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Mike Leigh continues to master the cinematic world: Mr. Turner

A planned theatre excursion yesterday became more modest with a trip back up to The Maple Theater to see Mr. Turner, the new film from acclaimed British director Mike Leigh that is enjoying an exclusive Detroit area engagement at that cinema.

Leigh’s masterful touch for storytelling, depth and composition is evident in every frame of this artfully assembled film. It was one of the most engaging biopics I have ever seen, in that the viewer is invited to walk along with the story as it progresses, and not given a specific sense of time via obtrusive title cards, fade outs, or montages. The level of detail in the film is quite frankly amazing, going from one setting to the next and not losing any focus, or drawing back with a wider landscape or vista from time to time.

Veteran character actor Timothy Spall appears in nearly every scene as the curmudgeonly Turner, and lends forceful presence to minor lines, especially a recurring quasi-grunt that becomes his signature statement as the film goes on. Spall reportedly spent two years learning how to paint in preparation for this role, which seems characteristic of the depth and intensity Leigh commands from performers who join him for his productions. Many actors, including Spall, recur over multiple Leigh films; others seen here include Ruth Sheen, who had a leading role in Leigh’s last film Another Year, and Lesley Manville, who also featured prominently in the previous film and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing perform several times onstage.

A series of short and evocative orchestral pieces by composer Gary Yershon also contribute to the rich texture of the film, and a subtle sense of time and life going on. (To reiterate) the exquisite level of detail really captivated me throughout the long film and seemed to fuse history, entertainment and cultural studies into a powerful and potent mix.

My Rating: ****

Late Review: “The Theory of Everything”

wilmington moviesMy Thanksgiving visit back to Delaware (my adopted home state) included a return visit to downtown Wilmington’s Penn Cinema Riverfront, which opened with much fanfare in late 2012 as it brought the first IMAX screen to Delaware. At the time in my handful of early visits there, I felt like the cinema might have been rushed into opening and some interior aspects seemed unwelcoming or unfinished. I was happy to see a brighter interior this time around and fully functioning poster displays outside each auditorium. However, I still don’t understand why the cinema never constructed a separate ticket kiosk; it continues to awkwardly funnel customers into making their purchases at the concession stand.

That being said, it’s great that Northern Delaware now has more moviegoing variety between this complex, the just – opened Cinemark complex at the Christiana Mall, a year – old complex in Middletown, and older complexes in Glasgow, Newark and Brandywine Hundred. The smaller scale Theatre N also soldiers on in downtown Wilmington.

Our feature of choice was The Theory of Everything, a recently released biopic chronicling a segment of the life of Stephen Hawking, well – known scientist and professor, as seen through the eyes of his first wife. It can’t be easy to construct a film structured around someone’s LIFE STORY and condense it down to around two hours. The script of the film suffers from a few too many montages meant to depict Hawking’s different stages of life and familial growth. A more interesting approach might have involved focusing on a few key events, without having the sense of rushing from point to point.

penn cinemaThe strength of this film lies in its performances, most especially with British actor Eddie Redmayne as Hawking. The actor so completely inhabits the real person that I felt like the lines between performance and life had fallen away. Hawking himself was reportedly so impressed by the portrayal that he allowed the filmmakers to use his copyrighted real voice. He is expectedly matched by Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking, who believably matures over the course of the story and gives a strong sense of the emotional and psychological challenges her marriage develops. Jane also faces a long stream of “what might have been or could be” thoughts, which eventually culminates (no spoiler here) in the dissolution of their marriage.

A modest supporting cast includes veteran David Thewlis as Stephen’s academic mentor, Charlie Cox as a family friend who becomes intimately involved with their life, and brief cameos from Simon McBurney and Emily Watson, among others, as older relatives.

The film is well – made; director James Marsh was also responsible for the documentary Man on Wire a few years back. But several narrative flourishes, most notably seen in an early sequence involving blue and white lighting and a dreamlike atmosphere, disappear as the film settles in to a more conventional narrative. A music score by Jóhann Jóhannsson does add nuance throughout the length of the story.

So, the film is unavoidably a mixed bag… but I would still say it is worth seeing for the power of the real – life story and intense commitment of the performers and the filmmaker.

From the cosmos to the mind

This past weekend’s filmgoing spanned two countries (and more onscreen) and went from the wide galaxy to the inner mind.

I turned my first visit to Downtown Detroit’s RenCen 4 cinema into a Yelp review, visible in standard form here but I will re-post it below in italics.

I picked the wrong movie (INTERSTELLAR) for my first visit here, but think I will be returning from time to time for the convenience and mostly pleasant experience.

The cinema is nestled in to the checkerboard of the Ren Cen, on the second level of the main atrium area. Signs direct you where you need to go from any of the main entrances, although you need to look closely, as the cinema is highlighted in a different font color than the rest of the signage. A weird circular atrium area is immediately outside the cinema itself, but it does have a small seating area and actual display of the movie posters currently showing; the latter detail seems to be an increasingly lost art of moviegoing.

I was very surprised by the inexpensive $8.50 admission, especially on a Friday night. The box office and concession employees seemed happy and comfortable working as a team. Concessions are also on the lower end of average prices; I paid $5 for a medium popcorn that had smaller kernels than your average offering, and was thankfully not overflowing. The theatre also offers Little Caesar’s pizza slices and cocktail choices, which I may take advantage of on a future visit.

