Archive for November, 2014

Wild

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on November 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Wild photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCheryl Strayed isn’t prepared. Shortly into day 1 of her 3 month long expedition she is already thinking, “What have I done?” Her backpack is ridiculously overstuffed. Her hiking boots are too small. She brought the wrong fuel for her cooking stove. She’s hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) which runs through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges from the Mexican border up to Canada. Her destination is Ashland, Oregon. Why she has committed to this trek isn’t clear at first, but we assume early on that she isn’t happy with her life.

The film adaptation is based on Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir written by Cheryl Strayed and published in 2012. There will be inevitable comparisons to Into the Wild, the tale of Christopher McCandless in the Alaskan wilderness. There’s good reason. Both are true stories taken from best selling novels. Each concerns people of a similar age. Both are about tough redemptive journeys in natural surroundings. The difference is Cheryl Strayed is a more sympathetic character than Christopher McCandless.

You cannot discuss Wild without citing lead actress Reese Witherspoon. She is the focus of every scene. Cheryl Strayed remains a plucky heroine throughout. She predictably rises above adversity, and confounds all expectations. While I think Reese Witherspoon does an admirable job, the depiction of Strayed in her present incarnation doesn’t seem much different from Reese Witherspoon the actress. Granted the life experiences that have compelled Cheryl Stand to make this journey are not the same. And if I may make a candid aside: promiscuous sex and drugs are still clichés. The fact that they actually happened doesn‘t change this. At any rate, the performance essentially feels like I am watching Reese Witherspoon the actress go on a backpacking trip. This doesn’t negate the power of the story, but it makes the transformation seem like less of a stretch. I think we’re beyond the point where the courage to wear no make-up is seen as transmogrifying.

The events wisely unfold in a manner that draw us in. The drama is told in two parts: the present and the past. Recurring flashbacks are a mainstay of the narrative. In days gone by, we meet her mom, her brother, her father, her husband. These relationships shed light on her life and what has inspired this epic journey. In the modern day, we meet various people along the way of her hike. Screenwriter Nick Hornsby and director Jean-Marc Vallée do an effective job at dramatizing the autobiographical account of a woman backpacking a portion of the PCT alone at age 26. Every time she meets someone, we experience the tension she felt, even in situations that ultimately become a positive experience. The dangers, particularly for a woman, in endeavoring this isolated walk through the wilderness is illustrated well. The everyday interactions in her present adventure are often straightforward, but they remain compelling. The overall chronicle is woven together to keenly recount the saga of an individual.

11-27-14

Advertisements

American Sniper

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama, War with tags on November 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

American Sniper photo starrating-3stars.jpgMovie adaptation of the memoir written by United States Navy SEAL Chris Kyle exists between the taught, tension filled investigation of The Hurt Locker and the overt rah rah jingoism of Lone Survivor. Kyle served four tours in the Iraq War and during that time, he had at least 160 confirmed kills by the Pentagon’s count, but 255 probable by his own calculation. Eastwood touches on his early years but the majority of the picture is devoted to Kyle’s military service, It is an often sobering account of how the most lethal sniper in American military history conducted his business in the Iraq War. As such it is Clint Eastwood’s best film in years.

Bradley Cooper handles the role with seriousness and humility. The actor fleshes out a character with pure sincerity. Although Chris remains a bit inscrutable, his devotion to his purpose and why he does what he does, is clear. The Navy SEAL is shown to be a perceptive man who understands the severity of what he does. His actions have grave consequences. Bradley Cooper looks quite different physically here. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Chris Kyle was a large guy. Bradley Cooper sports a beard and packs on 40 lbs of muscle to become the man. With her reddish brown hair and American accent, Sienna Miller is virtually unrecognizable as well in a fundamental supporting part as his wife Taya Kyle.

Eastwood is effective at contrasting the difference between a sniper’s job from the troops fighting on the ground. To be honest, Kyle takes on this duty as well when he cannot be of help on the rooftops. As a sharpshooter, we are presented with the emotionally difficult decisions he must make from a distance. He weighs the importance of what he is about to do with the lasting results. Is this an innocent civilian or a dangerous enemy that threatens American lives? Not every assassin looks like a human killing machine trained for combat. Warning: the most compelling scene that illustrates this is in the trailer.

