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Snowden stayed unknown

My first impression of Joseph Gordon-Levitt came 22 years ago with the Disney summer flick Angels in the Outfield. Who would have thought that the energetic kid at the center of that story would grow up to be a versatile, accomplished and respected acting force? Indeed, it seems he’s had the market cornered on a late summer/early fall release for the last five years, with titles including 50/50 (written by a fellow Hampshire College alum), LooperPremium Rush, Don Jon (which he himself wrote and directed), The Walk, and now Snowden, directed by Oliver Stone. The point in mentioning those films is that Gordon-Levitt has subtly and solidly established an impressive versatility, especially for someone who “grew up” in the acting business.

So, last Sunday I caught Gordon-Levitt’s latest work as the titular character in Oliver Stone’s new Snowden, which chronicles the recent past of its subject, with some modest Hollywood embellishments here and there.

As Edward Snowden himself, Gordon-Levitt mostly exercises restraint, in an effort to portray the seemingly mellow international man of (dubious?) renown as accurately as possible. He’s supported by a range of drawn from real life characters, most notably Shailene Woodley as his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills, but also including Rhys Ifans, Timothy Olyphant and several additional character actors.

I enjoyed seeing Snowden, and appreciate its efforts to provoke and document Snowden’s story in itself, and his effect on world affairs. But thinking about it again a few days after the fact makes the overly Hollywoodized elements of the story stand out more, such as a strong focus on Snowden’s love life as a moral compass. Such choices seem to have been done as a negative effect on the actual nuts and bolts of the story, in that there was not much opportunity to discern how Snowden himself was processing the information he came into contact with, and what was driving him to make the fateful decision to leak the information to the public.

Of course, Snowden’s story was told without pretension and artifice in the documentary Citizenfour, which this movie references, and I had caught at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center near the end of 2014. I guess the existence of the documentary gave this film an odd redundancy, in that it could have gone further, but didn’t, and yet it was still well-done.

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.

JP on JB

Thanks to a personal connection with the Bourne series (as recapped in my previous post), I will always think fondly of it. But I knew from mixed publicity and a certain lack of interest among my peer group that Jason Bourne would most likely be a toss up, which probably accounts for my relative delay in seeing the film. While I had hoped to catch the film in an iconic and nostalgic Martha’s Vineyard single screen cinema, instead I ended up seeing it back in my Michigan hometown as a re-introduction to that twin cinema and starting my effort to enjoy my town more.

Perhaps inevitably due to the long gap between previous Matt Damon led Bourne adventures, the film seems to force itself to catch up to 2016 with a plot that mixes some “greatest hits” of previous stories in the series alongside some forced contemporary relevance. While the film enjoyed a few tight moments like the old times, overall I felt like it could have gone further in-depth with the story, but was held back by possible script changes, studio interference or pressure to have a certain story element in the film in place of another. The last point was most glaringly obvious in the inclusion of a rather strained “social media” plot angle, along with a wavering focus on Bourne himself, who came to feel more like a side character rather than the protagonist. It probably did not help that the film does not really explore Bourne’s perspective on the events, except for one sharp moment when he reacts to a character’s demise and later when he takes more control of the story and turns the tables on the agents who are pursuing him. But the latter moment was undone by a gratuitous and tacked-on car chase sequence that adds little to the story.

Casting of the newcomers in the film was serviceable if not outstanding. Joan Allen’s presence as the mature and committed agent Pamela Landy was sorely missed, and it’s a shame they couldn’t bring her back in some form after a thankless cameo in the “sidequel” The Bourne Legacy four years ago. Tommy Lee Jones phones it in, with a few brief exceptions, as the unsurprisingly malintentioned CIA director. Recent Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander is believable for the most part as a hotshot CIA agent, but the film made no explanation of her obvious Swedish origins (or if it did, I missed them) – and she did not project the nuances that I so enjoyed in her breakout film Ex Machina.

To its credit, the film makes me want to revisit the original trilogy, so I think I will spend some time doing just that…

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.

