Category Archives: Movies
Having lost track of what I wanted to do in this blogging space over the past year or so, I’ve resolved to renew emphasis on filmgoing and dramatic criticism for now, and see what may come of other experiences ahead.
While recently back in the great state of California, I enjoyed a few filmgoing experiences. The 2017 moviegoing year ended in the same place where the 2016 moviegoing year had both ended and began: the Century Cinema in Corte Madera, CA. I’ve surely written before about how this particular cinema is the ultimate in big-screen entertainment for Marin County and possibly the entire Bay Area itself, with one single large screen and almost always featuring the latest and biggest blockbuster. Legend has it that the Cinema has always been a top commercial venue of both choice and gross for the Star Wars films, and that tradition continued with its screening of The Last Jedi, the latest installment in the Skywalker Saga.
This was my second and likely last big screen viewing of the film, and I found it more enjoyable the second time around, though not an overall tops experience .If the first viewing was about riding the crest of anticipation mixed with a dose of melancholia stemming from Carrie Fisher no longer being among the earthly realm, the second time around was a way to sit back and enjoy the ride of the story, while also staying present in the flow of the narrative and not over-anticipating elements i already knew were coming around.
Later in my California stay I enjoyed some moviegoing as rainy day counter-programming. The film of choice, somewhat randomly, was Molly’s Game, a new drama written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, and seeing the film brought back memories of seeing Sorkin’s The Social Network in California for the first time in 2010, which I ought to do a retrospective post about at some point. I wasn’t really aware of the story of Molly Bloom and her self-made poker empire, so that helped to keep the material fresh. Chastain, who seems to have gained a new level of confidence in her public persona within the last year or two, carries the film splendidly but never too show-ily, even letting herself blend into the background of a few scenes and letting the story focus on gender politics along with systematic challenges of business and professional identity, among others.
Unfortunately, the film takes a sharp turn into sentimentality for its final act, and thus caused me to lose interest in its overly pat resolution. Sorkin obviously loves his dialogue, delivered in trademark rapid fire style, but the material could have used some greater editing. The film narrative is one that shifts back and forth in time, making for an absorbing and immediate sensation, but I had to wonder what it would have been like as a more straightforwardly chronological story. (Most likely not as dynamic, of course.)
On a different note, the filmgoing experience for Molly’s Game (in downtown Santa Cruz) was unusual in that a person was being arrested in the lobby as I walked in for my film, and I’d be very curious to know what became of their situation.
My third California film became The Post, a very East Coast story that I had tried to see on the East Coast itself earlier in the holiday break, only to discover that showing was sold out. Related to that general East Coast feeling, my knowledge and appreciation of Martha’s Vineyard history led to an intriguing subtext while viewing this film, which features several real-life individuals – Katherine Graham, Robert McNamara, and more – all of whom summered here on Martha’s Vineyard and socialized together, concurrent with their “real lives” in Washington. The island’s storied weekly paper, The Vineyard Gazette, is even name-dropped in one brief sequence during the film.
I knew that the filmgoing experience with this film might be a bit frustrating, as I was heading to a large corporate style multiplex, but I wasn’t expecting to wait ten minutes in line due to limited staffing at their box office. As well, the film was showing in a “premium” cinema, which meant a higher ticket price, and that might have been more irritating if I hadn’t been using a gift certificate.
So I arrived a few minutes late to the film, but it puts you right in to the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the early 1970’s. The story eventually falls into the mechanics of leading up to One Big Event, and therein lied some of its problems for me. While undoubtedly well-told, once that Big Event is past, the film seemed to rush along to its conclusion. There’s no doubt either that Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks offer stellar work as the two main real-life characters in the story. But … Streep is obviously Streep, and i had to wonder what a lesser-known actress might have done with the part. On the other hand, Hanks seemed more at ease, and not necessarily being Tom Hanks, than in some of his other work I have seen in recent years.
The Post also lays on the contemporary allegories a bit too thickly, never in the sense of “this is happening again, ahh!” but in a bit too much of a showing the past to make your own judgements about the present. Nonetheless I feel I would still recommend the film.