The negative effects his service had on his marriage is understandable but they’re the kind of well worn issues oft dramatized. Chris Kyle is a career solider. We understand his desire to keep going back to Iraq. He has developed a reputation as a legend and he is driven to contribute to the cause. Meanwhile his growing detachment from domestic life becomes problematic. He volunteers to return for a total of four separate tours and it weighs heavily on his marriage.  If there’s a mission that keeps him coming back, it is the unfinished pursuit of a Syrian marksman (Sammy Sheik) who is his counterpart on the opposite side. But his wife and kids need him too. This dilemma forms a persistent idea in the second half.

American Sniper is a solid well constructed effort that is arguably Clint Eastwood’s best since Gran Torino. I would support that assertion anyway. But it’s also rather predictable. The depiction hits the familiar beats you‘d expect the bio of a dedicated solider to address. Whether the deadliest sniper in U.S. history is a hero is not even a topic up for discussion. It is just presented as fact. The reverential portrait is a tribute that honors the man. The way this affected his personal life is a key aspect. The ongoing effect that war has on an individual’s psyche as well as his family are thoughtfully addressed, but there’s never anything particularly revelatory added to the conversation.

11-23-14

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Posted in Horror, Romance, Thriller with tags on November 26, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgA Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is unlike any Iranian film you‘ve ever seen. At first, you wonder what bizarre cosmic alignment has allowed this artfully constructed, but distinctly subversive picture to be made. I mean it’s not exactly something you’d expect to pass the censors in that country. As a matter of fact, the production did NOT originate in Iran but rather the U.S., specifically California. Yet the dialogue is in Farsi and features a cast and crew made up of the extensive Iranian expatriate community in the Los Angeles area.

The setting is Iran in the fictional town of Bad City. With a name like that, I suppose one can debate the allegorical overtones. With its arid landscape broken up by oil fields, it a desolate place. It is a world populated by pimps and addicts. Ah but it is the romantics that are the heroes.  Arash (Arash Marandi) drives a’57 Thunderbird and lives with his father. With his white t-shirt, jeans, tousled hair and brooding intensity, the guy suggests James Dean. Also living in the town is a woman known simply as The Girl (Sheila Vand). She is a mysterious young lady and only goes out when it gets dark – sort of a vigilante out for justice. At home she listens to new wave music and decorates her bedroom with a mirrored ball suspended from the ceiling. Look closely and you’ll notice posters of Michael Jackson, Madonna and the Bee Gees on the walls. In this environment The Girl looks like any other of her age, but when she slips on her chador and goes out at night, she has a much more eerie presence.

The eclectic indie rock soundtrack is an important part of the mood. It plays throughout the entire story. An Ennio Morricone-like score is courtesy of the Portland band Federale. The group provides selections that wouldn‘t sound out of place in a Sergio Leone movie. Underground Iranian bands like Kiosk and Radio Tehran are included as well alongside White Lies, a UK band.  Their 2008 synthpop song “Death” is used to underscore a tender kiss in one hypnotic scene.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a cinematic blending of influences as disparate as spaghetti westerns, vampire flicks, graphic novels and feminist ideology. At times the production reminded me of an earlier release this year, Only Lovers Left Alive. Indeed Jim Jarmusch is clearly an idol of director Ana Lily Amirpour, but so is David Lynch with his nonsensical narratives. The bare bones plot and black and white cinematography support the comparison. Occasionally the creation comes across as a bit of an appropriation. However Amirpour melds the inspirations in a way that cherishes them while creating something new. The first-generation Iranian grew up in Bakersfield, California where most of this was shot. The formula is equally shaped by her ancestral background as it is by her studies at UCLA film school. Her unique point of view signals the arrival of an exciting new talent to watch. Granted the plot can just seem weird without a clear purpose. It doesn’t always makes sense, but then what feminist Iranian vampire western does anyway?

11-23-14

Beyond the Lights

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on November 22, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Beyond the Lights photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgShowbiz melodramas get a bad rap. Rags to riches stories are a cliché but they’re a good one. An emotional drama detailing the rise to fame from humble beginnings to massive exposure can be captivating. It’s why the 1937 film A Star Is Born has been remade twice, so far that is. Warner Bros. has plans for another remake. It’s also why the chronicle can be seen as the blueprint for a host of other movies that happen to have female leads: Funny Girl, Mahogany, The Rose, Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Bodyguard, Dreamgirls. Now add Beyond the Lights to that list. It’s not the most innovative work of art, but it does take something hackneyed and update the model with enough flair for the 2010‘s.