Getting back to Blogging, and Detroit Culture Vulture-ing

My first few days back in Southeast Michigan have brought a lot of driving, reunions, food, logistics, and just one film. Time will tell if I’m able to get this blog back up to regular speed. I think it is doable.

The one film, Amy, is clearly one of the most powerful entertainment (as opposed to human rights or other subject) documentaries I’ve ever seen. Using a combination of home movies, existing concert and interview footage, and present day voice-only interviews with the singer’s family and friends, the film charts the rise and fall of singer Amy Winehouse, who achieved her widest fame for her “Back to Black” album around 2007, before falling into a cycle of drug and alcohol abuse that eventually led to her premature death in 2011.

The success of the film, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Asif Kapadia, lies in its ability to refocus the narrative about Winehouse from a one-hit punchline into a full complex person. The viewer walks away with a clear and devastating understanding of how the acquisition of fame changed her life and what those around her could and could not enforce to make sure she was still herself.

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: **

Sometimes the time is right for a trashy film, and that time is usually January

Last night, a planned excursion to see Brighton Beach Memoirs for the first time ever instead became a trip downtown to the RenCen4 cinema to catch new release The Boy Next Door. Because it was that kind of Friday night, where I had a late realization of needing to blow off steam and do something more mindless instead of being verbally and intellectually stimulated.

As I walked into the Renaissance Center, I suddenly realized that I was also paying homage to Boy Next Door star Jennifer Lopez’s best film role (IMO), Out of Sight, which I discussed in a blog entry a year or so ago and features a key sequence (visible on YouTube and slightly NSFW) set right at the top of the RenCen itself. As I said in that prior entry, I felt that Lopez showed more potential in that film than in any of her pre-music film roles and would be interested to see a parallel universe representation of a world where she only focused on film acting.

But this is 2015, and Lopez is, of course, a multi-hyphenate entertainer and now “celebrating 20 years in the business” (more than that, really) according to at least one promotional article I saw about this movie. I do wonder what today’s teenagers must think of her, and if they even consider that she’s had a movie career. In contrast, I first saw her on film when I was 11 in one of my first R-rated movie in-the-theatre viewings.

Lopez also served as a producer on The Boy Next Door, and spoke in the press of feeling resonance with the script. But I wondered how much she saw in it actually made it into the finished film.

The story immediately zeroes in on Lopez portraying Claire, a separated mother of one teenage son, Kevin, and a literature teacher at her son’s high school. Claire is navigating the feelings of being in her 40’s and wondering what comes next. Her husband, played by John Corbett, comes around occasionally to see their son, but the mood is uneasy (and hastily explained!) between the spouses after a recent cheating scandal by the husband. It’s the perfect situation for nice new neighbor Noah (Ryan Guzman) to make an entrance and assume the role of kindly neighbor, mentor to Kevin, and initial lust object for Claire. The film’s trailer (and nearly all of its marketing) is highly transparent about where things go from there, and so I’ll leave my synopsis at that, except to add that stage star Kristin Chenoweth makes a rare screen appearance in a supporting role as Lopez’s BFF and senior administrator at their high school.

Lopez brings a mostly bland presence to the central role, although she certainly still looks good, and seems to be having fun with a few moments in the story. The plot detail of her being a classics teacher allows the script to inject a few bits of thoughtful and winking intelligence, particularly around The Illiad. Chenoweth adds some sweet and tart character-filled spice to her scenes before getting pulled into a predictable closing arc. Guzman possesses the swagger of his character from the first scene onward, but adds little acting nuance. Veteran Corbett isn’t allowed to make much of an impression.

