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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.

Into the Complete Unknown

After some misgivings caused by the previous three films then appearing at cinemas much closer to me after I’d driven a modest distance to see them, I decided to resume my filmgoing geohopping this weekend in Royal Oak and Clinton. After all, it’s a nearly 20 year habit for me to go to the film (and not wait for it to come to me) – so it’s unlikely that it will slow down anytime soon.

img_8005First up was the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, which is always a pleasure to visit at night thanks to its dramatic and classically lit up marquee. I also appreciate how they publicly advertise their upcoming films and events, not just for the next week, but for the next month or two.

New film Complete Unknown is another tour de force for actress Rachel Weisz, who has recently become one of my favorite actresses to watch. (Not that I did not like her before; she’s just become even more watchable with a mastery of technique, inflection and presence.) In this story she takes on the role of Alice (not her real name) – a woman who has shape-shifted her way through at least nine different guises over a span of 15-20 years, because … what? The story doesn’t really tell us why Alice chooses to live such a transient and challenging life, and at times it was hard to suspend the disbelief and buy into the narrative. Weisz sells it strongly by mostly underplaying the whole thing; she’s not there to be an avenger or superwoman, she just wants to blend in.

An awkward framing device introduces us to Michael Shannon’s character, Tom, who is soon revealed to be an old connection of Alice’s. It’s a minor spoiler to say that she has arranged the whole encounter so that she can see him again after a 15 year gap. Incidentally the underplaying was at its best in their first one on one encounter, when Tom frustratedly wonders how and why Alice has even sought him out again. Instead of matching his intensity, Weisz goes the other way with the characterization into a cool and composed slight aloofness that keeps the narrative going and allows more questions to rise. However, the plot point that they hadn’t seen each other “in 15 years” really ought to have been raised up to 25 years, since both actors are obviously in their mid 40s and it strained credibility to think they’d last encountered each other when they were around 30, especially as the dialogue touched on high school and hometowns.

A fun transition sequence in a New York City nightclub, set to the strands of the Chemical Brothers, allows the two leads to leave the club on their own and the story to boil down to just the two of them. This is where the story ought to have started all along. The film takes on an air of momentary unpredictability as they head off on their own … only to encounter veteran actress Kathy Bates, who cameos in a sequence that feels more like an outtake, but keeps up the fun of the story. It is soon revealed that she is married to none other than Danny Glover, and the experienced elders have some fun with their small roles before Tom and Alice go off on their own again.

At this point the film becomes very reminiscent of Certified Copy from several years ago, as the viewer is left to question how far the characters might go with their renewed connection, and the action is intercut with a few brief dream-like sequences that question whether they are being imagined or not. While the eventual ending may be seen as unsatisfying, it does continue with the ambiguity and not tying things up neatly.

It’s good to see Shannon, known for his intensity, loosening up a bit here in more of an “everyman” role. And Weisz carries the film along with a mix of gestures and emotions and feelings, always aware of what she is doing and also the cost of her actions.

This commentary got longer than I expected (I must have enjoyed engaging in the material … so I’ll save this weekend’s second film for a separate post.)

Quirky, devastating, fantastic … But not all of the three combined 

I had the pleasure of returning to the State Theatre in Ann Arbor yesterday (which I’ve decided is my second favorite cinema in Michigan) for a screening of the new independent film “Captain Fantastic” starring the versatile yet always independent minded actor Viggo Mortensen.

Upon arrival at the State, I learned from a poster in the lobby that the cinema will soon be closing for a nine month renovation and remodeling, and, among other things, intends to reopen with four reconfigured screens in its upstairs space. I felt some wistfulness at hearing this news, as part of the State’s appeal for me has always been its quirkiness, as opposed to its neighbor the Michigan, which always tends to feel a little too polished. Since this was likely my last visit to the State in its current configuration, I took a moment to document it. I still feel that what would really be good is if downstairs tenant Urban Outfitters moved out and their space could be fully restored to its former glory as the State’s main screen … But who knows if and when that will happen.


As for the film itself, it seemed to serve as a metaphor for a large family journey, once it got over an initial overbearing quirkiness in the story. Some of the later moments struck some particularly powerful notes, notably around a grandfather character solidly portrayed by Frank Langella and an oldest kid character portrayed by British actor George MacKay, whom I previously saw at the State in an underrated film called “How I Live Now.” Through the whole story Mortensen anchors the film with a mix of whimsy, subtlety and authority. I might have enjoyed the culmination of the story even more if it kept going down an unexpectedly bleak route, but in the end a turn back towards the whimsical and hopeful (yet still realistic and honest) wrapped things up on an appropriately thoughtful note.

