Thursday, November 27, 2014

Wrestling with Masculinity and Oscar Hype


             As several media commentators observed earlier this year, the blockbuster season, not too long ago confined to summer and Christmas time, has begun to swell like No-Face from Spirited Away, consuming May and April and threatening to spill over into March, November and perhaps even beyond. It’s a disconcerting trend for those of us who would like to go at least a couple months without having to hear the word “superhero”. Arguably, however, the same thing has already happened with Oscar season. Although the films themselves still usually come out sometime between October and December, thanks to festivals and a proliferating, rather dubious field of online pundits, you start seeing predictions for next year’s Oscars before this year’s ceremony even airs. This is also not a particularly good thing.

             Take Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller’s based-on-real-life story about Olympic-wrestler brothers Mark and Dave Schultz and their disturbingly wealthy benefactor, John du Pont. The movie debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May to mostly strong reviews, and ever since then, it’s been a mainstay on award prognosticators’ lists. On one hand, taking the festival circuit route allows Foxcatcher to build up hype; voters tend to go for sure bets (i.e. what they already know they’re supposed to like), so once something cements its status as an Oscar contender, it generally remains there. But at the same time, being labeled “Oscar-worthy” comes with certain expectations. Oscar-worthy movies have prestigious actors whose roles demand some amount of yelling and/or crying. They involve more dialogue than special effects but are large enough in scope that they don’t feel “slight”. They say Important Things about Important Stuff, like slavery or the film industry, striking a comfortable balance between serious and cathartic. The earlier you put yourself out in the open, the more time people have to realize that you fail to meet those expectations and the likelier it is that the initial goodwill will fade and you’ll experience a backlash.

             It’s probably unfair to review a movie by talking about its hype and awards potential, since that says nothing about its actual quality, but I can’t deny that I went into Foxcatcher with a specific vision in my head and left feeling somewhat let down, disoriented for reasons I couldn’t quite pinpoint. The truth is, this is not an Oscar movie. Sure, it’s based on a true story and has an Oscar-nominated director at the helm, two elements that never hurt your chances. Yet despite having guided both of his previous efforts to Best Picture nominations, Bennett Miller is hardly a household name; like J.C. Chandor, another rising talent who thrives on quiet adult dramas, his style is too understated to garner the kind of devotion inspired by David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson. The cast is more well-liked than prestigious (of the three main actors, only Mark Ruffalo has an Oscar nomination), and although it contains not-particularly-subtle messages about the danger of American exceptionalism, this isn’t exactly Selma as far as Important Stuff goes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Fighting the Unbearable Emptiness with Love



        You’ll probably know whether or not you’re going to like Interstellar within the first half hour. The premise: a group of scientists led by Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper has been tasked with traveling into a wormhole near Saturn and finding a planet that could replace Earth, which has been so ruined it can no longer sustain human life. You either accept this – and, not to mention, all the quirks about bending space-time, hopping dimensions and corn – or you don’t. If you can’t suspend your disbelief, you’ll likely dismiss Christopher Nolan’s latest venture as maddening, self-absorbed drivel, but if you can embrace the plot as it is, you’ll be rewarded with an immersive spectacle that blends the grand scope of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the more personal sincerity of Contact, one that recalls innumerable sci-fi flicks of the past but never seems interested in trying to be anything other than itself.

        Like last year’s Gravity, Interstellar begs to be seen on as large a screen as possible, and its basic story is secondary to the mere experience of sitting and watching it. An IMAX theater viewing especially provides a sensory explosion so enveloping that it’s almost overwhelming. Boasting visual effects that, more than being just stunning to look at, actually feel real, the film serves as a sharp and more-than-welcome contrast to the blatant CGI of something like the Thor movies or the superficial, screensaver prettiness of The Tree of Life. Assisted by Hoyte van Hoytema’s elegant cinematography, the film doesn’t just present images of wormholes, distant planets and extra dimensions – it transports you to them. Jaw-dropping shots of a spaceship passing Saturn or approaching a black hole are matched by suffocating scenes set in the dust-blown fields that apparently cover future America and an almost disturbingly visceral sequence where a spacecraft gradually disintegrates into nothingness, the you-are-there sensation enhanced by some finely tuned sound editing. Composer Hans Zimmer contributes to the movie’s delicate tonal mix of grandeur and immediacy with a marvel of a score that alternates between an operatic, organ-played theme and more staccato, tense rhythms. Smartly executed on practically every technical level, Interstellar is a dizzying dream of a movie, inspiring the kind of pure awe that so many films aim for but rarely achieve.

        Yet, for all the visual fireworks, scientific jargon and Prometheus-esque philosophizing, there’s something very elemental, almost archetypal about Interstellar. The relationship between Cooper and Murph (played by both Jessica Chastain and Mackenzie Foy, who is perhaps the movie’s biggest surprise other than the Bill Irwin-voiced robot and secret MVP T.A.R.S.) anchors the narrative, even as it traverses planets, galaxies and dimensions, and resonates with an earnestness that comes off as sweet instead of sentimental. At its core, this is a story about love – not just the love between parents and children, though that’s a central focus, but the one between lovers, siblings, people and their home, humanity and itself. Helped by all-around solid performances from a recognizable cast and uncluttered by prolonged action set pieces, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay spends enough time with the characters to justify an emotional investment in their survival, even if some of the supporting roles could’ve been fleshed out more, a challenge for a film already approaching the three hour mark. Some of the movie’s best scenes are its simplest: a father tries in vain to comfort his distraught daughter; a heartbreaking montage of video messages; one character is so relieved to see another person, he collapses in tears. Human beings are a source of both doom and salvation in Interstellar, the latter of which proves possible only through a sense of shared community, devotion and empathy.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How to Get Away With Business


             Lou Bloom is not your usual movie sociopath. With his mane of slightly too-long hair, wiry frame and large eyes, he lacks the subtle menace of Hannibal Lecter and the slick, shallow charisma of Patrick Bateman. If anything, his tendency to aggressively spout self-help aphorisms and hackneyed corporate jargon at a mile a minute makes him seem rather dense at first, almost childlike. He starts the film as an aimless petty thief, selling wire, watches and whatever random paraphernalia he can find for a meager income, and claims to have only a high school education. For all his go-getter gusto, he doesn’t come across as particularly magnetic, competent or intimidating – he’s more Pete Campbell than Don Draper.

             And yet, it’s impossible to take your eyes off him. Naturally, a large portion of the credit must go to star Jake Gyllenhaal, who has quietly spent the past couple years undergoing one of the weirdest, most unexpected career revivals this side of Matthew McConaughey, with turns in gritty, off-kilter indies like End of Watch and Prisoners.  Here, the transformation is complete: nearly 30 pounds lighter and affecting a deadpan, higher-pitched voice, he’s virtually unrecognizable as the fresh-faced kid of October Sky, Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain. Such dramatic changes in appearance tend to invite hyperbole from the media, words like “fearless” and “astonishing” tossed around with the nonchalance of a baseball between innings (or, on the flip side, they’re scorned as self-serving stunts that merit neither admiration nor awards). In this case, however, any and all praise is entirely deserved. The weight loss isn’t what makes Gyllenhaal’s performance a remarkable feat of physical acting; it’s the nuances, the way he can apparently go endless amounts of time without blinking, the smile so unnervingly wide it verges on cartoonish, the minute gestures and shifts in expression that seem simultaneously meaningful and utterly. It’s electrifying in its contradictions, by turns ostentatious and controlled, raw and aloof, and as hard to pin down as the film’s protagonist.