In an attempt to blog more, I’m looking back at a blog post that I started just over a year ago. A bit embarrassing to realize that I never posted it, but why not do so now, with some more context added?
A year ago, the Merchant-Ivory classic film Howard’s End appeared at The Maple Theatre in Bloomfield, Michigan, for a one week re-release celebrating an impending 25th anniversary and digital restoration. Somehow I learned of the screenings, probably thanks to my regular scouting of film listings and moviegoing itself serving as a stress relief at that particular time.
I recall being retrospectively impressed by the film’s use of scale, most notably seen in the lush cinematography and music score. Most of the central cast – Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter and others – felt like they are not as active in the present day, or more selective about their projects (probably a mixture of both) and so looking back at their previous work felt especially revelatory.
The theatre itself – one of my favorites in the metro Detroit area – contributed to my enjoyment as well, where it only has three screens with carefully crafted film choices and isn’t oriented towards mass market entertainment.
It feels a bit funny to say that The Remains of The Day was one of my favorite films as a kid … but it was. Somehow I never got to see its immediate Merchant Ivory cinematic universe predecessor Howard’s End all the way through as a whole film … until today at The Maple Theater, which is screening it as part of a special limited run re-release.
I’d forgotten how intricate the Merchant Ivory world was, with elements bursting out of the frame and suggesting a wider visual and active world beyond the story. Such depth was particularly apparent in this narrative, with three parallel stories intertwining, intersecting and then branching out into their own narratives.
I haven’t been to my once-regular hangout, The Redford Theatre, at all this year, and it seems unlikely that I’ll go over there before the school year concludes in a few short weeks. The likely reason for this is the lingering satisfaction – even nearly a year later – of getting to see my favorite James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service at the Redford on the big screen last June.
After seeing the film onscreen once before – and coming close to seeing it onscreen nearly 20 years ago in 1998 at the Brattle Theatre back in Cambridge – I was still excited to see it again. Reasons were similar to why I am often drawn to reissues or revival screenings: the immediacy of the cinematic experience can’t be replicated in your home or in a lighter setting. That’s especially true with this Bond movie, which offered a level of intensity and character that was arguably unmatched until Casino Royale appeared on screens 37 years later.
The previous screening, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, offered the excitement of 007’s 50th anniversary year and took place in October, 2012. I’d made a special trip to the city for the event, and was not disappointed – mostly – except for the fact that a key sequence of the film was completely missing from the print that they showed. Thankfully that did not happen at the Redford and the emphasis was on the quality of the experience, complete with old-style intermission as is customary with their classic film showings.
Of course another part of the appeal of this experience stemmed from having visited the primary filming location itself, as referenced in my YouTube clip below, high in the Swiss Alps. I’m currently looking in to making a return visit there, just over 10 years after when I previously went, and am hoping it will work out.
So with the peaks of an experience like that with OHMSS, why would (or how could) I top that? It’s nothing against the Redford, though, and they continue to be a strong resource and community member of Detroit.
The three films I’ve seen so far this year, as I maybe/maybe not get back into the “one film per week” routine, all focus strongly on the feminine experience, which feels appropriate and important as the Trump era begins in US government. (As we clearly saw yesterday with the widespread women’s marches around the country.)
Going in reverse chronological order, last night’s film of choice was the new 20th Century Women, which I caught back at the Devonshire Mall cinema, a place that would be my favorite local cinema if it wasn’t over a country border that requires often irritating logistics, not to mention a toll both ways. Anyway, I continue to appreciate the times that I do get over there, and this was the first time in awhile, probably over a year, although I had been to the mall – and not the cinema – at more recent times.
So the film of choice was 20th Century Women, an ensemble piece that has arrived with some “buzz” into a semi-wide release, although I’m guessing it may be overlooked when the all-important Academy Award nominations are announced on Tuesday morning. A small ensemble cast – Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup and Lucas Zellman – anchors the film in a surprisingly robust way.
The film seemed unusual to me in that it built my interest in the characters, as opposed to starting early with a lot of information and then losing interest as the narrative goes on. Related to that, the characters seemed to exist in and out of the story, thanks to the use of voice-over, with several individuals offering audio perspective from later in their lives as the “immediate” visual played on the screen.
