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Cinema Chat: 'The Hunger Games', 'Spirited Away', 'The Theory Of Everything', 'Citizenfour' And More

Michigan Theater
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michtheater.org

There is plenty of Hollywood news to listen to in this week's installment of Cinema Chat. David Fair and Russ Collins cover that for you, and fill you in all your new movie options for the week.

                                                                                               

Opening Downtown

The Theory of Everything

A wonderful film with two Oscar-worthy performances by Eddie Redmayne (“Les Misérables”) as scientist Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) as his Cambridge classmate Jane, “The Theory of Everything” is an extraordinary story of extraordinary people, who fall in love and live with the highs and lows of life’s consequences. 

Once a healthy, active young man, Hawking received an earth-shattering diagnosis at 21 years of age. With Jane as primary support, Stephen and Jane embark on a life together and his most ambitious scientific work, best known to the general public through the best-selling book “A Brief History of Time.” Stephen, Jane and their children defy the odds, breaking new ground in medicine and science, and achieving more than could be imagined, but not without personal cost. 

Randy Myers of the San Jose Mercury News says "’The Theory of Everything’ is not afraid to reveal honest, intimate and emotionally painful moments in this couple's relationship. We witness two characters who are heroic but human as they struggle to get to heart in the center of their own universes.” “The Theory of Everything” opens Wednesday,November 26 at the Michigan Theater.

Critics Consensus: Part biopic, part love story, The Theory of Everything rises on James Marsh's polished direction and the strength of its two leads. 80% POSITIVE REVIEWS (AND RUSS LOVED IT AND HAS ALREADY SEEN IT TWICE!)

Christy Lemire, RogerEbert.com                       -- A strongly acted, handsomely crafted film that nonetheless eels bland and unsatisfying.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times -- Redmayne and Jones are beautifully compatible as Hawking and his then-wife Jane as they navigate the ebb and flow of 25 years of their relationship.

Peter Howell, Toronto Star --- This is sheer poppycock, of course, but it makes for fine drama, and that's all Cupid and Oscar care about.

Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal -- On one side is Mr. Redmayne's remarkable presence. On the other is Ms. Jones, whose lovely freshness and calm intelligence complement everything her co-star does.

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone -- Stephen Hawking, a genius challenged by a progressive neurological disease, is a role that demands miracles of an actor. And Eddie Redmayne, in a landmark performance, delivers them.

Citzenfour

“Citizenfour” is a real life thriller, unfolding by the minute, giving audiences unprecedented access to filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald’s encounters with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong, as he hands over classified documents providing evidence of mass indiscriminate and illegal invasions of privacy by the National Security Agency (NSA). 

Poitras had already been working on a film about surveillance for two years when Snowden contacted her, using the name “Citizenfour.” Peter Travers from Rolling Stone says, “Poitras may be guilty of taking Snowden at face value, but she succeeds brilliantly in evoking a shadow villain intent on world domination. Big Brother is back, baby, and he's gone digital.” “Citizenfour” continues at the Michigan Theater November 22 and 24 – 27.

Critics Consensus: Part real-life thriller, part sobering examination of 21st century civil liberties,  Citizenfour transcends ideology to offer riveting, must-see cinema. 90% POSITIVE REVIEWS

Andrew Lapin, NPR -- [It serves as a] chance for Poitras to reorganize her Pulitzer Prize-winning story in her own medium and cinema verité style. It mostly works.

John Anderson, Wall Street Journal -- There are not a lot of moments in documentary cinema that equal "Citizenfour."

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times -- Carping about as significant a film as "Citizenfour" feels beside the point. You can wish its faults didn't exist, but it does a real service in detailing what the scary consequences of those NSA actions could be.

Alonso Duralde, TheWrap -- Citizenfour finds its strength in both the story and the telling: The information about government spying is chilling, of course, but the movie also gives us the opportunity to get to know the elusive Snowden.

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post                    -- Whether you think Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor, you should see the riveting documentary "Citizenfour" ...

Why ‘Citizenfour’ Deserves a Best Picture Oscar Nomination

No documentary in history has ever scored a best picture nomination at the Oscars. Not “Hoop Dreams.” Not “The War Room.” Not “Harlan County, U.S.A.” All the classics of the genre failed to make the cut, but the 2009 expansion of the best picture category to up to 10 nominees could work in the favor of “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’ superb documentary about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The film has been hailed by critics for holding up a mirror to our digitally connected and politically fractured present with the intensity of a modern-day “Three Days of the Condor” or “The Conversation.” Its achievement is all the more compelling because unlike those classic thrillers, “Citizenfour” is a real-life drama, with much of the action unfolding in a drab Hong Kong hotel room.

Box office has been brisk, with the film earning nearly $1 million in limited release, an impressive figure for a documentary. The doc is tailor-made to provoke a larger debate on op-ed pages and around dinner tables.

But it’s still not clear whether “Citizenfour” will even earn an invitation to the Oscars despite the reception. As Variety’s Tim Gray noted recently, the 210 filmmakers in the Academy’s documentary branch sometimes steer clear of hot-button political films, denying best documentary nods to Alex Gibney’s “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks” and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish,” for example.

Though all Academy voters are allowed to vote on best picture nominees, the film may prove too provocative. Oscar voters are older and even though Hollywood is a liberal town, Snowden is a divisive figure. Harvey Weinstein, whose Radius-TWC unit is distributing “Citizenfour,” was an outspoken critic of the whistleblower before Poitras’ film changed his mind.

