Thursday, November 20, 2014


If there's a director that seems to exist for the sole purpose of making movies that I want to see, it's Christopher Nolan. His films mix the fantastic with the gritty in powerful and awe-inspiring ways, and I have yet to see a film he's written and directed that I didn't love.  Like most moviegoers, I discovered Nolan from his work on The Dark Knight trilogy, one of the best film series of all time. But when you go backwards in his career to a film like Momento, which didn't have a huge budget but made up for it with its creativity. Compare that to his more recent films like Inception, and it's clear that the Hollywood system hasn't corrupted him just yet. Here's hoping it never does.

Written by Nolan (and his brother Jonathan), Interstellar tells an ambitious story taking place in the not-too-distant future, where we meet a farmer named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). He's not exactly a farmer by choice; the world is in a horrible dust bowl, with government all but collapsed and most people starving to death. The widowed Cooper raises his two children, Murphey (Mackenzie Foy, and later Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet and later Casey Affleck), in horrible, dust-filled conditions while fighting nightmares from his experiences as a NASA copilot. Due to strange circumstances, he and Murphey discover that NASA, long thought to out of commission, has been operating in secret, and has plans to save the human race. Cooper must abandon his family in order to go far off into space to find out if there may be an inhabitable planet through a wormhole near Saturn that seems to have been placed there on purpose by beings unknown. He's joined by other scientists on this mission, including Amelia (Anne Hathaway), who's father (Michael Caine) is the brains behind the operation.

Interstellar is a wild ride. Whether you're catapulting through wormholes, blasting off of planets, or trying to escape miles-high ocean waves, Interstellar thrills while offering thought-provoking science fiction. There's so much I loved about the movie, but let's start with the special effects. Nolan has a history of utilizing practical effects over CGI in his films, and I absolutely love him for that. When this ship flies through space, you don't doubt for a second that it could be real. Camera angles and composition give an authenticity to the visuals that has hardly been seen in a space movie outside of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Using models, rear projection, and animatronic robots, Interstellar is so much more impressive to look at and feels more authentic than any Marvel movie that resorts to glossy CGI for the disgusting majority of its visual effects. There are some scenes where CGI was obviously used, but each instance was justified (I don't imagine the actors would have appreciated being subjected to an actual sandstorm). 


The space scenes aren't the only bits that impress; the scenes on Earth are shot in wonderfully gritty and lived-in sets, the cinematography is dynamic, and the colors are bleak but never dull. Shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who shot last year's Her), and eerily scored by Hans Zimmer, Interstellar's sensory experience is truly gut punch, in a good way. Seeing this at the Lincoln Center IMAX theater in New York was the best way to go, as the 70mm film print was so unbelievably clear and beautiful that I thought the screen swallowed me at one point.  And look Ma, no 3D glasses! Just pure, absorbing filmmaking.  Although, I should not that though I loved Zimmer's funeral-like scoring, it was mixed poorly with the dialogue.  There were multiple times that I couldn't hear lines because of the booming music, and I'm not the only one who noticed it. 

McConaughey, Hathaway, Chastain, Foy, and Caine all deliver first-rate performances that lend the film some much needed human emotion. McConaughey in particular delivers a phenomenal performance that lends weight to an otherwise underwritten character, so much so that I wouldn't be surprised if he gets an Oscar nomination. The Nolan brothers tend to write characters that have cold detachments towards one another, and often to serve the stories quite well. However, here the human connections get a bit more prominence, and while the film isn't 100% successful in wringing out the tear ducts, the characters' love for one another is enough to keep us invested. There are moments when cold detachment rears its ugly head in a few crucial scenes.  Sometime down the line I'll write a spoiler-heavy review to explain what I mean.  Let's just say that at one point during the second act, some guy needed a hug very badly, and he didn't get one.

While conceptually the script is very creative and thought-provoking, there are certain points where Interstellar is needlessly confusing (What!? A Chirstopher Nolan movie confusing?! Get outta here fool!).  Once again, I might wait for a more spoiler heavy review to really get into the specifics, but I can say that even if I wasn't exactly sure what was going on at any point, the film remained gripping. I could get invested in this movie at any point because of how well it's made over all, and that's a testament to the production crew more so than the writing. I actually can't wait to see the movie again so that I can pay better attention and hopefully come away with a clearer understanding about what the film is trying to say, because as of now, it could be multiple things. One theme that stands out the strongest to me is that love can transcend the boundaries of space, time, and death.

