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.

Movies, Theatre

Nightcrawler crawls into the eyes and under the skin

Devonshire Mall CinemaI enjoyed my third visit to the Cineplex Odeon Devonshire Mall cinema (pictured at left) last night to catch new release Nightcrawler. Having caught star Jake Gyllenhaal’s previous release Enemy there last March, my return was a deliberate choice and a fortunate coincidence that the film’s release coincided with the start of the Windsor Film Festival which had drawn me across the border.

While this cinema is obviously a chain, I appreciate their large wraparound screens, display of the film’s poster outside the auditorium it is showing in, and a seemingly more informal approach to pre-show entertainment than their increasingly commercialized United States equivalents. This particular cinema occasionally shows independent films in addition to standard Hollywood fare, and so I have continued to review their listings on a weekly basis. Thanks to geography, it’s also the closest megaplex to my apartment, even though it is in another country!

Of course Nightcrawler is a cinematic voyage (back, for me) to Los Angeles, which feels worlds away in Detroit’s rapidly approaching winter climate and with the intense yet rooted in brutal reality storyline of the film. We’re quickly introduced to Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal), a fast – talking loner who wanders the streets of LA in a beat – up old Toyota, looking for opportunity and removed from the mainstream of society.

One night while driving home on a freeway, he sees an accident with victim and a film crew quickly appearing to document the event. You can see the lightbulbs coming on in Lou’s sunken, distant eyes as he decides that he wants to try that profession of “night crawling”, monitoring the LAPD radios for the most immediate drastic event, and then documenting it for sale to the highest bidder.

After hitting the ground running with filming and questionable tactics, Lou’s search for a buyer leads him to downmarket TV station KWLA and its overnight news director, Nina, played by Rene Russo. Nina treats their interactions cordially and tells Lou that he has potential, which, for Lou, means that he should develop a deeper relationship with the station and Nina herself. The story continues as Lou takes on an “intern”, played by Riz Ahmed, and plunges deeper into the murky underworld of Los Angeles urban violence. Throughout his efforts, Lou coldly focuses on building the business of his enterprise, and resorts to increasingly extreme measures to get the footage that will get the most results.

The film is clearly Gyllenhaal’s star show, and he hits the mark with a creepy, unsettling performance. Not only does he boast a physical transformation, appearing nearly gaunt for the part, but he also afflicts a vocal transformation, with a high yet neutral and somewhat irritating pitch to his lines. One has to wonder how many people like the character may exist in our current social media and information obsessed age, where everyone jockeys for position in a constantly shifting and occasionally unsettling game of looking for attention, ratings and results.

Russo makes a refreshing return to the screen in the taut role of the veteran news producer. Her part is initially treated more anonymously than one might expect – as fits the setting, perhaps – but is later allowed to expand as Lou pulls her into his web. She also delivers some of the film’s most biting commentary on the power of news, how stories are constructed for their audience, and how the media manipulates its own audience to also get those results. It would be great if the Academy Awards voters consider Russo in their Best Supporting Actress deliberations.

Nightcrawler is constructed coldly yet beautifully for the audience, with sleek cinematography by Robert Elswit and several fitting themes composed by James Newton Howard. Writer and director Dan Gilroy, making a later career debut behind the camera, shines a light on an unsettling angle of contemporary culture. His script veers into exposition at times and inevitably falls pray to a series of “how can this get worse” or “what’s going to happen next” questions that lead into a “how is this going to end” deliberation. But the topicality of the subject matter ensures that the viewers might continue to think about their own role in taking in current media, and the pros and cons of continued life engulfed in the digital age.

Monday edit: go here for another — and compelling — take on the film.


You’ve seen this type of story before, but what if you see it again

The previously mentioned What If, which I really ought to have written about sooner after catching it on the big screen August 17th, served as my final filmgoing as an Ann Arbor resident and final film prior to returning to academic life. It was a fittingly optimistic and fresh finale.

what ifThe contemporary story finds Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan living among people their age in Toronto, which is seen as the hip, multicultural, walkable city it really is. Radcliffe portrays a med school dropout who is disillusioned with life and not finding focus in what he wants. He attends a party one night and starts talking with Kazan, who happens to be a distant relative of his roommate (Adam Driver) although they have not gotten to meet before. The two of them seem to hit it off, and then Kazan’s parting shot of “it was great to meet you, but I’ve got to get home to my boyfriend!” seemingly throws an arrow on the evening.

It would be a short film if they left it at that, and so the rest of the story follows the unlikely couple as they continue to get to know each other better after an initial re-meeting following the party, and whether or not their connection will blossom into something more, and if either of them truly want to get to know each other as more than friends — and possibly change their lives along the way. A subplot develops with Driver’s character settling down with a vivacious blonde (Mackenzie Davis) after several years of serial dating, while Kazan’s sister (Megan Park) casts her own opinion of Radcliffe and the situation, and her boyfriend (Rafe Spall) tries to make sense of it all.

The freshness of the story, from Kazan’s character’s profession (an animator) and Radcliffe’s consistently game, committed approach to his scenes, along with a chirpy soundtrack from AC Newman and appealing emphasis on the real streets and locations of Toronto, kept it engaging, even as it veered towards a somewhat inevitable positive conclusion. And the story didn’t shy from hints of “real world” or “real life” drama, as Kazan worked hard in her portrayal to emphasize the many choices thrown at her character, while Driver and Davis used their limited screen time to give a broad, but charming portrayal of their life as a couple.

And of course it’s great to see Radcliffe getting more comfortable as he continues to put distance from his Harry Potter role. His performance here may be his most engaging non-HP portrayal yet, and he seemed relatable, which is key for a modern comedy-drama/romantic comedy, like he just walked off the screen and down the street outside the cinema.

(I wouldn’t have minded seeing it under its original Canadian title, The F Word, and it’s playing right across the river in Windsor under that guise. No surprise that US audiences don’t like risqué film titles.)



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