Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

2014 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Six and Noteworthy Films.

Interstellar: Director Christopher Nolan (who cowrote the film as usual with his brother Jonathan) can't be faulted for lacking ambition, but Interstellar falls further short than any of his other efforts. The film features some good moments, but the overall result remains disappointing. Joseph "Coop" Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot and widower who's trying to raise his two kids and survive on an Earth battered by climate change, resulting in droughts and dust storms. By investigating some mysterious phenomenon in their house, Coop and his spitfire young daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, who's quite good, although the makeup department looks to have gone overboard), eventually discover a hidden scientific facility that's preparing a final mission to confirm a habitable planet to preserve the human species – previous expeditions are sending back positive signals from three contending planets. ("Plan A" is a mass exodus from Earth, assuming a scientific breakthrough on escaping gravity; "Plan B" involves frozen human embryos.) Coop's recruited to pilot the craft by an old colleague, Dr. John Brand (Michael Caine). The crew will include Brand's daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), who's a biotechnologist, two other scientists, "Rom" (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), plus two nonhumanoid robots, TARS and CASE (one makes a 2001 HAL joke). But even if it's to save the human race, the trip means that Coop might never see his kids again (Murphy takes this particularly hard). On top of this, even if Coop can somehow return, due to relativity, the extreme gravity of black holes and the high speeds of interstellar travel (the astronauts are using a slingshot effect and a space portal gifted by unknown benefactors), the people on Earth will age relatively quicker than Coop and the other astronauts. Two or three of the best scenes in Interstellar involve this element and represent a strength of good science fiction – the human reaction to an unusual situation. There's also a visually imaginative sequence depicting extradimensional space. (I think this helped win the film the visual effects Oscar; as noted in the Oscars/year review, I wouldn't have given it the award otherwise, myself.) It's also neat to see practical, modular, nonhumanoid robots, and the cast is generally good.

Interstellar is saddled with a bevy of problems, though. The film runs almost three hours and it drags. The opening section on Earth is far too long – we simply don't need to know all the details given to us and frankly don't care about the odd politics of education in this world or scavenging drones. Instead it should be: The Earth is in peril; here's why; here are the stakes and the challenges; let's go. The idea of Coop being recruited at the last minute for a pivotal mission is just silly and unnecessary. (I'm guessing it's a plot decision spurred by the "ghost" scenes.) It's nice to see two accomplished female scientists on screen, Amelia Brand and the adult Murphy (played by the reliable Jessica Chastain), but both of them have big, emotional, irrational moments. (A male character arguably tops them, but is more selfish than strictly irrational.) Despite the film's length, Nolan doesn't bother to properly introduce Rom and Doyle, nor TARS and CASE and how to distinguish them. It's difficult to make a sci-fi film with the grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Nolan appears to attempt that (which deserves some credit) while also trying to deliver a "love conquers all, even the time-space continuum" storyline (alas, that's almost a verbatim quotation). Those two impulses make for an awkward mismatch and the latter one produces some painful treacle. With the notable exception of the great relativity-aging scenes and a few others, Interstellar winds up being more space opera than true science fiction. I'm a fan of Nolan's other work, and wanted to like Interstellar, but I think he ran out of gas and the love stories aren't enough to blind us to some gaping flaws (in part created by those same love stories).

(Physicist Kip Thorne, the science advisor for the film, has written a book explaining the science of the movie and what's real and what's speculation. Neil deGrasse Tyson provides some appreciative and amused tweets. The "honest trailer" is on point and hilarious, summarizing most of the major criticisms of the movie.)

The Monuments Men:

You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they'll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements, and it's as if they never existed. That's what Hitler wants and that's exactly what we are fighting for.

