To “Interstellar” and Beyond

So, this is the dilemma. When I rebooted my blog as “The Screen Addict” a few months back, I basically did it as a self-inflicted kick in the butt. I had stopped writing regularly, and I thought starting over might provide the appropriate motivation. Well, it did. For a while. Then various factors converged, including a busy stretch of work and non-work stuff, and there was also the very basic problem that when I got home from work, the last thing I wanted to do was get back on a computer and keep dealing with words. So, once again, I find myself changing what this blog is going to be. The goal is this: once, in the middle of (almost) every week, there will be one of these posts. I might write other stuff in between, and I plan to resume Ones on 1 in December, but this is more or less going to be it.

So, in a way, it’s becoming half blog/half newsletter. This way I can put a bunch of smaller things together over the course of the week instead of sitting down and doing a whole post all at once. This isn’t going to be much of a departure. Each post will begin with an opening remark about… something. Perhaps it will be film-related, perhaps not. It will be essentially be a few paragraphs about whatever occurs to me at the time. For this week, all you’re getting is this explanation.

From there, the post will typically go into one longer review, followed by much briefer remarks about other movies I’ve seen recently. I will also include one “Classic of the Week,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Usually it will be an older movie I happened to watch in the preceding week and enjoyed. Sometimes I’ll wing it. I’ll then wrap it up with a reaction to a recent piece of movie or television news, a look at a movie trailer that has caught my attention, and then a new DVD/Blu-ray or streaming recommendation.

If other, longer posts come to mind, of course I’ll endeavor to write them. But this is likely to be the vast majority of what will show up on The Screen Addict going forward. Hopefully this will stick. I’m just trying to find a way to keep writing, and to make it a more appealing part of my schedule. I’d be lying if I said the idea of stopping never occurred to me, but I know that would ultimately be a poor decision. I don’t plan on going anywhere.

So thank you all for bearing with me. Onward and upward.

Interstellar: Christopher Nolan’s bumpy journey to parts unknown 

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Christopher Nolan has spent his whole career making movies that juggle several balls at once, but he is usually at his best when all the various parts come together to achieve one specific goal. His last non­-Batman film, Inception, jumps from dream state to dream state with abandon, but for all its bloat and the ostensibly complex science of its universe, it works best as an action movie featuring a cast of characters all breathlessly working to achieve a single goal. It’s so propulsive that the audience barely has a chance to think about the logic of what is being thrown at them. This is not always the case with Nolan’s new sci-fi epic Interstellar, which has its share of scenes featuring Inception-like intensity, but spends much more time quietly ruminating on its ideas and themes. Here, the ideas aren’t necessarily the delivery system for the story, but the story instead seems specifically designed to get the film to a predetermined thematic or emotional destination. The result is one of the clunkiest things Nolan has ever done, and it never adds up to quite as much as it thinks it does, but it’s a journey that proves worthwhile both in spite of, and because of, its imperfections.

It begins simply. Deceptively so. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former NASA pilot who was forced to become a farmer. We meet him, his father-in-law (John Lithgow), and his two children Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet). Then, rather abruptly, Cooper finds himself roped into a NASA plan to search for a new, habitable planet on the other side of a wormhole near Jupiter. Simple enough. He hops aboard to captain one of the ships, leaving his children behind. Once he and his crew hit said wormhole, things start to get complicated.

The whole time, Nolan attempts to link Cooper’s quest with the plight of the children he left behind, who grow up to become Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck. Despite its rather complicated scientific ideas—which are often described in exposition that makes Ellen Page’s Inception character seem graceful—Interstellar is a film primarily driven by emotion. This works best when it doesn’t have to strain for it, like in scenes when Cooper sits down to watch his children grow up through a series of video messages. Meanwhile, other moments, including one of the climactic revelations of the movie, feel like they’re trying a bit too hard.

Really, this goes for the film as a whole too. Nolan has never been one to take the simple way out, but Interstellar may have been best served to just put its head down and power through. It starts with very little baggage, but then stops to gather so much over the course of its three-hour running time that it’s a wonder it can still stand by the end. Also, Nolan’s old habit of casually cutting between locations/planets/realities at a rapid pace backfires on him here. The conflicts in space and on Earth are both captivating in their own right, but they wind up being two flavors that don’t mix particularly well when stacked on top of each other. It recalls the second half of Inception, but it doesn’t feel nearly as purposeful.

Despite the laundry list of flaws, Interstellar has one thing going for it that most movies can never hope to claim: good old-fashioned wonder. Particularly when it’s in space, this is a beautiful film to look at. I can only claim to have watched it in 35mm, but I may make a point of catching it again in IMAX if possible. There are shots in this movie that are incredibly immersive, and from a cinematic perspective it feels incredibly unique. I fully realize I’ve made it sound like I disliked this movie much more than I did. I actually really liked it, but I’m having a heck of a time trying to explain why. Perhaps its because the flaws of Interstellar are tangible. You can say “this didn’t work” and “that didn’t work” without much effort, but its pleasures are much more ethereal. It’s a journey into unexplored territory—both cosmic and cinematic—and that alone makes it essential viewing. Whether it all “works” or not rarely seems relevant.