Mike Leigh continues to master the cinematic world: Mr. Turner

A planned theatre excursion yesterday became more modest with a trip back up to The Maple Theater to see Mr. Turner, the new film from acclaimed British director Mike Leigh that is enjoying an exclusive Detroit area engagement at that cinema.

Leigh’s masterful touch for storytelling, depth and composition is evident in every frame of this artfully assembled film. It was one of the most engaging biopics I have ever seen, in that the viewer is invited to walk along with the story as it progresses, and not given a specific sense of time via obtrusive title cards, fade outs, or montages. The level of detail in the film is quite frankly amazing, going from one setting to the next and not losing any focus, or drawing back with a wider landscape or vista from time to time.

Veteran character actor Timothy Spall appears in nearly every scene as the curmudgeonly Turner, and lends forceful presence to minor lines, especially a recurring quasi-grunt that becomes his signature statement as the film goes on. Spall reportedly spent two years learning how to paint in preparation for this role, which seems characteristic of the depth and intensity Leigh commands from performers who join him for his productions. Many actors, including Spall, recur over multiple Leigh films; others seen here include Ruth Sheen, who had a leading role in Leigh’s last film Another Year, and Lesley Manville, who also featured prominently in the previous film and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing perform several times onstage.

A series of short and evocative orchestral pieces by composer Gary Yershon also contribute to the rich texture of the film, and a subtle sense of time and life going on. (To reiterate) the exquisite level of detail really captivated me throughout the long film and seemed to fuse history, entertainment and cultural studies into a powerful and potent mix.

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.

European Film Expeditions

This week I have caught up on some recently released and filmed in Europe films, making me stoked to go back to The Continent during spring break next March.

Two FacesFirst up was the new thriller The Two Faces of January, adapted from Patricia Highsmith and from the writer of Drive. Hossein Amini retained his costar in the earlier film, Oscar Isaac, and added Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst into the mix as a central trio caught up in a deceitful web within 1962 Greece. All three actors find several elements to highlight of their roles, with Mortensen nailing the disheveled intrigue of a shady businessman, longtime cinema veteran Dunst offering a mature portrayal of a young woman caught between several worlds, and Isaac continuing to come up the ladder, cinematically, filling in the role of a man who has his hands in several parts of Athens life.

The actors are aided by carefully chosen photography and film work, emphasizing the colorful contrasts of Greece, and a reminder of an era when locations felt more far away (presumably) than they do in the present day, with real effort needed to get a specific plane ticket, to make your next travel connection, or make sure you still have everything you need for your out of the country identification and security.

The film might suffer from what I assume is a flimsy source material. Highsmith’s interest in shady characters, same-gender relationships and European locales is all there, but at a 90 minute running time, there isn’t much depth aside from the inciting event and what happens after that experience. A more seasoned director might have gotten deeper performances from the leads, though Amini’s experience with narrative tension comes in well late in the film with a series of “will they or won’t they succeed in _______ activity” sequences.

The second film of the week, My Old Lady, is a cinematic interpretation of a play originally seen at my “other” hometown theatre, Gloucester Stage Company, in 1996 and 2005. (I remember hearing of both productions but did not see either of them performed.) The film also marks the belated cinema directorial debut of Israel Horovitz, former artistic director of GSC and well – known in the theatre world. Throughout the film, its stage origins are clear, with some positive and some negative results.

my old ladyThe film also seems to be an excuse for its central trio – Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas – to flex their acting muscles in a new project. Scott Thomas has been seen onscreen before with both Kline and Smith, but not in the same film. IMDB says her role was originally scheduled to be played by Jane Birkin, which might have made more sense in the story.

As it is, the start of the film introduces Matthias (Kline), a down on his luck New Yorker who has recently traveled to Paris to inspect an apartment his recently deceased father has left him. He quickly learns that the apartment has been inhabited for many years by Mathilde (Smith), a woman now in her 90’s, and her daughter (Scott Thomas), neither of whom is receptive to his intention to sell the house for income purposes. The focus alternates between the three central characters as Matthias debates whether or not he wants to go through with the sale, while through a series of circumstances, Mathilde reveals that she knows more than she lets on about her family history and how the two younger people are connected to her and each other.

The script’s stage origins are clearly visible throughout the film, with several long monologues still in place and a few scenes clearly added to “open up” the plot and take advantage of the perennially picturesque Parisian locations. Most of the story settles in the central location of the Marais apartment, which seems to be quite large and endless, complete with an attached garden.

