Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014) – Review

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is a bleak film, focusing more on character than action, setting up the franchise’s final installment.

The film finds Katniss Everdeen recovering in District 13 in the wake of the events of Catching Fire. She is distraught about Peeta’s capture by the Capital; however, Plutarch Heavensbee and President Alma Coin (the leader of the rebellion) desperately need her help. Right now is the moment of rebellion that District 13 has been waiting for, ever since their initial rebellion was quelled over seventy-five years ago. Katniss’s actions at The Hunger Games have inspired a nation. The rebels need her to be their symbol of revolt, inciting the nation to rise up together against the Captial.

First thing, let us call Mockingjay – Part 1 what it really is: a narrative and creative abomination in the name of additional profits (akin to splitting The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn into two parts even though the story does not really support two full narrative films). The Harry Potter series split its final book (The Deathly Hallows) into two films, starting this trend – the difference between The Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn and now Mockingjay, however, is that there was enough substantial story and character to make two films. Here there is not.

Calling the film an abomination is harsh. The problem is that the film essentially serves at the first act of the final chapter; yet, the filmmakers (including director Francis Lawrence) need to fill two hours with material, when really only about thirty to forty minutes is essential (or even needed). Thus, the film is primarily a showcase of the characters sitting around, grinding out time until the action really begins (in the next film). For the audience, this makes for a less than interesting film overall, but it still has its engaging moments.

The Deathly Hallows – Part 1 plays as much more of a character piece as compared to the continuous action of Part 2. Mockingjay – Part 1 tries to follow a similar path, as the narrative focuses on Katniss’s internal struggle with being the face of the rebellion, but there does not seem to be any narrative momentum. By comparison, part 1 of The Deathly Hallows saw Harry and company searching for horcruxes and the meaning of the Deathly Hallows. The film has a narrative structure and character development. It works as a standalone film (in as much as a sequel can), while also setting up the final film. Mockingjay – Part 1 is initially about Katniss becoming the face of the rebellion, which she does without much struggle. Then, the film seems to become about the recovery of Peeta. The problem with the second narrative piece is that Katniss is not involved in the action.

One of the big problems with this film series as a whole is that Katniss seems to always be sidelined. Even as the face of the rebellion, she is not directly involved in the rebellion planning or action. She is just propaganda. It might have been interesting for the film to really take a deep look at the emotional and psychological toll being a symbol takes on Katniss, being removed from the real action, just rolled out to make appearances for moral, seeing those actually fighting dying around her. It does this to a minor degree, and those moments are compelling; but, this was never going to be that kind of film – a character piece, built on performance and dramatic moments. Lawrence still wants to make a sci-fi action adventure, like the first two films, but there is just not that much for anyone to really do.

Structurally, Mockingjay – Part 1 has a number of things that do not work as well as they probably should. Right off, the film feels completely disconnected from Catching Fire, as if it were unrelated. The characters and tone are totally different. We learn that some period of time has passed between the end of Catching Fire and the beginning of Mockingjay, but it is very disorienting (especially because I just re-watched Catching Fire before seeing this). Lawrence certainly had the narrative time to transition the narrative to District 13, but instead the film begins clumsily. Lawrence also had the time to focus more on supporting characters, but no one is really given much to do dramatically. Katniss is the only character that has significant character moments (seeing the carnage that the Capital brought upon District 12 and her realization that Peeta was brutally tortured while being held in the Capital). Again, most of the film’s issues seem to arise from there not being enough to sustain a full narrative feature.

There are things that do work too. Katniss’s emotional moments are effective and even moving. Lawrence does a good job creating a world that looks and feels very bleak. District 13 is reminiscent of the style of the film 1984 (based on George Orwell’s novel) – it is a bit ironic that the rebels fighting for freedom seem to live in a highly structured world (seemingly void of real personal freedom and personality). The few moments of action are engaging as well. Lawrence even creates some tension when the team goes to retrieve the victors from the Capital.

Mockingjay is a sufficient setup for Mockingjay – Part 2, but it is bloated and does not work as a standalone film. Katniss is not even given a real dramatic journey in the film. Its biggest fault is that it feels overly long, slow and even boring in parts, because it is essentially a one act piece stretched to fill two hours. Lawrence does not do enough with the characters or feature enough action to fully engage the audience for the film’s runtime. Yet, all that said, the stage is set for Part 2, which seems like it will be a rewarding film experience (finally); and thus, Mockingjay – Part does ultimately serve its purpose (sloppily).

Now for something minor that I noticed that does not really effect the film’s overall quality at all, it just bugged me. The blocking of the film crew within the film (there to capture moments of Katniss reacting to stuff to use for the rebellion’s propaganda machine) is often fairly terrible. The cameramen are in each other’s shots. The director even walks in front of one of the cameramen at one point. They miss many crucial shots of Katniss emoting and in action (and so on). It is really no big deal; it just bothered me. They are touted as being the Capital’s best crew, but seemed incompetent.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Francis Lawrence made a good film with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. With Mockingjay – Part 1, he is at a bit of a disadvantage, as it is clear there is not enough material to fill two films. That said, he does a good enough job (I guess). He gets good performances and the few action scenes work well. It is just disappointing that there is not more character moments to go around and that the film is not more efficiently structured (instead of feeling a bit tedious). I am looking forward to seeing Mockingjay – Part 2. I imagine it is much more action packed and that Katniss, finally, is involved in the primary action both emotionally and physically.

Aesthetically, Mockingjay – Part 1 is grim. The film mostly takes place in a somewhat soulless and barren bunker or amongst the rubble of destroyed towns. Jo Willems’s cinematography is fairly straightforward, working with Philip Messina’s production design to create this dreary world, seemingly almost void of color. It works narratively, but I miss the flare the first two films had in their design style. James Newton Howard’s score works well, supporting the dramatic moments (but it is overshadowed by the great soundtrack that Lorde put together).

The cast is good overall, but dramatically speaking there is very little for most of them to do. Natalie Dormer has her usual rambunctiousness about her, which works well with her character (the filmmaker Cressida). Elizabeth Banks has some fun moments as Effie, adjusting to a world without style and color. Sam Claflin is good as Finnick, seemingly playing a man broken by the games (though, it feels a bit out of character given where the audience left him in Catching Fire). Julianne Moore is very calm and calculating as President Alam Coin, very restrained. It works. Philip Seymour Hoffman seems a bit disinterested as Plutarch Heavensbee, probably because he has almost nothing of substance to do in the film. Donald Sutherland plays President Snow with a lot of flare and guile, enjoying the villainy of the character. Woody Harrelson, too, seems bored as he spends the film standing around, aside from a few lines of dialog. Liam Hemsworth probably has the most screen time in this film of any in the series so far, and yet he remains unengaging. Josh Hutcherson is quite good as Peeta, showcasing the mental and physical toll being a prisoner of the Capital is taking on him (he looks like he is dying, slowly wasting away). I just wonder why the film never gives Johanna (especially when you have Jena Malone, who is fantastic in the role) or Annie any screen time while they were captive (even if it were just in the background). It is an odd choice to single out Peeta as the only visible ‘traitor’, while leaving the others to merely be referred to as similarly traitors for doing the same thing. Filmmaking is about showing more than telling (or at least it should be). Jennifer Lawrence is very good as Katniss. She conveys the pain and internal struggle that she suffers through very well. It is clear that she is on the breaking point. (Much like the audience, I am sure) Katniss is tired of being left out. The film is moving in some places and ultimately succeeds dramatically solely because of her performance (as structurally it is pretty poor).

