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Bookending March at the Maple Theatre

IMG_1171I was pleased to realize upon March’s conclusion that (in the US at least!) I only visited independent cinemas this month, and in an unintentional coincidence, trips to The Maple Theatre (pictured at right) north of Detroit bookended my spring break adventures abroad.

I did deliberately choose to catch The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel prior to spring break, where it stars a number of well-known elder British actors. And the sequel is more or less an excuse to let them act again in a beautiful location. It’s most notable for the central performances of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, given more dramatic space than in some of their other film portrayals, and Smith especially reminds the viewer of how much she can do with actual acting beyond just raising an eyebrow or giving a witty remark.

Last night I changed my earlier view and went back to the Maple to catch their last showing of Still Alice, the movie that gave Julianne Moore a well-deserved Academy Award and is now making its way out of theatres. As expected, the film is a showcase for Moore’s bravura and sensitive performance depicting a woman who faces a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Something that may have gone less noticed in the awards season conversation is the effective supporting cast that surrounds Moore, most notably Alec Baldwin as her husband and Kristen Stewart as her youngest daughter.

While the film inevitably feels like a “movie of the week” at a few moments and has a slightly overcomplicated plot (does Stewart’s character really need to live in California if she can conveniently make it home for most of the film’s major scenes?), Moore’s sympathetic and nuanced portrayal overshadows those deficiencies to create a poignant and powerfully thoughtful cinematic experience.

*** for both films

The Many Faces of Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore at Cannes 2014 - image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Julianne Moore at Cannes 2014 – image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This (last) year’s Best Actress winner, Julianne Moore, is a long-admired film actress. Moore has achieved a rare feat of working steadily since she came to greater public attention in the mid 1990’s (and regularly before that time as well), along with continuing to move easily between smaller and studio cinematic projects.

In 2014, Moore initially gained received renewed attention for a darkly comedic turn in Maps to the Stars, which I saw at my local Cinema Detroit last week, before her acclaimed dramatic role in Still Alice took the awards circuit by storm starting with its premiere at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival.

I had originally intended for this post to be a compare and contrast between Moore’s work in those two films, but I came to feel that Still Alice, while undoubtedly a noble and important project in my mind, has reached a point of the storyline becoming too well-known so that the viewing experience for me would be more about “so when is ____ going to happen” or “is ________ actor going to show up again soon?” as opposed to being led along by the dramatic twists and narrative of the story. So I opted not to venture out to see the film.

It’s unfortunate, but that does happen with films that become well-known, and on a general principle I prefer to go in “cold” to a viewing experience, as it often leads to a more satisfying engagement with the material and artistry.

So, back to Maps to the Stars.

An ensemble cast of moderately recognizable faces navigates a familiar (in the age of TMZ and constant supermarket tabloid-ism) tale of morality and extremism under the setting sun of the Hollywood Hills. We meet Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a new arrival to town, as she chats up a limo driver (Robert Pattinson) taking her around town. It becomes apparent that Agatha has some connection with an affluent family in town led by John Cusack, as a self-help guru, and Olivia Williams as his tense wife. Meanwhile, fading actress Havana Segrand (Moore) plots her comeback in the comforts of her large house, but she’s tormented by continued visions of her deceased mother, who was also a film star. A fun cameo from the inimitable Carrie Fisher, playing herself, helps to set the multiple storylines on a path to merging together.

To get back to the theme of this article, I found it interesting, but jarring, to see Moore and Wasikowska share several scenes together in a very different dynamic from when they starred as mother and daughter in the 2010 comedy-drama The Kids Are All Right. It’s a testament to the versatility of both actresses that they were able to pull off the different roles… but as an audience member I kept thinking back to that much warmer hearted and thoughtful film. I also sort of wanted Annette Bening and Josh Hutcherson to appear from a corner and pull them back into that other cinematic universe!

As befitting a film by David Cronenberg, the plot dabbles in a large amount of weirdness and surrealism. I think I enjoyed it more for uses of style than the actual narrative, which was less pleasing, particularly in a longer than it needed to be thread about a foul mouthed child star. I can see how Moore’s performance initially attracted attention, where she knowingly plays off the stereotype of someone really wanting to be in the spotlight… and does so without any hint of vanity, but… I’m sure she’s happier that Still Alice took over her dramatic momentum and accolades for 2014.

Film Rating: **

The Great Canadian Digital Film Festival

StandeeI was reminded of why I make a point of regularly checking the listings at the Cineplex Odeon Devonshire Mall when some old favorite films randomly appeared up on their schedule this past week. It turned out the cinema was taking part in a one week only “Great Digital Film Festival” – spotlighting classic films centered on fantasy, science fiction and adventure all across Canada. It seems this event has become a tradition for Cineplex filmgoers in recent years, and the impressively quirky lineup shows that they are programming for film lovers and not just to make some money off ticket sales.

