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Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ is an ambitious mess

“2001: A Space Odyssey” is a film about grasping the unknown, recognizing there is a realm of understanding and existence we can’t possibly fathom in our present state. We strive for that understanding constantly but must be in total amazement before we reach that peak and evolve. Stanley Kubrick’s film is a polarizing masterpiece, but he conveys this incomprehensible idea through the surreal, the spiritual, the terrifying and the awe inspiring. The film’s iconic images are impenetrable and inscrutable, and yet in that moment they transport us to something beyond ourselves.

Christopher Nolan may or may not be Stanley Kubrick’s disciple and modern equivalent, but though his latest film “Interstellar” is thematically familiar to Kubrick’s classic, Nolan’s execution is that much more procedural and clinical. For his entire career he’s toiled in rules and exposition, and it’s as though now with “Interstellar” he’s tried to make something literal out of Kubrick’s reverie.

“Interstellar” is an ambitious mess of a movie, and yet the scale at which it stages these themes may make it secretly brilliant, a movie in which Nolan has cracked the secret to understanding what’s beyond the horizon. That’s the sort of power Nolan has as a filmmaker and over the general public; he gives an impression that he’s full of sage wisdom that, with enough scrutiny, we can decipher the full meaning behind his movies. Continue reading

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‘Nightcrawler’ is ‘Taxi Driver’ meets ‘Network’

Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in the pulpy, dark noir “Nightcrawler” behaves like he belongs to another world, let alone another movie. He’s like a lost puppy who might just kill you, cluelessly getting in the way and causing trouble, or an alien just looking to acclimate into the seedy underground. Watching him slowly weasel his way into this world is comically cathartic and strange, and his performance recalls Travis Bickle as one of the better oddball anti-heroes the movies have seen.

“Nightcrawler” is a film of cold people acting well beneath their own morality and facades. It’s a critique on the modern day journalism that sensationalizes crime and explicit content in light of the people at its center, and Director and Writer Dan Gilroy stakes his claim on his creepy, near parody of a lead character. Continue reading

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‘Birdman’ and ‘Whiplash’ both striving to feel important

All throughout cinema history we see protagonists who wish to be remembered, who wish to become something great. Marlon Brando said in “On the Waterfront”, “I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender!” Their means for greatness are always different, but their ends are never the same, and it lets us know just what kind of movie we’re watching.

Two films released this month that are both receiving Oscar buzz but are miles apart in terms of tone and style have protagonists who share these feelings of greatness in their own ways and to their own ends. “Birdman Or (the Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance” and “Whiplash” are fiery dramas that lead to realizations that some of the things in life that feel most real and make people feel most alive, are pain and death. Continue reading

TheDouble

‘The Double’ and ‘Enemy’ are doppelgänger films, but hardly alike

“You’re in my place.” That’s the opening line to “The Double,” and it’s the on-the-nose thesis to both that movie and a similar film also released this year, “Enemy.” In each film, a timid and lonely protagonist comes face to face with a more confident doppelganger, causing the original’s life to unravel.

Two copycat movies in a given year is a jarring coincidence, but to call them doppelgangers of each other would be a misnomer. However, it certainly doesn’t help that both are based off books called “The Double” and that neither is particularly good.

More so than a replica of “Enemy”, “The Double” is actually a pastiche of Orwellian dystopias, most notably Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”. Director Richard Ayoade’s first film was yet another cinematic pastiche (or homage if you prefer) called “Submarine” that reimagined the French New Wave with its own dark comedy turns. This new film owes Gilliam a lot, with drab colors and cold, boxy, ‘80s machinery and technology filling every part of the set design. Continue reading

Under the Skin

‘Under the Skin’ is a surreal, otherworldly masterpiece

There are two types of surreal terror in the trippy, experimental sci-fi “Under the Skin.”

