Movies

Interstellar: A Review

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Released in 2014, Interstellar, a film by Christopher Nolan, is an epic sci-fi adventure in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Featuring award-winning special effects and a boundary pushing plot, Interstellar is sure to baffle the uninformed and enthrall the willing. But is it the kind of epic sci-fi film I would go for?

Let’s see.

• Special Effects

While I wouldn’t consider myself a slave to my vision, presentation is still important. Furthermore, if one is going to utilize computer graphics and other enhancements in film, they must look good. Nothing ruins the experience worse than poorly blended textures and rushed models. Interstellar earned its Oscar. The effects were beautiful, and the depiction of that black hole, at least the outside of it, was gorgeous. The real world settings used for the different planets still managed to look foreign, so nice work there as well. This was a feast for my eyes, which I didn’t realize were hungry.

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•Characters and Acting

The film was decently cast and well directed for the most part, but this movie wasn’t just about selling character drama. The astronauts all seemed scientifically professional if a bit too stoic when faced with new and frightening space phenomena. Anne Hathaway was a standout, but that’s no surprise. I wasn’t put off by any bad acting, but a few roles could have been enlivened so I wasnt immediately guessing who the background characters or the eventual casualties were from the get go.

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•Plot

This is where the movie suffered under my scrutiny. First of all, the pacing was off. While I admired that the very beginning showed us a deteriorating Earth rather than straight up telling us, I wish that same caution has been exercised in other places.

Having said that, some exposition was needed in places considering the highly conceptual science incorporated into the plot. That science was fun to see explored in a story like this. However, I felt the attempt to explain relativity and it’s effect on time was over-explained and lessened drama associated with its effects.

Furthermore, it was obvious to me that the that there were two main plots competing for screen time. One was the exploration of space, work holes, relativity, time dilation, ecological disaster, etc.

The other was Huey Lewis’ favorite: the power of love.

Yes, love.

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Love can cross time, space, worm holes, black holes, and plot holes.

Love can make future men seem like ghosts or monsters.

Okay, I get it.

I appreciate the attempt to fuse the themes of human nature with high science, but it just didn’t work for me here. Just when I thought the movie was over (and a decent ending that would have been), the love story took off and my disbelief was stretched more than spacetime at an event horizon.

Still, the actual ending want terrible, I just want expecting the movie to tear my focus from its attempt at pure logic, to a non sequitur shift to pure emotionalism. Interstellar isn’t the next 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it is a fun ride with a dazzling, if sometimes brutally blunt dash of science thrown in.

Cloud Atlas: A Review of the Film

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I had wanted to see Cloud Atlas for quite a while. The concept of interwoven storylines and a futuro-sci-fi setting intrigued me, and the Wachowskis have made a few films before of similar scope that I enjoyed, most notably V for Vendetta.

Released in 2012, and one of the most expensive independent films ever produced, the story of Cloud Atlas is actually several interwoven stories that explore similar or related themes and characters across time. The idea is, in some cases, well utilized in its attempt to thread separate narratives along a single flow of action.

Of the things I liked in the film, I enjoyed the cast the best. Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and Halle Berry are the standouts to me. Normally I don’t find Halle Berry to be all that engaging an actress, despite being an Academy Award winner, but her performance here was quite good. Tom Hanks is always a pleasure, and Hugo Weaving always brings a menace to his villainous characters, and he does it so well.  He even crossdresses to play one of his characters, a little reminder of his adventures in the desert with Priscilla.

In fact several of the cast assume roles as different genders. Across time and place, the cast is consistent, which helps establish some continuity for the audience to follow. A great deal of makeup and creative wardrobe were used to evoke different times and personalities. The makeup in particular has received criticism, especially when depicting a futuristic Korean society with several of the actors wearing prosthetic face pieces to make them look Asian.

I didn’t find this offensive as it was clear to me that the actors were meant to be recognized across time regardless of race or gender. Had this movie been animated, I doubt people would complain if characters were drawn as different nationalities in different settings.