I can't recommend Interstellar enough, and to quote the infamous Tommy Wiseu, you have to see it "at least twice."  It's one of those movie experiences that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, with the least amount of liquid drank before you go in because this thing is long.  I can't say I'm complaining about the length, because I was so engrossed in the production design that I hardly noticed the time passing.  It's sci-fi done right, and while it is influenced by just about every major sci-fi film in history in some way, it has enough of its own style to warrant it a place right alongside them.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Big Hero Six

"Hello. I am Baymax, your personal healthcare companion."

Are we in a new Disney Renaissance or something?  I've really been enjoying Disney's output over the last five years, as each film defies expectations, sets new standards, and makes sure to stay relevant without sacrificing the story, characters, and charm that Disney is known for.  While I actually find the studio's latest film to be the weakest of these "new renaissance" films (including The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen), Big Hero Six is not without its great moments and strong elements.

Though the Marvel license has been in Disney's possession for some time now, this is the first ever full-on animated film has been adapted from one of their comics (though how true the resulting film is to the comics is likely not on Harry Potter levels).  The main story (set in what might be the future) focuses on the exploits of a fourteen-year-old boy named Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter, and I swear that's not why I made the Harry Potter reference), a boy genius who gets involved with illegal robot-fighting games in the back alleys of a city called San Fransokyo. San Fransokyo is just awesome in every regard, mixing American and Japanese cultures, and is brought to life in a breathtaking display of what computer animation can do nowadays.  His brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney, though I would have sworn it was Joaquin Phoenix) is a genius as well, though he has to work harder at creating his own inventions than his little brother.

One night, Tadashi brings Hiro to the university he studies at, where he introduces him to his fellow genius friends Fred (T.J. Miller), GoGo (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez).  Tadashi also shows Hiro his newest project, a healthcare robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit), who looks more like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man than a robot, but this just makes him more huggable (and easier to turn into a Disney Store plushie).  After speaking with the the head of the robotics program Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell), Hiro decides that he wants to attend the school.  He invents Microbots: thousands of tiny robots that can band together to form incredible shapes and structures that could put millions of people out of jobs! I mean... will make everything easier and safer!  At the science exposition where Hiro shows off his new technology, someone with a personal vendetta starts a fire and steals Hiro's Microbots in the process.  It's up to Hiro, his new friends, and Baymax to find the man, get back the Microbots, and piece together why this is all happening in the first place.  They do this by using their own inventions to make themselves superheroes, and thus we have the Big Hero Six.

The film works on a number of levels; so well in fact that it overshadows some its rather large flaws.   First off, the world that the characters inhabit is sprawling and full of minute details that make it feel like a real place; a real place that I need to visit.  Right now.  Being a fan of Japanese tokusatsu, I really appreciated the nods to Japanese superhero conventions, monster movies, and sci-fi tropes.  The animation isn't just good, it's incredible; this stands right up there with Pixar as far as the quality craftsmanship that went into the CGI landscapes, characters, and mise-en-scene.  A scene that shows Hiro and Baymax flying through over the city in broad daylight gave me chills, and I didn't even see the movie in 3D.

Secondly, this is a fantastic comedy; Baymax steals the show for sure with his naiveté and limited movement, so much so that I hope this movie has a sequel solely so that I can see more of him.  I loved that they didn't really play up the whole "robot learns how to be more human" cliche I thought the writers would push for, but thankfully, Baymax doesn't need to be angsty to be interesting.  Like in How to Train Your Dragon, the side characters have distinct personalities, but don't get much focus or development.  Thankfully, Hiro is well-developed enough to carry the whole movie, showing a wide range of emotion and character flaws.  I did think he was a bit too perfect as far as his robot-building abilities go, but I'll get to that in a minute.  The relationship Hiro and Tadashi have is one of the film's stronger elements as well.  You feel their connection and are emotionally involved in the story whenever it puts their relationship at the forefront.

However, and this is a big however, there are some major problems with the movie that boot it out of being among Disney's best movies.  For one thing, it's pretty predictable; most of the plot hinges on a twist that right comes before the third act, and I saw it coming from the ten minute mark.  I'm not saying that Frozen's plot twist was anything Hitchcockian, but it was at least a bit more surprising.  The story works very well in theory, but in execution, this thing is rushed like hell in spots.  Hiro's ability to make armored suits for his friends is explained, but it happens too quickly.  Yes, we slow down for the flight scene, and a few other emotional bits, but events in the second and third acts just happen too quickly to really resonate.  This hurts the film's villain the most, which is unfortunate because on paper it's really very good.  No "take over the world" scheme, just a personal vendetta, and I really appreciated that.  The music choices are lackluster and the score is unmemorable.  The action sequences are fine, but I can't say I was wowed at any point (in fact, a car-chase that should have been really awesome ventures too far into the preposterous, and in turn fails to be exciting).  One final gripe I had with the film is the ending.  Whoa boy did they mess up the ending.  They had the perfect shot to end on and god, they screwed it up.  You can't understand what I'm talking about until you've seen the movie, so don't highlight this next part if you haven't.  I'll put it like this: imagine if in The Iron Giant, instead of ending on that great shot of all the Giant's pieces coming back together, the film continued.  The parts assembled themselves, the Giant walks all the way to Hogarth's house, they hug, and then go flying around while Hogarth unnecessarily narrates how good things are now.  Wouldn't that just SUCK? The bottom line is, this ain't no Iron Giant.

