Archive for November, 2014

“The Hunger Games:  Mockingjay – Part I” is an unwieldy title, and in some ways the film itself is a bit unwieldy.  For instance, this film is not in any way, shape, or form a complete movie.  Yes, the novel in which it is based has been split into two films, largely to double the profits of the studio.  Odd, considering how Marxist the books are, but I’ll touch on that in a bit.  Still, unlike “Kill Bill”, which was filmed as one movie but split into two because of a long running time, “Mockingjay” suffers from feeling like a two-hour-long Act I and not like a film in and of itself that happens to end on a cliffhanger.  Which isn’t to say the film is bad, because it is not.  Since the first “Hunger Games” felt rushed through, I enjoyed this film allowing itself to breathe and meander a bit so that the themes of the story and the emotions and mindsets of the characters get a tad more focus.  The issue is more that the film lacks a structure (it tries to make a hostage rescue its climax, but it feels like an “end of Act I” plot point instead), doesn’t offer enough action scenes for the crowd that is looking for a blockbuster, and is a rather somber affair overall.

While the YA books in the “His Dark Materials” series, including “The Golden Compass”, riled up Conservatives for being Atheist propaganda, it has surprised me that “The Hunger Games” series hasn’t riled them up for so obviously being Marxist propaganda aimed at teenagers.  When you have districts of poor, working class folks each tasked with producing a single, major good for the benefit of their rich overlords elsewhere, and who are forced into sectarian violence against one another on an annual basis, with  your villains referred to as “The Capitol” (very close to The Capital, with an A, or Das Kapital, with a K), and your story is about a grassroots proletarian revolution against this Capitol…well, it’s amazing people didn’t see this more clearly.  People starve and use their labor power to enhance the lives of the Bourgeoisie who dress in tacky clothes, enjoy immoral reality television, and eat so much they vomit so that they may continue eating.  Not to mention how many of the poorer districts’ citizens are either minorities or have a stereotypical blue collar look, right down to the 1984 proles jumpsuits.  It is supremely odd that blatantly Marxist literature has spawned a multi-million dollar film franchise and has captured the hearts of teenage girls around the world.  It is even more odd that hardly anyone has realized how up-front the books’, and to a lesser extent the films’ ideology truly is.  Entertainment Weekly did refer to the ideology by writing “Mockingjay may be the most harmlessly Marxist movie to come out of Hollywood since Reds”, and comparing Katniss to a Che Guevara T-shirt, but otherwise it’s been largely ignored.

The first two films in the series did glaze over some of this a bit in their rush to showcase PG-13 action (these films probably should have been made R, but that would have kept out a bulk of the fanbase) and a love triangle.  Instead, they seemed content with just showing us generic dystopian imagery; a bit of “1984”, a dash of “Logan’s Run”, a hint of “Soylent Green”, etc.  Because “Mockingjay” has so much more running time to show its story, this film is the most politically minded of the film versions.  We have Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) being used as a propaganda tool for the revolutionaries, who at one point try to make a bad commercial wherein Katniss stands before a digital background waving a red flag, ala “Les Miserables” or any red flag-accompanying Socialist uprising from the 20th century.  Yes, there is the commentary of both the good and the bad guys using manipulation of news and media imagery to further an agenda (a bit of false equivalency here, like in comparing Fox News to MSNBC, but whatever).  We also get a new character by way of Julianne Moore’s President Alma Coin of District 13.  Coin raises her fist to punctuate banal political speeches, and overall comes across as a power-hungry politician pretending to be the friend and leader of the proletariat (think Stalin giving lip service to Marxism while just ending up another Fascist thug).  District 13 is an underground bunker housing the headquarters for the revolution, and the shabby concrete setting houses the bulk of the film and encapsulates the near entirety of the film’s washed-out and drab color palate.  The glittery gaudiness of the Capitol in the first film is nary seen here.  “Mockingjay” would rather look more like the black-and-white films of people waiting in bread lines in the former Soviet Union.

The film largely follows Katniss as she visits mass graves; worries about her sister (Willow Shields) and her captured love interest, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson); and works with those in power, including Coin and Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who doesn’t sleepwalk through his performance like he did in “Catching Fire”) as they use Katniss as their mascot while nameless revolutionaries in other districts launch guerilla warfare against faceless, white-armored, Orwellian-named Peacekeepers, who in turn mow down a lot of these poor people in PG-13 bloodless gunfire.  There is perhaps something to be said about the film focusing on the people pulling strings behind the scenes while the actual fighters are delegated to the roles of mere extras and action cutaways, and having read the novel I know that…

*SPOILER*

…President Coin will turn out to be no better than the vile dictator she is opposing (like how Lenin became a dictator after deposing Czar Nicholas II even though he seemed to be fighting for the working class).  The film is clearly setting up to showcase the power corrupts and one-side-is-just-as-bad-as-the-other messages.  I guess “Mockingjay” is more of the Trotskyite of Permanent Revolution, and Coin would be a counterrevolutionary working for her own means and not for the workers who chant the fight song at her speeches.

