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Sneak Preview and Canadian Filmgoing Recap

I wrote this post back in December but only just re-discovered it on my hard drive. This film still awaits a US release!

Silver City CinemaSERENA, which I caught over the border at the Silver City Cinemas in Windsor, a place that seems very far away at this writing, has yet to be released in the US, and has been plagued by financier problems since it was shot early in 2012. The director, Suzanne Bier, is rumored to have been uncertain about the tone she was going for and how to tell the story. And some of that uncertainty exists in the final cut that I saw, which lurches awkwardly from sweeping epic to intimate drama and doesn’t seem to have a through-line of dramatic tension or objective. Curiously, Cooper comes across well in the piece, although he should have done something about his mussy modern hair. He projects a solid double-edge to his character, who is meant to be a somewhat conniving townsman. I’m sure that another, perhaps older, actor would have added more depth, however.

Serena PosterAs for Lawrence, she’s really got to stop going into roles that are written for characters older than her early 20s real life age. This time, her character, the titular role, is meant to be the fulcrum from which everyone else revolves. She has flashes of intensity and ulterior motives, but it is inconsistent. Where Lawrence also became so well-known so quickly after hitting it big in 2012 or so, she may be running the risk of typecasting in that the audience expects her to act jovial. When she sticks to drama, as is the case here, it feels less genuine. The collective consciousness may have forgotten that her earlier roles – Winter’s Bone, The Beaver and others – were in fact highly dramatic.

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.

End of Summer Arts Binge

So I want to keep up the blog chronicling, but I’m not feeling motivated to go into detail about my arts exploits this past weekend. So I guess the answer is to do a paragraph and see what happens.

Friday evening September 12 brought my first visit to the Village Players of Birmingham back up in my now-neighbor Oakland County. Their current production, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, is an adaptation of the same-titled film by Pedro Almodovar. I’d heard about this musical when it appeared on Broadway in late 2010, but it was not a huge success there, and doesn’t seem to have picked up steam on the regional circuits, so props to Birmingham for choosing to showcase it as their season opener. I have also followed some of Almodovar’s work (and briefly met him personally in 2007), but have never seen this film.

This was a gutsy production paying direct homage to Almodovar’s love of bold colors, Spanish women and passionate characters. Costume design highlighted the aforementioned colors, with lots of reds and big 80s hair. Set design was an interesting hybrid of small and large scale, with the company’s modest proscenium stage decorated with pop-art style drawings on the walls and small suggestions of living areas in the forefront of the stage. As well, the orchestra was creatively nestled in above the play-space and behind a wall. The large ensemble cast seemed pleased to be giving voice to such enthusiastic material, with the actors in the central roles standing out.

But the script remained flimsy and tangential, with a meandering plot switching around to multiple characters, and little time devoted to creating a central protagonist. Often it seemed that when allegiances could build to one specific character, it was time to switch over to another one. Or, a different, and less likable character would take over the focus from someone that seemed more interesting.

Nonetheless, a fun show and great excuse to see a new to me company.

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Saturday night brought a trip over the border to see Howie Mandel perform at the (overrated) Caesars Colosseum. I could write a separate entry about the challenges of this particular performance venue… Roy summarizes them well. I was not pleased that it took nearly an hour to depart the complex, between a protracted awkward group shuffle out of the auditorium, going back through the casino complex, and then slowly snaking down the levels in the crowded free parking garage. I’ll keep my eye on the future offerings at Caesars, but might think twice before actually going in there again.

Happily, Mandel offered an upbeat and “extended” routine for the receptive audience. The native Canadian was clearly excited to be back in his home province. He didn’t offer too much personal background (a feature in a Michigan City newspaper about his previous night’s performance did) but that may have been due to his excitement over becoming a grandfather earlier that day which, naturally, was a big topic in the first half of his routine.

The “homecoming” theme stuck throughout the one hour or so long performance, where Mandel didn’t seem to shy away from being personal, yet funny, and treated the audience like his friends. Towards the end of his performance, he claimed that we were even getting an “extended version” because of being there in Ontario. And he gave a brief nod to his iconic Bobby character, which was my first introduction to his work.

windsor skyline

The Windsor skyline as seen from Detroit, with Caesars visible at the far left.

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Sunday brought another trip over the border, this time at the “northern passage” Port Huron/Sarnia crossing point, bound for the iconic Stratford Festival and a long-overdue (for me) first visit there. I was pleased that this trip came about through my new community at Wayne State University and is an annual excursion.

Initially I was not excited that our play of the day would be the overly familiar Midsummer Nights Dream. But this version dared to be modern with the material, incorporating such timely topics as gay marriage, deaf characters, multiple ethnicities and cross – gender/nontraditional casting freely into an exuberant take on the well – known tale. The production also offered the strongest take on the Theseus & Hippolyta scenes that I’ve ever seen, thanks to committed work from stellar actors.

