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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Catching up with John Woodard of Chapel Hill landmark Sutton's Drug Store

Posted by on Thu, Feb 5, 2015 at 11:30 AM

Sutton's Drug Store first opened its doors on Franklin Street in 1923. - PHOTO BY FRED WASSER
  • photo by Fred Wasser
  • Sutton's Drug Store first opened its doors on Franklin Street in 1923.
Hollie knows that I need cream for my coffee and that I don’t need syrup for my pancakes.

“We haven’t seen you in a while,” she says. It’s been about a month. It seems I’m now a regular at Sutton’s food counter, and that I was missed.

After the morning rush, owner John Woodard is also drinking coffee at the food counter. He looks great. Well rested. “That’s what people have been telling me,” he says.

The sign above the front door still reads Sutton’s Drug Store, but it’s now a drug store in name only. Woodard was the pharmacist at Sutton’s. But, last June, Woodard sold the pharmacy part of the business to CVS, which opened a few doors up the street on East Franklin in Chapel Hill.

John Woodard at the former pharmacy counter. The shelves seem to contain newly stocked pill bottles. “They’re empty,” says Woodard. “A display.” - PHOTO BY FRED WASSER
  • photo by Fred Wasser
  • John Woodard at the former pharmacy counter. The shelves seem to contain newly stocked pill bottles. “They’re empty,” says Woodard. “A display.”
Even without the pharmacy, Sutton’s is still Sutton’s. The food counter seems busy. Various odds and ends are sold on the store’s open shelves: Candy, snacks, newspapers, cigarettes and an impressive array of bottled sodas. Stacked next to the front register are free copies of a 2015 wall calendar with illustrations by Norman Rockwell.

INDY: How has your life changed since you closed the pharmacy?

JOHN WOODARD
: The wonderful thing about it is that I don’t have the stress and the irritation of fighting with the insurance companies. It’s so nice not having to worry about that. Being able to stay afloat as a small independent—it’s just hard to do. It all comes down to profit. When you can’t make enough profit off the prescription volume, you need to cut and make some changes. I still come in every day just as if we were still open as a full-fledged drug store. This is my home away from home. This is where all my friends come.

Sutton’s first opened its doors in 1923. What was the place like in 1977 when you took over?

At that time, the store was full of all kinds of merchandise just like all the other stores up and down the block. We had lots of over-the-counter medications as well as toiletries. Even cleaning supplies. Most drug stores didn’t have food counters at the time. There were several stores that had a soda fountain where they served drinks and ice cream, but not much in the way of food.

Food counter at Sutton’s, 1984 - COURTESY OF JOHN WOODARD
  • courtesy of John Woodard
  • Food counter at Sutton’s, 1984
I understand there used to be a cosmetics counter, and toys, too.

There was a toy store down in the basement. Mrs. Sutton had an incredible cosmetics counter, which I inherited when I bought the store. 

You worked the pharmacy counter. Did you ever work behind the food counter or the soda fountain?

Oh gosh, yes. The first four or five years the prescription part of the store was struggling with all the competition up and down the block. There was plenty of time for me to learn what it was like to be an employee at the soda fountain. I loved to make the milk shakes. It got to be where I could make them pretty fast. I got to meet so many people by simply pouring coffee. I was taking food orders when it got busy as well as ringing up sales at the cash register.

The photos of Sutton’s customers on the walls, the Carolina basketball jerseys hanging from the walls and the ceiling—they’re a dominant feature of Sutton’s. How did the photo taking get started?

The wall of photos at Sutton's. - PHOTO BY FRED WASSER
  • photo by Fred Wasser
  • The wall of photos at Sutton's.
It was at that time in the early 1980s when the buying habits of the public started changing whenever the big box stores started coming. Don Pinney [now the store manager] and I went over to Durham and bought four booths that someone was trying to get rid of. We had them set up to see what we could do to increase the sales at the food counter. But the pegboard walls looked so bare. [Longtime Sutton’s cook] Willie Mae Houk and I were thinking: what in the world can we put on these walls to make them not look so bad? And she said: don’t you have pictures you took of some of the ball players when they’d come in to eat? I went upstairs and found 11 8x10s I had taken. And the next thing you know, we were getting people requesting: can we get our picture up there on that wall, too? The number of photos just mushroomed. I still have to have a camera here because you never know who is going to want to have their picture taken.

*   *   *

PHOTO BY FRED WASSER
  • photo by Fred Wasser
Sutton’s Drug Store has expanded beyond Franklin Street. Since August, in partnership with the sports bar Pantana Bob’s, Sutton’s has been operating a food truck.

The truck is parked at the 300 block of West Rosemary Street, Chapel Hill, next to Pantana Bob’s. Hours of operation: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Breakfast hours resume in the spring.

“The tater tots are the biggest thing,” says Lynn Brammer, who works the food truck. “Between midnight and three I get really busy. A lot of students are regulars. If you can believe it, I have a following!”

In general, the menu dovetails with Sutton’s on Franklin. It includes burgers, hotdogs, French fries, chicken tenders and barbecue.

“Cheap price, good food,” says Corey Davis, Lynn’s colleague at the truck, about what they offer.

Fred Wasser is a radio and print journalist based in Chapel Hill. Contact him via Breathing Room Radio.
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    Though Sutton's is now a drug store in name only, its food counter and truck are alive and well.

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Friday, January 30, 2015

Movie review: The found-footage genre, teen romance and time travel collide in Project Almanac

Posted by on Fri, Jan 30, 2015 at 8:12 AM

Teen romance and hinky time travel in Project Almanac - COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES
  • courtesy of Paramount Pictures
  • Teen romance and hinky time travel in Project Almanac
Project Almanac
★★ ½ 
Now playing

I'm a sucker for good time-travel stories, in films and in books. Something about temporal paradoxes makes my brain itch in a totally pleasant way. So when a promising but ultimately underwhelming time-travel movie like Project Almanac comes along, I figure—eh, you take what you can get.

From the studio that brought you the found-footage horror franchise Paranormal Activity, Project Almanac migrates the shaky-cam approach into the teenage sci-fi adventure realm. When a gang of high school misfits discovers secret blueprints for a “temporal displacement device”—a time machine—they do what you might expect teenagers to do with such an opportunity. Comedy and drama ensue.