*End Spoilers*

I will say that “Mockingjay” is well-acted and entertaining throughout, and is never boring even if it is the least action-heavy, slowest, and driest film of the series thus far.  It never feels like a movie, but rather the set up for a better film to be released next year, and leaves you with a sense of dissatisfaction, even if the film feels as if it is “better” than the previous two films.  Certainly this film comes the closest to capturing the source novel.  Director Francis Lawrence, whose previous films include the visually interesting but screenplay-weak “Constantine”, and the good-until-it-falls-apart-in-the-third-act “I Am Legend” (I didn’t see “Water for Elephants”), directs with a sure hand and a consistent visual style and color palette which heightens the film past its dry moments.  Honestly, though, this film succeeds on the merits and watchability of Jennifer Lawrence.  This whole thing collapses if she doesn’t bring her game.  While the film has perhaps too many close-ups of her silently looking worried, and in some scenes you can sense her thinking she can’t wait to do a more prestigious film now that “X-Men” and this are out of the way,  she is the nucleus holding this atom together, and she does so with flying colors.

For whatever its flaws, the film does what it needs to do, which is entertain you, present the major themes, and get you geared up for part II. B.

In the 20 years since the original “Dumb and Dumber” came out, a lot has changed.  The Farrelly brothers, for whom “Dumb and Dumber” was their first film, have had a long career of highs (“There’s Something About Mary”, “Kingpin”) and lows (“The Three Stooges”).  Jim Carrey, who once commanded $20 million a film and whose star power guaranteed a film to cross $100 million at the domestic box office, has seen his star power significantly diminished as comedy trends have gone from slapstick, to gross-out, to the age of Judd Apatow we seem to still be in now.  Also, I saw the original film when I was 10 or 11 years old.  That is perhaps the perfect age to see “Dumb and Dumber”.  It is the age in which all of the jokes will hit their target with the appropriate amount of hilarity.  Perhaps it also works well for the old.  My grandfather, who would die a year after the film came out, found it hilarious.  I saw the sequel in a theater where the only other patrons were an old man and an old woman, and the old man laughed heartily at a fart joke and an arm pit joke.  Perhaps it’s only us in the middle for whom these films may not hit quite as well.

A sequel to “Dumb and Dumber” probably should have happened in the late 90s, but back then Carrey was pretty anti-sequel (with the notable exception of “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls”) and The Farrellys were a critical and sometimes commercial role.  Now, when we’re getting long-awaited sequels we never thought we would (like the very disappointing “Anchorman 2”), “Dumb and Dumber To” is given to us.  Oh sure, there was the non-canon, much hated prequel “When Harry Met Lloyd”, which was originally supposed to be written by “South Park’s” Trey Parker & Matt Stone before they dropped out (the new film features a South Park street sign at the end, perhaps as a tip of the hat to them), but that doesn’t fit the bill the way an official sequel with the writers, directors, and stars back in the saddle again.  Of course, I’m now 31 years old, and it’s possible this humor won’t register with me as strongly as it did 20 years ago.  The recent new episodes of “Beavis & Butt-Head” may have hit me the right way, but I was a much bigger fan of those animated idiots than I have been of “Dumb and Dumber” over the years.

“Dumb and Dumber To” at least doesn’t fall into the “Austin Powers” trap of merely doing new versions of the same old jokes for every gag.  Yes, the sequel does repeat some gags for nostalgia purposes, but it largely blazes its own trail, which results in a film that seems a bit cruder than the original sometimes, though other times it merely reaches for easy and lazy jokes about mispronunciation.  If there’s one major complaint about the film, it’s that it never reaches for an original joke when an easy joke anyone could have written is right there.  The film isn’t lazy, exactly, but it doesn’t try as hard as it could, either.  I know the film is supposed to be dumb (it’s in the title), but can’t you be dumb in a clever fashion sometimes?  The brief reprisal of the dog van sort of fits in to that category.

The plot, as if it matters, involves Lloyd (Jim Carrey) faking catatonia in a mental hospital for twenty years until Harry (Jeff Daniels) tells him he can’t visit anymore because he’s having medical issues with his kidney.  Needing to find a kidney donor, preferably a blood relative, Harry goes to his parents, who are Asian, and is told he is adopted, so no luck there.  He does find an old postcard mailed to him (a Rocky Point postcard, which is one of a few Rhode Island in-jokes the film has for those from there…people who have never been to Rhode Island must see “Dumb and Dumber” and “Family Guy” and want to stay far away, and they would be right to do so) from Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner), who was the Cranston town whore in the early 90s (full disclosure: I used to live in Cranston), revealing that Harry knocked her up.  When Harry and Lloyd go to see her, she tells them she gave the kid, a daughter, up for adoption.  When she tried to write to her, the letter was sent back return-to-sender.  Still, armed with her address, and Harry’s need for a kidney, the guys set out on a road trip to meet her.  Once again, they also get wrapped up in a nefarious criminal scheme they are completely oblivious to.