Kline seems to be enjoying the demands of the part, showing awkward alcohol – induced stodginess in several scenes, but then following it up with hints of long emotional neglect. Smith also goes beyond her current Downton Abbey stereotype of twinkling eyes and cutting comments, not hesitating to be forceful in several scenes while also showing genuine heart. Scott Thomas falls somewhere in between with a difficult part that seems to be in the middle of the two-character seesaw solely for reaction – based purposes. I can’t say that the film fully convinced me as a drama, but if its taken as an acting class from veterans and perhaps isolated out with just a few of the character monologues and moments, then the best parts come to light.

It was cool to see the full Art Deco experience of the Main Art Theater in action last night.

Main Art

Boyhood – a tribute to and exploration of life

I was very pleased to catch Boyhood on its opening day (Friday) at the Michigan Theater in an “exclusive Ann Arbor area engagement.” It’s amazing and impressive that a film like this stayed under the radar for so long (at least to the general public) until its release was confirmed sometime late last year or earlier this year.

The genesis behind the movie is now well – known, and so I won’t recap it here. I will add that the storyline achieves its goal of serving as a narrative time capsule of the past 10 – 12 years. Somehow director Richard Linklater had the foresight to offer lingering shots on various cultural objects – whether a Game Boy, older model car, Harry Potter release party, a bulky cordless landline phone, hit song from a particular year, etc – that the audience can recognize and relate to, or in some cases laugh at and be like “wow, I can’t believe I used that, or that thing was so common back then.”

From the very first shot of the movie, we are right there with the development and growth of Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. The film tracks the journey of, but never feels like a spectator in, Mason and his family’s growth over the next 12 years. We meet his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), his mother (Patricia Arquette) and his distant father (Ethan Hawke). The parents are divorced with the mother taking primary custody, and her career and life path initially dictates the geographical range of the film as they move across Texas, the kids’ father comes in and out of their life, As Mason matures, he moves into the more direct focus of the narrative, and the last third or so of the film focuses on his own development in claiming an artistic life and stepping off on his own – into interpersonal relationships, career development, and a new life in college.

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.

On an industry – watcher note, it’s fascinating to see known actors Arquette and Hawke age on-screen; we can chart their growth in individual films over the years, of course, but never before in the same movie. Meanwhile, Coltrane and the younger Linklater mature into thoughtful young people, with a reflective poignancy present in their earlier in life scenes. Several actors move in and out of the narrative, and I wondered what that must have been like to come back to a project after a gap, or leave it after a year or two of working on it.

The film offers a fuller view of Texas than is usually seen on screen. Linklater directs with a steady hand, never letting a particular moment or theme overwhelm the narrative, or the story to be taken over by sentimentality or something that isn’t rooted in realism.

Best film of my year so far. I’m sure it will be hard to top. I almost don’t want to see another film this year after seeing this one.

boyhood cast

The cast and director as seen at the recent New York premiere.

Crafty Minimalism and Tense Thrills

While on a visit to West Michigan yesterday I checked out the film listings in the area. I noticed that the Celebration Cinemas in Woodland offered a wide range of what was once known as “second run” films (not sure if they still are) and was inclined to take in an encore viewing of Her, my favorite film from 2013. But once I arrived at the cinema, I saw that Blue Ruin, an indie thriller I had heard some buzz about, was also showing, and made a last – minute change of mind to take in that film instead, which proved to be a good choice.

The film offers a tense yet understated look at the “revenge thriller”, which one article about the film pointed out used to be much more common in Hollywood films (think late 90’s/early 00’s films often starring Ashley Judd) but is now less common. In this case, the minimalism is apparent right from the start when the first 20 minutes or so have nearly no dialogue, but are carried along by a crackerjack music score, character activity, and intriguing, immediate curiosity over the motivations and history of the main character, Dwight, played by Macon Blair.

Those early scenes depict Dwight living in homeless squalor in coastal “Delaware” (but shot, I believe, in Virginia Beach), with a depressed despondency. He gets word of a new development related to some tragic family history and is set off on a path of vengeance, which intersects with his sister, living a domestic life in the DC suburbs, an old friend, and members of the extended family related to those who committed the inciting act.

Yet through it all Dwight never takes on the air of the obsessed vigilante, instead staying more on the opposite end of fear and uncertainty. He can’t shoot a gun very well, and he doesn’t seem comfortably proceeding with a life geared towards violence. He might be 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. I hope the film goes on to become a cult classic and leads to greater things for those involved.