What elevates Beyond the Lights is the acting, particularly of the lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw, This is the second time I’ve seen the aspiring actress in 2014. She was also the star of Belle which came out in May. If these two roles are representative of what is to come, we are witnessing the arrival of an exciting new talent. Here Gugu plays Noni Jean, a rising R&B singer that has just had a hit with heavily tattooed white rapper Kid Culprit (real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly). The song is called “Masterpiece” and it’s steadily climbing up the charts with her featured performance. Gugu actually does her own singing when performing, although other artists perform the background music.  “Fly Before You Fall” for example is beautifully sung by Cynthia Erivo. The soundtrack is mostly written and produced by R&B super-producer Terius “The Dream” Nash.

All would seem right in Noni’s life but she is not happy. A attempt at ending her own life is failed by a handsome cop (Nate Parker) assigned to guard her. Kaz Nicol has political ambitions that should preclude his association with the racy pop star.  Minnie Driver is Noni’s agent and stage mother, Macy Jean. A fiercely loyal but overbearing presence in her life that puts her daughter’s career first and her own well being second. At times Macy seems so driven by success as to be inhuman, but you can see the desire she has for her daughter to be successful. She’s been there since the beginning and it’s her “us against the world” mentality that humanizes Macy. A touching early moment is when young actress India Jean-Jacques (Noni as a little girl) sings “Blackbird” at a talent competition. Her mom is a most exasperating character, but it’s obvious she does love her daughter.

Beyond the lights is a tale that inhabits the contemporary R&B realm of artists like Rihanna. Noni feels pushed by her domineering mother into fronting a hyper-sexual image with which she doesn’t feel comfortable. Her musical style sports vocals that are technologically enhanced by Auto-Tune and deep percussive bass. She wishes to retreat to a more simple style of her artistic idol Nina Simone. These portraits of the music industry often lambaste the pre-fabricated, highly choreographed pop star, but one look at the Top 40 will show that is what people want. As her momager’s behavior widens the divide between them, Noni escapes to a island resort. Here the narrative takes on a poignancy I didn’t expect. Lamenting the way people are marketed for a mass audience is old hat, but Gugu renders her sorrow with distinction. As she literally strips away the long colored strands of straight hair woven into her own, she symbolically reveals her true self. Her subsequent triumph of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” in a karaoke bar becomes a declaration. It’s an affecting transformation and Gugu makes the metamorphosis seem fresh and new.

11-19-14

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on November 21, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe awkwardly titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 follows the further adventures of Miss Katniss Everdeen. As embodied by the effervescent Jennifer Lawrence, the character never ceases to be captivating. The actress can make even the most banal dialogue or scene seem absolutely riveting and crucial. And let’s face it. None of these chapters have a clear-cut ending so that talent is most appreciated. In fact, this one is all the more piecemeal because it ends in the middle of the book on which it is adapted. As such, it’s a perfectly acceptable stopgap measure in between the 2nd and final film.

Mockingjay Part 1 picks up where Catching Fire left off. District 12 has been reduced to ashes. Katniss Everdeen has been saved from the arena but Peeta Mellark is still under the restraint of the state. Her goal is to save him and unite a nation ready to oppose the state. This is a plot centered on exposition. Katniss is sent into the front lines in order to star in a sequence of propaganda videos. These are also designed to infiltrate the Capitol airwaves in order to educate the masses into what is really going on. Assuming a major role in this episode is President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) who was the President of District 13. Thought to be destroyed, the district is actually completely intact, just underground.  Coin is now the leader of the rebellion. I didn’t even see The Giver but she looks like Meryl Streep in the trailers for that picture. Less important this time around is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who is used more as a tool to weaken Katniss. The capitol wants Katniss to abandon her role as the Mockingjay. As a symbol of someone who has broken free from the control of the government she is a dangerous inspiration to the people of Panem.