So what we have here is a movie that had more potential than it delivers. But it makes up for its shortcomings with huge laughs, great characters, and animation that pushes the boundaries of what the medium can do.  Sure, it would have been more charming to see some kind experimenting with an anime style given the subject matter, and god knows Disney could produce a phenomenal-looking anime if they wanted to...  But what we have is just fine, and I hope that we get another chance to have some fun with Baymax in a movie that feels a bit more balanced.  Did I mention that I love the hell out of the title?  "Big Hero 6."  It just sounds like a poorly translated Japanese superhero show from the 80s, doesn't it?  I need to see that.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014


“What if my problem wasn't that I don't understand people but that I don't like them?”

Nightcrawler is a film with big, important ideas and knows exactly what to do with them.  It explores the media industry from a pessimistic angle and interprets the human condition as one that is defined by facts and figures than by heart or emotion.  What you walk away with is a whole platitude of emotions and thoughts.  It may make you question the ethics of television news and the long-term results of our information-saturated generation, and not for the better.  The main character in the film is not a stand-in for the average person, but more a blueprint for where we might be headed.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a man living in Los Angeles who desperately wants to make a name for himself, but doesn't quite know how.  He spends all his time on his computer, reading about anything and everything.  Jobless, he steals equipment from construction sites for god-knows-what-purpose, until one night when he stumbles upon the scene of a car accident.  Fascinated by a freelance video journalist (Bill Paxton) on the scene, who calls himself a nightcrawler, Louis decides that he wants to start filming accidents and crime scenes, and then sell them to news stations, for a living.  After getting his foot in the door with the help of a network exec named Nina (Rene Russo), and hiring a desperate young man named Rick (Riz Ahmed) to be his partner for $30 a night, Louis puts himself in one deadly situation after another in an effort to be the best in the business.  And he’ll do anything to achieve that.

Written and directed by first-timer Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler is an excellent dark satire about the television media industry and a powerful social commentary on desensitization and its effects on a person’s humanity.   Louis is a fascinating character; a man with no soul or grip on reality due to a disgusting amount of time spent on the Internet (you know, the same amount of time most people spend on the Internet).  To him, life can be dissected into a series of facts, and Louis lacks all emotional connection to the real things he encounters.  The joy of seeing others suffer seems to be the only emotion he does convey, which makes his character all the more unsettling.  He gets a thrill out of the job, getting closer to wounded bodies than other nightcrawlers would, even lingering  on them and capturing them at the most “artistic” angles. It gives his resulting footage a pornographic aesthetic (if dead, bloody bodies are your thing).  The scary part is, it’s this creepy quirk that gets him ahead in the business, to the point where he has total control over the exec who got him the job in the first place.

Gyllenhaal deserves an Oscar nom for his work in this, and I don’t say that lightly.  He lost twenty pounds for the role, and completely disappears into it.  I could hardly believe one of the most pretty-boy actors in Hollywood was playing one of the slimiest, disgusting characters I’ve seen in a very long time.  His eyes bulge with amazement at horrific things, he speaks like he’s always lying, and he has a way of making you hate him while still being totally invested in his story.  Try not to wince during scenes where he recites career-building business models as if reading them from a textbook (all while the camera refuses to cut away from his robotic expression).  The rest of the cast is great as well, especially Ahim, who plays what might be the only main character in the film who sort of resembles a human being.  A stupid human being, but a human being nonetheless.

Nightcrawler is a very weird film, which makes me happily surprised that it was the number one film at the box office last weekend.  Then again, it tied with Ouiji, so make of that what you will.  Maybe people just saw it because they thought it was a horror movie, and in a sense, it is one.  Gyllenhaal playing one of the scariest characters you’ll ever see, and thought the things he does are despicable, but is he really any better than the cameramen only ten feet away?  Is he just some monster forged out of his own free will or is he just taking the next step to where the media is headed anyway? Does any news station report honest news or is it really only about the ratings? The film is loaded with questions that don’t get a clear answer, and that seems to be exactly the point. Just watch a news broadcast after seeing Nightcrawler and tell me it doesn’t seem a bit more contrived and heartless in its pandering to the information-hungry viewing public.  It’s a savage (and also darkly hilarious) film that doesn’t pull punches with its depiction of violence, keeps you on the edge of your seat, and makes you wonder what the world might be like if more Louis Blooms existed in our world.  Maybe they already do.  And maybe, in your own way, you’re one of them.