The movie is quite long, and sometimes the cuts between stories can be frenetic, but the build up through the first half works out quite well. The latter part of the film, though, does begin to buckle under the strain of the ambitious scope. This is mostly because the focus is frayed among the different strands of story that suffer from a lack of priority.

There are some clear themes that provide a strong framework for all the plots, such as equality and disenfranchisement, with slavery, race, and sexuality being some specific applications. Tom Hanks’ character also follows an arc of redemption that is fairly good, a testament to his acting skills.

Otherwise the stories all start to congeal at the end as if the effort to adapt everything from novel to screen had created a great wound, and things just never healed properly. The climaxes mostly seemed to go by a check list of things that needed to be complete, rather than express any culmination of plot and theme.

The film’s tagline, “Everything is connected,” is basically a by the numbers promise, and yes that much is delivered, but not with nearly as much flair as the build up seems to indicate. In fact, most of the characters never develop. Instead they merely get things done in order to ensure that things do connect.

This is why I mentioned this film lacks priorities. Perhaps in the novel the author was able to imbue all of his narratives with equal power. This is not so in the movie, and some storylines could have benefited from more editing, and even one storyline, Jim Broadbent’s main one, could have been cut out entirely despite its light-hearted feel providing a counterweight to some of the heavier plots.

One story’s climax in particular was emotional, the one where a homosexual composer, wonderfully portrayed by Ben Whishaw,  commits suicide. Watching his lover cradling him moments after the deed was heartbreaking, but slightly aggravating as well for two reasons.

The first reason is that this is just another example of depicting homosexual love as being fraught with tragedy. Yes, this character was a “product of his times” and all that jazz, but it is just too convenient to make homosexuals these tragic, troubled, unhappy creatures.

The second reason is that the surviving lover plays an important role in another, chronologically later story, but there is no reason depicted as to why his lover’s suicide was a catalyst for his later actions. That character barely had enough screen time for us to even see how events could have affected or changed him.

And therein is the flaw of this film. We are shown *what* happens, but very little of *why* things happen. I’m not sure if it was an oversight of the adaptation process, or if the filmmakers didn’t think an audience would much care for more in depth exploration of the characters’ motives, but the reason why someone pursues something is just as important as the plot itself, and provides the relevance that makes it engaging.

Telling me that within three hours you are going to weave together a handful of seemingly separate plots isn’t an example of good filmmaking as much as it is an act of sleight of hand.

Exodus: Gods and Kings: Risks and Costs?

Get ready for another biblically-inspired film, y’all. In fact, it’s yet another rendition of the story of Exodus. Ridley Scott is well-known for his historical epics. Gladiator is one of the best of such films, and a Best Picture winner. But Ridley Scott is well known for other great films like Alien and Blade Runner. He is also notoriously inconsistent. Where will Exodus: Gods and Kings fall?

First it must be said, and I’m not the first to notice, that this film features a scandalously white-washed cast. Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton lead the cast and both are superb actors, but are modern audiences really able to suspend their disbelief enough to believe that two UK guys can pass for ancient people of the Middle East?

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Sure we’ve got makeup artists and the like who can do wonders with face painting, and Bale can cultivate a biblical beard, but we’ve already seen this with Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. Of course one would want to cast capable actors, and perhaps quality acting can trump realism now and then, but this film seems a bit excessive. There is a wealth of skilled actors of color, and I think this film was a missed opportunity to showcase them.

Besides, it isn’t the racism-rampant 1950s anymore. This film risks looking out of touch as well as out of place.

Ridley Scott is a great director, and he has an eclectic body of work that reflects his versatility. Alien is a classic in both sci-fi and horror, and Gladiator proved that sword and sandal flicks don’t have to be religious to be successful.

On the other hand, Kingdom of Heaven proved that a film about the Crusades can be more boring than a history book about them, and Prometheus exposed the possibility that maybe some of Ridley’s past successes were strikes of lightning that don’t always happen twice.

