Blog Archives

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: **

Advertisements

The Great Canadian Digital Film Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflecting on Square One

Square One's original logo. Image Source: Wikipedia

Square One’s original logo. Image Source: Wikipedia

My favorite children’s television show, Square One Television, first appeared to the television world 28 years ago today. Happy Birthday, Square One!

The show remains conspicuously absent from the DVD collections market, most likely due to a complicated copyright involving (then) Children’s Television Workshop and (now) Sesame Workshop. A fan site, SquareOneTV.org, which I formerly contributed to, seems to have gone offline. So the show’s Wikipedia page provides a thorough overview of what each episode was like and why people like me grew so affectionate for it. (and so upset when it suddenly left the airwaves in the fall of 1994.)

In the summer of 2006 I had the chance to meet one of the show’s core ensemble cast members who was appearing in an off-Broadway show I attended, and wrote about the experience on LiveJournal:

I got a front-row seat and read the program before the curtain went up. I scanned the cast list and was surprised to see a cast member (Cynthia Darlow) from Square One Television, one of my top-5 favorite childhood TV shows, was part of this cast. She displayed just the same brasyness and captivating theatricality that she had displayed in the show, and was a stand-out among the secondary characters of the show. Later, I was waiting around in the lobby and she happened to come out from backstage. We made eye-contact briefly and I decided to take a minor risk and say that I loved her work on Square One. She smiled broadly and said she always is charmed that people still remember the show and that it was “one of her best jobs” of her career with a very tight-knit cast and crew. She is also always amused that people my/our age still remember the show and can tell her how they watched it compulsively when it aired first-run. Once again it felt good to take a risk of approaching a celebrity, especially when Cynthia was as friendly as she is.

Square One briefly reappeared on television screens around the turn of the millennium as part of cable network Noggin (a joint venture between Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop) and its anthology series “The Phred on Your Head Show” – with segments from Square One intercut into the newer show, and perhaps most importantly, the show-within-a-show Mathnet, which was always my favorite part of the program, reappearing in full glory.

Mathnet

I was very excited to finally see the original Mathnet HQ in Los Angeles on a March 2013 visit to the area.

I owe a longer post on the enduring appeal of Mathnet – but it won’t be tonight! I will say that the show contributed greatly to my lifelong love of numbers and coincidences and mysteries and number sequences. And it indirectly introduced me to the theatre world at a young age, with one episode set in a Broadway house and all of the main actors coming from strong theatrical backgrounds.

I only realized a few years ago (possibly on moving to Michigan) that Square One included many references to Michigan and the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, where its creators attended college. So from an early age I had many little snippets of Michigan lore seeping into my brain, most notably centered around U of M life and my current area code, 313, which once covered the entirety of Southeastern Michigan. To that I just say… “wow!

And it’s a perfect segue to the other birthday I learned is today, which is the state of Michigan itself! 178 years young! MLive asks its readers to guess how well they know the state.

Film Flashback: Nemesis, and my first California filmgoing experience

NemesisposterMy Star Trek: The Next Generation film flashback series concludes with a look at the “generation’s final journey”, Star Trek: Nemesis, which was released 12 years ago tomorrow. The film was dropped into a very crowded 2002 holiday movie season, with other franchise releases including Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsDie Another Day and (just five days after NemesisThe Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Because of this, and a general increasing antipathy towards Star Trek at the time, Nemesis suffered the dubious distinction of becoming the lowest – grossing film in the franchise and not even debuting at #1 on its opening weekend, as every previous film had done prior to its release. It was beaten by the extremely forgettable Jennifer Lopez vehicle Maid in Manhattan, and disappeared from theatres quickly over the course of the holiday season and New Year into 2003.

But let’s rewind.

In the fall of 2002 I was a freshman at Hampshire College and (once again) increasingly excited about that year’s Star Trek movie. I was confused as to why the film was already being marketed as “a (the next) generation’s final journey”. Why had Paramount already decided to phase out my favorite cast? Surely the studio was being overly judgmental. The original cast had not faced that same tagline when The Undiscovered Country was released in 1991. There was a modest amount of pre – release buzz, and at some point I got my hands on a promotional CD that included the above image, and so I made it the backdrop on my computer for a time.

