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Entries in John Lithgow (3)

Wednesday
Nov052014

Interstellar

As a general rule, director Christopher Nolan doesn’t make bad movies. While not all have been great, neither have any been bad. In regards to consistency, at least, one could argue he’s the single best director working today and early buzz for his newest film, “Interstellar,” seemed to indicate magnificence. Some reports even stated that it was on a philosophical level of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Having now seen it, I feel like I can definitively say that it’s not quite up to that level. “Interstellar” is a great movie, one that will inevitably end up on many critics’ best of the year lists, but to make such a direct comparison is overenthusiastic hyperbole. It’s Nolan’s most narratively ambitious film to date and it does a good job of exploring complex themes, but its philosophizing doesn’t always land. Still, when most science fiction films these days involve little more than assault-on-the-senses action, one can’t help but appreciate that this one strives to be intellectually more.

And it’s that intellectualism, even when it’s not up to snuff, that gives “Interstellar” its edge. In a real world that seems increasingly anti-intellectualism and anti-science, with societies hell bent on holding onto archaic beliefs and ideologies, it’s a breath of fresh air to see onscreen characters portrayed in a way that highlights scientific curiosity and hope, even in the face of extreme adversity. Matthew McConaughey, in what could very well be his best dramatic performance to date, plays Cooper, a brilliant engineer and scientist who, due to apocalyptic weather patterns diminishing Earth’s resources, is relegated to farming. He’s a naturally curious person and has passed that curiosity down to his children, namely Murph, played by Mackenzie Foy, a young girl who swears there’s a ghost in her room trying to tell her something.

Eventually they learn the strange occurrences in her room are gravitational anomalies that began around 50 years ago. Around the same time, a wormhole in space appeared and has remained stable ever since. Using this wormhole, NASA was able to send its bravest men and women to a new galaxy with potentially habitable worlds. The data they’ve since received indicates a handful of those worlds could work to save the human race, so they enlist Cooper to leave his family behind and embark on a dangerous mission. Knowing that inaction could mean extinction for his species, he begrudgingly agrees.

In many ways, “Interstellar” is the polar opposite of last year’s sci-fi hit, “Gravity.” While that movie was essentially a 90 minute action movie in space with minimal characterization, “Interstellar” nearly doubles that length and is all about character. A few tense action scenes pop up in from time to time, but it’s the effect those scenes have on the characters that makes them so interesting. Before the characters even lift off into space, the stage is set for some wonderful human drama. The relationships are built in a believable way, which allows later scenes to lead to some truly heartbreaking moments. Characters aren’t mentioned in passing like Bullock’s daughter in “Gravity,” but are instead grown and explored through many years and even decades, thanks to a clever narrative mechanic grounded in real life science.

In fact, the lengths “Interstellar” goes to be scientifically accurate are both welcome and impressive. It takes liberties, of course, to form its story, but it dares to show its scientific literacy when other movies would have taken the easy way out. A great example comes in its portrayal of artificial gravity. Nolan could have very easily had the characters flip a switch to turn it on in their spaceship, but he instead has a 10 minute sequence where their ship docks with a circular apparatus that then begins to rotate, creating artificial gravity through centrifugal force. Is this sequence necessary for the characters or the drama? No, but it helps create a real, living world and, though minor in the big scheme of things, it allows viewers to sink fully into the desired immersion.

These details show a genuine love for the subject matter, for space and even for the unknown. The writing from Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, indicate as much. Wonderful scenes that mock Apollo landing conspiracy theorists and early dialogue discussing the merits of scientific study highlight a passion for scientific endeavors as well as the wonders of both the human spirit and the insignificant role we play in the immensity of the cosmos. The visuals similarly show this affection, with truly stunning imagery that looks pulled from NASA’s archives. This is a movie that understands not just the frightening and dangerous nature of our universe, but also its grandiosity and quiet beauty. If you too share such awe, as I do, then you’ll find plenty to love here.

When “Interstellar” stumbles, it’s not due to these things, but rather a narrative that occasionally misses the mark. When the characters start to hypothesize about the meaning of everything, one starts to babble on with silly nonsense about love, about how it could potentially be an extra dimension beyond time and space that we aren’t yet able to perceive. In a movie as grounded as this one, scenes like this are worth little more than an eye roll.

It also loses some narrative momentum in its final moments. Despite a deliberate pacing and a runtime of 169 minutes, its conclusion is rushed beyond plausibility. Although undeniably interesting and unexpected, a specific character comes to a revelation completely out of the blue with little convincing context behind it. However, it must be said that this moment also leads to one of the emotionally impactful moments in the entire film, which makes it easier to forgive such hurriedness.

If nothing else, “Interstellar” goes to show that there are still some great ideas out there that the science fiction genre can lend itself to beyond giant robots crashing into each other. It might not be the intellectual equivalent of “2001: A Space Odyssey” as some have argued, but it’s a wondrous movie in its own right that tackles complex themes, builds believable characters and hits all the right emotional chords while rarely relying on heavy-handed manipulation. Even with its faults, it’s one of the year’s best.