There’s not much else to say or analyze about the film.  It is a dumb comedy, and the only thing that matters is if the humor works or doesn’t.  Here, I’d say the humor kind-of works.  As a former Rhode Islander, I liked references to the Block Island Ferry and Buddy Cianci.  I enjoyed a few callbacks to jokes from the original film, like the blind boy whose parrot was decapitated.  Having the finale take place at a TED Talk-like conference of science-minded geniuses was a nice touch, and some of the new gags work well.  Some fall flat, but that’s the nature of a comedy.  I’d say the film works more than it fails, but the laughs are more light chuckles than hearty guffaws, and it never comes close to reaching the heights of hilarity that the original often did.  Granted, I am 31 and not 11, and the new film will work well with 10-year-old boys, but the original “Dumb and Dumber” works well with me now too.

A special mention should go out to the actress who plays the dumb daughter of Harry, Rachel Melvin.  She plays cute dumb very well without being annoying dumb or bimbo-dumb.  The type of dumb she is asked to play is much more difficult than you would think, a non-mentally handicapped child-like dumb, and she finds a way to make it work very well, almost in the same way Anna Faris sometimes can (though “The House Bunny” does go more for bimbo-dumb).

Overall, I’d say I’m pleased with “Dumb and Dumber To”, and it rides on nostalgia much better than “Anchorman 2” did.  It may not be hilarious, and it doesn’t quite fit with the current trends in filmic comedy, but it’s funny enough to get the job done.  Or maybe, get the job dumb. B-

“Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas” barely qualifies as a feature film.  The running time is 80 minutes, already ten minutes shy of the perceived minimum for  a full length film (though many run a scant 88 minutes or less on occasion), and in that running time we get the following:

  • A 3+ minute opening monologue as Kirk Cameron sits by a Christmas tree and a fire, drinking hot chocolate
  • A possibly 5+ minute breakdancing routine in slow motion. Yes, dear reader, in this film you will see KIRK CAMERON DOING THE WORM IN SLOW-MOTION WHILE HIS MOUTH IS OPEN IN A BIG “O”!!!
  • A 3+ minute post-credits beatboxing freestyle starring two annoying minor characters.
  • A 3+ minute closing credit sequence with unfunny outtakes

Take away that conservative estimate of 14 minutes, and what we have is a feature that runs 66 minutes.  At this point you may be asking if that is enough time to tell a story.  Perhaps this “film” should have been a straight-to-dvd documentary or inspirational film and not released in movie theaters nationwide where people would pay upwards of $10.00 for a ticket to a film that looks like it was shot in a weekend at Kirk Cameron’s house as a home movie.  Well, whatever the case may be, the unaccredited religious college Liberty University, which teaches Creationism of the Young-Earth persuasion and still has the gall to call itself an institute of higher learning, decided this was a film to be released in theaters for paying customers, and if some Christians can drink enough Kool-Aid to find the film entertaining in a non-ironic way, I seriously worry for the future of the human race.

So what is this film about?  Going in to it, I assumed it would be an attack on the secularization of Christmas and the Christian perception of some “War on Christmas”, much like the cheesy Christian film “Last Ounce of Courage” was.  You may remember that film as being the first movie to ever receive the, let’s say “coveted”, Chuck Norris Seal of Approval.  That film was largely concerned with Christians being upset that some people want religious symbols, like the Nativity, removed from taxpayer funded public grounds.  You know, that pesky First Amendment keeping them from making Christianity the official religion of the United States really boils their blood.  Kirk Cameron, however, doesn’t seem as bothered with atheists in this regard.  The target of his “film”, instead, are Christians who have lost their love of Christmas, as they don’t see how it resembles a celebration of Jesus anymore.

As the plot-proper takes hold, we’re at a holiday party being held at Cameron’s sister’s house.  Cameron seems to be playing himself, even if his wife is nowhere to be seen (though Kirk makes sure to have his wedding ring displayed front and center in numerous frames).  Cameron’s sister in the film is played by his real life sister, Bridgette Ridenour, but his brother-in-law, the other main character in this thing, is played by the film’s director, Darren Doane.  Doane directed Cameron’s last film, “Unstoppable” (unseen by me), but is otherwise known as a music video director for decidedly non-Christian bands.  I’m not sure if he’s a recent convert, has always been a devout Christian, or is merely taking these jobs so he can call himself a feature director, but “Saving Christmas” contains nothing that would lead me to understand why he’s gotten so much music video work.

We get unnecessary hand-held shakiness during a normal Christmas party scene.  We have shots so close to the actors’ faces that I wondered if I was watching “Les Miserables” again.  There is an overuse of slow motion, bad flash animation, and other techniques that a child who just downloaded Final Cut Pro would use to edit his school project.  Some shots are so awkwardly set up that they could be mistaken for a horror movie or the pre-sex scenes in porn.  Christian films are known for their poor direction, from all of the “Left Behind” films to the aforementioned “Last Ounce of Courage”, to “God’s Not Dead” and “Fireproof”, the latter two of which are the best-directed of these all around poorly made films.  Even among this motley crew, “Saving Christmas” is amateur hour.