Thanks to a plan to tag along with my mom on business trip she would be making to Los Angeles, I was also VERY excited that I’d be seeing the new movie IN HOLLYWOOD not far from where The Next Generation was filmed ON THE OPENING WEEKEND of the new movie at the world famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, home of many celebrity handprints, unique architecture, and with Hollywood Boulevard right at its footsteps. Nemesis had its world premiere there on December 9, just three days before we arrived in town.

It was my first time in California, and I was awestruck by the palm trees and glamour. I also had no idea of the prominent role the state would eventually play in my life, with two encore visits in January 2004, additional teasers in the fall of 2006, and then a whole new and vibrant life starting in early 2008 and continuing in a modified form today.

And so once Friday the 13th rolled around, we worked our schedule out so that we (I) could attend an opening day matinee of the new film. We had swung by the theatre with some of our hosts the night before to see the area and the then-new adjacent Kodak Theatre, home of the Academy Awards. Our host sent us some digital pictures from that evening, but I think they have been lost to the sands of time and the rapidly evolving digital age. Needless to say, it was eye-opening for this kid from New England to finally see the bright lights of Hollywood Boulevard, with a surprisingly grungy feel clearly visible not far from the main tourist sights. I’m sure I was quite insistent that we had to make the matinee on time, even though we were coming from Culver City over to Hollywood on one of those so close but so far LA trafficked afternoons, and we did.

(Interestingly, this came full circle from Star Trek: Generations eight years earlier, which I first saw with my mom, the non-fan parent, on opening day.)

We sat near the back of the auditorium so as to get the whole Grauman’s Chinese experience, with its lush red velvet seats, intricate aisles and large, but not enormous, cinema screen. I’m sure the surround sound was up to the current standards of the time.

As for the film itself…

The cast looked noticeably older, four years after their previous voyage with Insurrection. A sense of finality pervaded the atmosphere, with dark tones around the screen. Oddly, the early moments of the film also included several out of character moments, most egregiously seen when Picard, Data and Worf stop the whole plot to go for a car chase, which leads them to a heretofore undiscovered clone of Data (even though another “brother” android had become well-established during the run of the TV series) and it figures prominently in the plot, alongside a mysterious and clearly villainous Romulan man, played by a then-unknown British actor, Tom Hardy.

Oh, and longtime on-off couple Will Riker and Deanna Troi GET MARRIED, with a short wedding scene briefly drawing Wesley Crusher and Guinan back with their old crewmates.

The plot uncomfortably mirrors Trek’s best cinematic entry, The Wrath of Khan, and I’m sure I noticed some allusions on that first viewing. Mainly I wanted to spend more time with my favorite Trek characters and take in the experience of the movie. This “family” feeling made the film’s ending, when android Data sacrifices himself for the good of the crew, come as a brutal shock, and actually made me cry in the theatre, since my favorite character was gone. It seems a little silly to think about now, but it was devastating to know that iconic character was gone.

I got over it, and in spite of the movie’s poor box office and my mixed impressions, I saw it again two more times in the theatre.

The first time was less than a week later with my dad, back in Boston at the Fenway Theatre’s largest screen. It was obvious the film would be bumped from all the showplace screens with release of The Two Towers the next day. I don’t recall my specific impressions from that viewing, and the third time around, in early January 2003 at the Cinemark in Hadley, MA, stands out clearer. By that time it was clear the film had not been a hit and would put Trek into a downward spiral. And yet, watching it again, I felt appreciative to see my favorite characters have another adventure, and spend time with them, again, like being part of a family.

In subsequent years I have rarely revisited the film, but writing about it makes me curious to do so at some point. In the mean time, the cast has often gone on record about their dislike of director Stuart Baird, who was hired by Paramount with no knowledge of the television series, and contributed greatly to the film’s focus away from established canon and roles.

Looking at the film now, it is undeniably unfortunate that The Next Generation crew’s journey ended with such a thud. They still deserve one last adventure, the series has enjoyed renewed interest since its 25th anniversary two years ago, and the cast members still are fond of each other. The sky’s the limit.