– Frank Stokes (the movie version)

Director, cowriter and star George Clooney assembles a fine cast to tell a tale based on a fantastic real-life story, but a wildly veering tone and episodic structure result in a muddled film. It's 1943, and the Allied Forces are making advances in World War II. Frank Stokes (Clooney) is concerned that the Germans are looting or destroying precious art works as they retreat. He convinces President Roosevelt to let him assemble a team of art experts (professors, museum curators and the like) to try to safeguard the art – essentially, trying to preserve civilization. It's a noble mission for the "monuments men," but one challenged by the inherent absurdity of a bunch of academics (essentially) playing at soldier and trying to get battlefield commanders to care about art work in the middle of a war. The cast is stacked, especially for comedic chops: Clooney, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Matt Damon, and Hugh Bonneville. Clooney mostly goes for broad comedy, which works well in the basic training sequences – out-of-shape, middle-aged men trying to hump it over a fitness course and being shocked to learn that those are live rounds, not blanks. The witty scenes (especially those featuring the fabulous Blanchett) also work well. ("Would you stop speaking French? Or whatever language you are speaking?" "Well, if it weren't for us, you'd – you'd be speaking German." "No. If it was not for you, I might be dead. But I would still be speaking French.") The black comedy is sometimes effective, as in a scene involving a land mine. What doesn't work is moving from comedy romp to maudlin tragedy. It being a war, some people do die. Obviously comedy and tragedy can coexist in the same work, but the specific shades don't mesh here; Clooney never quite gets a handle on the tone. Clooney has proven himself to be a decent director, but even some great ones struggle with shifts in the tonal palette. Making the comedy less broad and the tragedy less maudlin probably would have helped – emphasizing the absurdism and sardonic wit while ditching sentimentality and melodrama – but it's an admittedly challenging task regardless. (Barry Levinson's direction on Good Morning, Vietnam is one of the better successful examples. Crucially, even the most buffoonish character, played by the late, great Bruno Kirby, is played straight, and is unaware of when he's being unintentionally hilarious or poignant. Meanwhile, Robin Williams' character is a consciously funny guy in a serious universe. They're strikingly different characters – antagonists, actually – but Levinson grounds them both in the same reality.) The episodic nature of the film, with the team splintering into pairs, also diffuses the energy – many of the scenes are interesting on their own, but an overall build doesn't really occur. I love the themes and most of the cast, but alas, the film doesn't quite succeed in its mission. It's a decent rental.

(The Monuments Men have a website. The National Gallery of Art had an exhibit on them, since concluded, but their website still shows some materials. PBS' NewsHour also did a segment on them.)

The Imitation Game: The intriguing Alan Turing gets the biopic treatment, with mixed results – unfortunately, the less you know about Turing, the more likely you'll enjoy the movie. During World War II, British mathematician Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is recruited to help crack the Germans' notoriously difficult communication code, encrypted by their Enigma machines. Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), in charge of the codebreaking effort, is a no-nonsense military man who doesn't care much for the intellectual, quirky Turing, but he's giving him a shot. Turing's colleagues, most of all Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), think Alan is an arrogant jerk. Turing finds an ally in one of his recruits, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) – whatever his other faults, Turing is no sexist, and recognizes and supports talent when he sees it. They even start a tentative romance – but Turing's sexuality is an issue. (The film jumps between three time periods – the "present day" of 1951, WWII, and Turing's rough boyhood at boarding school, with the bulk occurring during WWII.) Turing's efforts to help win the war, followed by shabby treatment because of his personal life, makes for a good story, and a solid cast and handsome production values help.