The majority of this film takes place in two sets: Inside the house during the holiday party, and inside a truck parked in a driveway as Cameron and his brother-in-law (who is named “Christian”, because the character who is a stand in for Christians who have lost their love of Christmas can’t have a name TOO on the nose, right?) discuss Christmas.  This film’s budget may have been less than the cost to fill up my tank last week.  There is an echo and ambient sound to the indoor scenes, as if they decided to forgo the use of boom mics and just recorded from the mics attached to the camera.  The film’s idea of lighting is either using source lighting from the house, or throwing a huge spotlight behind people to cast them in a creepy halo.  All around, this is a shabby-looking piece of work.  I’ve seen teenagers’ Youtube shorts that look more professional than this film.

Anyway, Christian is sitting in his house during the party as Cameron manically passes cups of hot chocolate out to the kids (many of whom look directly at the camera), his eyes bulging out from his skull and veins jutting out from his forehead and neck.  Kirk Cameron has become one scary-looking dude as he’s gotten older.  Christian finds himself staring at a little blonde girl dancing around, whom the film shows us in slow motion, adding a layer of creepiness that I don’t think the filmmakers were intending.  After all, the point of the scene is supposed to be Christian’s disgust with the kid’s bratty glee and hyper activity, not that Christian is a pedophile who is trying to contain his lust for young flesh, but that is largely how it comes across.  His gazing is interrupted by a stereotypical black man (the name of this actor is, at the moment, un-google-able) who waves his hands, talks fast, and pretty much shucks and jives his way through a borderline racist Chris Tucker-lite performance.  This man later has  a conversation with another partygoer (Raphi Henley) which seems to be a parody of conspiracy theories and even the War on Christmas, spoken behind coffee mugs (possibly so the dialogue could be written later or changed in post via ADR), and this scene wastes even more precious little screen time.

Discouraged, Christian decides to sit in his car away from the party. Kirk Cameron notices this and stalks him out to his car. I should mention here that this movie has an incessant amount of voice-over from Cameron.  Apparently “show, don’t tell” is not something the screenwriters were ever told.  It also seems that Cameron didn’t write this, or least isn’t a credited writer.  Director Doane and Cheston Hervey are the credited writers, even though Cameron’s name is above the title (at least in the closing credits, it’s not in the opening credits) and he gets an opening monologue. So, Cameron voice-overs his way into Christian’s car, Christian spends a long time repeating himself as he explains what he doesn’t like about Christmas, and then Cameron tells him he is all wrong.  At one point, Christian talks about seeing a mother and her bratty kid outside a store Christmas shopping, and you half-expect him to say he mowed them down with his car as he drove by.  I know the film tries to play Christian’s exasperation as funny, but he just comes across as a guy who is on the verge of shooting a bunch of people.  It is rather odd that the director cast himself in this unflattering role.

Of all the concerns Christian brings up, Cameron really only addresses three of them.  As Cameron addresses them, the film cuts away to poorly staged reenactments of the events he speaks of, or sometimes just random shots of backlit crucifixes and Styrofoam blocks poorly painted to resemble rocks in a cave.  Yes, the film goes into pseudo-documentary Dinesh D’Souza territory.  Going in to the film, I thought this was going to be some sort of Christian (the religion, not the character) spin on “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”, a comedy wherein an anti-Christmas person was won over by the joy and magic of Jesus-infused Christmas.  But no.  Instead, the film is largely voiceovers of Kirk Cameron as he tries to shove secular Christmas traditions, or at least ones not rooted in Christianity, and twist those square pegs to fit in to the round hole of religion.

Okay, the first thing isn’t really secular.  Christian complains about a Nativity snowglobe, and how it doesn’t get as much attention as other decorations.  Cameron then does into a spiel about how it’s amazing Jesus was born because King Herod was going around killing all the babies, as the prophecy foretold (yup, nothing weird about that), and that no one expected Baby Jesus to survive.  That’s why the wise men were bringing burial offerings (like myrrh) to the baby.  Cameron then spends way too much time fetishizing Baby Jesus’ swaddling cloth.  Like, way too much.  I’ve never heard the phrase “swaddling cloth” as much in my entire life before seeing this “film”.  Surprisingly, Cameron pretty much concedes that Jesus was not born in December during this explanation.  Not surprisingly, Cameron doesn’t concede that Jesus was a fictional character, but I suppose baby steps are in order.  Later in the film, Christian moves his nutcracker closer to the Nativity snowglobe to represent Herod’s soldiers. BOOM!  A secular decoration suddenly becomes Christian. BOO-YA, BITCHES!!!