Bright lights shine on a familiar cinematic story

fairlane cinemaI made a return visit to the garishly Disney World – esque AMC Fairlane Cinema (photo at right) this evening. Though this cinema is a relatively close neighbor to me in my present living situation, this was only my second time there. Their admission price of $7.25 seemed like a throwback to another era, although the average priced concessions made up for the initial cheapness.

The interior of the cinema offers a familiar design seen in many turn-of-the-millenium era Loews Theatres, which I know well from early visits to the Boston Common cinema, and I’m sure can be seen at other venues across the country. However, it doesn’t seem to have aged badly, and this particular complex has been well maintained.

This evening’s feature of choice was Beyond the Lights, a current release focusing on the story of Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a British R&B/urban singer and clear Rhianna/Katy Perry/insert your pop star here composite, who has found fame in her provocateur act and lives the high life in Los Angeles, but yearns to drop it all and go back to her more humane self. She faces conflicting guidance from an overbearing mother (Minnie Driver) and decides that she wants to get to know a noble police officer (Nate Parker) who came to her aid at a particularly challenging moment. Simultaneous to her challenges, her intense stardom tugs at her window and makes her struggle to decide which way she wants to take her life.

beyond the lightsThe 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 (pictured at left), an actress who proved she was a talent to watch in Belle earlier this year – though I would have enjoyed seeing her Ophelia opposite Jude Law’s Hamlet a few years back on London and New York stages. She carries the film and does all of her own singing with charisma and smoldering heat through most of her scenes, creating a fully rounded character out of what could have just been a caricature. It was good to see Driver back on screen in a primary role; it feels like it has been several years since I’ve seen her in any widely released movie, though I understand she has been busy with television work. Veteran actor Danny Glover, whom I once met briefly in Massachusetts and have a 1 degree connection to in the Bay Area, appears in a supporting role as Parker’s father, and his familiar gravelly voice and committed screen presence were also a welcome sight.

I can’t recommend the film with super-enthusiasm due to its formulaic plot, but think it is worth seeking out at some point for its committed performances and the important fact that it’s made by a female filmmaker, Gina Prince-Bythewood, who knows how to tell a detailed and relatable story.

One Morning on a Train

I wrote a post on Wednesday morning meaning to post it later when internet connections returned. But here it is now instead.

It’s my third morning on a train this year – interesting to realize that the previous trip (Ann Arbor – Los Angeles) was earlier this year, where it feels like longer.

In contrast to my observations in 2012, Amtrak now seems more comfortable in the digital age. This long distance train still does not have a wifi service, and who knows why, but there are plenty of people using their digital devices and not blinking an eye. I think that coming into a snowy atmosphere, with accumulation being constant and building as we head East, adds a different flair to the atmosphere.

The bus driver from Detroit to Toledo was certainly one of the most democratic drivers I have ever had on public transportation. He asked the full bus to “not use profanity” if we/they were talking on cellphones, and then initiated a vote as to whether people would like to get concessions at a convenience store prior to boarding the train in Toledo. We did, and it proved to be a good move.

I found (as I had expected) that the initial travel experience brought back sharp flashbacks of my earlier visits to Michigan, before I was a resident in the state and had not gotten to know it as well as I do now. In particular, being back in the same places – the Detroit and Toledo Amtrak stations – brought back very clear memories of what I had done in the previous visits there, such as calling California friends – so I called one of them – and observing Ohio’s old – style porcelain highway signs, which have now been replaced at some point in the last couple of years. And being resident in Michigan, with its troubling bumpy roads, made me notice the smoothness of I-75 immediately after crossing the state line.

As for the rest of today, since I’ve just gotten over the mesmerizing quality of observing the passing snow, I’m hoping that the lack of internet distractions gives rise to some productivity on my assortment of homework assignments due in December….

Nightcrawler crawls into the eyes and under the skin

Devonshire Mall CinemaI enjoyed my third visit to the Cineplex Odeon Devonshire Mall cinema (pictured at left) last night to catch new release Nightcrawler. Having caught star Jake Gyllenhaal’s previous release Enemy there last March, my return was a deliberate choice and a fortunate coincidence that the film’s release coincided with the start of the Windsor Film Festival which had drawn me across the border.