Mockingjay is inferior to Catching Fire, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. It’s just that the excitement quotient of the story is a bit anemic. There are a lot of segments where the narrative simply drags. That has never been the case with this series before. This is a running commentary on the fabrication of propaganda in order to promote a cause. The groundwork has been laid for all out war. Gone are the reality based competitions to the death. In its place is a war of words, essentially between Katniss Everdeen and President Snow who uses Peeta against her. I must warn the uninitiated. Anyone unfamiliar with the previous installments will be lost. More than Twilight, more than Harry Potter, this entry does require that you have seen Parts 1 and 2. These are the details concerning the ongoing evolution in the nation of Panem. For those in the know, the production can provide some satisfaction.

11-21-14

The Theory of Everything

Posted in Biography, Drama, Romance with tags on November 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Theory of Everything photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe Theory of Everything is a Stephen Hawking biopic. But more specifically, it is the story of Stephen Hawking as it pertains to his relationship with Jane Wilde, who became his wife. As such it is based on her memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. This makes the tale more than just a mere biography of the scientific genius. It is that to be sure, but the chronicle is also a romantic drama. This is a most unique approach to the profile of a man more famous for being an astrophysicist and cosmologist than for whom he fell in love with. The method humanizes the man in a way that is altogether unexpected.

Most of us know Stephen Hawking after he was stricken with ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease), the motor neuron disease that causes muscle weakness and impacts physical function. The brain however remains unaffected. But the production starts well before he was stricken with that ailment. In the introductory scenes Redmayne suggests a socially shy but intellectually confident young man. It is the 1960s and Hawking is pursuing a doctorate in physics at Cambridge. Felicity Jones is stirring as Jane Wilde, the language arts major (medieval Spanish poetry) he meets while there. As the presentation juggles Stephen’s work and illness, she is the romantic connection that unites the two intensifying the already emotional thread throughout his life. An early conversation between Jane and Stephen’s father warning her that she might not be prepared for what is to come is particularly affecting. Director James Marsh inserts beautiful montages that glow with the warmth of people in love. These extravagantly shot interludes could have become glossy affectations. Yet inserted amongst the events taking place on screen, they help to highlight the passage of time and make the film’s visceral high points resonate more clearly.

Any discussion of The Theory of Everything must focus on the lead, Eddie Redmayne. Up until now, best known for playing Marius in the cinematic version of Les Misérables. Granted he was extremely good in that, but somehow I would never felt him qualified to play this part. Oh how wrong I would’ve been. Somehow Eddie Redmayne, who had never suggested a visual similarity to Stephen Hawking before, completely inhabits the role. There have been many many great performances at the movies, but a significantly smaller number where the actor chosen for the part so perfectly resembles the individual in speech, behavior and physicality that you indeed forget you’re watching an actor. Ben Kingsley as Gandhi comes to mind. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking is another.

If one is to judge a movie by the way it makes us feel, by the emotion that it elicits, then The Theory of Everything has got to be considered an unqualified success. After the disease takes hold, Stephen Hawking embarks on a transformation whereby the deliberate degradation of his body manifests itself. Slowly, painfully, we watch as this brilliant man succumbs to the affects of this disorder. Actor Eddie Redmayne bends his frame in ways that look as if he truly is suffering from the actual condition. At no time does the performance every feel exploitative,. Nor does his achievement ever read like he is showing off. Redmayne simply is, progressively contorting his body while battling the increasing difficulty with which he is able to speak. Gradually that ability disappears as well. The effect is heartbreaking and yet it is a testament to the strength of will that Hawking had to summon in order to overcome his disability. It is a flawless triumph that celebrates the man’s success with respect and dignity.

11-16-14

Foxcatcher

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on November 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Foxcatcher photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThere’s something very disturbing about Foxcatcher. It’s more than a mere biographical drama. It is a multilayered character study detailing 3 personalities – an expose on humanity so raw, that it becomes uncomfortable viewing. On the one side we have John Eleuthère du Pont, an heir to the family fortune of the chemical company. On the other we have Mark Schultz, Olympic gold medalist in wrestling and younger brother to the even more celebrated wrestler David Schultz.

Foxcatcher highlights career best performances by the three principals. Steve Carrel, outfitted with a prosthetic nose and old age makeup, is unrecognizable as John du Pont. He is a multimillionaire, philanthropist ornithologist and most importantly, wrestling enthusiast. He aims to fund the U.S. team and get Mark to the ’88 Olympics. But he is a peculiar fellow. He lives in the shadow of his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and indirectly seeks her blessing in his endeavors. Regrettably his prodigious net worth obscures his lack of expertise. When she appears at a practice one day, he immediately leaps to his feet, taking control of the class with his awkward directions as she looks on. As he continues to address the class in his mock coaching effort, she exits the room unimpressed. For all his wealth and privilege, an air of melancholy surrounds him. His philanthropic efforts notwithstanding, he is someone to be pitied more than admired.

