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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.)

An actress lightens up and the summer screens get tuneful

I often forget that British actress Keira Knighley is one year younger than me. She has more or less pigeon-holed herself into a dour screen persona that rarely expresses a happier state of mind, which also makes her seem older than her age. So when she does lighten up, as in the current release Begin Again, it’s a breath of fresh air.

I was pleased to catch an early screening of this film at Landmark’s Main Art Cinema in Royal Oak, which often gets first dibs on independent film releases in the Detroit area. Knightley gets top billing as Greta, a British ingenue who is making her way in New York City with her rapidly ascending rock star boyfriend, played by Adam Levine. One night, a series of circumstances leads her to a grungy club somewhere in the city, where her path intersects with Dan (Mark Ruffalo) – a down on his luck music executive who feels like her song could hit the big time.

The rest of the film follows their journey to get Greta’s record made, which takes several twists and turns as she does not want to sacrifice her own vision while Dan navigates a modest midlife crisis. They are joined by several memorable characters as the film unfolds, including James Corden as a friend of Greta’s, Mos Def as Dan’s business partner, Halle Steinfeld as Dan’s estranged daughter and Catherine Keener as Dan’s estranged wife.

The film is a cheery tale that is hard to be critical about… but I’ll try to make a few comments. It bears a number of similarities to the director’s previous film, Once, and could almost serve as a sequel to that project with Knightley taking the role of the female singer in the previous film. There are probably too many montages in the film, with most accompanied by songs from the soundtrack, as the story attempts to cover a large amount of narrative in a 90 – 100 minute time frame.

The storytelling does yield one interesting choice in the use of a “flash-forward/flash-back” structure to set up both Greta and Dan’s story lines. I always appreciate when films or plays choose that particular narrative, as it keeps the audience members guessing and anticipating, and sometimes creates some surprises along the way. As well, the film keeps the audience guessing if Greta and Dan will keep things platonic or get to know each other on a more intimate level.

In spite of the formulaic approach, the actors seem to be having fun with their process, with Ruffalo taking on a familiar character (in the context of his previous roles) but showing more humanity and older mentor-style energy than before. Keener only gets a few notable scenes, but continues to maintain her strong screen presence and mature character persona. Steinfeld leads the rest of the cast, and while more emphasis is placed on her character in the first half than the rest of the film, she continues to show strong command of her roles and great potential for future opportunities.

I’m sure this film will take its seat as the Summer Indie Crowd Pleaser of 2014.