Next, Cameron addresses Christmas trees.  Despite numerous historical sources which show that Christmas trees are derived from a number of different Pagan religions celebrating the winter solstice (Saturnalia among them), or that Christianity’s absorption of Pagan traditions helped to convert and keep different peoples in the fold and contribute to the religion’s staying power, Cameron rejects any Pagan influence in the Christmas tree whatsoever.  Instead, Cameron does some DaVinci Code-esque stretching to claim that the Christmas tree is both a symbol of the Tree of Life from Genesis, and a representation of every tree that will no longer become a wooden cross because Jesus was Crucified, and thus no one else needs to be, so that tree was saved from becoming a cross.  Because being chopped down to slowly die in your living room while planted in a water bowl is so much more dignifying to the tree?  Also, the Roman Empire crucified people until at least 337 CE, approximately three centuries after Jesus was presumed to have lived and died, so I’m not sure why Cameron thinks Jesus’ crucifixion stopped that method of execution.  Cameron also wants us to see the tree as representing Christ himself, glowing with light and filled with fruit to sustain us (Cameron’s really big on decorating Christmas trees with fruit).  Seriously, Kirk, pick a symbol and stick with it.  Trees can’t represent everything EXCEPT their historical Pagan routes, no matter how backward you bend yourself.

Lastly, we get a defense of Santa Clause.  While Santa being at least partially derived from the historical Saint Nicholas isn’t disputed, the film’s portrayal of him may raise some eyebrows.  Looking like a cross between Gandalf the Grey and Rob Zombie, Nicholas is portrayed as man so incensed that a man would dare claim that Jesus and God are not one in the same, that he BEATS THE EVER-LIVING SHIT OUT OF THAT MAN WITH HIS STAFF.  Cameron calls Nicholas (I’m paraphrasing) Christ’s greatest defender and champion.  In the film, he looks like a crazy man who becomes violent over blasphemy. Santa as jihadist for Jesus.

I’m not sure why Cameron feels threatened if not every single symbol and piece of Christmas iconography is not as least somewhat tied to his religion, but he clearly is. The biggest stretch, and I mean one DOOZY, is told to us in voice-over during an opulent dinner montage.  Cameron says that it is okay that Christmas has become about material things like ham dinners, “your richest butter” (direct quote),  and expensive presents, because Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, and thus THE DAY THAT GOD HIMSELF BECAME MATERIAL!  Yes, because God became flesh, it is your right and your duty to buy lots of expensive presents for you and yours.  The film does tell us not to max out our credit cards or go into debt, though.  However, It fails to tell us not to bitchslap non-believers.

Christian is somehow convinced, at the end of all this, that Christmas is about Jesus after all.  He rejoins the party, and in a very porno-ish scene, walks up to his wife.  He asks her if she knows what he wants to do.  Her reply is something along the lines of “what did you have in mind”, but it ends with her addressing Christian as “Big Poppa”.  I’m not kidding.  The film then freezes and Cameron tells us that we’re expecting them to kiss.  No, I was expecting a hardcore anal scene from the poorly staged mise en scene and a woman addressing a man as “Big Poppa”, but whatever.  We get the breakdancing scene and, I cannot stress this enough, KIRK CAMERON DOING THE WORM IN SLOW MOTION WITH HIS MOUTH OPEN IN A GIANT “O”!!!!  My father, why have you forsaken me?

“Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas” is an amateurishly made, poorly paced “film”, packed with unnecessary filler, which makes a few out-there stretches of logic in an attempt to convince Christians that it is okay to celebrate all the flashy gaudiness of Christmas because, hey, it can all be twisted to reach right back to Jesus.  It ranges from boring to unintentionally hilarious, and isn’t so much intellectually offensive as it is exceedingly crappy to the point of harmlessness.  Its greatest sin is daring to expect people to pay money for an hour of people talking in a car combined with beatboxing and breakdancing, and finding out that the combination of hot chocolate and Baby Jesus’ swaddling cloth would likely make Kirk Cameron jizz in his pants. D-

As a love letter to his daughter, “Interstellar” is likely successful for Christopher Nolan.  In most of the interviews about the film, either Nolan or his cast has talked about how the film was largely informed by Nolan becoming a parent.  That’s all fine and good, but Nolan decided to make his love letter a sci-fi film that attempts to deal with theoretical concepts like relativity and wormholes, and also could be seen as politically charged.  As a result, one expects Nolan to have something more to say than “Love is really awesome”, which is the prominent surface message of the film.

Perhaps a summary of the plot is in order before we go further.  We’re introduced to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot and engineer who, after a crash, became a farmer growing corn.  Earth, in the not-too-distant future, has been faced with a food shortage due to a combination of dust storms and overpopulation.  The film doesn’t give us much backstory on the cause of the dust storms (so the film isn’t necessarily about Global Warming explicitly, though one cannot ignore it implicitly) or what the shape of the Earth in total is like.  While the film takes us to the outer reaches of our solar system and into galaxies unknown and even different dimensions, the film only lets us see one small town on Earth for some reason.  In any case, we learn from a parent-teacher conference that most of the planet’s educational resources have shifted to push children into the occupation of farming, to make up for the food shortage.  We also learn that there is no more military (because starving people would never result in violence, right?) and also seemingly superfluous non-farming technologies like MRI machines have been done away with (o…kay?).  Oh, and to keep kids from dreaming big dreams, the federal government now lies to kids and tells them that all of the Apollo missions were faked to bankrupt the old Soviet Union.  So we have a lying Federal Government, which is something Conservatives would like, but also an anti-science government, which is something Liberals will jump on.  This film is very confused as to what its politics are, and ultimately its message is.  You have enough red meat in the film for either side to say the film supports their particular ideology, but in the end it seems the film is pretty agnostic on politics.