Mark eats fast food alone in his car. Later he heats instant noodles in his spartan apartment. These scenes are shortcuts that establish a grim milieu. Despite his athletic titles and awards, Mark’s life isn’t that spectacular. Channing Tatum may look like a wrestler but he is cast against type as the callow youth seeking approval. His ever increasing despondency is a concern. Then he is invited by du Pont (Steve Carell) to help form a team to train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics at his new state-of-the-art training facility. Schultz jumps at the opportunity. Du Pont wants his brother Dave too, but he is unmoved by the offer at the moment. Family comes first in Dave’s life. When Mark checks into a cottage on his estate, things seem too good to be true. It seems that Mark has finally stepped out from under his more successful sibling, Dave.

Mark Ruffalo has perhaps the most difficult role as Dave Schultz. It is the slightest of the three parts and the least awards bait-y. Yet his positive presence helps alleviate the tension. He conveys such admirable devotion to his younger brother in simple gestures. The brothers engage in sparring fights intended to sharpen their wrestling skills, but even those have a tender intimacy. Their competitive affiliation goes through several stages during the course of the film. Their bond is exacerbated when du Pont makes an offer Dave can’t refuse. As the events unfold to the inevitable conclusion, there is an anxiety that hangs over the surroundings like a thick fog of fear. Sounds like I’m describing a horror movie. Indeed, this rumination transpires not unlike a tale of dread. If you are unfamiliar with the true life story, you should keep it that way until after you’ve seen the production. Though not vital, the saga is best appreciated without prior knowledge.

Foxcatcher is about insecurities, validation and obsession. As such, the dark drama relies heavily on mood. The narrative is quiet, insidious even. As it sneakily unfolds you never quite know where the focus lies. Certainly this is an attack on how wealth can buy standing in arenas to which you don‘t belong. John du Pont and Mark Schultz are two dejected souls that initially needed each other. The screenplay logically makes connections between the various characters and ties them together. As du Pont seeks support from his mother, so too does Mark seeks the same from du Pont. Their interdependence is a portrait of unease. Additionally the genuine fraternal love amongst brothers is contrasted with the oppressive demands that du Pont puts upon Mark. Du Pont is needy to the point of being unstable. His complicated rapport with Mark is rooted in unrealized hopes. Undoubtedly he lives vicariously through the success of these developing athletes. But the full extent of those desires are cryptic and belie a tortured personality. The script subtly hints at things that are implied but never explicitly stared.  Foxcatcher brilliantly handles all of these emotionally complex relationships in a skillful way. Capote, Moneyball and now Foxcatcher – Director Bennett Miller has established a knack for these fables based on fact. It is a deeply troubling film and I mean that in the most profound way.

11-10-14

Big Hero 6

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on November 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Big Hero 6 photo starrating-4stars.jpgMeet Baymax – a personal healthcare robot invented by gifted university student Tadashi Hamada. He looks a like an inflatable Michelin man without the definition. With a quick and easy full body scan, Baymax can determine your vital stats and subsequently treat any ailment. He’s a polite, nurturing fellow of pure innocence. Baymax is the heart and soul of Big Hero 6. He makes this film soar….literally. Indeed he can fly, thanks to some creative enhancements.

Big Hero 6 starts off on a very serious note. Professor Robert Callaghan and Tadashi Hamada are killed in a fire at the university. After falling into a depression, younger brother Hiro Hamada strengthens Baymax with armor and a microchip programmed with martial arts moves. The relationship between Hiro and Baymax is at core of this adventure. It’s an engaging friendship and they are an absolute delight together.  Although only 14 years old, Hiro has created a brilliant new invention – microbots – tiny robots that can link together by swarming into any arrangement imaginable.  Hiro is now on the hunt for a mysterious man wearing a kabuki mask who has stolen his invention. The baddie wishes to exact retribution on those who wronged him.

