All posts by kristenbecker

Pixar’s latest deliver’s a deeper message

Sometimes, a movie for kids can offer up messages more profound than any adult-centric cinematic masterpiece. Underneath it’s flying house and talking dogs, Pixar’s “Up” is a story about an elderly man who finally finds the will to move on with his life after the death of his beloved wife. Beneath the surface of this fun adventure is a tale of the unbearable pain of losing a loved one and learning how to love life again.

“Up” takes its audience on an emotional rollercoaster. It is equal parts comedy, action-adventure and heart-warming story about life.

We meet Carl Frederickson (Ed Asner) as a young child on the day he meets his future wife, Ellie. They both idolize adventurer and explorer Charles F. Muntz and bond over their desire to go to Paradise Falls, a South American paradise and explore with Muntz.

After his wife’s death, Carl eventually decides to set off in search of the land of their childhood dreams. He turns his home into a ship (with the help of thousands of balloons) and sets sail. When he inadvertently takes 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer Russell along, he is forced out of his self-imposed exile and into the types of adventures he and Ellie dreamed about as children.

Although Carl’s decision to float away is related to his grief, Pete Docter, the film’s writer and director, explained his motive behind creating Carl’s escapist tendency.

“The genesis of it was that I’m not an extroverted guy. By the end of the day, a lot of times I just want to escape or get away from everything. So the idea of floating off into the sky seemed really intriguing. I think everybody can relate to that, and yet one of the most important things we can do is to connect with other people—and it’s easy to lose track of that.”

“Up” does not shy away from tough issues despite being a film aimed at children. In addition to death and grief, the film touches on the issues of broken homes and absentee parents, over-development and urban sprawl, and even miscarriage.

Docter explained the more serious original idea for the story to the Los Angeles Times.

“In the very first draft . . . he just wanted to join his wife up in the sky,” Docter said. “It was almost a kind of strange suicide mission or something. And obviously that’s [a problem]. Once he gets airborne, then what? So we had to have some goal for him to achieve that he had not yet gotten.”

As is expected from a Pixar movie, the filmmakers created a rich story with beautiful visuals and plenty of humor (especially from Dug, the talking dog), but the most enjoyable part of the film is its simple message.

“He’s always thought of adventure as travel and exotic places and animals no one has ever seen,” Docter told the Los Angeles Times. “And in the end he comes around to realize that the real adventures in life are the small things that we do with our family and friends.”

“Up in the Air” is a down to earth ride

“Is the bag empty because you hate people or because you hate the baggage that they come along with?”

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is only at home when he’s on the road (or, to be more accurate, in the air). Ryan fires people for a living and moonlights as a motivational speaker encouraging his audience to drop all the baggage, both material and emotional that weighs them down.

His nomadic way of life comes under threat when Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), the female version of Ryan, and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a recent college graduate who is sent out with Ryan to learn the tricks of the termination trade, come into it. Both women teach him lessons that force Ryan to reassess his life and decide if he’s really content living without ever putting down any roots.

“Up in the Air” almost defies being placed in a category – it is a comedy that is completely devastating. There is romance and humor, but the storyline seems to be much more based in reality than the plots of most romantic comedies. Jason Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking”, “Juno”) navigates between genres without making the story too sappy or too divorced from reality. He takes the cliché of a coming-of-age story and turns it on its head. Rather than portraying Clooney’s character as the wise know-it-all and Kendrick’s as the naive neophyte, he makes it clear that both have lessons to learn and lessons to teach.

In the current economic climate, with the national unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent, watching the segments of people getting fired was almost too real. Reitman explained on the DVD commentary that for most of the firing scenes, he used real people who had recently lost their jobs.

While George Clooney is great as Ryan, Anna Kendrick’s is the standout performance in this film. Natalie starts out as a rather irritating Type A personality. She joins Ryan’s company with lofty ideas and the fearlessness of youth, but Kendrick subtly shows how Natalie grows and matures as Ryan forces her to face the reality of what their job actually consists of.

Although “Up in the Air” deals with a far-too-common and unpleasant sign of the times, Reitman and Clooney and Kendrick succeed in making the film anything but depressing.

DVD Extras

While there is not a huge amount of extras on the DVD, Reitman’s commentary is a must-listen-to for any budding filmmaker, or even for someone who’s simply interested in how movies are made. He is candid about the issues that come up when filming on location and even dissects what goes into filming various complex scenes. He shines a light on much of the production process, from writing the script to choosing the music to accompany it.

There is a short piece on how the opening credits were created that you can skip. Reitman is back for commentary over deleted scenes from the film. Many of the cut scenes that are included were ones Reitman discussed in his commentary for the film, so it was a bit of a treat to be able to see what he was talking about.

‘In the Red and Brown Water’ transcends boundaries to tell a timeless tale

By Kristen Becker
ArtsPost staff writer

A poor community on a Louisiana bayou provides a fertile setting for a story about what happens when life gets in the way of a young woman’s dreams. Tarell Alvin McCraney tells a timeless tale in “In the Red and Brown Water,” his play about the all-too-human struggle to rise above one’s situation in life — and what happens when failure is the only option.

The new production at The Studio Theatre in Washington portrays the story of Oya, a young African-American woman living in the projects of San Pere, a fictional Louisiana city. Oya is determined to use her talent as a runner to create a promising future for herself. But she makes choices that may thwart her dreams.

Jahi A. Kearse, who plays Ogun, one of Oya’s love interests, interpreted the young woman’s obsessions as a determination to get out of the projects. He explained that in poor communities there are no options for those who want out, especially for women.