Summary & score: It is difficult to rate The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 because it is not really a narrative film (in that it does not really have its own story to tell or a complete character journey). It is merely just act one. Seemingly, it was never meant to be more. Thus, to really give this film a score I need to see how it plays in relation to Part 2, as presumably they are really two piece of one epic film. As it is, it only works insomuch as Jennifer Lawrence gives a very good performance, the action is engaging and some of the visuals are compelling. Large portions of the film, however, are uninteresting, as characters and viewers sit around waiting for the action to start. It was completely unnecessary for Mockingjay to be split into two films; thusly, this film exists solely to make additional money, not to serve a narrative need – and that is unfortunate for fans of the series. 5/10

Monday, November 24, 2014

Movie of the Week – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

The first film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series find Captain Jack Sparrow without a ship. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Swann (the Governor of a small Caribbean island’s daughter) is being pursued by Commodore Norrington, but secretly harbors feelings for a blacksmith apprentice named Will Turner (who Elizabeth discovered years earlier shipwrecked and adrift). Elizabeth is fascinated by Pirates and has always believed Will to be one, finding a Pirate gold piece on him when he was discovered. Captain Jack has intentions of stealing one of the British Navy’s ships but is captured while rescuing Elizabeth from drowning. Unfortunately, she was wearing the Pirate gold piece as a charm necklace. When it touches the water, it calls out to Captain Barbossa and his fearsome crew of the Black Pearl (the most feared ship in the Caribbean). Borbossa and his crew storm the island in search of the gold piece, taking Elizabeth prisoner. Now, Will and Jack must work together to rescue Elizabeth. Jack also wants to exact some revenge on the crew that betrayed him and stole his ship (Captain Barbossa and his crew).

The film is directed by Gore Verbinski (who directed the initial trilogy). He worked with composer Klaus Badelt (whose score is very good; however, Hans Zimmer brings a lot to it, taking over on the next film), brilliant cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and production designer Brad Morris (who also does great work, but Rick Heinrichs takes over for him on the next film as well).

The cast is fantastic. Johnny Depp stars (garnering a Best Actor Oscar nomination), creating maybe his most iconic character. Keira Knightley (in her breakthrough role), Orlando Bloom and Geoffrey Rush co-star. The supporting cast features Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Cook, and Kevin McNally. Look out for a cameo from Zoe Saldana (in a small role).

The idea of Disney adapting one of their theme park rides into a movie sounded like a terrible one. The initial trailers for The Curse of the Black Pearl were not very good either. The chances of the film being good seemed very slim and then we all saw it. The Curse of the Black Pearl is a ton of fun, built on the brilliant performances from Depp, Rush and Knightley and the very entertaining pirate-themed action and adventure. Most think that it is the best of the series so far (personally, I like Dead Man’s Chest a bit more) – a series that has its fifth film in production currently. Disney tried to bring multiple Dinseyland rides to life through live-action films (The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion), but it has never work quite as well (that said, next year’s Tomorrowland has a lot of potential to be good). This is a must-see for fans of great, fun adventure films.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

TV Series of the Month – Eastbound & Down

This month’s TV series: Eastbound & Down (2009-2013)

This HBO comedy is about Kenny Powers, a major league ballplayer who flamed out. Now, with no other options left, he must return to his hometown to gather himself and try and mount a comeback. Assuming, of course, he can ever get out of his own way.

The series is created by Ben Best, Jody Hill and Danny McBride. They are the team behind The Foot Fist Way, Observe and Report and Your Highness. Jody Hill and David Gordon Green direct most of the episodes.

Danny McBride also stars as Powers and is fantastically brilliant. Steve Little, Katy Mixon, Elizabeth De Razzo, John Hawkes, Jennifer Irwin, and Andrew Daly have supporting roles in the series. The guest star list is also great, including: Ben Best, Jillian Bell, Tim Heidecker, Ken Marino, Ike Barinholtz, Jason Sudeikis, Don Johnson, Michael Pena, Will Ferrell, Craig Robinson, Matthew McConaughey, Lily Tomlin, Adam Scott, and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Eastbound & Down is hilarious as Kenny Powers just gets himself into more and more trouble. He is an egomaniac but lovably so. We root for him to win in the end, even if he makes it hard on us. McBride is wonderful, but so are the supporting actors. Steve Little is so funny as Stevie, maybe the world’s most pathetic man. Will Ferrell’s cameo as Ashley Schaeffer is also a stand-out moment. This is a must-see series for fans of crude humor, as it is maybe the best the genre has to offer. The series played for four seasons.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Laggies (2014) – Review

Review: Laggies is a light and fun dramedy elevated by great performances.

The film is about Megan, a woman in her late twenties who is just sort of floating through life unsure of what she wants. She has been in a relationship with Anthony and a part of the same group of friends since high school; but, she feels herself growing apart from them. She is also afraid to admit this fact to herself. When Anthony proposes to her, she gets freaked out. She says yes, but then drops out of her life for a week, hiding out with a teenage girl named Annika. Megan connects with both Annika and her dad Craig, making her decision of whether she really wants to go back to her old life all the more difficult.

Director Lynn Shelton is known for making very realistic, character-driven micro-budget dramedies, utilizing improvised dialog and naturalistic performances and production design. Laggies is no different. It has a lower-budget feel and look (costing one million, by far Shelton’s highest budget), yet flourishes on its rich characters and strong performances. Shelton’s style is unglamorous (even when she casts beautiful movie stars), telling stories about normal people leading normal lives.

In Laggies, Megan is stuck. She does not know what she wants and just staying put feels safer than actually taking a risk in pursuit of being happy. In many ways, Megan serves as a surrogate for many of us. In high school and college, we do not need to know what we want, not really at least, as we go from class to class, exam to exam, year to year, propped up by our group of friends. As we grow older, we change, however, and these high school friends are not necessarily right for us anymore. We also are faced with life outside of school – having to actually do something somewhat productive to generate money so that we can survive (without leaching off our parents too much). In a world in which we grow up being told we can do anything (be that true or not), these limitless options become intimidating – if we can do anything, how can we possibly choose what is right for us? We are told to do what makes us happy, but it is not as easy as that – at least not for most of us – because we do not really know what makes us happy. Many of us find it challenging to grow up and take responsibility for our own lives, clinging to the hope that things will just fall into place for us (magically).

It is clear that Megan no longer fits where she is; she is unhappy, but afraid to make a change. It is not until she experiences something new that she really realizes what is out there – what she might actually want for herself. Shelton does a great job here, exaggerating the two worlds Megan experiences. Her life with Anthony and her high school friends grown up is one of constant stress, as they have drifted apart, finding themselves on a different life paths (yet no one is willing to admit it). Shelton more or less presents these characters as being awful. The alpha dog of the group Allison is like a thirty-year-old version of Regina George from Mean Girls, dictating what is right and wrong maintaining control over her group. Allison sees Megan as a problem because she no longer fits in with the group and tries her hardest to make decisions for Megan to arrange her life so that she will better fit into where the group is heading. Megan’s relationship with Anthony is also presented as being terrible. He is smothering her.

