Vollis Simpson, internationally known visionary artist and master of the whirligig, died in his sleep at his home in Lucama, N.C. on Friday night. He was 94.
Simpson’s monumental windmill sculptures, many more than 40 feet tall, are made from reused machine parts, huge rigs used for moving houses, scrap metal and thousands of tiny reflectors. The North Carolina Museum of Art and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, among others, have Simpson whirligigs on their grounds. Four were installed in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games.
But Simpson rarely left his eastern North Carolina property. Thousands of art lovers and seekers of the weird have made pilgrimages there over the years. It was a jaw-dropping sight. The whirligigs loomed up out of the rural landscape, physically competing with loblolly pines. On windy days one had to shout over the din of gigantic wheels spinning. At night, when one’s headlights caught the reflectors, his field transformed into something resembling Coney Island.
I first saw Swimming to Cambodia — the film version of Spalding Gray's groundbreaking monologue — on VHS my senior year of high school, by way of my first serious girlfriend Courtney. A fellow theater nerd, Courtney was also a dedicated goth girl and introduced me to many new and exotic things, like Bauhaus records and the BBC punk comedy The Young Ones.
As cool girlfriends often do, Courtney improved my taste and expanded my horizons. Here was an entirely riveting performance that featured one man, sitting behind a desk, talking about war and art and sex and drugs. About Nixon and Kent State, secret bombings and Thai brothels. About "an invisible cloud of evil that circles the earth and lands at random at places. Like Iran. Beirut. Germany. Cambodia. America."
It rather blew my mind. I knew nothing about experimental theater or performance film — forget about Southeast Asia. But I knew this was something different from our after-school rehearsals of Brigadoon, and that it represented a different trajectory if I wanted to follow along.
Incredibly, Swimming to Cambodia has never had an official U.S. DVD release until now. New this week from the pop culture archivists at Shout! Factory, Swimming to Cambodia features the full-length 1987 film along with a new interview with director Jonathan Demme.
Swimming to Cambodia is structured around Gray's experience working on the Academy Award-winning 1984 film, The Killing Fields. Gray spent two months filming in Thailand and he tells of his adventures, during his copious downtime, with Bangkok nightlife and the local high-grade marijuana. These are the funny bits. But Gray also goes into great depth about what he learned there concerning the recent history of Southeast Asia, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and the subsequent Cambodian Genocide. For props, he has a desk, a notebook, a microphone, two pull-down maps and a glass of water. Behind him is a backlit projection screen. He simply talks, and you can't take your eyes off him.
Slight, shaggy and sentimental, the crime comedy Stand Up Guys has exactly three virtues to recommend it.
Those would be the film's trio of lead actors: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin. Nobody's gunning for glory with the performances here, but nobody phones it in, either. Anyway, these three could make a 90-minute film talking about the U.S. Tax Code and still be interesting.
Pacino headlines as Val, a career criminal just getting out of the joint after a 28-year stint. Val took the fall for his crew after a botched robbery and ended up doing the heavy time by refusing to rat on his friends. He is, as they say, a stand up guy.
Walken plays one of those old pals, a now-retired thief who goes by the name of Doc. When Val gets out of prison, it's Doc that comes to pick him up and take him out on the town. Understandably, Val is ready to party. So Doc dutifully escorts him to a bar, then a brothel, then a hospital. The 70-something Val, it seems, can't quite party like he used to.
There's another complication: Doc has been ordered by the local mafia don to kill his old friend Val. Doc doesn't want to, but he's on the hook — either Val goes into a shallow grave, or Doc does.
The title Star Trek Into Darkness remains just as nebulous by the time the closing credits roll as it does during a chase prologue along the Class M Planet of Nibiru. Fortunately, director J.J. Abrams inadvertently provides a number of alternate titles along the way. Into Darkness is the second installment of Star Trek’s look into yesteryear, the continuation of an alternate timeline created in the 2009 Star Trek, also directed by Abrams, which chronicles the adventures of the fledgling crew of the Starship Enterprise.
Just call it Star Trek Babies II.
In essence, Into Darkness is really about the evolving relationship between Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), although their bromance usually boils down to scenes like Kirk’s misty separation anxiety at the news that Spock is being reassigned to another ship, or Spock’s jealousy emotion being triggered when Kirk enlists the duplicative services of beautiful blond science officer Carol (Alice Eve). What hampers any emotional heft, however, is the misapprehension that their relationship has always been about the characters, discounting the time-tested rapport developed between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
That said, Pine and especially Quinto prove capable as they, along with a more prominently featured Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the rest of the crew, face a threat from within: Starfleet officer-turned-terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a highly intelligent super soldier whose covert design goes sideways after he breaks loose from the moorings of his Federation minders.
Just call it Star Trek: The Wrath of Bourne.
Early on, Abrams hints at Star Trek’s political and social heritage with allegory critical of the current war on terror, including policies favoring indiscriminate hits on high-value targets and drone missile attacks. (Poor Klingons, formerly emblematic of the threat and decay of the Soviet Empire, are now stand-ins for modern day terrorists.) But any such high mindedness quickly evaporates in the fog of a script that is equally lighthearted and incomprehensible, along with a hellfire of 3D special effects and Abrams’ trademark visual quirks.
