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The Hell and The Light, The Water and The Ocean

My non-consecutive moviegoing double feature this weekend involved opposite ends of the current indie film spectrum. Both visits were at two different MJR (‘Movies Just Right”) locations relatively near my house; MJR has become my favorite cinema chain to support in metro Detroit thanks to its catchy jingle “it’s more fun at MJR” along with a tangibly LOCAL focus of its business, as the company is headquartered right here in Michigan and thus seems more committed to its constituents than AMC or some other chain.

FIMG_3689irst up was a visit to the 20-plex in Sterling Heights, which follows a template established in other MJR complexes but seems to do it especially well at this location, even though the surrounding area leaves a lot to be desired. In short, this complex has become my “destination movie” location of choice, even though it’s around 20 miles away from my house. The film I chose, Hell or High Water, has drawn considerable critical praise as a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale summer movie season, and it was easy to see why; the film mostly lived up to the hype for me.

From the very first scene (a long wraparound shot of a Texas town that has clearly seen better days) it is clear that the story will be told in a distinct way. We follow two brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, as they approach and perform several bank robberies in similarly desperate looking towns. But as the nuances continue to unfold for the film itself, it’s clear that the story will not be a simple or action packed revenge tale. Audience allegiance seems to shift constantly between the two brothers, although Pine is ultimately presented as the more sympathetic character. Add in a veteran sheriff portrayed by Jeff Bridges at his most grizzled and muffled (with an overdone Texas accent) and the recipe is in place for a slow-burning character study.

The film benefits from a constantly shifting moral compass that doesn’t settle in one place. Although the ultimate outcome for one character appears without much surprise, the way in which it’s reached continues the impression of being willing to go the extra mile (literally) and not choose the easy route for any outcome. This trend continues as the film reaches its ultimate (and surprisingly non hyper violent) conclusion, as the emphasis is placed on the humanity as much as it can be.

The following evening brought a trip to MJR’s complex in Chesterfield, which I’d previously experienced at an awkward transition moment early this year when they were in the process of converting to increasingly customary reclining and reserved seating. This time, the dust had settled and the cinema was moderately busy. (I was amused that the evening ticket price is 50 cents less than the complexes closer to Detroit, reflecting its location in the farther ‘burbs.)

Not really sure why I chose to catch The Light Between the Oceans aside from an appreciation for location based period drama and the work of the central acting trio: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz. Weisz in particular seems to just get better and better with each film I see her perform in. Amusingly, this film also put Weisz and Vikander face to face; the last two Bourne female leads facing off in a different universe.

Although I walked in with a retrospective appreciation for director Derek Cianfrance’s earlier work – seen in films Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines – after the film started I was quickly reminded of the overwrought subtext and directorial choices present in those films … and they reappeared here on an even larger scale. It was difficult to get invested in the character and emotion of the story – though undoubtedly lushly filmed and acted with high commitment – when everything is heavily telegraphed in the narrative. An epilogue scene was particularly awkward, both in its hastiness and tidying up of the plot.

My response may also be due to this film falling victim to the “most of the story is telegraphed in the trailer” increasingly common problem among films these days, so that the story’s unfolding was less of a WHAT is going to happen and more of a WHEN is this going to happen. I ought to have just come in for the second hour of the film as it was, but at least the story was told well and with obvious gusto.

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Academy Award Also-Rans

A Most Violent Year finally arrived in wide release yesterday, following its initial Oscar-qualifying release in select cities on December 31st. So I caught the late show at AMC’s John R 15, in a screening room that had been surprisingly renovated into having recliner seats, rather than standard seating.

The film is the third feature written and directed by rising star JC Chandor, whose previous releases, All Is Lost (which I described here) and Margin Call (one of my favorite films of 2011), received wide acclaim. This time Chandor paired with actors Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks, along with a wide range of supporting characters, to deliver a complex period piece about a violent time in New York City’s history and one family empire’s role in a competitive business.

While all the performances were uniformly strong, I felt that Isaac didn’t offer particularly new shadings from previous roles. Interestingly, the film may or may not have deliberately made several winks to his role in Drive, where he played a character called Standard, involved with a shady organization led by Albert Brooks. And here he led the Standard Oil Company, which may or may not have come from questionable roots, and Albert Brooks appears as his principle advisor. Meanwhile, Chastain offered a slow burning performance that masterfully builds from demure to aggressive, with a key turning point happening when she and Isaac are out for an evening drive that suddenly turns a bit more violent. However, her character seemed to disappear from the last third of the narrative, perhaps as a reflection of Isaac’s independence from her interference.

