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Mocha Latte or Not

Tim Hortons, Food Court Style

Tim Hortons, Food Court Style

Living in Michigan has brought about what could be seen as my destined interest in Tim Horton’s coffee. Destined in the sense that it’s a company I’ve been aware of for seemingly all my life, thanks to my born in Montreal father who saw Tim Horton himself play hockey and then became acquainted with their distinct dark and hearty brand of coffee, becoming a big fan and even having a plastic Tim’s cup affixed in one of his car dashboards for a period of time when I was growing up. On the couple of occasions that he and I made a point of traveling to Canada, or to Northern New England where the chain had a few outposts, it was a Big Deal to visit Tim Horton’s en route or as part of the trip.

So when I first arrived in Michigan nearly four years ago, it was an “oh, yeah” moment of realizing that Tim Horton’s was both in the neighborhood and could be easily accessed over the border in Canada as well. While I initially referred to Tim’s visits as a “making good on the proximity to Canada” – and it was – at some point they became a more regular routine, possibly around my time of living in a building that had a Tim’s on the first floor and thus I came to somewhat over-rely on at times.

Since I don’t live in that building anymore, and am now more aware as to which Tim’s locations are more consistent than others, visits to Tim’s have since turned into more of a “Where’s Waldo” or by convenience based experience.

This was true today, when I found myself in an area that has multiple Tim’s in close proximity to one another. I chose the smallest of the locations, which I have visited occasionally, and found that they were having an overloaded moment. I ought to have used the backup of cars from the drive through as a sign to go elsewhere, but I was able to get a parking space and went inside.

Despite having at least five cars in the drive-through, the interior of the store was COMPLETELY EMPTY of customers. The clerk gave me a harried expression worthy of a novel (his co-workers were hurriedly attending to the drive – through customers) and took down my order. When the order arrived, it became a humorous mistake in that he gave me two sandwiches instead of one (so there’s tomorrow’s breakfast!) and forgot about my drink. When I reminded him of it, it was on the house, since I’m pretty sure I wasn’t charged for it in the first place. Knowing the menu so well at this point – and sticking to more or less the same order – has allowed me to memorize the typical price of things or what is comboed together. The clerk and I exchanged an understanding glance again worthy of a short scene, and that was that. But definitely one of my most memorable Tim’s visits in recent memory, as it veered from the routine and had an element of surprise and unpredictability.

Relatedly, my favorite Tim’s drink, a mocha latte, recently disappeared from their advertised menu and is now considered part of their “secret menu” – I guess – because it isn’t publicized and yet they still make it. (While in Canada recently I learned that some locations have changed espresso machines entirely, accounting for that switch, but the adjustment doesn’t seem to have been carried out across the whole chain.)

Some locations in this metro Detroit area appear to be more familiar with the mocha latte than others, so that contributes to part of my guessing game with the chain, and part of the fun, admittedly, of going back to that original intention of enjoying geographic proximity to our Northern Neighbor. And also making sure that I’m fully alert for the continuing rigors of a busy lifestyle.

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The Hell and The Light, The Water and The Ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Bookending March at the Maple Theatre

IMG_1171I was pleased to realize upon March’s conclusion that (in the US at least!) I only visited independent cinemas this month, and in an unintentional coincidence, trips to The Maple Theatre (pictured at right) north of Detroit bookended my spring break adventures abroad.

I did deliberately choose to catch The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel prior to spring break, where it stars a number of well-known elder British actors. And the sequel is more or less an excuse to let them act again in a beautiful location. It’s most notable for the central performances of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, given more dramatic space than in some of their other film portrayals, and Smith especially reminds the viewer of how much she can do with actual acting beyond just raising an eyebrow or giving a witty remark.

Last night I changed my earlier view and went back to the Maple to catch their last showing of Still Alice, the movie that gave Julianne Moore a well-deserved Academy Award and is now making its way out of theatres. As expected, the film is a showcase for Moore’s bravura and sensitive performance depicting a woman who faces a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Something that may have gone less noticed in the awards season conversation is the effective supporting cast that surrounds Moore, most notably Alec Baldwin as her husband and Kristen Stewart as her youngest daughter.

While the film inevitably feels like a “movie of the week” at a few moments and has a slightly overcomplicated plot (does Stewart’s character really need to live in California if she can conveniently make it home for most of the film’s major scenes?), Moore’s sympathetic and nuanced portrayal overshadows those deficiencies to create a poignant and powerfully thoughtful cinematic experience.

*** for both films

Academy Award Also-Rans

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

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

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

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

My Rating: ***1/2


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

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

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

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

My Rating: ***

Multiple forms of Whiplash at the movies

So apparently I lied about being done with my moviegoing for the year, and this morning I ended up at the recently opened MJR cinema in Troy for a screening of Whiplash, a film I had tried to see a few times over the past month.