The main themes seem to actually be twofold: Pragmatism vs Ideas and Selfishness vs Altruism.  Making people practically produce food and not dreaming for the stars is our first encounter with the former theme.  We also get discussion about how in the past there were new ideas and gadgets that came out all the time, but now it’s just about sustaining food.  We also, later, get a scientist who gives up on an impossible equation and goes along with a practically sensible but morally cruel course of action.  We also get three characters sitting around trying to decide whether to make a choice based on hard data, or a choice based on, I’m not kidding, love.  They choose hard data, and the choice doesn’t work out well.  Yeah. This is a film where love is better than evidence, because the evidence has been falsified for selfish means.  Okay, I suppose that last part is pretty Climategate-Conservative.  After Nolan pretty much took a swipe at Occupy Wall Street in “The Dark Knight Rises”, I suppose the film might lean slightly into Conservative territory, but the big picture remains pretty muddled.  After all, the film also complains that this is a future where NASA is shut down because the people wouldn’t stand for money being poured into it when there’s a food shortage and all; a nice swipe at people who nowadays claim the space program is a waste of money and would like to see it privatized.  Cooper even points out that we wouldn’t have MRIs without the space program, so it’s a rather non-budget-cutting-Conservative argument that we should fund seemingly non-practical programs because they will lead to practical applications later.

Cooper has two kids, a son Tom (played by Timothee Chalamet as a child and Casey Affleck as an adult), and a daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn), who is named after Murphy’s Law.  Yeah, give your daughter a boy’s name and a name that Cooper tries to spin as a good thing but, come on, we all know the layman’s interpretation of that law, and it’s kind of a shitty thing to name your kid.  Tom is content to keep his head down and run the farm, even though Cooper would like him to go to college (this society is one where college is out of reach from all but the most intelligent, because society can’t afford to educate manual labor…I’ll let you decide which political ideology that is speaking to), Murph is bright and has an impressive book collection in her bedroom, but still thinks strange things happening in her bedroom are the result of a ghost.  After a brief investigation, Cooper surmises that her “ghost” is actually a gravitational distortion, and that leads him to (trust me on this) a secret government facility within driving distance which houses the secret, underground NASA headquarters.

Once here, we meet Professor Brand (Michael Caine) who seems to be the head of NASA and is trying to work out how to save the human race, which currently can only grow corn and soon the corn will due out, leaving everyone to die either of starvation or from inhaling dust.  They’ve come up with two plans.  See, someone or something(s) have/has placed a wormhole near Saturn.  This wormhole allows humans to travel to a distant galaxy where there may be inhabitable planets.  Years earlier, NASA sent about twelve astronauts through this thing and they’ve gotten weak signals back indicating that at least three planets may be inhabitable.  The mission, which Brand wants Cooper to pilot, is to find the best planet for repopulation, with the goal being either to take everyone off Earth and bring them to the planet or, if that is not feasible, repopulate the new planet with fertilized embryos (unless Anne Hathaway’s character is going to be the surrogate for hundreds of babies, it’s never adequately explained how this plan will work).  The catch is that, because of relativity and such, time will not move at the same rate on these other planets (some of which orbit a black hole) as on Earth, so through various circumstances we see the people on earth age about twenty years while our astronauts age at a normal on-screen rate, for the most part.  Anne Hathaway is Brand’s daughter, and we also get Wes Bentley and David Gyasi as the rest of Cooper’s crew.

That other big theme, selfishness vs altruism, it comes in to play a lot.  Is it more selfish to leave your family behind to save the human race, or altruistic because that family will surely die if you don’t succeed?  Is it wrong to lie to people so as to not cause a panic?  Is it wrong to give false hope if it means a greater good will happen because of that lie, whereas the truth would lead to no such good?  Without venturing into massive spoiler territory, I hesitate to elaborate more.  We also get one character later that makes completely selfish and evil choices and serves as the film’s main human villain.

On a surface level, the film largely works.  You’re invested in the characters enough, it chugs along entertainingly, and it has some interesting visuals, though not as awe-inspiring as “2001” (the film “Interstellar” desperately wishes it were) or even Aronofsky’s underrated “The Fountain”.  The third act is kind of a mess, with a nonsensical trip into the fifth dimension that feels uber-cheesy.  Also, it makes me wonder why fifth dimensional future beings would help the human race out enough to give them a wormhole, but not put it closer to Earth (it takes the astronauts two years to get to it), and not place the other end of it near the correct planet to colonize.  They are obtuse in the worse ways religious people claim a god to intervene in human affairs.

