Jackie(12/23/2016)

A lot of the people who lived through the 60s are almost unanimous in their belief that the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was one of the most important days of their lifetimes… why?  It’s certainly a human tragedy but people die every day and often in much larger numbers.  Was it a matter of all the great things Kennedy promised being compromised by his death?  Maybe, but Lyndon Johnson didn’t really do too bad a job of carrying on Kennedy’s legacy on civil rights, cold warfare, and putting men on the moon and the argument that Kennedy wouldn’t have gotten us mired in Vietnam is… debatable.  From a sheer policy perspective the murder of his brother may well have been the more impactful turning point.  No, the legacy of that assassination and its impact on a generation is a lot more complicated and deeply psychological in nature and had a lot to do with just how good Kennedy made people feel both as a leader and as a person.  It wasn’t so much that he had policies that were universally loved (quite the opposite, there were definitely people who hated him) but something about him just made people feel good about their country and about the times they lived in.  He felt like someone who just did things right, he was young, handsome, had proven to be courageous during the war, and perhaps most notably he had a seemingly perfect family… and the fact that all of this may have been a bit of a charade is almost incidental.  It’s an interesting little web of national iconography to untangle and the new film Jackie, while essentially a “biopic” is really all about getting to the bottom of where the truth lies in all of this.

The film begins about a week after the assassination as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) invites famed journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) to allow him an exclusive (and heavily edited and micromanaged) interview for Life Magazine, the interview that would famously cement the “Camelot” interpretation of the Kennedy years.  This interview acts as a framing story for the rest of the movie, which recreates some of her most famous moments like the making of the 1962 “Tour of the Whitehouse” special but mainly focuses on the days immediately after the assassination where she needs to both grieve her husband’s death and reckon with the meaning of it all while also planning the extravagant state funeral and occasionally clashing with titans like Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), and Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant).  These events do not get played strictly in chronological order and there’s even a sort of framing story within a framing story as we frequently cut to a discussion she has with a priest (John Hurt).

Jackie was directed by a guy named Pablo Larraín who is probably best known for his 2013 film No, which looked at a similarly impactful if much more upbeat turning point in the history of his native Chile.  That film employed an interesting technique where it seamlessly integrated a lot of archival footage into his scripted film and he’s clearly interested in the way that images can implant themselves into a national consciousness.  He does something similar with this new film by using famous Kennedy era footage ranging from the “Tour of the Whitehouse” special to the Zapruder Film.  It’s a little different from No, which was actually shot in its entirety on camera equipment that resembled the video quality of 80s news broadcasts so that this all blended together while the majority of Jackie was shot on Super-16 and clearly differs from the archival footage and the scenes shot to resemble said archival footage.  The goal seems to be to take these images that are burned into the public consciousness and give them context, to show the human side of the iconography.

I hesitate to even spend too much time talking about Natalie Portman’s performance in the movie as I do fear that this one element has come to dominate discussions of the film to the detriment of everything else, but it is indeed stunning.  On the shallow basis of imitation she does indeed manage to capture the looks and voice of Mrs. Kennedy but what’s even more impressive are the many aspects of the character she needs to convey.  During the shooting of the “Tour of the Whitehouse” sections we see her as she was as a first lady, which is to say someone who was playing up her shallower traits and putting on the persona of the perfect housewife.  During the reenactments of her tumultuous post-assassination period we see her in the depths of grief and managing to conjure a dutiful dignity as she fights to make sure she’s heard over the powerful voices of people like Robert Kennedy.  During the conversation with Father McSorley we see her at her most candid and most introspective; leaving little doubt that there’s more to her than the “socialite” she was seen to be by the public.  Finally, during the interview framing story we see her at her sharpest and most canny even if that isn’t always entirely apparent to the interviewer.

That interview section is, in fact, the most important part of the film even if it wouldn’t seem to be initially because it’s where the film’s central themes of legacy and myth-making comes most to the forefront.   The man interviewing Jackie is a seasoned journalist who was in China reporting on the fall of Chiang Kai-shek, and yet Jackie is still able to get him to write a story that he would later call “misreading of history” through sheer force of personality.  The movie certainly has no illusions about the fact that the Kennedys were less perfect than they appeared and Jackie goes into that during her conversation with the priest, but the movie also doesn’t entirely dismiss the Camelot version of those years as a cynical lie either.  John F. Kennedy might not have been a perfect husband but it’s clear that he did mean a lot to Jackie and she did quite genuinely believe him to be a great man even if that greatness didn’t necessarily manifest itself in exactly the way that the American people thought it did.  In other words Jackie would admit that the American Camelot was indeed a myth when looked at as the kind of literal truth that a journalist like Theodore Harold White would ordinarily demand (the “truth of accountants” as Werner Herzog would put it), but that in a more poetic way there was a truth to it both in her own heart and in the hearts of the American people and when the legend becomes fact you print the legend.  The fact that she was using a literal legend in her analogy would seem to betray that it was this kind of truth she was shooting for.

Simply as a movie Jackie may have a bit of a hard time finding its audience.  It’s not the simple nostalgic biopic that a lot of people are going to walk in expecting, which may be off-putting to people looking for something a little warmer and less challenging.  At the same time its technique may prove to not be quite as openly iconoclastic and novel as the kind of fare critics really yearn to champion and that could leave it as something of a Jan Brady this awards season but that is perhaps a mistake because it is in fact a very smart and in its own sneaky way very relevant film.  I mentioned earlier that I used to find it a little odd that a whole generation were so invested in Kennedy and considered his death such a major event.  The key phrase there is “used to.”  In 2008 our generation got its own Camelot in the form of Barak Obama, a president who like Kennedy might not go down in history as having an ideal resume of accomplishments but who makes up for it by simply being the kind of leader we want as a people.  While he was in office it was easy to think “everything’s going to be alright” and while everything he stood for didn’t end in bloody tragedy, the fact that he’s being replaced by a crass vulgarian who revels in uncertainty is a similar shock and a trauma that may well stick with my generation for decades to come.  That Trump was able to do this by creating a series of counter-factual “truths” is of course a bitter irony and one that gives me pause when I think about praising the myth-making presented in Jackie.  There is, however, a difference between spinning a story that makes people feel good about their country and themselves and spinning lies that divide people and exploit toxic fears.  If anything the next four years are likely to make us mourn all the more for “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.”

It Follows(3/28/2015)

I’m not exactly sure when it happened exactly but the walls between the world of horror cinema and the world of more respectable indie fare seems to have largely collapsed at some point.  Well, maybe the walls were pretty porous to begin with.  Given the general disrespectability of the genre combined with low costs involved in their production horror films have long been made independently, but they rarely feel like quote unquote “indies,” because they’re “low” populist productions that so often catch on with the “wrong kind” of filmgoers.  However, in the last few years we’ve seen a sudden surge in filmmakers who seem just as willing to make splatterfests as they are to make dramas about the relationship travails of ill-spoken twentysomethings.  It’s a trend that’s been so prevalent that it’s even earned a nickname: “mumblegore.”  The latest (and perhaps most successful) example of this crossover is It Follows, which was directed by a guy named David Robert Mitchell, whose last film was a dreamy meditation on youth called The Myth of the American Sleepover.

It Follows is about a college aged girl named Jay Height (Maika Monroe) who has been seeing a guy named Hugh (Jake Weary) who has been acting a little strange.  After Jay and Hugh consummate their relationship in the backseat of a car one night Hugh suddenly attacks her with chloroform brings her to a secluded spot and ties her to a chair.  He explains that he isn’t doing this to hurt her and that she would be released soon but that he needs to warn her that he’s just passed a curse on to her.  This curse passes from person to person through sexual intercourse and that the only way to rid herself of the curse is to pass it on to someone else.  Until she does this she will be stalked by a slow moving ghostly figure that could look like any number of people to her but who will not be seen by anyone else and will kill her if it ever catches up to her (at which point the curse would fall back onto Hugh).  He then drives her away, leaves her at her doorstep and promptly disappears without a trace.  Jay is skeptical about the story he told her of course, but as you can probably guess this supernatural stalker does eventually show up and begin to make her life a living hell.

Trying to find underlying social messages both intentional and unintentional is certainly something of a pastime among horror fans, and one doesn’t really need to dig too deep into It Follows in order to find some themes to chew on.  It is certainly no coincidence that this curse is passed through sex rather than, say, a haunted VHS tape.  It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to view this as an allegory for a sexually transmitted disease but given that one is allowed to fuck this curse into somebody and then leave them with the consequences would actually point more towards an allegory for an unwanted pregnancy.  Of course it could be that the allegory is actually for both STDs and pregnancies at the same time while also more broadly representing the full spectrum of physical and emotional baggage that people push onto their sexual partners during casual hookups.  Beyond that there is sort of a moral quandary at the film’s center as Jay is forced to decide whether or not she wants to escape her problem by transmitting the curse into someone else, which would be a somewhat coldblooded act, especially given that it isn’t exactly a guarantee.

Of course the other great pastime of horror fans is to hold an incredible reverence for the genre’s past and to expect new entrants in it to show their horror fan credentials.  This movie certainly shows its admiration for past horror film, more specifically it displays a deep indebtedness to the films of John Carpenter.  The film’s widescreen shots to teenagers running scared through suburban streets are highly reminiscent of Halloween and the film also has a very Carpenter-esque ambiguous ending.  The biggest Carpenter nod though is almost certainly Rich “Disasterpeace” Vreeland’s synth score which has all the distinctive stings you would expect from a John Carpenter score.  Vreeland’s ability to mimic Captenter’s style is admirable but his score is laid on a bit thick at times.  It works well during the suspense scenes but it can be a little distracting during the quieter moments so overall the score is a bit of a double edged sword.  The movie is also set in a strange sort of temporally ambiguous world.  One character has a cellphone/tablet thing, but the characters all seem to have CRT televisions and old cars and most of the time the film could easily be mistaken for an 80s period piece.

To David Robert Mitchell’s credit, this movie isn’t purely a Carpenter derivative.  I haven’t seen Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover but between the trailers and the reviews I do have a pretty good idea of what its general tone was like and I do recognize it in this to some extent.  The movie has a number of quiet spells that you wouldn’t expect from a studio horror movie and a certain melancholy over the characters’ lives.  His interest in the lives of young people and their awkward friendships does appear to be genuine and he doesn’t fill his movie with airheads who exist to be killed off.  This indie movie tone pervades the film, but the visual style does pick up when it counts and the movie is able to pull some really accomplished shots out of its back pocket at certain key moments.

It Follows exists in a horror cinema environment that has been in something of a rut for the last five years or so.  It seems like every horror movie since the decline of torture porn and the release of Paranormal Activity has been a slow burn haunting movie where ghosts stalk people and jump out and say “boo!”  Boiled down to its base horror elements the same could more or less be said about It Follows.  Like last year’s The Babadook this isn’t so much a revolutionary game changer as it is an interesting twist on a current trend.  Its stylistic flourishes and its moderately interesting subtext do elevate it above its competition and definitely make it a must see for horror aficionados, but it still wasn’t that that bold new step for the genre that I was hoping for.

***1/2 out of Four

Inherent Vice(1/9/2015)

There’s a movie called The Big Sleep which was made in 1946 by Howard Hawks that is considered one of the cornerstones of film noir.  It’s got some iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, some really snappy pulp dialogue, and atmosphere to die for.  Also, the mystery at its center makes very little sense.  It’s so convoluted that there are stories of the screenwriters sending telegrams to Raymond Chandler (who wrote the novel upon which the film was based) looking for clarification only to be told that Chandler himself didn’t really have a grasp on his own story either.  Some thirty years later, Robert Altman decided to adapt another of Raymond Chandler novel featuring the same Phillip Marlow character into a film called The Long Goodbye.  That film featured another story of Marlow in the middle of a complex crime scheme, but this time the setting is the 1970s and there’s a whole new tone to the whole thing.  Fifteen years later the Coen Brothers get it in their heads to make a Raymond Chandler style mystery of their own, but instead of putting a hardboiled private investigator at the center of their convoluted kidnapping plot they put a stoned slacker called The Dude into the middle of it all and watch him stumble through the whole affair.  That movie was of course The Big Lebowski and it’s become something of a cult favorite in the ensuing years.

It’s been over fifteen years since that film and it would seem that the acclaimed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has taken up this tradition rather than adapt another Raymond Chandler novel he’s instead decided to tackle a novel written by Thomas Pynchon, a writer who is if anything even more infamous for writing dense and complex literature that’s hard to get a handle on.  Like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the film is set in Los Angeles in the early 70s.  Out protagonist is “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who is not unlike Phillip Marlow in his role as a licensed Private Investigator with clear street smarts but also not unlike The Dude in that he’s a habitually stoned counter-culture figure who sort of stumbles through a complex case largely because of ulterior motives.  He’s brought into the film’s central case by his “ex- old lady” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who tells him about a real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann  (Eric Roberts) whose wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) seems to be trying to commit to an insane asylum.  Sportello agrees to look into this as a favor and soon finds himself in the middle of a case in which he’ll have to deal with crooks, neo-nazis, cultists, a crime syndicate called the Gold Fang, and a square police detective named Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who wants nothing more than to teach this hippie Private Eye a lesson.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s last two films, There Will Be Blood and The Master, both felt like giant statement films.  They certainly weren’t humorless films but they were clearly being made by someone who wasn’t messing around anymore and wanted to make major works that would draw people’s attention.  Inherent Vice does share certain stylistic similarities to those two films but its subject matter is lighter in a number of ways.  “Doc” Sportello is not a complicated enigma of a character the way that a Daniel Plainview, Freddie Quell, and Lancaster Dodd were.  You more or less get what he’s about pretty quickly and the movie is more about watching him react to the crazy situation that he finds himself in the midst of.  That crazy situation certainly has elements of danger to it, but you’re never really too worried about Sportello.  You get the impression that this is an unusually crazy and personal case for him in a number of ways, but you also get the impression that he’s seen some craziness like this before and that he’ll probably see craziness like this again and that he sort of thrives on chaos to some extent.  In many ways the film is structured like a comedy but I wouldn’t necessarily call it “laugh out loud funny” even though there are a number of very witty moments and a generally comic aura to a number of the character interactions.

I’ve said that this movie is a bit convoluted, but that is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration.  The movie has a lot of small characters to keep track of and the conspiracy that Sportello is investigating seems ludicrously complicated.  I do think I was more or less able to keep track of it but I’m not sure I was actually supposed to.  I think Anderson’s intention was to make a movie that audiences would sort of give up trying to follow and just sort of cruise along with its druggy vibe.  Taken at face value I don’t think this story really does amount to much.  It’s a fairly episodic film when all is said and done and the movie never really sells the audience on the stakes involved in the case or does much of anything else to really make you care what the outcome is.  I also wouldn’t say that the movie’s style is really special enough to carry the film all on its own.  Anderson clearly knows how to make a film and he also does a pretty good job of adjusting his usual M.O. to fit this particular story, but he’s not doing anything overly wild with the camera here and in some ways he’s just letting things play out normally.  I also can’t say that this works purely as a piece of entertainment either.  The movie is certainly well paced, has some funny moments, and is most definitely not boring, but I can’t say it was a hilarious roller-coaster ride either.

I guess the film’s overall worthiness ultimately comes down to whether or not there’s something going on beneath the surface of this story, and that is not entirely clear to me at this time.  The film is set in 1970 for a reason and seems to be very concerned with the culture war that’s going on during that period.  Sportello and his police detective rival are clearly supposed to act as representatives of the counter-culture and the establishment and their various interactions are perhaps meant to act as a sort of metaphor for the wider conflicts that were coursing through the United States at the time.  That’s interesting, but I can’t say that I was really able to pick up on exactly what the film was trying to communicate about this culture war and this only really takes up a certain percentage of the screen time.  The film also seems to be largely centered around Sportello’s relationship with Shasta Fay Hepworth.  The film starts and ends on this relationship and Hepworth seems to be in the middle of both a key twist and also has a lot to do with why the film is called “Inherent Vice.”  And yet, Hepworth is missing for much of the film and I can’t say that I really got to know the character all that well in the limited screen time she has.  That title (which refers to a point of insurance law that is said to apply to Hepworth at one point) does seem to be a key clue, but I still don’t really see what the film is trying to say with this relationship either.

I’m trying so hard to analyze this because I have trouble believing that Paul Thomas Anderson and Thomas Pynchon would have created something like this if there wasn’t some point to it all.  If anyone has earned a benefit of a doubt it’s probably Anderson, but there are limits to how much credit I’m going to just give the guy on blind faith and on this viewing I’m not seeing any kind of masterpiece in Inherent Vice.  That said, there is a lot about the film that makes it worth watching.  There are a lot of fun performances in it from people like Josh Brolin, Martin Short, and newcomer Hong Chau which are definitely enjoyable and Anderson’s control of tone and the wit of the screenplay does make it pretty compulsively watchable.  One could say that this alone should be hailed as a sort of triumph, nut that brings be back to where I started this review: to The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and The Big Lebowski.  If those three films didn’t already exist I feel like I would have been more impressed with Inherent Vice, but with them in existence it kind of feels a bit redundant to me.  I do have something of a nagging feeling that I’m missing something here and I’m definitely going to be giving it another chance at some point, but for the moment I can really only give it a rather modest level of praise.

*** out of Four

The Theory of Everything(11/7/2014)/The Imitation Game(12/28/2014)

I’m usually not a big fan of labeling prestige movies you don’t like as “Oscar bait” but every once in a while a film is guilty as charged.  It used to be that the movies which were obvious Oscar bait were the big expensive epics like Out of Africa or The English Patient but it’s been a really long time since a particularly large budget movie has actually won Best Picture, so the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have readjusted their targets.  Today the movies that have the best Oscar chances are the ones that are small enough to be considered underdogs, but still large enough to be recognizably a studio film.  These movies are supposed to be dramas, preferably ones based on true stories, which have very simple messages and are told in very traditional and mainstream ways that are in no ways “arty” even if they initially open up in so-called “arthouses.”  Bonus points if they’re British, double points if they have simplistic messages to deliver about some social issue or other, and triple bonus points if they’re set during World War II.  In general, movies for old people who don’t want unchallenging entertainment but also don’t necessarily want to go to the effects spectacles that Hollywood generally sells to the masses.  There’s usually only one movie each year that hits all these points but this year we got two of them, each one more desperate in their “Oscar bait” qualities than the last: the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything and the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game.  In fact these movies are so uncannily complimentary that I thought I’d do something a little different with them and review both at the same time.

So, obviously these are both biopics of famous British scientists afflicted with debilitating problems.  In the case of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) that problem is of course the ALS which left him all but paralyzed and forced to speak by typing into a voice synthesis and in the case of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) that was (in the movie at least) an almost autistic level of social awkwardness and the fact that he was a homosexual in a less than tolerant era.  The Theory of Everything is largely about Hawkings’s marriage to his college girlfriend Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones) while The Imitation Game focuses in on Turing’s attempts to crack the German Enigma code and his relationship with a smart code breaker named Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightly), who is herself something of a fish out of water as a woman working in a man’s field.

Both of these films come from filmmakers who are relative newcomers.  The Theory of Everything was directed by James Marsh, a filmmaker who’s made three fictional features which received minimal exposure and a pair of very popular though slightly over-rated documentaries called Man on Wire and Project NimThe Imitation Game was directed by a Norwegian filmmaker named Morten Tyldum, who’s most famous for making a genre film called Headhunters, a film I never got around to watching and which seems to have very little in common with his latest film.  Neither film does anything overly special with their visuals exactly.  The Imitation Game is basically just trying to imitate the visual stylings of The King’s Speech minus the off-center camera angles (AKA, the only interesting thing about that movie’s visual style).  The Theory of Everything isn’t exactly trying to do anything too different, but you could tell that Marsh has something of a visual eye for filmmaking.  He picks interesting angles here and there and he also knows how not to play into certain obvious script beats as heavily.  Another advantage for Team Hawkings is that it generally has a more memorable original score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, which generally trumps Alexandre Desplat’s (another King’s Speech alum) often intrusive score for The Imitation Game.

The advantage on the side of Team Turing is that it’s generally a more focused movie with more of a clear central conflict to work through.  Where The Theory of Everything is basically just a chronological run-through of the highlights and lowlights of Hawkings’ life and marriage, The Imitation Game very specifically focuses on Turing’s work on the Enigma code and his race to help end the war with a couple of flashbacks and flash-forwards to help flesh out his life story.  Also, given the hardships that Turing went through later in his life the film isn’t really able to entirely rest on a “triumph of the human spirit over adversity” story, but it sure as hell tries.  The message of the film is that sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine, I know this because characters in the film actually say that sentence out loud not once, not twice, but three freakin’ times just to make this corny  sentiment absolutely condescendingly clear to everyone in the audience.  When the film finally brings up the downer ending of Turings life it almost feels like a coda to the film’s true climax.

Questionable as all that is, it’s still feels gritty and tough when compared to the aggressive pleasantness that defines The Theory of Everything.  I guess it would be wrong to say that the life of someone with a debilitating illness like Stephen Hawkings is without struggle, but the film sure makes it seem that way.  We do certainly see the struggles with Hawkins’ health problems but his interactions with other people seem almost idyllic.  He’s got a doting wife with seemingly saint-like patience, friends and colleagues who are completely understanding of his problems and willing to accommodate them, and a career that is marked by almost nothing but success the whole way through.  Even when Hawkings’ marriage finally dissolves late in the film it is perhaps the single most amicable breakup scene in film history.  His wife doesn’t even show the slightest bit of resentment when she is more or less dumped after having shown Job-like patience up to this point.  Also, the movie’s final moment in which Hawkings puts forward his children as his greatest accomplishment rings completely hollow given the film’s complete lack of interest in said children up to this point.

Getting back to these movie’s status as Oscar bait, let’s talk about the two actors who are clearly vying for awards in the two movies.  Eddie Redmayne, who is probably best known as the twerp who shows up in the second half of Les Miserable, is not a very well-known actor but he does a pretty admirable job of potraying a young Stephen Hawking.  This is a pretty damn baity role that allows Redmayne to go all “My Left Foot” all over the screen.  In fact the role may end up being a little too baity for Oscar voters. This could almost be the physical disability version “going full retard” as Robert Downy Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder might have put it.  Benedict Cumberbatch is certainly a much more famous actor and while I’ve liked a lot of his work I can’t say I fully understand why the internet seems to be so singularly obsessed with him.  This Turing role is not too far removed from what we’ve seen him do before, after all his signature role of Sherlock Holmes is similarly eccentric and anti-social.  Harvey Weinstein seemed to know this, because the movie actually makes this character more eccentric than the real Alan Turing apparently was.  In the film Turing is not merely eccentric but more than likely on the Asperger’s spectrum, which was not true of the real Turing and the film also exaggerates the degree to which the chemical castration he received late in life physically manifested itself.

Those are not the only liberties that The Imitation Game took with the life of the real Alan Turing, in fact my cursory research seems to suggest that the movie uses “creative license” with something of a reckless abandon.  Turing’s actual computer was not named after his deceased childhood friend, his relationship with his real commanding officer and colleagues was significantly less adversarial, the Keira Knightly character has generally been expanded and emphasized more than is probably proportional, a scene in which the cryptographers are forced to decide whether or not to warn a ship of an impending Nazi attack is entirely invented, and Turing’s interactions with an MI6 agent towards the end were also invented for the film.  I don’t expect movies like this to be entirely factual and am well aware of the fact that liberties like this do sometimes need to be taken, but I don’t think any of these changes were for the better.  They almost all feel false on the screen and generally come off as hokey when they happen.  Even if they had all been true I would have suggested that some of them should have been changed to make the film seem less clichéd, but they are as phony as they initially seemed, and this is particularly jarring given that Turing’s story actually was interesting enough on its face and shouldn’t have needed these fabrications in order to work.

This is not to say that I think The Theory of Everything is an entirely factual endeavor itself, but when I watched it I didn’t feel an overwhelming phoniness to it.  In fact I almost feel like it could have used a little manufactured drama here and there in order to give it a little more conflict.  What’s more, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m giving The Theory of Everything a pass in general.  It is in no way a noteworthy film, it shouldn’t be in the awards season conversation in general (outside of maybe the Best Actor category), and I don’t recommend it.  That said, I went into that movie with pretty low expectations and it did manage to rise slightly (and I do mean slightly) above them and in general I think its only real crime is being kind of dull.  The Imitation Game on the other hand is a movie that I thought was kind of lame as I walked out of the theater and have come to be sort of infuriated by it the more I read about its historical distortions.  What’s sad is that it’s probably going to get a lot of support from people who will say that it’s an “important” story.  That’s true, the Turing story is important, but that doesn’t mean that this is a good movie.

The Theory of Everything: **1/2 out of Four

The Imitation Game: ** out of Four

Interstellar(11/8/2014)

Warning: This is a no-holds-barred spoiler-filled review that is primarily meant for people who’ve seen the film.  Read at your own risk.

The last time I reviewed a Christopher Nolan film I opened with a long-winded music metaphor in which I likened the making of The Dark Knight Rises to Michael Jackson struggling to follow-up his Thriller album and sort of being doomed to disappoint no matter what he did.   At the time there was something of a backlash brewing against Nolan and it’s only increased in the intervening years as critics have increasingly come out both against Nolan’s work as well as the various other films that his work seems to have inspired.  Now I’m less inclined to compare him to peak-era Michael Jackson and more inclined to compare him to Pete Townshend circa 1978: a man who tried tirelessly to elevate his lowly medium to the level of an opera only to then have his work and everything it represents dismissed and mocked in favor of a wave of engaging but simplistic work made by miscreants.  Of course the difference is that as simplistic as punk rock is, it was at least a genuinely rebellious and vital new form, the same cannot generally be said of the jokey and heavily test-screened films that people claim they’d prefer to Nolan’s more serious and grandiose style of blockbuster filmmaking.  I mention all this to make it clear that not only am I not part of this backlash but that I pretty actively hate it.  I’ve firmly been in the pro-Nolan camp, which is a big part of why I’m fairly disappointed with his latest film, Interstellar.

The film doesn’t give out a year, but it can be intuited that Interstellar is set in a relatively distant future (a good hundred year or so from now, maybe more).  This future is not quite post-apocalyptic per se, but it seems like that isn’t far off.  There are dust-bowl conditions and we’re told that various crops are being depleted and there seems to no solution in sight.  Our focus is on a former engineer/pilot turned farmer named Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).  Cooper’s wife is said to have died years ago so now he and his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) have been raising his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) on his farm.  This all gets upended one day when Cooper learns that NASA is actually still in existence and is asked to help man a mission into the deepest regions of space in order to find a new home for humanity.

In setting up the film, Christopher Nolan makes the conscious choice to give the audience a very limited view of what the future Earth is like.  We certainly get the gist of what this slow moving apocalypse is all about, but aren’t given many specifics about exactly why it’s happening or how fast it’s going.  In fact we have no idea what Earth is really like outside of the town that Cooper lives near or how this disaster manifests in other areas.  On one hand I can kind of see what Nolan was trying to do by rendering the future like this, it certainly a relatively believable version of the future that will probably age pretty well, but I don’t know that it really worked for me.  This apocalypse so closely resembles the 1930s dust-bowl (a crisis that was fixed over the course of a decade) that it just never really feels to the viewer like a permenant disaster that would require a drastic space mission to fix.  Again, I can intellectually see what they were going for: a gradual apocalypse that snuck up on the populace, but the movie never really shows this, it just tells it.

The problems with the film’s limited geography do go deeper than that as well, mainly in that it requires Nolan to indulge in a fairly ridiculous coincidence in order to kick his story off.  The film proper begins when Cooper receives a cryptic set of coordinates from an unseen, possibly alien force which leads him to the secret NASA base where he joins the space mission.  Now, I’m perfectly willing to accept the reasons he receives this message, the movie explains that perfectly well.  What I’m not so willing to accept is that this secret base just happens to be located within a short drive of Cooper’s farm, that the person running it just happens to be an old professor of his, and that they just happen to be planning to launch that mission very shortly after he arrives.  All that is just too much of a stretch and I find the notion that this Cooper guy is such an extraordinary pilot that NASA would drop everything and send him on the mission on such short notice.  This is, after all, a massive mission that must have been planned for years and the notion that they’d just change plans like that is a bit ridiculous.

All of that was of course done as a screenwriting shortcut. By making Cooper an outsider Nolan is able to explain to the audience through him what this mission is all about and how long it’s been going on, and Cooper’s status as a last minute recruit is used throughout the film to give the audience exposition.  Was this worth it?  I don’t think so.  Nolan was of course heavily criticized for employing an overabundance of exposition in Inception and I largely defended it in that film because there seemed like legitimate reasons for the characters in that film to be uninformed and the whole thing needs to take place over such a short period of time that it all made sense.  Here, not so much.  It gets to the point where someone is explaining wormholes to Cooper (using the same folded paper analogy used in the movie Event Horizon) while he’s sitting in a space ship that is about to be going through a wormhole.

Now, the movie does certainly improve in my estimation once they finally escape from rural Americana and finally get into space, but I do still think the movie has flaws in this section as well.  In particular I found an early decision to go to a planet that’s so close to the wormhole that it distorts time so that every hour spent on the planet makes seven hours pass on Earth.  Given the time pressures of the mission, going to this planet at all seems like a rather absurd idea.  The best case scenario in that plan would have resulted in three or four years passing, which strikes me as a rather ridiculous sacrifice to make, and once they get to the planet they don’t seem like they’re rushing nearly fast enough.  They walk around on the planet when they should be able to just eyeball it and realize that it’s uninhabitable.  For that matter, I don’t really get why they need to be using an away team at all on this mission.  Would a probe of some sort not have been able to detect that the planet is almost all water and has twelve story waves crushing everything?  Also, if fuel is in such short supply how are they able to keep their mother ship in the air for the twenty three years this side trip apparently takes?

The next planet they go to is probably the most visually interesting location of the movie: a strange icy world with solid clouds.  Interesting as this place is, I still kind of feel like the story let me down at this stage.  We finally meet Kurtz… er, I mean Mann, and was pretty surprised to see that Matt Damon was in the movie.  I don’t know if that had been revealed in the film’s publicity campaign, but I certainly didn’t know it.  However, I found the twist that Damon was a deranged turncoat to be pretty predictable and kind of a cliché.  In fact, it reminded me a lot of the infamous ending of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.  Of course this movie probably handles the “evil previous astronaut” twist better than that movie did if only because it doesn’t suddenly become a slasher movie, but I still found it a little disappointing.

So far I’ve talked a lot about the various stages of the film, but I think I should take a step back and look at some of its overall components.  The film certainly has a pretty well stacked cast with some good work from Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain in particular.  It was also able to get some pretty cool actors like Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, and Ellen Burstyn into small roles that do fill the movie out nicely.  However, there were some weak spots as well.  In particular, I found Michael Caine’s presence in the movie rather odd.  I commend Nolan for his loyalty, but there are other actors over sixty out there and I don’t think Caine was quite right for this rather gruff role that called for something a little different from what Caine had to offer.  And then there’s McConaughey.  In the last couple of years Matthew McConaughey has made a lot of inroads into respectability, but we aren’t really getting “McConausiance” McConaughey here.  Instead McConaughey is very much in movie star mode, and it was something of a reminder of what that McConaughey’s various limitations and annoying tics were.  The guy is a little too laid back at his core, and there’s still a little bit of that “alright, alright, alright” swagger here when I don’t think that was necessarily the best option.  I totally get why he was cast but I sort of wish they’d gone a different direction with the character.

This is of course a major blockbuster and there is certainly a good degree of spectacle here to admire.  Nolan certainly has a way of avoiding CGI as much as possible and then blending it in seamlessly when it is needed.  That said, there have been quite a few hard sci-fi space movies lately and I kind of feel like Interstellar’s impact is kind of dulled because of it.  The film has some really interesting planetscapes, but do any of them really compare to Avatar’s Pandora?  Or, perhaps a more direct comparison would be to the planetscapes we see in Prometheus, which really weren’t a million miles removed from what we saw here.  That movie’s spaceship sets were also probably on par with this as well and so were the spaceships in Sunshine, a movie that also did the whole “desperate mission to save humanity” thing at least as well as this movie did.  And the whole “robot companion you think will be evil but isn’t” thing was also done pretty well in Moon.  And then of course there is Gravity, which felt like a much bigger visual leap forward than anything in Interstellar and which probably works better as a deep space action film as well.  On a pure visual effects level, this kind of feels like a small but noticeable step backwards.

Of course all of these movies live in the shadow of the ultimate realistic space movie: 2001: A Space Odyssey.  There probably isn’t a single movie in this genre that’s ever going to live up to Kubrick’s masterpiece, so that’s probably not exactly a fair standard, but Nolan does a lot to invite that comparison.  This is, after all a movie about a mission to go through a wormhole that appears near an outer ring gas giant as goaded on by unseen beings who are apparently interested in pushing humanity forward and which culminates in the protagonist in a mysterious room created by said beings where he’ll determine the fate of humanity.  Yeah, I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  It’s not a flattering comparison because as much as the movie wants to be 2001 it couldn’t be more profoundly different in tone and form.  Where Kubrick’s film used mystery to build grandeur, Interstellar feels a lot more conventional and straightforward by comparison.  2001 wasn’t afraid of ambiguity and that’s a big part of why people have been pondering exactly what it means since it was released.  The message of Interstellar, by comparison is pretty clear: take care of the earth, don’t give up on exploring the stars.  It’s a movie that clearly wants to inspire people, but it also sort of undercuts that message by making most of the scientific accomplishments in the film impossible without the assistance of what are basically magical aliens.  One could argue that 2001 did the same thing, but it wasn’t necessarily trying to be hopeful and was as much about the dark side of progress as it was about its awesomeness.

You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything about the film’s relatively long running time.  I’m pretty sure a lot of the film’s detractors will say it’s too long, but I disagree.  The movie paces itself out quite well and moves at a pretty brisk pace.  If anything, it’s too short.  It’s become sort of hackneyed to come out of a movie and suggest that it should have been a mini-series, but it really is true in the case even if such a thing would have probably been impossible given the budgets involved.  A longer format would have allowed Nolan to more effectively establish what future-Earth was like and the nature of the crisis on it, found a more organic way to get Cooper onto the mission, provided for more natural means of exposition, and may have even led to a more organic means of incorporating the Mann twist.  It also would have probably done something to remedy the film’s rather strange epilog, which almost feels like it should have been separated and expanded into an Interstellar 2 rather than awkwardly squeezed in at the end.

Alright, so I’ve outlined a lot of grievances against this movie, but I don’t want to give off the impression that I hate it or even dislike it all that strongly.  The movie is every bit as ambitious as anything Christopher Nolan has made, and this is the kind of movie that I would like to see Hollywood attempt more often.  It also does have a handful of highs that really do keep the audience interested.  Every time I thought the film had gone astray something cool would happen that would get me back on board at least for a little while longer.  I can see a good movie here that’s buried under a handful of poor decisions that keep weighing it down.  Ultimately, I feel like this movie has a lot of very good ideas that probably looked great on paper but which never really came together correctly.  Perhaps Nolan was just the wrong person to direct his own movie.  I’ve long thought that his reputation for being an over-serious stick in the mud was unfair, but it existed for a reason.  This kind of uplift does not come naturally to him and I don’t think he was ever really comfortable working with some of the schmaltzier Americana elements at the beginning.  Maybe he should have passed the project on Spielberg, or at least watched a couple of the guy’s movies before he embarked on this project.

**1/2 out of Four

Ida(5/31/2014)

There are many things that go into a movie showing up on my radar.  Sometimes I’ll be interested in a movie solely because I’m already a fan of the director, sometimes it will be because it has a concept that jumps out at me, sometimes it will be because I’ve heard buzz about it from the festival circuit or in reviews, sometimes it will be a movie that has everyone on the internet talking, and sometimes it’s simply a matter of heavy studio publicity.  In the case of the movie Ida it was none of these things.  I’d never really heard of director Paweł Pawlikowski, whose previous films don’t seem to have made much of a splash stateside, and most of its festival buzz seemed to escape me.  I finally got hip to it exactly one week before seeing it when I happened to see its trailer and was immediately intrigued by its visual style and was soon thereafter inspired to look it up on Metacritic, at which point I decided it was definitely a must see.

Set in Soviet controlled Poland during the 1960s, Ida tells the story of a young woman named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) who has been living in a convent since she was orphaned at a young age.  Having been orphaned at a young age, this is basically the only life she’s ever known.  Before she takes her final vows, her superiors suggest that she find her surviving family members and get a better idea of what she’s leaving behind.  The only surviving relative of Anna’s that they can point her to is her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a hard drinking unmarried judge.  Wanda reveals to Anna that her given name is actually Ida Lebenstein, that she’s ethnically Jewish, and that her parents and brother were killed during the course of the Second World War.  Anna still has questions about her past, so she and Wanda decide to drive out to the village where Anna was born to get some more answers about the circumstances of her family’s killing.

The thing that first attracted me to Ida was its visual style, so I guess I start by talking about that.  Pawlikowski clearly makes two anachronistic choices right away with his visual style by filming the movie both in Black and White and in the Academy Ratio.  The choice of filming without color should seem rather obvious given the film’s subject matter and the era that it’s trying to capture, but I think it’s the way it uses that 1.33:1 ratio that really sets it apart.  Using this narrow frame has become something of a trend recently.  Some filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Michel Hazanavicius have used it for reasons that are purely nostalgic while others like Andrea Arnold, Gus Van Sant, and Kelly Reichardt have used it to give their films a sense of confinement that mirrors what their characters are going through.  Here I think Pawlikowski’s use of the ratio skews closer to the first camp’s than the second camp’s, but he uses the frame in ways that are a little more clever than both.  Rather than seemingly cutting out information, he uses the square frame as an excuse to back his camera up a lot and have his subjects fill up relatively small portions of the frame, leaving a lot more negative space than we usually see films.  Tom Hooper has been doing similar things with his off-center framings, but there seems to be a bit more poetry to it here than there was in, say, Les Misérables.

Of course a big part of why the visual style works is that it doesn’t distract from the story, which is a pretty interesting exploration of Jewish identity and the lasting effects of war and tragedy.  Ida is, at its core, a movie about the Holocaust even if it happens to take place after the end of that particular atrocity and doesn’t depict it on screen.  Instead it views that tragedy (and the rest of World War II) as a lingering wound that continues to haunt even those people who only just learn that they were victims of it after the fact.  That the film is set in a Poland which has become a proxy state of Russia with a repressive communist government as a result of that war is part of this, and another part of it is the lingering pain, guilt, and/or paranoia felt by most of the film’s characters because of this previous trauma.  That these themes are set against a very personal story of a young woman at a crossroads who’s trying to figure out exactly who she is and what she wants to become makes it all the more fascinating.

So Ida has all the ingredients of a great film and yet I don’t quite think it fully achieves greatness.  I think its undoing is perhaps that it’s a little too sparse for its own good.  At a scant 80 minutes the film really kind of ends just when it’s really picking up steam and in some ways it kind of feels like an incomplete experience.  Critics who make a habit of labeling everything over 100 minutes as “too long” (a concern usually only shared by other people for whom movie going has become a job rather than a passion) would probably balk at such a sentiment, but I really think that an extra sub-plot or character arc would have gone a long way towards making this feel like a more substantial feature.  Despite that, I think this is definitely a strong movie that should be seen by many, though I’ll admit that the grouping of people who are going to be interested is probably… rather limited.  You can’t really get much more arthouse than a black and white Polish movie about a nun finding herself during an identity crisis.  But if you look past the film’s intimidating exterior and it’s actually more accessible than you’d think and certainly one that fans of world cinema should strongly consider.

***1/2 out of Four