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Out in Theaters: ‘DUNKIRK’

A visceral sensation from start to finish, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk delivers the experience that 3D has promised to for so many years. Immensely immersive, Dunkirk envelopes you in its perfectly orchestrated chaos from the very first moments, surrounding you with the sights and sounds of war-torn Dunkirk as soldiers scurry for safety, hugging you in a sickly embrace of unease while Hans Zimmers’ sublimely nerve-inducing score tears at your composure. Hypnotic in its ability to put you on edge and suck you headfirst into the screen, Nolan’s sure-to-be Oscar juggernaut forces you to scour every inch of the screen for danger and refuses to relent for but a moment. A layered triptych that integrates three disparate narratives, all working on their own timelines, Dunkirk is nothing short of a verifiable masterstroke of cinematic construction and the lauded director’s most artistic and impassioned vision yet.  Read More

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Out in Theaters: INTERSTELLAR

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Don’t be fooled, Interstellar is no blockbuster. Nor is it the critical darling think piece so many expected it to be. It seems crafted to engulf the minds of the critical community in nit-picky debates about minute details; destined to conjure up various theories and interpretations (a la Inception) but I don’t see that happening. For all its loopholes, space travel and time relativity, it’s relatively straightforward. Almost shockingly so. That’s not to say that it doesn’t aim for something more; for something meant to transcend your usual theatrical experience. Christopher Nolan reaches for the stars. He comes up short.

There’s no battles, no aliens, no ticking time bomb. Interstellar‘s a film about blackness and bleakness; dust storms and global scarcity; destiny and family. A gun doesn’t once appear on the screen. There’s not even really a villain so much as an antagonist with a competing view of the greater good and a finer tuned sense of self-preservation. The villain is in a sense time itself. And Planet Earth. And dust.

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At a critical juncture, Matthew McConaughey‘s Cooper convinces Anne Hathaway‘s Amelia that time is a precious resource. With a nearly three hour running time and a bulk of scenes this guy deems unnecessary, Nolan tends towards squandering said resource. Establishing shots are at first spent on Earth; Cooper’s a retired NASA pilot and now a farmer. His children Murph (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet, later Casey Affleck) have only known a world of ashes and dust. Crops around the world have become infected and extinct. Corn is the last consumable vestige of survival on Earth and its kernelly goodness is fast fading. But as time bends onward, the whole scarcity act is swallowed up by the impending doom of super blustery dust storms; the harbinger of phlegmy coughs; humankind’s asthmatic nemesis. The corn supply isn’t quite in top shape but there’s apparently enough to go around to serve meals of corn fritters, corn on the cob and corn bread. The classic corn triple play.

When a gravitational anomaly sends Cooper and Murph to a top secret NASA base, Cooper is recruited to man a mission into the intergalactic unknown in hopes of discovering new resources and, ultimately, salvation for humankind. About as little time is spent on the logistical rationale behind Cooper showing up and shipping off within what seems like a matter of days as it is on Professor Brand’s (Michael Caine) uncompromising over-reliance on this has-been pilot. It makes about as much sense as Rambo showing up on the White House’s doorstep and being asked to lead the president (who in this case is obviously 1997 Harrison Ford) to the front lines of an ISIS mass beheading assault. I mean it’d be cool and all but what?

Utterly enraptured by the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Brand is all about doing things the “ungentle” way. He’s so Thomas-esque, the man is basically rage against the machine. So after one (1) meeting with ol’ Cooper, Brand’s got him strapped into a (must have been) multi-billion dollar top-secret aircraft set on a world-saving mission. Because anything that’s roughly as logical as Armageddon is apparently good to go for screenwriter bros Christopher and Jonathan Nolan.

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And this comes down to the main issue of Interstellar: the Nolan Bro’s screenplay. For a usually straight-laced, sober duo, their scribemanship here has a prevailing feeling of being one bong rip too deep. It’s hard – if not entirely impossible – to defend some of the Nolans’ more hokey moments – the “love connection” speech, obviously telegraphed dialogue, the debatable “fifth dimension” scene, that ending… –  and it all winds up feeling like a mixture of trying too hard and not trying hard enough. It’s at once Nolan’s most shamelessly sentimental film, but also his most emotionally honest. Only when it tips into a wholly saccharine realm, it turns entirely unbecoming. Once those thematically iffy moments bind themselves to the finale and become inextricably germane to the larger themes at play, Interstellar shows itself for being a half-baked, if fully beautiful, failed experiment in synthesizing the inimitable success of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

That’s because Interstellar is an exercise in blue balls. It keeps getting so close to giving us what we wants and then shies away at the last moment; revealing a much less sexy underbelly as it goes. It’s an intimate human voyage through time and space, beset with little to no set pieces and made picture perfect with a massive budget and technical wizards hammering out intergalactic spacescapes the likes of none other. The pieces are all right; the whole just doesn’t come together as it should. You can almost smell its desire to be something more. The sting of it letting you down is palpable as it closes up shop and that’s partially what makes it the laudable misfire it is.