The kids take a DIY approach to building the time machine, stealing hydrogen from the high-school chem lab and solving the battery problem by hotwiring a neighborhood Prius. These early scenes are clever and funny—Almanac has a welcome sense of humor about itself. Director Dean Israelite references classics of the time-travel canon with playful visual nods: Back to the Future, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and the more recent (and underrated) Looper.

Our heroes are led by MIT applicant David Raskin, played by Jonny Weston in a performance that’s sure to win him better roles. Weston is a real find—he projects an intelligence that helps sell the character, but with the good looks and easy charm required to carry a movie coproduced by MTV Films. He's funny, too—all the performers are, and the script has surprisingly smart jokes throughout.

The movie’s second half disintegrates steadily, however, as teen romance trumps comedy and the crisscrossing timeline paradoxes stack and finally tumble. It’s incredibly difficult to pull off time-travel stories. Ask Isaac Asimov. It might be even harder in films, but it can be done. Check out Shane Carruth's excellent Primer for a no-budget how-to guide.

Almanac also handicaps itself with the found-footage conceit, a gimmick that’s truly exhausted. The movie gets some mileage out of the truism that today’s teenagers love to document themselves, but the logistics of several scenes spill into the totally implausible. In those critical moments when we should be asking, “Wait a minute—how did that happen?” we're instead wondering: “Wait a minute—how is there a camera-phone here?”

Project Almanac squanders a lot of its own potential. In an alternate timeline—with a few rewrites, say—it could have been a smart and lively update to the venerable time-machine story. Instead, it’s an OK sci-fi adventure, pitched at teens with disposable incomes, and dumped in January, where, unfortunately, it pretty much belongs.


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    The surprisingly funny, well-scripted film stumbles on plot holes and temporal paradoxes.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Interview: A resurgent Paul Reiser on life after Mad About You

Posted by on Thu, Jan 29, 2015 at 11:23 AM

Paul Reiser - COURTESY OF THE CAROLINA THEATRE
  • courtesy of the Carolina Theatre
  • Paul Reiser
Paul Reiser
The Carolina Theatre, Durham
Saturday, Jan. 31, 8 p.m.


Even Paul Reiser admits that he’ll probably always be most remembered for his Emmy-winning 1990s sitcom Mad About You, but the veteran actor, writer and comedian has enjoyed a renewed profile recently, including a supporting turn in Best Picture Oscar nominee Whiplash as well as roles on the FX series Married and Amazon’s Red Oaks—and now, a new stand-up comedy tour, coming to the Carolina Theatre this weekend. We recently spoke with Reiser about the surprise success of a small film, the changing entertainment business and whether he’s ready to become an action figure.

INDY: So I have to warn you—I wrote a blurb about your appearance, and it was a bit gushy.

PAUL REISER: Ooh, gushy!

I was saying I felt that you’ve been doing the best work of your career lately, with Whiplash, Married and Red Oaks.

Hold on, let me get my tape recorder. I need this for posterity!

They’re all very different projects, and different types of roles.

Yeah, it’s been weird to even try and figure out where all these roles come from, and why they seem to come in clusters. When I started stand-up a thousand years ago, I always said stand-up was my main thing, and everything else, the acting, it was kind of a bonus. I was kind of laying low by design, and about three years ago, I got back into doing stand-up. Coincidentally or not, everything else started to happen. Such is life! These things all generated from the filmmakers, who all had different things in mind. So it was very easy for me to say yes to all of them—the roles were great and the commitments were limited.

It’s certainly interesting to be in your 50s and get different roles than you would in your 20s. Red Oaks reminded me of Richard Crenna in The Flamingo Kid, and not that long ago I could have been the younger guy. But there’s something to be said about being the older guy. I find that true with stand-up as well—you have a lot more to say than in your 20s. You might think you know more when you’re starting out, but you really do know more when you’re in your 50s.

Congratulations to everyone on Whiplash for the Oscar nominations, by the way.

It was a very pleasant surprise. I knew Whiplash would be great because I saw the short, and that was great in and of itself. Everyone who saw the movie was knocked out by it, but because it was so small, we thought it might get overwhelmed by bigger films. But J.K. Simmons—that performance is just so overwhelming. And Miles Teller—I feel like that performance is overlooked. It’s as good as J.K. Simmons, but it’s quieter.

I thought your part was important because it was the anti-Simmons character—the angel on the kid’s shoulder. A good man, very kind and concerned for his son, but with a level of comfort that could represent holding yourself back from genius. There’s a lot you have to convey with that.

[Writer/director Damien Chazelle] wrote a lot of subtext in there, really beautiful. The truth is, as a father, I can see this—when your kids reach a certain age, you never stop wanting to protect them, but when you see them heading down a certain road, sometimes you have to let it happen. Miles’ character sees his father as a failure. We don’t know if the father is unhappy. He wanted to be a novelist and he teaches high-school English. That wasn’t his dream come true, but he doesn’t seem unhappy.

But it’s the kid’s rejection of that failed dream that makes him ripe for the picking. Someone says, “Hey, you want to aspire to greatness?” and he’s going to do it. It’s “I love my dad, but I don’t want to be my dad.” You push away the one you love because you want to be your own man. All that was in the script in very subtle and measured ways. And it made me very pleased to see it get recognized.

What’s the focus of your show at the Carolina Theatre?

It’s funny—I realize I’ve taken such a long break from doing stand-up that not a lot has changed. The material is all new, but my take on the world is very similar to what it used to be. Some people might only know me from Mad About You, and they’re not going to be surprised. [Laughs] The guy on Mad About You was designed to be like me so I wouldn’t have to act so much!

I can talk about stuff that amuses me and confounds me, like trying to raise kids, or talk about marriage—Mad About You was born out of my stand-up, being a newlywed and trying to figure that out. A lot has changed in 25 years, but there’s a certain relatability that’s still there. The best compliment people would give me was, “That sounded just like a fight I had at my house!” And now people are coming out of my show and going, “That was exactly right!” I say comedians are like everyone else, but they write everything down.