I think it’s very cool that MJR has their own theme song, a great nod to movie theatre traditions of the past. Here it is on YouTube:

The song reminds me greatly of the Loews Theatres jingle I grew up with, also viewable on YouTube:

Back to Whiplash

The film is much darker than what I had expected, focusing right in on promising music student Andrew Naiman (Miles Teller) and his struggle to fit in at a prestigious music conservatory in New York City. Soon after his arrival, Andrew encounters a teacher (JK Simmons) who notices his talent, and recruits him to be part of an upper-level band. But Andrew soon learns that the teacher excels at pushing his students to the brink, in order to get the most out of them, and Andrew finds himself making changes in his life and becoming increasingly, fanatically, focused on the music.

The film evokes a complicated line of thought recalling mentors and teachers one might have had, and how much they pushed you/their students to be successful. A more subtle thread in the story looks at trust and forgiveness – if we are bothered by some thing or action that a person caused, can we even speak with or trust them again? And finally, how much do you/I/we want to achieve for a lifelong dream? I know I have felt all of those sensations at different times in my life.

Native Detroiter Simmons (recently interviewed by the Free Press about the film and his hometown connections) captivates in a demanding multifaceted role. Perhaps most impressively, just when I thought the film had closed up his character, and the storyline, a third act appears that turns his character around and fills in the shadings, while also setting up a provocative finale.

I wasn’t familiar with Teller prior to this film, although I see from IMDB that he’s become quite well known thanks to several big hits aimed at audiences slightly younger than me. He scores a 10 on the music scenes, thanks to his existing musical background and a similar ferocious intensity, but I felt that he didn’t fully inhabit some of the dramatic scenes of the film. Admittedly, that may have been part of the point, where the character was getting so consumed by his work as to neglect other parts of his life.

The supporting cast includes few well – known names, save for veteran actor Paul Reiser as Andrew’s dad. Reiser hasn’t changed from his affable presence as seen on 1990’s television and several films in that decade, and I felt that touch was just what the role needed, where his son faces such high personal stakes.

The film’s story is conducted in a broadly familiar way, and so I could tell where the narrative was going, with a few exceptions. However the intensity of the story is such a surprise, with a powerful punch, that I often still was on the edge of my seat. Hope that the film continues to stay in the awards season conversation.

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.

The fall of the dollar house, and those that still support it

Yesterday I was pleased to discover the CInemark 16 on the border of Oakland and Macomb counties, and its selection of second – run movies that may or may not have arrived on DVD, but in this case, were still showing on the big screen.

I find this style of moviegoing to be a lost art. Not so in the Midwest, but very much so in my New England home turf, and on the other coast as well. 

It’s unfortunate, because I remember 15 – 20 years ago, second run movieplexes were still very widespread in New England. If I missed something at Danvers 6, it would show up later on at the Warwick Cinema, and maybe after that at the Cabot Street Cinema, and the same thing could be seen within a range of different small towns around Boston. 

Nowadays, a kid growing up on the North Shore will go to the Liberty Tree Mall 20, which I’m sure is showing its 15 years of age, and the Gloucester Cinema is still hanging in there. Other spots have either changed (the Warwick Cinema was re-born as a classy cinema restaurant within the past year) or closed down, with the Cabot Street Cinema sadly for sale.

And so it’s been refreshing to know that tradition of seeing movies past their initial expiration date continues here in the Midwest, as I initially saw in Dayton, Ohio, several years ago and now see to be true around Detroit. Although I bought a ticket for a movie yesterday, I didn’t actually go in (!) but will consider the $1.50 as a donation to the complex. I’ll look forward to finding the right time to go back.

Finally learned the Reasons to Be Pretty, but LaBute has lost his allure

Two weeks ago I traveled to Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre to catch a production of Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty, with a triple goal of finally seeing LaBute’s 2009 play, examining my current impressions of Mr. LaBute’s work — which once fascinated me so much that I directed one of his plays – and met him briefly in person here, and seeing how I currently feel about driving ____ distance in the name of the theatre, which was a frequent activity in my Bay Area life – and well chronicled in the earlier days of this blog. Since my impression of the play was ultimately mixed, and I had various life activities come up in the intervening two weeks, I delayed a post on the experience. UNTIL NOW. (last two words said in hyper-dramatic movie trailer voice.)

The play serves as the conclusion to LaBute’s trilogy about obsession with physical appearance, and I think that was where I found my primary problem. The characters in this play could be easily exchanged with those in the other two, and this one follows an identical template of: primary, sensitive guy plus secondary more abrasive guy paired with primary, mostly abrasive woman plus secondary more sensitive woman. (actually, the women’s roles are reversed in the middle play, Fat Pig, which I found to be the most compelling of the three.)

I didn’t feel like LaBute was saying anything new in this script, and frankly was surprised that initial reviews (one example is seen here) called the play kindler and gentler than his earlier work. I’m not sure if the energetic but low-tech production (little emphasis on set and lighting effects, primary focus on characterization) contributed to this impression. The featured actors were clearly committed and had an easygoing charm, with two of the actors an offstage real-life couple. But the final impression was a bit too “eh…” for my taste, and I don’t know if I’ll be drawn to additional LaBute works.