‘Interstellar’ Review (dir. Christopher Nolan)


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It would be disingenuous of me to not start this review by saying that I went into ‘Interstellar’ with a clear and present bias. Not towards Nolan – though I think he is a wonderful director who has not yet made a truly bad film. But a bias towards the scientific theories and potential themes I expected – based on trailers and the concept of the film – that it would explore. I have always been very interested in astronomy and astrophysics – and have a soft spot for science fiction films with a strong emotional core (‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘Contact’). So when I headed to the theater I knew I was walking a very fine line (one that many reviewers walk but won’t admit to). If the film met (even marginally) my high expectations then it would in no doubt lead to high praise that bordered on hyperbole – and if it didn’t – if it disappointed – then it would cause a reaction a lot more negative than it really needed to be.

Where did ‘Interstellar’ ultimately fall? Hyperbole…or disappointment? Well luckily for me it was the former…to a fairly strong degree. I’ll say it now – this is not just probably  my favorite film of the year so far, but like with ‘Gravity’ and ‘The Tree of Life’ (yes, more on that later) in recent years, this may  fall within my favorite films of all time. It is a dazzling, visually stunning, emotionally resonant and incredibly well made sci-fi space epic – one with the power to keep you on the edge of your seat one minute and in tears the next. It explores big ideas about the cosmos while also staying incredibly grounding with an intimate story about family, regret, sacrifice and love. Like I said…hyperbole.

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The film takes place in a not so distant future in which the world is becoming unlivable. After population growth, climate shifts and diseases ravishing crops, the world is struggling to produce enough of what little food sources they have left – which means a heavy reliance on corn farms. It is very bleak future where dust from dust storms covers everything, and the only focus of mankind is struggling to survive with what they know and have. Innovation, free thinking and exploration are at a standstill – and unless schools deem you smart enough to go on to a university, your only career prospective is farming.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a widower and former pilot who now owns a farm where he lives with his two young children. He does his best to provide for his family but clearly wants more for them than what the current world can provide. After finding a mysterious message in his daughter Murph’s room, Cooper finds himself being recruited by what is left of NASA. They are secretly putting together a mission to journey through a wormhole that has appeared near Saturn. They do not know how it got there but they do know that beyond it is a solar system with some potentially habitable planets. They want Cooper to pilot an expedition through the wormhole to explore these planets and see if one is suitable to set up a new human colony. Cooper reluctantly agrees, even though it means leaving his children behind. He knows that the journey could kill him or – due to the laws of relatively – that by the time he does return his children may be much older than he is or already dead. But the fate of the human race – including his son and daughter – relies on finding a new home. So he sets out with a team of astronauts – and one pretty funny robot – on a journey that will take them farther than any humans have ever gone. The decision devastates his young daughter Murph – who he had a close relationship with – and it sets her out on a journey of her own to save humanity in a way she believes her father couldn’t.

To go into much more detail of the plot would ruin much of the experience. But I will say it becomes a fast paced and exciting journey. It does sometimes fall back on the usual genre tropes but there is never a dull moment; and it all builds up to an emotional and rewarding conclusion.

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The performances are truly superb. For all his technical mastery, Nolan is also an actors’ director and he gets the most out of his casts. McConaughey is at his best here – which is saying a lot considering his work in recent years. The emotion he brings is on a whole different level than anything he has done before. Jessica Chastain, who plays the adult Murph, also has a strong presence. Both actors wear the burden of their decisions and regrets on their shoulders, and you can see it in every scene. They are the heart and soul of the film. Hathaway also did a wonderful job – as did Wes Bently, Michael Caine, and David Gyasi.

The score from Hans Zimmer is loud and heart pounding. He always manages to perfectly convey the intensity of some truly exciting set pieces – while also slowing down to capture the emotions of the more intimate moments, and this score is no different.

