Interstellar trailer (11.7.14 release)

I think Christopher Nolan is a great director… but… he’s also so enamored of puzzle box structure that often his films are all cerebellum and no heart, to the extent of being ultimately pointless on a storytelling level.  From what I’ve read, Nolan feels that Hollywood itself has lost a lot of its heart, and that we no longer have the kind of big Hollywood blockbusters that are inspiring and can truly strike a resonant chord in the audience; instead, things have degenerated into lots of entertaining but ultimately pointless eye candy.  Similarly, in the past several decades funding and focus has shifted away from NASA’s space program.  I believe that as we grow older, we can often limit ourselves by shifting our focus solely onto what we’re doing and what we have, trying to manage our lives in their current state while letting our dreams and aspirations go; and that it can be incredibly harmful and dangerous to us as human beings to remove hope, promise, and inspiration from our outlooks.  So much of our energy and drive comes not from youth, but from our potential and the belief that we can do anything with our lives– a belief that we ourselves retire after a certain age and making certain choices, but one that is essential to our continued growth as well as our state of well-being.  To retire that kind of forward-thinking, and to resolve ourselves to lives without potential that exist only to manage the slow decline of our own mortality, is to prematurely accept not only death, but defeat, and to shift our focus to one of ultimate hopelessness.  And yet that is what so many of us do once we settle on certain choices of career, and lately what it often feels like humanity is doing on a larger, global scale.  The advances in technology in the last twenty years– the internet, smart phones, social media and the like– have transformed global communication but have also shifted our focus inward in a very self-critical and self-damaging way.  We’re no longer focused on or potential, but on self-destruction.  If we are to continue to grow and evolve, we need to recast our focus outward and on moving forward, not just on managing our troubles.  It’ll certainly be interesting to see if Interstellar addresses this, and if Nolan can deliver on the kind of inspirational blockbuster that engages the heart and inspires us on a national, and even global, level to think bigger and be bigger.  It would be a leap forward for Nolan, and its the kind of film we really need right now.  If he can achieve that, this could easily be the movie of the year.

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The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby trailer (9.12.14 release)

But wait, wait, wait… don’t rush out to see this film on opening weekend.  Why?  The film was originally conceived as a dual-point-of-view narrative told in two separate films.  But as is often the case, the studio, in this case The Weinstein Company, got nervous about initially releasing a film with two different cuts that play very differently and will no doubt incite audience confusion. So instead they’ve had had director Ned Benson fashion a third film, entitled The Disappearance of Eleanor Ribgy: Them, that will balance the two points-of-view in one film.  That film will release on September 12th, with The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Hers releasing as two separate films 4-6 weeks later, for a total of three films.  Yes, Weinstein Company, let’s make it even more confusing for the audiences.

It may be easier for the marketing team to focus its promotional material on the compiled version, but that version will have to eliminate half the material from each of the originally-conceived versions.  And with an indie movie like this, if it does take off with mainstream audiences, it will through word-of-mouth and after-the-fact, when all three films have been released.  If you’re truly interested in the material, seeing Them first will simply spoil much of both His and Hers, while not providing the experience of either… kind of like a Cliff’s Notes version of a novel.

Jessica Chastain is likely the finest actress of her generation, and early festival reviews have claimed this is far and away her best performance to-date.  James McAvoy is certainly no slouch, either, and there’s already been talk of Oscar nominations for both of them.  The films feature supporting performances by Viola Davis, William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Ciaran Hinds, Bill Hader, Jess Weixler, and The Blacklist‘s Ryan Eggold.  The story is about the two sides of a romantic relationship and the way each character views the events and their motivations behind it, particularly the rough terrain that relationships can encounter.  So do yourself a favor and wait a month or two after the initial release and see both of the His and Hers versions instead of the truncated Them.

Top Ten of 2011, #8: Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols follows up his self-assured feature debut, 2007’s Shotgun Stories, with another collaboration with actor Michael Shannon.  If there were any justice in the world, Shannon would have been nominated for an Oscar this past season for his work here.  Was there really any reason Brad Pitt needed a nomination for Moneyball, in which his entire performance consisted of mumbling and chewing tobacco?

