Archive | November, 2014

Interstellar (2014)

28 Nov

Interstellar-Movie-Trailer

Smith’s Verdict: **1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Maybe it’s because I’m noticing more of Christopher Nolan’s film trademarks (and frankly, getting a little tired of them) that I didn’t like his latest film, “Interstellar,” very much. Christopher Nolan has made some truly impressive, groundbreaking films, such as “Memento,” the “Dark Knight” trilogy, and “Inception”…but watching them again, I feel like these already-terrific films could be even better if the characters acted like real people. The characters’ emotions are always present, but what Nolan always seems to ask from his actors is that they always know how heavy the weight of their situations are, and so they say their lines in a sort-of monotone way while saying dialogue that is mostly made up of philosophical insight and plot exposition. Nolan never seems to want audiences to feel for themselves what it means for his characters to do what they do; he seems to want the characters to talk about it themselves.

Before anyone attacks me, “The Dark Knight” and “Memento” happen to be two of my all-time favorite films. I admire the in-depth conversations in both films because most of them do give the material more power. Why do I appreciate his most glaring trademark in those films and not in “Interstellar?”

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the story. It’s in the future (though a specific year isn’t mentioned), and the world is falling apart due to famine and blight, causing dust storms to appear and crops to die. Former NASA test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his family farm acres of corn that he owns and do their best to adapt in this world where humanity most likely is getting closer to its doom.

Cooper’s daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), keeps noticing a strange occurrence in her bedroom that she thinks is caused by a ghost. She brings her father in on the discovery and interprets these signs as Morse code (this child is either very intelligent or has had a lot of time to think about this—hey, that’s another Nolan trademark). Well, she’s right, and it draws Cooper to a secret location, where NASA is operating as a think-tank to save humanity. One of their solutions is to get people off the planet and into a space station. The only problem is overcoming gravity to send the ship into outer space. But Professor Brand (Michael Caine) has an idea to send Cooper and a small crew, including Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and a sarcastic robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), through a wormhole near Saturn that was most likely placed there by a superior intelligence presumably to give humanity a chance of survival. With Cooper as pilot, he and his group set out to see what’s out there. The main drawback to attempt saving the world: the mission will most likely take decades to complete, which is how long Cooper will be separated from his family. Murph is particularly upset and resentful as she feels she’s being abandoned.

The first-third of “Interstellar,” which is 45 minutes of a 170-minute film, is fine and it does give us a good look at what it’s like for these people (Cooper, his kids, and his father-in-law, played by John Lithgow) live in this ominous scenario and having to deal with this world every day. Though, there are some parts that I found laughable—for example, the public-school system has new science textbooks that explain how the NASA moon-landing was all fake and staged. Why? Well, because they don’t want the students to even think about the possibility of leaving Earth. (I don’t know; schools are weird. Apparently, nowadays, you get in trouble for saying “bless you” when someone sneezes.) Another odd moment is when the characters attend a ball game and apparently no one notices the approaching massive dust cloud right away. But aside from those parts, it does a good job at establishing the relationship between Cooper and Murph, so that when Cooper has to tell Murph that he’s leaving, it’s very moving. Cooper is not willing to abandon his family, but he knows the chance to save the human race, and his family, is his to take when it’s offered. (But did he really have to make the situation worse by joking that maybe he and Murphy will be the same age when he gets back, because seemingly he won’t age in space? I mean, come on; that was kind of cruel.) And the first act has a pretty good buildup of a mystery involving who made the wormhole, who or what is out there, who or what was causing the anomaly in the first place, what’s the significance of the “ghost,” etc.

I have to give credit to a great transition to the second-third, which goes into the “space” portion of the film, as Cooper and crew blast off into outer space. It shows Cooper driving away from home, as we hear a countdown. At the end of the countdown, there he is, in front of the spacecraft, taking off. No training sequence—just an immediate transition. But unfortunately, the film doesn’t have that kind of smooth cutting for the following hour or so, and I’m afraid it needed it.

But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. When Cooper, Amelia, TARS, and the other astronauts, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), set off in space to embark on their journey through the wormhole. But what do they find in the wormhole? A planet covered in water and a planet covered in ice.

Let’s get to the good things about this long section of the film. The wormhole is spectacular and definitely deserves to be experienced on the big screen, with the best surround sound. The water-planet makes for a suspenseful moment in which the crew must leave before a massive wave comes along to envelop everything. When I saw that wave coming, I got goosebumps; I’m not going to lie. And that some of the icy mountains on the other planet are upside-down and some are even clouds! That’s impressive. And later on, they come across a black hole that is also amazing to look at; maybe even more so than the wormhole. And there is time for legitimately dramatic moments, such as when Cooper realizes how long he’s been gone and watches video messages from Earth that show his kids grow older, while he can only sit and weep at what he’s lost and probably can’t get back.