Ridley Scott is great at assembling elements like story and cast and direction, but he doesn’t always execute things well. It’s almost like he relies too much on the elements themselves, but his vision isn’t always clear on how to tie it all together.

What I question about Exodus: Gods and Kings is its purpose. Why is he making this film? What will this film provide us that hasn’t been produced before? If this film is merely an attempt to use modern technology to retell a film classic, then fine. There’s nothing really wrong with that, even if that is a lackluster motive. I certainly wouldn’t be impressed if a modern architect wanted to rebuild The Parthenon using modern tools. Been there, done that. Try something new.

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This film will undeniably be compared to its predecessors, the aforementioned The Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt. The latter is animated, has a gorgeous musical soundtrack, and even entertains an atheist like me. What can this new film bring to the table?

Surely, Exodus will make gobs of money. Religious movie goers will be relatively easy to please, even if Ridley Scott is going for a more “realistic” approach regarding the mystical plagues of Egypt. (Realistic plagues, but not a realistic cast?)

What seems to be happening is a bit of scraping from the bottom of the barrel on this one. The film is derivative, Hollywood-ized, whitewashed, and unoriginal. What about a film from Ramses’ perspective?  Or even an original love story between an Egyptian soldier and Hebrew slave, with the events of the exodus as a back drop?

There are so many angles one could take other than the same old same old.

To Movie or Not to Movie? A Question for Musicals

I remember my excitement when I stood in line for my ticket to see 2004’s Phantom of the Opera. I was at the height of my craze of listening to the musical. Singing along to it. Switching between the Canadian cast (my favorite) and the London cast.

Sadly, watching the film was disappointing. Gerard Butler’s rock and roll voice did little to make me believe he was the angel of music, but his performance wasn’t the only one to bedevil the film. It seemed the film took a turn toward the parody that Andrew Lloyd Webber had originally intended his musical to be before making it something better.

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I remember hearing a woman in the audience sobbing during the climactic scene. I wanted to cry, too, but not for the Phantom’s pity, but for the wasted opportunity of the film. And for the money I spent on the ticket.

Not all musical films are bad. My favorite is 1972’s Cabaret. It adapted the stage production excellently, and even altered the story for film in a way I find superior. The musical numbers were plausible yet exciting and the parts were all well portrayed, garnering two of the film’s stars Academy Awards.

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In 2002 we got Chicago which also garnered much critical acclaim. It was glitzier and flashy and trashy in the best ways, and I barely noticed Catherine Zeta-Jones was preggers.

Otherwise, film adaptations of musicals seem to be a spotty affair. Damn Yankees mixed mediocre Hollywood and the best of Broadway together for a “blah” experience, Mamma Mia! was really hokey, but maybe it was supposed to be that way. Les Miserables seemed to do okay, and let’s not forget ever popular Grease whose dismal sequel is largely forgotten (as it should be).

It’s this inconsistency that makes me nervous when someone wants to adapt musicals to film. They are very polarizing, catering either to hardcore fans or the laymen movie goers. What is the magic formula that caters to both?

Probably the next big thing, now that Les Mis has come out, is Miss Saigon. It’s one of the most recent musicals in both setting and conception, and even features a more modern structure and darker, more contemporary conflicts.

Miss Saigon is practically begging to be on screen, but would a film do it justice? Could a cast match the magic that is Lea Salonga; could a director translate the vision to the screen without making it a mess?

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I can imagine a version of the film that recreates the tragic love of a young girl not just for a man, but her love of a dream for a better place. It’s a film that celebrates her spirit and warns us of a world that threatens to break it.

I can also see an over-politicized mess with extra scenes of the Vietnam War that draw us away from the intimate nature of a musical in favor of a Michael Bay-esque orgy of cheap effects and lens flare.

These are the thoughts that come up with these adaptations. There is beauty in adapting a musical to the cinema so that millions can see what most don’t get to experience on Broadway. But the question remains, does it compromise the integrity of a musical to be shoehorned into a medium that is tauntingly similar but fundamentally different?