Take Shelter is a complex and challenging film that poses question about faith, spirituality, and the drive to provide for one’s family.  In lesser hands this could veer into the territory of some of those awful Christian-themed films, but Nichols isn’t concerned with pushing a message on the audience.  Instead he’s much more interested in asking questions.  Shannon’s Curtis is a blue-collar family man doing his best to be a good husband to his wife Samantha and daughter Hannah.  But he starts having dreams where his family is threatened or hurt, and when he wakes up from them, he’s physically depleted and the pain from them lasts for days.  As time goes on, the dreams become more intense, even apocalyptic, and Curtis begins experiencing waking hallucinations as well as penetrating migraine headaches.  Every part of his being is telling him to listen to his inner voices, and that this is all happening for a reason.  There are Biblical allusions throughout, and Curtis keeps wondering if he’s been given divine information about some coming event like Noah or Moses, or if it’s all in his head.  For as much as he wants to be able to trust himself, he fears he may simply be losing his mind.  This is further complicated by the fact that his mother Sarah, played by an excellent Kathy Baker, was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was Curtis’ age and now lives in an assisted living facility.  Curtis knows he may be surrendering to the same disease; he seeks medical help but it’s not conclusive, and all the while he tries to hide his declining condition from his family to spare them from the same trauma he went through when his mother was committed.

There’s a beautiful and touching character arc here with Curtis and how he was abandoned, though not intentionally, growing up.  As a result, he’s extremely emotionally vulnerable and has a great fear of abandonment.  That same fear, flipped in on itself, has created this intense drive in him to never abandon his family and to protect them through anything.  Yet, in trying to be a strong male provider for his family, he covers his own vulnerabilities and insecurities, and emotionally isolates himself.  The possible onset of schizophrenia not only represents the same disease that took his mother returning for him, but also threatens to emotionally wreck his family in the same way his world was wrecked long ago.

Jessica Chastain plays his wife Samantha, and as always she finds incredible emotional nuance and range with something a lesser actress would have simply walked through.  Samantha has a very narrow focus on a simple and happy home life.  When Curtis begins to unravel, at first it’s something that she doesn’t really want to acknowledge.  But as he gets worse, and his behavior becomes more erratic and he does things like building a bomb shelter in the back yard, her faith is tested as well– her ability to love the man and not the illusion, and her ability to stick by him wherever his journey may lead.

The bomb shelter in the backyard is one of many Biblical metaphors.  Just as Noah built his boat after hearing messages from God, so Curtis has the bomb shelter.  And the question is posited– is this a world where faith even exists any more?  Is this a world where someone can listen if God were to give them a warning, or have we become so focused on explaining away everything through science that we’re now deaf to our own instincts and inner voices?  Or was Joan of Arc simply schizophrenic, and is that all it has ever been when people believe they see signs or hear voices?  We all live our lives ultimately having to depend on something to make decisions– a sense of right or wrong, our own instincts, or listening to our hearts.  But what does this mean?  And what do we do when those instincts become razor sharp, banging down our internal doors– yet without a reflection in the world around us?  How much patience do we have, and how long can we wait without proof?  Do we inevitably concede to trust those voices as long as it takes, or in the absence of tangible support, do we deny the strongest instincts that we have?

