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The Unseen Best Actress

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.

Into the Complete Unknown

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.

img_8005First 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.)

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: **

New Series: Theatrical Throwback Thursday

Since this has been a stellar year for keeping up investment in this blog, and taking it to steadier heights, I’ve decided to attempt to maintain a writing series for the remainder of 2014. Going off of some current popular social media trends, I will be presenting a weekly Theatrical Throwback Thursday and Film Flashback Friday, which also tie in to the two ongoing themes of this blog.

First up for the theatre section: a look back at my time studying at British American Drama Academy in London, England, which began ten years ago yesterday.

BADA 2004

 

It’s wholly accurate to say this experience solidified my partnership with the theatre. Never before had I been in such an immersive and appreciative theatrical environment, with countless productions going on across the city of London and a constant awareness of how the craft could impact us built right in to the curriculum. Fiona Shaw dropped by for a masterclass, Daniel Evans came two weeks later, our teachers casually spoke of Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and other acclaimed thespians. I had a weekly tutorial session with a character actress who’d had a well – known guest appearance on my favorite episode of a certain cult 1960’s television show, but I never got up the courage to ask her what being on the set was like.

We had regularly scheduled trips to see the latest theatrical offerings that season in London, with some being immediately memorable and some not so much. I was thrilled by surprise changes in the schedule, such as a trip to the Cheltenham Festival of Literature near Oxford that brought about a brief meeting with Neil LaBute, whose The Shape of Things I was preparing to direct the next semester back at Hampshire College, along with a quick meeting with acclaimed actress Joanna Lumley. All of this was jammed in to the first eight weeks of the program, when the focus was on conservatory – style classes during the day and the nights and weekends devoted to additional theatergoing and getting to know various attractions in Greater London… and quite a bit of going out on the town. All of us crammed in to an apartment building in fashionable St. John’s Wood, just two blocks from the local Tube station and in the midst of the city’s premier American expat neighborhood.

And then we took a weeklong break, just as the Election 2004 madness was nearing its climax back home, and the Red Sox had won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. I chose to go far, far away from London (and am very glad I did) but ought to have considered a more spontaneous group adventure, such as joining several guys in the program who went to the south of Italy. “The continent” continued to be our playground as we enjoyed what came to be seen as the heyday of cheap flights from the UK, just before climate change became a buzzword and various costs of living started a steadier and sharper increase that continues to this day – as I currently see in considering a trip back to the UK for spring break 2015.

We reconvened back at school ready to spend the remaining six weeks of the program focused on intensive production, where all of us had roles spread out over three full length shows scheduled to be performed over three consecutive nights at an off-West End/Fringe venue on the other side of the Thames River. One group of performers tackled Singer, another explored The Visit, and the third group, including me, examined Roberto Zucco, channeling intensity and French – American anxiety in a story of a disaffected protagonist and the individuals he encounters.

One day during the production process, The Facebook became available to students enrolled at Hampshire College and with a HAMPSHIRE.EDU address, and so I signed up for an account at the urging of my London classmates, with no knowledge of the cultural institution (and national obsession?!) the site would one day become.

For some reason those rehearsal – based days are less clear in my memory than the class experiences, although I warmly recall the excitement of rising to the crescendo of the performance, and not being shy of giving it our all since it was just one night only. And then everyone had to pack up and head out the next day, leading to a random experience for me of traveling on the London Underground with a bathrobe over my jacket, since there was nowhere else to put it in my luggage.

I stuck around Europe through the Christmas holiday in 2004, eventually returning to the US on the 28th of December after an unusual “Eurotrip” with Contiki tours where I was the only American in the group of 30 or so young people, and the trip was half sights I had seen before (Paris, Rome) mixed in with some new territory (Amsterdam and Munich) while traveling by bus throughout the journey. It’s an understatement to say it was a very wistful flight home to Massachusetts.

What’s interesting to me now, ten years later, is what the BADA experience led to, or, alternatively, what I might not have done if I had not been accepted to BADA and/or chose not to attend, I most likely…

– would not appreciate or be as immersed in the theatre world as I am in the present day.
– would never have moved to Marin County or (maybe) anywhere in the Bay Area.
– would never have moved back to London in the first half of 2007 for a second, more independent stint of theatre life.
– would not have explored Europe to the extent that I have.
– would not have seen as much of the UK.
– would not have met a dizzying array of well – known actors, including, but not limited to: Diana Rigg, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins (I really ought to have written them down at some point.)
– would not have discovered Humble Boy, a play by Charlotte Jones that kicked off my Div III experience at Hampshire the following fall.
– would not have geekily and happily explored filming locations used in The Avengers and other 1960’s television shows.
– might not have embraced the Facebook world as an early adapter.
– might look at theatre from more of a distance, without an understanding of the immersion and cultural relevance of the art.

In this case it is abundantly clear that the choices we make and the opportunities we get have long shadows and lasting effects, and I continue to be grateful for my time at BADA.