In the first, Scarlett Johansson seduces lonely men on the streets, brings them back to a dark, rundown home, and once inside, the confines become an empty, dark void. She disrobes, the men dutifully follow, and as they approach her, they silently slip into a pool of nothingness, completely enveloped by the darkness. As they sink, they don’t struggle, or even break eye contact. They simply vanish, soon to become nothing more than a snake-like shell.

In the second form, Johansson tries her trick again at a beach. Off in the distance, a man watches as his wife is drowning and flailing in a choppy sea. He hurries to save her, but ends up drowning himself. The man Johansson is seducing uses all his strength to save them both, and Johansson then knocks him out cold and begins dragging him away. Sitting alone on the beach is the couple’s baby, wailing all through the night, perhaps never to be claimed.

“Under the Skin” is less a film but an experience, one that combines the grimly fantastical and the grimly mundane to make something that is as much human as it is alien. Jonathan Glazer’s film captures the kaleidoscopic images that made “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Vertigo” genre bending classics, but this aural/visual experience is largely unlike any film ever made. It’s a mostly plotless yet immersive movie with impressive power and dramatic tension. Continue reading

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1

‘Nymphomaniac’ Vol. 1 and 2 is an auteur at the top of his game and at his most insulting

Think of a kiss, maybe the first kiss you ever had, or the first kiss with your loved one: what was the most thrilling thing about it? The excitement doesn’t lie in the sloppy locking of lips or tongues, but in the anticipation, the closeness and the connection between the two parties. Viewed at its most mechanical, there’s nothing exciting at all about a first kiss.

The same can be true of sex, which has become tangled up with so many complex emotions, excitement not always being one of them. Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” created fanfare as a scandalous sex drama because von Trier has become equal parts auteur and “persona non grata”, but his two-part opus does the job of removing the romanticism from sex. In the most explicit ways and on the grandest scale possible, it uses sex only as a lens through which to understand broader ideas about the world, spirituality and humanity.

Volume 1 examines the mechanics of sex while contrasting it with the philosophy and beauty of the more mundane things in the world. Volume 2 dares us to change our lens yet again, equating the main character’s sexual escapades to the Stations of the Cross and making sex truly about a woman searching for fulfillment. The collective whole is provocative, perverse, bizarrely funny and highly explicit, and what’s so surprising and disappointing is how thoughtful and fresh Vol. 1 feels while Vol. 2 could not be more depressing, repulsive and torturous. Continue reading

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‘Gone Girl’ is unsettling, daring and brilliant

One of the key moments at the onset of Gillian Flynn’s novel “Gone Girl”, and one of the key images in David Fincher’s film adaptation, is Nick Dunne’s “killer smile”.

Flynn’s description has a wry double meaning obvious to anyone. He’s flashed this plucky grin at a press conference for his missing wife, and it hardly bodes well for his appearance to the media, public or police.

In Fincher’s film, Ben Affleck splashes on the movie star charisma for that crucial second, just enough time to send our heads spinning.

Both Fincher and Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay, are receptive to the miniscule gestures that can shape perception. They recognize how timing and spin in the contemporary media can shift the tides in an instant. They understand that people are often only as bad as we perceive them. “Gone Girl” is all about these perceptions, and while one of the strengths of Flynn’s masterpiece novel rested in its structure of alternating POVs from Nick to his wife Amy, Fincher’s brilliance is in his ability to balance them both.

Watching “Gone Girl” is like gnawing at a nagging itch, with each detail of Nick and Amy Dunne’s unraveling marriage and her impending disappearance continuing to burrow into your skin and jab at your sides. Fincher is remarkably attentive to the expressions, emotions and tones of voice that in sensitive situations like this can make us conflicted, uncertain and on edge. His film is as aware of the ways we project ourselves in the modern age as “The Social Network” did before, but “Gone Girl” also combines the meticulous mystery of “Zodiac” and the feminist charge of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. Continue reading

Birdman

2015 Oscar Picks Pre-New York Film Festival

I really can’t help myself. Pundits may hate that anyone can be an expert now when it comes to making Oscar picks, but when it’s this easy and fun to think about, is it really hurting anyone?