The visuals are absolutely stunning. The effects (most of them created through practical means) were influenced by physicist Kip Throne – who also oversaw a lot of the science in the film – and the result is dream-worthy space imagery. Interestingly, the depictions of the wormhole and black hole in ‘Interstellar’ are considered to be the most accurate ever created. The results are gorgeous, especially on a big screen – with one scene with Saturn making me all teary eyed.

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Below the spectacle and hard science is an emotionally resonant tale of exploration and human ambition that puts its faith not only in science but also the human soul.  Does it become heavy handed at times? Of course! This is a space opera – a science fiction epic – with a big budget, big ideas, big name actors, big visuals and so the emotions at times match that. The first 40 minutes or so do a fantastic job setting up the bond between Cooper and his daughter. It is a wonderful relationship – but a complex one filled with love, anger and regret. It is also the backbone of the story and Nolan builds the emotion from there.

Like with ‘The Tree of Life’ (I told you I was going here), the juxtaposition of dazzling space images and the exploration of the cosmos with this grounded and intimate family story about love and nature make for a challenging but truly rewarding experience. One that asks big questions about our relationship with each other and the universe we inhabit; and examines how the flow and clash of such things as love and instinct with nature can change and inspire us for better or worse. Nolan does seem to want to show how love has the ability to conquer and transcend even the harshest things nature and its laws can throw at us. It is almost fitting then that Chastain stars in each, and has a roll in both stories that could be almost viewed as similar – as the focal point of love that guides the main character and the audience. And like with ‘The Tree of Life’ I can totally understand why people would not like ‘Interstellar’. Neither are films for everyone. I believe most reviews I have seen are so mixed because ultimately ‘Interstellar’ relies so heavily on the emotions at the core of the story that it was inevitable that it wouldn’t connect with some people. You have to be open to some extreme sentimentalism, which just isn’t the case for everybody.

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I won’t go into much detail over the film’s final act, but I think it makes perfect sense within the logical and emotional progression of the story – though some critics disagree. They seem to think that Nolan’s often straight forward hard science approach is too stern and takes the wonder and ambiguity out of his stories and I found that to not be the case with ‘Interstellar’. Mainly because the ending does in fact have some level of ambiguity – but what it does explain adds a level of wonder and hope that would be lost had it been open ended. I will also say that I find it absolutely absurd that some critics who praise and accept the ending to’2001: A Space Odyssey’ have dismissed this one for being too convoluted or even nonsensical…as if those couldn’t also be said of the ending of Kubrick’s film.

But again maybe this is all just me. As I warned you, hyperbole was expected and I think this review lived up to that. I truly loved the film. It generated in me the same feeling of wonder, excitement and curiosity I got from the spectacle and emotions of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and ‘Contact’ –the realism of ‘Gravity’ – and the complexity and mind bending theories of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Throw in with that the connections I felt it had with such films as ‘The Tree of Life’ and there was no way I wasn’t going to love it. This is cinema at its finest. Whatever flaws it might have I can easily overlook due to not only how moving and entertaining of an experience it all is – but also because it is just so damn ambitious. Whether you see it on a large IMAX screen or not, you’ll be moved in one way or another.

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Now, I don’t usually do this but I would like to end by quickly addressing the small group of people who have been crying sexism before the film even got its wide release. Apparently, because the lead is a scruffy male and the film is about the will power of mankind to journey off and explore the unknown, that it is somehow a male centric film that is about masculinity above all else. If the idea of human endeavor, innovation, the struggle to survive, and the pursuit of knowledge brings to your mind nothing but masculinity and male dominance then blame society – not the film – because it was clearly not its intentions  and really is just not even remotely the case here. You could easily replace McConaughey’s character with a female lead (like in ‘Contact’) and the narrative, emotional and thematic results would be EXACTLY the same. This all seems even more ridiculous given the fact that the female characters play a much more important role than any of the men. Their work, decisions and perspective essentially save the day. It isn’t until the men view the situations and universe through them that they are able to succeed.