But unfortunately, this large portion of the film is also the weakest. When all is said and done, these planets are unspectacular; they’re just water and ice. Couldn’t there have been more imagination to go with these planets in a science-fiction story? The adventurous parts of this “epic” science-fiction film are not very epic as a result, and it only gets worse when half of it is made up of that typical Nolan trademark I mentioned before: lots and lots of dialogue having to do with exposition, philosophy, meaning, etc. Only every now and then do the characters behave like real people, and that’s always only for just a few seconds before it’s back to explaining and spewing more dramatic ironies and so on. Oh, and lots and lots of scientific babble.

A lot of people have been wondering whether or not the science in this story is accurate, which really fascinates me because I didn’t think you were supposed to question science in a science-fiction story. There are a lot of talks about relativity and complex physics and so on, and because there is so much dialogue that gives us theory upon theory upon theory, maybe that’s why people who watch this film question it, because they want to know if they should trust it. Well, it’s still science-fiction, and I just sort of go with whatever one can think of, when it’s executed properly.

Though, I did learn that one of the executive producers of this film is CalTech physicist Kip Thorne, so I don’t know; maybe the science is accurate. So there you go.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the Earth scenes that show Murph (now played as an adult by Jessica Chastain), assisting Brand in NASA and still resentful of her father leaving. You would think that after all these years of working for these people who sent him on this mission, she would’ve gotten over it by now. Doesn’t she know the world is at stake and he left to protect the human race? I get it; she feels like her father abandoned her. But sheesh, look at the big picture, why doesn’t she?

Nolan is a hell of a storyteller, which is why most of his films work as well as they do. And even when his stories seem uneven, like this one, there is a big payoff. “Interstellar” is no exception. The last third of the film is quite strong and powerful and, being a Nolan film, quite complex. I won’t give it away, but it gets the emotions right and provides a satisfying resolution to the story. But even then, it has its questionable moments, such as an ending that I thought went against what it was about.

There are strong elements in “Interstellar,” particularly the battle between circumstance and emotion that’s always present and has people wondering what’s more important and of course, being a Nolan film, what it means. And it is serviceable for audiences who just prefer to turn their brain off and watch some good sci-fi action (I forgot to mention an improbable but riveting scene involving trying to lock a craft in place from underneath a space station) or those who just want to get a good emotional experience. But I feel like the film is overblown by Christopher Nolan’s ambition to make it something grand and epic, and as a result, I feel that this is what causes the film’s undoing for me. I hate to say this about a filmmaker I often called one of the greats, and to be fair, maybe it’s because I’m noticing (and being slightly annoyed by) more of his trademarks, particularly with his directing and writing, that I wasn’t getting into “Interstellar” as much as I wanted to as I was entering the theater. But this film just didn’t do much for me.

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Whiplash (2014)

27 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When you really think about it, that determined quest to be “one of the greats” in whatever field or craft is kind of disturbing, because you have to wonder how far that person going for it is willing to go to prove to be “great?” At what point is the line drawn? This can make for an unnerving story, because any artist is going to feel that kind of pressure and maybe even ponder about whether or not it’s worth it. Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” decides to go for it. Here’s a film about the progress of a budding musician executed with the intensity and tightness of a thriller. This easily could’ve been a feel-good story about a mentor pushing his student to the limit and both learning a lesson in a happy ending. But no—this film has a major, upsetting twist on the mentor/student relationship that makes it horrific and yet captivating.

They say with power comes fear, and that’s especially true with Terence Fletcher, played powerfully by the always-reliable character actor J.K. Simmons in probably the best performance of his long career. Fletcher is the orchestra instructor from hell. He runs his band with the intensity of a drill sergeant (hell, he’d probably even make R. Lee Ermey’s “Full Metal Jacket” character piss his pants!), always pushing his students to their full potential so they satisfy not only him but also themselves. But his methods are beyond unorthodox, in that the best ways he can think of to get through to these people is with bullying and sociopathic behavior.

