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: **


Birdman impresses but also overrates

I eagerly joined the first preview crowd to catch Birdman at the Main Art Theater last Thursday night, but it took me awhile to write it up here. Probably because the film felt like it fell victim to its own hype, while still being a solid and impressive feat.

Michael Keaton stars in a role with deliberate parallels to his well – known Batman alter ego. “Has – been” actor Riggan (Keaton) has chosen to adapt the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for the stage, in a bid to restore his artistic creed to a variety of audiences and prove that he can be a triple-threat actor, writer, director… plus financier and more. He is backed up by a motley crew of associates, including a troubled daughter (Emma Stone), an ex who seems somewhat still interested in him (Amy Ryan), a loyal assistant (Zach Galifianakis) and a trio of actors supporting him on the stage: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu stages the film in almost one uninterrupted take, a choice that initially was disorienting, exciting for awhile, and ultimately felt like it wore out its welcome. Apparently the actors had to match choreographed movements in order to maintain the fluidity of the visual story. Iñárritu is one of several credited writers on the script, and the story can’t seem to decide if it wants to focus solely on Keaton’s character, Riggan, and his challenges, or show the side of a satirical backstage drama, casting attention on the strong egos and challenges coming from every direction within a theatre production.

The film also includes numerous fantastical elements that initially seem to be a homage to Star Wars, but later take on an unclassifiable approach. Eventually the film itself seemed to become a male – led version of Black Swan, where Keaton, like Natalie Portman’s character in the earlier film, continues to feel competition and torment coming from a wide variety of sources, and struggles with a way to achieve balance. I might have appreciated the film more if it had dared for a darker ending than the one it contains, which felt tacked – on and overly hopeful.

Ultimately the film stands out as a technical achievement and a return to form for the esteemed Keaton, who has called it the most challenging performance of his career. While the supporting cast is not given much time to shine, especially as the film goes on, they do make impressions, especially Norton, Stone and Watts, leading to an ensemble feel and knowing acknowledgment of the challenges and rewards of show business.