Meanwhile, Annika and her friends just accept Megan as she is, letting her have fun and making her feel cool again – something that she has not felt in a long time, maybe not since high school. In Craig, Megan finally has met a man that she can have fun with and engage with her on a higher level. Shelton presents Megan as being a completely different person. She is her best self around Annika and Craig, while she is stifled and put down constantly by her friends. This creates empathy for her plight even in a situation that seems ridiculous (hanging out with a teenage girl to avoid your own life). The audience likes Megan, seeing her excel around these characters, and roots for her to finally have the guts to make a change in her life.

The film is fairly simple, narratively, and we pretty much know where things are going from the beginning. The drama is presented in a very light way as well – nothing is very heavy or intense, even though the deeper theme of broken marriage can be very painful and destructive. This theme is all over the film, but Shelton still keeps things light by infusing the film with lots of great humor. Again, the performances are fantastic and fun, which plays a big role in the humor and light tone. The film’s biggest drawback is that while it does venture into more dramatic places it never lingers for very long, retreating back to the lighter tone always. Things are difficult for the characters, but also maybe a little too easy. That said, however, Shelton never really seems to want Laggies to be a full on drama, which is why she actively keeps thing light. And, we need fun, light films too.

Laggies is not a powerful drama that endeavors to deeply resonate with its audience, but it still gets its message across, one of taking risks and striving to find happiness in one’s life – not allowing oneself to just float unhappily through life, settling for what is easy. It is a funny and entertaining dramedy, using its indie aesthetic and performances very well.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Lynn Shelton started out making micro-budget indie films (known as Mumble Core), like Humpday. Lately, she has been making similarly small films but with better known actors, like Your Sister’s Sister. Laggies is her best film to date, as she garners great performances while balancing the humor and drama very well.

Composer Benjamin Gibbard’s score does a good enough job supporting the dramatic moments in the film, but is mostly unremarkable. Benjamin Kasulke’s cinematography gives the film a naturalistic feel. He does good job lighting the faces of his stars, as everyone looks good. Production designer John Lavin does a great job creating a very realistic feel, as the sets look lived in.

Laggies succeeds overall thanks to its great performances. Gretchen Mol has very little screen time but is very good as Annika’s absent mother. Ellie Kemper plays Allison off-type – a mean girl who wants to corral Megan, fitting her back into her compartment within their group. Mark Webber is quite good at playing needy, and does so here. Kaitlyn Dever plays Misty, one of Annika’s friends. She is a star in the making, bringing a lot of fun energy to the supporting role. Sam Rockwell is very charming and a little goofy as Craig. He is very enjoyable to watch. Chloe Grace Moretz plays Annika projecting a vibe of coolness, veiling her vulnerability. In lesser hands the nuance of the role would have been lost but Moretz plays it wonderfully. Keira Knightley is fantastic as Megan, creating an American accent that works well placing her socially and culturally. Knightley is a fine actress, bringing more gravitas to Megan than one might expect to find in lighter fare such as Laggies. Her emotional turmoil resonates to a greater extent in her capable hands. Her work also pulls the audience in. Plus, she has great chemistry with Rockwell and Moretz (which makes the film), while seemingly having no chemistry with Webber making their relationship feel all the more wrong.

Summary & score: Laggies is a good little indie, featuring terrific work from its cast (especially Knightley, Moretz and Rockwell). It is funny and sweet. 7/10

Monday, November 17, 2014

Movie of the Week – Hunger

This week’s movie: Hunger (2008)

In 1981, the IRA undertook a hunger strike, led by Bobby Sands, to protest the British Government withdrawal of Special Category Status for convicted paramilitary prisoners. This drama details the events and lives of the inmates in Maze Prison in Northern Ireland leading up to the hunger strike (the culmination of a five-year protest).

Hunger is the debut film from auteur Steve McQueen; it also might be his most artistic and powerful. McQueen has since become one of our greatest filmmakers, currently working, following up Hunger with Shame and 12 Years a Slave (which won a Best Picture Oscar earlier this year; it was also my favorite film of 2013). On Hunger, he worked with composers Leo Abrahams and David Holmes, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (who has shot all three of McQueen’s films) and production designer Tom McCullagh.

The film stars Michael Fassbender (serving as one of his breakthrough projects, along with Fish Tank and Inglourious Basterds), and features Stuart Graham and Liam Cunningham in support. Fassbender has appeared in all three of McQueen’s films.

Hunger is evocative as it artistically takes on the horror of life in the prison and the violence the guards faced outside of it. The prisoners are savagely treated, as they seek to be recognized as political prisoners, not common criminals. Outside the prison, the guards live in constant fear of retaliation by the IRA. McQueen, a Turner Prize winning artist, takes on the historical period with an unflinching eye. Fassbender plays Bobby Sands with such dedication, undergoing a medically supervised crash diet to achieve the look of starvation. It is haunting. Fassbender and Cunningham, playing a scene between Sands and Father Dominic Moran, deliver one of the most compelling long-takes in cinematic history. The film won the Golden Camera and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It is a magnificent film, showcasing the beauty and artistry of the medium while also capturing the raw brutality and tension of the period. It is a must-see for fans of independent cinema and those looking to see modern masterpieces.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Whiplash (2014) – Review

Review: Whiplash is a great character drama that also asks interesting social questions about the cost of achieving greatness.

The film is about Andrew Neyman, a young man who aspires to be a master jazz drummer, and his teacher Terence Fletcher, a man who pushes his students past what is reasonable in the hopes of them finding greatness. Neyman is enrolled in a top music school with the hopes of being asked to join Fletcher’s school band. When it finally happens, Neyman realizes that is going to be very hard work; and not only that, he will have to succeed in spite of Fletcher’s extreme verbal and psychological abuse.

Whiplash is a crowd pleaser, built on excellent performances from its two main stars. Writer-director Damien Chazelle based the film on his own experience as a young jazz musician, but the film pushes things quite a bit farther.

It is clear that Chazelle loves jazz music, as it plays a central role in the film. The music is really the soul of the piece. Jazz is one of the more elegant and creative forms of music; and yet, it is now more of a fringe style in terms of its popular appeal. The film is not going to change that, but it does seem to breathe new life into the genre – at least for the non-initiated. The music has so much life and power – a lot of that, however, does go hand-in-hand with the audience being behind Neyman and wanting him to succeed. Whiplash and the HBO drama Treme are the only two recent pieces I can think of to really do the genre justice.

 Caring about Neyman is a key factor to Whiplash working. When he is first presented, he seems like an average kid. He has a good relationship with his dad, but is from a broken home. He has a crush on a cute girl named Nicole. And, he wants to be a jazz drummer – a really great one. He is willing to work incredibly hard to realize his dream, as the audience is introduced to him frantically practicing his drumming. This also gets the attention of his school’s top jazz teacher, Fletcher. Neyman has no idea what he will actually have to do to succeed under Fletcher, who is absolutely awful to him, abusing him severely (as well as everyone else – the whole class is terrified of him). Neyman’s treatment at the hands of Fletcher seems to endear him to the audience even more. We are horrified by Fletcher’s treatment of Neyman; thus, we sympathize with Neyman and hate Fletcher.