Offering up a slice of cinema vérité that is bolder and more thought-provoking than almost any movie this year, there should certainly be a place for “Citizenfour” in the expanded best picture category. By bringing viewers along as journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Poitras meet with Snowden and prepare to release a series of bombshell reports on the U.S. government’s massive surveillance operations.

When the nominees pool was expanded, there was hope that it would encourage voters to include animated films, foreign movies and documentaries. It worked in the case of animated and foreign language offerings with films like “Amour” and “Up” earning well-deserved nods, but acclaimed documentaries such as “The Act of Killing” and “The Cove” didn’t make the grade.

That’s a shame and it should change. There are worthy contenders this year –”Theory of Everything” presents a portrait of marriage that is both poignant and clear-eyed; “Boyhood” is the perfect coming-of-age story; “Foxcatcher” is an unflinching descent into madness; and “Birdman” with its swooping tracking shots is a technical marvel. Yet not one has emerged as a clear favorite and several other best picture candidates seem more serviceable than galvanizing.

Nothing can match “Citizenfour” for its capacity to inspire passionate and needed debate on the modern surveillance state, the balance between national security and privacy, and the role of the media as a government watchdog. Even if viewers deplore Snowden as a traitor, they come away from Poitras’ film with a deeper understanding of what makes him tick. It’s also masterfully shot by Poitras. Her camera glides over cellphones and lingers besides computer screens as a persistent electronic whirr resounds in the backdrop creating a collage of paranoia.

To be sure, there are flaws. “Citizenfour” elides Snowden’s personal history, Greenwald mugs for the cameras at times and the film sags in its third and final act after its central character flees to Moscow and is barely glimpsed again on screen.

Yet it contains one of the year’s most ambiguous and enduring images: a shot of Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills as they prepare dinner through the window of their Moscow home. It’s unclear if this is a scene of domestic tranquility or a glimpse of a life of stultifying confinement. Did Snowden flee prison only to find a different kind of captivity?

Among a batch of Oscar contenders that offer tidy conclusions and narrative uplift, that kind of uncertainty may prove too hard to handle.

Opening at the Multiplex

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1

Based on the third novel in a trilogy written by Suzanne Collins that has over 65 million copies in print in the U.S. alone, the Hunger Games continues to set the world on fire with “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1,” which finds Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in District 13 after she literally shatters the games forever. Under the leadership of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and the advice of her trusted friends, Katniss spreads her wings as she fights to save Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and a nation moved by her courage. 

Alonso Duralde of TheWrap says the film is “still very much a Hunger Games movie, yes, but it calls to mind smart political comedies like ‘Wag the Dog’ and ‘Tanner '88’ as well.” “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1” opens Friday.

Critics Consensus: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 sets up the franchise finale with a penultimate chapter loaded with tension, solid performances, and smart political subtext.  70% POSITIVE REVIEWS

David Edelstein, New York Magazine/Vulture -- Lawrence's instincts are so smart that she never goes even a shade overboard. She's a hell of an actress.

Richard Corliss, TIME Magazine-- The two-hour foot-soldier slog through Mockingjay Part 1 forces audiences into mostly wasteful waiting for something special to happen.

Justin Chang, Variety-- The series' two-part finale gets under way in solid, absorbing if not exactly inspired fashion.

Special Screenings Downtown

Spirited Away

In “Spirited Away” a young girl, Chihiro, is trapped in a strange new world of spirits. When her parents undergo a mysterious transformation, she must call upon the courage she never knew she had to free herself and return her family to the outside world. An unforgettable story brimming with creativity, Spirited Away will take you on a journey beyond your imagination. “Spirited Away” plays Tuesday, November 25 at 7 PM. Part of the Studio Ghibli Collection: A 30-Year-Retrospective at the State Theatre.

Mean Girls

Lindsay Lohan, Tina Fey, Rachel McAdams, and Amy Poehler star in “Mean Girls!” Cady (Lohan) has spent most of her life in Africa, where she was home-schooled by her zoologist parents. When they relocate to the United States, Cady finds herself attending a suburban high school, where she gets a crash course in the various sub-strata of the student body. Much to her surprise, Cady finds herself embraced by a clique of rich and popular girls known to outsiders as "the Plastics," led by Regina George (McAdams). 

While Cady is grateful for her friends, it doesn't take long for her to realize how manipulative they can be, and she soon discovers she's violated an unwritten law when she goes out on a date with Aaron, Regina's former boyfriend. It isn't long before Regina and her pals are on the warpath, and Cady must face a level of vengeful behavior for which years in the jungle never prepared her. “Mean Girls” plays Saturday, November 22 at the State Theatre.

Black Cross

The first Polish historical blockbuster and the most viewed Polish movie of all times, “Black Cross” features battles galore, political maneuvering and tragic love set in medieval times. Based on a novel that was written in the thick of the Germanization program, “Black Cross” depicts the heroic Polish campaign against the invading Order of the Teutonic Knights. Devoid of anachronisms, Aleksander Ford’s creation was masterfully produced as a grand historical epic. The film garnered 14 million viewers in the first four years after release, and was screened in 46 different countries. “Black Cross” plays Monday, November 24 at 7 PM. Part of Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema.

 
    

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Russ Collins is the executive director of Marquee Arts, the nonprofit that oversees the Michigan Theater and State Theater in Ann Arbor.