Parking in the nearby Beaulieu Garage is just $2 with validation – be sure to ask for this sweet deal when you buy your ticket! And be sure you’ve parked in the right garage, where the Atwater Garage is confusingly adjacent to the Beaulieu’s entrance. If you’re getting to the cinema via the People Mover, the Ren Cen of course has its own stop.

Finally, the screening rooms themselves. The one I visited, second from the left, was shockingly small by modern standards, with the now-anachronistic “bowling alley” style seating layout and a narrow wide screen. Although this arrangement is not well suited, IMO, for blockbuster-style visually expansive movies such as INTERSTELLAR, I can see it working okay in other settings. Just be sure to sit closer to the front of the room, as long as you are comfortable with that.

The theatre seems selective with its programming, not always grabbing what’s expected to be the #1 movie of the weekend. I’m not sure if this was a trend this fall or has lasted for a longer period of time.

Once I got settled in to the smaller than current standards viewing arrangement, I felt it was an ultimately comfortable experience, and continued to appreciate the ease and opportunity of coming to see a film downtown, rather than driving to Royal Oak, Southfield, Dearborn or some other metro area location. It is this ease, and the pleasant, welcoming demeanor of the staff, that will probably draw me back to the RenCen for another film before too long.

Getting back to the film, INTERSTELLAR, I was impressed (again) by Christopher Nolan’s bold and enormous vision, but felt that this film ultimately overreached and stayed at a cool distance from the viewer… or at least this viewer.

Matthew McConaughey continues his recent acclaimed streak in the lead performance, showing more humanity than ever before (although I did not catch DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB) in the role of Cooper, a veteran NASA astronaut who is led into a mission to save humanity from a dusty, uncertain future. A respected supporting cast unevenly filled out the other central roles. Anne Hathaway seemed more ill at ease than confident in the role of a co – pilot scientist, who is connected to Michael Caine back on Earth as her character’s father and the principal behind the scenes architect of the mission. Caine offered a familiar and comfortable presence, but no unique shadings, to a character he has portrayed before, and I longed for a sense of menace or uncertainty that he’s displayed in some of his other Nolan projects. Jessica Chastain, in really the third lead role, continues to maintain an impressive command and intensity of the screen, but was subject to wide and sometimes incomprehensible swings in character.

Among the secondary supporting cast, John Lithgow makes a notable appearance as a relative of McConaughey’s, while Ellen Burstyn has an extended cameo as another primary character, and a Surprise Hollywood Veteran (an unbilled and well – known actor) appears in a few crucial scenes. Actor Wes Bentley, who seems to be enjoying a modest career revival, also appears as an underdeveloped character.

Technically the film is a masterwork. Nolan and company reach their biggest heights on a series of uncharted planets and universes, including a tidal wave toting water planet, an icy world that is not hospitable to many forms of life, and several variations on what the Earth’s landscape might look like at some point in the future.

While the story makes every effort to tell a humane story, and succeeds at points, I couldn’t shake a broader feeling of distance and observation, thus preventing my full identification with the story. I do have to wonder if the tiny confines of the RenCen cinema affected my perception of the film, and if my opinion would be different having seen it on an IMAX or stadium seating style large format screen.

Yesterday brought an encore visit across the river for one of the final screenings featured in this year’s Windsor Film Festival. I would have liked to have seen more of the films that this festival offered, but am satisfied with having seen at least two.

The Sea has film prints in such short supply that WIFF had to show one with German subtitles. Made in 2013 with Irish backing – and on location along the coast of that country – the film features a notable ensemble of British actors, including veterans Ciaran Hinds, Charlotte Rampling, and Sinead Cusack, younger veterans Natascha McElhone, Rufus Sewell, Bonnie Wright (moving on from Harry Potter fame), and a trio of even younger newcomers.

This film also shows a fine sense of technical craftsmanship, especially for a directorial debut. Shifts in time are keenly delineated with strong differences in filming style, fades in and out of memory, and occasional uses of creative segues between the time periods. An often plaintive musical score adds depth by being selective as to when it fades in and out, and chooses to feature violin solos that also serve to accentuate different thematic strands of the narrative.

The three elder veteran actors offer expectedly strong portrayals, although the two women fare better than Hinds. Rampling, who is always a welcome and intense presence onscreen, and I had the pleasure of seeing onstage in a 2004 production (referenced within this past blog post) brings focus and attention to the role of an innkeeper who knows more than she lets on. However, the character is not a kindly Miss Marple type, and Rampling effectively balances a sense of sharp awareness with a feeling of the character’s past and wider presence. Cusack has a smaller part, but knows just how to bring a brittle awareness to her scenes, which are all opposite Hinds. As for him, he has a difficult role, and only partially succeeds in evoking a sympathetic portrayal. Apparently the source novel adds more shadings and rationale to his character.

Natascha McElhone seems not to have aged at all since her string of mid – 1990’s art house and Hollywood releases, such as Surviving Picasso, Ronin, Mrs. Dalloway and The Truman Show, among others. She portrays a character that is seen by others rather than given her own voice, but succeeds in the portrayal. Sewell has less success as an eccentric womanizer – his role could have been simplified without problems for the narrative. Wright, unrecognizably grown up from her Harry Potter role as Ginny Weasley, also embodies a “seen” character, but is allowed a few moments of strength.

I didn’t feel that this film offered a completely satisfying narrative, but I certainly enjoyed the chance to see the veteran performers shine in new material.

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.