“2001” isn’t the only film “Interstellar” cribs.  It completely steals the 90s horror film “Event Horizon”’s whole fold-a-paper-in-half-to-demonstrate-a-wormhole bit.  It also borrows the space travel hibernation conceit from Ridley Scott’s “Alien”.  The film “Interstellar” most resembles is Scott’s later “Prometheus”, in that it’s an entertaining and ambitious, but flawed and pretentious near miss.  One little thing about the film I did like where fake testimonials from the future where old people deliver to the camera their experiences about living in the dust-ravaged Earth.  It brought to mind the (non-staged) testimonials from Warren Beatty’s “Reds”, and it’s a nice narrative device, even if only used briefly in the beginning.

Of course, the film would not be complete without semi-sentient robots, and the film gives us two (plus a third broken one). TARS and CASE have a weird design, kind of blocky but with the ability to form various shapes in an almost Rubix Cube-y fashion.  Maybe even Tetris-y.  They are kind of cool, I suppose, but it feels silly a great deal of the time as well.

“Interstellar”, much like Nolan’s better “Inception”, is ultimately done in because the film thinks it is more original and clever than it actually is.  “Inception” was a cool and twisty movie about dreams, but unfortunately all of the dreams were rather pedestrian and unimaginative James Bond fantasies with our heroes shooting a bunch of NPCs.  “Interstellar” is an entertaining, well-made, watchable film that suffers from a lack of a coherent message, a sense of unearned self-satisfaction by dealing with theoretical physics on screen, overtly borrowing ideas from other films (even the “Elysium” space station is nearly directly ripped off), and a cheesy sentimentality that we might expect from Spielberg, but not from the man who brought us the phenomenal “Memento”.

Still, up until the third act (or at least until the last part of the second act and Matt Damon’s appearance), the film works well as you are watching it.  Much like “Inception”, it’s only after the film is over that its flaws smack you across the face.  It’s a fun film to watch, for the most part, but all of that work and craftsmanship on film can’t make up for the deficits in its screenplay. C+

Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy)

Posted: November 4, 2014 in Uncategorized

Walking in to see “Nightcrawler”, one can be forgiven for thinking the film is going to be a run-of-the-mill indictment of the news media.  We’ve seen films before about how the once gleaming fourth estate has been reduced to reporting crap in the pursuit of ratings.  Hell, even the idea of violent footage bought by a station to boost ratings despite the illegal and immoral way in which the video was shot has been fodder for films.  You may not remember “15 Minutes”, a Robert DeNiro bomb about serial killers who film their crimes and sell the footage to the news, but that film’s premise is sort of a cousin to “Nightcrawler”.  In “Nightcrawler” we don’t have a serial killer, but we do have Louis Bloom, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

In a creepy, bug-eyed performance that is Gyllenhaal’s best and is deserving of at the very least an Oscar nomination, we watch as Bloom starts out as a petty thief, stealing copper wire and chain link fences from construction sites to sell to other outfits.  Bloom is not like your common petty thief, however.  He speaks in the language of banality taken from self-help books, how to succeed in business seminars, and guides to writing a resume.  His inflection is that a man leading a seminar or pitching a pyramid scheme.  His dialogue doesn’t sound like a human’s, but rather the memorization of an introductory business courses’ text book.  He has the stilted language of an extreme Aspie, and in the film he specifically says that he has little formal education but instead spends hours online reading up on things because information is everywhere if you know where to look.

Driving home one night, he happens upon a scene of two EMTs pulling a woman from a flaming car wreck.  Some freelance video photographers, lead by Joe (Bill Paxton), show up to film it, and Bloom decides that this profession is more to his liking than stealing bicycles.  After selling some gory footage of the victim of a carjacking to the lowest rated new station in the city, it’s late night producer (Rene Russo) tells him that if he gets more footage that plays into the station’s niche (crime stories about urban violence encroaching on white suburbia), the station will continue to buy and use the footage.

Bloom soon goes from using a small personal camcorder he gets at a pawn shop and a chintzy police scanner to keep up on where stories are happening, to making enough money to buy a fast sports car, better equipment, and take on an employee (Riz Ahmed) to help with navigation and shooting B-roll.  As competition increases with other freelancers, Bloom starts to cross ethical lines: sneaking into victims homes without their permission, moving evidence (or bodies) to stage better shots, etc.  Everything builds to a point where Bloom reaches the location of a shooting before the cops do, and decides to go on in and film the bloody scene.

Here’s the thing: this movie is not all that concerned with the news media.  Yes, it covers the basic material of how the news plays up crime to scare middle class and affluent white people, and the if-it-bleeds-it-lead mentality that some local news stations have, especially if they are dead last in their market.  This is all stuff that’s been done to death before, even if this film does a good job of rehashing the material without banging you over the head with what is already obvious to everyone.  So no, the main issue with this movie isn’t the news media.  Oddly enough, the film really has a problem with free-market, entrepreneurial capitalism.