I have also been thrown off by the complaints of Nolan’s reliance on “daddy issues” or the “dead wife/spouse” tropes, and fail to see how these (which I admit are often present in his films) should at all matter when they fit so well into the story and are so emotionally effective. Not to mention Cooper being a widower has nothing to do with any decision he makes; and the relationship Murph has with him is far more complex than simply being “daddy issues”. It is actually a wonderfully realized one, with Nolan drawing experience from the relationship he has with his own daughter.

But why are these even being brought up by people, so early and with such vigor? Do not get me wrong, I understand and appreciate the opinions of those who simply did not like it…but for the few who have criticized it for the aforementioned reasons I just cannot wrap my head around where they are coming from. Sexism is often an issue in cinema and film making as a whole and something that could clearly be worked on…but it just does not apply to ‘Interstellar’ in any way. And I say this as someone who isn’t a Nolan fan boy. Yes, I appreciate his work – he has made some truly great films – but I am not one of those who think he is the best director working right now. But it is hard to not be disappointed and confused by the fact that every time he releases a film there are tons of articles that pop up to critique what would otherwise be completely ignored in other films – or in some case they critique things they didn’t even care about in his other films. Maybe this is just the price a director like him faces. His work tends to be so popular that critics seem to try extra hard to make their voices heard – an attempt to quell the masses of fans excited to see it – by overreaching in their criticism. This is made all the more disheartening when you consider he is one of a very few filmmakers willing to take such big risks to make smart and ambitious films. But maybe I am wrong. Please, let me know your thoughts!

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Twitter.

BlizzCon 2014: Rumors and Speculations


Well, we are now only a day away from Blizzard Entertainment’s eighth BlizzCon convention, and as has become a sort of tradition here, I will aim to bring you as much coverage as I can while I watch the live stream. I’d like to get a bit of a head start this year by setting the rumor mill in motion.

The biggest question on everyone’s mind will inevitably be: what is Blizzard’s big opening surprise announcement? BlizzCon has traditionally been the company’s favorite venue to open the lid on secret projects and plans. The first BlizzCon introduced us to The Burning Crusade. In 2007 we learned of Wrath of the Lich King. 2008 gave us our first in-depth look at Starcraft II and Diablo III. 2009 brought Cataclysm, 2011 ushered in Mists of Pandaria, and 2013 introduced us to Warlords of Draenor. But 2010 was a bit of an anomaly. In 2010, we got nothing, and it’s probably no surprise that I remember that year the least of the four I followed.

Even numbers are off years for Blizzard. There was no BlizzCon 2012 for a reason; they had nothing substantial to announce. So where do we stand in 2014? It is too early to announce World of Warcraft 7. Diablo 3‘s Reaper of Souls expansion is less than a year old, and we’ve known about StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void forever now. There is Hearthstone. But as fun as it may be, it’s just a card game. So you might be thinking Heroes of the Storm, Warcraft: The Movie, or Project Titan.

Titan would be the best guess, as Blizzard’s biggest, most ambitious upcoming project. Except Blizzard canceled Titan in September. Yes, after seven years of development, Project Titan went the way of Starcraft: Ghost. This wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, either. Blizzard had been “reevaluating” the project for a year, aka deciding if they should can it, so it’s not as if this was going to be the big BlizzCon announcement and they had to change their plans at the last minute.

Hmm… A repeat of 2010 then? Maybe. Probably? If Blizzard have a truly new game in store for us this year, it’s going to catch everyone off guard. Blizzard trademarked the title Overwatch earlier this year, and that has gained a lot of attention for lack of anything more concrete to speculate over. Overwatch could just as easily be the next Hearthstone expansion though, following Curse of Naxxramas. I think we can safely assume Blizzard will pump one of those out a year as long as people are willing to keep buying them.

So what will the big opening showcase definitely not be? I remember hearing a rumor years ago that after WoW 5, which would be Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard were going to shrink their expansions from two years down to one. That’s stupid. I’ll believe it when I see it, and I’ll still think it’s stupid. There will be no World of Warcraft 7 announcement at this BlizzCon. It’s also not likely to be Warcraft: The Movie or Heroes of the Storm. How do I know? Because there are introduction and overview slots scheduled for both of these projects immediately following the opening mystery segment.