Iron Man 3: A Review

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I never expected to like the Iron Man films. By the time I felt this way I had seen my share of super hero movies go wrong, and figured Iron Man would be no different. Sure enough Robert Downey Jr. pulled off the unexpected and with his sardonic wit won me over in the first film.

The second film also surpassed expectations by taking me on an even bigger ride, breaking the sequel curse by not sucking all the good things from the original.

Then, of course, there was The Avengers, one of the better superhero films of recent memory that somehow made all these superheroes that I found individually uninteresting exciting and charismatic. Disney/Marvel definitely has a plan here. So how does Iron Man 3 fit into this plan?

Surely, following such a colossal hit such as The Avengers was a daunting task, and how exactly do you sell a movie ticket for one hero for the same price as one for several?

Apparently, the idea is to make the story more personal, more intimate. Perhaps the hero is struggling with the aftermath of his outings in the previous films? Iron Man 3 is a darker film and it does attempt these things.

But… it doesn’t do them well.

First of all, I can’t stand action movies that take place during Xmas. The only exceptions are Die Hard, a true classic, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, which shares director Shane Black with Iron Man 3. How odd.

There is really no big reason for Xmas to be happening. The only gift-giving I saw was for someone’s birthday.

We are also introduced early on to a villain whom comic book fans would recognize, Mandarin. In this film, he is made out to be some kind of terrorist leader, and you’d think this would cause Tony flashbacks from his time captive in the middle east, but no, it doesn’t come up.

Besides, the true villain is easy to figure out in the first minute. (Hint, don’t shun nerds in the elevator. They *will* seek revenge.)

Also, Tony and Pepper Potts seem to be having love troubles. No one knows why. Perhaps not even them. And Tony is working on remote control suits that will allow him to fly through plot holes and the strings of deus ex machina with ease.

The majority of the plot focuses on Tony Stark trying to find the Mandarin guy, who turns out to be a proxy for nerd-turned-stud Guy Pearce. Pay attention here, though, because Ben Kingsley gives a masterful portrayal of this non-villain.

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The rest of the plot revolves around Guy Pearce and his army of exploding glow stick people trying to assassinate the prez. It’s all very flashy and stuff, and Pepper Potts even becomes a glow stick girl and might have a bigger role in the next Avengers film alongside every other side kick this side of D.C. Comics.

Overall I felt this film was a letdown, and not because it followed after The Avengers, but because, aside from Pepper being able to heat up her own water back at the office, nothing really changed. Tony Stark developed like a fake tree, and the villain was really nothing menacing.

The film could have been darker, more emotional, tore at our hearts, but it really just kind of scratched at my nerves. Oh well, at least there was an excuse to sell more toys.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past Is Finally Present.

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I saw it last night, and it was a healing experience. I felt that a long, dark chapter had finally come to a close, and now I can look forward with optimism the way I did over ten years ago. What do I mean by this? The tale is quite an epic in itself, apart from the film and its predecessors.

Let’s start in the past…

X2 was released on the eve of my high school graduation. I saw it a handful of times in the theater, and it remains my favorite film of all comic book films released. I was gladly surprised at the first X-Men film a couple years before, but nothing could prepare me for the drastic upping of the ante that occured with its sequel. My friends and I who had grown up with the comics and TV shows were absolutely giddy at the stories explored in X2, the characters and how they developed, and the hint of Dark Phoenix that we saw in the film’s conclusion.
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In short, this film was not only a grand experience by itself, but it delivered a promise of more to come. This is where the tale takes a darker turn.