I’m sure you know the basic ideas that many hard core proponents of free-market capitalism espouse.  It’s the whole American Dream thing about how if you work hard, have a plan, and also a little luck and gumption, you can make it no matter what your background.  A lot of these people are also hostile to regulations (or any laws that inhibit one’s ability to grow and make a profit), and some particularly Ayn Rand-ian persons don’t believe that empathy or consideration for one’s fellow man should get in the way of achieving their goals and making their profit.  “Nightcrawler” is an indictment of these sensibilities, and it makes its case by taking these beliefs and extending them to their most extreme scenario to reveal how insanely awful the whole idea is.

We have Bloom.  He’s a criminal, uneducated (though not unintelligent), and poor enough to live in a studio apartment with a single houseplant, though has enough money for a laptop, a flat screen, and DirectTV.  In an early scene, he describes how he grew up in a time where education was teaching kids too much self-esteem but that he was grateful to break free of that and realize that nothing comes to a person in life unless he goes out and earns it.  Rather that learn things through liberal academia, he goes online and reads up on topics of interest to him until he knows them forward and backward.  After all, knowledge is free so why pay some institution when you can learn it on your own yourself (an extreme Libertarian argument against public education in general).  When he finds out something he is interested in, he develops a business plan, and through skill and self-determination works his way up from a lowly guy with a camcorder, to making a decent living off of his own business, expanding and adding new employees, and going from a man begging for jobs to the boss.  Great.  It’s the modern free-market fairy tale of upward mobility.

The catch is, however, that our main character is not just an enterprising young man, but a creepy psychopath who is on the verge of snapping, has little-to-no people skills, is completely amoral and more than a bit misanthropic, and doesn’t think ethics or even the law should get in the way of him doing his job.  There are studies showing that while 1% of the general population are psychopaths (people who have zero empathy), 4% of CEOs are.  “Nightcrawler” certainly makes a case for why a psychopath can do well in a free-market system.  When laws and ethics don’t hold you back, you can get a make a better product or provide a better service (video of freshly murdered corpses), sell that for top dollar, and advance your career.  “If you want to win the lottery, you need to make enough money to buy the ticket”.  Bloom is constantly rattling off sayings and phrases that sound like they came from a Forbes Magazine blog post or a Libertarian politician’s talking points for a debate.

There’s one particularly chilling scene where Bloom takes Russo’s producer out to dinner, implying that he’ll no longer sell her juicy footage if she won’t, and then proceeding to blackmail her into a sexual relationship via a Sun Tzu-worthy business negotiation where he points out that she works the late night shift at a low-rated news station and if she loses the job she will also lose her health insurance, and she’ll likely lose her job is Bloom decides to stop selling her his footage.  Gyllenhaal plays the scene not as a man skeevily blackmailing a woman for sex, but rather one businessman using his leverage to gain favorable terms to a contract.  There’s little malice in his voice, or pride, or anything really.  He simply states the facts, states what he wants, and gives her the choice to accept or reject his terms, knowing the consequences.  It’s a masterful scene in writing and acting.

The film was written and directed by Dan Gilroy, who has never directed a film before but has a number of screenplays to his credit, including the underrated and forgotten early 90s time travel thriller “Freejack”.  In “Nightcrawler” he has created a main character who is at times as chilling as “Taxi Driver”’s Travis Bickle (and Gilroy sometimes shoots him from similar angles).  The message is the film is both blatantly obvious (it’s hard to ignore how Bloom’s dialogue is almost entirely comprised of the language you’d read in a corporate brochure, especially when he’s explaining to a dying man why he was an untrustworthy employee who had to go), yet will likely go over the heads of the people who would be offended by the message (to my knowledge, Fox News hasn’t done any stories about the film being Liberal propaganda against “job creators”, or anything like that).  Gilroy also did something that is nearly impossible these days: he made me excited during a car chase.  He gets points just for that.  L.A. looks great when photographed at night (remember “Drive”?), and Gilroy takes full advantage of that by making the city look both pretty and menacing, often times in the same frame, without needing to resort to weird angles or overt image manipulation.  While Gyllenhaal’s performance will take up most of the credit for this film’s artistic success, and that credit will be deserved, we can’t forge that Gilroy has written a strong, almost 1970s-feeling film and created one bugnuts crazy lead character who is captivating to watch, and deserves the comparison’s to Bickle.

The film, in a way, does give the free-market credit.  Bloom transforms from a man whose oily, slicked hair is creepy to a man in a business suit whose oily, slicked hair works to complete his look of professional business man and entrepreneur.  The question the film asks is: Is it a good thing that we live in a world where the attributes of a person like Bloom are heralded, praised, encouraged, and rewarded.  If this is what we are supposed to strive to be, if this man is the American Dream made flesh, then isn’t our whole damn idea of success a diseased entity that needs to be heavily reexamined?   It’s only a mild exaggeration to say that Bloom is the man people like Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, and Rand Paul want us all to be.  That’s a scary thought, and may explain why the movie opened on Halloween. A-