The Cathedral of Space and Brand Survival in Interstellar

Interstellar 3

Christopher Nolan might not be the incomparable artiste that Paul Thomas Anderson has become, the lyrical poet that Terrence Malick succeeds at being, or the rabble-rousers that the sicko David Fincher and the pop pastiche-aholic Quentin Tarantino are…but damn it, he’s the best Brand there is in Hollywood.  You know what you are getting every time you see a Christopher Nolan film, and unlike, say a Michael Bay, you should be ecstatic you’re getting it.  He’s going to entertain you and make you think while conjuring his own impossible cinematic dreams, attempt (sometimes clumsily but always admirably) to tap into a zeitgeist, dazzle you with his technical skill, twist the plot and up the dramatic ante every time he steps behind that camera.

His sprawling space opera, Interstellar, is no exception.  It is at times wondrously ridiculous and miraculously beautiful in its ambitions

In the not so distant future, food is running out from over-population and environmental calamities that have produced a new Dust Bowl.  There people are forced into farming as society has transformed from one of innovation to one of scraping by that has been branded as “caretaking.”  It is here where the widowed Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) eeks out an existence with his son and daughter, Murphy (played by Mackenzie Foy as a child and Jessica Chastain as an adult), while he dreams of his lost opportunity to be an astronaut after a test flight crash and the disbanding of NASA years earlier.  The boy has already been tested by the school system and found to be a perfect candidate to be a farmer, while the smart-as-a-whip Murphy gets suspended for bringing a book to school that teaches the Lunar landing as a fact and triumph of the human spirit, when the new consensus teaches it was Cold War propaganda (and no one should ever dream of space travel again as growing food is the only noble pursuit).

But strange things start happening.  Automatic technology (drones and plows) begin acting up.  There are gravitational anomalies happening.  And Murphy thinks there is a ghost in the farmhouse trying to deliver her a message.  It all adds up to father and daughter stumbling upon a secret base where, lo and behold, Cooper’s former professor, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), is leading an underground NASA team that has discovered a wormhole beyond Saturn and is plotting manned voyages to search for inhabitable planets on the other side.  The very survival of the human race is dependent on their mission, and they want Coop to pilot the next one which will be headed by Dr. Brand’s own daughter, the aptly named Amelia (Anne Hathaway). Continue reading

The Mystery of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

All the lonely people...

All the lonely people…

Ned Benson’s somber relationship drama, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, is not a mystery despite the title, though it’s plenty puzzling.  The version reviewed here, Them, is an edited combination of what was originally two separate films, Him and Her.  It flips back and forth between our two players Conor (James McAvoy, donning an unconvincing American accent) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain, all pale grief and feigned smiles) as their marriage disintegrates, but it never plays its gimmick out with the obvious one scene played twice from different points of view gag.  That may have actually made the film a bit more interesting, though it would’ve also added to the film’s already burdensome two-hour-plus runtime.

After surviving a leap from a bridge, Eleanor moves back in with her parents (William Hurt as the stereotypical soft-spoken bearded professor and Isabelle Huppert as a drunk French former violinist) and single-mom sister (a likable Jess Weixler, who it would’ve been nice to learn more about), while taking a class on the theory of identity taught by a bitter but wise woman (Viola Davis).  Meanwhile, Conor is moping around his failing restaurant, lashing out at customers and his best friend/chef (Bill Hader) and moves back in with his recently thrice divorced and overly philosophical father (Ciaran Hinds, always good).  Slowly but surely we find out the real reason behind the break-up and their decent into the spiral of grief (hint: it’s not just about losing each other), and it is indeed tragic and hangs a pall over the whole family, not just our protagonists.

The film is filled with talking it out and philosophical ponderings espoused by really good performers.  In lesser acting hands, the film would’ve been an outright mess.  The characters speak dialogue sincerely as if read from discarded Felicity-era WB melodramas and self-help books.

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Mama Say Mama Don’t

Why the hell did I agree to be in this?

Why the hell did I agree to be in this?

It might only be the third weekend of January, but the new horror flick Mama is already in the running for worst film of the year. These type of children obsessed ghost stories (dating back to The Ring) are a dime a dozen, and they are usually awful but harmless. Mama, on the other hand, refuses to rest on its clichéd laurels, and instead defies all logic and genre conventions to deliver not one, but two, overly convoluted (and downright stupid) back-stories to explain its improbable tale. Which isn’t to say the film (if it can even be called a film) doesn’t shove every cliché down our throat from the creepy kid (times two!) to the insane-for-no-reason-other-than-the-plot-mother to the weird-noise-making-bending-backwards-ghost.

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No Ruth My Love in Zero Dark Thirty

Director Kathryn Bigelow and star Jessica Chastain hold a mirror up to the manhunt for Bin Laden in ZERO DARK THIRTY.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and star Jessica Chastain hold a mirror up to the manhunt for Bin Laden in ZERO DARK THIRTY.

America’s grand dame of literature, Toni Morrison, has given us many haunting words…but none have echoed in my mind more than the ones from A Mercy when a young girl who has lived through a colonial hellscape in 17th century Virginia announces to the world that she is, “In full.  Unforgiven.  Unforgiving.  No ruth, my love.  None.  Hear me?”

I’d like to think that former art student and painter Kathryn Bigelow has read Morrison, but who knows?  That’s the beauty of connecting one piece of art to another.  Morrison’s words came to clear mind while watching Bigelow’s tightly wound dramatization of events more recent – the man hunt for Osama Bin Laden – in Zero Dark Thirty.  How does one fight against terrorist enemies who are willing to kill anyone (including themselves) to achieve their mission?  Well, the answer is painfully simple.  You show them no ruth.  No mercy.  And you hunt them down by any means necessary and kill them. 