The latest victim of Fletcher’s teachings is Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller, very good), the film’s protagonist. Andrew is a 19-year-old Manhattan music-school student who loves drumming and yearns to be one of the great jazz percussionists. One night, his drumming gets the attention of Mr. Fletcher who overhears him playing. First, Fletcher criticizes him, causing Andrew to first lose hope, and then strive to get better. He does earn a spot in Fletcher’s jazz band, where he learns from Fletcher’s teaching methods head-on.

Due to a teacher’s tough approaches, the student is challenged to understand his full potential in order to achieve his goal of being “great.” Someone once said artistry can redeem any subject matter, and even with old cinematic resources such as this central premise, it’s what is done with the narrative that makes the film what it is. And “Whiplash” doesn’t use predictability or fabricated sentiment or even a true bond between the two characters outside of the practice room (save for one scene later on, but even that’s more a way of challenging wits). It doesn’t even end the way I expect it to; it ends on a note that can be read as either tragic, triumphant, or even both. The bottom line is, “Whiplash” is not an audience-pleaser; writer-director Damien Chazelle is more concerned with telling a cautionary tale and a complex story about obsession and impulse than giving viewers what they want from a story like this. Instead of cheering Andrew on as he becomes a better drummer, we feel pity for him as he beats himself up more and more trying to become “the best,” even when the blisters on his hands bust open and bleed as he practices or even performs live.

What really keeps the film’s audience on edge throughout the film is that anything could set Fletcher off. He could seem like a nice, understanding person to talk to, but all of a sudden, he could turn on a dime and become a sadist who will chew you up and spit you out. You’re always left guessing what he’s thinking and also what it would take to cause him to act this way again. It’s when he acts nice that I get chills while watching this film. And then, at the end, when he reveals something to Andrew and it’s too late to turn back, I was so nervous for this kid that the film had my undivided attention for the remaining final act.

J.K. Simmons deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination come Oscar-time. His Fletcher portrayal is a powerhouse performance; one of the best I’ve seen all year. Any actor who can act in such an effective, unpredictable manner must be recognized. “Amazing” doesn’t begin to cut it when describing Simmons’ work here. He, along with Teller and Chazelle, helps make “Whiplash” a vibrant, riveting film that I won’t forget anytime soon.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 1 (2014)

21 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The best is yet to come, and until then, we have a lead-in that ends with To Be Continued.” “The Hunger Games,” based on the Suzanne Collins novels, is the third popular book-to-film-adaptation franchise (following “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”) to split its final story in two films. I suppose they do this because otherwise, they’d be adapting a long novel into a 4+-hour movie that they’re afraid no one would want to sit through. But let’s be honest—they mainly do this to make the studios more money.

However, my problem with this way of building up the final chapter is that the “part 1” leaves an incomplete film that is hard to criticize except to say it’s not a complete film. I’m rating “Mockingjay Part 1” three stars, with it amounting to an optimistic “incomplete” status. It’s just a film leading us into “Part 2,” which will come this summer, and as it is, it’s worthwhile for audiences and fans of the original source material. It moves the story forward with interesting developments, particularly with the character arcs, and it just builds up to what I hope will be a strong film for “Part 2.”

“Mockingjay Part 1” is the weakest film in the series because of this, though my opinion could change once I see “Part 2” and view both parts as a whole, in which case I may change my rating.

Jennifer Lawrence again returns as Katniss Everdeen, who along with Finnick (Sam Claflin) has been rescued from the Quarter Quell by a band of rebels who live in a secret military bunker known as District 13, run by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). Katniss learns her home district has been bombed by order of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and that her partner and love interest, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), is held by the Capitol and ordered to warn the rebels on TV to stand down and stop fighting or else worse things will happen to Panem. President Coin decides to use this as reason for Katniss for propaganda reasons and have a TV crew document her reasons for everyone to stand up and fight for the rebellion.

One major problem I have with this entry in the franchise is that Katniss is mostly an overblown “reluctant heroine” type. She’s a little too unwilling to participate and is kind of an emotional wreck, even when seeing firsthand how coldblooded Snow can be. It’s especially disappointing because the previous film, “Catching Fire,” ended with a haunting visual of Katniss staring at the camera, looking angry and vengeful after going through so much hell. It was an ending that got us (or at least, those who haven’t read the final Hunger Games book) hyped for the next film to see what Katniss would do to help the rebels in taking down this corrupt dictatorship led by the despicable President Snow. And then this film starts and the first shot is of her crying. She spends most of the film lethargic, withdrawn, and often worried. I realize the best way to characterize a heroine is to make her more human and let us see/feel what she’s feeling, but let’s also see more of the Katniss we thought we were going to get.