But this is when Chazelle does something every interesting with the character of Neyman. He seems like a good kid when we first meet him, but as he takes all this abuse from Fletcher he starts to change, becoming a bit of an asshole himself. He is rude to his family, dismissive of his father (maybe even looking down on him as a failure – which is also echoes of how Fletcher describes Neyman’s father), and breaks up with Nicole (who he has begun dating) because he is going to be great and she will only hold him back. Neyman is burning bridges because he thinks Fletcher and Fletcher’s attitude are key components to his success as a drummer. He needs to adopt the same persona, while also working incredibly hard, to be great, as Fletcher is clearly great in his eyes. Fletcher to some extent is like a god figure, ruthlessly smiling or smiting on those deserving – only through him, however, can salvation be reached.

Chazelle does another very interesting thing with the story. Neyman is pushed so far that he cracks and attacks Fletcher, ending with him being expelled from school and giving up drumming. Some time passes when Neyman sees Fletcher performing at a local bar. He goes in to watch and Fletcher see him. Fletcher too has be let go by the school for mistreating students. He asks Neyman if he would be interested in joining his new band made up of professional musicians to perform at the upcoming Jazz Festival. Neyman agrees, which seems insane, but he clearly still holds Fletcher in high regard. Neyman practices for the show and even gives Nicole a call to invite her, but she has a boyfriend now. He feels remorse about missing his chance with her. It is a brief reminder of what Fletcher took from him (or in some way forced him to give up), but he still has this great opportunity to play in front of jazz music’s elite. The day comes and to Neyman’s devastation he realizes that he has been set up by Fletcher to fail. He has learned and practiced the wrong songs. Neyman has a moment in which he contemplates giving up, but instead comes back and upstages Fletcher and in fact reveals himself as a brilliant drummer, not only winning over the band but also Fletcher too.

What is really interesting about this is the question it asks: would Neyman have become the drummer he is in the end without Fletcher pushing him as hard as he did? The film seems to argue no, echoed in the story that Fletcher tells about a famous jazz musician who had a symbol thrown at his head because he played poorly only to come back later as a master. This story mirror’s Neyman’s own. Do the ends justify the means? Without the verbal and psychological abuse driving Neyman to get better and better – to practice and practice until his hands bleed – he would not be the master he is in the end. Yet, we hate Fletcher. His treatment of Neyman is despicable, unforgivable and unacceptable; but without it, Neyman would not be the same drummer. It is a difficult quandary.

The film does not really take a position of whether Fletcher is right or wrong. The audience can let themselves off the hook by claiming the Neyman persevered in spite of Fletcher’s awful treatment, but that is not true. He becomes the musician he is because Fletcher pushed him so hard. Chazelle wants to challenge his audience to ask themselves if they believe that the ends justify the means. It is a difficult question. Especially, when Chazelle presents the case of another musician that Fletcher taught. He pushed him just as hard as Neyman and he became a great musician as well, but he could not deal with the psychological abuse and depression. He ultimately took his own life. We want to applaud Neyman for his achievement, but that goes hand-in-hand with applauding Fletcher’s tactics, which seems impossible because we just spent the entire film hating everything about him.

This is probably what makes Whiplash so compelling. Yes, the performances are very good and the music is presented in such a way that for about two hours we are all jazz fans, but it is this big question that Chazelle asks that sticks with us long after the film concludes.

The juxtaposition between Fletcher and Neyman’s father Jim is also interesting. Jim is a very loving and supportive father who looks out for his son and wants to protect him. But if Neyman had gone with his father after Fletcher had set him up and embraced him, Neyman would have never achieved his dream. Jim is the antithesis of Fletcher in almost every way. Jim is a good man and Fletcher is not; yet, Jim is presented as a failure and Fletcher a success. With his father, Neyman would have failed but with Fletcher he becomes something extraordinary. Here again, Chazelle creates an interesting wrinkle to how we as a society think about the way people should behave, and the possible consequences of that behavior.

Whiplash does everything very well when it comes to telling its story, especially regarding its main characters; however, Chazelle is almost completely focused on Neyman and Fletcher, everything else is just sort of background. Neyman’s father Jim is hardly developed (they watch movies together and Jim cares about his son). The same is true of Nicole, who is basically introduced solely as something Neyman must give up to succeed under Fletcher, but their relationship nor her character are developed so it does not feel like a loss for the audience. We just think that Neyman is acting like a bastard, modeling the behavior of his teacher. It is more about the change in Neyman than the loss of the relationship (which means nothing to us). It is not until later that we are told that losing Nicole actually means something to Neyman, but it is too later for the audience to really care. The cost of Neyman wanting to be a great musician is undercut by the lack of Nicole’s character development or the development of the relationship. There are also plot details that are whisked over, which do not matter in the big picture of the narrative but still nag on the overly observant, possibly taking some viewers out of the story. For example, near Neyman’s breakdown he is in a rush to make it to a show. He is running late and is afraid he will lose his spot in the band (one that he worked so hard for). He gets in a car accident, because he is in too much of a hurry. It is a pretty bad crash, but Neyman crawls out of his car and can still walk. He flees the scene to try and make it to the show. There are no consequences to this scene or this choice. That is completely unrealistic. There are Neyman and Fletcher, everything else in the film is treated as background noise, only brought to the front when it is convenient for the plot or characters. The problem is that as a result these moments and/or characters do not mean much when suddenly in focus.

Fletcher, to some extent, is also merely a Walt Disney or comic-book villain. He is played so big and so evil because Chazelle wants the audience to hate him. The whole film relies on this. Chazelle still tries to humanize him, however, showing him get choked up when he talks about the musician he taught that died and showing him act like a normal nice guy when he sees a friend of his and the man’s young daughter. These moments fall flat and add nothing. He is really nothing more than a villain who we hate. That said, however, it is interesting in the final few moments that there seems to be a real bond, an absolute love of the music and what Neyman and Fletcher can accomplish together, that takes over, as if these two have put the past behind them and have moved forward as friends with equal respect for each other’s talent. We were shown for the whole film how awful this man is, but he is seemingly forgiven. There is a bit of a disconnection, especially in terms of him being presented as a storybook villain of sorts (which usually means irredeemable).

The film, which plays a bit like a fantasy piece in many ways, despite it taking place in the real world, suddenly wants to change tones and genres. Neyman’s struggle to become the best while Fletcher tortures him is presented in such an extreme way that it does feel heightened, like it is a nightmare. Yet, suddenly, the end wants to be happy with Neyman and Fletcher reconciling. The audience is left applauding, but also uneasy. If this were a fantasy, Neyman would have succeeded and Fletcher would have been exposed as the evil man that he is, but instead the film decides to return to reality where nothing is black and white, but grey. No one is really completely good or evil. This is an interesting choice by Chazelle, but it also leaves the film feeling incomplete in some way. Where is Fletcher’s comeuppance?

Whiplash, as said above, is a crowd please. The third act will have you cheering. The performances are also top-notch. What is probably its best attribute, however, is that it asks difficult questions. Now, it is up to the viewer to engage with these questions or just happily applaud Neyman in the end without questioning the cost.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Damien Chazelle has directed a short (which this is a feature length remake of) and a micro budget feature, but this film is his breakthrough as a director – winning both the dramatic Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The same can be said of his ability as a writer. He is an exciting young talent who already has some upcoming projects penciled in. I look forward to seeing his next film, the musical drama La La Land.

Composer Justin Hurwitz composes a good score, supporting the dramatic moments well. The soundtrack of jazz classics that are performed by the band in the film take center stage musically and do overshadow Hurwitz’s score, but he still delivers good work that is essential to the overall dramatic resonance of the film. Sharone Meir’s cinematographer is also very good, especially in the third act. Chazelle uses a lot of extreme close ups to detail the pain and determination on Neyman’s face, as well as his isolation. Meir’s photography captures these moments wonderfully. Melanie Jones’s production design grounds the film in reality. Everything looks as it should – more so than most films. It looks as if the film was made on location in real dorms rooms, broken down apartments, music practice rooms, and so on.

