Even those of us who read obituaries religiously may not have noticed that only the lead obit. in The New York Times includes the verb "dies" in the headline. This titbit and so many others make Obit. an excellent documentary. Like the topic, it is more about life than death.

Director Vanessa Gould exploits the film form of the documentary to study the written form of the obituary, not to be confused with the paid funeral notice. It's not enough to be a good person to have a Times obituary: that person must be newsworthy, too. Gould follows the work of the writers on the death desk at The New York Times, including Bruce Weber, William McDonald, and Margalit Fox. Threaded throughout the film, Gould follows Weber as he researches the life of the political aide who chose the make-up and the podium for the Kennedy/Nixon debates. The clock in the lower right hand corner tracks the deadline, the tension, the stress of getting the story right and getting it good. Weber struggles with the lede (anecdotal or the five Ws?) and defends his position that the aide deserves an obituary at the daily editorial meeting, followed, after approval, by the photographers' meeting.

Sometimes Gould records the writers reading their work, such beautiful syntax and passion, especially Fox's on an oarsman. Discussing their work, these writers are articulate: they've obviously thought about this job, its importance and responsibilities, its influence, and even its amusements.

Gould covers corrections and advances, the obituaries written largely before someone dies. Her documentary includes supportive films and stills of the subjects being described, including an impressive montage at the end. Obit. dives deep, into the morgue, into writers' and editors' hearts and minds, into the dead. Obit.'s world is fascinating indeed.

 

 

Beatriz at Dinner begins quietly -- a boat floats on a river edged by mangrove trees. Such meditative, natural beauty punctuates the ensuing, tense interaction dominating and driving the quick, 82-minute film. After Beatriz awakens with her goat and dogs in her bedroom and stops at the Cancer Center where she works, she drives to Cathy's double-gated home. 

Beatriz, a massage therapist and holistic healer, helps Cathy relieve her stress as she prepares to host an important dinner party for two couples, most significantly her husband's business partner Doug Strutt. Stranded there because her car won't start, Beatriz is invited to join them for dinner. The working class and the ultra-rich will articulate quite divergent world views in the course of the evening. At its core, Beatriz at Dinner aims to ignite a philosophical consideration of people who destroy versus those who restore. To that end, Beatriz explicitly challenges the smug Doug Strutt (great name) to engage in truly difficult activity, not the big game hunting that he romanticizes but the process of healing.

With inevitable echoes of today's world, director Miguel Arteta has written that he hopes to portray the "emotional pain we all feel in this terrifying cultural climate," adding that "the stakes are high and it's time to unite." As Beatriz observes about healing, "That's hard. All your pleasures are built on others' pain." In fact, anguish was in part the catalyst for the film since it sprang from the repulsive killing of Cecil the Lion.

As Beatriz, Salma Hayek uses her mellifluous voice and confident delivery to make her points hit home. As Strutt, John Lithgow employs his more clipped statements and his dismissive scowl to present a man certain of his entitled indulgence, reinforced by his contempt for anyone less feral in the business world. 

In excellent performances, Connie Britton as the hostess Cathy, Chloë Sevigny as Shannon, Evan's wife, and Amy Landecker as Strutt's third wife Jeana are "the wives." When not snidely gossiping, they overwhelmingly defer to their husbands. Beatriz does not, and this alone sets her apart.  

Writer Mike White and director Arteta, who have collaborated on the films Chuck and Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002) plus the HBO series Enlightened (2011-2013), are in creative synch, keeping the characters' comments and their reactions to each other front and center. They do, however, flounder badly in the ending, apparently clueless how to conclude an otherwise welcome invitation to a thought-provoking dinner. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac and at the Hi-Pointe Cinemas.  

 

They argue. They bicker. They fight and bare their claws. They are a young married couple with issues. Anna's a writer who feels like a failure because lesser writers she knows have solid careers. Ben feels maligned by life, and he leaves dirty, filthy, crusty dishes overflowing in their sink.

Not until midway through the short film is the true, underlying reason for their anger and unhappiness revealed -- kind of the way it is with new friends, who do not expose their soft underbellies until after the hors d'oeuvres are served at dinner. And then the whole story makes more sense -- not that you need to know why their marriage is dysfunctional to get their angst.

Anna gets stoned to go to a baby shower, but then she broaches Ben with an idea: these former bandmates should turn their fights into songs. They clean out the garage for this garage band, invite the weird neighbor to beat the drums, and they're off, singing a love song for the ages about sexual congress in the key of F. And, yes, that is Ben's slice of pizza held by his harmonica holder attached to his guitar.

It's that kind of comedy. It's also part tragedy. Director Zoe Lister-Jones is also writer Zoe Lister-Jones and star Zoe Lister-Jones. She performs well as Anna, accompanied by her good work in Life in Pieces on television. As a writer, she certainly understands this couple's pain, but she also understands the marital therapy they need. She puts those direct and comforting words into the mouth of Ben's mother, played very well by Susie Essman. 

Adam Pally, of Iron Man 3 and Happy Endings, well embodies Ben. The supporting cast includes Fred Armisen in a tired shtick, Ravi Patel, and Retta. Colin Hanks functions well as the Uber Douche.