I was pleased to see the Santa Barbara area of California, a region I’m quite familiar with, be represented in the story, and a few visual shout-outs to locations in the area I’ve passed by numerous times. As well, the heart of the story seemed to be one that focused on the nuances of life and art of communication between individuals, which made it more relatable in some ways than your average film about misfits, which all of the characters clearly were.
This week I had the pleasure of seeing one of my favorite actresses – and probably my favorite who is my own age – Rebecca Hall appear in a new film where she finally takes the leading role, after many films in high supporting or co-lead parts.
Hall dazzles in the titular role of Christine, starring as a determined reporter working her way up at a Sarasota, Florida news station in the summer of 1974. Christine openly and fiercely advocates for the professional positions she believes in, such as human interest stories and the actual art of the interview being something that is detailed and not brief, but she is constantly rebuffed by the male upper management of her station. It is hinted that Christine also suffers from an unspecified mental instability, which manifests itself in the paradox of her professional successes contrasting with her at-home life living with her mother and lack of additional social life.
The specificity of the story shines through choices in lighting, costuming, cinematography and sound design, all evoking a lurid (in retrospect) period of browns, muddy hues and too long or too straight hair. We also see a subtle but strong emphasis on gender politics and what the men in charge think the women (ranked below them) are capable of doing, vs. what the women actually want to do.
Through it all Hall carries the film strongly on her shoulders, with many specific character choices such as a lumbering walk, flat American accent, and shading the nuance between Christine’s tenacious professional ambition and interior hesitancy and tentativeness. The strands unify towards the end of the film as it leads to a shocking (but true to the real life story) conclusion.
Hall gives the strongest actress performance I’ve seen this year, though sadly I’m sure it will be overlooked come Oscar time.
I’ve been interested in the film Manchester by the Sea, titled after and set within my hometown in Massachusetts, since it was first announced around two years ago. Originally planned to star Matt Damon, the film had an immediate air of prestige coming from acclaimed playwright and somewhat embattled filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, known for works including This is Our Youth and You Can Count on Me. As it turned out, Damon was not able to star in the film, but remained as a producer, and recruited his longtime friend Casey Affleck to take over the lead role. I would have liked to have been back on the North Shore to observe when they shot the film during the winter of 2015, which was exceptionally snowy and cold.
With this anticipation in place I was very excited when the film appeared on this year’s Windsor Film Festival schedule across the border in Canada, and thus made plans to attend a screening yesterday, creating an amusing irony of having to go out of the country in order to go home. This was perhaps doubly ironic as I was in Manchester itself just four weeks ago and enjoyed a more leisurely visit than my past couple of times being back, which had been just quick drive-throughs.
In general the film lives up to its pre-release and festival generated acclaim as a somber drama that isn’t afraid to go into more depth than other stories it might be similar to. The detailed tone is apparent from the opening scenes, when character beats are held just a second or two too long and/or a character says something they might be thinking but not say in a “conventional” setting. Affleck is on screen in nearly every scene and anchors the film with exceptional pathos; his character motivations are initially shrouded but gradually become clearer as the story goes back and forth in different time frames.
As a native of the area, it’s inevitably both amusing and irritating to see how Manchester itself is represented in the story, with a to be expected range of minor to moderate geographic implausibilities sprinkled in the narrative, along with a few glaring omissions or character choices that made it obvious the writer did not have roots in the area. However, the pleasure of seeing familiar locations and landmarks on screen (especially while watching it in Canada) goes without saying! Since it’s fun for me to examine, I’ll outline some of the film vs. reality impressions here.
- There’s not really a PC way to say this, but it’s doubtful (while not impossible) that a “working class” family as depicted in this story would actually live in Manchester, which has the highest household income of the North Shore area and is known for having large houses and estates and corresponding financial security. I continue to feel that the story ought to have been set in the neighboring and better-known town of Gloucester, which has a more diverse range of inhabitants and a closer connection to the art of the sea. Indeed, the film’s opening shot jumped back and forth between Manchester and Gloucester harbors in order to set the mood of the story. A key scene between two characters late in the film is also filmed in Gloucester, though the dialogue implies they are still in Manchester.