The film features strong performances, but really only has two characters. Everyone else are relegated to the background without much to do or development of any kind. Paul Reiser plays Neyman’s dad Jim. He comes across as caring and loving towards his son, but he is mostly used as a narrative devise and not a character. The same is true of Melissa Benoist’s Nicole. All she is really asked to do is to make us understand why Neyman might like her, and she does that well. J.K. Simmons gets the fun role of playing Terence Fletcher and he goes big with it, which works perfectly. He is not an amazingly well developed character either, but Simmons makes him feel real even while playing him like a bit like a comic-book villain, which is a testament to his great talent as a character actor. Miles Teller is fantastic in the film as Andrew Neyman. Teller puts everything he is into the role, making Neyman’s pain his own (he also really is playing the drums). It is one of the better performances of the year (which has a lot of good work, especially among leading men).

Summary & score: Great performances, great music, a wonderful third act, and big social questions, Whiplash is a very good drama. 8/10

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Big Hero 6 (2014) – Review

Review: Big Hero 6 is fun, entertaining and fairly emotionally engaging, but also far too banal.

Loosely based on the Marvel comic series, the film is about Hiro Hamada, a very bright but underachieving young boy who lives in San Fransokyo. He would rather use his immense robotic engineering skills to compete in underground robot fights than apply himself at the local university, where his brother Tadashi works. To get him out of his funk, Tadashi brings Hiro to the university, to show him what he is working on – a medical assistant robot named Baymax. Hiro also meets Tadashi’s friends (other robotics students/expects Go Go, Wasabi, and Honey Lemon, as well as their friend Fred). Having his interest sparked, Hiro decides that he does want to enroll at the university, but to be accepted he needs to impress at an upcoming robotics expo. Hiro works hard coming up with the idea of microbots. His new invention is very well received by the university robotics professor Robert Callaghan, as well as local businessman Alistair Krei. Instead of selling his idea to Krei for lots of money, Hiro decides to accept the university’s offer to enroll to further develop his microbots. The group of friends decides to go out to celebrate. Tadashi is very proud of his younger brother, but suddenly a fire breaks out in the expo and Tadashi runs in to help save Professor Callaghan who is still inside. The expo explodes killing all inside, including Tadashi. Hiro is devastated. His microbots are also destroyed in the fire/explosion, but he notices something odd. One of his bots is acting weird, trying to get back to the others (which Hiro thought to be destroyed). With the help of Baymax, who is worried about Hiro now that his brother has dead causing him mental anguish, Hiro follows the microbot to a warehouse where he finds his microbots; and worse, he also finds a masked man controlling them. Realizing that this masked man must have blown up the expo to steal his microbots, thereby killing Tadashi, Hiro decides to go after him to avenge his brother, with the help of Baymax (who has been repurposed to fight) and Tadashi’s lab friends.

Walt Disney Animation Studios decided to take full advantage of another Disney owned company Marvel. Presumably, there was no plan to bring Big Hero 6 to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, thus making it available to Disney animation. Marvel has proved to be a massive money-maker for Disney through their film division (especially after the success of The Avengers). It only makes sense that Disney would take advantage of another Marvel property, particularly one that leads itself very well to animation (such as this). Yet, Big Hero 6 does not feel like a Disney film (something that I also feel is true of Wreck-It Ralph as well). It feels much more like a generic animated film than a ‘Disney Film’, like Tangled or Frozen do. Growing up with Disney’s animated films, there is a certain style and storytelling that I love in Disney films (and I generally love the songs, which this film also lacks).

While I am not familiar with the comic series Big Hero 6, some quick research revealed that Disney has changed many aspects of the story and characters to better fit the demographic they target with their animated films. I have no problem with this (as I always say, the film and what it is based on have no real connection other than one being the inspiration for the other – filmmakers are in no way beholden to their source material, and should not be); however, something that I did find slightly disappointing (as an adult) is how simplified and unearned everything feels in the film. It is clearly meant for younger viewers, but I lost interest as the film progressed, as it became less and less engaging (as it lacks good narrative storytelling, something Disney usually does rather well, especially since rebooting their animation division in 2008 under the supervision of John Lasseter).

So what does Big Hero 6 do well? It is entertaining and funny (especially in the character moments between Hiro and Baymax). Baymax is a fantastic character; and of everything in the film, he feels the most like a typical Disney character: an outsider of sorts, with a good heart, who against the odds finds a way to save his friends. The characters overall are all pretty fun, and well voiced by the cast; but, everything feels overly simplified. The film has big emotional moments (all of which are given to Hiro), but it backs away from giving any supporting character anything substantial of any kind, as if directors Don Hall and Chris Williams are afraid to make the film too dark or overly sad. The supporting characters might as well not even be there. Tadashi’s lab friends are just a pack of upbeat hype-men. The same can be said for the film’s villain. They are all very boring serving almost no narrative purpose other than to exist to sell more toys, make jokes or give the team someone to fight against. It also feels odd that Tadashi’s friends, who become Hiro’s friends by proxy (because he has none of his own), all of whom are older than Hiro, decide to indulge his idea to become superheroes to hunt down Tadashi’s killer. Hiro is fueled by hate and anger, but should the older students not know better? Everything feels too easy and thus unearned (and thus narratively weak and unengaging). Hall and Williams try to create a tone that is really light, fun and superheroy (in the Marvel style), but begin the film with very heavy emotions (Hiro essentially witnessing his brother being killed by a fire bomb). Their light tone undercuts a lot of the emotional resonance the film might otherwise have, given the first act.

Hiro and Baymax, however, have a lot to do narratively. The film is really about Hiro needing to grow up. His brother dying forces this upon him, as does his relationship with Baymax, teaching him a moral code (of sorts). Hiro is in some ways both the hero and the real villain of the film. Baymax can be used for great good or evil. It is entirely up to Hiro to decide. Like many other superhero films, Hiro needs to learn that with great power comes great responsibility (yes, I did just quote Spider-Man). Hiro’s journey does resonate emotionally, which mostly makes up for the lack of any other real connection in the film. Hiro losing his brother is heartbreaking, and the audience is drawn in by this loss. Hall and Williams do a go job developing Tadashi and Hiro’s relationship during the first act, but again they lose a lot of this as the film progresses. The first act is very good; the film just gets weaker and weaker from there.

I stated above that Big Hero 6 is entertaining and funny. Most of the humor also comes from Hiro’s relationship with Baymax (and how Baymax just does not fit in and is awkward at first). The voice-cast also, again, does a great job with line delivery. The jokes are one of the film’s strongest attributes. The tone is very light (despite taking a few detours into the darkness to match Hiro’s emotional journey). Yet, the action is painfully generic and tiresome. I realize that superhero films need to have lots of big action set pieces – it is expected – but Hall and Williams are so much better at telling jokes and developing Hiro’s relationship with Baymax that the action feels like it is an afterthought. It just goes through the motions so that the characters can put on their superhero costumes and run around. This problem is exacerbated by the film being animated, as the action feels so much less immediate – the stakes are so much lower by the nature of the medium, especially without rich characters the audience cares about and has a stake in (Pixar’s The Incredibles is an animated superhero film that does, however, get the action just right). Hiro and Baymax do have the audience’s attention, though I would argue that it wanes as the film progresses, but the action scenes are overlong as they also feature five other characters (including the villain) running around doing stuff (all of which, the audience does not care about).