Unfortunately, the movie has a by-the-numbers, calculated quality to it, where "drama" involves yelling at each other needlessly and epiphanies involve breathlessly running toward an armed guard without explaining anything. This artifice becomes much more grating if you're aware of the significant inaccuracies in the depiction of Turing, all the more troubling given that it's his biopic and they're unnecessary. He was definitely eccentric, somewhat shy and socially awkward, impatient with fools, but was generally well-liked, had a good sense of humor, didn't have Asperger's, and wasn't an insufferable, arrogant asshole. It's not just that these are traits are inventions by the filmmakers, but that the reality is more interesting, and that the inventions are more clichéd. The Turing of the movie borrows from Cumberbatch's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as a "high-functioning psychopath," and on the model for that depiction, the misanthropic title character in House, and on Russell Crowe as John Nash, the obnoxious genius of A Beautiful Mind. We've seen this story many times before. (And if you're going to invent something, make it more interesting than reality.) Likewise, it's a failure of imagination to concoct other conflicts within the codebreaking team, especially if they play as exaggerated and artificial. Apparently, winning World War II, defeating the Nazis, preventing the conquest of the British Isles and saving the lives of Britons and their allies are not sufficiently high stakes for a drama on their own. As noted in the Oscar post, I'm disappointed the screenplay won an Oscar, although writer Graham Moore gave a lovely speech. The original subject matter is great, but the treatment is too slick and processed for my tastes; it feels exploitative, as if Turing's life has been used as raw fodder and poured into the commercial biopic formula, rather than a more artistic approach being taken. This is a British production, but it feels as if the question asked was, "How can we make a Hollywood film out of this?" not "How can we tell Alan Turing's fascinating story cinematically?" Your mileage definitely may vary; the film has its admirers, and at the worst, it has brought more attention to Alan Turing himself.

(Slate and The New York Review of Books handle the accuracy issues quite well. Turing biographer Jack Copeland provides a fine portrait of the real man. Turing has been portrayed in plays and other media. He does not appear in 2001's Enigma, another film about the codebreaking efforts.

Here's screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum on The Business.)

Noah: The biblical account of Noah omits many details, and director and cowriter Darren Aronofsky's inventions to fill in the story are a mixed bag at best. (This is a film most people either loved or hated.) The basic plot is familiar: humankind is sinning; God plans to wipe most of them out with a great flood and start again; he commands Noah to build an ark to preserve two of every species and Noah's family. Most of Noah's visions are visually striking montages, and give a sense of how terrifying it might be to receive powerful but unclear messages from a deity. (There's also some question of whether Noah is inspired or crazy.) On the other hand, a computer-generated snake in a recurring Garden of Eden sequence looks unintentionally comic. Despite the mysticism and weirdness of some sequences – animals marching to the ark, fallen-angel rock creatures and the like – the actors play everything with a grounded, gritty realism, which makes Noah strikingly different from highly staged, formal (and occasionally hokey) biblical fare such as The Ten Commandments (at least Yul Brynner's awesome). Noah's cast is good: Russell Crowe as Noah, Jennifer Connelly as his wife, Emma Watson and Logan Lerman as two of their kids, Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah, and Ray Winstone as Tubal-cain, the main bad guy (as you might guess, he's a descendant of Cain). This Noah is a man of action and obsession; he means well, but can be domineering and even seem psychotic. It's not a portrayal that will necessarily warm the hearts of adherents of the Abrahamic religions, but it also makes for an odd viewing experience. Noah fixates on a strange interpretation of events for a long section of the film, and because this dictates so much of the plot, the audience is left wondering "what the hell" and "get to the point" for a deadly stretch of the movie's needlessly padded 138 minute running time. Give Darren Aronofsky some credit for taking risks and trying something different, but I'd rank this with his failures, as opposed to his genuinely good efforts, Black Swan, The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream.

(Here's Darren Aronofsky on The Business.)

