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Out in Theaters: ‘BLADE RUNNER 2049’ 

Let’s get one thing straight, Blade Runner 2049 is superb and stupefying. Dreamlike production design, fiercely thoughtful direction, poetic and often brilliant storytelling, sublime world building and excellent performances across the board all add up to a sequel that fits perfectly into the cinescape that Ridley Scott imagined nearly 30 years ago while carrying its story forward in exciting, imaginative and wholly fulfilling new ways. Expanding on themes of humanity and identity native to Phillip K. Dick’s novella “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, Blade Runner 2049 both expands a world wherein humanoid androids and their homosapien masters co-exist while narrowing it down to a small ensemble of meaningful characters, all who have their part to play. This time the focus is K (Ryan Gosling), a LAPD Blade Runner who struggles with his own identity while hunting down and “retiring” outdated android models.  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 Theathers: SON OF GOD

“Son of God”
Directed by Christopher Spencer 
Starring Diogo Morgado, Sebastian Knapp, Darwin Shaw, Greg Hicks, Roma Downey, Amber Rose Revah 
Drama 
138 Mins 
PG-13

In the beginning, there was a voice-over, and the voice-over was long, and the film was without thought.

So often, directors confuse narration for exposition, pontification for perspicacity. What initiates Son of God is irreverence. To unfurl the tale, John (Sebastian Knapp) begins by reciting his own gospel. But speaking his own verse doesn’t create depth, it barely brushes the surface. As the beginning goes, so the rest of the work follows. In a matter of seconds, director Christopher Spencer opens a box he never thinks to unpack.

There’s a mural in the heart of Minneapolis, painted on an old building that sits right on the I-35W highway exit. No one really knows how long it’s been there or who painted it, but it’s withstood time’s trying test and Minnesota’s endless winters. And, just like anything that can brave the cold, Minneapolis has taken it in as its own.

My mom and I used to drive past it when she would drop me off at school. I’d see it every day: that warm bearded face, the rainbow and those ominous words—”Love Power.” He always had his arms spread, asking “So, what?” as if I were missing something. The mural became a lost fragment of my childhood, a curious symbol I never understood. It never stopped smiling.

In Summer 2007, Bridge 9340—the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge my mom and I used to cross—collapsed, just blocks away from that damned mural. Fourteen people were killed, 145 more injured. My mom drove over it that day. Yet there was Jesus on the wall, still smiling in the faded light with his arms spread wide. “So, what?” 

Love Power

The Bible is a clamshell pack of questions just waiting to be cut open. Anyone can repeat the gospel, but what good does that do if nothing is being questioned or held in critical doubt? Who is John? Why is his word important? And who is this Jesus guy? All questions that need to explored. Spencer handles these inquiries as delicately as a UPS guy handles a package; his film delivers as much substance as a packing peanut.

Son of God’s main problem is that it never gives thought to anything. The film is being marketed as a powerful, compelling, epic retelling of Jesus’ life from birth to resurrection. Truly, truly I say to you, Spencer’s latest work is none of those things.

How this film was even made requires some kind of deep noetic exploration into Christopher Spencer’s mind. Confusion and incongruity are his tools, awful storytelling his trade. He’s the master of “tell, don’t show.” Even with the Bible as source material, he somehow manages to flummox everything. For someone whose name means “Christ-bearer,” all he does is trample Him and befuddle us.

Most scenes quote Jesus (played catastrophically by Diogo Morgado—we’ll get to him later) word-for-word, but their meaning doesn’t seem to matter or even fit into the narrative. We’re made to believe his every word is profound, but he just seems dazed and protean. Even for those who know the Bible it’s hard to follow Spencer’s vision as he sloppily slams ambiguous scenes together like pegs into round holes. As such, Son of God essentially becomes a cinematic SparkNotes for the Lord’s Word—the Jesus Storybook Bible of biblical films. Call it the Caption of the Christ

Spencer’s first feat in confusion comes early on and never relents. Everyone in this film is apparently veddy-veddy British, as if they were all cast at the local London Actors’ Studio. Whether this was intentional or Spencer just said “fuck it,” and gave up isn’t clear. For a story that tries to adhere to Biblical truth, this choice is so foolish and so absolutely bad so as to discredit the entire work on its own. Overall, the acting is putrid, especially given the whole British-accent-in-Jerusalem thing, which exacerbates the terribleness of it all. Roman governors and Jewish priests are more British than Emma Thompson, and Jesus’ cast of disciples seem taken out of a Monty Python skit. They’re certainly just as (unintentionally) funny.

There isn’t much to say about Jesus Himself. A Portuguese guy, Diogo Morgado, is dreadfully miscast as the bearded messiah. Morgado is to Jesus as Juan Pablo is to The Bachelor. His jumbled, mangled English locks him into a constant perplexed state whereby a prophet becomes a muddling fool. Frankly, he had some good moments, but he just wasn’t right for the part. Especially considering, well (Spoiler Alert for the Heaven-bound), that Jesus wasn’t white. 

Visually, this film looks as if it were filmed on sandpaper in place of 35mm film. Buildings look grimy, the “stunning locales” are butt-ugly, and the shot selection is atrocious. Credit to Spencer, I actually felt like I had sand in my pants. As if that weren’t enough, even the CGI is a special kind of awful. Which is cute until you realize that this film had a $22 million budget. Where that money went? No clue, but it definitely wasn’t spent on making the buildings look like they weren’t stolen from Journey of Jesus: The CallingSon of God isn’t homily: it’s homely.

Spencer stamps his own dramatic flair on every moment. Clearly he’s a fan of the extreme close-up, as it was used almost half the time. After Jesus dies (SPOILER), we get an on-screen “3 Days Later” in Arabian font. Really. Nice. Touch. Not even Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight, Inception) can save this piteously boring dreck; his doleful score peppers every moment with fallacious feeling. Boy, did that dulcimer’s minor chords communicate depth of emotion. Then, an eagle cry: GYAHHH. 

Look, Son of God didn’t need to be a hermeneutical Bible study, it just needed real emotion, real passion and real questions. Without thought, word is fallow. For a film that promises an epic, truthful retelling of the Bible, all it did was leave me hungry for actual answers. Give me the real Jesus.

We’ve all got a “Love Power:” our own figure in the light, our symbol for hope and security that we keep deep inside. Connecting with that figure in the light is religion; doubting it is faith. Ultimately, Son of God never cared to ask “so, what?” Yet, somehow, somewhere, Jesus is still smiling.

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

D

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