The big problem with the action is that the audience is not invested in what is happening, leaving it to just be a tedious exercise in action for the sake of action. This is a character problem as well. Hiro builds suits for his new friends so that they can be superheroes to find Tadashi’s killer. Yet, it is completely unearned. There is a fairly bogus training montage, seeking to lazily explain why they can somewhat effectively use their suits. It all feels so genetic, as if Hall and Williams just started checking off scenes on the superhero film checklist. It might have been more interesting to have just left these characters out of the film completely and just focused on Hiro and Baymax (which is almost the case anyway – at least from a character development perspective). The film devotes almost no time to developing these characters or their bond with Hiro, yet they are big parts of the action scenes. Thus, we must endure long action set pieces with characters we do not care about and are not invested in. The stakes are non-existent. The film’s villain is also laughable boring and underdeveloped. These action scenes lost me, as I sat in the theater feeling bored and disinterested, when I was really enjoying the film up until it turned into one action scene after the next.

Big Hero 6 feels at first like it might be more character driven, like the best Disney films, but abandons this idea in favor of flashy action. Hiro suffers quite a bit in the beginning and is forced to deal with the consequences of the pain he feels, but it is marginalized by poor storytelling. Hiro is hurt by the death of his brother, but begins to find a new way to channel his pain – replacing it with hate and revenge. Hiro then begins to upgrade Baymax to become a machine built to destroy instead of healing (playing into Hiro in a way being the film’s real villain and needing to grow up emotionally). This stuff is interesting, but Hall and Williams somewhat sidetrack fully exploring Hiro’s journey, instead engaging in action scene after action scene in the second and third act, as the team chases and is chased by the masked villain. The film could have cut back on the action, replacing it with more character development (especially for the villain and Hiro’s four friends – all these characters are basically reduced to one thing: the villain is set on revenge, Fred just wants to be a Godzilla like monster, Go Go just wants to go fast, Wasabi does stuff with lasers, and Honey Lemon with chemicals – what else do we need to know, right). Plus, there is no real sense of peril in the action scenes. There is no real danger for the characters, no stakes.

The problem with action films is that they are often very generic and the emotions of the characters and their actions feel unearned because filmmakers are more interested in the visual spectacle than the characters (which is always a mistake). Big Hero 6, sadly, suffers from this as well as the film progresses. It does get a lot more right character wise early in the film than many generic action films, as it at least tries to create a character in Hiro with a real emotional journey, but it loses momentum as the action starts to take center stage above character. To make matters slightly worse, Big Hero 6’s action scenes are really not all that impressive, as again they are incredibly bland and repetitive. The best moments in the film come from Hiro and Baymax’s relationship (taking the place of Hiro’s relationship with his brother), which is no surprise as character usually trumps action.

This review reads very negatively. That said, I did enjoy many aspects of the film. I laughed quite a bit as the jokes do work well. Overall, Big Hero 6 does entertain and it does set up a potential new franchise for Disney, as everything is in place for a sequel. The film has big aspirations, but the execution is lacking, leaving weighty emotions overly simplified, characters underdeveloped and action scenes, while flashy, tedious.

On a side note, the animated short that played before Big Hero 6, Feast, is fantastic. It does a great job blending emotion and humor. It is a really funny and touching short film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Don Hall and Chris Williams are big parts of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s rebirth, animating, writing and/or directing (in other words, being a part of in some way) Bolt, The Princess and the Frog Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, and Frozen. The best Disney animated films blend heart, rich characters and emotional resonance with humor, musical numbers and action. With Big Hero 6, Williams and Hall seem to want to blend Disney style with a more Marvel style film, but they end up leaning too heavily on the action and humor, losing the characters a bit along the way. The film is sure to play well for kids (being high on humor and action), but grown up viewers may not be as enthusiastic.

 Composer Henry Jackman’s score is also fairly generic superhero fare. It gets the job done, but does not stand out (in a world in which we have many iconic superhero scores and themes).

T.J. Miller and Scott Adsit highlight the voice-cast, bringing a lot to their characters. Miller’s Fred is very funny, with a zany energy. Adsit steals the film with Baymax’s loving and curious voice. Baymax is the best part of the film.

Summary & score: Big Hero 6 does not feel like a Disney film, which is too bad, because Disney was just starting to make great films again (see Tangled and Frozen). It is funny and entertaining, but lacks real substance and is far too bland. 6/10

Monday, November 10, 2014

Movie of the Week – The Small Black Room

This week’s movie: The Small Black Room (1949)

During WWII, the Germans developed an explosive booby-trap that they began dropping over England. In 1943, the army decides to bring in an expert, Sammy Rice, to help them find one and disarm it. Rice, however, has his own problems as well. He is in a constant struggle with his department’s overseers about the quality of weapons being developed. He also is in a terrific battle against his own worse nature (his internal drive to drink to dull the unrelenting pain caused by his prosthetic foot).

The film is yet another WWII drama from British auteurs the Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger). They work with their frequent collaborators composer Brian Easdale, cinematographer Christopher Challis and production designer Hein Heckroth.

The film stars David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, and features support from Jack Hawkins, Leslie Banks and Michael Gough.

It is interesting watching The Small Black Room for fans of Powell & Pressburger’s work – seeing David Farr and Kathleen Byron playing two people intimately involved after their interaction in Black Narcissus. The Small Black Room is often regarded as a lesser work of the Archers, probably because it does not have the same following as their Technicolor films; however, it is an excellent character drama/thriller. The Archers build tension in many ways throughout the film. It is almost too much to take, making the film a bit difficult to watch, due to its emotional effectiveness. There is also a great artistic flare to the film, as its black & white photography and production design perfectly capture Sammy Rice’s inner demons at play. Personally, I think this is a must-see for fans of the Archers and good WWII dramas.

Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interstellar (2014) – Review

Review: Interstellar is magnificent – a marvelous display of technical and aesthetic splendor on a massive scale built around the deeply moving and emotional story of a father and daughter.

The film takes place in the not too far away future. The Earth’s crops have begun to die out, leaving the world in a state of hunger, humanity’s population gravely thinning out. The environment too has become more severe, dust storms engulfing towns and cities, resembling the Dust Bowl crisis during the Great Depression. Man’s time on Earth has come to an end. Meanwhile, former NASA pilot Cooper has become a farmer (as Earth needs food, not pilots), raising his young son, Tom, and daughter, Murph, after his wife passed away. Mankind has become a race of farmers and caretakers, desperately trying to cling to what the Earth has left, giving up what they now believe to be the wasteful and childish ideas of exploration and discovery. Cooper still believes in progress, however, as an engineer. He raises his children to think critically and not be content with their place (putting him and them at odds with the general population). Tom, however, is content to be a farmer when he grows up, but it is clear that Murph has the spirit and imagination of an explorer and/or scientist. She discovers a gravitational anomaly that leads her and Cooper to a secret NASA base (they have gone underground due to their public unpopularity). Cooper learns that NASA is working on a last ditch effort to save humanity (certain that Earth’s last substantial crop, corn, will too soon die out). A mission through a newly discovered wormhole (which appeared around the same time as many other strange gravitational anomalies across our solar system) to search three potential habitual planets in a new galaxy that would otherwise be outside the reach of mankind. If one of these planets can support life, maybe mankind has a chance. Cooper agrees to go on the mission, piloting the spacecraft, knowing that he will likely never see his family again, leaving his daughter Murph heartbroken. Cooper feels he must go. He along with three other astronauts are humanity’s last, best chance (and Cooper’s only chance to save his family). Like any review, there are going to be some spoilers in the discussion of the film. Be warned.