But to the film’s credit, she has reason to be this way. For this new entry is easily the darkest in the franchise (“Empire Strikes Back” territory, if you will). There are hardly any soft moments, the film focuses on the consequences of actions (hell, President Snow even orders for the destruction of a building full of people, including children, to prove a point that’s pro-Capitol), and the ending provides a shocking twist centered on one of the major characters. It does make me curious about how “Part 2” will turn out to be.

Something I hope continues with this series is the way the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who shows up for more moments of protection and broodiness, is downplayed, because God knows I’m tired of love triangles in these young-adult stories. Though, even so, it’s the least interesting aspect of the series for me because I really don’t see Gale as anything other than a buddy-type; he hardly has any personality or development as anyone else. And that’s another problem with the film—Katniss and Peeta are separated for a good chunk of the story, leaving plenty of moments involving Katniss and Gale; and yet, when they kiss, there’s still hardly any emotion because there still isn’t much we know about Gale.

“Mockingjay Part 2” has the potential to be great, and “Mockingjay Part 1” is a worthy lead-in in that case. It is worth recommending for a big screen, particularly for the superb production design, first-rate effects, and a suspenseful raid sequence late in the film. But a part of me wants to say wait for DVD and watch it around the time “Part 2” is released. That might help give a more complete experience.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

10 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Birdman” (subtitled “Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”) is one of the most ambitious, unique films to come out this year (or any year). It’s a film that shows the mental breakdown of a washed-up actor trying to redeem himself with a comeback through Broadway. It’s a darkly funny, nearly spot-on portrait of theater life that goes into the pains of what goes into a show (with some exaggerations, for laughs) and what it will mean to cast members, both newcomer & veteran, while also taking time out to not only go into the main character’s disturbing inner psyche but also to attack pop-culture sensibilities that continue to ask for everything similar to the modern blockbusters we get every summer (specifically “Transformers”). The result is a black comedy that’s both disturbing to watch and yet fun to watch.

Michael Keaton stars as aging actor Riggan Thomson, who was once famous for playing the star of a superhero franchise called “Birdman” which was a big success. But after refusing to star in a fourth Birdman film, nothing was ever the same, as his life and career went downhill. His attempt at a comeback is to adapt a Raymond Carver short story into a Broadway play. Now in previews for an opening, Thomson writes, directs, and yes, acts in the play. After one of his actors is injured in an accident (which, by the way, results in a hilarious discussion between Thomson and his lawyer/manager/friend Brandon, played effectively against type by Zach Galifianakis), Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is quickly called in to replace him. Shiner is an undeniably talented actor who brings dedication to his work, but he’s also known for upstaging his directors in a pompous, obnoxious manner.

Also included in the play’s cast are Lesley (Naomi Watts), who is new to Broadway and sees this as her big stage debut, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), Thomson’s lover who may or may not be pregnant. Thomson’s assistant is his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is recently out of rehab and tries to convince her father that the best way to make a comeback is by going viral. As Thomson tries to put everything together while his cast faces their own issues, his fear of failure and continuing a reputation as a “celebrity” rather than an “actor” starts to get to him.

“Birdman” is an effectively disturbing character study, showing us an actor who peaked too soon and is obsessed with reliving the fame while also trying something new with his career. He even hears the growling, grumbling voice of Birdman (sounding very similar to Michael Keaton’s Batman voice) inside his head, telling him to, in a way, become Birdman again. This is a man who let his life choices haunt him later on because he can’t adapt to modern culture and/or he wishes there were a simpler (or better) time when he could make a real impression. Now, he’s so laughable or disrespected that a New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) pretty much tells Thomson right to his face that she’s going to write a scathing review about the play before she even sees it. This guy lets it practically consume his life.

By the way, that scene where the critic harshly lets it all out to Thomson is a really weak point in the film. That’s because any critic who would slam a work before opening night would lose their job almost immediately!

The cinematography for “Birdman” is unbelievably good. One of the most distinguished qualities of “Birdman” is that, with the exception of an epilogue, looks it was filmed in one long, continuous take. The camera hovers through corridors, goes up and down long flights of stars, even flies from place to place in the city, as Thomson fantasizes himself as Birdman. Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot most of Alfonso Cuaron’s work (and also won a cinematography Oscar for “Gravity”), shot this film, and he does a tremendous job at making the audience feel like they’re inhabiting the same world as the characters. I think only once did I notice the seams in editing, because I was constantly wondering how they managed to make it all seem like one long take. Not even in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” or the 2012 horror film “Silent House” did I question how this style was done. “Birdman” was also directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose previous films include “21 Grams” and “Babel,” and he’s known for making films in an unconventional way. Well, how’s that for unconventional? In a time with fast editing overpowers quality, it’s nice to see something of this style. Even when Thomson fantasizes about being the center of a “modern blockbuster,” with explosions, robots, and all sorts of loud mayhem in the city that mainstream audiences keep asking for (at least, according to the movie), it still manages to keep that style without visible cuts. That can’t have been easy to pull off.