It’s an interesting time for stand-up because of new outlets such as iTunes or YouTube.

That old model of going on The Tonight Show and killing it—that hasn’t been the case in decades. There’s plenty of comedians who are building a base on YouTube or through podcasts, but quality rises to the top. If someone’s good, if they’re doing something different, they’re going to get noticed. But [YouTube] is not my path—I’m never going to pop out of the box. I’m slow and steady. I’m never like, “Let’s put some clips out there!” I’m more “Let’s go to the club, go to the theater!”

It’s the old-school way of refining your act, building it up, versus the newer way, where you don’t have to sand down your edges for a mass audience, but if you bomb, people will be Tweeting about it as it happens.

Yeah, that’s very true. Someone can see your clip and go “I gotta see that guy when he’s coming to town!” but if you’re having a bad night, and we all do … I’ve been doing different venues such as clubs, this beautiful theater, even casinos, and it’s a different feel, mixing it up. That helps things be more consistent, in a way.

What’s coming up for you?

I just finished a small part in a big movie, Concussion, with Will Smith—that’s coming out this Christmas. It’s about the NFL. And I’ve got a couple of TV things. I’m doing another season of Married, I’m doing a season of Red Oaks and I’m writing a thing for Amazon. They’re going to look at it and see if they want to do a pilot.

Amazon’s really changing the game, expanding on the Netflix originals with their pilot seasons.

It’s for the better! There’s more outlets, so you don’t just have to pitch to three or four networks, and you don’t need the same numbers to qualify as a success. Transparent just won the Golden Globe, and however many people saw it, I bet it would have gotten it canceled on a network. And you only have to do 10 [episodes], so it’s almost like watching a long movie chopped up into little pieces. It’s a very different way to proceed, and more comfortable than 22 half-hours or even hours per year.

I have friends who work in TV, and they talk about the challenge of coming up with enough story to keep it going.

Yeah, it’s a challenge! Every week, you go, “We faked them out again—fooled them until next week.” I’m reading Norman Lear’s book [Even This I Get to Experience] and at one point he had seven—seven!—hit shows on the air at once. It’s inconceivable.

When Mad About You started, I met Larry Gelbart, who created M*A*S*H, the TV show. This was the middle of the first season, and battle fatigue had set in. I asked him, “How do you do it?” And he said, “You have to remember—your shows are like your children. You’re going to make 22 children a year, and not all of them are going to be beautiful. A couple are going to be genius—you’re going to be so proud of their accomplishments. A couple, you’re going to want to keep in the house, don’t let 'em be seen. And the vast majority will be just fine. They’ll be upstanding citizens, they’re not going to hurt anybody, they’re okay.”

And it turned out to be about right. Every season, you’ll have a couple where you’ll go, “Put them in the vault! That’s classic!” You have two or three where you go, “Whew, got through that one. Don’t look too closely at the packaging.” And the majority, you’ll go, “That was fun. Got another show to make next week.” Which brings me back to Amazon—you get to do 10, you can write them all in a row and you’re not chasing your tail. It’s almost a luxury.

OK, we’re about out of time and I have one goofy fanboy question for you. Brace yourself.

Doing it.

They’ve been doing action figures from Aliens lately. As a great fan of the movie and your character, Carter Burke, I have to ask—are you ready for the world to potentially have a Paul Reiser action figure?

I am. I am sitting by, posing, in case they’re ready to call. You know, the Burke action figure’s gonna be a little dull. [Laughs] All the other actors had like two weeks of boot camp. They were learning to handle their guns and belts and all this great gear. I showed up and I got a little binder. I had a little diary I took onboard. The soldiers had all the cool stuff, and I had a pencil. That’s what the Burke figure would come with, a Filofax notebook. 
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    A lively chat with the actor and comedian, fresh off roles in Whiplash, Married and Red Oaks, who comes to the Carolina Theatre on Jan. 31.

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Dance review: Nrityagram Dance Ensemble's Songs of Love & Longing

Posted by on Thu, Jan 29, 2015 at 9:34 AM

Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy in Songs of Love & Longing - PHOTO BY NAN MELVILLE / COURTESY OF DUKE PERFORMANCES
  • photo by Nan Melville / courtesy of Duke Performances
  • Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy in Songs of Love & Longing
Nrityagram Dance Ensemble: Songs of Love & Longing
Reynolds Industries Theater, Durham
Thursday, Jan. 22, 8 p.m.


At Reynolds Theater, courtesy of Duke Performances, Nrityagram Dance Ensemble’s Songs of Love & Longing enticed a sold-out house with alluring movement and arresting facial expressions from the Indian classical dance style Odissi. The 85-minute production by the world-class company consisted of five sections, all based on verses from the Gita Govinda. A well-known work by the 12th-century poet Jayadeva, it depicts the various moods of a lovelorn heroine. Specifically, the verses focus on the mercurial feelings of the milkmaid Radha towards her lover, the deity Krishna.

In this production, Radha talks to her sakhi (maid-friend) about missing Krishna. The sentiments quickly turn to jealousy when Radha thinks of Krishna’s charming demeanor and his various milkmaid friends. The sakhi gives Radha a letter from Krishna, which tells Radha to meet him at a specific location. Radha waits and waits, yet Krishna is nowhere to be found.

Much later, Krishna arrives and shows signs of having been with another woman. Radha, furious, castigates him and advises him to leave. Krishna, repenting for his actions, comes back and pronounces his eternal love for Radha. In the final section, Radha and Krishna reunite in sensual choreography.

Odissi, originating from the eastern Indian state of Odisha (formerly Orissa), is a dance style that emphasizes graceful upper body movements, percussive footwork and proficiency in esoteric facial expressions. Some signature stances and movements of Odissi include isolated torso movements, the chouka stance and the tribhangi stance. The chouka and tribhangi stances contrast with each other. The former is a square-like leg stance with bent knees, with a 6-inch gap between the turned-out feet. The latter is a three-point bend, in which the head and hip project in one direction and the chest in the opposite direction.