Band Aid works well as an indie film, short and sharp with redeeming attributes.

 

Insight Theatre Company kicks off its residence as part of the .Zack Arts Incubator with Next to Normal, the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning show that takes a musical look at mental illness. The powerful show introduces us to Diana and Dan, a married couple with two children, Natalie and Gabe. The family is doing their best to maintain a sense of normalcy while dealing with Diana's increasingly persistent mental illness. The company and cast, under the direction of Edward Coffield, create a believable space in which the story unfolds, filled with fine acting and interpretation.

The show opens on just another morning in the family's kitchen, with everyone rushing around trying to get out the door on time. Diana's manic peanut-butter sandwich making is the first indication we get that everything is not quite as it appears. Multiple doctor visits and an arms' length list of prescriptions don't seem to help Diana, so a more radical treatment is suggested. All the while, son Gabe hovers over his mother, seemingly to protect and defend her and vying for his father's attention, while daughter Natalie retreats from the family dynamic and flirts with an addiction to purloined pills from her mother's abundant stash. 

Debbie Lennon commands the stage as Diana, her presence and voice passionate and in perfect pitch no matter her emotional state. Lennon finds all of Diana's moments: normalcy, uncertainty, panicked mania, and immobilizing depression. She and director Edward Coffield find levels in Diana, ensuring that the character has depth and her illness, though simplified, is never minimized. Spencer Davis Milford is by turns sympathetic, conniving, and dangerous and son Gabe. Imminently likable, he's easy to cheer for and his voice delightful to hear. John Flack is ever patient and loving as Dan, and makes the most of his more limited range, while Libby Jasper is a fabulous counter to them all as the questioning, slightly rebellious Natalie. Max Bahneman and Ryan Scott Foizey complete the ensemble and provide interesting counterpoints to the family. Bahneman is a dogged and loyal boyfriend to Natalie, perhaps a reflection of a younger Dan. Foizey is convincingly Dr. Dimento, Dr. Feelgood, and a doctor we'd recognize as competent and caring, depending on Diana's mental state.

The set design by Robbie Ashurst, lighting design by Charlotte Wester, and technical design by Matt Stuckel add considerably to the tone, atmosphere, and storytelling. The almost unnoticed transitions in the color of light streaming through the set windows is a deft touch that adds much to the story. Laura Hanson's costumes, Ron McGowan's musical direction, and relatively simply but effective choreography by Trace Turner complete the story while adding texture and occasionally levity. The pieces come together quite well, resulting in an engaging and entertaining show that may nonetheless leave you deep in thought.

Next to Normal is told primarily through song and action and moves at a satisfying pace, still I feel like there's a little something missing. This may have more to do with the script than the finely wrought performances, for the directing and interpretation feels solid and consistent. The cast imbues their characters with a heightened sense of reality that often feels present when dealing with mental health issues, but there are moments when the show feels too affected, the real tension not quite present. Some of the scenes simply resolve too easily and the causes of Diana's mental illness are too focused on a single, traumatic incident, but the resulting fall out resonates with painful realism. 

Mental illness is a difficult subject matter for a musical, its presence so pervasive as to feel like a character itself. With such subject matter and trajectory, it's hard to imagine the story moving anywhere positive. There are a number of scenes where hope seems completely lost, yet the story manages to maintain and end on an upbeat note. The performances are connected and delivered with clear and purposeful intention helping the audience wade through the rough waters, and the songs are at times quite moving and heartfelt. The beauty of Insight Theatre Company's Next to Normal, running through June 25, 2017, is succinctly conveyed through the title, and it's a place many of us may find familiar. 

 

 

From the Changed Mind Department: Rough Night is not just a female version of Hangover. Yes, there are vulgarities, but women talk dirty, too. Yes, there is bawdiness, but women are fully capable of being nasty. Most of all, Rough Night is about women's true and evolving friendships.

The film opens with a group of women acting stupid at college. Fast forward 10 years ahead, and Jessica is running for office while planning her wedding -- serious stuff. Her friend Alice has planned a party for her, a so-called "bachelorette" bash. Sidenote: was there ever a word that so proved that being a man is preferable to being female than "bachelorette"? Spinsters were important members of a community because they spun the wool, but being one was so dreaded that being the -ette version of a bachelor took precedence. Aaarrrgggh.

Joining the group on Miami are Blair, a gorgeous young thing, and Frankie, an activist with two strikes against her before being jailed. These four women find themselves with a corpse that needs hiding. In their efforts to hide the body of a hunk, they find true friendship after truths spill forth.

Also spilled forth is a pair of sunglasses that may be gross to some who laugh until they cry, but they work in the moment.

Scarlett Johansson, good since 1996' Manny and Lo, works well as the constrained candidate. Jillian Bell defines the needy Alice, Zoë Kravitz sustains her role, Kate McKinnon is weak as the Aussie friend, and Ilana Glazer brings off the activist. Among the men is Paul Downs, who co-wrote with director Lucia Aniello, who has worked with Glazer on Broad City.

Go for the broad humor of Rough Night; stay because that's what friends do. What you laugh at will say a lot about who you are. Such is life.

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