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Home comes to the Big Screen

I’ve been interested in the film Manchester by the Sea, titled after and set within my hometown in Massachusetts, since it was first announced around two years ago. Originally planned to star Matt Damon, the film had an immediate air of prestige coming from acclaimed playwright and somewhat embattled filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, known for works including This is Our Youth and You Can Count on Me. As it turned out, Damon was not able to star in the film, but remained as a producer, and recruited his longtime friend Casey Affleck to take over the lead role. I would have liked to have been back on the North Shore to observe when they shot the film during the winter of 2015, which was exceptionally snowy and cold.

With this anticipation in place I was very excited when the film appeared on this year’s Windsor Film Festival schedule across the border in Canada, and thus made plans to attend a screening yesterday, creating an amusing irony of having to go out of the country in order to go home. This was perhaps doubly ironic as I was in Manchester itself just four weeks ago and enjoyed a more leisurely visit than my past couple of times being back, which had been just quick drive-throughs.

img_8431In general the film lives up to its pre-release and festival generated acclaim as a somber drama that isn’t afraid to go into more depth than other stories it might be similar to. The detailed tone is apparent from the opening scenes, when character beats are held just a second or two too long and/or a character says something they might be thinking but not say in a “conventional” setting. Affleck is on screen in nearly every scene and anchors the film with exceptional pathos; his character motivations are initially shrouded but gradually become clearer as the story goes back and forth in different time frames.

As a native of the area, it’s inevitably both amusing and irritating to see how Manchester itself is represented in the story, with a to be expected range of minor to moderate geographic implausibilities sprinkled in the narrative, along with a few glaring omissions or character choices that made it obvious the writer did not have roots in the area. However, the pleasure of seeing familiar locations and landmarks on screen (especially while watching it in Canada) goes without saying! Since it’s fun for me to examine, I’ll outline some of the film vs. reality impressions here.

  1. There’s not really a PC way to say this, but it’s doubtful (while not impossible) that a “working class” family as depicted in this story would actually live in Manchester, which has the highest household income of the North Shore area and is known for having large houses and estates and corresponding financial security. I continue to feel that the story ought to have been set in the neighboring and better-known town of Gloucester, which has a more diverse range of inhabitants and a closer connection to the art of the sea. Indeed, the film’s opening shot jumped back and forth between Manchester and Gloucester harbors in order to set the mood of the story. A key scene between two characters late in the film is also filmed in Gloucester, though the dialogue implies they are still in Manchester.
  2. When Affleck first arrives back on the North Shore, a scene takes place in the neighboring town of Beverly. He then says he has to “go up” to Manchester, which no one would say about the next town over. However, the statement makes sense when his character mindset is considered, having driven up from a town south of Boston on short notice.
  3. Subsequently, when Affleck first enters Manchester, where he’s meant to have grown up, he drives away from the town center and several well-known gathering places are not seen at all during the film including the town market and train station. A few other scenes in the film feature him driving around to make trips that would be more likely accomplished on foot.
  4. The town’s crown jewel Singing Beach is not seen in the film nor referenced in any of the dialogue.
  5. While the choice to have most of the characters use “Boston” accents fits in to the dynamic of the story, such accents are rarely heard in this part of the North Shore, and Hollywood in general still has not learned that those accents are very tightly concentrated to inner-ring towns around and some sections within Boston itself.

OK, continuing with the film itself. As Affleck’s character Lee experiences the story, he is tasked with looking after his nephew Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges. This character offers a very well-drawn depiction of mid-teenage years (he’s meant to be 16) and the delicate dance of making choices that relate to your family vs. your own personal journey and desires. Patrick’s arc also contains unexpected humor that enlivens the story, while the character also brings it back down to earth/the reality of the situation at a few surprise moments that add to the dynamic of the uncle/nephew relationship. The process of honesty and being “real” that is established early in the film is most sharply seen in the scenes with Patrick, and actor Hedges rises to the challenge with a strongly committed and revelatory performance. The film toys with sending Lee and Patrick’s relationship into “buddy/odd couple” comedy mode, and there are indeed several humorous moments, but then it comes back to reality with the empathy for both characters strongly intact. On the whole, the dynamic between both male characters made me notice that the film isn’t shy of going in-depth with masculine feeling and emotion, often glossed over in storytelling and popular culture, and that choice likely contributes to the richness of the drama.