The production centered on the concept of “Eka Aharya” abhinaya, literally translated as “one costume” acting. The dancers did not wear costumes to distinguish the characters of Radha and Krishna. Instead, they donned traditional Odissi recital costumes and sultry eye makeup to highlight the facial expressions. The dancers also switched characters in the middle of the production. Essentially, it was a test of the strength in the dancers’ abhinaya.

Each section began with introductory narration, and all but the last included an abhinaya demonstration to go along with the narration. With linear leg extensions and sinuous tribhangis, it was apparent that the dancers embodied every nuance of Odissi meticulously. The dance highlights were in the final section showing Radha and Krishna uniting as one.

Introducing Radha through the feminine tribhangi stance and Krishna through the masculine chouka stance, the section was laden with innovative choreography. The dancers’ depiction of a bee obtaining nectar from a flower was an ideal personification of Radha and Krishna’s reunion. Torso movements requiring high levels of skill were sprinkled throughout this section.

The concept of the show was intriguing and the execution of the dance was phenomenal. It was a given that this production would be more abhinaya-centric (expressionistic), rather than nritta-based (pure dance). However, the few nritta sequences were a refreshing break against the intensity of the sringara abhinaya (expressions of love), and demonstrated finesse in the style. The addition of more nritta sequences could have further embellished the production.

However, the concept and execution also led to some confusion. Relying on the dancers’ acting led to a sophisticated game of charades, made more abstruse by how the dancers switched roles. During the third section, the dancer portraying Radha suddenly became Krishna, and vice-versa. The narration seemed to start with Bijayini Satpathy demonstrating the emotions of Radha, but then Surupa Sen, who had played Krishna in earlier sections, took on the role for Radha for the dancing. The role changes were explained in the brochure, but viewers who did not read it might have been confused.

Still, the performance translated to a transcendent experience. The boundaries between the dancers, orchestra and audience were blurred as the dance delineated the passages of love and longing. In ballet, the orchestra is seated in a pit that is not visible to the audience, but in Indian classical styles, the orchestra is given equal prominence, seated on the right side of the stage. Uniformed in Indian attire, even the orchestra’s synchronized curtain call exemplified an attention to detail in every aspect of the performance.

Nrityagram Dance Ensemble is a renowned Odissi-based dance group with a learning village, where a community of dancers lives and learns together, based near Bangalore, a city otherwise known as the “Silicon Valley of India.” While the group adheres to the rules of Indian classical dance, it strives to tailor its themes for a 21st-century audience. The choreography is a manifestation of this mission, and sets the group apart from other Odissi dancers. Songs of Love & Longing brought authentic Indian flavor to the Triangle; the thought of future shows would be much anticipated. 
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    The world-class Indian dance company's superior technique and contemporary edge brought Radha and Krishna to life at Duke Performances.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Queue: Class conflict and Victorian grotesques—you know, for the kids—in The Boxtrolls

Posted by on Thu, Jan 22, 2015 at 12:00 PM

The Boxtrolls is different, dark, a little Marxist and fucking amazing. - COURTESY OF FOCUS FEATURES
  • courtesy of Focus Features
  • The Boxtrolls is different, dark, a little Marxist and fucking amazing.
Watching the stop-motion animated film THE BOXTROLLS at home over the weekend, I went through three distinct phases of reaction:

1. Wow, this is different.

2. Wow, this is dark.

3. Wow, this is fucking amazing.

I kept the f-bomb in my internal monologue—I was watching with the kids—but the rest I literally said out loud at various points. In a very strong year for smart and funny family films, The Boxtrolls was 2014’s best animated feature. It’s got my vote, anyway, and is one of five Oscar nominees in the category this year.


The story: In the surreal Victorian-era town of Cheesebridge, subterranean tinkerers known as boxtrolls emerge to scavenge the streets at night, building ornate contraptions in their caves beneath the city. The boxtrolls are peaceful, but have been vilified by a sort of allegorical corporatocracy of effete lords and corrupt industrialists.

Our hero is a teenage boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), raised by the boxtrolls and unaware of his human heritage. Through an inventive and tightly constructed story, Eggs endeavors to bring peace between the humans and the critters. Also on board in voiceover roles: Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Tracy Morgan (!) and Simon Pegg.

Painstakingly assembled by the stop-motion animation studio Laika—the same team behind Coraline and ParaNormanThe Boxtrolls is never less than rich and fascinating, visually. (If you’ve seen those films, you know the style.) But this time, it’s the story that really sells the enterprise as a whole. Based on the novel Here Be Monsters!, the film is delightfully dark and sophisticated in tone, with a subversive edge that recalls the wily social satire of vintage Monty Python.

At the same time, the movie is broad and kinetic enough to engage kids on a whole ‘nother level. The characterizations veer toward the sort of old-timey grotesques (think Punch and Judy) that have been effective at entertaining children for centuries. I can report that my first-grade daughter, typically devoted to rainbows and ponies, absolutely loved The Boxtrolls.

The film just rotated onto DVD and Blu-ray, but it’s actually been available via digital distribution for a few weeks. You can get to it on iTunes or Amazon, on-demand through cable/satellite (AT&T U-verse has it locally in the Triangle area), or via the various set-top box and game console networks.

This is another example of the abiding weirdness that is digital distribution right now. All these great movies are out there, in the same price range as in the old video store days, available at the touch of a button. But because there’s no one-stop shopping solution for digital purchases, people get confused and wait for Redbox.

Anyway, with kids or without, The Boxtrolls is worth tracking down. Some other notable releases this week, now available on digital and disc:

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike headline the twisty thriller GONE GIRL.

Scarlett Johansson plays a sci-fi super-soldier in director Luc Besson’s LUCY.

One seriously creepy porcelain doll makes trouble in the retro-horror ANNABELLE.

