Friday, November 7, 2014

Interstellar, Nightcrawler, John Wick, Rich Hill Reviews

Dir. Christopher Nolan

Usually the central argument against space travel and funding programs like NASA is that we have "enough problems on Earth to deal with." Unless we have some sort of cataclysm, we tend to stay grounded, with excuses like world hunger stopping us from exploring the stars.  In Interstellar, Chris Nolan provides a glimpse at a similarly disillusioned near-future, where space travel has taken a back seat while the planet is suffering and turning crops into dustbowls.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is an ex-NASA pilot and father of two, who joins an expedition to leave Earth in a last ditch effort to find another habitable planet for humanity.  What's framed as a simple family drama, with McConaughey going to save the world for his kids, is told in a hard sci-fi/poetic fashion not dissimilar to Kubrick's 2001 (a moniker many films aspire to but rarely earn).  Interstellar is a challenging film to grasp from a scientific perspective and even on a thematic level, but at the heart of it lies a very simple story of a determined father. It features gorgeous depictions of space, and its ambition is huge, but I think when it comes down to it, the emotion was a little too heavy-handed and its endless amount of philosophical and scientific ideas may have overly complicated the film against its favor.

McConaughey, fresh off his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club, is fantastic. The weight of the world is on his shoulders, and he completely sells the emotions the character goes through, from cowboy-like charm to a sobbing trainwreck.  Saying who the other cast members play may be a bit of a spoiler (including one surprise actor that Nolan kept off of the IMDB page until the release date), so I'll leave it at that. Even if I didn't understand the science, it was still mesmerizing to hear all the science techno-babble of the space flight crew.  The visuals are breathtaking, and I highly recommend you see this on the biggest screen you can. There are certain concepts of space I've never seen before used in this film, and everything has an authentic tone to it likely due to Nolan's consultations with Caltech theoretical physicist Kip Thorn. And all of the beauty of space is accompanied by one of the best-ever Hans Zimmer scores (which is saying something).

It's hard to talk about what didn't work for me without delving into spoilers, but I'll say I had bittersweet feelings about this film.  On paper, you'd think everything would work, but this time around the ambition might have slightly exceeded Nolan's grasp.  Interstellar is a must-see, if still flawed film.  Its nearly three hour run time, its lofty ideas about humanity and science, its challenging subject matter (which I'm happy Nolan is keeping alive in big Hollywood movies), and its unique use of space time to tell its narrative make Interstellar one of the ballsiest films of the year and deserves kudos. It doesn't all quite click together in the end though, and I was ultimately left with a multitude of unanswerable philosophical questions that frustrated more than intrigued.

Rating: B+

Dir. Dan Gilroy
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In 1976, Paddy Chayefsky wrote the brilliant masterpiece Network, in which TV network head Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) and her other news team members refuse to take one Howard Beale off the air, despite his whacked-out rants and threats of committing suicide on live television, for fear of losing ratings.  In 2014, nearly 40 years later, the troubling themes of Network couldn't be more relevant.  Nightcrawler is in my mind a disturbed modern update of Chayefsky's story, taking place in our current capitalist world where career-driven sociopaths are often rewarded for taking a completely selfish approach to climbing the corporate ladder (echoing Gordon Gekko's sentiment of "Greed is Good").  Jake Gyllenhaal plays a petty thief-turned-freelance videographer for a small, struggling news outlet.  With his partner, Rick (Riz Ahmed), desperate for work, the two go out and try to attain graphic crime scene footage to sell to the broadcast station. However, the question of ethics doesn't ever enter Gyllenhaal's mind, leading to some truly troubling conclusions. Nightcrawler is a dark inside look at the flaws of our media-consuming culture and ultra-capitalist desires.

Gyllenhaal is fantastic here. At this point we're typically used to seeing Gyllenhaal as tough-but-nice guys (End of Watch, Prisoners, etc.), but here he plays a complete sociopath. He's so cool and calculated in every decision he makes, seemingly never with pleasure or emotion in mind, only to attain more power and resources. His physicality is both unassuming and completely domineering, and he uses every part of his face as a tool of intimidation. The way he exposes the whites of his eyes make him seem like some sort of otherworldly being. His character reminded me a lot of Walter White from Breaking Bad, but whereas Walter spent 6 seasons gradually becoming more of a monster, Gyllenhaal is evil right away, and unfalteringly stays at that level for the entire film.  It's a pretty bold move on the screenwriter's part to have a central character that's A) Evil and B) Doesn't change, but it works here because of how his actions affect everyone around him. I loved this film, and especially coming from a TV production background, a lot of this hit somewhat close to home for me (hopefully none of my former colleagues are as brutally ruthless in their career goals).

Rating: A

John Wick
Dir. David Leitch & Chad Stahelski
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"People keep asking if I'm back. Yeah, I'm thinking I'm back." The filmmakers and advertising department certainly hit the nail on the head that John Wick is meant as a comeback vehicle for Keanu Reeves, whose post-Matrix career hasn't exactly been excellent (to be read in the voice of Ted, from Bill and Ted).  Directed by two former stunt men, this b-movie action thriller really delivers when it comes to its trademark style of brilliantly choreographed, beautifully shot "gun-fu" and car chase battles, but as soon as the characters open their mouthes, or the plot delves into anything beyond its basic revenge plot, everything comes to a halt. John Wick is a satisfying-enough action picture, but it gets repetitive, and the character motivations are so basic that it feels like a self-parody.

John Wick (Reeves), grieving over the loss of his wife, has now left behind his shady, violent past in search of a new life.  But when a gang of twerpy Russian "gangstas" fuck with him and take away what little he has left, he busts out his giant cache of guns (hidden beneath about four feet of concrete which he smashes with a sledgehammer) and goes on a psychopathic killing spree.  We're supposed to feel for Wick's loss, but really this is just a lame excuse to see some kinetic, super-violent action.  In that regard it totally delivers. You really appreciate the precise movements of the stuntmen/Keanu during the action; the camera doesn't pull that "shakey-cam" crap or cut away just at the "good" part. Here, like in many great kung fu action films, you get to see one guy take down dozens of nameless foes in a super-stylized, comic book way.

But while I did appreciate the action, and there is some interesting world-building going on in the picture (there's a hidden underground world of assassins that uses gold coins as currency), the story just drags on and on, and after the 15th guy being shot in the head at point blank range, it starts to get wearisome. Not to mention that this glorification of guns at this point in time feels a little iffy, with all the school shootings and whatnot (but the stunts are just ridiculous enough to not be offensive). It's kind of simple, with cliches up the wahzoo, but if it's simply action you want, you should definitely check it out.

Rating: C+

Rich Hill
Dir. Andrew Droz Palermo & Tracy Droz Tragos
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Rich Hill recently won the Grand Jury prize during this year's Sundance Film Festival, but hasn't really made much of a splash anywhere else for whatever reason.  The film follows three young boys growing up in an impoverished American town - the kind of place you see all around the country with boarded up businesses and people struggling to make ends meet.  The film takes the opposite approach of many "info-dump" documentaries like Fed Up and simply shows the daily lives of these kids.  Some try to make the best of a shitty situation and remain positive, while others start lashing out at school and will no doubt have an inevitably violent future.  The film doesn't provide answers, but offers nothing more than an honest look at today's disenfranchised youth.  The American Dream doesn't mean much when you work morning, noon, and night mowing lawns to earn just enough for a hamburger at the end of the day.  I didn't really find anything profound about this documentary, but I couldn't help but feel for the central characters of the film, and hopefully if this film becomes more visible it will act as a time capsule for these kids who wouldn't have voices otherwise.

Rating: B

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