But wait, Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2 are going to have “What’s Next?” segments on the panel stage after the opening. So that leaves ???. Maybe, just maybe, Blizzard have a really big announcement in store. But they have scheduled events in such a way that it appears to rule out all six of their currently known major projects. Blizzard take years upon years to develop new games. That is why we knew about Starcraft: Ghost for an eternity. That is why we knew about Project Titan for an eternity. That is why the Starcraft II announcements were really just icing on a cake we had long known was in the oven. Blizzard is a company with Duke Nukem Forever syndrome, not an organization that spits out new titles out of the blue in a year’s time. Whatever the gaping two hour gap between BlizzCon 2014’s Opening Ceremony and its first presentations and panels will be, I predict that it will be anticlimactic.

Still, why the secrets? If the space is just going to be filled by a general overview of everything Blizzard, surely they would tell us. They wouldn’t get our hopes up for nothing, would they?

Well, I have one idea. StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void. The one hour “What’s next?” panel certainly suggests that we won’t already know what’s next, but that could be misleading by intent. Wings of Liberty was released in July 2010. Heart of the Swarm came out in March 2013. At that pace, Legacy of the Void is due around November 2015, conveniently coincident with BlizzCon 2015 (where World of Warcraft 7 will be the obvious big deal). If Blizzard don’t want Legacy of the Void to go up in a puff of smoke, November 7, 2014, is the day to hype the shit out of it. They surely aren’t going to give it a measly one hour discussion on a side stage. Sure, it’s going to be more like Diablo III: Reaper of Souls than a big freakin’ deal, but Starcraft 2 needs more publicity. The Diablo series is now intimately tied with Warcraft. Every WoW subscriber owns the original D3, because you got a whopping year-long subscription free for buying it, and it only came out two and a half years ago. Starcraft 2 has been around for four and a half now, and let’s face it, the solo campaign for Heart of the Swarm was a boring letdown compared to Wings of Liberty. The game lacks casual players like me because it requires constant practice to maintain skill, so it competes with WoW for Blizzard fans’ time in a way that Diablo 3 doesn’t. It’s by far Blizzard’s best franchise, never mind that I’m a WoW junkie, and it’s been slowly isolating itself to Koreans and hardcore aficionados. My realid list is always capped at 100 players, and it’s totally normal for me to catch a WoW gamer playing Diablo or Hearthstone. Starcraft just never happens. It should, because it’s better than all those other games, but it doesn’t.

So what do you do at BlizzCon 2014? Hype the hell out of Legacy of the Void and announce a streamlined, highly publicized and consistently broadcasted esports league that brings the top tier of Korean competition to the front page of my Battle.net app every weekend. If I could watch Day[9] broadcast a Jaedong vs. Life zerg throwdown at the click of a button in my Battle.net interface, without having to dive into a foreign corner of the internet to find it, bye-bye raiding. And don’t worry Blizzard, I’ll still subscribe to do mindless fishing and archeology while I watch. The tail end of the SC2 WCS Global Finals is getting exclusive coverage with no overlap from other events on Saturday, so I’m pretty excited about that. And Day[9] is one of the tournament’s broadcasters. His commentary is always epic. I don’t know if that’s a sign of anything. Maybe it’s just a distant hope.

But are there any other options? Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s DotA-style free-to-play project, is getting one more hour of show time than any other project, and the official BlizzCon 2014 site background suggests it:

Kerrigan as a human, Arthas as a Death Knight, and a Diablo III Warlock all engaged in combat? That sounds like Heroes of the Storm to me. But then, if that’s the game they’re openly making a big deal about, it’s not going to be the secret surprise, is it? Well, I’ll break down the announced non-competition content and you be the judge:

World of Warcraft: 4 hours total
1 hour WoD changes overview
1 hour Content Q&A
1 hour Cinematics panel
1 hour Documentary

Warcraft: The Movie: 1 hour presentation

Diablo III: 2 hours total in two separate “What’s next?”-type panels.

