‘Interstellar’ gets most of it right

What are the limits of mankind’s ingenuity? Can we understand the forces that exist in the universe? Is our capacity to feel love quantifiable in the vastness of space and time?

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar examines not only our role in the cosmos, but how our emotions influence science and vice versa. It tells the story of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut who has been forced to become a farmer like everyone else since the world’s problems (climate change, overpopulation) have rendered the globe a wasteland. He has to leave his home and his daughter, Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn as time fluctuates), to go on a last-chance-for-mankind space mission to discover another planet for humanity to live on. Organized by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), the crew consists of his daughter (Anne Hathaway) as well as a couple of others.

The film is really an exploration into the bond of parent-child and how much that bond can be tested over the course a lifetime. Through wormholes and gravity-induced time suppressing, Cooper tests his own limits and must decide which is more important: the immediate love of his family or the future of the human race. It is an interesting dilemma (even if it is just an expanded episode of Lost in Space), but one that is unnecessarily hammered into the viewer rather than allowed to develop naturally. The story is also bogged down by unnecessary explanation of scientific theory (similar to Nolan’s issue in Inception (2010)), slowing the pace of the story and expanding the runtime (the film clocking in at almost three hours). Rather than try to explain every little detail of fifth-dimension travel and time-space continuum, the film should just let the actions of the characters and the environment speak for themselves. A common problem across cinema today is filmmakers not trusting the audience to just go along with the ride, thinking that everything needs to be explained in order for the viewer to appreciate the story. Just showing the action and letting the audience come to their own conclusions rewards our ingenuity and keeps the plot moving.
Though clunky at times and confusing at others, the film is emotionally resonant and never lacks in dramatic tension after a ponderous opening act. One of the criticisms often levied against Nolan’s films is that they are cold and detached, a critique often hurled at Kubrick as well, neither of them true. Nolan counters those naysayers with his latest offering, with McConaughey letting the tears flow and showing his agonizing struggle, perhaps too much at times.
The emotional core relationship between him and Murphy keeps all the other elements in check, providing the audience with something to hold onto. Even though it becomes somewhat overdone and soap opera-ish at times, without it, the stunning visuals would go nowhere. This is the same structure that Nolan has used throughout his career, firmly establishing a core emotional struggle (giving hope to the people of Gotham in The Dark Knight (2008), rectifying Cobb’s guilt in Inception, figuring out the identity of the killer in Memento (2001)) that grounds the film even as elements of the story become incoherent and confusing.

Though one of his weakest entries in some years, for those audience members who appreciate Nolan’s efforts, the film will be a satisfying space journey about a man trying to save the human race and his family. For those who can not get past the gaps in logic and somewhat pedestrian dialogue that have become common in his work, this is an adventure best left unexplored. For this viewer, the good outweighs the hokey.

‘Hell or High Water’ an interesting cultural study

Blending the Western, heist, crime and cultural drama genres, “Hell or High Water” is an interesting, if not earth-shattering, film about life in rural Texas. Made for our times, the film suggests that there is no real line between good and evil, just the will to survive and to try and uphold your morals doing it.

Written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie, the film follows two sets of duos: robbers and brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) and the marshalls following them, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). When his mother’s land is about to be foreclosed on after her death, Toby is out of options. He recruits his sadistic brother Tanner to rob a set of smaller banks in order to raise up the funds to pass the land on to his kids. Marshall Marcus is just on the edge of retirement, looking to make the investigation into Toby and Tanner last as long as he can. His partner, Alberto, is the butt end of his neverending jokes about his Native American and Mexican heritage.

A consistent theme of the film are the boiling tensions between people whether for financial, religious or racial reasons. Whether it’s Tanner hating on Mexicans, Marcus joking about Alberto’s heritage or Toby despising the banks and what they’ve taken from him, the environment of the film is set up as take or be taken. The Native Americans lost their land to the white man, the white man lost it to the banks. In this respect, what the brothers do is simply a necessity, blurring that distinction between good and evil. Though Tanner eventually crosses a line that makes his actions indefensible, does the fact that Toby started their enterprise make him just as responsible? And for Marcus, what is to be done now that his career is coming to an end? What has he accomplished? What can he still?

The film is full of ethical questions such as these that are never truly resolved, letting the viewer decipher for themselves their own conclusions. It utilizes the harsh Texas environment as its own character in the film, something so rugged yet valuable, something worthwhile to steal because of heritage and the promise of the future.

The true strength of the film is the buildup, letting the characters and their moments establish the film’s rhythm and beats. By the end, the viewer feels like they really understand each of them and the events that transpire are both moral and tragic.

While it is nothing especially new, “Hell of High Water” is a film for the current time and executed very well; the acting, writing, directing, cinematography are all top notch. It is a strong story.

2016: The year moviegoers said enough?

A remake of “Ben-Hur” will be released this weekend, and it is already expected to lose millions. It is just another in a long line of money-losing projects released this year, all of which begs the question: have moviegoers had enough of the pig slop studios give them year after year?