- When Affleck first arrives back on the North Shore, a scene takes place in the neighboring town of Beverly. He then says he has to “go up” to Manchester, which no one would say about the next town over. However, the statement makes sense when his character mindset is considered, having driven up from a town south of Boston on short notice.
- Subsequently, when Affleck first enters Manchester, where he’s meant to have grown up, he drives away from the town center and several well-known gathering places are not seen at all during the film including the town market and train station. A few other scenes in the film feature him driving around to make trips that would be more likely accomplished on foot.
- The town’s crown jewel Singing Beach is not seen in the film nor referenced in any of the dialogue.
- While the choice to have most of the characters use “Boston” accents fits in to the dynamic of the story, such accents are rarely heard in this part of the North Shore, and Hollywood in general still has not learned that those accents are very tightly concentrated to inner-ring towns around and some sections within Boston itself.
OK, continuing with the film itself. As Affleck’s character Lee experiences the story, he is tasked with looking after his nephew Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges. This character offers a very well-drawn depiction of mid-teenage years (he’s meant to be 16) and the delicate dance of making choices that relate to your family vs. your own personal journey and desires. Patrick’s arc also contains unexpected humor that enlivens the story, while the character also brings it back down to earth/the reality of the situation at a few surprise moments that add to the dynamic of the uncle/nephew relationship. The process of honesty and being “real” that is established early in the film is most sharply seen in the scenes with Patrick, and actor Hedges rises to the challenge with a strongly committed and revelatory performance. The film toys with sending Lee and Patrick’s relationship into “buddy/odd couple” comedy mode, and there are indeed several humorous moments, but then it comes back to reality with the empathy for both characters strongly intact. On the whole, the dynamic between both male characters made me notice that the film isn’t shy of going in-depth with masculine feeling and emotion, often glossed over in storytelling and popular culture, and that choice likely contributes to the richness of the drama.
Of the supporting cast, Michelle Williams is the obvious stand-out in a few strong scenes as Lee’s ex-wife. While her “Boston” accent is likely the most distracting of the cast (at least Affleck’s is authentic), she also carries the reality of the story and the challenge of character choices in context of the narrative.
I would see the film again, and you should too when it comes to general release and likely Academy Awards season acclaim at the end of this year.
My first impression of Joseph Gordon-Levitt came 22 years ago with the Disney summer flick Angels in the Outfield. Who would have thought that the energetic kid at the center of that story would grow up to be a versatile, accomplished and respected acting force? Indeed, it seems he’s had the market cornered on a late summer/early fall release for the last five years, with titles including 50/50 (written by a fellow Hampshire College alum), Looper, Premium Rush, Don Jon (which he himself wrote and directed), The Walk, and now Snowden, directed by Oliver Stone. The point in mentioning those films is that Gordon-Levitt has subtly and solidly established an impressive versatility, especially for someone who “grew up” in the acting business.
So, last Sunday I caught Gordon-Levitt’s latest work as the titular character in Oliver Stone’s new Snowden, which chronicles the recent past of its subject, with some modest Hollywood embellishments here and there.
As Edward Snowden himself, Gordon-Levitt mostly exercises restraint, in an effort to portray the seemingly mellow international man of (dubious?) renown as accurately as possible. He’s supported by a range of drawn from real life characters, most notably Shailene Woodley as his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills, but also including Rhys Ifans, Timothy Olyphant and several additional character actors.
I enjoyed seeing Snowden, and appreciate its efforts to provoke and document Snowden’s story in itself, and his effect on world affairs. But thinking about it again a few days after the fact makes the overly Hollywoodized elements of the story stand out more, such as a strong focus on Snowden’s love life as a moral compass. Such choices seem to have been done as a negative effect on the actual nuts and bolts of the story, in that there was not much opportunity to discern how Snowden himself was processing the information he came into contact with, and what was driving him to make the fateful decision to leak the information to the public.
Of course, Snowden’s story was told without pretension and artifice in the documentary Citizenfour, which this movie references, and I had caught at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center near the end of 2014. I guess the existence of the documentary gave this film an odd redundancy, in that it could have gone further, but didn’t, and yet it was still well-done.
