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« Filmmaker Guy Maddin Talks About Surrealism and Silent Films Spartan's A Bright Room Called Day Can't Overcome Kushner's Political Sermonizing »

Column Fri Nov 07 2014

Interstellar, Big Hero 6, Laggies, Camp X-Ray, Low Down, Open Windows & Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me

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Interstellar

Going into Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, don't worry so much about what other films or directors this absolutely epic work might remind you of. Just because Nolan (and his brother, co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan) uses intellect to propel the story forward occasionally does not make him Tarkovsky. Just because things get a little trippy toward the end doesn't make him Kubrick. And just because he approximates sentimentality and emotion doesn't make him Spielberg. Honestly, Interstellar works best when Nolan is being Nolan — a bit cold, harsh, putting the mission of saving humanity in front of personal connections, and, of course, making the remarkable seem commonplace to everyone but his audience.

Before I dive into my review of Interstellar, let's talk about ambitious filmmaking. Let me be clear: I'm a fan. But "ambition" and "quality" are not the same thing. In fact, they're far from the same thing. I see a whole lot of ambitious films in a given year by some of the greatest directors living today. But the truth is, I don't give points for ambition; I give points for whether a filmmaker can translate said ambition to the screen. I consider recent works like Prometheus (I was not a fan), Cloud Atlas (I adored), or on a smaller scale, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (let's go with the writer-director's original two-part version, which I was fairly neutral on). Regardless of scale and money spent, there's no denying that all three films are extremely ambitious as filmmaking exercises. And perhaps not surprisingly, they were all wildly divisive in terms of critical and audience reactions.

I think many people respond to ambitious filmmaking because they simply can't believe the film got made at all, that a studio ponied up--in the case of Interstellar--hundreds of millions of dollars to make a film that is an original work of science fiction, one not tied to a franchise and with no possibility (I hope) of a sequel. That might be more risky than ambitious, but let's not split hairs. I guess my point is I can't think of a situation where I'd ever give a film extra praise for simply being ambitious. If the ideas are bold, the story compelling, the acting moving, the visual style exceptional, expect the appropriate response. But I've seen ambition go so wrong, so often, it would feel foolish to be impressed by that and only that.

Some of my favorite moments in Interstellar are right at the beginning, looking at the life of a farm family in the presumably near future, where the planet is drying up to the point where crops aren't just limited but entire foods are becoming extinct, with humans likely not far behind. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, in his only big-screen appearance of 2014 and his first since his Oscar win for last year's Dallas Buyers Club) is a former astronaut who never quite made it into space and has since become a fairly resourceful farmer and single father to two young kids. Just following Cooper around for a day gives us some idea of the world he lives in. It's a life and planet on the brink, while some still believe that things will somehow improve "because they always do" — they literally can't wrap their brains around the idea that the world is evaporating before their eyes.

Cooper's daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, perhaps best known as the human-vampire spawn in the final two TWILIGHT films), thinks there are ghosts in her room knocking books off shelves in specific patterns; she and her father also notice dust patterns on the floor of her room that seem to spell out coordinates to somewhere on Earth. And before long, the pair are on the road to that last remaining gasp of NASA, which is secretly plotting ways to save the human race by exploiting a recently found wormhole near Saturn that coincidentally leads to three planets in another part of the universe that might be likely candidates for colonization of some sort. Cooper's seemingly coincidental showing up on NASA's door makes project leader Prof. Brand (Michael Caine) and his astronaut daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) convinced that he should join the next multiyear mission. Turns out other missions have gone through the wormhole before with varying results.

Several other things seems clear, more or less. Something put that wormhole there and perhaps sent Cooper messages through his daughter's bedroom to take him to it, and so a great mystery is sparked about what type of being might make this last hope for humanity possible. Interstellar works best in the framework of the film's big mystery and in the confines of the mission itself, explaining both the science and rules to us as we go. The technology is advanced to a degree, but a great deal of it should be familiar to most fans of films about space travel (real and imagined)--the exception being the ship's mind-blowing robot TARS (voiced sarcastically by Bill Irwin), which is something of a jack-of-all-trades companion with mobility that I never got tired of observing.

What's curious about Cooper as the film's hero is that he has no intention of sacrificing himself for the betterment of humanity, unlike some of his comrades in exploration (who also include Wes Bentley as Doyle and David Gyasi as Romilly). He's aware that he might be killed, but he has every intention of returning home to see his family because he's been told that's a possibility. McConaughey's homespun delivery for Cooper seems a strange choice, but it ultimately won me over because he convinced me a guy like is probably not unlike many of the test pilots and astronauts of NASA's earliest days. Although I admit, when McConaughey starts delivering some of the film's more metaphysical dialogue, it doesn't quite roll off the tongue the way it should, and it may make you giggle.