Just call it Star Trek: Into Lens Flares.
Unlike the sublime mix of rediscovery and homage that fueled the 2009 reboot, Into Darkness eventually chokes on the umbilical cord tethered to its heritage. Trouble with a Tribble or one of a dozen “manual auxiliary rerouted power couplings” are cute, but homage soon crosses the line into unoriginality, from the choice of villain to the mashed-up tropes to a scene in the final act featuring such shameless aping that it converts the sacrosanct into self-parody.
Into Darkness is an entertaining retread that also feels like an elongated TV episode with a bigger budget and explosions that come at the expense of the series’ humanism. This next generation Star Trek is reworked and replicated for today’s generation of moviegoers.
Just call it Star Trek: Attack of the Clones.
The latest and maybe final film from director Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects isn't the movie that it first appears to be. About halfway through, the story pivots and another film emerges. Then a most curious thing happens: It isn't that movie, either.
Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) stars as Emily Taylor, a formerly upper-crusty sort whose life is upended when her financier husband Martin (Channing Tatum) goes to prison for insider trading.
When Martin gets out of jail, Emily does her best to pick up the pieces, but she's paralyzed with severe depression and panic attacks. After a half-hearted suicide attempt, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) prescribes a series of antidepressant drugs.
Some work, some don't, and some cause Emily to experience truly worrisome sleepwalking episodes. We also learn that the good doctor is participating in clinical trials for an experimental drug called Ablixa. Meanwhile, Emily's former shrink Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) gets involved and the plot thickens.
It's around this point that Side Effects makes its first lateral leap. What appeared to be an issue movie about the evils of Big Pharma becomes a twisty thriller in the key of Hitchcock. Dark details emerge concerning Emily's past, and Dr. Banks' as well. A crime is committed and a murder mystery is hatched.
Haskell Fitz-Simons, the longtime artistic director of Raleigh Little Theatre, died last night at UNC Hospitals following a lengthy battle with lymphoma. He was 64. The Chapel Hill native had served as a director at the prominent Raleigh community theater for 30 years, joining the company in 1983. Before that, Fitz-Simons had been a drama and speech instructor at University of Wisconsin at Superior. His theatrical resume included work with the Light Opera of Manhattan, an apprenticeship at the Alley Theatre in Houston, and seasons with the Manteo, N.C., outdoor drama The Lost Colony. Fitz-Simons earned his MFA in theater from UNC Chapel Hill in 1979.
“His death was so sudden and unexpected,” RLT executive director Charles Phaneuf said this morning.
“From the outpouring of support, it's clear that his legacy is not only about the fact that he directed so many shows for us and was here for so many years. People today are talking about the spirit of Haskell, his mentorship, and how many lives he touched.”
Fitz-Simons came to the stage from a theatrical family. As a child, he performed with other family members in summer productions of Unto These Hills, the Cherokee, N.C., outdoor drama. His parents also had a hand in notable early productions by Raleigh Little Theatre. In 1936, his mother, born Marion Tatum, directed RLT's second production, the African-American drama Heaven Bound; Fitz-Simons would later direct her in a 1984 RLT production of Deathtrap. His father, Foster, was a novelist, a dancer who worked with modern dance choreographer Ted Shawn, and an actor who performed at RLT in the 1940s and taught at UNC Chapel Hill’s Department of Dramatic Art.
Fitz-Simons’ last production for the company was a December 2012 restaging of the company's holiday classic, Cinderella. He also directed The Rocky Horror Show in August and The 39 Steps in October.
Funeral and memorial service arrangements are incomplete.
Musical theater fans can be quite rigid in their tastes, and even more so once they’ve reached a certain age. Take this tart little number, whom I encountered the other night in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Mere moments from the opening curtain, he was already griping to me about the long-term decline of the American musical—and at a North Carolina Theatre show, no less: They’re too disappointing. Too long. And then there are those productions—you know, the ones where the cast comes out into the audience: “God. I didn’t pay $100,” he snarked, “to have the fourth wall come crashing down around my ears.”
“You know,” he groused, “there was a time when people sat in darkened theatres and thought to themselves, ‘What have George and Ira got for me tonight?’ Or ‘Can Cole Porter pull it off again?’”
“Can you imagine? Now, it’s ‘Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?’”
(What can I say? People have always felt that they can just open up to me.)
But this little-too-lonesome character wasn’t some crank on a night pass from assisted living in North Raleigh. The man in the chair was actually our host. (His name? Man in Chair.) And as the central figure in the musical THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, he not only ushered us into his all-time favorite night at the theater, dropping the needle on a phonograph to share the soundtrack by its original cast with us. He then proceeded to lead us on a guided personal tour of it as well, repeatedly interrupting the playback with his annotations on the careers of the performers, the mechanics of the show—and almost anything else that came to mind as the record spun. As obsessive musical theater fans will sometimes do.
