Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Theory of Everything ***

The Theory of Everything tells the moving personal story of physicist Stephen Hawking, who's theories changed our understanding of the universe, and his wife Jane who supported him through his physical affliction.  In time, Hawking became an unlikely pop culture icon with the publication of A Brief History of Time, a primer on modern cosmology.  While the structure of The Theory of Everything relies on the conventions of biographical films, the performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are well worth seeing.

Unfortunately, the science takes a back seat in the film.  Black holes are mentioned a few times. So, get a character study. We meet Professor Hawking during his college days as an eccentric student of Physics at Oxford.  He meets history student Jane and a relationship develops.  Then Stephen notices he's losing control of his motor skills and is diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease.  Given only two years to live, he advises Jane to find someone else, but she agrees to marry him.  At many points, their marriage was put to the test as Stephen's physical condition worsened. Despite his disability which took away his ability walk, speak, and eventually breath on his own - his work continued on.

The film's two themes of sacrifice and determination in the face of illness make for high drama.  As Jane and Stephen begin to drift apart we remember that even those with the best of intentions are mere human.  Both performances exude a compassion that goes beyond what Hollywood typically offers - and makes The Theory of Everything shine much brighter in retrospect.

Unbroken: Inspiring Story, Boring Film? **

Angelina's Jolie's second feature film, the highly anticipated Unbroken, tells the amazing true story of Louis Zamperini.  He survived starvation while being lost at sea for 47 days and then faced sadistic prison guards as a POW in Japan during the Second World War. Before Zamperini joined the Army Air Corps he participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a member of the U.S. track team.  While there are some excellent sequences, especially the opening 15 minutes, the film just drags on way too long without any emotional payoff.

Maybe a documentary would've better suited Zamperini's story? We never learn much about his life before the war, except for a few flashbacks. There's hardly any humor or memorable supporting characters.  The Japanese prison warden known as "the bird" has no humanity whatsoever. Jack O'Donnell gives an exceptional performance, but not enough to carry the entire film.  

Many classic WWII movies set in POW camps such as The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai celebrated camaraderie and at least had interesting characters and themes. Even George Clooney's Monuments Men earlier this year, which illustrated why Fascism had to be defeated, wisely took a cue from those films. By limiting itself to a survival story, Unbroken puts the audience through an ordeal, instead of an enriching experience.  I've not read the Laura Hildenbrand bestseller the film was based on, but I sense the emotional impact the film lacked might be found in the book.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings **

Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings retells the story of Moses leading the Hebrews from bondage to freedom. With a subdued Christian Bale as Moses, Gods and Kings is more concerned with the psychology of the Old Testament, a fresh approach similar to Darren Aronosky's Noah.  Like in Gladiator, Scott relies too much on CGI effects which invoke no sense of wonder whatsoever. Despite its major flaws, Gods and Kings has a strong narrative and avoids being a complete disaster. 

Gods and Kings downplays the spiritual themes of the Exodus and is more concerned with political and psychological underpinnings.  Moses begins the story as the adopted (and favorite) son of the Pharoh Seti (John Turturro).  Seti's son Ramses banishes Moses when his Hebrew heritage is revealed, a race the Egyptians kept in slavery.  He builds a new life as a shepherd in the desert, marries, and starts a family.  One day Moses is called upon by the Hebrew God Yahweh to lead the Hebrews out of bondage and into the promised land of Israel.  God appears to him as a creepy and demanding little boy.  They don't like each other.  Portraying God as a child may offend some, but anyone who reads the Old Testament knows God had a serious mean streak.

Bale does a good job of portraying the conflicted nature of Moses: a man at odds with his God and the people he is leading to freedom.  The God "child" likes to play games and treats him like a toy, while the Hebrews have no respect for his authority.

The villain, Ramses (Joel Edgerton) lacks the charisma of Yul Brynner in the Cecil B. DeMille epic The Ten Commandments and comes off like a heel in the WWE.  Other important figures in the story such as Aaron and Joshua are ignored.  And way too much time is spent on the plagues, a mere showcase for the CGI effects.

The somber tone of Gods and Kings seems right for the story, but there's so much more to explore.  Four screenwriters received credit and the lack of unity shows. What about the transition to Monotheism?  Little is learned about the Hebrews themselves and why they stayed loyal to their God.  What sustained them during the Exodus?  

As a character study, Gods and Kings had great potential;  As a spectacle, it sputters.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Interstellar: A Second Look

A month ago, I attended the midnight showing of Interstellar with high expectations and came away with mixed feelings.  Nevertheless, the film stuck with me.  Therefore, I gave it another chance.  I'm glad I did.

Maybe having a blueprint of the plot in my head made it easier to process everything. Some movies are like that.
My God, It's Full of Stars!

Knowledge is highly valued in Interstellar.  Knowledge could save us all someday.  The first shot pans over Cooper's awesome library.  The room plays a pivotal role in the story.
Were all these books put here for a reason?  Stephen King's The Stand appears in several shots. Infinite Jest also caught my eye.

Reviewers tend to nitpick, in particular the frequent references to the Dylan Thomas poem, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." What's the problem?  It's a great poem and an eloquent expression of the themes in the film.