After some misgivings caused by the previous three films then appearing at cinemas much closer to me after I’d driven a modest distance to see them, I decided to resume my filmgoing geohopping this weekend in Royal Oak and Clinton. After all, it’s a nearly 20 year habit for me to go to the film (and not wait for it to come to me) – so it’s unlikely that it will slow down anytime soon.
First up was the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, which is always a pleasure to visit at night thanks to its dramatic and classically lit up marquee. I also appreciate how they publicly advertise their upcoming films and events, not just for the next week, but for the next month or two.
New film Complete Unknown is another tour de force for actress Rachel Weisz, who has recently become one of my favorite actresses to watch. (Not that I did not like her before; she’s just become even more watchable with a mastery of technique, inflection and presence.) In this story she takes on the role of Alice (not her real name) – a woman who has shape-shifted her way through at least nine different guises over a span of 15-20 years, because … what? The story doesn’t really tell us why Alice chooses to live such a transient and challenging life, and at times it was hard to suspend the disbelief and buy into the narrative. Weisz sells it strongly by mostly underplaying the whole thing; she’s not there to be an avenger or superwoman, she just wants to blend in.
An awkward framing device introduces us to Michael Shannon’s character, Tom, who is soon revealed to be an old connection of Alice’s. It’s a minor spoiler to say that she has arranged the whole encounter so that she can see him again after a 15 year gap. Incidentally the underplaying was at its best in their first one on one encounter, when Tom frustratedly wonders how and why Alice has even sought him out again. Instead of matching his intensity, Weisz goes the other way with the characterization into a cool and composed slight aloofness that keeps the narrative going and allows more questions to rise. However, the plot point that they hadn’t seen each other “in 15 years” really ought to have been raised up to 25 years, since both actors are obviously in their mid 40s and it strained credibility to think they’d last encountered each other when they were around 30, especially as the dialogue touched on high school and hometowns.
A fun transition sequence in a New York City nightclub, set to the strands of the Chemical Brothers, allows the two leads to leave the club on their own and the story to boil down to just the two of them. This is where the story ought to have started all along. The film takes on an air of momentary unpredictability as they head off on their own … only to encounter veteran actress Kathy Bates, who cameos in a sequence that feels more like an outtake, but keeps up the fun of the story. It is soon revealed that she is married to none other than Danny Glover, and the experienced elders have some fun with their small roles before Tom and Alice go off on their own again.
At this point the film becomes very reminiscent of Certified Copy from several years ago, as the viewer is left to question how far the characters might go with their renewed connection, and the action is intercut with a few brief dream-like sequences that question whether they are being imagined or not. While the eventual ending may be seen as unsatisfying, it does continue with the ambiguity and not tying things up neatly.
It’s good to see Shannon, known for his intensity, loosening up a bit here in more of an “everyman” role. And Weisz carries the film along with a mix of gestures and emotions and feelings, always aware of what she is doing and also the cost of her actions.
This commentary got longer than I expected (I must have enjoyed engaging in the material … so I’ll save this weekend’s second film for a separate post.)
My non-consecutive moviegoing double feature this weekend involved opposite ends of the current indie film spectrum. Both visits were at two different MJR (‘Movies Just Right”) locations relatively near my house; MJR has become my favorite cinema chain to support in metro Detroit thanks to its catchy jingle “it’s more fun at MJR” along with a tangibly LOCAL focus of its business, as the company is headquartered right here in Michigan and thus seems more committed to its constituents than AMC or some other chain.
First up was a visit to the 20-plex in Sterling Heights, which follows a template established in other MJR complexes but seems to do it especially well at this location, even though the surrounding area leaves a lot to be desired. In short, this complex has become my “destination movie” location of choice, even though it’s around 20 miles away from my house. The film I chose, Hell or High Water, has drawn considerable critical praise as a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale summer movie season, and it was easy to see why; the film mostly lived up to the hype for me.