These are the questions Take Shelter asks of Curtis, and by proxy, asks us to consider as well.  We’ve reached a place in time with our current technology where it’s given us so many alternatives to our own inner voices, and so many reasons to distrust them or abandon them altogether.  Curtis is a simple man.  He’s certainly not intellectual, but he’s not stupid, either.  He has a wisdom within his own narrow life experience, but Take Shelter asks him to question everything about it.  And the film Take Shelter itself is extremely intelligent.  It never simplifies, never preaches.  And it posits its questions in a way that should really connect with contemporary audiences.  You couldn’t ask for two better lead actors than Shannon and Chastain, and they’re supported by excellent, often understated work from Baker, Shea Whigam as Curtis’ best friend, Ray MacKinnon as his brother, and Lisa Gay Hamilton as a counselor.  This is a film that was hugely overlooked this year by much of America, and while it’s not some big Hollywood blockbuster with lots of explosions, it is structured somewhat like a dramatic thriller and may be able to connect with audiences who were never even made aware that it exists.  Take Shelter often moves slowly, but it also does so purposefully, offering plenty of food for thought.  And it features an emotionally compelling climax, and a final scene that should give audiences something to think about and consider for some time afterwards.

9/10

Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes (2011)

There’s a reason that Coriolanus isn’t one of Shakespeare’s more commonly-produced plays.  Essentially, it boils down to a thin storyline.  At its heart, Coriolanus is about Caius Martius, an overly critical soldier who turns up his nose at the commoners.  He wants to deprive the plebeians, or anyone who didn’t help physically fight for Rome, of their right to its grain, and is consequently hated by the people.  But his success in conquering the city of Corioles against his nemesis Tullus Aufidius earns him both the title Coriolanus and the new-found support of Rome’s citizens.  Upon his return, his overbearing mother convinces him to run for consul in the government.  But Martius finds himself unable to play politics; he’s as critical of himself as he is of everyone else, and would rather take the path of humility when it comes to his victories.  He’s consequently sabotaged by the Roman Senate, and in turn rails against them and the state of the populist government, and is banished from the city.  So he finds his nemesis Aufidius and allies with him to lead a siege on Rome in revenge.  He’s eventually talked into standing down and making a peace treaty between the Volscian army and Rome by his mother, whereupon Aufidius kills him for his betrayal.

That may all seem like a lot to take in from a few sentences, but it plays out very simply over the running time of a play or film.  Coriolanus is, in essence, a morality play, as Martius faces the consequences of both his unwavering ego, and the thirst for vengeance that comes from his strict adherence to his own principles.  It would work quite nicely on the level of a Greek tragedy in a one-act that runs about 45 minutes to an hour.  But in a full-length play, without the kind of supporting characters and storylines that characterize so much of Shakespeare’s work and help broaden the telling of most of his plays, we’re left with a lot of talking heads and the same notes being hit over and over again.

With this specific production, Fiennes has grafted the story of Coriolanus onto a contemporary Middle East setting.  There are certainly some gains to be made from the desert locales and the immediacy of some of the armed conflict, but it also diverts away enough from the action of the play just to feature some explosions and gunplay that it takes away more than it adds.  It almost plays like they’re pausing the play for 10 minutes to show you a reel from The Hurt Locker to help make it relevant, and then it’s back to some more Shakespeare.  And Fiennes’ decision to capture some of the exposition via cable news outlets is a clever one, but it doesn’t help the problem of too many talking heads for too much of the running time, and so ultimately doesn’t really work, either.  The more intimate, non-news, government-set talking head scenes feature Brian Cox as Menenius and James Nesbitt as Sicinius showing what good, well-trained actors can do with Shakespearean dialogue, and Nesbitt in particular has an ability to speak the speech trippingly off the tongue so that it seems quite natural and almost never comes across as “Shakespearean” in the failing, affected way of so many bad actors and productions that give classic theatre a bad name.  In fact, this can be said of the entire cast, and Gerard Butler in particular is a very pleasant surprise.  I was a bit worried he might be out of his depth here and the weak link in the cast, but he’s actually one of the strongest members and finds a lot of colors to often repetitive speeches.