Of the supporting cast, Michelle Williams is the obvious stand-out in a few strong scenes as Lee’s ex-wife. While her “Boston” accent is likely the most distracting of the cast (at least Affleck’s is authentic), she also carries the reality of the story and the challenge of character choices in context of the narrative.

I would see the film again, and you should too when it comes to general release and likely Academy Awards season acclaim at the end of this year.

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Blogging is an Art

One of my cousins started a blog. And it’s not simply a commentary blog, it’s a detailed personal blog about life in the Big Apple. I’m not sure I would want to do the same thing for life in Detroit and surroundings, but it does remind me of what I call “the old days” of blogging, first when a long update on life via LiveJournal – sometimes several times per week – was the norm, later in a more public blog off and on for a few years, then morphing into Twitter updates that continue through to this day, and finally embracing the increasingly verbose and visually sophisticated art of Facebook status updates, which now IMO are currently more about the art of the “share” from another source, and less about the actual written status of the friend.

All of which to say is that this blog was originally intended as a way to “go back” to the habit of a more detailed description of daily life, and since its creation in 2009, I’ve come back to that objective periodically. But recently, for one reason or another – starting with no internet in the place I lived over the summer, and then going into a new residence from there and choosing not to have internet – this blog has felt more distant. It’s time to correct that!

SO, this weekend I spent a good deal of time in Canada, which I generally like to do, since it is literally right down the street and there are many subtle, fun cultural differences in going just over the border. At some point I became aware that the artistic culture is different as well, and I also learned that the Canadian film culture is occasionally ahead of the game from its US counterparts, as in a film is released earlier or simply comes to the area but doesn’t come to southeastern Michigan. And this fact is the most apparent when the Windsor Film Festival rolls around for another year, as it did this past week.

On the final day yesterday, the festival director excitedly noted that 17,000 tickets were sold during the five day event, a new record for their offerings. Three of those tickets were from me for three distinct films.

45 years posterFirst up on Friday night was 45 Years, a buzz-building drama expected to be rolled out in the US around Christmas. Star Charlotte Rampling is also expected to factor in the end of year awards season conversation for her role in this film. She plays Kate, a retired schoolteacher living in rural Norfolk, England, with her husband, Geoff. The couple is mere days away from their 45th wedding anniversary as the film opens, and due to some health problems they experienced five years before, they’ve decided to host a large scale celebration this time. The drama gets going when Geoff receives an unexpected reminder of his past, and the narrative moves forward from there.

I notice that the synopsis sounds more like a mystery or horror film, and 45 Years very much treads in that realm at times during its 95 or so minute running time. A crucial choice made by director Andrew Haigh involves leaving many details to the viewer’s imagination and almost nothing spelled out in the narrative. That is something that I greatly approve of in film storytelling, and is yet all too rarely seen!

It’s not a surprise that Rampling (whom I had the pleasure of seeing perform onstage in 2004, sort-of met after the show, and owe my appreciation of her work to this Avengers episode) ably carries the film on her veteran shoulders. But it was refreshing to see her drop a certain steely demeanor she’s become known for IMO in some of her recent roles over the past 5-10 years – she was believable as a person who enjoys the more relaxed side of life, and life in retirement phase. But when her husband’s surprising news affects her as well, there are many questions and she conveys the lonely confusion and disarray that envelops the character’s life.

As for the other two films, I’ll have to do a separate entry.

From the cosmos to the mind

This past weekend’s filmgoing spanned two countries (and more onscreen) and went from the wide galaxy to the inner mind.

I turned my first visit to Downtown Detroit’s RenCen 4 cinema into a Yelp review, visible in standard form here but I will re-post it below in italics.

I picked the wrong movie (INTERSTELLAR) for my first visit here, but think I will be returning from time to time for the convenience and mostly pleasant experience.

The cinema is nestled in to the checkerboard of the Ren Cen, on the second level of the main atrium area. Signs direct you where you need to go from any of the main entrances, although you need to look closely, as the cinema is highlighted in a different font color than the rest of the signage. A weird circular atrium area is immediately outside the cinema itself, but it does have a small seating area and actual display of the movie posters currently showing; the latter detail seems to be an increasingly lost art of moviegoing.

