Blog Archives

Mastery of Merchant Ivory

In an attempt to blog more, I’m looking back at a blog post that I started just over a year ago. A bit embarrassing to realize that I never posted it, but why not do so now, with some more context added?

A year ago, the Merchant-Ivory classic film Howard’s End appeared at The Maple Theatre in Bloomfield, Michigan, for a one week re-release celebrating an impending 25th anniversary and digital restoration. Somehow I learned of the screenings, probably thanks to my regular scouting of film listings and moviegoing itself serving as a stress relief at that particular time.

I recall being retrospectively impressed by the film’s use of scale, most notably seen in the lush cinematography and music score. Most of the central cast – Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter and others – felt like they are not as active in the present day, or more selective about their projects (probably a mixture of both) and so looking back at their previous work felt especially revelatory.

The theatre itself – one of my favorites in the metro Detroit area – contributed to my enjoyment as well, where it only has three screens with carefully crafted film choices and isn’t oriented towards mass market entertainment.

Howards End

It feels a bit funny to say that The Remains of The Day was one of my favorite films as a kid … but it was. Somehow I never got to see its immediate Merchant Ivory cinematic universe predecessor Howard’s End all the way through as a whole film … until today at The Maple Theater, which is screening it as part of a special limited run re-release.

I’d forgotten how intricate the Merchant Ivory world was, with elements bursting out of the frame and suggesting a wider visual and active world beyond the story. Such depth was particularly apparent in this narrative, with three parallel stories intertwining, intersecting and then branching out into their own narratives.

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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: ***

Appropriate Behavior and Familiar Faces

For the second year in a row, I had an experience of watching someone I knew “way back when” act in her feature film debut that is attracting significant industry attention and critical praise. This year it is Desiree Akhavan, last year it was Lupita Nyong’o. Both connections stemmed from my undergraduate years at Hampshire College.

Improv ClassAkhavan and I were two of ten students enrolled in a highly memorable (IMO) semester long study of improvisation (pictured at right) at Smith, which maintains its official status as a women’s college but welcomes students from the other four colleges in the region (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) to take courses that might augment their studies at their home school.

In this particular class, taught by now professor-emeritus John Hellweg, the setting and the content were equally rewarding and challenging. We met once a week in the college’s boathouse, which doubles as a classroom, and went well beyond the familiar scope of improvising (comedy) into exercises that had considerably more meaning and depth. Elements of mysticism, storytelling, masks and inventive chose your own adventure were all part of the journey. We also expanded the role of the classroom, frequently leaving the boathouse for site-specific exercises such as seen in the photo above, near the college’s campus center. The class inspired me to incorporate elements of improvisation into my directing and character – building work, and I haven’t forgotten about that process today, even though my theatre work tends to be more in the front office than the rehearsal room.

It doesn’t feel easy to put into words what the experience is like to watch someone you knew earlier in their life on a big screen, though I am sure others have had similar feelings. Somewhere between awe, surprise, amusement, pride, acclaim, a little envy, some memory, and ultimately an appreciation. Those feelings all came to my mind as I enjoyed Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan’s feature film debut in a writer/director/lead actor trifecta. The film continues to play at Cinema Detroit this week and I’m pleased that my neighborhood cinema is one of a handful of theatres nationally showing the film.

Akhavan stars as Shirin, a 20-something Brooklyn resident struggling with personal identity issues after breaking up with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), an at times forceful partner whom she “met cute” at a New Year’s party at some point in the recent past. Shirin aspires for a career in the film business, but after taking on a promising lead from a friend of a friend, she finds herself serving as a teacher to an afterschool program of very young (five year old) aspiring filmmakers. The events, along with her ongoing debate on if and whether to come out to her immediate family, add to a continuing sense of questioning for Shirin. But, with an assertive and bold temperament, she doesn’t sit around and mope, and part of the fun of the narrative becomes going along with Shirin to see what she does next, and how Akhavan’s own fresh writing deftly navigates gender, cultural and social stereotypes and expectations while putting a new spin on them against a contemporary New York City backdrop.

The film’s low-budget backdrop is apparent in some technical aspects of the story, such as lighting and sound, but doesn’t detract from the narrative. I might have appreciated some more clarity in the time shifting aspects of the narrative, but am not sure how that would’ve been best conveyed. As it stood in the finished film, it was sometimes difficult to tell where the action was in the linear timeline, and so it became like a mental jigsaw puzzle to put the different scenes together. Not a problem for me, just could have been smoother. Akhavan showed a committed hand in the direction of the film, eliciting assured and sharp performances from the whole ensemble along with herself. She demonstrates no hesitation in showing herself/the character in a potentially unflattering light, and ultimately, that added to Shirin’s endearing appeal and relatability, and is surely connected to why multiple press outlets have picked up on the film and her current contributions to pop culture.

And so how could I be anything other than impressed to see someone I knew way back when receive acclaim, interest and curiosity for her long-form debut? Here’s hoping that Akhavan has more stories up her sleeves and continues writing and producing in her assured, distinctive voice.

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.