Fiennes the director supports Fiennes the actor in spewing a lot of colorfully venomous speeches, and watching his bald-pate spit and hurl invectives, he looks like a cross between a turtle’s head out of its shell and a snake, only a shade from Voldemort even without the make-up.  But it doesn’t change the fact that Fiennes is hitting the same two or three notes over and over again.  The cast is skilled enough that none of them give flat one-note performances, and they’re able to find nuance in the dialogue, but the dialogue itself is so single-minded and repetitive that there are only so many ways it can be reiterated.  Jessica Chastain, playing Martius’ wife, has even less to do here than she did in The Tree of Life, and spends most of her scenes watching the news reports on the television with teary, wide eyes.  Vanessa Redgrave does a fine job in her scenes with Fiennes, but again, it’s a case of the speeches themselves being extremely repetitive.

Finally, while I understand why Fiennes set his film in the Middle East and there are certainly parallels with the governments of today and the ways in which we’ve been unwisely digging ourselves into wartime conflicts without self-questioning or self-awareness, there are enough problematic elements to the shift that it doesn’t really work.  Many of the scenes in Coriolanus are intimate and personal, and they don’t really feel believable in a contemporary wartime setting.  Whether it’s the long dialogues between Martius and Aufidius, or the way they throw down their guns and fight one-on-one with their service issue combat knives, it feels forced, false, and untrue.  Which is a huge problem when the overall tone you’re pursuing is one of naturalism.  And because all of director Fiennes’ focus is so fixed on making the contemporary setting work, and in finding a high level of contemporary naturalism, there’s nothing left to put into finding ways to keep the repetitiveness and redundancies at bay.  I wasn’t a fan of Julie Taymor’s Titus, which was exhausting to watch and felt like an 18-hour film.  But in comparison, at least she was constantly trying things with the production design and kept the movie interesting and the pace clipping along (yes, even though it felt like it was clipping along for 18 hours).  Here, despite a top-notch cast all functioning at a very high level with the material, it’s ultimately an even bigger snoozefest.

3/10

The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick (2011)

The Tree of Life is an incredibly ambitious film, and breathtakingly gorgeous, featuring some absolutely beautiful cinematography.  About 30 minutes into the film, I was ready to put it at the top of my 2011 list.  But by the end of the viewing, all of that had changed.

The problem isn’t really that The Tree of Life fails to provide answers, but rather that it fails to even provide coherent questions.  I have absolutely no problem with the gorgeous section of the film that showcases some incredible nature sequences, which is presumably supposed to stand in for the creation of the earth, or time, or what have you.  In fact, I think Malick could have done one better and spread it equally throughout the running time of the film, interspersing it with the human narrative in chunks.  The one place I think Malick does go off the rails with it, however, is the inclusion of the CGI dinosaurs.  They don’t really add anything to the film, even if he’s attempting to create a parallel between the two dinosaurs and Jack and his brother.  In fact, putting a sequence with CGI creatures in the middle of such a naturalistic film, no matter how well those dinosaurs have been rendered, is distracting and unnecessary and breaks the flow of poetic beauty with something false and forced.  But this is a minor quibble.

What is a much larger failing of the film is the inability of director Malick to find a central focus.  And yes, I get that he’s trying to portray these young boys as being raised in an environment with the harshness of natural selection and nature being represented by the father, and the grace of love and spirituality personified by the mother.  I also get that Malick is trying to weave their story together with something bigger, and that there’s a quality of timelessness involved, of something mythic that transcends the individual.  And I give him a lot of points for ambition.  As has been stated by other reviewers, this is a film that shares both that ambition and a visual grandiosity with the like of Kubrick’s 2001, and that’s a very small peer group to be a part of.  The difference is that while Kubrick incorporated a much larger spiritual mythology into his work, and some stunning symbolic visuals, he still managed to tell the tale of Dave and the HAL 9000.  Malick, not so much.

First of all, there’s a point of confusion regarding the death of Jack’s brother.  Most of the film is spent showing Jack and his brother growing up around the ages of 10 and 12.  Early in the film, we witness a slightly older version of the parents, played throughout by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, receiving phone calls with the news of the younger brother’s death.  Presumably, this happens during the war in Viet Nam, as the timing and ages would fit with this scenario, but that’s making assumptions.  All we know for sure is that later in life, Jack, played by Sean Penn, tells his girlfriend or wife or whoever the woman is in his life, that his brother died when he was 19.  Penn spends the early part of the film moping about his home and work, seemingly unable to process the death of his brother.  But this doesn’t really make sense.  Because if his brother died when he was 19, that means it would have happened when Jack was 21 or so.  Which would have been decades ago for the character.  Yet the malaise he’s in would seem to indicate that this event is something recent.