Director Nolan absolutely nails the technical aspects of the film, from the special effects to the imagining of what a near-future Earth would be like to the prospects of what other planets might bring visitors in terms of hope and perils. In particular, the landscapes of these possible future homes for humanity are extraordinary, and the way the theory of relativity (which isn't so much a theory in this story) plays out adds a true sense of urgency, and ultimately sadness, to the proceedings.

I don't think I'm spoiling anything to say that Cooper's mission takes much longer than anyone expected, and his kids grow up so much that they turn into Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck, who have both suffered a great deal (especially Chastain's Murph) in the years their father has been gone. And it's at about this point in the story where Interstellar begins to lose focus. Nolan introduces some highly emotional elements to his story to the point where they start to guide where this tale ultimately lands, and these elements feel more like Nolan is trying them on for size. Sadly they don't fit right, but rather than abandon them, he wears them like an ill-fitting, oversized jacket that he'd rather pack with filler than trim down. Every decision, every development, every event is talked about to the point of exhaustion, sometimes twice or three times. Overexplanation is one of the film's biggest problems and makes you really feel its running time.

But what's most infuriating about Interstellar is how it handles the emotions it lets loose into its wonderfully detached confines. And there are few finer actors today than Chastain to play a character who is both acutely intelligent and still able to cry her eyes out at the prospect of being somehow reconnected with her father. But most of the scenes with the adult Murph just grind the proceedings to a halt. Perhaps audience members with kids will have the exact opposite reaction I did, but I can only convey the sheer and utter failure these scenes had in moving me to any degree. And the more surreal elements that tie the film together are far from the best examples of the Nolans' collective brain power doing its best work.

Nolan never gets far enough off track and away from his strengths to completely topple the applecart, but anyone who doesn't acknowledge the glaring flaws — especially in the back half of this nearly three-hour film — just isn't being honest with themselves. As a self-professed fan of emotional connections done right in science fiction, I'm also keenly aware of how often those two things don't mesh. Sadly, Interstellar has several scenes that ring so false and forced that they can't be dismissed or excused, and they weaken the total viewing experience. There's enough classic Nolan to get you through the rough patches, and that should be enough for most to enjoy the experience of watching this movie. But consider yourself warned.

Big Hero 6

If the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy taught us anything, it's that sometimes just throwing a bunch of outsiders with a common goal together results in a workable team. While the plot is much different, the concept is the same in the animated superhero story Big Hero 6, based loosely on a short-lived Marvel team from Japan. Instead of setting the story in Japan proper, the filmmakers have based our heroes in a hybrid of Tokyo and San Francisco (called San Fransokyo) that is actually quite stunning. And the story itself is a celebration of intelligence being the real hero of the day.

But in addition to all the expected fight sequences, cool characters, and inventive animation, Big Hero 6 also has moments that deal honestly with loss and the ever-loosening definition of Family. The story opens with teenager Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) at a back-alley robot battle, in which his tiny bot decimates a much larger one, which does not sit well with the losing side. Thankfully, his older, wiser brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) rescues him, and it's quickly established that this is a family that is not only close but also incredibly smart. Tadashi introduces Hiro to his latest invention, a health care robot named Baymax (voiced by Second City alum and "30 Rock" cast member Scott Adsit), a hulking, balloon-like being that can give you a full body scan to determine if you are injured, or he can just hug you, since he is programmed to cure your mental woes. Tadashi encourages Hiro to invent something next level in robotics and submit it to a science competition whose winners get to attend the same prestigious tech institute that Tadashi does, run by robotics innovator Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell).

Hiro's invention — micro-bots controlled by a neurotransmitter worn around the head that can combine by the thousands to make or do pretty much anything the wearer wants. Naturally, Hiro's invention is the most highly regarded, but before he can celebrate, tragedy strikes, his invention is lost, and more importantly, Tadashi is killed, leaving Hiro to live with their Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph).

Hiro finds friendship in, of all places, the still-functioning Baymax, who upgrades his abilities to include grief counseling, and eventually brings Hiro into the company of Tadashi's classmates — Fred (T.J. Miller), Go Go (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) — who soon discover that the disaster that resulted in Tadashi's death was no accident, and someone wearing a kabuki mask has stolen Hiro's micro-bot design for nefarious purposes. The students suspect the corner-cutting tech industrialist Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk).