Godzilla: If there's one thing the latest English-language Godzilla film gets right, it's a sense of awe, and relatedly, if there's one thing the staging for 3-D gets right, it's the frequent shots and reverse shots of a tiny human in the foreground looking up at a massive beast. Director Gareth Edwards understands that he's not just delivering spectacle – he's showing the human reactions to that spectacle, in the gee-whiz, movie monster matinee and Spielberg traditions. Personally, I would have loved more kaiju fighting and less human melodrama, but this is a loving fanboy homage to the extended family of Godzilla films, which typically feature plenty of the latter. Unfortunately, "daddy issues" stand in for the primary Hollywood character arc yet again, but at least "daddy" is well cast. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a U.S. Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer, is forced to deal with his father, Joe (Bryan Cranston), a scientist obsessed with finding the truth behind mysterious occurrences, due to events in the backstory. Ford's doctor wife, Elle (Elisabeth Olsen), wants them to reconcile, partially for their sake of their young son Sam. (Side note: Taylor-Johnson and Olsen play brother and sister in the new Avengers movie.) On the scientist side, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) nicely represents for the Japanese origins of the source material and brings a sage gravitas to his ponderings on the true nature of Gojira/Godzilla. He's ably assisted by fellow scientist Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) and challenged by Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn), although refreshingly, he's not a kneejerk blow-'em-up type, just cautious and practical. I enjoyed this film, particularly a deliciously tense sequence involving a railroad trestle, a funny scene involving young Sam and the TV, and the final monster showdown. It's significantly better than the painful 1998 Emmerich-Devlin Godzilla, and in the end, it delivers the monster movie goods. (I know a Godzilla fanatic who adored this film.)

How to Train Your Dragon 2: The second film in the series avoids the sequel curse by keeping the same characters, but making them older and wiser, and throwing them into a significantly different situation. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is five years older, and continues to invent neat gadgets (including gliding wings for himself). His father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), chief of the village, wants Hiccup to take over eventually, but Hiccup isn't sure he's meant for it. In the meantime, he hangs out with his buddies and girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), and he and his dragon Toothless go exploring for new land. In the process, they encounter new villages that claim they've been attacked by dragons and are none too happy to see the duo. Hiccup and Toothless also run into a band of dragon catchers, led by Eret (Kit Harrington), who serve the conqueror Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who's building a dragon army. Meanwhile, Hiccup comes across a rival but beneficent group of dragons, led by his… long-lost mother (played by Cate Blanchett; this plot development is in all the trailers). Hiccup faces some family drama, and also the threat of an advancing, powerful dragon army. What will happen next? The plot isn't always strictly predictable and the characters are relatively engaging; Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, all good at the comedy thing, add their vocal talents again. Hey, it's pretty hard to dislike Vikings (some of them Scottish) and dragons.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: "Well, let's get this over with," was my attitude, the way you stick out to the bitter end a bad game your favorite team is losing (in this case, the team being Tolkien fans). If you saw the first two films, you might as well see this one. At least director Peter Jackson can stage a decent battle, it's got a cool dragon, plus there's Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and a number of other good performers. If you go into this just wanting an action film with a little drama, you'll probably be pleased (it certainly did great box office worldwide). In terms of fidelity, Jackson and company don't go Jurassic Park here, flipping deaths and survivals; the characters who should die or live per the books do come out that way in the movie. It's also neat to see the White Council face off with Sauron, events hinted at in The Hobbit and covered somewhat in Tolkien's supplemental materials. Still, Jackson throws some key source material aside and pads the hell out of everything, losing character in swamping spectacle, exactly what he didn't do in his masterful adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo, the title character and protagonist, is seldom seen in the early going, and his crucial role in taking on Smaug is excised. Far too much time is spent on the "dragon sickness" of Thorin (Richard Armitage). The greed and paranoia plotline itself is fine, but it's beaten to death – after Thorin breaks his word and starts treating his friends horribly, we're left wondering why they'd follow him and biding our time until Jackson's wrung every last shot he wants out of this stuff. I couldn't fully object to Billy Connolly as another Scottish dwarf (at least he's funny), and the Thorin-Azog duel is pretty good, but I wanted more of Beorn the skin-changer (he gets shafted, relative to his key role in the book), and could have done without the tacked-on elf-dwarf love story. Recapping previous discussions, The Hobbit should have been two movies at most, three to five hours total, hewing closer to the book, not a ridiculously padded prequel to The Lord of the Rings. (The issue isn't strictly fidelity – it's that the story would work better as a movie.) Some of the additional material could have been handled in "Tales of Middle-Earth" spinoffs. Given that it's Peter Jackson, plenty of good moments exist in the three Hobbit films, but they remain a steep step down and a disappointment given the triumph of The Lord of the Rings.