Hiro gets support from his older brother’s four friends at the university.  Their personalities mesh well, although the screenwriters have taken a few shortcuts. The characters falls into clichéd archetypes easily discernable for young viewers. Nevertheless they have nice camaraderie together. There’s Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez), a chemistry whiz who uses a designer handbag like Batman uses a utility belt. Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.) is a solidly built neat freak that screams like a little girl when he isn’t slicing people with lasers. Tough chick GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung) skates on magnetic levitation discs like something out of Tron. And lastly there’s fan boy Fred (T. J. Miller) a laid back dude with an alter ego that breathes fire. The four of them team up with Hiro and Baymax to save the city.  They are a lively bunch.

Big Hero 6 isn’t particularly innovative in the narrative department. The Incredibles kept popping up in my mind. The story is pretty standard: get the bad guy out for revenge. Yet the beginning grabs the viewer’s attention with an enticing set-up. Too bad the ending does not live up to all the excitement that precedes it. Nevertheless the production is bright, colorful fun and the animation is a joy to watch. Big Hero 6 actually bests its influences in this area. Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a 14 year old engineering wonder. His affinity for Baymax is palpable and his upgrades to his brother’s creation inform the chronicle. Baymax is a great physical comedian. He conveys so much with so little. I mean his face is two dots connected by a line. He’s expressionless, but his sweet innocence comes through in every scene. His character is such a refreshing change of pace from the in-your-face, amped up, hyperactive personalities that often plague kiddie cartoons. His pacifist stance explores the futility of vengeance and power of forgiveness. Child Hiro emotionally matures as a human being as a result of knowing Baymax. I found their kinship genuinely touching.

11-09-14

Interstellar

Posted in Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on November 8, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Interstellar photo starrating-3stars.jpgInterstellar is vague in every way that a film can be vague. The year is difficult to pinpoint. It feels like sometime in the indeterminate near future, say 2050, but the production design is more inspired by John Steinbeck novels set in the 1930s. This is the heartland of America, possibly a state like Oklahoma. We see them watching the Yankees as a barnstorming team so maybe they’re in New York. We really don‘t know. The very existence of the human race is endangered by dust clouds, described as blight, that are gradually eliminating the number of crops that are viable on Earth. We’re to assume the whole world is at risk, but only the U.S. is addressed or even mentioned. Farms are collapsing. In a prologue, elderly people reminisce about the farming era in which they lived. Most of the interviewees are actually non actors from Ken Burns’ 2012 documentary The Dust Bowl repurposed here to represent a different ecological disaster.

However one of those subjects is an actual actress – Ellen Burstyn – who plays Murphy Cooper as an old woman. Flashback to the proper start of our adventure. Murph is the highly regarded 10 year old daughter of Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). She is initially played by Mackenzie Foy and later Jessica Chastain. This father-daughter connection is the heart of Interstellar. However the tenderness between father and daughter rings hollow. They are given little to do, save for hunting down an errant drone spy plane together.  Their relationship is an emotional void and the drama fails to engage at this level. Cooper’s eagerness to leave his family and blast off into the stratosphere doesn’t help.  Father Cooper also lives with his seemingly disregarded 15-year-old son Tom (Timothée Chalamet). The script barely acknowledges the boy. Rounding out this foursome is his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow). Murph communicates with a ghost in her bedroom which ultimately leads her father to a secret NASA base location. There he meets a team of explorers that hypothesizes the solution to the Earth’s problems lies somewhere beyond this galaxy.

Christopher Nolan is a storyteller and he fashions a chronicle with a great deal of attention. There is a lot of science tossed around in the explanation of space travel. I won’t bore you with the particulars but it involves Einstein, relativity and the space-time continuum. I’m not a scientist, but most of it sounded pretty logical to me so I accepted it at face value. Christopher Nolan fills the world with little details that make watching more fun. TARS is a robot helper on the mission. He looks like a monolith that separates into rectangular limbs when he walks and talks. He is refreshingly outdated in style but uncomfortably human when he enunciates. Several times I couldn’t figure out who was speaking, only to realize, it was TARS the robot. He has a sarcastic personality brought to life by actor Bill Irwin. “I have a cue light I can use to show you when I’m joking, if you like.”