I was very surprised by the inexpensive $8.50 admission, especially on a Friday night. The box office and concession employees seemed happy and comfortable working as a team. Concessions are also on the lower end of average prices; I paid $5 for a medium popcorn that had smaller kernels than your average offering, and was thankfully not overflowing. The theatre also offers Little Caesar’s pizza slices and cocktail choices, which I may take advantage of on a future visit.

Parking in the nearby Beaulieu Garage is just $2 with validation – be sure to ask for this sweet deal when you buy your ticket! And be sure you’ve parked in the right garage, where the Atwater Garage is confusingly adjacent to the Beaulieu’s entrance. If you’re getting to the cinema via the People Mover, the Ren Cen of course has its own stop.

Finally, the screening rooms themselves. The one I visited, second from the left, was shockingly small by modern standards, with the now-anachronistic “bowling alley” style seating layout and a narrow wide screen. Although this arrangement is not well suited, IMO, for blockbuster-style visually expansive movies such as INTERSTELLAR, I can see it working okay in other settings. Just be sure to sit closer to the front of the room, as long as you are comfortable with that.

The theatre seems selective with its programming, not always grabbing what’s expected to be the #1 movie of the weekend. I’m not sure if this was a trend this fall or has lasted for a longer period of time.

Once I got settled in to the smaller than current standards viewing arrangement, I felt it was an ultimately comfortable experience, and continued to appreciate the ease and opportunity of coming to see a film downtown, rather than driving to Royal Oak, Southfield, Dearborn or some other metro area location. It is this ease, and the pleasant, welcoming demeanor of the staff, that will probably draw me back to the RenCen for another film before too long.

Getting back to the film, INTERSTELLAR, I was impressed (again) by Christopher Nolan’s bold and enormous vision, but felt that this film ultimately overreached and stayed at a cool distance from the viewer… or at least this viewer.

Matthew McConaughey continues his recent acclaimed streak in the lead performance, showing more humanity than ever before (although I did not catch DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB) in the role of Cooper, a veteran NASA astronaut who is led into a mission to save humanity from a dusty, uncertain future. A respected supporting cast unevenly filled out the other central roles. Anne Hathaway seemed more ill at ease than confident in the role of a co – pilot scientist, who is connected to Michael Caine back on Earth as her character’s father and the principal behind the scenes architect of the mission. Caine offered a familiar and comfortable presence, but no unique shadings, to a character he has portrayed before, and I longed for a sense of menace or uncertainty that he’s displayed in some of his other Nolan projects. Jessica Chastain, in really the third lead role, continues to maintain an impressive command and intensity of the screen, but was subject to wide and sometimes incomprehensible swings in character.

Among the secondary supporting cast, John Lithgow makes a notable appearance as a relative of McConaughey’s, while Ellen Burstyn has an extended cameo as another primary character, and a Surprise Hollywood Veteran (an unbilled and well – known actor) appears in a few crucial scenes. Actor Wes Bentley, who seems to be enjoying a modest career revival, also appears as an underdeveloped character.

Technically the film is a masterwork. Nolan and company reach their biggest heights on a series of uncharted planets and universes, including a tidal wave toting water planet, an icy world that is not hospitable to many forms of life, and several variations on what the Earth’s landscape might look like at some point in the future.

While the story makes every effort to tell a humane story, and succeeds at points, I couldn’t shake a broader feeling of distance and observation, thus preventing my full identification with the story. I do have to wonder if the tiny confines of the RenCen cinema affected my perception of the film, and if my opinion would be different having seen it on an IMAX or stadium seating style large format screen.

Yesterday brought an encore visit across the river for one of the final screenings featured in this year’s Windsor Film Festival. I would have liked to have seen more of the films that this festival offered, but am satisfied with having seen at least two.

The Sea has film prints in such short supply that WIFF had to show one with German subtitles. Made in 2013 with Irish backing – and on location along the coast of that country – the film features a notable ensemble of British actors, including veterans Ciaran Hinds, Charlotte Rampling, and Sinead Cusack, younger veterans Natascha McElhone, Rufus Sewell, Bonnie Wright (moving on from Harry Potter fame), and a trio of even younger newcomers.

This film also shows a fine sense of technical craftsmanship, especially for a directorial debut. Shifts in time are keenly delineated with strong differences in filming style, fades in and out of memory, and occasional uses of creative segues between the time periods. An often plaintive musical score adds depth by being selective as to when it fades in and out, and chooses to feature violin solos that also serve to accentuate different thematic strands of the narrative.