In order to solve the mystery of Tadashi's death and retrieve the micro-bots, Hiro retrofits Baymax with armor, wings and weaponry and programs him with martial arts fighting skills, turning him into a powerhouse of a superhero (still with the same overwhelming desire to heal people). Before long, Hiro's four new friends (all with specialties in unique technology fields) cook up costumes and weapons of their own (none of the especially lethal, but there are real threats in the film), and before you know it, the team is formed.

Aside from it's lessons about not letting technology be used for evil, Big Hero 6 is just a flat-out fun action adventure from co-directors Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) and Chris Williams (Bolt). There are more subtle lessons about trusting your friends, not letting anger get the best of you, and personal sacrifice that I think both kids and adults will respond to in equal measure. Plus, the animation is breathtaking, especially the battle sequences and the vast cityscapes, which we get to tour on Baymax's back (along with Hiro) in a couple dizzying flying exercises.

I love that Big Hero 6 is from Disney Animation Studios, a company on a major streak right now with Tangled (that film's producer, Roy Conli, also produced this film) and Frozen, and I hope that now that we've experienced the origins of this team, they'll make another adventure featuring these creative teens that will focus solely on the mission. You could quibble about the fact that the film's strongest messages are all encased in the first half of the story, and that the rest of the film is just one fight scene after another, but I didn't mind that. I think the lessons learned in the first 45 minutes are utilized in the back half quite effectively. The bottom line is, Big Hero 6 could give the live-action Marvel superhero movies a series run as far as entertainment value goes.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention two things. One, there is a post-credits tag at the end of Big Hero 6 that is kind of cute. More importantly, before the feature, we get a fantastic short called Feast, which will likely lead the Oscar pack for animated shorts next year. And much like the feature it precedes, it isn't afraid to deliver messages about friendship and emotional fortitude in its brief running time.

Laggies

If you forget the Jack Ryan prequel from January, Keira Knightley has had a really interesting 2014, from the summer's Begin Again, to the soon-to-be-released awards contender The Imitation Game, to her current release Laggies, from director Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister's Sister). Laggies has been described as a coming-of-age film, which is technically true, but what separates Shelton's work (her first that she didn't write; the screenplay belongs to Andrea Seigel) is that the 28-year-old Megan (Knightley) is the one really coming of age thanks to a friendship she develops with 16-year-old Annika (Chloƫ Grace Moretz).

As the film opens, it's clear that Megan is looked upon by both her parents (including dad Jeff Garlin), her friends (led by Ellie Kemper's judgmental Allison), and her boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber) as someone who hasn't applied herself since college. Her current job involves spinning a sign outside her father's office. When Anthony proposes to her, she accepts, but then panics and avoids him by hanging out with her parents for hours every day. When she's given the chance to attend a career counseling seminar, she fakes leaving town and hides out with Annika and her other high school friends, including best friend Misty (the great Kaitlyn Dever of Short Term 12 and The Spectacular Now), which everyone acknowledges is rather weird but it also seems appropriate somehow.

It doesn't take long for Annika's single father Craig (Sam Rockwell) to catch wind of this friendship, and while he too thinks it's odd, he allows Megan to stay at their house for a short time, which naturally opens the door to yet another inappropriate relationship. While Laggies is fairly light on emotional heft, the core relationship between Megan and Annika is an interesting one, as they both tap into the other's strengths and use them to fortify their own lives. Megan learns a bit about personal responsibility from her younger counterpart, while Annika gets bizarrely helpful relationship advice from Megan.

In another director's hands, the film would be a quirky romantic comedy between Megan and Craig, but Shelton is smarter than that, and doesn't let the lovey-dovey stuff interfere with the better relationship. Knightley is note perfect as a woman who simply hasn't found her own way after years of doing what has always been expected of her by those around her. And I guess it takes a week of lying around in your pajamas to knock some sense into a person like that. I'm not saying any great truths are going to leap out at you as you watch Laggies — at best, it's a pleasant distraction — but the three leads are so positively likable, it's tough not to be amused by the proceedings...until the final 10 minutes or so, where everything dissolves into standard-issue rom-com obviousness.

Laggies is Shelton's weakest work to date, but it has enough of her signature charm to allow the actors to inhabit their roles a bit more than you might expect in a story like this. There are small moments that take the film in unexpected directions (a visit to Annika's estranged mother is a surprisingly uncomfortable scene), but the real reasons you should even consider seeing it are Knightley, Moretz and Rockwell. You know how good they can be, and now we know they can actually save a film from complete destruction. Far from the strongest of current offerings, but not the worst either.