The only two bonafide summer hits have been “Captain America: Civil War” ($407 mil) and “Finding Dory” ($477 mil). Both of them were bolstered by strong reviews and the backing of a Disney studio that has a consistent track record.

There are some other hits as well, but something striking becomes apparent when looking at them: “Deadpool” ($363 mil), “Zootopia” ($341 mil), “The Secret Life of Pets” ($340 mil) are all hits in some way or another, were all well reviewed to a degree, and all were non-sequels.

You need only look at commercial duds like “Ghostbusters” ($122 mil), “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” ($81 mil), “X-Men: Apocalypse” ($155 mil), “Alice Through the Looking Glass” ($76 mil) and “Ice Age: Collision Course” ($59 mil) to see that trend illustrated further; all poorly reviewed sequels/remakes, none of them making much money.

Even films that did decent business such as “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” ($330 mil) and “Suicide Squad” ($238 mil to date) did not meet expectations, mainly due to pedestrian reviews.

Is this an actual turning of a corner? Have audiences decided to stop shelling out their hard-earned cash on mediocre sequels/reboots/cash grabs and instead reward worthwhile entertainment?

Only time will tell, but the signs, at least in the U.S., are encouraging. There does seem to be less of an appetite to see the latest “Transformers” film or remake of whatever. Original, well-reviewed properties have ruled the box office this year. It is a welcome change.


‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ one for the ages

At first glance, another Mad Max movie feels like Hollywood just reaching deeper into the apple barrel looking for more franchises to bring back from the dead. So what should an audience member expect from a film whose last entry was 30 years ago? Few would expect one of the best action movies of all-time.

The film starts in the middle of dystopia, the earth a desolate wasteland with few survivors. These survivors quickly organize themselves into gangs of biker-riding, flame throwing hooligans intent on waging war against each other and securing the most precious of resources: food, water, milk, gasoline and fertile women. Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is the leader of one particular faction, having taken a number of wives.. These women however are stolen from him by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who intends on taking them to a promised green land where they will be free from his rule.  Caught in the middle of this storm ,and just trying to survive, Max (Tom Hardy) finds himself forced into helping the freedom seeking women out of necessity.

The first thirty minutes of the film are nearly flawless, the camera seemingly delving straight into Max’s subconscious as the shots are quick, the effects loud and the score thundering. There is barely any dialogue as we are led into the realm of these road warriors as they pillage at a frantic pace yet the story is still conveyed to us dramatically.

Director George Miller, having directed the other Mad Max films, returns to the franchise seemingly determined to use modern technology to create the dystopia that he never could in the 1980s. Special adoration must also be given to editor Margaret Sixel, cinematographer John Seale and composer Junkie XL for creating such a strong cinematic environment.

The action scenes are so wonderfully done that you forgive the filmmakers for their occasional bloatedness. The combination of stunts, ingenuity and occasional CGI effects create breathtaking sequences.

Mad Max: Fury Road may be Hollywood again refusing to try anything new, but it is a breathtaking adventure film that should not only entertain fans of the original films, but the casual action film moviegoer. It is already an instant classic, one that people will reference for years and years.

‘Bridge of Spies’ heartfelt if less than great

Bridge of Spies is Steven Spielberg and Tom Hank’s fourth film together. Saving Private Ryan (1998) is a modern classic (despite its flaws). Catch Me If You Can (2002) is a fun ride. The Terminal (2004) is admirable if largely forgettable. As the two have gotten older, their choices of projects have changed, but they both still seem to be intrigued by history and reflecting the past onto our present. Bridge of Spies feels like a story told by two friends who see a world bent on blood for blood, who see reason and negotiation falling by the wayside, replaced by pride and force. It is told by older and wiser men, the style and acting very subtle, building up simple moments of suspense, such as waiting for a telephone call. The result is a solid, if unspectacular film.

James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance salesman (formerly part of the prosecution at Nuremberg) who is tasked with defending a known Communist spy. Hated by most Americans for standing with such a man, Donovan simply states that all men, whatever their crime, should be met with dignity and justice as ordained in the Constitution. When a U2 spy plane pilot is shot down and captured over the Soviet Union, Donovan is presented with a unique opportunity; he is recruited by the CIA to negotiate a trade of his Communist spy for their American pilot.

Spielberg is in no rush with his storytelling. He glides smoothly from introducing the spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), to his trial to introducing the U2 pilot to the negotiations between nations. It is both refreshing and a bit maddening at times. A good half hour could have been cut out of the film (especially during the first act), but the deliberate pace really lets you examine the political atmosphere and think about the ideas in the film: Do foreign agents deserve the same rights as legalized Americans? What is the value of a single, innocent person in comparison to the pride of nations? Is standing for your beliefs no matter the cost worth it if you put your life and the lives of your family at risk?

