Now Playing: Grizzly Bear--"Gun-Shy"
Some time in the recent past, Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I've lived now for over ten years, became something of a film hotspot due to a special tax incentive the state offered various filmmakers in return for working in Michigan. For whatever reason, Ann Arbor became a favored location for producers and directors who were forced to ply their craft in that existential hellhole (their--probable--words, at least judging from the general message of The Five Year Engagement) that comprises the entire country between Bakersfield and Hoboken. You would see bits and pieces of Ann Arbor scattered in film from Whip It to Conviction to Scream 4 to Cedar Rapids (the latter featured a shot of a despondent Ed Helms--I don't get it, by the way--in Broadway Park that's now forever ruined the place for me). The Deuce also, for a time, donned the ill-fitting cloak of celebrity hotspot, as people shooting in Detroit--or, indeed, Ann Arbor--would want to hang out there. There were sightings from the Circus to Zingerman's, from Drew Barrymore to Hugh Jackman (I still regret not thanking Peter Gallagher for playing Sandy Cohen on The OC outside of Liberty Street Video--that's how long ago said misfire took place--and Neve Campbell's far cuter in person), and excited chatter on the Internet proliferated thereof. For some considerable time, David Arquette actually came close to threatening the honored place of "Shaky Jake" in the town's collective memory. The glory days are over, for now, as the tax incentive was one of the first things to go in Rick Snyder's misadvertised (to put it mildly) arrival as governor.
It's strange to think back on that time. Ann Arbor has had a cinematic connection with the wider world for decades in the form of its eponymous--and hugely scattershot--film festival, even if the University of Michigan itself hasn't quite kept pace with this starry strand. I was a proud patron of Cinema Guild until its sad demise some years back, and the Projectorhead series, which showed a number of widely varied fims in the Modern Languages Building (I have rarely laughed harder in any kind of theatrical setting than I did during their showing of Barbara Peters' 1972 classic Bury Me An Angel), has apparently been dormant since the winter of 2011. The various film series of any vitality going on right now are put on by foreign language organizations, and I'm not sure how well even those are doing. So maybe it wasn't so weird that such a rush of cinematic buzz took people by storm. I do not exempt myself, by the way. Any bemusement I expressed regarding the widespread fawning over Jason Segel--I don't get that either, by the way, but then I'm sure there are women out there on whom the wondrous magic of Amy Adams is utterly lost--was more than counterbalanced by Alison Brie's presence in town for Scream 4 and The Five Year Engagement, and this at a time when I had just discovered Community. My own "Segel sighting" was somewhat strange, too, resulting in a raised eyebrow from the fellow (in fairness, Forgetting Sarah Marshall was actually pretty good). It was all good fun, to be honest, and so there may well be no better time to have a look back at a few films that involved Ann Arbor in some way...
Answer This! (2011): One problem I have with Hollywood films is that so few of them treat the regional and cultural differences between the constituent parts of our fascinating republic (apologies now to any foreign readers) with any kind of respect or even accuracy. It was for this reason that Answer This!, written by Michigan grad Christopher Farah in and about Ann Arbor, intrigued me. The idea of an Ann Arbor-centric film, made by people with a feel for the place from actually having lived there, sounded at least worth a look. Here's fun: it's awful. Christopher Gorham, maybe best known as Harrison on the surprisingly brilliant cult turn-of-the-millennium WB dramedy Popular, plays Paul Tarson, a whiny doctoral student at Michigan who breezes through the classes he teaches thanks to his famous and charismatic father Elliot Tarson (played by Ralph Williams, a locally celebrated Michigan professor renowned for his "Last Lecture" series), and who secretly only finds fulfillment in pub quizzes at Ashley's (where I pretty much lived for my first few years in town) until he meets vivacious freshman Naomi. The latter is played by Arielle Kebbel, the movie's sole bright spot, who played a med student several years previous in the accidentally hilarious Anglo-Irish-American horror film Red Mist (in which Ulster doubled for Massachusetts, hopefully making James Curley spin in his grave). The plot of Answer This! essentially puts Paul through a variety of hyper-privileged crises and daddy issues, all the while getting him het up over pub trivia (managed by Chris Parnell of SNL and 30 Rock fame) and going on bike rides and lake swims around scenic Ann Arbor with Naomi (from the look of things, they got permission to film in Barton Hills, which I sadly find impressive). Jokes fall flat and clever setups trip over themselves, like Nixon handling a yo-yo. It all builds to a crescendo of self-righteousness and maudlin absorption, as Paul handles the big trivia final with characteristic emotional incompetence, and I still don't get the ending. It'd be interesting to get feedback from other Michigan doctoral students, past or present, on the subjects of academic nepotism and potentially pointless career suicide, and whether either are remotely plausible in the context presented. As a result, the chief pleasures, though dubious, to be derived from Answer This! mainly consist of voluminous location shots of the Diag. There has to be a better movie waiting to be made involving the latter.