While this cinema is obviously a chain, I appreciate their large wraparound screens, display of the film’s poster outside the auditorium it is showing in, and a seemingly more informal approach to pre-show entertainment than their increasingly commercialized United States equivalents. This particular cinema occasionally shows independent films in addition to standard Hollywood fare, and so I have continued to review their listings on a weekly basis. Thanks to geography, it’s also the closest megaplex to my apartment, even though it is in another country!

Of course Nightcrawler is a cinematic voyage (back, for me) to Los Angeles, which feels worlds away in Detroit’s rapidly approaching winter climate and with the intense yet rooted in brutal reality storyline of the film. We’re quickly introduced to Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal), a fast – talking loner who wanders the streets of LA in a beat – up old Toyota, looking for opportunity and removed from the mainstream of society.

One night while driving home on a freeway, he sees an accident with victim and a film crew quickly appearing to document the event. You can see the lightbulbs coming on in Lou’s sunken, distant eyes as he decides that he wants to try that profession of “night crawling”, monitoring the LAPD radios for the most immediate drastic event, and then documenting it for sale to the highest bidder.

After hitting the ground running with filming and questionable tactics, Lou’s search for a buyer leads him to downmarket TV station KWLA and its overnight news director, Nina, played by Rene Russo. Nina treats their interactions cordially and tells Lou that he has potential, which, for Lou, means that he should develop a deeper relationship with the station and Nina herself. The story continues as Lou takes on an “intern”, played by Riz Ahmed, and plunges deeper into the murky underworld of Los Angeles urban violence. Throughout his efforts, Lou coldly focuses on building the business of his enterprise, and resorts to increasingly extreme measures to get the footage that will get the most results.

The film is clearly Gyllenhaal’s star show, and he hits the mark with a creepy, unsettling performance. Not only does he boast a physical transformation, appearing nearly gaunt for the part, but he also afflicts a vocal transformation, with a high yet neutral and somewhat irritating pitch to his lines. One has to wonder how many people like the character may exist in our current social media and information obsessed age, where everyone jockeys for position in a constantly shifting and occasionally unsettling game of looking for attention, ratings and results.

Russo makes a refreshing return to the screen in the taut role of the veteran news producer. Her part is initially treated more anonymously than one might expect – as fits the setting, perhaps – but is later allowed to expand as Lou pulls her into his web. She also delivers some of the film’s most biting commentary on the power of news, how stories are constructed for their audience, and how the media manipulates its own audience to also get those results. It would be great if the Academy Awards voters consider Russo in their Best Supporting Actress deliberations.

Nightcrawler is constructed coldly yet beautifully for the audience, with sleek cinematography by Robert Elswit and several fitting themes composed by James Newton Howard. Writer and director Dan Gilroy, making a later career debut behind the camera, shines a light on an unsettling angle of contemporary culture. His script veers into exposition at times and inevitably falls pray to a series of “how can this get worse” or “what’s going to happen next” questions that lead into a “how is this going to end” deliberation. But the topicality of the subject matter ensures that the viewers might continue to think about their own role in taking in current media, and the pros and cons of continued life engulfed in the digital age.

Monday edit: go here for another — and compelling — take on the film.

Quartet of New Year Filmgoing

So far I’ve caught four films at the movies in the New Year, but it may be until February (at least) before I see a film that was actually released in 2014.

This year I have decided to keep a spreadsheet of the films i see at the movies in an effort to better keep track of them and retain a memory of what I saw when.

So, the filmgoing year began with PHILOMENA, which I felt was an appropriate way to return to the movies after experiencing some personal loss at the end of the old year/start of the new year. A story that appeared to be standardly sentimental at first took on a more intriguing feel of mystery as it went on. The mystery didn’t come so much from a “whodunit” feel, and was more along the lines of “what’s going to happen next?”which is often more compelling, dramatically. 

ImageJudi Dench was unsurprisingly excellent in the title role, bringing many layers to a complicated storyline, and subtly playing with the initial impressions of a “twee old lady” to create something more complex. However, I did think at times during the film that it’s unfortunate she doesn’t seem to often have the opportunity to create EVEN MORE complex characters on film (versus what she does on stage) – the most recent cinematic example possibly being her work in Notes On A Scandal back in 2006.