Hearthstone: 2 hours total
1 hour “What’s next?” panel
1 hour Arena guide and strategy Q&A

Starcraft II: 4 hours total
2 hours total in two separate “What’s next?”-type panels.
2 hour “exhibition” on a side stage, no further information

Heroes of the Storm: 5 hours total
1 hour “Overview”
2 hour “exhibition” on a side stage, no further information
1 hour audio panel
1 hour character and team-building guide

*mysterious* Unannounced Content: 3 hours total
2 hours of empty space to follow the opening ceremony
1 hour of empty space on the main stage Saturday, 11:30 to 12:30.

27 Days of Old School: #6 “Hip to Be Square” (by Huey Lewis and the News)


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HEY PAUL!

For most people their experience with Huey Lewis and the News’ hit track “Hip to be Square” was due to it being used in American Psycho. It was already a great song before that film came out and continues to remain so, but now it’s taken on an even dark comedic tone.

I used to listen to this song non-stop when it first came out. Now, whenever I listen to it I start seeing Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman dancing to the song while dressed in a plastic raincoat. But before that it was always a catchy song and, dare I say it, a very hip one.

I actually prefer the band’s “Power of Love” track, but this song has to be next in line when it came to my favorite track from the band.

I’ve wondered what my younger self would think about this song now being associated with American Psycho. The answer I always get is that my younger self would think it was cool and hip (ok, ok stopping it there).

Lisa Reviews The Oscar Nominees: Nicholas and Alexandra (dir by Franklin J. Schaffner)


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(Depending on how much you know about world history, the review below may contain spoilers.)

It was nearly four years ago that I decided that my goal in life was to watch and review every single film — no matter how obscure or potentially disappointing — that had ever been nominated for best picture.  Of course, that’s not my only goal.  If anything, I may have too many, often contradictory goals in my life.  But seeing all of the best picture nominees was definitely one of them and, all these years later, it’s a goal that I’m still trying to achieve.  With the help of TCM and their nonstop schedule of movies made long before I was born, it’s also a goal on which I am slowly but surely making progress.

Last night, as I scrolled through the guide, I noticed that TCM would be showing Nicholas and Alexandra, a three and a half hour film from 1971.  Now normally, I would be hesitant about watching a film that long, if just because I have ADHD and I doubt I’d be able to concentrate on it.  In a theater, watching the action unfold on a big screen, it wouldn’t be a big deal.  However, it’s totally different when you’re talking watching a movie on TV in a house that is full of potential distractions.  Add to that, Wednesday night is when I usually watch shows like Survivor, Hell’s Kitchen, and South Park.

But, here’s the thing.  The title Nicholas and Alexandra sounded familiar to me and not just because I’m an obsessive history nerd.  I did some checking and I discovered that, regardless of how obscure the film may be today, Nicholas and Alexandra was nominated for best picture.  It lost to The French Connection but it was nominated.

So, of course, I had to watch it.

And you know what?

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It’s not a terrible movie.  It’s certainly not great.  It has multiple flaws and it’s hard to imagine this film being nominated alongside films like The French Connection, Last Picture Show, and A Clockwork Orange.  Watching the movie, I got the feeling it was probably nominated because it was a big, expensive epic and not because it was one of the best of the year.  But, if you stick with the film (which, if we’re going to be honest here, is much easier said than done), it’s not quite as disappointing as you might expect it to be.

Nicholas and Alexandra tells the story of the last monarch of Russia, Tsar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston).  Struggling to escape the shadow of his father and incapable of understanding what life is like for those not born into royalty, Nicholas is portrayed as being well-meaning but autocratic and blind to the fact that the days of royalty are rapidly coming to an end.  His wife, Alexandra (Janet Susman) is also unpopular with both the Russian citizenry and the royal court on account of being German.