For me, the choice of Blade Runner and Dick Tracy stood out the most, and conveniently, they were both showing on the same day. This was an audacious trek over the border, given that it happened to be last Sunday, the day the metro Detroit area received one of its largest snowfalls in a 24 hour period ever. But I forged ahead. When I did reach the Devonshire Mall, the cinema was not surprisingly sparsely populated.

Blade Runner AdBlade Runner was up first, and I’d actually previously seen the film on the big screen at the Palm Theatre back in 2008. But (no offense to the charming and unique Palm) the Devonshire Mall has a much more substantial film viewing experience, so I knew this time would be a fuller sensory experience. And that was just the case, with a crystal – clear print, Vangelis’ unique soundtrack oozing over the speakers, and the moody cinematography gaining more depth in its onscreen presentation where it should be.

It was a sort of “oh, aha!” moment to remember that the film takes place in 2019, which, of course, isn’t that far away at this point in time. I’d forgotten that a few of the lines of dialogue concerning Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah and co.’s replicant characters reference 2016 and 2017, just around the corner. Cineplex realized this coincidence as well and humorously played on it with their in-house advertising, as seen at right.

A long-awaited sequel to the film is reportedly close to shooting, but I have to wonder if they’ll delay the release until 2019 itself? It’s great to see the original film continuing to hold up so well and become even more prescient about our increasingly digital – obsessed world.

Dick Tracy was the evening show, and this was a major cinematic update for me, as I clearly recall seeing that film during its original run almost 25 years ago at the Star Theatre in St. Johnsbury, VT, even though I was just shy of my sixth birthday at the time – maybe it was one of the first “event movies” I ever saw?

Looking at the film now was, needless to say, a different experience. There was Warren Beatty in the lead, entering the autumn years of his career and playing a role that could/should have been played by someone younger – I believe Beatty was in his early or mid 50’s at the time of filming. There was Madonna, coming off her stratospheric debut decade and beginning the first of many image transformations over her long career. There was Al Pacino, overacting as usual and made up to be heftier onscreen. There was a boat load of other character actors, perhaps having more fun than the main cast in various levels of makeup and elaborate guises.

I’m certain I didn’t notice the technical mastery of the film when I looked at it through younger eyes. Today’s comic book movies really ought to have looked more closely at Beatty and co.’s depiction of a fabled world, using a very specific color scheme and deliberate lighting and editing choices, leading to Academy Awards for best makeup and art direction. As well, acclaimed composer Stephen Sondheim lent his distinctive composition talents to the movie’s original songs, and that led to an Academy Award for the main theme, “Sooner or Later“.

I don’t think I would enjoy Dick Tracy if I saw it for the first time today – the cartoonish violence overwhelms the main story, and is surprising given the PG rating, the characterizations are way over the top, Beatty is perhaps too old for the main role, and so on. But it sure was a big event movie in the summer of 1990 – I remember acquiring several collectable cards and likely a few other “must have” items related to the movie – so I’ll always recall its impact on that particular summer, like the best type of time capsule.

Thanks are due to Cineplex Odeon for programming these classics. I’ll look forward to seeing what they have up their sleeves next year.

Academy Award Also-Rans

A Most Violent Year finally arrived in wide release yesterday, following its initial Oscar-qualifying release in select cities on December 31st. So I caught the late show at AMC’s John R 15, in a screening room that had been surprisingly renovated into having recliner seats, rather than standard seating.

The film is the third feature written and directed by rising star JC Chandor, whose previous releases, All Is Lost (which I described here) and Margin Call (one of my favorite films of 2011), received wide acclaim. This time Chandor paired with actors Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks, along with a wide range of supporting characters, to deliver a complex period piece about a violent time in New York City’s history and one family empire’s role in a competitive business.

While all the performances were uniformly strong, I felt that Isaac didn’t offer particularly new shadings from previous roles. Interestingly, the film may or may not have deliberately made several winks to his role in Drive, where he played a character called Standard, involved with a shady organization led by Albert Brooks. And here he led the Standard Oil Company, which may or may not have come from questionable roots, and Albert Brooks appears as his principle advisor. Meanwhile, Chastain offered a slow burning performance that masterfully builds from demure to aggressive, with a key turning point happening when she and Isaac are out for an evening drive that suddenly turns a bit more violent. However, her character seemed to disappear from the last third of the narrative, perhaps as a reflection of Isaac’s independence from her interference.