And, as also sometimes happens, that musical, which becomes the play within this play, takes over and remakes his rather gray little flat into the dynamic stage of an all-singing, all-dancing (and definitely all-mugging) spectacular which supposedly bowled them over on Broadway in 1928.
Filmmaker Shane Carruth made his bones in the indie film world with the 2004 science fiction puzzle Primer. The ultra-low budget film, concerning a group of engineers who accidentally invent time travel, collected the Grand Jury Prize at that year's Sundance Film Festival.
It's become something of a legend in filmmaking circles: Primer was made for a little over $7,000 with Carruth acting as director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, co-star and musical composer. For fans of thinky, conceptual sci-fi, it's a real gem. After seeing it on DVD, I spent hours online trying to figure out all the time travel paradoxes.
Carruth's long-anticipated second film, Upstream Color, premiered just last month in theaters and has already been ported to DVD, thanks to Carruth's typically unorthodox method of self-distribution. The film is still popping up in art houses around the country and, in fact, it may still wind up playing here in town.
Upstream Color is a fantastic film, one of the year's best so far, and a giant leap forward for Carruth as a storyteller and filmmaker. If Primer was startling, Upstream Color is stunning. It's like watching a pencil sketch artist discover oil paints.
Once again, Carruth writes, directs, acts and composes the music. Clearly, he's a hand-on sort of fellow. Like Primer, Upstream Color pleasurably confounds by refusing to play by the rules of traditional movie narrative.
The story, so far as it can be told:
Amy Seimetz (The Killing) plays Kris, a young urban professional who is assaulted in nightclub by a nameless thief. She's forced to ingest a rare larva, which we learn has been taken from the root system of a particularly exotic orchid. The larva drains her free will and the thief spends the next few days in Kris' home, walking her through the motions as she liquidates all her assets and hands them over. He also forces her, for some reason, to transcribe Thoreau's Walden.
Kris awakens several days later with no memory of what happened. But her life as she knew it is gone, as is a portion of her mind and personality. She is subsequently summoned by another mysterious stranger, who surgically removes the larva and seems to be somehow harvesting her psychic misery. Kris returns to the city a shell of her former self.
One day she meets a kindred spirit on the train. Disgraced financier Jeff (Carruth) appears to have suffered the same trauma as Kris. Together they try to assemble their fractured memories. The two seem to be developing a gestalt-mind bond, where identity and memory blend and merge. Details elsewhere in the film suggest that Kris and Jeff have become part of the life cycle of another organism entirely. They sense, too, that there are more people out there in the same desperate situation.
In every conceivable way, Tony Stark’s foe in Iron Man 3 is himself. It starts with an enemy born of Stark’s chronic dickishness, a spurned fan-turned-supervillain not unlike Buddy Pine-cum-Syndrome in The Incredibles. It continues with a superhero whose egotistical compulsion to unmask his true identity continues to put an ever present bullseye on him and his scant loved ones. But Stark’s biggest adversary is his own psyche, an id now fractured by insecurity—indeed, it’s wry genesis that the film is essentially a 130-minute psychiatrist’s couch confession.
Beneath his renowned wisecracks and cocksuredness, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) faces a new reality spawned from the Big Apple battle royale finale to The Avengers. It bears mentioning that Iron Man was the first installment of the now-interwoven Marvel Cinematic Universe. The years since have seen gods and genetic behemoths as heroes, and mutants and aliens from other dimensions as villains.
Against this backdrop, Stark is a self-described “man in a can,” seized by fits of anxiety when a child fan merely asks about “what happened in New York.” (More 9/11 allegory? Never mind, let’s just move on.) While the 42 iterations of armor Stark has fashioned in the basement his cliffside laboratory appear the embodiment of an obsessive mind, they are actually the ongoing realization of Stark’s fateful “I am Iron Man” declaration at the end of the first film. The man and the machine are becoming inseparable, an evolution propelled by equal parts ego and envy.
Its characters may or may not be the kind of folks they used to warn some of us about back on the farm.
But PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT is most definitely the kind of show they warned me about in grad school.
“Beware of spectacle,” one theater teacher said. “Sure, it’s flashy. And it’s undeniably effective—in the short term.
"But as the audience acclimates to it, it takes greater and greater dosages just to have the same effect.”
The professor paused. “Ultimately, it’s unsustainable—and the crash is something wicked.”
That’s precisely the case for this 2006 musical, adapted from the 1994 Stephan Elliott film starring Terrence Stamp, Hugo Weaving (a half-decade before he became Agent Smith in The Matrix), and a pre-Memento Guy Pearce. It took five years for Priscilla to make it to New York—a clear sign of early difficulties. Once it got there, it ran for a little over a year on Broadway, in 2011. Ultimately though, it turns out to be significant that, during that run, Priscilla took only one Tony Award—for costumes.
It all starts so innocently, as ensemble and designers simultaneously embody and poke fun at the campy excesses of the golden age of disco and big city drag shows in the mid-1980s. But by the middle of the first act, Priscilla begins to look and feel as if it’s been hijacked at gunpoint by costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner.