Interstellar

If anybody is the heir to Stanley Kubrick, it’s Christopher Nolan. Like Kubrick, Nolan’s films are about big ideas and sometimes the characters take a back seat. Nolan has been criticized for this as Kubrick was. Seemingly in response to this criticism Nolan has tried to tell a story with an unbearable emotional dilemma at its heart. He presents his main character, Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey with the choice of saving mankind by going into space through a wormhole in orbit around Saturn and searching for a new planet that Earth’s population can move to, or he can stay on a dying and depleted Earth and take care of his family, including his young daughter Murphy, played by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn in various stages of her life. Needless to say, he goes, promising Murphy that he’ll come back despite the improbability of that happening.
This film has a tremendous cast. John Lithgow plays Cooper’s father-in-law. Casey Affleck plays his son Tom. Anne Hathaway plays a fellow crewmember and Michael Caine plays her father, the genius professor who runs the space program. And there’s more. Matt Damon has a small role for crying out loud. There’s a lot of starpower and a lot of talent at depicting emotion on the screen in this movie.
And yet the script doesn’t really depict that emotion in a sophisticated way. All the motivations are simple and right below the surface. Sure Cooper’s rage at Murphy’s teachers when they try to tell him that the Moon landings were faked, an accepted fiction in this future because the government wants people to concentrate on growing food and not dreaming about space, is understated, almost whispered in McConaughey’s Texas drawl. But it’s obvious why he’s upset. He’s an engineer as well as a pilot and he believes in science. There are lots of examples like that. Nolan seems to deal with the emotions in the film much as he does with the scientific ideas, at a distance. He tries to explain it instead of letting us feel it.
Interstellar has some very pretty pictures. Indeed the effects and every technical aspect is as well thought out and executed as any Nolan film. It also has some solid science, thanks to co-producer and science advisor Kip Thorne, the astrophysicist. But I sense the same discomfort with humanity in Nolan that I do in Kubrick.
I suspect Kubrick knew his limitations and accepted them. He didn’t try to make films that make us feel; his films make us think. And some of them are important movies in the history of cinema.
If Nolan wants to make more emotional films, he probably can. Enough great actors want to work with him that he can assemble a talented cast for any project he wants. But he’ll need to work with another screenwriter. He usually writes his screenplays with his brother Johnathan. And he’ll need to take more chances and try to convey the emotions of his characters and not just tell us about those feelings.

Big Hero 6

Hiro Hamada, voiced by Ryan Potter is a smart kid but not very ambitious. He graduated from high school in his early teens. But since then, he’s been drifting, getting into robot fighting with his advanced designs and encouraging people to underestimate him because of his youth. He has no desire to go to “geek school” like his is older brother, Tadashi, voiced by Daniel Henney.
A visit to his brother’s lab changes that, however. Tadashi has invented a robot named Baymax, voiced by Scott Adsit. Baymax is built to be a home health care robot. After seeing the robot and meeting Tadashi’s friends Hiro decides he wants to enroll, but to get in Hiro must invent something. He works on nano robots that can do almost anything just by thinking about it. Tadashi is killed in an accident at the school and Hiro’s nanobots are seemingly destroyed. Hiro goes into mourning. But when his tech shows up again and is used to attack the city by a powerful super villain, Hiro and his brother’s school friends have to fight back. The good news is they have a robot; the bad news is that the robot is programed to be friendly and nurturing and is inflatable. He doesn’t really scare anybody.
Big Hero 6 is Disney’s traditional animation division jumping on the superhero bandwagon. Unsurprisingly, given corporate connections, this movie is based on a Marvel Comics title, although loosely. The tone is not as dire as in most superhero movies. This is comedy that owes more to past Disney projects like Lilo and Stitch and Frozen than to The Avengers. But that’s alright. Superhero films are now so established that we fans don’t need to worry about another Batman and Robin. We can take a few jokes. Especially if they’re funny.
The technical aspects of Big Hero 6 are all excellent, which is hardly a surprise given the fact that it comes from Disney. The art and the animation are beautiful. Their depiction of the city, especially the seedier sides of it, is engrossing and detailed.
Unfortunately, the script, by Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and Jordan Roberts based on a story idea by Roberts and one of the film’s two director Don Hall, suffers first from origin syndrome. The pace of this thing is slowed to a halt by the necessity of having to set everything up. Also there is a lack of imagination. You’ve seen all these characters before; you’re well acquainted with their motivations and you know at all times what’s coming next. This story is so hackneyed that it is really hard to immerse yourself into it, despite the pretty pictures.
Big Hero 6 is risk adverse filmmaking. Absolutely no chances were taken here. I’m not even sure kids will like it.

Birdman

Lord help us. Alejandro González Iñárritu has made a comedy. The king of the mopers, director of 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful is in a light-hearted mood these days. Well, sort of. It is a very dark comedy. But I can sense that he’s rallying and eventually he’ll direct a Disney animated feature with princesses and bluebirds and…
Just kidding.
Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, is an actor who years ago turned down an offer to play the superhero, Birdman for the fourth time. It was an iconic role for him and one that made him a lot of money. Unfortunately, he was typecast in the role and has not worked since. To revive his career he decides to write, produce, direct and star in a Broadway play version of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” As opening night looms the problems begin to mount, as does the pressure on Riggan. He has hallucinations of his old character appearing and mocking him for turning away from stardom. His daughter, Sam, played by Emma Stone, is working as his personal assistant. She is a recovering addict and her acerbic and rebellious presence serves as a reminder to him of what a terrible father he was. He also has a co-star, Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton, who is talented, but demanding and difficult to work with. Riggan has put his entire fortune into the production and will be ruined if it fails as it seems destined to do.
Plotwise, the script by Inarritu is a loose affair with a lot of sub-plots that don’t really amount to much. But there is some barbed dialog aimed at Hollywood, Broadway, actors and the artistic process in general. All the characters are narcissistic and neurotic and yet somehow likable. In Riggan’s case it is because he is very much aware of his faults and is trying to atone for them. Birdman is a story about trying to gain redemption.
It is an eccentric role and it’s hard to imagine anyone but Michael Keaton pulling it off. There are some who say he must be drawing on his own experiences from playing Batman in the Tim Burton films. But while that was the height of his popularity, he seems to have worked pretty steadily since then. I don’t immediately think of Batman when I think of Michael Keaton. In any case, he does a wonderful understated job of showing a man who under a lot of stress, with a tenuous relationship with reality anyway, and heading for a nervous breakdown.
All the performances are magnificent, especially since the film had to be so difficult to act in. It’s done in a series of long moving shots that often follow the actors down hallways and through doors. There are almost no cuts or fades or anything like that. Technically this is very difficult for actors, who sometimes had to do as much as fifteen pages of script in a single shot, all while hitting numerous marks with no close-ups or cutaways so the editor could use the best parts of various takes. In addition they are portraying stage actors so they have to go from that over-the-top, play to the back of the house stage style of acting to a more intimate realistic film style in a matter of seconds. That may have been the most difficult thing of all. The result is a masterfully executed tone that is both theatrical and cinematic.
I have always thought that Inarritu was a great filmmaker, innovative, great with actors and with the more technical aspects of the process. If I have a quibble with Birdman, it is that the script is a little unfocussed with the subplots.
But unlike Inarritu’s other films, your family won’t have to hide all the sharp objects in your house after you’ve seen it.

The Judge

Drama can be very simple. Just take some interesting characters, drop them into a situation, and have them resolve it (or not). You don’t need innovative plot structures, fancy special effects, or obscure arty acting styles. Humans will never get tired of watching humans interact, especially if they identify with them.
In The Judge, high powered Chicago lawyer, Hank Palmer, played by Robert Downey Jr., returns to the small Indiana town where he grew up to help out in a family crises. His father Joseph, played by Robert Duvall, has been the town’s judge for forty-two years and has been arrested for murder. The victim was a man who came before Joseph and was given a light sentence, even though his guilt was obvious, he then drowned his girlfriend and Joseph sent him away for a long time. He served his sentence and was out again. Joseph has always considered it to be his greatest mistake. So when he hits the man with his car, everybody assumes it was on purpose.
Now, Hank has to defend his father, with whom he is estranged, and deal with the family he left behind.
The acting, of course, is terrific even if the two Roberts aren’t really stretching that much. Vincent D’Onofrio gives a good performance as Glen, Hank’s ex-jock older brother who missed out on a baseball career because he hurt his hand in a car accident where Hank was at the wheel. Vera Farmiga is tough and sexy as Hank’s old girlfriend, Samantha Powell.
The story, by director David Dobkin and Nick Schenk who wrote the screenplay with Bill Dubuque, has a few subplots which detract from the main story, add to the length of the film and in the end don’t really make sense. But for the most part the pace remains brisk and you’re never bored.
I suppose in this day and age something like The Judge is always going to be thought of as a high prestige drama. Anytime Robert Duvall does a film, he gets mentioned in connection with the Oscars, and rightfully so. But in this case I don’t think that film around him is all that great. It’s enjoyable in many ways but in the end, too few risks were taken and the twists they introduced were too predictable and too easy.
If you really want to see it, you should wait for the DVD.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl is the type of movie that relies so heavily on plot twists, that I really can’t say much about it without spoiling it. Of course the book was also one of the biggest bestsellers of last year so a lot of people are presumably going to know the plot going in anyway. But I will respect the conventions of not spoiling movies here.
When Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, reports to the police that his wife, Amy, played by Rosamund Pike, has gone missing on their fifth wedding anniversary, the police, in the person of Detective Rhonda Boney, played by Kim Dickens, advise him to make a plea on television for help finding Amy. The story catches on nationally and it soon becomes a media circus.
Nick’s troubles, however, multiply when it comes out that he hasn’t been completely honest with the police about the nature of his marriage. He’s not the nice, somewhat unsophisticated Midwestern boy that he appears to be. There is the matter of an affair he’s been carrying on with one of his former creative writing students. He can also get a little physical when arguing with his wife. Amy is not what she appears to be either. She has left a string of angry ex-boyfriends behind her.
Also, evidence is piling up that he may have killed her.
And that’s really all I can tell you.
The script is by Gillian Flynn, the author of the book, and she’s really good at making you sympathize with her flawed characters. And that is the theme of the story: manipulating public sympathy, so that they overlook the holes in the story you’re trying to sell them. It’s fascinating in a cynical way. This is her first screenplay and she knocks it out of the park.
David Fincher, the director, is a good fit for this dark material. He keeps the pace moving. There isn’t much in the way of fancy artifice in the cinematography. The performances are kept pretty realistic. There are no eccentric tics or scenery eating speeches here. It’s realism all the way around.
Ben Affleck is well within his range here and turns in a pretty good performance. He convincingly shows us the good and the ugly sides of this man. Rosamund Pike is terrific. I can’t tell you why but she’s great.
I wish I could write more about Gone Girl but I would certainly spoil it if I did. It’s a terrific movie, though.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

This one has a bit of an odd origin. Ned Benson, the director originally made two films, one subtitled Him and the other Her. It was a Rashomon-like experiment, telling the story from two different viewpoints. Harvey Weinstein, who bought the films after last year’s Toronto Film Festival, decided that this wasn’t going to work. So he made Benson cut the two films down into one. You’d think that the result would be a mess but basically it works.
The story is about a married couple, Conor Ludlow, played by James McAvoy and Eleanor Rigby, played by Jessica Chastain. They live in New York City. Their marriage suffers a serious blow when their young child dies. The first scene in the movie is of Eleanor riding her bike across a pedestrian bridge, getting off and jumping into the river. She survives and then goes from the hospital to her parents’ house to figure things out. She doesn’t tell her husband where she is. Conor makes an effort to reconnect.
Obviously the success of a film like this depends on the leads and here we are in good hands. McAvoy and Chastain are two of the best actors working today. Separate they are terrific and together they have great chemistry. You can see the history of their relationship in the way they interact with each other.
The supporting cast is good too. William Hurt plays Julian Rigby, Eleanor’s college professor father. He and his wife Mary, played by Isabelle Huppert were big Beatles fans. He is a man used to approaching problems intellectually and finds that approach inadequate in dealing with his grieving daughter. Huppert’s Mary is always seen with a wine glass in her hand. She was a classical musician before she got married and Huppert captures the contradiction between a woman whose approach to life is basically emotional but who is also so self-involved that her relationship with her daughter has always been distant.
The plot of the film advances through dialog. People meet up either by accident or after long sojourns on the subway (Eleanor’s parents live on Long Island) and then have conversations, where they try to find the words that will make it better. At one point Conor tells Eleanor that he had thought of the perfect thing to say that would make her feel better and bring her back. He says he forgot it but you know he never thought of it in the first place. That is the central irony of this film: It is a talky film about the inadequacy of words to connect people emotionally.
It is slow moving and a little too long but amazingly it does build to a climax and the ambiguous ending is apt.

The Guardians of the Galaxy

In The Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel expands its movie universe to include…well, the universe. Peter Quill, played by Chris Pratt, is abducted from Earth when he is eight years old by a crew of ethically questionable scroungers. Twenty six years later he is a semi-independent operator, trying to find artifacts and sell them for profit. When he steals an orb from a decimated planet he finds himself in over his head.
The orb, which is one of the Infinity Stones, a series of McGuffins in the Marvel universe, is coveted by Ronan the Accuser, played by Lee Pace. Ronan is a fanatical Kree warlord who is out to “purify” every world in the galaxy that does not meet his expectations of piety. At the moment, he most upset with the planet Xandar, which appears to be home to a liberal polyglot culture, which apparently includes many humans. Presumably they or their ancestors were abducted like Peter. Ronan has promised to retrieve the orb for Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, in return for Xandar’s destruction.
To this end Ronan has dispatched Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana, Thanos’ adopted daughter and a genetically enhanced and highly trained assassin. Thanos has lent Ronan his two daughters; the other one is Nebula, played by Karen Gillan. What Ronan doesn’t realize is that Gamora secretly hates Thanos and has been looking for a chance to betray him. The orb may be her opportunity. Ronan also puts a large bounty on Quill’s head which attracts the attentions of Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper and Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel, who are bounty hunter partners. Rocket is a genetically mutated raccoon who walks upright, talks and makes bombs and stuff. Groot is a giant tree that walks and can only say “I am Groot.”
All three catch up to Quill on Xandar and when they try to apprehend him, they are captured by the Nova Corps, Xandar’s police force. They are sent to jail where they meet Drax the Destroyer, played by Dave Bautista, whose family was killed by Ronan. He thinks of nothing but revenge. And thus the team is complete.
That may seem like a lot to set up but the exposition in the screenplay by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman effortlessly incorporates this strange world into the plot, while cracking jokes and presenting some pretty good set pieces. The whole film is an entertaining romp, a comedy that actually works at two hours. There are also some touching moments too, like Drax’s realization that he doesn’t have the ability to kill Ronan with his bare hands, Quill remembering his mother and his desperate clinging to the mix tapes of 70’s pop music she made him before she died. Even Rocket has a drunken soliloquy about his odd origins and the downside of being unique in the universe. He doesn’t even know what a raccoon is.
This cast is terrific. Pratt plays the fast talking Quill perfectly. He is a man who still has some growing up to do and still misses his mother. Saldana is menacing as an assassin but shows her growing conscience as well. Bradley Cooper is a delight as Rocket’s voice. He captures the bravado and yet manages to show vulnerability too. I can’t imagine a talking raccoon being done any other way.
I have often voiced my appreciation for Marvel’s willingness to experiment with the tones of their live action movies. This year is the perfect example. They have gone from gloomy seriousness in Captain America: The Winter Soldier to The Guardians of the Galaxy which is basically a comedy. It is the most offbeat movie in the Marvel Universe, owing more to Star Wars than to The Avengers.
And it works brilliantly.


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