Seeing the film in one of seventy-one 70mm IMAX screening around the world imbued me with a great sense of privilege until I saw the actual picture. On Earth, it’s dusty. Grainy. Sometimes inexplicably unfocused. In space, it’s unreal. Otherworldly. Wormholes have never looked so sexy. The one hour of full-blown, in-your-face, pants-pissin’ IMAX shots does come around to save the day – justifying the costly asking price – though Hans Zimmer‘s theater-rumbling score often crosses the threshold into full blown audio assault if experienced in the large-picture, super-duper loud format. His low throbbing Gothic bass notes declare all out war on your eardrums as they crescendo and decrescendo. Turned down a notch lower, it’s one of the finest aspects of the film (a film that is more often than not a visual treat.) But like candy, the FX-heavy landscape doesn’t nourish a greater sense of thought-provoking reflection so much as sheer awe; nonetheless, it’s a thing to enjoy in all its savory nutritionlessness.  

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Nolan swings for the rafters and ends up splicing it just at the perfect angle where you can’t quite tell if it’s gonna be a home run or a foul ball. You hang in anticipation. And right at that moment of truth – in that prevailing reverent silence – the ball disappears into a wormhole. It’s hard to confirm whether Nolan’s latest is really an instance of Casey at Bat or, like 2001, his sci-fi opus will take years to fully digest, appreciate and understand. But I would tend towards the later not being the case. It is just heady and barely open-ended enough to stomach an argument for the other side. Though I’d have to likely also be offered corn bread.

The success and/or failure of Interstellar is hard to quantify. It’s grand and self-aggrandizing. It’s often more numb than it is smart. It’s a visual feast to behold with the emotional stakes to match. The talent both in front of and behind the camera (visual effects teams in particular) is rapturous and almost entirely engrossing. Though the “who’s who” of talent doesn’t ever pretend that Interstellar is a true actor’s film, McConaughey has a few scene where he dusts off his Oscar and lets it all hang out. When he does, hearts will break. But like a kid who ate too much candy and puked on a Picasso, Interstellar is only truly beautiful once you wipe all the muck off.

One thing seems certain: this will likely be the last time the studio system cuts Nolan a blank check to do with as he will. His directorial carte blanche will expire when it inevitably disappoints at the international box office. His license to kill will all but be revoked. It’s almost tragic but, time being a flat circle and all, it’s also inevitable. If only the Nolans bros had let Rust Cohle free to wax on time and stuff when they do decide to unleash their philosophical digressions. Apparently that’s just too much to ask.

With Interstellar, Nolan rages against the dying of the light, but like a theater minor without the proper know-how, he rages just a little too hard.

C+

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Out in Theaters: TRANSCENDENCE

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Every once in a blue moon an unsung talent breaks out of their wheelhouse to extraordinary results.  Quentin Tarantino famously emerged from a video store, learning his craft at the film school of VHS rentals. Ron Howard was a can-kicking child actor before stepping in to direct acclaimed films like Apollo 13, Rush and Academy Award winner A Beautiful Mind. Even Japanese auteur and samurai-lordship himself Akira Kurosawa trained as a painter before ever stepping behind a camera. The lesson is: great directors can come from pretty much anywhere. Wally Pfister, longtime cinematographer for Christopher Nolan (another cinebuff who did not receive formal film school education) and head hancho of Transcendence, has spent the better part of two decades behind a camera. But this is the first time he’s sat in the black foldout chair etched with the word “director.” In this 100 million dollar dry run of his, he’s all but sullied the name.

Pfister directs Transcendence with the style of a National Geographic cinematographer. He looms on intimate nature shots – drops of water claim close ups like they’re signing off Sunset Boulevard – before casting panoramic crane shots of jumbled mountains cloaked in forest or tumbleweed-kicking stretch of desert lit up by solar panels as far as the eye can see. Pfister’s settings are beautifully lighted and wonderfully scenic but they still feel like the work of a DP showing off in full masturbatory fashion. Any certifiable director would have slashed wasted minutes lingering on Kodak moments without blinking.