Interstellar begins on Earth, which has become an almost uninhabitable planet, slowly killing off mankind as crops are one-by-one overtaken by blight. Writer-director Christopher Nolan (who co-wrote the film with his brother Jonathan Nolan) takes something very much rooted in reality – the fact that humans are devastatingly altering the Earth’s environment – and projects it forward to an apocalyptic climax. People living in this wasteland talk about the past (our present) with distain – our greed and carelessness put us on the path to our own destruction. There is also a clever nod to the idea that seems to be popular today that space exploration is a waste of our resources. In Interstellar’s grim future, people believe that space exploration was all an elaborate scam, perpetrated to bankrupt the Cold War era Soviet Union, as they tried to match the U.S. bomb for bomb and beat them to the Moon (and beyond). It was a waste of resources, exemplifying the decadence of the past. Their textbooks have been altered to teach this to students, now believed to be the truth.

Nolan, with Interstellar, seems to be trying to once again spark interest in space exploration, in discovery – something that was very much a part of our culture (at least for those alive during the U.S.’s NASA missions). Growing up in the 1960s-1980s, every child dreamed of being an astronaut, exploring the wonders of space, leading to the overwhelming popularity of science fiction (films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars – all of which are big influences on Interstellar). But something changed within our culture, within us. We no longer look up to the stars and dream. Technologically speaking, this is a grave tragedy, as NASA’s scientists greatly pushed technological advancement forward as they frantically worked to conquer the great unknown. The majesty, grandness and beauty of Interstellar will hopefully reignite our imaginations, our drive to explore (something that seemingly has always been a part of what makes us human, but has somehow been lost) and our willingness to take risks – to make our dreams into reality. Nolan screened The Right Stuff to invigorate his crew with this spirit of discovery.

Technically and aesthetically, the film is utterly spellbinding. The visuals are unlike anything else in modern cinema (greatly trumping last year’s Gravity by comparison, which I thought was fantastic as well on a visual level, but this film is on an entirely different level of beauty and grandeur). I highly recommend seeing it in IMAX, as the film has over an hour of footage that takes advantage of the formats expansive 70mm film stock (here is a list of IMAX theaters, for real IMAX look for theaters with the 15/70mm screens). Interstellar is a marvel alone for its technical and aesthetic achievements (most of which were created in camera – which is very uncommon today).

Yet, to sustain the audience for the film’s long runtime, there must also be substance. Many have accused Nolan’s work of lacking emotion in the past (something I do not agree with, but it seems to be the general consensus among critics). Interstellar is different. It is Nolan’s most emotional film. The story is very simple. It is about the relationship between Cooper and Murph. She feels betrayed when he leaves. He has left her to grow up without parents, abandoned to die on the Earth while he potentially restarts humanity on a new planet. Nolan mines this relationship for all its dramatic emotion. Due to relativity caused by a black hole called Gargantua, Cooper loses twenty three years in only a few hours, watching his children grow up through a series of video messages, unable to send return messages. This scene is tragic, as Cooper realizes what he is giving up. His motivation is to get back to his children, but visiting each of these potential planets advances time greatly for Earth relative to the short amount of time he has spent on the planets. Cooper realizes that he may not be able to see his children again, which crushes him.

Nolan’s character development is very good as well. The first act stage setting, detailing the relationships between the characters, goes a long way, paying off profoundly as Cooper and Murph’s relationship develops. We understand why Cooper must go, but also the loss felt by Murph. Seeing Cooper’s children age (and grow up without him) and his devastation at the very real realization that he will likely never see them again also crushes us as well.

Cooper and Murph are also mirrored by Dr. Amelia Brand and her father Professor Brand. Amelia leaves on the mission while her father stays behind working on a solution to save the people on Earth. There is a plan A and plan B. Plan A sees humanity rocket off the Earth on a massive space station (Professor Brand just has not solved the equation allowing it to be possible, but he is confident he will), while Plan B sees Cooper, Amelia and the two other astronauts repopulate humanity on a new planet with hundreds of embryos that they have brought along. Murph is devastated by her father leaving and Amelia is also devastated when she learns the truth that plan A is a lie, enacted to bring people together, to work together supporting plan B. Professor Brand had already solved his equation long ago, but it was a dead-end. It was his intention all along for plan B to be humanity’s salvation. Amelia cannot believe that her father would betray her by lying to her and Murph, learning the truth as well, is consumed by the idea that her father knew and left her to die on Earth. Here again, Nolan achieves real emotional resonance, drawing the audience further in. Seeing Murph’s anger towards Cooper is heartbreaking for us as well. We care deeply about these characters. We want to see them succeed. Thus, the action plays on a much more emotional level for us. We are completely engrossed.

The action is thrilling. Interstellar has a number of grand action sequences that are very entertaining, both on a visual and dramatic level. Nolan is a master of building tension; and this film has a number of agonizingly tense moments that grab you and do not let go. The film also uses the idea of evil very well. The film postulates that there is no evil in nature, only in what humans bring with them. Thus, in a new galaxy, untouched by mankind, the only evil is that of man. This plays out wonderfully through the character of Dr. Mann. He is described by the crew as “the best of all of us”. Dr. Mann is one of the twelve scientists who left ten years prior to Cooper’s mission to scout potential planets and relay the data that they find. Dr. Mann has sent back his data with the message that his planet has incredible potential. Yet, things are not as they appear on his planet when Cooper and Amelia arrive. Dr. Mann is overcome by his own mortality, prioritizing his own survival over anything else. He falsified his data so that the team would come to his planet to save him. Nolan again does a great job of creating characters that seem to mirror each other. Both Cooper and Dr. Mann are presented as heroes who sacrifice everything to save humanity; however, when everything is on the line, their true natures take over. Cooper proves himself to be selfless while Dr. Mann is selfish. Mankind’s drive to survive makes him able to be either selfless or selfish, good or evil, hero or villain, brave or cowardly (and sometimes both). Dr. Mann is the film’s villain, but he is not really a villain in the classical sense. More so, he is just a man who has given in to his own weakness.

Getting back to the narrative, Nolan is well known for his plot twists. Interstellar, as said above, tells a very simple story on a massively grand scale. While it does contain a number of plot twists, they are not the point of the story, and honestly they are not really big twists to those paying attention (as well as those with an understanding of film structure – or those who have just seen a lot of movies). Everything is clearly telegraphed to the audience (generally a staple of good storytelling). Again, Nolan has created a film that seems to transcend what we typically think of as a blockbuster. While it does have similar elements (big action sequences, plot twists and a grand scale/scope), Nolan seems to have a much higher ambition. He wants to make a sci-fi epic that is visually compelling, emotionally engaging and thought provoking, along the lines of classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey (which he fantastically pays homage to through some great tongue-and-cheek dialog from the astronauts' robot companion TARS) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These types of films are almost completely non-existent in today’s cinema (which is sad). I think Nolan succeeds in his ambition.

