Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reclaiming the Past

At various points throughout Super 8 I asked myself, "Is this movie better than E.T.?"

Where E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial was my childhood world in real-time, Super 8 was still just a recreation of my youth through the clever use of childhood artifacts. That's not to say Super 8 is derivative. An homage? Yes. A love letter to the imprint Spielberg left on our collective childhood? Absolutely. But it stands on its own, rarely trying to be too clever; trading on its 1979 authenticity for a cheap nod-and-wink only once with some brief, non-essential (and unfortunately anachronistic) dialog about the Walkman.

With Super 8, writer-director J.J. Abrams has reclaimed the ’70s. Not as the camp joke it has become in our shared memory through disco, bell-bottoms, and That ’70s Show, but as it really felt when we were living it, unassumingly woven into the fabric of everyday lives.

From start to finish, Super 8 enveloped me. I knew the smell of Joe’s bedroom and the feel of Charles’ family’s kitchen. The familiarity of small town Ohio and the freedom of spending summer on your bike were as tangible here as they were my everyday reality 30 years ago. Abrams somehow captured the wonder of a late ’70s Midwestern childhood, fused it with Spielbergian tropes (like a single-parent household and extra-terrestrial elements), and came up with something so authentic, so genuine, it transcends the sentimental.

So, is Super 8 better than E.T.? I can only seem to answer the question this way: E.T. was the perfect movie for 11 year-old me, just as Super 8 – cut from the same cloth in terms of story, tone, and execution – is the perfect version of E.T. for 40 year-old me.

When the credits began to roll at the end of Super 8, Tracy turned to me and said, "That was awesome." Plastered to my theater seat with a nostalgic lump in my throat, I knew what she meant.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Who's Crazy?

Next to Normal
16 June 2011: Palace Theatre at Playhouse Square, Cleveland, Ohio

We were fortunate enough to have my oldest son, Mikee, up to visit with us last week. He is a huge fan of the theatre and all that goes with that world. And his favorite musical not so coincidentally was playing at the Palace Theatre the same week – Next to Normal.

Tracy and I had never seen the production and didn't know what to expect beyond it being a musical dealing with the very serious issue if mental illness. I think it's safe to say we were both blown away.

The show traces the emotional journey of a family trying to deal with a wife and mother who suffers from bipolar disorder (Diana, played by Kent State University grad Alice Ripley). Of the characters, my favorites were the husband/father (Dan) and the daughter (Natalie). The husband because I could relate to him – not because my wife or our family has been touched by this sickness, but because the struggle he endured trying to be that rock and maintain some kind of normal family structure is something with which I could identify.

The daughter was a heartbreaking character, treading delicately between scared girl and complete bitch. This balance was never more exposed than when you realized just how scared Natalie is – selfishly and honestly – at the realization that she could turn out just like her mom.

Among the various “Broadway Buzz” events Playhouse Square offers is Thursday night post-show chats with the cast. Immediately following the performance, we made our way down to the main floor for the dialog with the Emma Hunton (“Natalie”), Caitlin Kinnunen (understudy for “Natalie”), Pearl Sun (standby for “Diana”), Preston Sadleir (“Henry”), Bryan Perri (Musical Director), and Rachel Zack (Stage Manager). It was an interesting half-hour Q&A that theatre major Mikee ate up.

Next to Normal is not "feel good" theatre, having more in common with Spring Awakening and Rent than Mamma Mia! or Chicago. Not every Broadway musical is or needs to be a Mel Brooks or Disney adaptation. There is a place for this kind of serious and deeply sensitive art, and when done right it can hit every emotionally raw nerve while still being entertaining and satisfying.