, or just your own curiosity, for an afternoon of small-screen entertainment.
Elizabeth Wodzinski is a Desk Clerk at AADL and 16mm is her favorite measurement.
The Festival of Found Films from the Vault will run from 2-5 pm on Sunday, April 17 at Bona Sera Café in downtown Ypsilanti at 200 W. Michigan Ave. The event is free and open to the public.
This year's Ann Arbor Poetry Slam Finals are happening Saturday, April 16 at Espresso Royale on State Street.
The top 12 competitors from this season will deliver their best poetry for the chance to win one of four team spots to represent Ann Arbor at the National Poetry Slam, plus there will be a full feature performance by internationally acclaimed poet Tim "Toaster" Henderson.
Laboring all year to cook up their best poetic recipes, 12 champion poets will rush the stage with only three minutes each—holding nothing back—to tell it all and tell it well! The audience erupts with boos, roars, applause - or silence - to cast their votes in front of five randomly selected audience member judges.
Excitement rises as the number of contenders drops to nine, then seven, then five, until only four triumph, earning the right to represent Ann Arbor at the National Poetry Slam!
And, as if 12 award-winning local poets weren't enough to blow your mind and soothe your conscience, internationally acclaimed poet Tim "Toaster" Henderson is traveling in to offer a feature performance. Henderson, based in the Bay Area but originally from Chicago, is one of the most captivating poets and performers of our generation. Come ready for an epic final showdown at Espresso Royale on State St. on April 16.
Community contributor Garret Potter is a slam poet and a co-organizer of the Ann Arbor Poetry Slam along with Lindsay Stone.
The Ann Arbor Poetry Slam Finals take place Saturday, April 16, 2016 at 7 pm at Espresso Royale at 324 S. State St. in Ann Arbor. Advance tickets are $8 student, $10 general, the cost is $15 at the door. Visit the Ann Arbor Poetry Slam's Facebook page for more details.
The Ann Arbor Poetry Slam is free and open to the public and happens every first and third Sunday at Espresso Royale on State Street.