The film delights in its ambiguity, although that made for a problematic viewing experience at times, as in trying to figure what was exactly driving the character motivations. The production worked hard to recreate NYC’s look of over 30 years ago, and a recurring theme of snow on the ground is an apt metaphor for the light and darkness of the story.

My Rating: ***1/2


Foxcatcher finally reached the Detroit area sometime just after the new year. I’d had a chance to see this film at Thanksgiving and again at Christmas in the Delaware area, not far from where the real life events took place, but held off until last week back at the Main Art Theatre.

Steve Carrell and Mark Ruffalo have received acclaim and Academy Award nominations for their work in this film, but Channing Tatum has been curiously overlooked and offers an arguably more impressive performance as he turns his easygoing screen persona inside out and works hard to portray a conflicted series of life events for real-life former wrestler Mark Schultz.

It was hard to shake the cold, alienating feel of this film, although it was also certainly well-made and very carefully put together by filmmaker Bennett Miller and his team. It was not hard to understand why the actors have been quoted as saying it was a difficult set to work on and they didn’t want to do much of anything after the day’s shooting.

I’ll close by saying that Miller’s nomination for Best Director seems particularly well-deserved here, and it would be a very different film if he hadn’t guided the story into a unique dark and thoughtful place.

My Rating: ***

Cinematic Looks at History

This week’s Oscar nominations have created much discussion in the blogsphere and social networking brigade. I’m not looking to add to that conversation with this post. But I am pleased that I have now seen all of the Best Picture nominees for 2014.

Selma has built up quick and impressive word of mouth since its wide release began last Friday, and that was why I went to see it last Tuesday night. The film takes a detailed look at events surrounding the mid-1960’s segment of the Civil Rights Movement, focusing on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership role in the saga of events in the Deep South, which eventually led to a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.

The film is exquisitely well-cast in its central ensemble of committed African-American actors portraying real people. Those that stood out for me included David Oyelwo as King, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, and the extensive range of supporting actors around them; it was particularly cool to see former Bay Area actor Colman Domingo appear in a prominent role. I felt less agreeable about the Caucasian casting choices, such as Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson – surely there was a Texan or Southern actor who might have been more suitable? Or even someone like Bryan Cranston, expanding upon his recent stage success as the same person? Fellow British actor Tim Roth as George Wallace also seemed to be overemphasizing certain aspects of his portrayal.

Director Ava DuVernay uses a lyrical simplicity to convey the storyline of events, with many shots focusing just on the character in action, and little use of supporting objects and visual distractions. I would have preferred a few key dramatic moments to go without the musical accompaniment she chose, but I can understand why they are there. I’m undecided about her implied allegories towards recent national events, but I agree that there is more work to be done.

My Rating: ***


Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has smashed box office records this weekend, but I would not have gone to see it if it hadn’t received a Best Picture nomination.

The film tells the story of Chris Kyle, a Texan who became known as the most successful sniper ever for the US, with “more than 150 confirmed kills in his career” according to multiple sources. Sadly, four years after ending his Army career to be with his family in Texas, Kyle was killed in February 2013, allegedly by a fellow war veteran he was attempting to help cope with PTSD.

Bradley Cooper stars as Kyle and continues an impressive run of recent acclaimed performances. Much attention has been paid to his “bulking up” for the role, but I found his use of character subtleties to be much more interesting. As Kyle, he displays an easy comfort with the role of command and methodical attention to detail in his lethal missions. But when he comes back to the USA, home of his wife (played by Sienna Miller) and growing family, Kyle doesn’t know what to make of the calm setting, literally worlds away from his war-torn “workplace”, and becomes distractedly distant. Cooper conveys this unease especially adroitly in these home-based scenes, which run the range from poignant to troubling.

I would have liked the film much more if it paid sharper focus to that tension in Kyle’s life between his role as a war hero and role as a family man. As it is expressed in the finish film, there is too much attention paid to the mechanics of the war, and it feels like a war movie, not one that is adapted from Kyle’s actual memoir. Cooper is left to convey the psychological and physiological tension over the course of several effective but brief scenes, while long stretches of the film focus broadly on the war mechanics. That’s not to say that they aren’t well-made (they are, of course, with Eastwood at the helm) but it lends the movie a different aftertaste than what might have been. I have to wonder what the story would have been like if original director David O. Russell had stayed at the helm (Three Kings 2.0?) or in the eyes of a female director, as seen in Kimberly Peirce’s underrated Stop-Loss back in 2008.

Sienna Miller deserves special mention for reaching new dramatic ground with her performance. The actress, who was better known for being tabloid fodder 5-10 years ago, has matured into a confident and assured performer. I’m sure that a close personal connection with the real life Mrs. Kyle helped her to draw the emotional truth of the role. I also look forward to seeing what Miller does next with a broader role, whether on film or on stage.