And some picks for new January releases on Netflix:

Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Chinatown (1974)
Footloose (1984)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
Marathon Man (1976)
Swingers (1996)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Oh, and a little international incident called THE INTERVIEW will start streaming on Netflix this Saturday:


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    What to watch this week—and where to find it—on Digital HD, DVD and Blu-ray.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Movie review: Chris Hemsworth is hard to swallow as a computer genius in Blackhat

Posted by on Fri, Jan 16, 2015 at 11:07 AM

blackhat-BKH_Fin1Sheet_53REV_RGB_1027_1_rgb.jpg
Blackhat
★★
Now playing


With surveillance concerns, security breaches and foreign hacker attacks tumbling though the news cycle pretty much constantly these days, it would seem that Michael Mann’s new thriller, Blackhat, is well-timed to reflect our cultural anxieties.

And it would be, I suppose, if the movie were really about hackers. But despite the marketing campaign and title—“black hat” is a term for a malicious hacker—Mann's film is really about his usual crime thriller concerns: nighttime cityscapes, reflective surfaces and hard men with big guns.

Chris Hemsworth—a genuinely terrible casting choice—headlines as computer genius and furloughed convict Nichoas Hathaway. (Is there anything about Hemworth's Hunk Ra-gorgeousness that suggests genius or convict?) Hathaway is doing time for high-end computer fraud. He's the sort of hacker that can manipulate prison commissary accounts, given five minutes on a contraband mobile phone.

Hathaway has been sprung from the penitentiary by FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), who needs his expertise to track down a vicious hacker responsible for a nuclear plant explosion in China. Also on the bilateral investigative team: Hathaway’s old MIT roommate Chen (Wang Leehom), now a high-ranking Chinese intelligence official, and Chen's sister (Tang Wei), commercial software expert and designated love interest.

The utility infrastructure hack and subsequent nuclear explosion are intriguing and scary. These are the film’s best early scenes. But the tired premise—government agency recruits computer genius with shady past—has been done to death in the hacksploitation genre. I kept expecting a twist, but no luck.

In any case, it doesn’t much matter, because the computer hacking details are gradually shunted off into MacGuffin territory as the gun fights, chase sequences and action scenes pile up. It should be noted that these are uncommonly good-looking gun fights, chase sequences and action scenes. Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh tear through several locations in Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Jakarta, toggling between moody nighttime skylines and brutal, bloody urban combat.

Visual style is Mann’s core strength as a filmmaker, and he’s got a good way with music, too. The man knows how to bounce light off metal with proper ambient scoring. The film also provides some cool CGI sequences where we follow the action of intrusion software on the silicon substrate level.

But just about everything else here falls flat. The villain’s not that scary, his machinations aren’t that clever, Hemsworth can’t sell his character, and there is no chemistry at all between him and Tang. Most disappointing, though, is the sense of missed opportunity.

Right now, it would be lovely—or at least, cathartic—to see a smart, compelling thriller about international cybercrime and disaster-level hacking gambits. Mann’s just the guy to make that film, too. He just didn’t, that’s all.
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    Michael Mann would be perfect to make a film about hacking—if only that were what this movie was about.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Raleigh Little Theatre cancels Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Posted by on Tue, Jan 13, 2015 at 12:13 PM

Bloodybloody.jpg
Raleigh Little Theatre announced yesterday that it has canceled a scheduled May production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, replacing it with a run of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The company reports making the decision on the basis of conversations with the region's Native American community over the fall.

The musical satire based on the life of the seventh American president won awards for best musical and book during a run at the Public Theatre before transferring to Broadway in 2010/11.

But the controversial work, which recasts American history as a scathing satire in the vein of South Park or The Book of Mormon, has seen increasing criticism over its depiction of Jackson's treatment of Native Americans while in office.

Jackson advocated for and carried out the Indian Removal Act, which led to the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans in the 1830s along the Trail of Tears.

After Native Americans criticized the original off-Broadway run, public protests accompanied a June 2014 production in Minneapolis. After that, students at Stanford University cancelled a production in November following on-campus protests.

The musical was selected for the current Raleigh Little Theatre season prior to the arrival of new artistic director Patrick Torres. Shortly after starting last fall, Torres initiated a series of conversations on the work with the regional Native American community.

"I felt it was really important to rally support around it, and get Native American voices involved in the production," Torres told the INDY on Friday. He said that through those conversations, he found no way to continue the production with Native American support.

"No matter how the play is executed, the Native American community feels that it comes at the expense of historical facts and atrocities that [Jackson] instigated against their ancestors and family. There was no accurate and clear way to engage them in the process; as an institution, we would be excluding them from the production."

"No matter how great the production was, what [the conversations] ultimately said was there was not a way to do it that is not potentially hurtful to them," Torres said.

Torres and company president Charles Phaneuf said that Raleigh Little Theatre experienced no direct pressure to cancel the play. Both denied that the move constitutes censorship, external or self-imposed.

"In our community, where there's such a vibrant Native American community, part of our mission is to be a welcoming place that enriches and engages the community," Torres said. "So it's not really an issue of censorship. It's more an idea of living out our mission."

The satire depicts Jackson as a populist rock star and includes lyrics like "We're gonna take this country back for people like us." New York Times critic Ben Brantley called the work "a rowdy political carnival" whose 2010 run felt "unconditionally (and alarmingly) of the moment."

Brantley characterized Bloody's Jackson as "a sort of moonshine shindig equivalent of a Tea Party candidate." Professor Jeffrey Matthews, who directed a 2014 production at Washington University in St. Louis, noted, “By the end of the musical, you’re meant to ask yourself, ‘Was Jackson actually the American Hitler?’"

But in an open letter published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, playwright Rhiana Yazzie of New Native Theater wrote, "The truth is that Andrew Jackson was not a rockstar and his campaign against tribal people ... is not a farcical backdrop to some emotive, brooding celebrity. Can you imagine a show wherein Hitler was portrayed as a justified, sexy rockstar?"
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    Citing concerns from Native American groups, Raleigh Little Theatre will replace the controversial show with Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

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Friday, January 2, 2015

Dance review: A brutal, moving Brother Brother in its U.S. premiere

Posted by on Fri, Jan 2, 2015 at 3:18 PM

Tommy Noonan feels out the walls of the Carrack, where important parts of Brother Brother take place. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Tommy Noonan feels out the walls of the Carrack, where important parts of Brother Brother take place.
Tommy Noonan and Clint Lutes
Brother Brother
The Carrack Modern Art, Dec. 20, 8 p.m.