The three elder veteran actors offer expectedly strong portrayals, although the two women fare better than Hinds. Rampling, who is always a welcome and intense presence onscreen, and I had the pleasure of seeing onstage in a 2004 production (referenced within this past blog post) brings focus and attention to the role of an innkeeper who knows more than she lets on. However, the character is not a kindly Miss Marple type, and Rampling effectively balances a sense of sharp awareness with a feeling of the character’s past and wider presence. Cusack has a smaller part, but knows just how to bring a brittle awareness to her scenes, which are all opposite Hinds. As for him, he has a difficult role, and only partially succeeds in evoking a sympathetic portrayal. Apparently the source novel adds more shadings and rationale to his character.

Natascha McElhone seems not to have aged at all since her string of mid – 1990’s art house and Hollywood releases, such as Surviving Picasso, Ronin, Mrs. Dalloway and The Truman Show, among others. She portrays a character that is seen by others rather than given her own voice, but succeeds in the portrayal. Sewell has less success as an eccentric womanizer – his role could have been simplified without problems for the narrative. Wright, unrecognizably grown up from her Harry Potter role as Ginny Weasley, also embodies a “seen” character, but is allowed a few moments of strength.

I didn’t feel that this film offered a completely satisfying narrative, but I certainly enjoyed the chance to see the veteran performers shine in new material.

An unlikely pair in a meta-drama

The Windsor Film Festival began yesterday on the other side of the river from Detroit. I was pleased to be in the audience for one of the first films screened, and hope to go back to see at least 1 – 2 more before the festival concludes a week from today.

Clouds of Sils Maria introduces us to Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an aging French actress who is invited to perform in a revival of a play she became well – known for earlier in her career. This time, Maria is slotted in to the older woman role, with a younger ingenue (Chloe Grace Moretz) taking over her lead performance. Many complications come with Maria’s agreement to perform the part: the playwright has recently died, she has to confront the memories of her previous work and the actors associated with it, and she has to re-learn the script, from a different character’s point of view, with the help of her loyal younger assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart).

I just outlined the plot, but the plot really isn’t the point of this film. It’s structured into a three act motif, with title cards delineating each section.

The film’s first third could be seen as unnecessary in retrospect, but captivates the viewer with an emphasis on dark, moody European location photography and characters moving in and out of the crowded frame. The initial sequence of Binoche and Stewart traveling on a (presumably real) European train is a masterclass on how to film in a constrained environment. Director Olivier Assayas and associates put us right there in the tight confines of the train, moving in and out of tunnels and heightening the tension as Stewart’s managerial efforts are laid out.

At least two-thirds of the film (the middle section) zeroes in on just Binoche and Stewart, residing at a remote Swiss mountain house, learning the lines for the play but also blurring the lines between reality and fantasy and the actresses’ individual careers. In a manner similar to Binoche’s earlier film Certified Copy, the film begins to surprise and delight as the viewer doesn’t know what’s “real” and what is not for the characters, or where they are going with the story.

The two actresses rise to the challenge of working together and carrying the film almost completely on their shoulders. Binoche, accustomed to the lead role both in fiction and real life, commands with an increasingly dislocated sense of reality and heightened awareness of the passage of time for someone in the acting industry. The French actress performs primarily in English for the part, but is allowed a few scenes in French with a markedly different vocal pacing and physicality.

The film deserves to be seen as a return to form or start of a new chapter for Stewart. Shedding the notorious vapidity of her Twilight role, the actress instantly commits to a serious yet relatable and believable character. In her increasing power play with Binoche over the course of the film, Stewart holds her own with integrity and surprising grace. Recalling (her personal mentor) Jodie Foster at points with her character’s level of commitment and natural relatability, Stewart is the soul of the film.

Moretz is talked about throughout the movie and finally appears late in the game. The much-in-demand actress channels some of her more TMZ-focused contemporaries in her role. Her few scenes are conveyed with unexpected ease, showing wide potential for more dramatic roles in her future.

This is easily one of the most unique films I have seen this year. Director Assayas embraces his actresses but loses focus towards the end of the film, with several overly ponderous nods to the titular clouds and a starkness that doesn’t register. The changes don’t diminish the film’s broad effect, though.

IMDB says the film isn’t slated to hit US screens until next March. Needless to say, it’s definitely worth a look. The trailer is embedded at the end of this post.

(For another and more in – depth take on Stewart’s current career, check out this piece.)