Other “new” releases:
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This section will throw together short reactions to other films I’ve seen in theaters. I have a lot to catch up on since last we talked, obviously, so I’ll try to cover the last couple months in future posts. For now, here are a few recent releases:

–If it weren’t based on a bestselling novel, I have a hard time imagining a movie like David Fincher’s Gone Girl could have ever gotten a wide release. It’s a dark, bleak, nasty movie that feels not unlike something Alfred Hitchcock would have made if given modern filmmaking resources and standards. It’s filled with twists and turns that, while absurd, feed into its larger themes about marriage, the media, and sexual politics. It doesn’t go down easy, but that is precisely the point. Fincher’s direction is as exacting as ever, and he gets a career-best performance from Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne. It’s the rare mainstream movie that doesn’t seek to please the audience, but to attack it.

–This time of year always brings its fair share of performance-driven films, and plenty have been released in the past several weeks. For instance, Tom Hardy’s work in the crime thriller The Drop might be among my favorite performances of the year, even if the rest of the film is profoundly unmemorable. I’m slightly more enthusiastic about Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler as a whole, but Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is still the first, second and third reason someone would buy a ticket. Lastly, you’ll be hearing a lot about J.K. Simmons’ performance in Whiplash in the coming months, and with good reason. He perfectly captures a type of music teacher that most anyone who’s been in a school band might recognize. This takes it to the extreme, of course, but that only makes it all the more captivating.

–When I first heard about the forthcoming release of Citizenfour, I thought it was going to explode. Instead, it seems as though cinephiles are the only ones who are really freaking out about it. It’s become less of a major news story and more just a really solid procedural documentary that follows filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald as they begin their correspondence with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. No matter how you feel about the people involved, it’s a fascinating watch. Rarely do we get the opportunity to observe a massive news story as it comes to fruition.

The Problem with Five-Year Plans
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A couple weeks ago now, Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, revealed the company’s slate of releases from now until 2019. This comes not long after DC Comics revealed a similar schedule, detailing their plan to create a rival universe. Meanwhile, Sony decided they wanted to play with the big kids too, and they’re still planning on creating an expanded universe based on Spider-Man. Basically, every studio has plans to release about a billion superhero movies between now and the end of the decade. I mean, look that this schedule. It’s absurd, and, frankly, it feels kind of gross. This tweet from critic David Ehrlich sums up my general attitude:

Let me make this clear: superhero movies are not the enemy. It’s more how studios—spearheaded by Marvel—are choosing to handle these properties. Look at all these titles coming out, and realize that only a couple of them have directors, writers or actors attached. Sure, they’ll all get some hot name involved, but it’s becoming clear that these studios don’t give a crap about the people making them. You need not look further than Edgar Wright’s departure from Ant-Man just before it was set to go into production. These films may technically have directors, but going forward, it seems their vision is going to matter less and less. These are films being driven by a larger agenda, and as entertaining as Marvel movies can be, they are becoming increasingly homogeneous, and that shows no signs of slowing down going forward. (And then there’s Man of Steel, which, woof.)

So, again, I am not angry at the idea of superhero movies. I like a lot of them. But I look at a graphic like the one I linked to above and I feel only dread. Here’s the other thing: this superhero bubble is going to burst, and audiences are going to turn on them. It’s inevitable. It may not happen before 2020, but it’s going to happen. When that occurs, the studio with a five-year plan ahead of them is going to scramble to try and undo it. We have already seen Sony take their Spider-Man plans down a notch. Who’s going to be next?

But, really, it all comes down to this: art isn’t supposed to be consumed this way. In my opinion, at least. I don’t want to know what movies I’m going to be watching six years from now. Where’s the fun in that?

Classic of the Week
Most rock documentaries from the late ’60s and early ’70s make that world look like one big party. If that is the case, then Gimme Shelter (1970), directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, depicts the end of that party. The intentions are good: the Rolling Stones look to put on a free concert at the Altamont Speedway along with Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and a few others. It’s meant to be a sort of west coast Woodstock. Instead, the vibes are bad from the beginning. The Hells Angels show up. Some say they were hired as security, while others deny it. Nonetheless, fights start breaking out. Both Jefferson Airplane and the Rolling Stones have to stop the show to yell at the crowd. Then, at the end of the night, a scuffle ends with a man being stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels. All of this is caught on film, and what was meant to be a simple concert documentary turns into something much darker, and it winds up being a startling microcosm of that period’s unrest.

Trailer of the Week

There aren’t many more films I’m really excited about this year, but at the top of the list is almost certainly Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. I don’t know if there’s another American filmmaker out there that excites me as much as Anderson, and I anticipate each new film from him to an unhealthy degree. (He should go ahead and do a Marvel-type press conference in which he announces his next 10 movies. That I’d be okay with.) Considering his last two movies are The Master and There Will Be Blood, this trailer makes his new offering look like… well, a change of pace. Or perhaps it’s more of a return to his Boogie Nights form, but even this seems like more of a crack at out-and-out comedy. Some early reviews have (favorably) compared it to the likes of The Big Lebowski, and I’d more than happily sign up for that. Just in time for Christmas, indeed.

New to Video or Streaming
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Despite it receiving generally favorable reviews, I’m pretty sure I loved Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man more than just about anyone. I’ll admit I have a weakness for quiet espionage thrillers set in cloudy European locations, and this post-9/11 film about a group of spies in Hamburg hit me right in my sweet spot. Philip Seymour Hoffman commands the screen at every turn, and the film’s deliberate pace feels utterly purposeful. Then it all builds to a final scene that arrives like a punch to the gut. Results may very, but if this sounds like something you gravitate toward, you should be in for a treat. 

Now available on Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand

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