Monday, November 3, 2014

John Wick


It is possible? Could it be? Did Keanu Reeves star in a good action movie this year?  I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it for myself, but I can assure you that yes, Keanu Reeves was in a very good action movie that bends cliches, impresses with its stunts, and ditches most modern action techniques in favor of a style that blends the old-fashioned with something fresh.  Does it redefine the action movie as we know it?  It's not that good.  But just about everything it does, it does well, and for a low-budget action movie in 2014 starring Keanu fucking Reeves, that's kind of a miracle.

I'd rather not discuss the plot at length here because the way the film unfolds is something you want to experience rather than read about.  Reeves stars as is a seemingly average man dealing with the recent loss of his wife to cancer.  However, due to a string of convenient circumstances, we find out that he has a shady past as an assassin for the Russian mafia, led by Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist).  But he wasn't just an assassin; they called him "The Boogeyman," because he was the best in the business.  To deal with a personal vendetta, Wick is on the hunt for Tarasov's son Iosef (Alfie Allen), and even with leagues of hit men after him (Willem Defoe and Adrianne Palicki), nothing will stop him from getting to his goal.

I know that's pretty vague and all, but the setup is the only story-heavy aspect of the movie, and I'd prefer not to spoil it all here.  This is a vengeance film, and while I typically find revenge to be a very boring character motivation (see my X-Men Origins: Wolverine review), I couldn't help but sympathize with Wick.  Iosef is a spoiled brat who takes something very precious from Wick, and throughout the film you are rooting for Wick to find him and kill his ass.  The way the action scenes are played out is mind-blowingly awesome at times, with each punch and kick (while obviously choreographed) landing with real weight and power that's lacking in something like, say, the recent Marvel movies.  I don't want to make it seem like I glorify violence, but if you're gonna be an R-rated action movie be a god damn R-rated action movie. Most action scenes are accomplished with minimal editing, meaning you get to see complex stunts and choreography in full.  A fight scenes in a dance club matches perfectly in time with bass-heavy music to create a truly thrilling experience.  Not only that, but the action is shot without disorienting shaky-cam, a style that I'm becoming more and more intolerant of.   There's some CGI blood in the mix to help accomplish this, but I'll take that over a bloodless, sterile, explosion fest any day.

The movie is more than just great action though; the opening scenes are a beautiful example of telling a story without narration or dialogue.  Things are shown to us.  Emotions are felt.  Wick doesn't tell anyone his wife died of cancer, we see his last few moments with her and then see the funeral.  That's how you do exposition.  Performances are great across the board, with every character perfectly cast and really living in their roles.  I especially liked a creepy performance from Lance Reddick as the manager of the hotel Wick stays at.  The critics are raving about Reeves' return to form, and I can definitely see what they mean.  His physical acting is great, as are his facial expressions.  But I don't know about some of his dialogue delivery... he still sounds a bit wooden to me.  He is supposed to be a machine-like assassin, so maybe he's perfect and I should just shut up.

While the film may be light on plot, and doesn't explore every facet of its story the way it could have, the execution is so good that it's worth the price of admission just to see Reeves kick some ass.   The director of the film is David Leitch, who makes his directing debut here but has a long history in the action movie business as a stunt double, actor, and second unit director (he was even Reeve's stunt double in The Matrix).  Clearly all this experience has been a hell of an education for Leitch, because he's delivered the best action movie of the year in a year full of great action movies.  Derek Kolstad, the film's writer, infuses the script with just enough self-aware humor to make you forget how ridiculous most of it is and how contrived a lot of the plot elements are.  I'd dare say a bit of Quentin Tarantino's signature style sneaks its way into some of the scenes after the violence, a period in which most action screenwriters tend to ignore.  Just where do all those dead bodies end up?

John Wick is a surprisingly good movie, my favorite kind of good movie.  It's fast paced and tight as a drum; nothing drags on long enough for you to care that the story is awfully simple.  It hardly matters anyway, it's just great to see Keanu Reeves in the limelight again after so many years of being in the cinematic doghouse.  Sitting in the theater watching Reeves kick ass again was like seeing Nicholas Cage win another Oscar... it's just something I thought couldn't be done.  Leave your common sense at the door and just enjoy this escapist action-fest for what it is.