Camp X-Ray

As unfocused as this prison drama is, there are two very strong central performances that provide some clarity to this examination of the bond between a Guantanamo Bay prisoner and the guard who watches over him. Kristen Stewart plays Private Cole, a soldier who used the military to escape the small town she grew up in, only to find herself in yet another version of that surrounding at Gitmo, where Ali (A Separation's Payman Maadi) has been a detainee for eight years. Cole is a loyal soldier, but she is curious about this man whom she, at first, delivers books to, but soon becomes someone with whom he tries to strike up a conversation just to have something resembling a connection to another human being.

Before I go any deeper into this review, I should ease your concerns that Camp X-Ray turns into some sort of romantic fairy tale, where Cole tries to help Ali escape in the end. Not a chance. The film is about making micro-strides into something resembling a relationship based on respect. Both parties are aware they will never become friends, but Ali just wants someone in the world to acknowledge that he's a good man and not a criminal deserving of being locked up for so long. He doesn't make it easy. He badgers her, provokes her and her fellow guards. At one point, he even throws what is described as a "shit cocktail" at her, and it's as nasty as it sounds.

If Camp X-Ray had been a two-person acting exercise between these two characters, something truly revelatory and meaningful might have come out of it. But the film weighs us down with too many sideplots about Cole's being harassed by a fellow soldier (Lane Garrison), and having her complaints ignored and shot down by their superior (John Carroll Lynch, in a truly infuriating performance). I absolutely look forward to the day when someone makes a worthy feature film about the chronic problem of sexual harassment in the military, but to simply toss it in here and there in this story does it a great disservice. I get that these moments add to Cole's feeling of solitude among her fellow soldiers, but there are other ways it could have been handled that didn't treat the problem like it was something on the periphery.

I have always believed (and likely always will) that Stewart is a tremendous actor who has made some terrible decisions in selecting a great number of roles over the last 10 years or so, but playing Cole in Camp X-Ray is not one of them. She's actually quite good here, as the flustered, emotionally torn private who just wants to do her time, not screw up, and use the experience as an entry point to a career in the military. She believed that she would have no issues looking at the detainees and seeing them as the enemy, but that isn't the case.

First-time feature writer-director Peter Sattler has created beautifully realized characters in Cole and Ali, and the way their interactions bob and weave (usually with Ali leading the dance) are quite interesting and a bit scary, because we never quite know what his intentions are. As a pure acting exercise, Camp X-Ray works rather well; but too often it loses direction and veers into territory that it doesn't have the time or inclination to fully explore. The result is a longing to return to the main story and never leave. As strange as it may sound to say, this film doesn't really need a villain — simply the perception of one is enough to engage us. As it exists, Camp X-Ray is hit and miss, with a slight edge to getting it right more often than not.

Low Down

One of the more curious films in recents months is the biographical endeavor based on Amy-Jo Albany's memoir about growing up with her jazz pianist father Joe Albany, who had frequent run-ins with the law in the as well as a fairly ferocious heroin addiction, often leaving young Amy-Jo alone in a skid-row hotel room with nothing but her survival instincts keeping her going.

As he does in all roles, John Hawkes (Winter's Bone, The Sessions) embodies Joe Albany so completely that it's tough to look as his skinny, drug-addled ass for too long. He clearly loves his daughter (Elle Fanning); he just loves his drugs a tiny bit more, which is not to say he doesn't stay off them long enough to play gigs, take what little money he has to provide for Amy-Jo, and hang with musician pals long enough to play some truly beautiful music.

Low Down isn't a plot-driven work by any standard. It's about observing and living with these people, as well as the folks that drift in and out of their lives, including Joe's mother (Glenn Close), his trumpet-playing drug buddy (Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers), fellow tenant (Peter Dinklage), and least of all, Amy-Jo's alcoholic mother (Lena Headey). Cinematographer-turned-director Jeff Preiss has a real eye for the rundown, gritty settings of the Albanys' life circa 1974-76 Los Angeles. It's an existence that is both undeniably heartbreaking and occasionally uplifting, but more often than not, it's a series of broken promises followed soon after by heartfelt apologies for sins that are bound to be repeated.

Low Down is a low-key work that makes full use of its atmospheric gifts. Hawkes and Fanning have a familiar bond that made it easy for me not only to buy their father-daughter relationship, but also recognize that she will always forgive him. It's a tormented way to live a life, but it works for the Albanys in this exact moment in history. I can see why this film might not work for a lot of people, but as a die-hard Hawkes admirer, I was so impressed with him here that the film's odd digressions and unnecessary fringe characters are easier to forgive.

