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Contrasting Cinematic Experiences

I’ve written before about how the venue is just as important as the film itself in my moviegoing experiences. I was reminded of those preferences in my choices for filmgoing this weekend.

First up on Friday night was acclaimed director Richard Linklater’s latest offering, Everybody Wants Some!! – currently playing an area exclusive engagement at The Maple Theatre. I continue to feel that “The Maple”, as it seems to now preferred to be called, offers the best all-around filmgoing experience in the area, with three screens (so not too many showings), a large bar and restaurant space adjacent to the theatre itself, and said secondary space offering a generous menu of fillings and libations. The screening rooms themselves are modest, although this visit finally allowed me to visit their largest screen, which I had somehow kept missing in my between 5 and 10 previous visits to the theatre. It’s understandable that the newest releases go right to that screen, as it is exceptionally wide, and so that’s where this film was.

It takes awhile for Linklater’s new film to settle into the filmmaker’s familiar and perceptive groove about humanity and relationships, as seen in his other films such as Boyhood and the Before… series, but it eventually does. The story follows a group of jock-ish guys at a Texas university just before their classes start in the fall of 1980. We are introduced to the central character, Jake, played by Blake Jenner, just as he arrives at their would-be fraternity house shared by all the baseball team members. We follow their escapades as the clock ticks down to the start of classes, going from discos to rodeos to campus parties and various games in between.

The film really succeeds at delivering and conjuring the experience of early (or any stage) college life, from the run-down house “donated by the town to the university” to the question of what someone wants to get out of their experience, and if they’re doing it on their own, in a relationship, or developing a posse of friends and neighbors. Several scenes are aided by a pulsating period-perfect soundtrack, most notably in several sequences at an area discotheque.

I think I would go see the film again because of this very visceral and lived-in quality that the film offers – although college is now behind me personally, the film still offers something to aspire to and appreciate.

FullSizeRenderNext on my list was a trip over to the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights. This complex is a remnant of a (now badly dated IMO) 1990’s trend to build theatres as big as they could be. On the plus side, the extensive array of screens allowed for my film of choice, Midnight Special, to be right there; it’s not showing in a huge variety of area locations at the moment. Needless to say, going back to the corporate filmgoing structure felt very different from the Maple Theater the previous evening.

This film offered a strong throwback to late 1970’s styles of filmmaking, best seen through Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and other similar stories by other directors. The director Jeff Nichols seems to be a rising talent, and while this was his first film that I have seen, I heard good things about previous works such as Mud and Take Shelter.

In this story, the audience dives right in to an “on-the-run” style plot, following drivers Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) as they ferry Roy’s son Alton off to an unknown destination and away from a cult-like environment called “The Ranch.” To say more would be to give away the plot as it unravels – so I’ll just say that I really enjoyed the nostalgic throwback aspects of this film, and crucially how the story itself left lots to the imagination, the key role of artistry and interpretation.

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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: **

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: **

The Great Outdoors Welcomes the Cinema Lens

DFTI returned to the filmgoing life this past weekend with a pair of films set in the outdoors, and both showing very different aspects of what the surroundings can offer us.

The first film, Force Majeure, seen at the luminous Detroit Film Theatre, took a sharp look at how a seemingly minor event can perhaps irreversibly alter an interpersonal dynamic. This type of storyline is often seen with significant dramatic heft, such as The Impossible from a few years back, but rarely in subtlety, and that made it all the more intriguing.

We’re introduced to a Swedish family of four as they settle in to their long-awaited holiday in the French Alps. Dad’s a workaholic, Mom is career-oriented but staying aware of the family, and the kids are tuned in to the electronic generation, but happy to be there. A veranda mountaintop lunch near the start of their trip initially seems scenic and pleasant, until a loud crack is heard and an avalanche starts heading directly at them. Only problem is, Dad freaks out and leaves the other three out in the chill. It’s not a spoiler to say that everything is fine, physically, after that, but everything is not cool, mentally, following that development. The story dabbles in gender politics as the man and woman initially demonstrate differing opinions and memories of the incident, and they struggle to determine how they can best move on as a family from the situation.

The director, Ruben Östlund, adds numerous subtle artful touches throughout the story, such as a recurring piece of classical music, artistic framing with the characters in one corner of the image, and a careful control of performances range, as in one scene an action or objective may be implied but the next may be quite differently stated. He’s aided by capable and committed performers, particularly Lisa Loven Kongsli in the central role of the mother. I also appreciated how the film built to a surprisingly ambiguous conclusion, with two last-act surprises testing the will of the family as they prepare to make their way back to their Real Lives.

My Rating – new for 2015! – ***1/2 stars

The next night (last Saturday the 10th) I returned to The Maple Theater, perhaps this area’s second – most classiest film venue after the Detroit Film Theatre. I’m sure that the Friday DFT visit put me in the mood to go there again, and where there were several options on where to see Wild, the film of the night, this choice added to the experience.

maple theatreWith a movie at the Maple, it isn’t so much about the screening rooms themselves, which are clearly 70’s-80’s style slightly bigger than shoebox auditoriums – and very reminiscent of my hometown movie theatre – it’s the initial experience of going to the venue, which was refreshingly evident that night as a jazz concert (pictured at right) took place in the coffee/wine bar section of the building. It may be seen by some as a snobby touch, but for me, something like that is very important to set the tone of the evening and make it into more of an experience, especially in this day and age with so many forms of media and personal entertainment devices competing with each other (and us, as audience members) for time and attention.