The acting? Excellent! This is Michael Keaton’s big comeback role, if you ask me. He’s perfectly cast and conveys a certain flair to his performance that can’t be copied. He hasn’t been this good in years. Edward Norton deserves Best Supporting Actor consideration for playing a role that pokes fun at Norton’s own reputation while making the character his own. He’s brilliant here; you just can’t take your eyes off him (which is why it’s a little disappointing that he disappears almost entirely from the film in the final act). Solid support includes Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and also Amy Ryan as Thomson’s ex-wife who still cares for him.

Overall, “Birdman” is a wonderfully-made, well-written, thought-provoking film with brilliant cinematography and acting. It’s a riveting change of pace for those who are tired of the usual stuff people like Michael Bay spews out every year, or hell, every season. But more importantly, it’s one of the best films of the year.

Paradigm (Short FIlm)

7 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are two expressions often carried around when someone compared to his/her parent(s), and each has an opposite meaning—“You are not your parents” and “You’ve become like your parents.” When parents make mistakes, kids tend to make an inner sacred pact that they won’t make similar mistakes. Some make it through, following that pact while escaping childhood trauma. Others aren’t so lucky, even as they try; haunting ghosts from the past tend to get in the way of rational thought, and they find themselves doing almost exactly what they swore they wouldn’t do. Writer-director Jess Carson’s 26-minute short film “Paradigm” shows an example of the latter possibility. It begins with happy newlyweds and ends with their marriage fallen apart, as they make unforgivable choices that can be traced back to hurtful events from one’s childhood. The husband, Derrick (Kyle Wigginton), came from a home of abuse, due to his alcoholic father, Maverick (Scott McEntire) who would abuse him and his mother, Anna (Casondra Witham). By the end of the film, Derrick will have inherited similar traits and behaviors, and his wife, Jocelyn (Mindy Van Kuren), will take it no more.

The film begins with a tender moment in which Derrick and Jocelyn refer to each other playfully as Mr. and Mrs. Peters before Derrick reveals his fear of becoming like his cruel father and hurting her. She assures him that it won’t happen, but as time goes on, the Honeymoon stage ends and things start to get worse when they find they can’t have children. This puts Derrick in a bitter mood. Five months pass, and we see them barely relating to each other, as Derrick starts a bad habit of drinking and they start having arguments. During one such argument, Derrick hits her…

The short mostly takes place inside Derrick and Jocelyn’s house, showing us how their marriage transitions into a disaster. And the film doesn’t shy away from some pretty tough material. By the end of the film, I was actually kind of depressed (and the Sheldon Kopp quote shown before the credits didn’t help much either).

Flashbacks that show Derrick’s father’s behavior are effectively handled, as they intersect with situations in the present that mirror the present. There are times when Derrick practically repeats his father’s harsh words word for word to Jocelyn. It’s a clever move.

“Paradigm” is more of an actor’s film, so a lot rides on the performances. Mindy Van Kuren does a great job playing a suffering woman who wonders when the line will be drawn in her relationship. Scott McEntire, who has acted in other shorts I’ve reviewed (such as “Stuck” and “A Matter of Honor”), turns in some of his best work as the father. But I am of two minds about Kyle Wigginton’s performance as Derrick. On the one hand, I see it as a poor acting job. His shouting moments seem a little off to me; he sounds like he’s forcing the anger. But on the other hand, Derrick is supposed to come across as pathetic, so maybe it was Wigginton’s choice to play it like this. I’ve seen him do well in other shorts, like “Blood Brothers,” so I wouldn’t doubt it.

I like “Paradigm,” but I think it could’ve been better with tighter editing. Some scenes seem a little long and even make the film somewhat repetitive. But I guess that was the point—to show the slow proceedings of this relationship in a way that we can get why/how it came to this, and to also show as it gets worse. In that respect, I shouldn’t complain too much about it. “Paradigm” is an effective short that worked for me.

NOTE: The film can be seen here: http://jessvcarson.wix.com/10th-dimension-pro#!paradigm/c20as