While Pfister flexes his eye for topography, the story beats from screenwriter Jack Paglen quickly become the biggest point of contention. Paglen’s plot follows Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a brilliant scientist on the verge of breaking new ground on AI technology that will forever change the world. Talked into a presentation to secure grant money by wife and partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), Will (Paglen’s cipher) brings up some interesting questions about our relationship to technology. Since SkyNet, we’ve had a general distrust of technology overtaking their human creators. The threat lies in supremacy. While human minds are capped by biological limitations, machines face no such boundaries (a theme that Spike Jonze‘s Her explored in much simpler and yet more compelling and grandiose terms). This goes on to become the central theme of the movie: can we trust technology that outgrows us?

As one might expect, not everyone in Paglen’s tale thinks an all-powerful machine is a good thing so anti-technology, terrorist network Rift, lead by an inexcusably bleach blonde Kate Mara, are willing to do whatever it takes to prevent a future that involves Terminators, the Matrix, and whatnot. Cue an assassination attempt on Will that proves slowly successful (radiation poisoning FTW!). Will’s ticking clock leads Evelyn to take the next step in their research by “uploading” Will’s consciousness into the existing model of AI, code name PIMM. While his body withers and dies, his “self” is transferred into a super computer. Colleague and trusted friend of the Crasters, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), says that the thing in the computer ain’t Will no more but Evelyn just won’t hear it. Like Joaquin Phoenix, she’s seduced by Depp’s Him.

And speaking of Depp, can we all just finally own up to the fact that he’s just not a good actor? He depends on hairdos to express his emotional status (also, why does every movie scientist need at least one scene with frazzled bedhead?) and not caked in makeup or prancing around a Tim Burton set, he’s just dull to watch. Even without the weird, he’s still oppressively meh. It doesn’t help that his lines and those of his co-stars sound like they were scrawled into a napkin hours before shooting. Some of Paglen’s philosophy masks itself as high concept but with dialogue this trawling, Paglen reveals his cupboard isn’t filled with China. Pfister, likewise, proves inept at directing his actors, a cast that by all means ought to bring more to the table than they do. As things are, they’re like the guests who all cheaped out and brought baguettes to a wine party.

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Pfister’s begged and borrowed a cast from cohort Nolan only to have nothing to do with them. Morgan Freeman only seems here to give a brief voice over (that adds nothing to the film). Otherwise, he looks confused and is always a few minutes behind the other characters. He looked more engaged in his infamous Now You See Me interview than he is here. Cillian Murphy, on the other hand, just has absolutely nothing to do. He might be an under-appreciated talent but not so much that he would sign off for such a flat and lifeless role ad nauseum. Are production re-writes to blame or was Pfister cashing in favors across the board? I guess we’ll never know.

Act one and two have their issues but are by-in-large competently compelling bites of fiction, especially in the context of the ghastly third act. When Pfister, Depp and Co. round the bases and start the journey to home plate, everything gets totally sacked. Rome wasn’t build in a day but it sure could burn in one. Like Will’s late stage admission that “There’s not enough power!”, the internal logic of the film goes haywire in a thoughtless ending that I still can’t make heads or tails of. Instead of offering up an earned and earnest conclusion, Pfister and Paglen eschew explanation like a student who’s “dog ate their homework”. It’s as unsatisfying as one pringle, as tasteless as a whole wheat bun.

Plot mechanics are omnipresent and omnipotent until the script demands it not so, characters unfold incompatible reveals without satisfying explanation, and by the end… well it’s hard to even say how the thing even ended but I’m pretty sure the Apes won? It’s like if Inception had forgone the spinning top for a closing shot of a grinning Leo clone. Keep the WTFs in the can of worms please. Pfister’s shown he can replicate Nolan in broad strokes but, like an AI’s inability to prove its self-awareness, he misses the inexplicable piece that makes a story feel human… oh, and good.

C-

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Christopher Nolan Teases With INTERSTELLAR Trailer

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Few directors garner as much hype as Christopher Nolan these days. His skill at straddling the line between being interesting enough for thoughtful film-goers and stupid enough to make everyone else feel smart, has garnered him a great reputation with audiences and made him a safe bet for studios. For roughly the past year, the only info on his upcoming project, aside from some casting news, has been the name. After watching the first teaser for Interstellar, we don’t know much more.  The synopsis reveals that it will have something to do with space travel and wormholes. Thank you, Chris, for not showing us the whole movie yet.

Showing footage of some of humanities greatest achievements, Matthew McConaughey narrates, implying that we have lost the ambition that drove us to such great heights. He is shown driving through a field at the end, looking determined.

It is nice to see Nolan breaking away from his usual suspects here, casting McConaughey (who has been nothing but fantastic for the past few years), Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, and Ellen Burstyn. Michael Caine is the only Nolan regular here. Look forward to likely seeing another Nolan hit next November. 

Interstellar is directed by Christopher Nolan and stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Casey Affleck. It hits theaters November 7th 2014.

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