My Rating: **

Birdman impresses but also overrates

I eagerly joined the first preview crowd to catch Birdman at the Main Art Theater last Thursday night, but it took me awhile to write it up here. Probably because the film felt like it fell victim to its own hype, while still being a solid and impressive feat.

Michael Keaton stars in a role with deliberate parallels to his well – known Batman alter ego. “Has – been” actor Riggan (Keaton) has chosen to adapt the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for the stage, in a bid to restore his artistic creed to a variety of audiences and prove that he can be a triple-threat actor, writer, director… plus financier and more. He is backed up by a motley crew of associates, including a troubled daughter (Emma Stone), an ex who seems somewhat still interested in him (Amy Ryan), a loyal assistant (Zach Galifianakis) and a trio of actors supporting him on the stage: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu stages the film in almost one uninterrupted take, a choice that initially was disorienting, exciting for awhile, and ultimately felt like it wore out its welcome. Apparently the actors had to match choreographed movements in order to maintain the fluidity of the visual story. Iñárritu is one of several credited writers on the script, and the story can’t seem to decide if it wants to focus solely on Keaton’s character, Riggan, and his challenges, or show the side of a satirical backstage drama, casting attention on the strong egos and challenges coming from every direction within a theatre production.

The film also includes numerous fantastical elements that initially seem to be a homage to Star Wars, but later take on an unclassifiable approach. Eventually the film itself seemed to become a male – led version of Black Swan, where Keaton, like Natalie Portman’s character in the earlier film, continues to feel competition and torment coming from a wide variety of sources, and struggles with a way to achieve balance. I might have appreciated the film more if it had dared for a darker ending than the one it contains, which felt tacked – on and overly hopeful.

Ultimately the film stands out as a technical achievement and a return to form for the esteemed Keaton, who has called it the most challenging performance of his career. While the supporting cast is not given much time to shine, especially as the film goes on, they do make impressions, especially Norton, Stone and Watts, leading to an ensemble feel and knowing acknowledgment of the challenges and rewards of show business.

Boyhood – a tribute to and exploration of life

I was very pleased to catch Boyhood on its opening day (Friday) at the Michigan Theater in an “exclusive Ann Arbor area engagement.” It’s amazing and impressive that a film like this stayed under the radar for so long (at least to the general public) until its release was confirmed sometime late last year or earlier this year.

The genesis behind the movie is now well – known, and so I won’t recap it here. I will add that the storyline achieves its goal of serving as a narrative time capsule of the past 10 – 12 years. Somehow director Richard Linklater had the foresight to offer lingering shots on various cultural objects – whether a Game Boy, older model car, Harry Potter release party, a bulky cordless landline phone, hit song from a particular year, etc – that the audience can recognize and relate to, or in some cases laugh at and be like “wow, I can’t believe I used that, or that thing was so common back then.”

From the very first shot of the movie, we are right there with the development and growth of Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. The film tracks the journey of, but never feels like a spectator in, Mason and his family’s growth over the next 12 years. We meet his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), his mother (Patricia Arquette) and his distant father (Ethan Hawke). The parents are divorced with the mother taking primary custody, and her career and life path initially dictates the geographical range of the film as they move across Texas, the kids’ father comes in and out of their life, As Mason matures, he moves into the more direct focus of the narrative, and the last third or so of the film focuses on his own development in claiming an artistic life and stepping off on his own – into interpersonal relationships, career development, and a new life in college.

This was easily the most humane movie I’ve seen since Toy Story 3, with its tear-jerker of an ending, back in 2010. And this film touches the heart in a similar and different way, showing that life is relatable in its small, poignant, important moments, and drawing emotional truth, recognition and reflection from those same narrative themes.

On an industry – watcher note, it’s fascinating to see known actors Arquette and Hawke age on-screen; we can chart their growth in individual films over the years, of course, but never before in the same movie. Meanwhile, Coltrane and the younger Linklater mature into thoughtful young people, with a reflective poignancy present in their earlier in life scenes. Several actors move in and out of the narrative, and I wondered what that must have been like to come back to a project after a gap, or leave it after a year or two of working on it.

The film offers a fuller view of Texas than is usually seen on screen. Linklater directs with a steady hand, never letting a particular moment or theme overwhelm the narrative, or the story to be taken over by sentimentality or something that isn’t rooted in realism.

Best film of my year so far. I’m sure it will be hard to top. I almost don’t want to see another film this year after seeing this one.

boyhood cast

The cast and director as seen at the recent New York premiere.