Interstellar

 

“Time is a flat circle,” said Matthew McConaughey’s character Rust Cohle in TV’s True Detective last winter. In Interstellar, McConaughey’s character Cooper is concerned with time, space, gravity, wormholes, black holes, extra dimensions as well as family and love. It’s a sci-fi fantasy filled with suspenseful adventure, memorable spectacular effects and heartfelt philosophizing about the fate of our species.

Director Christopher Nolan’s newest movie is big, loud and ambitious. In an IMAX theater, with speakers aplenty, you almost feel the G forces of Interstellar‘s space travel scenes. Hans Zimmer’s score is not shy about bringing emotion and volume. The composer is a certain Oscar nominee.

Cooper is a widower with 2 kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). Their welfare is his #1 concern. He’s a former astronaut, now working as a farmer in a Kansas-looking flatland. (Plains scenes were shot in Alberta.) Dust storms—not unlike dustbowl storms of the 1930s—have ruined all crops on earth, save corn. The planet is in big trouble.

When mystical happenings occur, young Murphy suspects ghosts. Her dad suspects something more physical. Magnetism, gravitation anomalies or other forces lead him to a hidden fortress in the mountains where he finds… NASA!

The population has become so disenchanted with the U.S. space program that history books have been revised to tell of moon landings that were staged in an effort to bankrupt the Russians. So, NASA has gone underground, literally.

In short order, Cooper’s former boss Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) recruits him to fly a mission to Saturn where a wormhole appeared a few decades back. Earlier brave astronauts made it to the other side of the wormhole; Cooper and crew are charged with bursting through, checking on the prior travelers and determining if three particular worlds in that new dimension are suitable for sustaining human existence. Is their mission to save their own families or to save the species?

Cooper’s crew includes Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Dr. Brand’s daughter, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi). After 2 years of travel, they touch down in shallow water on a new planet. Shortly after exploration begins, an enormous wave approaches, leading to a harrowing escape. They go off to a new, very cold planet where they find Dr. Mann (Matt Damon in an uncredited role) in suspended animation. Events there lead to another hasty exit.

Interstellar’s final act involves many back-and-forth cuts between events in space and those on earth. Our heroes have not aged significantly during their time in space, but back home, Cooper’s kids have become adults (Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck). The earth continues to be ravaged by dust storms. Meanwhile, beyond the wormhole, Cooper and crew work to define and to achieve satisfactory results.

Nolan’s Interstellar (co-written by the director and his brother Jonathon AKA Jonah Nolan) is a gigantic movie, clocking in at 2:45. It is efficiently made. Scenes that don’t necessarily advance the story help delineate the characters and the settings.

Some notes about Interstellar: The underground bunker where NASA is based reminds me of a Bond villain’s lair. The excessive exposition about time and math and gravitational anomalies quickly becomes tedious—I wonder if Steven Hawking will pause the DVD to see if their blackboard formulas are correct.

The little girl who plays the child version of Murph looks like a young Anne Hathaway. A few of the film’s effects recall similar bits in Nolan’s Inception. I loved the cool robots TARS (voiced by Bill Erwin) and CASE—loyal servants and deftly mobile. The cast also includes Topher Grace as adult Murph’s doctor friend and John Lithgow as Cooper’s father-in-law.

Interstellar is not the best movie I’ve seen in 2014 but it has enough going for it to merit an Oscar nomination. Nolan should receive a best director nomination. McConaughey is a possible contender for best actor. Effects, makeup and sound production crews could be taking home awards as well.

I think audiences will enjoy Interstellar because it infuses science with humanity. Last year in Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone talked about her earthly concerns; in Interstellar Cooper’s family is onscreen and is a major part of the film. Interstellar plays on our survival instinct. Several times in the film, Caine’s Dr. Brand quotes Dylan Thomas’s poem about fighting off death, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Interstellar does not go gentle. It rages against the dying of the light.

 

 

 

 

 

Transcendence

Transcendence is a mess. When producers pay Johnny Depp $20M (+ a percentage), as has been reported, one expects a significantly better product.

Will Caster (Depp) is a computer geek working in the world of Artificial Intelligence. He is shot by anti-tech activists who oppose his mission. He survives the wound, but the bullet is coated with materials that lead to his gradual demise.

His wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend Max (Paul Bettany), who work alongside him, transfer his intellect to computer drives. When Will communicates via computer screen following his death, the plot begins to unfold.

Sadly, the story is weak and poorly told. None of the characters in the film, including Will, are worth caring about. Transcendence lasts just over 2 hours but seems much longer.

For all the philosophical questions about the ascent of technology the film purports to raise, the framing of those issues is muted by a lack of basic film making skill. Yes, it has many cool images and some nice effects but they’re not sufficient to make the film compelling.

The name Johnny Depp will sell enough tickets to justify his huge paycheck. The name Christopher Nolan as a producer may attract fans of Inception and Memento into movie houses. The fact that rookie director Wally Pfister has worked as Nolan’s cinematographer may also lure fans to the box office. But Transcendence is not a good movie.

For the past 20 years, any Johnny Depp movie was, for me, a movie I wanted to see—just because his onscreen work has been consistently entertaining. Even films like The Tourist and The Rum Diary were made worthwhile by his presence. Now, after last year’s Lone Ranger and this new release, a Depp film is no longer a “must see” for me.

Transcendence is not the worst movie of 2014. But it is the most disappointing so far.

 

 

The Dark Knight Rises

This is one of the all-time great films. The story, the screenplay, the soundtrack, the acting, the directing, the stunts, the effects—all winners!

It’s the story and its telling that give TDKR a specialness that the other Christopher Nolan Bat movies didn’t have. The others had bombast and standout performances, but TDKR has more heart and soul. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman is heroic, to be sure, but is presented here as more human and more vulnerable (in numerous ways). His transition from a limping, Howard Hughes type recluse back to Bat mode sets the film in motion.

Nolan and Nolan (director and co-writer Christopher and his co-writer brother Jonathan) give memorable lines to several of the key players. Michael Caine as Alfred is in tears as he advises Wayne not to go back into the Bat suit. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as police officer John Blake, a longtime Wayne admirer, tells Wayne his emotional story of life in an orphanage. Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon hesitates to tell the truth about Batman, lest he mar the legacy of Harvey Dent.

The ladies are better in this Bat movie. Anne Hathaway as Selina Kay/Catwoman is a beguiling mix of evil and good. Plus, she looks terrific in the leather jumpsuit. Marion Cotillard as Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate shares a romantic interlude with Bruce Wayne and is a key character in significant plot points.

Tom Hardy is evil incarnate as Bane, the terrorist who brings fear and havoc to Gotham. His mask and haunting voice bring to mind classic bad guy Darth Vader. Bane’s violent acts will prompt recollections of NYC’s 9/11 terrorist attacks. His band of thugs commandeers certain defense assets to do harm to Gotham and its defenders.

If this is a movie you plan to see, get into your movie house sooner rather than later. TDKR has content you want to enjoy on the big screen (IMAX, preferably) instead of a small screen. This review contains no spoilers, but others will. Be careful monitoring online forums and social media feeds, so as not to be burned by those who tell too much.

“The Dark Knight Rises” has iconic scenes and dialogue that will endure in my personal movie memory scrapbook for a long time. Expect multiple awards nominations and wins at year’s end. The movie adds another notch to Christopher Nolan’s reputation as one of our great movie storytellers. Like his “Inception,” TDKR is a movie to be enjoyed many times over. But don’t wait for the DVD or Blu-Ray. Witness true greatness at a theater near you ASAP.