Steve Coogan shone brightly in a dual role of co-writer and co-star here, showing none of his comedic talents that he is known for and keeping things quite straight, even more serious at times, throughout the story. From his many credits related to the film (writer, producer, co-star, optioned the story, etc) one can tell that the material struck a chord with him.

I was interested to learn that this movie marked the first time that Dench has portrayed a real, living person onscreen. The experience seems to have resonated with her, and it’s been sweet to observe the real Philomena Lee participate in some of the movie’s press events and publicity activities, which will probably continue in a modified form leading up to the Oscars, for which Dench recently netted a deserved Best Actress nomination.

Next up for me was SAVING MR. BANKS, a film that I wanted to enjoy, and would have liked a lot more if it had been made differently.

Image

The film’s stars meet the veteran stars at the premiere. I hadn’t seen this image until today and love it!

The film tells the not previously explored on film story of the making of MARY POPPINS, focusing on the challenges that existed between author PL Travers’ interpretation of the work versus Walt Disney’s vision of what the film adaptation should be. Travers and the studio went back and forth on visions and agreements for over 20 years (!) before the film was finally released in 1964.

For some inexplicable reason, the writer decided that this already compelling and familiar story needed to be augmented by a narrative from Travers’ childhood detailing her recollections of growing up with a difficult father in Australia. I might not have had a problem with this if it was told in a traditional part 1/part 2 narrative, but the film constantly intercuts between the two stories throughout the entire film, causing me to lose interest in the total story because it keeps getting muddled between the two time periods. Additionally, some threads of the later (1960’s) narrative are not given time to develop in a way that could leave things clearer for the audience and make it into a more meaningful film experience. (Perhaps this is why the film was almost completely shut out of the recent Oscar nominations in spite of it being a clear and obvious tailor-made contender for awards.)

Having said that, it was delightful to see Emma Thompson back in a leading role for the first time in several years. Thompson has spoken often in press interviews for the film of her pleasure in getting to play a complex part – and it was clear to see she has been enjoying the various publicity endeavors for the film, from singing along at various events tying into the film’s music to her recent throwaway appearance at the Golden Globes last weekend.

Next up was INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the latest film from the Coen Brothers, which I felt like I’d been hearing about for well over a year – though maybe it’s only been a year – and was pleased to finally see in its finished form. After seeing it I also reflected on how the Coens are masters in creating truly cinematic experiences where their story takes you away to a distinct time and space, and it takes… some time to come back to reality after the film. Or the experience lingers in your mind. Or both.

Image

GIF courtesy of Vogue article on the film.

This story exuded an authentic and weary sensibility looking at the competitive and colorful Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960’s. I could obviously identify with the narrative thread of “artist traveling with a cat” – and the presence of the cat in the story turned out to be an intriguing barometer of Llewyn, the main character’s, moral compass. The story was bleak at times but never in an unforgiving way, and boasted a keen sense of detail throughout the story. Not to forget about the catchy songs paying tribute to the era, some featuring the talents of Justin Timberlake in a role far away from his well-known pop persona, but clearly highlighting his musical ability.

This film and the next one had me noticing the nuances of screen pairings and couplings, where Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan again appeared onscreen following an earlier – and drastically different – pairing in the 2011 film DRIVE. Similarly, in the film discussed below, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams again appear opposite each other just a year after sharing scenes in the also drastically different THE MASTER. It got me thinking about what that must be like for the actors themselves – familial? cordial? old home week? distant? – and if other audience members pick up on the reuniting. (Based on press reports and interviews it seems that both instances were friendly and enjoyable for each pair of actors.)

So, that brings me to HER, seen yesterday back at the reliable Quality 16 – though it’s a film more appropriate for the downtown venues of the Michigan or State Theatres. I’m still feeling awestruck from this film and likely will continue to feel that way for several days. I also feel like it vaulted to the top of my top films in 2013 list, and can see I’m not alone in that sensation. Why did it resonate? It tells a futuristic yet realistic tale with nothing but humanity – no sensationalism, no whirlwind special effects, a strong look at the lead character’s life and story arc, and intense commitment from the principal actors.