Okay, so let’s give Malick the benefit of the doubt.  Let’s assume he’s telling a story about the power of death and grief and loss, as well as the beauty of life and our struggle to find purpose.  Let’s assume he’s exploring death as something that we never truly recover from, that always stays with us, and as something that is life-changing, a part of our own individual narratives, and a part of a larger cosmic narrative.  All of this would be fine except that Malick doesn’t develop Jack as an adult at all, doesn’t define what it is, that he’s struggling through.  Penn has probably less than 10 lines in the movie, and about 15 minutes of screen time.  We see him wandering around metaphoric desert vistas and more literal cityscapes.  Obviously he’s searching for some kind of meaning and peace, but it’s just not enough.  Malick would have benefited from spending some time with Jack as an adult, to more clearly define his life and how his past has effected his relationships and the quality of his life.  There is a lot that The Tree of Life is obviously aspiring to and aiming for, and you can see the target and witness Malick lining up the shot.  But it’s a masterpiece that simply never coalesces.

And what of Jack’s past?  For all of the naturalism, for all of the wonder and beauty personified growing up in a simpler time, this main narrative focus of the film doesn’t really go anywhere, either.  We witness the father character, played by Pitt, being harsh and abusive with his son.  It’s certainly representative of the time period, and the way many fathers treated their sons; while loving them, not knowing the best way to raise them or how to be nurturing and loving while still molding them into what they believed they needed to be independent, self-sufficient, and responsible adults.  But it’s this reality, along with the love his mother gives him and the way he grows to distrust it, that creates a sea of confusion and conflicting emotions in Jack, taking him into the borders of self-doubt, self-hatred, and juvenile delinquency.  Again, perhaps not much more than many other boys of that age at that time.  And that’s part of the problem.  It’s all so subtle and understated, and it never builds to anything substantial.  We start to worry where Jack may be headed, but at a certain point, he seems to have a realization about his behavior.  He seems to understand a need to find a balance, a peace with himself, and the beginnings of a search for his own maturity.  And he seems to make an adjustment and pull back.  But it’s all very vague, and so the film never truly delivers on anything.  Rather than being left with something grand and universal being communicated, that’s perhaps simultaneously intimate and personal, we’re left scratching our heads wondering “wait, is that it?”

Malick seemingly hasn’t settled on what it is he’s trying to say, or what questions it is that he’s trying to ask.  Considering how little the sequences with the adult Jack bring to the film, there’s really no reason for them to be included at all.  And with or without those sequences, there still needs to be something more with the brothers growing up.  In his desire for some kind of universal experience or truth, Malick has avoided the kind of specificity that would give his film actual purpose.  And it’s a shame, because there is so much poetic beauty here, and he’s structured something that abounds with opportunities and possibilities, but then he lets them all slide through his fingertips like so many thousands of grains of sand.  I’m all for experimental film, and in fact it’s the more experimental sections of The Tree of Life that are the most successful.  I’ve seen plenty of negative reviews by people who have no patience for anything beyond the standard Hollywood spoon-feedings, who can’t abide anything that isn’t a conventional narrative.  And while I’m not saying that Malick should be shoehorning his story into that format, I do believe that he needs to have something more specific he’s trying to communicate, no matter how abstract the telling.  And once he himself is more specific about what that is, I think something with a stronger narrative, or alternately something even more experimental and less narrative-focused, would better serve him.  But this current balance, or rather imbalance, finds there to be just enough narrative to be obviously not enough narrative; and while The Tree of Life is rife with ambition, it’s as equally an exercise in futility and pointlessness.

4/10

Published in: on February 4, 2012 at 2:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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