In my initial review I compared Interstellar unfavorably to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I'll backtrack.  Both are great films.  Nolan puts humanity, instead of technology at the forefront.  Kubrick saw technology as a dehumanizing force, while Nolan's envisioned a more harmonious relationship. That's a refreshing take.

Chris Nolan and  Matthew McConaughey on the set of Interstellar.

The robot almost steals the movie! Like R2-D2 and CP-3PO in Star Wars, TARPS added some much needed comic relief.


In interviews, Nolan has cited The Right Stuff as an inspiration. He reportedly had the entire cast screen the film during pre-production.  Based on Tom Wolfe's book on the Mercury 7 astronauts, The Right Stuff successfully blended satire with the historical epic. McConaughey channels Chuck Yeager.  The movie opens with an all too brief flashback of Cooper reliving a horrific plane crash,  an excellent homage to Yeager's climatic flight in The Right Stuff.
Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.

Kip Thorne, an eminent physicist, acted as executive producer and script consultant, which provided some real credibility for the story. Interstellar explores various scientific ideas, ideas mainstream movies rarely take serious such as deep space travel, black holes, and Einstein's theory of relativity. Nolan placed ideas before special effects, a commendable decision.

Dr. Thorne explains quantum theory to Jessica Chastain.

Nolan's often criticized for not writing compelling female characters. Anne Hathaway plays Dr. Brand, the lead scientist on the mission.  Hathaway brought a strength and intelligence to her character.  She matched McConaughey scene for scene.

Anne Hathaway as Brand.

Michael Caine is on hand to provide the exposition (he explains stuff). No one does it better.

Professor Brand

Hans Zimmer's soundtrack adds a majesty to Interstellar.  A subtle pipe organ adds a mystical element, very much in the style of the John Williams score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Check out the Soundtrack!

The most mind blowing moment in the film belongs to David Gyasi, who plays Romily, a scientist left behind on the ship when Cooper and the crew investigate a planet.  For each hour they spend on the planet, 7 years pass on the spaceship.  When a mishap extends their stay to three hours, they return to find poor Romily has aged 23 years!  That's a movie in itself!

Only three hours passed for Cooper (McConaughey); 23 years for Romily (Gyasi).
Finally, Interstellar achieves moments of genuine emotion.  My favorite moment occurs after Cooper's says goodbye to his daughter Murphy.  In an earlier scene, she sneaked onto his truck when he went in search of the secret NASA base.  After their difficult farewell, he checks the blanket she once hid under and she's not there.  A heartbreaking moment, but you have to pay close attention to catch it.

A Sad Goodbye

Interstellar will be remembered as a classic.

Life in multiple dimensions.  Still trying to get my head around this concept!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Pontypool ***

The best horror films evoke a sense of dread.  And they never ease up the tension, there's no mercy for the weak!  Pontypool, a creepy Twilight Zone type story recalls  War of the Worlds and Night of the Living Dead. Starring veteran Canadian actor Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy, a morning DJ who likes to quote Norman Mailer and Anne Sexton.

The film opens on a bleak Valentine's Day morning.  On his way to work, Grant is flagged down by a woman. She speaks incoherently.  Once he arrives at the radio station, reports of odd behavior overrun the station. Without revealing anything more, Pontypool takes you on a ride.

Pontypool keeps you guessing and leaves everything to the imagination.  The gore is kept to a minimum and what goes on in your mind is far worse than anything on screen.

Finally, Stephen McHattie gives a great performance as a dying breed, the DJ who plays what he wants to play.  A worthy find on Netflix!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Unbelievers: The New Proselytizers

Netflix documentary, The Unbelievers, follows two famous scientists, biologist Richard Dawkins and Physicist Lawrence Krauss, on their 2012 speaking tour preaching the gospel of reason.  Dawkins wrote the 2008 bestseller The God Delusion, a lengthy, but eloquent book arguing religion should disappear.  Since the events of 9/11, many scientists have rightly taken a stand against religious fundamentalism.  Like Bill Maher's often hilarious, but misguided Religulous, their view of religion is too skewed, meaning they characterize all believers as backward thinking and dogmatic. By ignoring the importance of spirituality in the human experience throughout history, Krauss and Dawkins undercut their own message.

Look no further than any textbook on Western Civilization and find monstrous atrocities done in the name of God.  History also displays how faith has inspired men and women to acts of understanding and compassion.

Dawkins and Krauss are eloquent speakers and do a fine job of explaining modern scientific theories. Their strident tone towards religion puts off many who are on the fence.  As a result, judging from the film, they often end up preaching to the choir.  

Carl Sagan, greatest spokesman for science in the 20th century, took a more nuanced view towards faith.  But 2014 is not a time for nuance. 

Religion can be a source of comfort for people struggling day to day in the face of obstacles Dawkins and Krauss could never comprehend.  Including "science is awesome" sound bytes from celebrities added little to the film.

Some believers do possess a dangerous confidence.  They believe everyone is wrong, except them (see Simpsons episode "Homer the Heretic").  I agree with Krauss and Dawkins, such individuals are obstacles to progress.  

Science and religion don't need to be in conflict. Unfortunately, the times say otherwise.