It seems clear that the film has a future as a camp classic, and that’s exactly the lens that I chose to view it through. There wasn’t really any other option, since plot twists fly in and out like the wind, characters disappear and reappear at random, and there were several examples of very abrupt jump-cutting from one scene to the next. One case in point: the film decides that it wants to have the three men in Claire’s life all hang out together. But they just get one short scene to do that. Director Rob Cohen, a veteran in the Hollywood industry, shows that he hasn’t lost his action movie skills in several random but well-staged car chase sequences. I particularly enjoyed the initial setup for the film’s finale, in which one character thinks they are tailing the other, but that is not the case, and Cohen reveals the truth with a taut panning shot worthy of a Hitchcock movie or more nuanced mystery. The film shows its modest budget at times in the staging of scenes with few extras and not using a huge variety of locations.

If not for Cohen’s steady grip on the lens, this film would likely be even more forgettable. It’s good to see Lopez back on the big screen and tackling an age-appropriate type of role. I can’t view the film strongly due to its cluttered narrative and cheesy plot. But ultimately it fits right in to that DVD discount bin of films that are kind of fun (if you don’t want to admit it and/or think too hard) and perfect for a particular moment when you want to sit back, relax and enjoy a new project from a familiar star.

MY 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

Cinematic Wrap on 2014

My mission to chronicle all the films I saw during 2014 was a success!

60 films total for the year. At times I felt like I was running parallel to – but not competing with! – my friends Gabe and Roy, although I ultimately staked out a distinct independent film orientation, with occasional exceptions.

Will I do it again this year? Probably.

But my final entertainment experience of 2014 was, fittingly, back at a theatre that I know well in Berkeley, California, and the immediacy and satisfaction and poignancy of being in that audience made me want to re-focus on theatregoing here in Michigan – not just making it, but seeing it – so I hope that the new year will bring a renewed commentary on live theatre, as was once more common in this blog.

However, it wouldn’t be fair to 2014 to leave it without a top ten list, so here’s mine with a few brief comments taken from the individual write-ups.

1. BOYHOOD
This was easily the most humane movie I’ve seen since Toy Story 3, with its tear-jerker of an ending, back in 2010. And this film touches the heart in a similar and different way, showing that life is relatable in its small, poignant, important moments, and drawing emotional truth, recognition and reflection from those same narrative themes.

2. THE ONE I LOVE
the film… cleverly does not spell everything out for the viewer and leaves several elements up to discernment and imagination — something I always appreciate and often prefer in published or written works. Duplass and Moss rise to the challenge of the material and are tasked with carrying nearly the entire film only on their shoulders.

3. CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
The two actresses rise to the challenge of working together and carrying the film almost completely on their shoulders. Binoche, accustomed to the lead role both in fiction and real life, commands with an increasingly dislocated sense of reality and heightened awareness of the passage of time for someone in the acting industry… The film deserves to be seen as a return to form or start of a new chapter for Stewart… easily one of the most unique films I have seen this year.

4. CHEF
The story… is told in such a warm – hearted and also exuberant style, including an emphasis on colors in the frame, tantalizing shots of food onscreen, and the family relationships of the characters pushed to the front of the story, that this became one of the most appealing and satisfying films I have seen in some time.

5. BLUE RUIN
(features) one of the most “normal” protagonists I have ever seen in such a film, and although the movie eventually leads itself to a somewhat familiar and inevitable climax, it maintains the minimalism and character uncertainty to make it seem refreshing and unusual to the viewer.

6. UNDER THE SKIN
I don’t know what this film means (who can, really?) but I feel appreciative of its willingness to challenge and provoke the audience in a subtle way, along with a willingness to let actions speak louder than words complimented by an atypical story.

7. NIGHTCRAWLER
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… 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.

8. A MASTER BUILDER
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…

9. BEYOND THE LIGHTS
The film puts a pragmatic and realistic spin on a familiar story, and is really a showcase for a dynamic and revelatory performance by Mbatha-Raw…

10. SNOWPIERCER
The greater plot element of a class system on a contained environment is notable, and continues to find relevance in the present era…

Stay tuned! (image taken in December, 2014, near Martha's Vineyard, MA)

Stay tuned! (image taken in December, 2014, near Martha’s Vineyard, MA)