Kearse, who grew up in an impoverished area, said that in those environments, “Women are not inspired to make it happen. They are not self-confident enough to move out of these areas and find new opportunities.”

McCraney drew from his own experiences growing up in public housing in Miami to inform his portrayal of life in San Pere. The premise of this story — a person beaten down by circumstances out of their control — is hardly original, but McCraney’s characters make it fresh. And the humor interwoven throughout doesn’t take away from the inherently tragic story; it makes the story more palatable to the audience. He also uses an interesting mix of poetry in the stage directions with contemporary and sometimes vulgar language that contributes to the timeless feel of it; he describes the story as taking place in the “distant present.”

Although it was jarring at first, the decision to have the actors read the stage directions in addition to delivering their lines seemed to serve the function of a Greek chorus, giving insight into not just who was who, but also into the characters’ frame of mind. Given the stark background, with few props and no scenery, it also helped the audience understand what was happening at various points in the play when the lack of visual cues could have been a hindrance to the theatergoer’s overall comprehension of the play.

The play’s creative staging at The Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre matches the unique story-telling devices McCraney uses. The focal point of the Milton Theatre is theater-in-the-round: a small, circular stage in the center of the room with stadium-style seating surrounding it on all sides. Such an intimate setting allows for interaction between the characters and the audience that made us more than spectators. Not only did the actors address the audience, but some of the action also took place in the theater’s aisles, in effect bringing the viewer into the performance. They broke the fourth wall and made me more invested in the story than I would have been if it had been staged in a more traditional way.

McCraney named all of the play’s characters after deities found in the Yoruba religion. (The Yoruba are an ethnic group found primarily in West Africa, namely in Nigeria). According to Kearse, the characters do not necessarily share the same characteristics as their mythological namesakes. For example, he explained that Oya is actually the goddess of fertility, and Ogun, rather than being viewed as rather weak, is one of the stronger gods.

Although he draws inspiration from ancient mythical deities, McCraney creates a timeless tragedy with his play. The action and situations are so universal that they could be taking place anywhere. “In the Red and Brown Water” deals with issues that transcend racial and cultural differences, making the story intriguing for anyone.

Cowboy Mouth brings the Big Easy to D.C.

By Kristen Becker
ArtsPost staff writer

Image of Cowboy Mouth by Guy Aceto, Cowboy Mouth Official Site.

Cowboy Mouth brought the spirit of its native city of New Orleans and the excitement of Mardi Gras to the nation’s capital during their stop in the city Friday night.

As the house lights dimmed, the excitement in D.C.’s 9:30 Club was palpable. As the band members came out on stage to a deafening roar from the crowd and launched directly into the show, it was obvious that the audience’s experience was of the utmost importance to the band.

The band members set the example for how their shows should be enjoyed. From the moment they emerged onstage, Regina Zernay, the band’s bassist, rarely took a break from dancing around as she played; Fred LeBlanc, the band’s frontman and drummer, embodied the idea that the show was all about, as he told the audience, “celebrating the fact that we’re all alive.”

Despite the fact that he was confined to his drum set, LeBlanc, through his over-the-top facial expressions and interactions with the audience, made it clear that he expected the audience to have as much fun as he was.

Cowboy Mouth’s dedicated and energetic fans came ready to comply. Many in the audience carted in their own Mardi Gras beads (those who didn’t could catch the beads thrown out by the band throughout the show). Some fans even came decked out in green, yellow and purple, a tribute to the colors associated with the holiday and the city.

For those who were not familiar with Cowboy Mouth, some of the fan traditions may have been a bit mystifying, such as the presence of concertgoers who were waving plastic red spoons in their hands — it is apparently a tradition to throw the spoons onstage when the band performs the song, “Everybody loves Jill.”

While the band may not be well-known, they perform more than 2,000 concerts per year and claim to have been seen live by 8 million people. Cowboy Mouth has released 11 albums and sold 450,000 records.

Cowboy Mouth’s sound mixes musical genres traditionally associated with New Orleans and more mainstream rock. Rolling Stone magazine described the band’s style as a mix of rock, punk, zydeco, country and folk music. LeBlanc has described the band’s music, saying, “If the Neville Brothers and The Clash had a baby, it would be Cowboy Mouth.”

The music was catchy, if not quite something I would listen to at home. While the band’s energetic performance gave everything they sang a joyous quality, the lyrics also seemed meant to uplift, particularly the song ‘Glad to be Alive,’ which LeBlanc labeled as an “anthem for living.” The sense of joy in both the band and its audience is impossible to miss. As Cowboy Mouth took the stage, LeBlanc reminded his band’s fans that the music was all about “energy, passion, joy and soul.”

The band’s liveliness was contagious. During show opener Junior Brown’s performance, there was not much moving around to the music. In fact, most of the people in the club’s balconies were sitting down – once Cowboy Mouth came out onstage, the atmosphere in the club changed completely. Everyone was on their feet, many dancing around and singing along with the band.

Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and the audience sing-along that accompanied it set the stage for the New Orleans band better than opening -act Junior Brown did. While there is no denying that Brown is adept at playing his guit-steel (a combination of the neck of a standard guitar on top of a modified steel guitar), the audience simply did not seem interested. The sounds of numerous conversations could be easily heard above the music.

But Cowboy Mouth’s live performance is worth the price of admission. LeBlanc succeeds at his mission of spreading the love for life his native city is known for to his audience.