Spielberg and writers Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman answer these questions with solutions of heartfelt understanding and respect for all people. Whether or not one’s personal view is similar is besides the point; they are presenting a vision of cultural respect and rule of law that they believe in. As the world still deals with suicide bombers, illegal immigrants, enhanced interrogation techniques and opposition to nuclear deals, the film is very timely and worth examining. Some may resent the ego of Hollywood idealism attempting to impose its views on a complex world, but few will find fault with its sentiments.

Hanks carries the film in an everyman kind of way that is easy for the viewer to relate to. Given free range to really define his character as he travels from Washington to East and West Berlin and back, his good nature and simple belief in everyone deserving a fair shake is distinctly American in the Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-sense. Indeed, the film feels like an homage to the simple morality films of the 1950s and 1960s; fair is fair, right is right.

What could have really helped however is some form of ticking clock. There is tension throughout the narrative, but a deadline of some sort that drives Donovan would keep us on the edge of our seats. In addition, we are barely given a glimpse into the true horrors of the world Donovan is entering into. There are some moments with East German gangs and prisoners attempting to escape past the Berlin Wall, but a storyline involving prisoner Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) could have been fleshed out more to show individuals in the crosshairs of a world out of control. The result feels like a dampening down of the truth.

And then there’s the Spielberg schmaltz. It was mostly kept in check during Lincoln (2012), but it returns at times in Bridge of Spies with a vengeance. Why Spielberg can not just let the story tell itself is baffling. He must for some reason have multiple endings that overdramatize his narrative past the breaking point.

But all in all, the story is interesting and solid, its heart is in the right place, and it proves that Spielberg and Hanks still know how to churn out a good film. And that’s what Bridge of Spies is; good, not great. Not among the year’s best, but certainly something worth remembering.

‘The Big Short’ aims to be the definitive film on the financial meltdown

Early in the writing process on “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”, Stanley Kubrick and his team found themselves in a predicament. All their focus on creating a serious story about the threat of nuclear annihilation between the U.S. and the USSR was fruitless. The film was turning stale on the page. That’s when Kubrick realized that the story wasn’t working because it was so ridiculous. He turned the Cold War into a comedy and suddenly everything fell into place. That is why “The Big Short” seems so much stronger than other films that examine the financial meltdown of 2008. The situation behind the calamity is just so devilishly maniacal that at some point you just have to sit back and laugh.

Directed by Adam McKay and written by him and Charles Randolph, the film follows three storylines and multiple characters who foresee the upcoming housing market calamity and bet for it on Wall Street in order to accrue a huge profit when the economy does tank. Based off the book by Michael Lewis, as Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), Michael Burry (Christian Bale), Mark Baum (Steve Carell), Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) begin to uncover just how dire the situation is, they begin to question their own ethics as they stand to profit off the misfortune of so many.

McKay, the director of comedies such as “Talladega Nights” (2006) and “Anchorman” (2004), might seem like an odd choice to helm such a project, but his instincts for comedy blend well the serious subject matter. The film is soaked in a comedic outrage over the situation and the possibility of it reoccurring. The breadth of such flagrant corruption is in its own way hysterical, something that more serious, similar fare such as “Margin Call” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” did not present.

Shot in a frenetic style and using comedic breaks of the fourth wall (the characters directly addressing the camera), the film feels very inclusive with the audience, almost as if we are there with them during the story, and the fact that we are watching the movie with our own background experiences of the financial meltdown fresh in our minds makes the film even more powerful.

With a strong script, powerful acting, tight editing and topical message, “The Big Short” is one of the best movies of the year. Though it lays its intentions on pretty thick near the conclusion, the overall structure, character development and humor mixed with drama make for a potent moviegoing experience.

‘Ex Machina’ one of the best movies of 2015

What does it mean to be alive? That’s the question that “Ex Machina” contemplates as it focuses on its three characters: Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a multi-billionaire attempting to create genuine artificial intelligence, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young, idealistic computer programmer hired to determine if the A.I. is genuine, and Ava (Alicia Vikander), the intelligence herself.

It’s a gripping psychological drama focused on consciousness itself; is what we feel and experience really that different from something that we can program into a computer? After all, we are full of flaws. We are capable of cruelty, irrationality and deceitfulness. Are we really that much more capable of handling our emotions than a programmed intelligence? How different are we, and where does that difference start?

Secluded in a certifiable fortress in the woods, the two men begin the project of determining how cognizant Ava is of her life. As Caleb begins his task by interacting with her, asking her questions, she questions him in return, flirts with him, and he starts to fall in love with her. This clouds his judgment until he begins to question everything happening around him; his world, his own sense of mind and especially Caleb and his motives. When such emotions take hold of us and make us do strange, sometimes even horrible things, who are we to determine the validity of conscious intelligence?

Shot in a very serence, still style with a color palette of monotones to evoke a mysterious sense, director and writer Alex Garland keeps the twists and turns coming in a very emotionally satisfying story that offers no real answers but poses fascinating questions.


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