ImageHER looks at the life of Theodore Twombly (great character name), thoughtfully played by Joaquin Phoenix and even more so when you realize that many scenes were him acting alone, similar to other 2013 releases GRAVITY and ALL IS LOST but told in the most down to earth style of the three. Theodore struggles with his life after his longtime love (Rooney Mara, continuing to show impressive character depth and command of the screen) leaves him. I should add that Theodore and his ex’s storyline is conveyed almost completely in flashback, yet in a completely opposite and more resonant way from SAVING MR. BANKS. And when the two characters meet in person again, it drives the point of the whole story home in a powerfully abrupt moment. Theodore has a few other women in his life, with Olivia Wilde appearing in a  well-used blind date cameo role, and Amy Adams supporting him as a neighbor and close friend. Adams continues to show versatility and command in her roles, bearing in mind that this was released in tandem with her (ahem) showier part in AMERICAN HUSTLE. She also gets to deliver one of the movie’s best lines – in a stellar screenplay – which I’ll quote here:

“We are only here briefly. And while we’re here, I want to allow myself joy.”

That line also seems to capture the story arc between Theodore and his personal OS, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. I don’t want to go into detail about their storyline here, since I feel that you have to see the film to experience it. But I will say that it is very humane and resonant, with an eerily realistic feel to it when you consider how much time people in the present era (myself included) spend looking at their mobile devices, laptops, large screen televisions…

A few “industry observer” type notes on this film:

  • It’s really interesting to note that Johansson was actually a late replacement for the voice role after filming had been completed, where British actress Samantha Morton had originally voiced the role, and apparently been present with Phoenix on-set in many scenes… but then director Spike Jonze felt in post – production that the part needed to go in a different direction.
  • The film is one of few recent films to make use of locations actually in Los Angeles, although augmented by some additional scenes shot in Shanghai. A recent Los Angeles Times article made note of this as California struggles to retain its dominance in film production in the face of extensive tax credit/rebate production programs in place in other US states.
  • The film’s score is composed by Arcade Fire, possibly their first contribution to film scoring, and reflecting a trend of better known for pop/rock composers dabbling in film scoring.
  • I was impressed with the film’s vision of a future expanded Los Angeles regional subway system (and the region is on its way to something like that) – and others have also taken note of the vision, as Gizmodo explains in this article.

To conclude I feel that HER shows an honesty and simplicity rarely seen in modern filmmaking, and reminiscent of an old favorite ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND – which I can’t believe is 10 years old this year. It will be hard to top a film experience like that, but that’s part of the fun of filmgoing – always keeping an eye for that Next Big Thing, and noting the sensations along the way.

In a World… where comedy is rooted in reality

I was very pleased that the Michigan Theater belatedly brought the movie In A World.. to Ann Arbor. Something about this movie stood out to me when I became aware of it over the summer. I’m not sure if it was the striking image of Lake Bell prepping a voceover that serves as the film’s poster, something about a news article or publicity item I read, or something else entirely, but I wanted to see it, and even considered making a trip to Royal Oak specifically to see it at the Landmark – but then I learned it was on the calendar at the Michigan.

Versatile actress Lake Bell served as writer, director and star for this film, clearly putting much thought and heart into the project. Bell has an appealingly everyday screen presence, though this was perhaps enhanced by a dowdy wardrobe and several “aw, shucks” character choices. I think what made this film stand out to me was her choice to root the comedy in a very real situation, which is something I feel like films don’t often dare to choose.

In this case the plot revolved around the trials and tribulations of making it in the voiceover industry, which is something I’ve had some observational – but not direct – experience of over the years. Bell confronts the reality (and it is a reality) of no women ever voicing movie trailers – and decides to do something about it. With the help of some friends and colleagues. And … her father. Sort of. Who is also a bigshot in the industry and has his own networks and goals. 

The film cast a light on the (occasionally narcissistic) competitiveness of the performing arts industry – and actually acknowledged that trait! I give Bell big props for being willing to go there with her work while finding a resolution to the storyline. She also poked some fun at Los Angeles culture – and made me miss it (though I will be back there, briefly, in February.) I’m not sure her plot really needed several dramatic interludes that felt like padding in the wider scheme of the film, but she led the character arc to a suitable and thoughtful conclusion. Her script was peppered with extensive witticisms and frequent industry in-jokes that I appreciated.

I’m sure this film will stand out on my year-end list.