The Judge: A good cast elevates standard melodrama to the watchable level. Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a hotshot lawyer who comes home for his mother's funeral and clashes with his equally strong-willed father, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), the local (and magisterial) judge. When evidence emerges that Joseph ran down a local scumbag (and former defendant) with his car, Hank winds up defending his father in a murder trial, squaring off with a tough prosecutor, Dwight Dickham, who wants to show up the big-time lawyer. (Yeah, that's really the character's name, but at least he's played by the reliable Billy Bob Thornton.) Unsurprisingly, Joseph proves to a cantankerous, uncooperative client for Hank and his nervous co-counsel, C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard). In the meantime, Hank also reconnects – and clashes – with an old flame, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), and his older brother, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio). These are easy roles for Downey and Duvall, and the entire cast is solid. Unfortunately, the big, emotional, climatic courtroom scene between Hank and Joseph grows pretty implausible (it would have sold better with a few more reaction shots from Thornton and the presiding judge). On the other hand, the film occasionally chooses welcome understatement and leaves words unsaid, notably between Hank and Glen. This isn't a great film, but it's a decent rental.

(Here's Dobkin, Downey and Duvall on The Treatment.)

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit: This is an okay but unexceptional rental that will be more appealing if you like the key actors: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner and Kenneth Branagh. Branagh, who also directed, plays the chief villain and is the most interesting thing about the film, thanks to his subtle and understated moments as the calculating but world-weary Viktor Cherevin. Pine is a likable young actor who works pretty well as the latest Jack Ryan (he's the fourth actor to play Tom Clancy's character in the movies). Costner does decently in a mentor role, and Knightley is good as Jack's fiancée, who's in the dark about his secret life as a CIA recruit. The evil master plot this time out involves cybercrime and economic warfare, which makes a nice, modern change from older spy films. Unfortunately, a key part of the plot depends on imperiling a civilian, which strains credulity, and there's a chase-rescue sequence with a section cut together so bizarrely it's both hard to follow and implausible. Given Branagh's involvement, I was hoping for something more interesting.

The Zero Theorem: Terry Gilliam's latest film isn't a masterpiece ranking with his best, but being Gilliam, at least it presents interesting, original and memorable moments. Qohen Leth (pronounced "Cohen") is a reclusive, eccentric employee of giant corporation Mancom; he "crunches entities" for it using a gaming-like interface. He requests a home assignment because he's extremely anxious about missing his "call" – years ago, he received a mysterious phone call but he accidentally cut it off. Qohen (Cristoph Waltz) has become convinced that the caller will try again at some point, and will impart some special knowledge or wisdom. He pulls off a meeting with "Management" (Matt Damon), who thinks he's insane. Nonetheless, Management recognizes Qohen's talent and arranges for him to work from home, trying to solve "the Zero Theorem," an equation with cosmic implications. Qohen also encounters Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), an attractive woman who seems interested in him (to his confusion), Bob (Lucas Hedges) a computer whiz who helps set up and maintain Qohen's home rig, Joby (David Thewlis), Qohen's ambitious supervisor, who can never seem to remember Qohen's name, and Dr. Shrink-ROM (Tilda Swinton), a computerized psychiatrist consulting Qohen on his issues. There's also virtual reality and dreams and nightmares; The Zero Theorem lies somewhere between dream logic and strict reality. This also results in significant ambiguity about key events, including the ending (which is memorable). The obsessive Qohen is sympathetic, but not that relatable, making the proceedings perhaps more interesting than satisfying – but I might have to see it again. I'd grade this a lesser Gilliam, worth a rental for fans of his work or unusual fare in general. (Side note: it's awfully impressive how far Gilliam can stretch a budget.)

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