Alexandra spends most her time doting on her youngest son, Alexei, who suffers from hemophilia.  When a flamboyant Serbian monk named Rasputin (Tom Baker) claims that he has the power to heal Alexei, Alexandra immediately brings him into the court.  Soon, rumors are flying across Russia about Rasputin’s relationship with Alexandra.

Meanwhile, men with names like Lenin (Michael Bryant), Trotsky (Brian Cox), and Stalin (James Hazeldine) are plotting to lead a “worker’s revolution…”

If you know anything about history, it’s not really a spoiler to reveal what happens in the second half of Nicholas and Alexandra.  (And if you’re not into history, you probably would not have any interest in watching the movie in the first place.)   Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated, plunging the entire world into war.  Russia declares war on Germany and the German-born Alexandra becomes even more unpopular than before.  The rest of the royal court, jealous over the mad monk’s influence, plots against Rasputin.  The Tsar is forced from the throne and Nicholas and his family spend their last days as captives of the people they once ruled.  Now a powerless prisoner, Nicholas finally starts to understand the world beyond his palace walls.  However, in the end, Nicholas, Alexandra, their children, and their loyal servants are taken into a small room and violently executed.  End of movie.

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So, there are a lot of things wrong with Nicholas and Alexandra.  Not the least of the film’s problem is an unwieldy length and generally slow pace.  (The film was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who also directed the still-fun original Planet of the Apes.  Little of the flair he brought to Planet of the Apes is present here.)  This is one of those films that is full of incident with various characters popping up and discussing the intricacies of international politics with little concern as to whether or not any of this is the least bit cinematic or even compelling on a narrative level.  The film has a huge cast but very few memorable characters.

Even worse is that neither Nicholas nor Alexandra never come across as being all that interesting.  The film makes the case that Nicholas’s downfall was largely a result of him being unlucky enough to rule at a time when people across Europe and Asia were rejecting the old ways for the new ways of revolution and industrialization.  Nicholas is continually portrayed as being well-meaning but isolated and that has the potential to be interesting but, at times, the film feels almost as emotionally detached as its characters.

That said, Nicholas and Alexandra does work as a spectacle, as a showcase for beautiful clothing and ornate scenery.  As a character study, Nicholas and Alexandra largely fails but, as a fashion show, it’s actually a lot of fun.    Early on in the film, there’s a lengthy sequence in which Nicholas and Alexandra walk down the red-carpeted hallways of their palace.  It’s shot through Nicholas’s eyes and we see a collection of guards and noblemen and women standing to the side and bowing their heads as the Tsar and his wife walk past.  It’s a good scene and one that perfectly shows not only the life that Nicholas is used to but also why Nicholas doesn’t want to change that life.

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Perhaps not surprisingly, the first two hours of Nicholas and Alexandra work best when they focus on the flamboyant character of Rasputin.  Baker does a really go job as Rasputin, delivering all of his lines with a ferocious intensity while staring with obviously unhinged eyes.  When he’s with Alexandra, Rasputin is calculating and coldly conniving, providing just enough comfort to keep her under his control.  When he’s with Nicholas or any of the other male members of the court, he reveals himself to be an arrogant libertine, making profane jokes and bragging about his conquests.  It’s a really good performance but, as with so many other good performances in this film, it occasionally gets lost in the film’s dense production.

The best moments of Nicholas and Alexandra come towards the end, with the humbled Nicholas finally revealing his humanity and the Tsar’s family struggling to maintain their dignity even as their inevitable fate approaches.  At this point, the performers came to life.  The film suddenly had an emotional resonance.  It finally became about something!  For those final 20 or so minutes, Nicholas and Alexandra suddenly seemed worthy of being awarded.

In fact, based on those final 20 minutes, I would even be willing to see a sequel called Nicholas and Alexandra and Rasputin Makes Three.  

(Though I’m not sure how that sequel could ever be made.  As @Kev1Media pointed out when I suggested it on twitter, Adam Sandler would have to be somehow involved.)

As for Nicholas and Alexandra, it’s not a great film but if you’re into history or you’re an Oscar completist like me, the film has its occasional charms.  You just have to be willing to look for them.

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