The Stratford experience, clearly designed to be similar to its UK sibling/cousin, is also a winner, with the festival theatres located just beyond a wider than you’d expect downtown area, with most shops clearly, but cheerily, catering to the festival’s tourist trade, and taking care to ensure that the patron’s experience is a memorable one.

International Indies

As the summer movie season continued to rev up its engines this past weekend, I was pleased to go the other direction and take in two independent films, on opposite sides of the border.

On Friday I happened to notice that Trust Me had appeared at the Quality 16. I had not heard much about this film, but a look at the cast list (written and directed by Clark Gregg, with featured roles for Amanda Peet, Allison Janney, Felicity Huffman, Sam Rockwell, and several other notable actors) showed that it might be a project of note.

Gregg wrote and directed the film, in addition to playing the lead role, and so I wondered how cathartic or personal the experience had been for him. Some scenes, most notably involving Huffman’s agent/casting supervisor character, had a strong industry bite to them, while others, mostly focused on Gregg’s own likable but awkward main character, went on for too long or did not seem well thought out.

The plot focused on Gregg’s character, a former child star turned acting coach for young actors, and his troubles fitting in to the fast – moving, changeable Hollywood system, as seen through his interactions with two primary younger clients. After meeting the second one (Saxon Sherbino) by chance, he quickly gets drawn into her and her father’s world as Hollywood outsiders, with him serving as the guide for the out-of-towners coming in from Oklahoma. Along the way, he is glad to get to know his neighbor (Peet) more intimately.

But in a sudden shift for the plot and for the film as a whole, Gregg discovers that the girl and father may not be what they seem, and spends the remainder of the movie (this is all crammed in to the last half – hour) trying to get to “the truth” and putting bis career on the line, which ultimately creates challenging and surprising results for everyone involved.

I feel like this movie had good intentions and rose above the label of “vanity project” thanks to plot and commitment of the esteemed actors. But what if the late in the film plot twist had not occurred and the story went in a different, yet still unpredictable direction? I wonder if that would have made things easier to digest or reinforced the allegorical parody style of the script. As it stood in finished form, the ending put a somewhat sour taste in my mouth, though I wasn’t completely down on the whole film.

peet and gregg

The next day, while on a visit back over to Windsor, Ontario, I noticed that the Devonshire Mall Cineplex Odeon was again offering a not-advertised-as-such Sneak Preview of a film not yet enjoying a wide US release. In this case, The Grand Seduction had been on my radar as a film spotlighting the majestic Canadian Maritime Provinces (it was filmed in Newfoundland) and offering a possibly rare starring role for character actor Brendan Gleeson, with Taylor Kitsch in a co-leading role, and a slew of Canadian actors in supporting roles, including Gordon Pinsent, who’d shown a more dramatic side in Away from Her several years ago. I didn’t realize that Pinsent is over 80 years old; he doesn’t seem it.

This film made laugh out loud and gaze with awe at the cinematic landscapes more than any other film I have seen in recent memory, but, the plot should have been simplified. Gleeson is the self-appointed mayor of a small Newfoundland coastal town falling on hard times based on lack of employment and job opportunities in general. Someone in the town, I forget who, decides that the town has an opportunity to serve as a site of a new oil and gas (or something like that) production factory. But first they have to prove they are ready to host the new factory, which is where Kitsch comes in as the young hotshot doctor that the town goes to extreme lengths to convince that he may want to stay there more than one month.

Sounds like a crowd pleaser, right? It was, but there was just TOO MUCH PLOT. Kitsch’s opening scene should have been cut, and his second scene, which does a better job of setting up his character, put in his place. Gleeson’s wife moves to the mainland for another job at the start of the film, which sets the plot in motion, but then (minor spoiler) she decides to return home at the end with what felt like the flick of a hand. Other townspeople are introduced, most notably a crafty and younger postmistress who may or may not have eyes for Kitsch, but the movie eventually becomes so overstuffed, it’s impossible to get a sense of their various character arcs. And towards the end of the film, Kitsch makes a not-quite-believable quick decision that contributes to the end of the story, but felt like a cop-out to me.

In spite of that, the movie is filmed completely on location, with the lush, green cliffs of coastal Atlantic Canada on full display, and the picturesque village coming across as a character of its own. The film’s music score makes use of charming, and regionally appropriate, fiddle music at multiple instances in the story.

So, if the viewer is game for going along with the ride, and feeling like they are part of a small coastal town where everyone knows your name, but doesn’t want to think too much about the plot (or just suspend their disbelief) this one is a great choice. Interestingly, it was originally a French – Quebec film; I can’t recall seeing an example of a Canadian company remaking a film from elsewhere in the country, although I am sure it has happened.


grand seduction