The Five Year Engagement (2012): Work was psychically laid waste by the news that a major Hollywood romantic comedy would not only be filmed at said workplace, but would also be set there, as much of the action would take place in Ann Arbor. My primary reaction was disappointment. The studio involved wouldn't be MGM, let alone MGM/UA, so there wouldn't be the chance to switch the roaring lion in the classic production ident with our former--intensely camp and aggressively flirty--retail colleague, whose distended face would ideally emerge from the famous crimson oval shrieking "Hi!!!!" It would not be the last disappointment, though I expected little, and I did get to watch a scene being filmed (in which the protagonists amorously splay around a snow-covered Liberty Plaza). Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are a bright young couple living in San Francisco, Tom a sous chef and Violet a psychology grad student. Violet, her heart set on Berkeley, instead gets a fellowship at Michigan--gasp!--portrayed throughout, despite the oft-pubicized love for Ann Arbor trumpeted by cast and crew, as an unsophisticated cesspit. They move, despite Tom's misgivings (and despite his boss being played by Lauren Weedman, whose entertaining memoir A Woman Trapped In A Woman's Body amusingly--and probably accurately--portrayed her short stint on The Daily Show as a nightmare of "lookism" and condescension). Violet instantly connects with her boss Winton (Rhys Ifans, my other celebrity obsession of the time due to his tangential participation on the Super Furry Animals' first album Fuzzy Logic), but Tom quickly sours on his new job (filmed, as promised, at my workplace, but also in several different locations) after failing interviews with a number of local chefs, including one played by Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!'s Tim Heidecker. Winton sleazes over Violet, while Tom goes slowly "insane," indulging in abhorrent and degenerate behavior like killing his own food, brewing his own beer, and growing facial hair. Such offenses, of course, qualify him to suffer in hell along with Francesca da Rimini, but everything rights itself eventually, as happens in real life, and Tom and Violet rediscover love after, of course, moving back to the West Coast. A number of likable actors and comic performers suffer accordingly, including the aforementioned La Brie, Chris Pratt, Mimi Kennedy, Mindy Kaling, Brian Posehn, and others. Chris Parnell plays Tom's new friend, and I'd have given him a pass anyway for his work as Dr. Spaceman on 30 Rock, but he genuinely seems to like the place, based on his presence in Answer This! There are stabs at emotional authenticity, but The Five Year Engagement really leaves a bad taste in one's mouth, even if there's an entertaining foot race scene down Liberty Street that shows off downtown to fairly good advantage. It got a good deal weirder when my former co-worker, a cook in Ann Arbor, moved to Massachusetts to live with his girlfriend, a psychology professor at a small liberal arts college, in a delightful and instructive inversion of the film's premise. Strangely enough, this same co-worker was cited by another friend and co-worker as a kind of talisman against the celebrity terror that swept town during those hilarious summers, mainly because "you could see his nuts from space." That should have been the movie, maybe turned into a horror film involving ghosts from King Philip's War or something, but I can always dream.
Dreammaker (2005): The plot of Dreammaker has nothing whatsoever to do with Ann Arbor, but I actually worked its Michigan Theater premiere when I still worked at Chateau Fluffy, and thereon partially hangs a tale. Christina Morales Hemenway, an actress, writer, director, and singer, and her husband Brent (both of whom more or less play themselves, as "Carmen" and "Chuey," anyway), were frequent patrons of my former workplace, and developed a friendship with Fluffy herself. They were terribly sweet folk, and hard not to like. Hemenway eventually asked Fluffy to provide catering for Dreammaker's premiere, which took place in the screening room at the Michigan. I didn't see it then, as Fluffy turned down Hemenway's invitation for us all to watch, going herself and preferring instead for us to break down the catering setup and truck it all back to the Chateau. I didn't really mind, as the film didn't sound like my cup of tea, and provided a majestically crass memory for me to take away from those four Fluffy years. Seeing it almost a decade later, I don't especially regret the loss. A mysterious psychic, Esmeralda, gains the trust of a diverse array of Hollywood entertainment types, for what appear to be altruistic reasons to some and sinister reasons to others. Her customers' various relationships and preoccupations come to a head at an ill-conceived "Hollywood" party thrown by Carmen and Chuey. That's... largely it, though it probably comprises a more extensive and engaging plot than many mumblecore films (it helped a lot that I watched this one whole work shift after seeing Joe Swanberg's Nights and Weekends*, and it's certainly better than The Puffy Chair or Baghead). It's also hugely amusing to watch Esmeralda give Carmen the same kind of pep talk that the Bryce Dallas Howard's "narf" gave M. Night Shyamalan's character in The Lady in the Water (yes, I saw it, and yes, I'm sorry). A Latino gang shows up, too, though I'm not sure what that was about. Mind you, if cultural inaccuracy is your thing, make sure you watch Dreammaker at least for the worst English accent I've seen since Rock 'N' Roll Nightmare (though at least the character, who winds up menaced by the Latino gang, and pines for an OBE like Tim Brooke-Taylor in The Goodies, doesn't occasionally decide that he's Australian). Even if the ending strikes me as trite and slightly lame, it strangely fits the film's implicit condemnation of entertainment industry superficiality. It also reminded me that I almost saw Larry Clark's Wassup Rockers (star of a past AAFF) in the same screening room that hosted Dreammaker's premiere, and of the relief I felt when I finally watched the DVD of the former and was awestruck at its wretchedness. If you've seen a lot of mumblecore and "IFC" films, Dreammaker actually comes as something of a quaint relief, its lo-fi manners pleasantly contrasting with some of the put-upon realism of the other genres (I except the indomitable Andrew Bujalski). It also qualifies as something of a preemptive Midwestern vengeance on the attitudes of films like The Five Year Engagement; the "Hollywood lifestyle" appears pretty vapid and unlikeable from this perspective, even if one doesn't necessarily have to kill one's own food to stand on the other side. Dreammaker's a hell of a lot more honest than films like The Five Year Engagement, at any rate. Dancing Star Productions is still up, by the way, if any are interested, having filmed Naked Angel in 2011, starring frequent Gregg Araki muse James Duval (and, once more, premiering at the Michigan).
*Nights and Weekends was arguably the conceptual standard-bearer for the mumblecore movement, on which I've written both praise and criticism in the past. While it can be a cathartic experience to watch two relatively likable characters navigate emotionally turbulent situations while suffering a peculiar handicap--namely, articulation or even simple human speech apparently causing physical pain--one sometimes longs to see one character, or even both, shoved up against a wall by two hirsute fellows with rough, commanding cries of "You don't fool us! Where's the stolen microfilm?"