Interstellar is filled with fascinating setpieces: (1) a tidal wave on a water planet that rises up out of nothing like a wall, (2) the arrival of a guest with depressing news, (3) an altercation on the frozen tundra of another planet, (4) a docking maneuver that is a nail bitter. But the whole isn’t equal to the sum of these parts. Interstellar is certainly a wonder to behold. Nolan gets the majesty of the universe in all its wide expansive grandeur. The director was clearly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” was utilized to legendary effect in that picture. Hans Zimmer attempts to outdo the epicness of that piece. The score is bombastic, almost assaultive. In space no one can hear you scream. That’s because Hans Zimmer’s score will drown you out. Long-time collaborator Wally Pfister was busy directing Transcendence, so Nolan tapped Hoyt Van Hoytema to shoot this saga. The cinematography is full of breathtaking images as they reinforce a lofty tale of epic proportions. If you can feast on the visuals, then perhaps that will be enough to hold you. But any movie that MUST be seen on a big screen to be enjoyed, falls short at telling an engaging story.

Interstellar is an extremely long 3 hour movie. For roughly half the drama, the ideas feel organic as they effortlessly support a real respect for the wonder of the cosmos. But by the 2nd half, something happens. The ideas become more ponderous, the tone more solemn. Physics gives way to mysticism. An initial set up that was driven by the joy of space travel devolves into a superficial meditation on love. Yet for all its efforts to be tear-jerking, I felt nothing. It’s not a bad film, but it is Christopher Nolan’s least captivating picture. It doesn’t seem informed by the director’s vision. It’s more like the 2nd greatest work that M. Night Shyamalan never directed.

11-04-14

Nightcrawler

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on November 3, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Nightcrawler photo starrating-5stars.jpgWhen film historians look back on the career of Jake Gyllenhaal, his portrayal of Lou Bloom will always be a role that is mentioned. He is nothing less than extraordinary in Nightcrawler. Like on the level of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver kind of incredible. Now this is a bold pronouncement because as I write this, the movie has only been out three days, but I am confident in making this declaration. He’s that good.

Director Dan Gilroy’s drama is surprisingly complex for a first time director. Heretofore he has been a writer (The Fall, Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy) but none of the aforementioned work could’ve prepared me for the flawless execution of his directorial debut. Based on the title and the release date, Nightcrawler sounds like a horror film about killer earthworms that come out at night to feed on human flesh. It’s funny because I didn’t realize how eerily close in spirit that description really was. Lou Bloom is a petty thief and a loser at the moment. But he’s a driven young man who knows how to take advantage of a situation. While out driving at night looking for opportunities to make money, he comes across some cops assisting people trapped in a flaming car on the side of the road. Also at the scene is Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) a man who videos violent incidents at night for profit – sort of an independent agent for local news programs that need footage. Lou gets an idea. With the money he receives from a stolen bike, he buys a camcorder and a police scanner. His latest scheme is born.

The drama achieves so much in the span of 117 minutes. It’s a brilliant meditation on an individual who has always lived on the fringes of society. Jake Gyllenhaal is Oscar worthy as the small-time criminal desperate to make a quick buck with his videos of accidents, fires and other violence. But he is not the only fascinating individual. Riz Ahmed is Rick, a destitute man with no job experience who is hired as his assistant, although exploited is a more apt description. Rick’s story is exceptionally emotional for a mere side character. Things change when Lou meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo, the director’s wife) a TV news director. Russo is memorable in a welcome return to her juiciest part since The Thomas Crown Affair. Her career lives and dies by ratings. Violent crime in wealthy suburban areas is her preference and she makes no bones about it. She is a piece of work. In that capacity the script also serves as a scathing attack on sensationalized tabloid news journalism.

First and foremost, Nightcrawler is a compelling character study. Jake Gyllenhaal manages to embody a thoroughly loathsome but intriguing character that you cannot look away from. He’s got nerve. He talks with a calm reserve even when he’s saying something rather disturbing. He’s creepy to make people uneasy and yet he’s driven by a plucky resourcefulness that‘s somewhat admirable. Although let‘s be clear, he’s insane. They should lock him up and throw away the key. The usually robust actor lost 30 lbs to appear more gaunt in the role. He also grew his hair out into an oily mane. Certainly the execution in his performance is his greatest achievement, but his appearance has the effect of physically transforming him into a completely different person. Perhaps Nightcrawler’s greatest accomplishment is to educate us in the ways of a sociopath. He makes us understand how that quiet, nice boy who was so polite, is capable of such evil.

10-31-14