Open Windows

Meant to appear to be a single, unbroken shot of a computer screen with multiple windows showing a variety of action on them, Open Windows is a workable, mostly successful endeavor from the mind of writer-director Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial), whose able brain might be the only place where a story this complex can be generated. The film tells the tale of two lonely souls — one is actress Jill Goddard (played by former adult film star Sasha Grey, who did solid work a few years back in Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience), who has just refused to meet Nick (Elijah Wood, quickly cornering the market on playing creepy dudes), a fan who entered a contest to have dinner with her.

Rejected but not vengeful, Nick suddenly gets a message on his computer from someone named Chord (Neil Maskell), who offers Nick the chance to cyber-stalk Jill via any electronic device in her possession or near her, and initially Nick agrees. Chord remotely opens up new windows on Nick's laptop to track Jill, and eventually it becomes clear that Nick is as much a victim to Chord's sick plan as Jill is.

Vigalondo wisely takes Open Windows from a story about the latest and greatest in stalking technology to one about an actress who simply wants to get away from the limelight — Internet creeps in particular — forever, using the most drastic measures if necessary. Since I first saw the film at its SXSW Film Festival premiere, it has taken on a slightly more significant message in the wake of massive privacy violations of entertainers — it is these exact type of violations that Jill is attempting to avoid and escape.

The film loses a bit of its focus in the final act as heady ideas gives way to more traditional action and silly plot twists. But most of Open Windows gets its point across. It's an exercise in one person attempting to reclaim their identity. The ideas at play are wonderful, even when the execution of them is a little fuzzy. Sure, the film is gimmicky, but I happen to like the computer-screen as a storytelling medium. Wood and Grey put forth solid performances, both playing different types of desperate people in a world that doesn't believe a person can be overexposed. Even with its flaws, Open Windows is thought provoking as well as great fun. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre, screening at midnight both Friday and Saturday.

To read my exclusive interview with Open Windows writer-director Nacho Vigalondo and stars Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me

I was nervous about watching the chronicle of the final large-scale tour of music legend Glen Campbell, launched in support of his 2011 final album Ghost on the Canvas and not long after Campbell went public with his Alzheimer's disease diagnosis. Although he was only committed by his record company to do a handful of live promotional dates, Campbell seemed to come alive on stage to such a degree that he extended his tour (now labeled a "farewell" tour) to 151 shows. So what director James Keach has captured is both a tour diary, an examination into the nuances and progression of Campbell's disease, and a respectful overview of his career as one of the great country entertainers of all time.

The first thing you realize watching I'll Be Me is how seemingly limitless Keach's access to Campbell's life seems to be during the tour, and the filmmaker finds ways of making it clear when Glen is having bad days and when he shines without making things feel too exploitative or the audience wanting to look away out of embarrassment for Campbell's condition. In truth, the footage of Campbell going to the doctors is fascinating because it shows us a man used to being in total control of every aspect of his life suddenly forget the simplest facts about the world at large. Rather than admit his memory is going, he simply says, "I don't ever keep track of things like that," as if to say it's not that he's forgotten; he just never bothered to remember in the first place.

The film walks us through the professional highlights, including hits like "Rhinestone Cowboy," "Wichita Lineman," "Southern Nights," "True Grit" and "Gentle on My Mind," as well as his celebrated television variety show and every accolade that country music has to give. But more importantly, I'll Be Me shows us the bond that Campbell and his current wife, Kim, have going through the ordeals Alzheimer's can bring a family, which include trips into paranoia, aggression, and even an increased sexual appetite (I did mention the access to his life was fairly limitless) when Glen begins taking a prescription meant to help with memory. The tour likely would not be possible were three of his grown children not in his band, in particular his daughter Ashley, who seems to have a particular bond with her father.

In the end, the film is a celebration of a life lived a particular way until Campbell literally couldn't live it that way any longer. By the time the decision is made to end the tour, the signs that it can simply not go on are all over the place. And with this one great gasp, Campbell's legacy remains intact, his fans get to pay their respects one last time, and Campbell gets to perform with his soulful voice one last time. The famous faces (Bill Clinton, Sheryl Crow, Jay Leno, Blake Shelton, Paul McCartney, The Edge, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Urban, Vince Gill, and the list never stops) line up to pay tribute, but this is film built on the foundation of family, and the reason you won't be able to resist tearing up while watching this beautiful work is because of the way Campbell and his family rally against this disease. Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me is an unforgettable achievement.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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