The film delights in its ambiguity, although that made for a problematic viewing experience at times, as in trying to figure what was exactly driving the character motivations. The production worked hard to recreate NYC’s look of over 30 years ago, and a recurring theme of snow on the ground is an apt metaphor for the light and darkness of the story.

My Rating: ***1/2


Foxcatcher finally reached the Detroit area sometime just after the new year. I’d had a chance to see this film at Thanksgiving and again at Christmas in the Delaware area, not far from where the real life events took place, but held off until last week back at the Main Art Theatre.

Steve Carrell and Mark Ruffalo have received acclaim and Academy Award nominations for their work in this film, but Channing Tatum has been curiously overlooked and offers an arguably more impressive performance as he turns his easygoing screen persona inside out and works hard to portray a conflicted series of life events for real-life former wrestler Mark Schultz.

It was hard to shake the cold, alienating feel of this film, although it was also certainly well-made and very carefully put together by filmmaker Bennett Miller and his team. It was not hard to understand why the actors have been quoted as saying it was a difficult set to work on and they didn’t want to do much of anything after the day’s shooting.

I’ll close by saying that Miller’s nomination for Best Director seems particularly well-deserved here, and it would be a very different film if he hadn’t guided the story into a unique dark and thoughtful place.

My Rating: ***

A Master Builder stacks the deck of drama

The Detroit Film Theatre reopened for the season last night with Wallace Shawn’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play The Master Builder, here called Master Builder for its cinematic iteration. I joined a large crowd there tonight (and may have been the youngest member of the audience) for its second screening.

master builderShawn stars as the titular character, a manipulative architect who has long been used to bossing around his staff and family members, including a possibly mentally distressed wife, played by Julie Hagerty in a role worlds away from her more well – known comedic performances. It is quickly made clear that the Master Builder is on his deathbed, but he appears to have no remorse or last wishes. As the film opens, he’s visited by a colleague (Andre Gregory) who seems to have some unfinished business, but their conversation does not go completely satisfyingly for either party. Much pathos lingers in the air from all the characters and the old house setting, which appears in quick exteriors to be somewhere in New York or New England.

After a particularly intense moment, a mysterious woman (Lisa Joyce) appears, all dressed in white. She and the Master Builder have a lengthy conversation about an incident where they may have met ten years before. This particular section of the script is expertly tonally sculpted as the mood moves from somber to humorous – and back again – sometimes over just a few lines. Joyce, an actress whom I’m not familiar with, brings a luminous intensity to her role. Looking like a pop singer out for tennis in her white shirt and very short shorts, she seems to bring out a youthful side of Shawn and his character as they quickly focus on how they met before and what the Master Builder needs to do at the present moment. But they are still under the weary watchful eyes of his wife, and Hagerty continues to surprise with her intensity and range of emotional feeling as her role in the story becomes clearer.

Other coverage of the film suggests that Shawn made some modest changes to the play in adapting it for the screen. Unfortunately I have not seen it performed live in order to comment, but the general mood and feel reminded me greatly of a similar Ibsen story, John Gabriel Borkman, which I had the good fortune to see in a 2007 London production starring Ian McDiarmid, of Star Wars fame, and Penelope Wilton, of Dowton Abbey and numerous other film/television projects. (hey, look, that production is referenced on its directors website!)

Shawn and company have created a captivating film. Scenes are generally focused on two characters, with a few brief exceptions, but move fluidly from one segment to the next. Director Jonathan Demme has an extensive and acclaimed resume in film. I found his early scenes involving a hand-held camera to be overly kinetic and dramatizing, but appreciated a later focus on natural light in the scenes and a shift to letting actors do the talking and storytelling.A late sequence involving unshown off camera objects was an effective nod to the probable limitations of the stage.

The film unsurprisingly holds the story’s dramatic intensity through the entire length of the film without betraying its stage roots. Shawn seems to have achieved a timeless quality with the text, and where heis known for his immersive adaptations of other works, such as Vanya on 42nd Street, this one will join them in continuing to hold a rightful place in the theatrical – cinematic pantheon.