Director Bryan Singer jumped ship from his X-Men franchise to make a new Superman film (Superman Returns, which is sadly underrated and still better that the more recent Man of Steel, but more on that another time…). He ultimately left the series in the hands of Brett Ratner. Despite some decent film credits in prior years, what we got from Ratner was a steaming pile of film mess. The promise we were left with at the conclusion of X2 was betrayed in a whirlwind of too many incomplete plots, needless character deaths, hollow emotional stakes, and an overall tired feel to the film.
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The respect Singer has attempted to show the source material in his two films became a cash grab by Ratner. Sure there were more mutant battles with special effects, a few love triangles, and Ian McKellan is a awesome actor, but nothing could save the film. I was glad when the film was finally over, because I felt like I had just watched a sacred part of me get publicly defiled.
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And thus began a period of my film-watching life where I learned not to expect or want anything from a film. It wasn’t all X-Men: The Last Stand’s fault, it was Hollywood in general (even the third Spider-Man film released around this time was a letdown). I had this sense that nothing sacred could survive. Eventually it would become tainted and wither away. With this third film I watched a phoenix rise from ashes merely to throw a brief tantrum before sputtering out darker than the faintest ember.

There were other films in the series. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which I only partially viewed because my distaste eventually got the better of me) and The Wolverine (another Wolverine film which actually got some decent praise, but I still have not seen it). These were dark days for X-Men and these were also times when other superhero franchises were having there time in the limelight. Perhaps, though, we owe Hugh Jackman a bit of thanks for his enthusiasm for Wolverine. In retrospect, it seems the mutant’s healing factor seems to have rubbed of on the franchise…

Then there was X-Men: First Class. I’ll admit that by this time I was fatigued to the point of apathy. Another X-Men film, I thought, and new actors this time. How will that work?

It worked quite well as it turns out. With a jaundiced eye I watched and was slowly yet surely convinced of the film’s genuine effort to be a good film. While I didn’t agree with some of the stylistic choices and directing, I couldn’t fault the entire film for those minor issues. There was finally a decent film to ameliorate my mutant malaise, and maybe I could hope for a better film in the future?

No… Don’t. Abandon hope when considering anything from Hollywood. Remember what happened with X-Men: The Last Stand. Just be glad First Class didn’t suck… Those were my thoughts.

But then there was the announcement of X-Men: Days of Future Past and it’s ensemble cast. It’s intentions to bridge the original trilogy to First Class. It’s goal to tell a story based on a renowned comic book story. These were things I remember hoping for after X2. Could this be the film I thought was promised to me? Could things such as this happen, and more than a decade after the fact to boot?
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Well maybe. My hardened heart needed more. More is what it received in abundance when the first trailer was released (I have a strange affection for movie trailers, so I watched this a bunch).  A work of art in itself, this distilled preview teased me with plot points without spoiling the entire package, and left me curiously invigorated. Perhaps this new film would be… okay. Just don’t get too excited.

Despite my early anticipation of the film’s release, the actual date of release had snuck up on me. Before I knew it I was sitting in the theater feeling… nothing. I don’t go to late films because I’m becoming old in my late 20’s and staying out all night is a game for the young. But then it began. Then it ended.

And now in the present…

Let me just say, I rarely say that films are a healing experience. Sure there are some that are inspiring and heartwarming, educating and reaffirming, and others that I want to experience all over again the moment the credits roll. But healing is something I reserve for literature or art, and despite the industry’s attempts, film is rarely art. X-Men: Days of Future Past may not be art, but Bryan Singer pulled out all the stops, and exposed some secrets in just the right manner so that we can be reacquainted with forgotten yet familiar faces.

At the end, a main character is in disbelief that he succeeded and that things have returned to “normal”. Lives have been restored, the past corrected, mistakes erased. For over ten years I watched a film franchise up close and from a distance. I loved it and hated it. It hurt me, but ultimately healed me. I wonder now if the darkest parts of this saga were worth it in the end, knowing now that things turn out alright. Perhaps. All I know is that X-Men: Days of Future Past is the X-Men film I have been wanting for over ten years. A deep pain from my youth has been soothed.

All I can say now is, go see this film, and join the rest of us who ironically anticipate Apocalypse.