This year I’m staying away from most of the analysis, instead picking up on the rest of the buzz and using that to rank individual contenders week to week. You can read all of that each Thursday at Sound on Sight in my column The Hype Cycle. Here’s my introduction to the column, and here’s Week 1 Part 1 and Part 2 following Toronto, Telluride and Venice.

But like I said, I have to throw my hat into the ring, and I may yet prove to be more right than many of the so-called experts. These are my sight-unseen picks ranked in order of likelihood, along with just a pinch of analysis as to why I’m not pulling things out of my ass. These will change as the movies are actually released and I actually get a chance to see them. And yes, I get how silly it is to be predicting movies I haven’t seen yet, but then the Oscars are really silly to begin with. Continue reading

The Zero Theorem

‘The Zero Theorem’ is Gilliam’s ‘Brazil 2.0′

With each generation comes the same feeling of nothingness and monotony to the present. People get stuck in dead-end jobs with neuroses and apprehensions, and the new wave of technology doesn’t appear to change much. Terry Gilliam’s ‘80s sci-fi “Brazil” captured the Orwellian state with such surreal humor and visual creativity that its now 30-year-old vision of the 21st Century has made it a cult classic.

Gilliam’s latest “The Zero Theorem” is awfully close to being “Brazil 2.0”, a satirical reimagining of another not-too-distant future that matches “Brazil” structurally, visually and to an extent thematically. Critics have faulted Gilliam for doing a remix of his greatest hits, but his idiosyncratic message is as relevant now as it was then.

“The Zero Theorem” tells the story of Qohen (Christoph Waltz), pronouncing his name “Cohen” with a Q, but no U. Years ago he received a phone call that he believed would tell him the meaning of why he was put on this Earth, but he got disconnected in excitement and now lives in an old church vicariously waiting for that call back. His work involves a new form of computer programming, one that has reduced work to video gaming and inscrutable equations. Qohen begs his supervisor (David Thewlis) to work from home to await his precious call, and in exchange, Management (Matt Damon) puts him to the task of deciphering The Zero Theorem. Continue reading

Only Lovers Left Alive

‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ is the coolest movie Jim Jarmusch has ever made

Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” is as much about vampires as “Night on Earth” is about taxi drivers or “Coffee and Cigarettes” is about either of those things. And if characters in Jarmusch films need a better excuse to be layabouts and wear sunglasses indoors, actually being a vampire is about as good of an excuse as any.

Jarmusch’s films exude coolness, and in a time when vampires are particularly in vogue, Jarmusch has found a unique vessel for his stories of mismatched relationships, affinities for the retro and ironic romance. “Only Lovers Left Alive” is dripping with style. It’s a vampire movie full of intrigue but remains mostly plotless without action or special effects. That the entire thing is absolutely magnetic despite it all is part of Jarmusch’s magic.

Jarmusch splits the time between urban Tangiers and an apartment on a notably empty street in Detroit. The film is so chic, so distinctly colored in every moment, it could belong to any time or place, and yet it is remarkably modern. Living abroad is Eve (Tilda Swinton), whose luxurious, golden, flowing robes are centuries old, and yet she still communicates fluently with an iPhone. Her only real companion is another vampire, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who confirms for us that he did in fact give his plays to Shakespeare. It’s one of Jarmusch’s wry jokes playing vampires allows him to make, with characters taking credit for Schubert’s symphonies and spending time with Mary Shelley.

Her lover for several centuries is Adam (Tom Hiddleston), living alone in Detroit and making droning, melancholy, underground rock and only leaving the house to bribe a hospital worker for blood. He’s assisted by a helpful and adoring human named Ian (Anton Yelchin), clueless to Adam’s real nature but more than willing to get him rare, vintage guitars and bullets made of a fine wood. Only in a Jim Jarmusch film can the characters have conversations about types of wood and the mechanics of a guitar. It’s odd, tedious conversation, as all of Jarmusch’s films concern, and yet it’s dryly eloquent humor no one does better. Continue reading