Tommy Noonan and Clint Lutes emerged from a closet wearing white terrycloth bathrobes, then stripped down to black briefs and tennis shoes. They stood side by side, an arm’s length away from the audience, staring at us. Their almost affectless expressions held a subtle challenge, which slackened into what has to be described as malevolent stupidity. Then they started cracking up. Their doltish laughter kept resurfacing during Brother Brother, their 50-minute duet of brutality and tenderness, and gradually gave way to screams of raw animal pain.

Lutes lives in Europe, and Noonan was based there for several years before moving to Saxapahaw, where he cofounded the artist-support organization Culture Mill last year. Though it has been performed dozens of times overseas, Brother Brother just had its U.S. premiere at the Carrack as a part of Durham Independent Dance Artists first season. The shows DIDA promotes are developed independently, which makes their thematic unity to date almost eerie, especially because Brother Brother was created in Germany in 2009. Nevertheless, it seems to build on themes from the first two DIDA shows, real.live.people.durham’s it’s not me it’s you and Justin Tornow’s The Weights. It also has the rough polish, emotional intimacy and committed energy we are quickly coming to expect from DIDA’s imprimatur.

As much sport as dance, Brother Brother is full of feats of strength, agility and endurance—for both protracted exertion and bodily injury. Noonan and Lutes are constantly running and jogging, lifting and slamming, panting and grunting, their exertions punctuated by random screams and pathetic whimpers. It has elements of the marathon, the gladiatorial contest, the playground slap fight, the pro wrestling cage match. The context of masculine fraternity and pugnacity has a subtext of vulnerability—of a thwarted impulse for gentleness. The contestants battle a primitive undertow as much as each other. They portray brutish creatures experiencing moments of kindness they don’t know how to process, and their efforts to work together keep regressing into atavistic conflict.

Raggedly synchronized locomotion dominates a hypnotic first half. The Carrack’s floor thrummed dangerously, as if the gallery had become an engine. Locked on purgatorial tracks, Noonan and Lutes resorted to vocalizations for variety and detail, and an abrupt scream unleashed at the far wall startled me from a trance. In a small space, with the dancers and audience on the same plane, interactivity was a given. At one point, Lutes briefly sat on a wide-eyed spectator’s lap.

At first, the action was often funny, even slapstick. Noonan dragged out a metal desk that held a tray, two glasses of water and a bag of dried peas, then tried to handle them all with frantic ineptitude. Lutes reclined on a towel and offered no help, looking faintly impatient. So Noonan foisted the tray of peas onto a front-row spectator, who swayed it back and forth to make a silky, trickling sound, like a rainstick. Noonan and Lutes jogged in place, suspended in Carl Faber’s stark lighting, vocally parodying the sound. They made zooming traffic noises, as if nearly being hit by speeding cars, swatted at invisible flies, barked like dogs. Lutes mimed stepping in shit. The audience laughed plenty of times.

But physical comedy soon turned to combat and, eventually, pathos. In this final show of the three-day run, Noonan and Lutes could make one last physical push without worrying about keeping something back for the next show. You could feel limits being tested. Noonan received one particularly serious, WWF-caliber body slam that made me gasp in sympathy. They both tried to climb up each other to the ceiling, muttering encouragements, failing. Their sorties on unreachable frontiers became more desperate, as in a breathtaking moment when Noonan hoisted Lutes to run along the wall like Spider-Man. There was an escalating violent joy when they pushed each other into walls, but there was fear, too; Lutes leaped into Noonan’s arms for an infant’s embrace. As the lifts grew increasingly awkward, the performers deflated. In a corner, Lutes stood on Noonan, first on his bowed back, then on his buttocks as he crumpled down.

Then Noonan gave the lone speech amid all the inarticulate bellowing. In a casual, everyday tone, he described dreaming of being with Lutes on an island made of LEGO. They were laughing about wearing underpants and sneakers. But their laughter changed to screaming, because they were in pain, and vomiting everywhere. This was worrisome, as the dream had so far been coming true. Noonan invoked Zeno’s Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise (though not by name) to describe he and Lutes drawing nearer and nearer each other, as if about to kiss, but never touching. So they settled for touching their own sharp shadows on the white wall, adding monastic, dying hums to sinuous recorded music. They closed with a coda where, thankfully, they refrained from vomiting, producing bird sounds with water and straws instead.

This dynamic between two muttering men, jockeying for weak and dominant positions, reminded me of Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor’s recreation of Two Room Apartment at the Nasher at ADF this year. But really, this was a unique, visceral dance that felt shorter than 50 minutes and resonated for much longer. DIDA season opener it’s not me it’s you dealt, in part, with the frictions of friendship and collaboration, and second show The Weights was noted by Chris Vitiello for its territorial qualities. Brother Brother transcends its innate themes and hooks into timely regional ones, in an area rife with busy younger dancemakers who are understandably alive to the fine line between competition and cooperation.
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    Tommy Noonan and Clint Lutes run, wrestle and clash throughout this third show from Durham Independent Dance Artists.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Year in review: You have to see theatrical releases to rank them

Posted by on Wed, Dec 31, 2014 at 10:21 AM

Zack would have liked to see Richard Linklater's groundbreaking Boyhood ... but who's got three hours to spare these days? - COURTESY MATT LANKES / IFC FILMS
  • courtesy Matt Lankes / IFC Films
  • Zack would have liked to see Richard Linklater's groundbreaking Boyhood ... but who's got three hours to spare these days?
Recently, the INDY asked me if I’d provide a list of the top 10 films I saw in the past year.

The request threw me, because it made me realize something: There’s a lot less pressure to see a film in the theater than there used to be.

Understand, I’ve never been a primary part of the skilled crew of film critics for the paper—my wheelhouse includes plays, bookstore events and comic books. Often, the films I write about are revival screenings at local theaters. But the gaps in my moviegoing this year are shameful, and the worst part is, I know exactly why I didn’t see many of the most talked-about films. For example, Boyhood is nearly three hours long. Factor in travel time to and from the theater, and that’s nearly four hours. Every time I tried to block out that four hours, I found myself thinking, “Well, I could go to the gym, or to a bookstore, or could finish binge-watching The Shield TV series on DVD… .”