The science of the film is also a big element in its construction. The Nolan Brothers worked closely with physicist Kip Thorne (who serves as an executive producer) on the script, the feasibility and look of the film. Interstellar relies on the audience’s understanding of wormholes, black holes, relativity, and other scientific principles and theories. It sounds like a tall order to get all this information across without the film being bogged down in its science. Nolan, here, succeeds spectacularly as well. The film is paced wonderfully to keep things moving. The exposition and science are woven expertly into the dialogue, leaving the audience informed and never bored (something Nolan probably learned writing and making Inception, a film in which he creates the character of Ariadne just so everything can be explained to the audience). Everything is also shown visually as well, taking advantage of the majesty of the film’s beautiful imagery.

Interstellar, however, is also a film that is likely to prove to be somewhat decisive for viewers. There are elements that can potentially feel very hokey (mostly stemming from Murph’s ghost and the twist involving what it actually is). It is again a film about a father and daughter; thus, its resolution is going to be about these characters, their relationship. The film takes such big risks with its narrative in the third act that they are not going to work for everyone. Yet, it is these risks that also create the film’s most emotionally captivating and powerful moments. Thus, if they do feel overly hokey, the film will possibly leave you disappointed; but, if they engage you on the intended emotional level, the film works beautifully.

Nolan is an optimist. While the film begins with the potential end of humanity, it ends with hope, a confidence that we can be better, that we can once again reach for the stars. It is Nolan’s most beautiful and touching film. Interstellar is grandiose due to its striking imagery and ambition; but it is a film that exceeds its blockbuster label, resonating on a much more emotional level, getting at the core of what makes us human – our ability to love, to endure and to look up at the stars, imagining our place among them, seeking out the unknown.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Christopher Nolan has now made nine feature films. Nolan began his career with the micro budget (a sparse $6,000) crime drama mystery/thriller Following. Despite the small budget, the film foreshadows the narrative themes and storytelling style that Nolan is now famous for. He then made his breakthrough film, Memento, a mystery thriller that stormed the world of independent film and made Nolan a star overnight. He came to Hollywood, first making Insomnia and following it up with his brilliant The Dark Knight trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises), representing the heights to which genre (superhero/comic book) filmmaking can achieve. Between his Batman films, he made a wonderful film about dueling magicians, The Prestige, and a massive action thriller that assumes that the audience is actively engaged and not just a passive, distracted observer waiting to be cheaply entertained with Inception. That brings us to Interstellar. Nolan’s films have operated on a massive scale (especially the last three), both narratively and physically – Nolan integrating more and more IMAX footage with each film. He is a director who makes spectacles in the classical sense – grand epics that thrill us while also challenging us dramatically and emotionally. He is an auteur in the truest sense of the word; and yet unlike most other auteurs working today, he makes films intended to be blockbusters. He does it better than anyone else right now. It is his gift to take on such an immense scale and scope with his films and not lose their dramatic and emotional cores. While his films are blockbusters, his characters are just as rich and well developed as any in cinema. Interstellar is both his most ambitious and his most personal (shooting under the title Flora’s Letter, named for his daughter). It is also maybe Nolan’s most polarizing film, stemming from the narrative risks he takes. I think Interstellar is a masterful work, daring to be a blockbuster that aspires to be original and thought provoking (similar to the grand epics of the past, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) when Hollywood cinema has become reductive, constantly recycling the same ideas over and over, afraid to take risks because missteps today are too costly. Nolan worked his way up with his marvelous films, Inception probably being the key stepping stone, allowing him to aim high and swing big. I, for one, am glad he did. Interstellar is an incredible cinematic experience.

As stated many times above, Interstellar is a wonder of aesthetic and technical majesty. Composer Hans Zimmer’s score is breathtaking (it very well might have been my favorite part of the film). It is different than anything else found in other current blockbusters. Zimmer’s music is grand and beautiful, completely emotionally engulfing the viewer (here is the main theme). It resonates incredibly well with the striking visuals, creating a full emotional experience (I wish I could go back and see it again for the first time and hear the music again for the first time). Filling in for Wally Pfister (Interstellar is only Nolan’s second film not shot by Pfister, the other is Following), cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema delivers stunning work. The photography in the film is astounding, arresting and wondrous. Nolan’s characters and their emotional journey are the core of the film, but Hoytema’s photography is just as big a part of Interstellar’s power and grandeur. Production designer Nathan Crowley does a wonderful job as well. Although the film does take place in the future, his work feels very much rooted in the past, representing a society that has suffered a grave setback. His spacecraft designs are very utilitarian, looking like they were put together in a hodgepodge fashion using many eras of technology (with digital and analog options). Earth does not look very futurist either (matching the idea that humanity is on the decline), as if technological advancement came to a halt and maybe even regressed.

The cast of Interstellar is very good. John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, Casey Affleck, and Wes Bentley are good in small supporting roles. David Gyasi plays Romilly, one of the four astronauts on the mission. His role is fairly small, but Gyasi does a lot with it, showing the emotional and physical toll that the mission takes on his character. He is excellent in the film. Bill Irwin plays TARS one of the robots that accompanies the astronauts on their mission. Irwin gives TARS a wonderfully sly wit, providing the film's best comedic moments. Michael Caine plays Professor Brand (possibly a surrogate for Kip Thorne), the principal scientist at NASA and the chief engineer behind the mission to save humanity. Caine brings a weighted gravity to his performance that is very effective. The reveal of his grand lie is one of the more powerful moments in the film. Matt Damon plays Dr. Mann, an astronaut/scientist who puts himself ahead of mankind’s survival. Damon does not often get to play the villain, but he is very good at it. Dr. Mann does terrible and cowardly things. Damon is so good at being overly self-justified and sleazy, creating a great character in Dr. Mann. Mackenzie Foy plays Young Murph. She is very good, showcasing Murph’s intelligence, wonder and absolute devastation when her father leaves her. Foy sets the stage for Jessica Chastain who plays the character grown up. Chastain plays Murph as a character who has been hurt. She is still haunted by the decision her father made, unable to forgive him. Yet, it also makes her determined to do her part in saving humanity, as she works with Professor Brand on his equation and preparing for plan A’s success. Chastain’s best moments come when she discovers that plan A is a lie, reigniting the heartbreak she felt when her father left, but also strengthen her resolve to find a way to save humanity even more. Anne Hathaway plays Dr. Amelia Brand, also one of the astronauts. Hathaway plays Amelia with a certain naivety that when crushed opens her up to becoming stronger as a person (to some extend mirroring Murph’s resolve in the face of plan A being revealed as a lie). Hathaway is very good, transitioning from her naivety to real strength. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, taking on the responsibility of being the audience’s surrogate in the narrative (their way into the story). It is very difficult to play the everyman and still create a full character. McConaughey does this particularly well (he is having a fantastic year – winning an Oscar, giving what might be the year’s best performance in HBO’s True Detective and now delivering yet another fine performance in this). He is likable, yet does not pander. He is a rebel in the classical sense, yearning for something more than being a farmer. He gets his wish, but at a great cost. The audience feels for him, cares about him and wants to see him succeed – all key elements to the film working. His performance achieves all these things and more.

Summary & score: Interstellar is a monumental achievement of acting, aesthetic and technical triumphs. It is a blockbuster that dares to be so much more, filled with rich characters, moving drama and real emotional resonance. 10/10