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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog


Archives for May, 2012

Thursday, May 17, 2012

FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT GETS OLD FAST, by Eve Silberman

Early on in the movie Five Year Engagement, my companion nudged me, and whispered, "You don't hunt deer in spring!"

"What?" I said, watching Jason Segel and Chris Parnell gleefully bagging a deer in a woodsy setting where, despite a few leaves on the ground, the trees were very green indeed.

"In Michigan, you hunt deer in fall!" she hissed.

Wow, did a big-time Hollywood production really bungle its fact-checking? But then this (mostly) filmed-in-Ann Arbor movie was already off to a bad start, grounded as it is in the dubious premise that talented San Francisco chef Tom Solomon (Segel) can't find a job commensurate to his talents in our dreary, rainy backwoods college town.

He's stuck here because fiancee and budding psychologist Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) couldn't get into grad school in Berkeley. She had to settle for the U-M, and he's stuck making sandwiches at Zingerman's--portrayed as a ho-hum deli whose blase employees apparently dozed during Zingy's much-touted employee training program. (Ignored is Zingerman's Roadhouse, where chef Alex Young just won a prestigious James Beard award.)

"Poetic license!" say local fans of this film when they hear my chauvinistic complaints. But I'd cut director Nicholas Stoller more slack if this was a better movie. The plot promises something a little more interesting than typical rom-com fare. Tom and Violet become engaged at the start of the film, not, as is more typical, at the end. Well played by Segel and Blunt, Tom and Violet are a likable couple who genuinely seem to want each other to be happy. They think they can easily surmount old-time gender roles that, a generation ago, would have Violet instead following Tom. In one of the film's few genuinely moving moments, Violet bursts out passionately that she wants it all--making homemade pies, kids, a careers she loves.

Tom appears sympathetic and supportive. But Stoller (a protege of Judd Apatow, inventer of the R-rated rom-com) has made a movie so derivative and predictable the scenes seem old the minute they appear: the zany sets of parents from opposite backgrounds (hers hoity-toity English, his outspokenly Jewish); the egotistical prof Winton Childs (Rhys Ifans), who you know immediately will become Violet's lover; the bewildered couple's drive to the airport. Different bottle, same wine.

In fairness to Stoller, there are a few original touches, like the pink bunny costume Tom wears when he meets Violet (she's dressed as Princess Diana). I wasn't expecting the scene where Tom's employer in San Francisco slices off the tip of her finger. My friend and I flinched, but the twenty-somethings behind us laughed uproariously. Also unexpected: a would-be lovemaking session in the snow--something that, in thirty winters here, never once occurred to me.

The much publicized filming of this movie got Ann Arbor all Facebook shivery: people posting scenes of the shooting; reporting sightings of stars. One Facebook friend briefly appeared in a shot at Zingerman's, and told me if I didn't blink I'd see him. I didn't and did. It's just too bad that the fun of having Ann Arbor briefly bathed in Hollywood lights resulted in this forgettable piece of fluff.


posted by John Hilton at 5:56 p.m. | 0 comments


Friday, May 4, 2012

DANCING FOR STEINER AND SWAN, by Sandor Slomovits

San Slomovits and Jackie Steinbacher at the

When I was invited to be one of the "stars" in a Dancing with the Ann Arbor Stars benefit, I felt like someone invited to sing a duet with Renee Fleming at the Met after only ever singing in public in karaoke bars. If I'd been asked to jump from an airplane with a parachute of questionable quality I'd likely have been more willing to agree. The idea terrified me.

So my immediate and emphatic response was "No!" But this Dancing with the Stars was a benefit for two organizations very dear to me; the Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor, where my daughter, Emily has gone since kindergarten, and Wild Swan Theatre, longtime friends, and simply the best children's theater around. So I finally said "yes." It was the best thing I've done in a long time.

My three minutes and eight seconds of fame in the Dancing with the Ann Arbor Stars was such a delight that ever since that night I have been contemplating a career change. No, not hardly, but I did have a blast. And even more than the performance itself, I enjoyed the preparation leading up to it. After all, practicing for a dance performance is not unlike rehearsing for a concert; endless repetition of an enjoyable activity--always with the goal of an unattainable perfection worth striving for.

My coach was Jackie Steinbacher, a superb dancer and, if possible, an even better choreographer and teacher. We chose Tish Hinojosa's beautiful song, Esperate, and Jackie created a routine that combined moves and steps from cha cha, paso doble, samba, and even a hint of swing. She tailored our dance perfectly to the different moods and rhythmic subtleties in the music and the lyrics, creating a challenging and very satisfying piece that somehow also managed to minimize my many, many limitations as a dancer.

I was as nervous--and then some--for our performance than for any musical appearance I can ever recall. Before we danced, my mouth felt like I'd been eating dry peanut butter mixed with sand, and my hands were so cold it seemed as though I'd been soaking them in a bucket of ice water for a week. I felt sorry for Jackie in her sleeveless top. I hoped she wouldn't cringe when I touched her shoulder.

And then the music started; music, which has been my friend, my go-to safe haven, for most of my life. This would be the secure boat I would sail for the next three stormy minutes. Jackie gave me a reassuring look and we were off. By the time the intro was over and Hinojosa began singing, I was no longer dancing, or sailing, I was flying--anyway, it felt like that to me. It was over much too soon.

Linda Yohn, the renowned long-time host of jazz programs on WEMU, was the MC for the evening. After our dance, she asked me how performing a dance was different from playing music. In all the most important ways, I told her, it's the same; you look to connect with your partner and with your audience. Of course, I needed to learn a whole new vocabulary, but the feeling was the same.

I came away from the experience with a whole new appreciation for the artistry of dancers and with a great deal of gratitude for the opportunity to learn something brand-new in my sixth decade. I also feel a little braver for when another new, exciting, and scary adventure might present itself. I'll for sure say yes again.


posted by John Hilton at 10:33 a.m. | 0 comments


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