The “I can put it off” mentality led to complicated scheduling. If I visited www.therialto.com, I could see exactly when the indie films they were showing would be leaving the rotation. “ENDS THURSDAY!” was a red flag. I usually work a part-time job until 8 on Thursday, and if a film was splitting theater space with another film, it might only have a screening at 7. And, of course, Wednesdays often meant regular film showings were preempted for a revival screening, such as Cinema Overdrive. A few times, I’d spontaneously decide to catch a film on Wednesday, only to find I’d forgotten to check for a special event. Viewing window gone.

Cinema Overdrive and other events created a reverse pressure—if I knew a movie would only play one night or a single weekend, I felt more compelled to see it than a major Hollywood production. My work schedule keeps me from seeing many of the wonderful films at the North Carolina Museum of Art, but with Cinema Inc., the aforementioned Overdrive and Cool Classics at the Colony, and the many Retrofantasma and related features at the Carolina Theatre of Durham, there was plenty to fill the gap.

When I did make it to theaters, I put smaller independent films at the top of my list, films I knew wouldn’t have a wide theatrical release in the Triangle. I’m still glad I caught the likes of Snowpiercer and the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself at the Colony (if you missed it, it was recently announced that CNN will show it Sunday, Jan. 4, at 9 p.m.).

Hollywood films were easier to miss. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were limited screens and a wait of about a year before a film became available on VHS for rental. Now, there’s only a three-month delay or so between a film's wide theatrical release and it becoming a $2.25 ticket at the second-run Carmike near my house. Wait a little longer and you can outright own a film on DVD or Blu-Ray, or enjoy it on Netflix Instant, Amazon Streaming, iTunes, HBOGo (which most people “borrow” the password for anyway) or assorted other options.

It all reminds me of what I read about television becoming popular in the 1950s. You could experience for free at home what once required a movie ticket, so how did movies compete? Some got larger, like Roman epics in “Cinemascope.” The smaller films, such as horror movies, went for gimmicks like 3-D and exploitation to draw in curious audiences.

You can still see patterns like this in modern cinema. Go to a larger theater, and you’ll get an ad before a film where a big action scene shrinks down to the size of a computer screen, with an admonition that it really deserves to be seen at full size. Many big studio releases use (often unnecessary) digital 3-D as an added incentive to see a film in a theater. And one of the most lively revival screenings I caught this year was a presentation of gimmick-king William Castle’s The Tingler at the Carolina Theatre, where fans packed Fletcher Hall to experience flashlights being shined in their eyes, a skeleton on a bungee cord and onscreen cues telling them when to scream. There was a sense of community you couldn’t get from watching the same movie at home on a DVD.

As guilty as I feel for cutting back my theater-going experiences in 2014, I recognize that I still made it to the movies more frequently than many less-cinema-obsessed people. Revivals included, I probably saw 30, 40 movies in a theater this year. According to Nielsen’s 2014 Moviegoing Report, the average person saw 7.3 films in a theater in 2014, down from 7.7 in 2013. The drive downward was blamed on “Digitals,” those aged 12-24, who preferred a streamed (and, in some cases, pirated) experience.

So. What does this mean?

The logical answer would seem to be that studio films are going to keep getting bigger, and keep relying on countless sequels, remakes and adaptations to lure audiences back. Indeed, a recent piece by the excellent writer Mark Harris at Grantland offers a truly intimidating compilation of what we’ll see over the next several years. Even as a hardcore comic book fan, I’m expecting to get burned out on the various linked-and-semi-linked Marvel Comics-based movies, or Warner Bros.’ efforts to compete with their build-up to a Justice League film. And every time a multi-film plan for some novel adaptation comes up, I die a little inside. When I was a kid, The Hobbit was an 80-minute cartoon on TV, not a nine-hour trilogy that takes longer to watch than to read the original book (yes, I know they delved into other Tolkien material to pad it out. Still don’t care).

But I’ve got a strange optimism. I’m teaching a course at N.C. State’s McKimmon Center in January based on another Harris work, his book Pictures at a Revolution, detailing the Best Picture nominees of 1967. Those five films were Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and Doctor Doolittle, a crossroads of the dying studio system’s bloated, out-of-touch productions and the edgier, more relevant “New Hollywood” that resulted in the creative renaissance of the 1970s—the decade of Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Hal Ashby and some of the best American movies ever made.

What’s most intriguing about the times to come is how filmmaking might adapt. Are more small films going to bypass theaters altogether for streaming and on-demand services? Are studios going to try to find a way to enjoy lower risks and higher rewards like Universal Studios, who enjoyed record profits this year by not relying on tentpole projects? Are big-budget superhero movies and young adult novel adaptations going to backfire the same way overblown studio musicals and epics did in the 1960s, leading to a resurgence in mid-level films? And how will movie theaters, particularly the smaller, independent-film-based ones, continue to compete with services such as streaming?

On my end, I recognize the challenge for moviegoers is the same as in other areas of life—the willingness to get up and make an effort when every form of entertainment is almost literally at your fingertips in this technology-based age. Not all films are worth the trouble, but there is still value in that large, projected image that gives you the filmmakers’ intended vision.

So, that’s why I don’t have a Top 10 list for this year. I will try harder in 2015. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to work this weekend and need to figure out when the hell I have time to catch The Babadook.
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    It's becoming more challenging to get to the theater (and easier to skip it), but it's still worth it—sometimes.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Interview: Downton Abbey historical advisor Alastair Bruce visits the Triangle

Posted by on Tue, Dec 30, 2014 at 4:33 PM

Downton Abbey historical advisor Alastair Bruce greets UNC-TV guests at The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary. - COURTESY OF LIZ BOWLES / UNC-TV
  • courtesy of Liz Bowles / UNC-TV
  • Downton Abbey historical advisor Alastair Bruce greets UNC-TV guests at The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary.
When Downton Abbey premieres its anxiously anticipated fifth season on Sunday, Jan. 4, at 9:00 p.m. on UNC-TV, fans will revel in the lives and loves of the Earl of Grantham and his extended family—and the de facto family of servants with whom their lives are closely intertwined. But an important part of the show’s appeal is its meticulous attention to historical detail. For that, you can thank not just the pen of series creator Julian Fellowes, but also the strict yet kind supervision of historical advisor Alastair Bruce, OBE, Queen’s Herald, Territorial Army Colonel and Equerry to Prince Edward.

Bruce has been touring stateside to promote the new season as well as a documentary about his tenure as Downton historical advisor, which will air immediately following the Season 5 premiere. I asked him how he analyzed the appeal of the show, which might have been relished by specialist audiences only, but is instead watched in 200 countries by an estimated 120 million viewers.

He thinks the appeal has several parts. Many people with European backgrounds are descended from someone who either lived in a grand house or, more likely, served below stairs. And in a “free and open society," we live in a culture without much structure. Although the stratification depicted at Downton is intrinsically unfair, “everyone had a place and felt that they were contributing to the great scheme of things,” Bruce says.

“People long for the strong bonds of courtesy that feed through it all," he continues. "You were respected, regardless of your place. And although human beings will always be sinners, there was a clear idea of what was right and what was wrong. If you wanted to have an affair, you knew it was wrong; the social contracts were absolutely clear.”

When the series first appeared, I assumed that the appeal was largely for Americans, who sometimes seem to long for a hereditary aristocracy to solve troublesome leadership vacuums. But the show was strongly popular in the UK from the first episode. Bruce says that for the British, now is a time when they can embrace their own national history in a time of renewal.

In 1832, the First Reform Act initiated electoral reforms in Britain, which continued as class boundaries eroded further during the conflagration of the Great War of 1914–’18—one reason why Downton Abbey is set in this time period.

“For a long time, particularly in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, British films and television were extremely uncomfortable with an aristocratic past, showing their members as stupid or bad, upper class twits and malevolent villains,” Bruce says. “But there has been an evolution in Britain. Since Tony Blair abolished hereditary peerages, so even members who had traditionally inherited a seat had to be elected by their constituencies, British society has been evolving so as not to be offended by their past.” Instead, they embrace it in all its splendor, as it appears in Downton Abbey.

One aspect of the show that puzzles some viewers is the extraordinary closeness of the upstairs and downstairs people. After all, you have another person dressing you and coming into the bedroom when you are in bed with your spouse. Bruce says that that a class structure in which everyone clearly knows their place facilitates the relationship of the Earl of Grantham and his valet, who served closely with him during the Second Boer War. Although they would not dream of socializing with one another, in the privileged space of their personal relationship, a strong bond is formed.

Bruce is a stickler for minute historical details, from dress to manners, dining to driving. His one regret has to do with the character played by Shirley MacLaine, the Earl’s wife’s nouveau riche American mother. “I let her down by not persevering in helping her to temper her brilliant performance,” he says. Because many Americans who suddenly became rich were self-conscious about appearing unpolished, they were “almost more perfect in manner than the British.” There would not have been a hint of her working class origins.

I suggested that part of the show's appeal was how it deals with contemporary issues in a historical setting—particularly the gay footman, Thomas, and the African-American bandleader who made a brief appearance as a romantic interest for saucy Lady Rose. “We can never escape from the environment in which we live,” Bruce says. “It has to tell a story in the present. It is a great sadness to me that Thomas hasn’t had a romantic relationship as other characters have. Many footmen were gay. If you had five sons, and one of them was attractive and tall, you would have taken him up to the big house to be a footman. It may be too much of a generalization, but a footman had to have a great sense of self, be impeccably turned out and be brilliant at it, because his good appearance reflected on the house. Thomas would have found soul-mates.”

Bruce does not anticipate this storyline soon, though. “Some parts of society [today] are more generous,” he says, “and others more intolerant in reaction.”

What kinds of incongruities bother him in other period pieces? “What really annoys me are incorrect medal ribbons,” he replies. “Someone in the armed forces can identify everything about the person they’re talking to. You can see if someone is brave, and if they have a good conduct medal. Anyone who had been in the military for a long time without one would be suspect. In one scene, a person appeared without his World War I medals. I insisted that extras appeared in the scene with the correct medals. It’s not hard to do it correctly, you can find it on Wikipedia. Still, you see productions in which ribbons are worn upside down. I vilify productions fearful of doing it right.”

But Downton Abbey doesn’t hesitate to call Bruce to confer on the tiniest details. Individuals are addressed correctly, by their station, not their first names, which would have been shocking to the Edwardians. Swearing is taboo. Posture is important, as is the way one behaves at a meal (no leaning on the table, please). No profligate touching, either. “We shake hands and kiss because we have antibiotics,” Bruce says.

One extraordinary aspect of the show is the attention paid to the costumes, which have evolved from Edwardian elegance to the more revealing styles of the 1920s—with more flappers to come, I suspect. The detailed, scrupulously correct garments (and undergarments) vividly create character. An exhibition of Downton Abbey costumes, which spent the summer at Winterthur in Wilmington, Delaware, is coming to Biltmore House in Asheville from February 5–May 25

As at Winterthur, Biltmore will contrast the daily life of grand houses in England and America. The exhibit reveals that the show is visually accurate because designer Caroline McCall has repurposed unique, fragile vintage pieces in new gowns that can withstand the rigors of filming. Bruce says that the costume department works hard “sewing beads on as they fall off” fragments of antique beaded dresses.

Would Bruce like to have lived in a different historical period? Emphatically not. He sees the role of a historian as being to “challenge people to examine the past and be kinder to each other,” especially younger audiences, whom he wishes would be more engaged with history.

As such, he cares deeply about every detail. After all, it is his hands we see in the opening credits, using a ruler to align place settings at the table. As for quibbles over a bit of a language snafu here and there? Bruce is constantly on the alert, rebuking “OK” and other modern phrases. He says, “If you hear a word or phrase on the show, Julian [Fellowes] has a source for it.” But Bruce embraces the attacks of fellow nitpickers. It means people are enjoying the story, so he just “gets the pen and paper out to crack on.”
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    The beloved British class drama returns for a fifth season on Sunday, Jan. 4.

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