The movie itself, Wild, was a great choice to begin my Hollywood film year, where I began my 2015 with several days back in the Northwest, where the majority of the film takes place, and had been in California prior to that. The film is quite obviously meant as a return to dramatic form for actress Reese Witherspoon, who also produced the project and has noticeably struggled with audience expectations of her film performances since winning an Oscar for Walk the Line back in 2005. Having followed Witherspoon’s career slightly since her earlier films in the mid-90’s, it seemed to me that this movie was her attempt to channel several of those earlier roles as well, such as doing nudity on screen for the first time since Twilight (no, not that Twilight), adding vampy looks and excessive makeup as she did in Freeway, and showing a mix of cunning, sweetness and resourcefulness as she did in Cruel Intentions. Needless to say, Witherspoon has just been rewarded for her efforts with an unsurprising Oscar nomination for Best Actress… but I think it will be more interesting to observe where she goes from here with her regained dramatic momentum.

I was not familiar with the story of Cheryl Strayed and her 1995 trek up the Pacific Crest Trail prior to seeing this film. I’m sure that it is a case of the book being better than the movie, but the movie version, while ultimately unfocused, did have some redeeming qualities. Director Jean-Marc Vallée creates an intriguing dream-like atmosphere by focusing on Cheryl (Witherspoon) and her immediate experiences hiking the trail, but often cutting away to memories from her past, many of which involve her late mother (Laura Dern) as a way of filling in her backstory. The frequent cutting away reached a point of being distracting for me as the story went on, and I would have preferred that it stop after a certain point. When it did get less frequent, about two-thirds of the way through the story, I found that added much more dramatic intensity to the immediate story. The film does an excellent job of evoking period detail from 1995, including spontaneous celebrations of Jerry Garcia’s life, now-anachronistic reliance on payphones, and a reminder of a very annoying pop song that was popular towards the end of that summer that I can’t find the title of.

Witherspoon expectedly performs well in the demanding lead role, but at times seems to be trying too hard to show and use range, perhaps going back to the idea that this was a pet project for her. Laura Dern creates a warm presence as the mother, but is not given much time to develop the part due to the constant back and forth of the story. Still, it was refreshing to see Dern appear in the film, as she often seems like an actress who doesn’t fit the stereotype of the Hollywood character actress and thus may not be seen onscreen as much as she could or should. Indie darling Gaby Hoffmann appears in a few scenes as a friend of Cheryl’s, and I would have liked to have seen more of her. The nature of the story doesn’t allow for a much more substantial supporting cast beyond that.

My Rating – **1/2

An actress lightens up and the summer screens get tuneful

I often forget that British actress Keira Knighley is one year younger than me. She has more or less pigeon-holed herself into a dour screen persona that rarely expresses a happier state of mind, which also makes her seem older than her age. So when she does lighten up, as in the current release Begin Again, it’s a breath of fresh air.

I was pleased to catch an early screening of this film at Landmark’s Main Art Cinema in Royal Oak, which often gets first dibs on independent film releases in the Detroit area. Knightley gets top billing as Greta, a British ingenue who is making her way in New York City with her rapidly ascending rock star boyfriend, played by Adam Levine. One night, a series of circumstances leads her to a grungy club somewhere in the city, where her path intersects with Dan (Mark Ruffalo) – a down on his luck music executive who feels like her song could hit the big time.

The rest of the film follows their journey to get Greta’s record made, which takes several twists and turns as she does not want to sacrifice her own vision while Dan navigates a modest midlife crisis. They are joined by several memorable characters as the film unfolds, including James Corden as a friend of Greta’s, Mos Def as Dan’s business partner, Halle Steinfeld as Dan’s estranged daughter and Catherine Keener as Dan’s estranged wife.

The film is a cheery tale that is hard to be critical about… but I’ll try to make a few comments. It bears a number of similarities to the director’s previous film, Once, and could almost serve as a sequel to that project with Knightley taking the role of the female singer in the previous film. There are probably too many montages in the film, with most accompanied by songs from the soundtrack, as the story attempts to cover a large amount of narrative in a 90 – 100 minute time frame.

The storytelling does yield one interesting choice in the use of a “flash-forward/flash-back” structure to set up both Greta and Dan’s story lines. I always appreciate when films or plays choose that particular narrative, as it keeps the audience members guessing and anticipating, and sometimes creates some surprises along the way. As well, the film keeps the audience guessing if Greta and Dan will keep things platonic or get to know each other on a more intimate level.

In spite of the formulaic approach, the actors seem to be having fun with their process, with Ruffalo taking on a familiar character (in the context of his previous roles) but showing more humanity and older mentor-style energy than before. Keener only gets a few notable scenes, but continues to maintain her strong screen presence and mature character persona. Steinfeld leads the rest of the cast, and while more emphasis is placed on her character in the first half than the rest of the film, she continues to show strong command of her roles and great potential for future opportunities.

I’m sure this film will take its seat as the Summer Indie Crowd Pleaser of 2014.