From the very first scene (a long wraparound shot of a Texas town that has clearly seen better days) it is clear that the story will be told in a distinct way. We follow two brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, as they approach and perform several bank robberies in similarly desperate looking towns. But as the nuances continue to unfold for the film itself, it’s clear that the story will not be a simple or action packed revenge tale. Audience allegiance seems to shift constantly between the two brothers, although Pine is ultimately presented as the more sympathetic character. Add in a veteran sheriff portrayed by Jeff Bridges at his most grizzled and muffled (with an overdone Texas accent) and the recipe is in place for a slow-burning character study.
The film benefits from a constantly shifting moral compass that doesn’t settle in one place. Although the ultimate outcome for one character appears without much surprise, the way in which it’s reached continues the impression of being willing to go the extra mile (literally) and not choose the easy route for any outcome. This trend continues as the film reaches its ultimate (and surprisingly non hyper violent) conclusion, as the emphasis is placed on the humanity as much as it can be.
The following evening brought a trip to MJR’s complex in Chesterfield, which I’d previously experienced at an awkward transition moment early this year when they were in the process of converting to increasingly customary reclining and reserved seating. This time, the dust had settled and the cinema was moderately busy. (I was amused that the evening ticket price is 50 cents less than the complexes closer to Detroit, reflecting its location in the farther ‘burbs.)
Not really sure why I chose to catch The Light Between the Oceans aside from an appreciation for location based period drama and the work of the central acting trio: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz. Weisz in particular seems to just get better and better with each film I see her perform in. Amusingly, this film also put Weisz and Vikander face to face; the last two Bourne female leads facing off in a different universe.
Although I walked in with a retrospective appreciation for director Derek Cianfrance’s earlier work – seen in films Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines – after the film started I was quickly reminded of the overwrought subtext and directorial choices present in those films … and they reappeared here on an even larger scale. It was difficult to get invested in the character and emotion of the story – though undoubtedly lushly filmed and acted with high commitment – when everything is heavily telegraphed in the narrative. An epilogue scene was particularly awkward, both in its hastiness and tidying up of the plot.
My response may also be due to this film falling victim to the “most of the story is telegraphed in the trailer” increasingly common problem among films these days, so that the story’s unfolding was less of a WHAT is going to happen and more of a WHEN is this going to happen. I ought to have just come in for the second hour of the film as it was, but at least the story was told well and with obvious gusto.
Thanks to a personal connection with the Bourne series (as recapped in my previous post), I will always think fondly of it. But I knew from mixed publicity and a certain lack of interest among my peer group that Jason Bourne would most likely be a toss up, which probably accounts for my relative delay in seeing the film. While I had hoped to catch the film in an iconic and nostalgic Martha’s Vineyard single screen cinema, instead I ended up seeing it back in my Michigan hometown as a re-introduction to that twin cinema and starting my effort to enjoy my town more.
Perhaps inevitably due to the long gap between previous Matt Damon led Bourne adventures, the film seems to force itself to catch up to 2016 with a plot that mixes some “greatest hits” of previous stories in the series alongside some forced contemporary relevance. While the film enjoyed a few tight moments like the old times, overall I felt like it could have gone further in-depth with the story, but was held back by possible script changes, studio interference or pressure to have a certain story element in the film in place of another. The last point was most glaringly obvious in the inclusion of a rather strained “social media” plot angle, along with a wavering focus on Bourne himself, who came to feel more like a side character rather than the protagonist. It probably did not help that the film does not really explore Bourne’s perspective on the events, except for one sharp moment when he reacts to a character’s demise and later when he takes more control of the story and turns the tables on the agents who are pursuing him. But the latter moment was undone by a gratuitous and tacked-on car chase sequence that adds little to the story.
Casting of the newcomers in the film was serviceable if not outstanding. Joan Allen’s presence as the mature and committed agent Pamela Landy was sorely missed, and it’s a shame they couldn’t bring her back in some form after a thankless cameo in the “sidequel” The Bourne Legacy four years ago. Tommy Lee Jones phones it in, with a few brief exceptions, as the unsurprisingly malintentioned CIA director. Recent Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander is believable for the most part as a hotshot CIA agent, but the film made no explanation of her obvious Swedish origins (or if it did, I missed them) – and she did not project the nuances that I so enjoyed in her breakout film Ex Machina.
To its credit, the film makes me want to revisit the original trilogy, so I think I will spend some time doing just that…