At the center of Bigelow’s film is one of filmdom’s greatest female characters of all time (all the more powerful for having been based on a real-life CIA analyst still working in the field), an agent named Maya played with calculated precision by Jessica Chastain (the doe-eyed red-head, all awkward coils that are both sinewy and frail, and with a soft voice that hides her steely demeanor beneath) who announces her talents to the world with this role much in the way that Cate Blanchett first staked her claim as the Queen in Elizabeth.  Here we see Maya’s journey over ten years from wunderkind analyst to ruthless field operative.  Continue reading

Bootlegging, Brothers and Chastain in Lawless

The ubiquitous Tom Hardy teams up with the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain for Lawless.

In Prohibition Era Virginia, in those verdant smoky hills of Franklin County, the bootlegging Bondurant Brothers are the kings of a moonshine ring operating peacefully with the local law enforcement and treated as legends by the townsfolk.  Oldest brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) is known for his stoic invincibility (he survived WWI and Spanish influenza), middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is a barely functioning drunk who wields quick fists of justice, and youngest sibling Jack (Shia LaBeouf) has been living in their shadows as the kid brother too afraid to take a stand or shoot a gun.  When a big-time gangster from Chicago named Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) comes down into the area for business, Jack is in awe and sees it as an opportunity to recast himself as a savvy hot-shot.  But with Banner’s big business comes a new ruthless big city lawman, Special Deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce) looking to break-up the Bondurants and their cohorts through any means necessary.

Lawless director John Hillcoat is no stranger to this brand of lawlessness.  His blisteringly violent and philosophical Aussie Western The Proposition was one of my favorite films of 2006.  He then went on to paint a lawless post-apocalyptic vision in his dour adaptation of the dour novel, The Road.  As with The Proposition, Hillcoat re-teams with screenwriter and musician Nick Cave, who adapted the story from Matt Bondurant’s own family history, The Wettest County in the World, while working again on the score with Warren Ellis.  Continue reading

Keep Watching the Skies and Take Shelter

Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Sundance hit Take Shelter is a haunting slow-burner about a man trying to weather the storms from within and without.  It exists at that rare cinematic nexus of emerging talents in front of and behind the camera.  It’s the type of small film that deserves a bigger audience than it has thus far earned.

In the lead role of Curtis, Michael Shannon (currently mayor of creep city on Boardwalk Empire) builds upon his past typecasting in films like Revolutionary Road and My Son My Son What Have Yee Done? to fully inhabit a man at wit’s end.  As his wife, Samantha, Jessica Chastain emerges from the dreamy otherworldliness of Malick’s The Tree of Life to portray a lovely down-to-earth young woman who fights with every fiber of her being to keep her family together even as she fears her husband is losing his mind.  Shannon’s unnerving physical performance and average schlub personality is the perfect foil to Chastain’s girl-next-door beauty and gumption.  Together they dance through Nichols’ quiet mind-field and let off tiny emotional explosions that could rattle the doors off a barn…or a storm cellar. Continue reading

The Two Faces of Helen Mirren

Oscar-winner Helen Mirren is at the point in her career where she is an institution in the world of acting.  Actresses occupying this rarefied air (like Streep) generally will pick roles either for fun or to win awards (though they would never admit to that).  Whether doing it for fun or for serious posturing, Mirren’s name instantly adds a sense of class and gravitas to any film she stars in.  This past Labor Day weekend, movie-goers could see The Helen Mirren in two puzzling films, Brighton Rock and The Debt

Helen Mirren in BRIGHTON ROCK

 

Helen Mirren in THE DEBT

 

***POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD – Read With Caution***

First up is Brighton Rock.  Whether you view it as a remake of the 1947 quasi-classic (of which I wasn’t a big fan) or as a different adaptation of Graham Greene’s classic 1937 novel (which I loved and count among his best)…the film has no reason to exist, which isn’t to say it’s all that bad.  Director Rowan Joffe lays on the atmosphere thickly, and for the most part the film is engaging enough.  The seedy underbelly of England’s seaside resort town of Brighton is brought to life in grand fashion with nice production values, moody lighting and ominous waves crashing underneath the pier, though there is a rather oppressive music score to accompany it.  Continue reading

Memory and Magic in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Like an Andrew Wyeth painting come to life, Malick's obsession with open doors and windows conjures myth and memories.

Nature is a cruel and unforgiving mistress.
 
Over time, man has conjured God to tame her and give reason and order to the random chaos.
 
In present day, a man named Jack (Sean Penn) wanders listlessly through a cold, sterile metropolis where success is measured by wealth and excess.  On the anniversary of his brother’s death, a call to his father triggers an ocean of memories to come rushing over him.  Distracted, he daydreams and wonders about the meaning of life and why his brother had to be taken from him.  Was it because of the bad things he did as a child?  Was it a failure on the part of his parents?  Is it because his God is a mysterious and unknowable power that snuffs out life as easily as it gives it away?  Is this why he has become so misguided and empty today?  Jack imagines his childhood bookended by the beginning and end of time, where writer/director Terrence Malick’s meta-narrative provides a linear mirror image to Weerasethakul’s cosmic cycling from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.  Memories and dreams fuel both films, but The Tree of Life cuts through time like a knife. Continue reading