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Honoring Women in many forms

The three films I’ve seen so far this year, as I maybe/maybe not get back into the “one film per week” routine, all focus strongly on the feminine experience, which feels appropriate and important as the Trump era begins in US government. (As we clearly saw yesterday with the widespread women’s marches around the country.)

Going in reverse chronological order, last night’s film of choice was the new 20th Century Women, which I caught back at the Devonshire Mall cinema, a place that would be my favorite local cinema if it wasn’t over a country border that requires often irritating logistics, not to mention a toll both ways. Anyway, I continue to appreciate the times that I do get over there, and this was the first time in awhile, probably over a year, although I had been to the mall – and not the cinema – at more recent times.

cineplex-devonshire

So the film of choice was 20th Century Women, an ensemble piece that has arrived with some “buzz” into a semi-wide release, although I’m guessing it may be overlooked when the all-important Academy Award nominations are announced on Tuesday morning. A small ensemble cast – Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup and Lucas Zellman – anchors the film in a surprisingly robust way.

20th-century-womenThe film seemed unusual to me in that it built my interest in the characters, as opposed to starting early with a lot of information and then losing interest as the narrative goes on. Related to that, the characters seemed to exist in and out of the story, thanks to the use of voice-over, with several individuals offering audio perspective from later in their lives as the “immediate” visual played on the screen.

I was pleased to see the Santa Barbara area of California, a region I’m quite familiar with, be represented in the story, and a few visual shout-outs to locations in the area I’ve passed by numerous times. As well, the heart of the story seemed to be one that focused on the nuances of life and art of communication between individuals, which made it more relatable in some ways than your average film about misfits, which all of the characters clearly were.

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The Great Canadian Digital Film Festival

StandeeI was reminded of why I make a point of regularly checking the listings at the Cineplex Odeon Devonshire Mall when some old favorite films randomly appeared up on their schedule this past week. It turned out the cinema was taking part in a one week only “Great Digital Film Festival” – spotlighting classic films centered on fantasy, science fiction and adventure all across Canada. It seems this event has become a tradition for Cineplex filmgoers in recent years, and the impressively quirky lineup shows that they are programming for film lovers and not just to make some money off ticket sales.

For me, the choice of Blade Runner and Dick Tracy stood out the most, and conveniently, they were both showing on the same day. This was an audacious trek over the border, given that it happened to be last Sunday, the day the metro Detroit area received one of its largest snowfalls in a 24 hour period ever. But I forged ahead. When I did reach the Devonshire Mall, the cinema was not surprisingly sparsely populated.

Blade Runner AdBlade Runner was up first, and I’d actually previously seen the film on the big screen at the Palm Theatre back in 2008. But (no offense to the charming and unique Palm) the Devonshire Mall has a much more substantial film viewing experience, so I knew this time would be a fuller sensory experience. And that was just the case, with a crystal – clear print, Vangelis’ unique soundtrack oozing over the speakers, and the moody cinematography gaining more depth in its onscreen presentation where it should be.

It was a sort of “oh, aha!” moment to remember that the film takes place in 2019, which, of course, isn’t that far away at this point in time. I’d forgotten that a few of the lines of dialogue concerning Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah and co.’s replicant characters reference 2016 and 2017, just around the corner. Cineplex realized this coincidence as well and humorously played on it with their in-house advertising, as seen at right.

A long-awaited sequel to the film is reportedly close to shooting, but I have to wonder if they’ll delay the release until 2019 itself? It’s great to see the original film continuing to hold up so well and become even more prescient about our increasingly digital – obsessed world.

Dick Tracy was the evening show, and this was a major cinematic update for me, as I clearly recall seeing that film during its original run almost 25 years ago at the Star Theatre in St. Johnsbury, VT, even though I was just shy of my sixth birthday at the time – maybe it was one of the first “event movies” I ever saw?

Looking at the film now was, needless to say, a different experience. There was Warren Beatty in the lead, entering the autumn years of his career and playing a role that could/should have been played by someone younger – I believe Beatty was in his early or mid 50’s at the time of filming. There was Madonna, coming off her stratospheric debut decade and beginning the first of many image transformations over her long career. There was Al Pacino, overacting as usual and made up to be heftier onscreen. There was a boat load of other character actors, perhaps having more fun than the main cast in various levels of makeup and elaborate guises.

I’m certain I didn’t notice the technical mastery of the film when I looked at it through younger eyes. Today’s comic book movies really ought to have looked more closely at Beatty and co.’s depiction of a fabled world, using a very specific color scheme and deliberate lighting and editing choices, leading to Academy Awards for best makeup and art direction. As well, acclaimed composer Stephen Sondheim lent his distinctive composition talents to the movie’s original songs, and that led to an Academy Award for the main theme, “Sooner or Later“.

I don’t think I would enjoy Dick Tracy if I saw it for the first time today – the cartoonish violence overwhelms the main story, and is surprising given the PG rating, the characterizations are way over the top, Beatty is perhaps too old for the main role, and so on. But it sure was a big event movie in the summer of 1990 – I remember acquiring several collectable cards and likely a few other “must have” items related to the movie – so I’ll always recall its impact on that particular summer, like the best type of time capsule.

Thanks are due to Cineplex Odeon for programming these classics. I’ll look forward to seeing what they have up their sleeves next year.

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.