Interstellar receives 4.5/5

Wednesday
Dec192012

This Is 40

If you ask me, there are two Judd Apatows: the director and the writer. The director is like Kevin Smith, a man who doesn’t really do much behind the camera in regard to cinematic flare, but knows how to pull a great comedic performance from his actors. The writer, however, is more like Woody Allen. His movies, despite their vulgarity, often hit deeper truths that come from a terrifically structured story, but are long winded, to the point where that sound structure starts to sag, usually all the way to their unnecessary and disappointing conclusions. With the sole exception of The 40 Year Old Virgin, whose runtime felt necessary to the story, all of his movies are like this, from Knocked Up to this week’s This Is 40. That meaning is still there, but you’ll have to sit through a lot of nonsense to get to it.

Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s real life wife) are a married couple who are about to have their 40th birthdays. Naturally, they’re struggling with that realization, especially in the face of their growing troubles. Financially, Pete’s upstart record label, Unfiltered Records, isn’t doing too hot and Debbie’s shop isn’t pulling in enough to keep them afloat. At home, they have their hands full with their two daughters, Sadie (Maude Apatow) and Charlotte (Iris Apatow), the former of whom has hit that rebellious teenage phase all parents dread. Their sex life is on the decline and neither of them are in particularly good standing with their fathers either. Their seemingly blissful existence is about to be tested.

This Is 40, at its core, isn’t really about age, though one could argue their concerns and stresses stem from it. Rather, the film is about life in general, the type of struggles any family could go through, whether they be in their 40s, 60s or even their 20s. It’s about that inevitable period of time in a marriage when things get so tough that the validity of the marriage comes into question. All couples go through it at some point and the question becomes: do you fight through the rough patches or give in? As a 45 year old man married to a 40 year old woman raising two daughters, the story feels like a personal one from Apatow, like he has lived through much of what happens onscreen, albeit to a more comedic extent. If you haven't lived through it, This Is 40 will remind you of your parents, as many movies about aging couples do. It reminds of their struggle with age and mortality, money and lack thereof, and even how your father would fart and laugh while your mom cringes in disgust.

However, the weak link, the thing tearing those reminders down, is Paul Rudd. Although he has proven to be a solid comedic performer in the past, he has always had one problem: he can’t keep it together. During the funnier parts, like the opening scene where he takes a Viagra and talks about his penis, noticeable cracks in his façade seep through. In a movie like, say, I Love You, Man, where it’s all about laughs and the story means nothing, it’s okay, but in an Apatow film that is trying to reach deeper meaning, where the drama is just as, if not more, important than the comedy, it’s a problem.

Because of this, This Is 40 is the weakest and most tonally inconsistent directorial effort from Apatow yet. But again, there is some truthful resonance here, even if it is hidden in a bloated film that runs well over two hours (someone desperately needed to take the scissors to this thing and cut out 20 minutes, at least). In the end the film is optimistic about love, life and family while still acknowledging how hard they can be. In that sense, it’s realistic, but still finds the time to flourish it up with more than a few laugh-out-loud gut busters. This Is 40 is going to be a tough movie to sell, given that the younger crowd won’t be able to relate and the older crowd may find its more juvenile moments off-putting, but it still works, even if it’s on the basest of levels.

This Is 40 receives 3/5

Friday
Aug052011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The original Planet of the Apes is one of the best science fiction movies ever made because it took a B-movie idea and turned it into something more. It battled themes of science vs. religion and took a bold stance, that intellectual progression was being impeded by archaic religious thought. It’s a controversial idea, but it’s nevertheless an interesting one and it can be argued that such a thing is still happening even today. The movies that followed dealt with intolerance, slavery, and the perpetuation of war, criticizing those who worship the bomb (a theme made perhaps a bit too literal in the second film), among others. All of this derived from a single creative concept: what if apes were the dominant species? The newest film in the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, tries to tackle heavy issues, but lacks the profundity of its predecessors. What it amounts to is simply another summer movie spectacle, but at least it’s a good one.

The film begins prior to the events of the first film (and disregards the rest). Will (James Franco) is a scientist working on an experiment drug known as ALZ-112. It’s a rebuilding drug that he hopes will be able to cure certain mental ailments, such as Alzheimer’s, which his father, Charles (John Lithgow), is suffering from. To test the drug, he and his co-workers experiment on apes, which ends up yielding positive results. With only one small dose, the apes are able to intelligently reason. It appears they are getting smarter. One day, however, something goes wrong and Chimp #9 goes berserk in front of the company’s board of directors, effectively shutting down the experiments. What they don’t realize is that the ape was only protecting her newborn son, afraid he would receive the same painful treatment. She dies, but her son, eventually named Caesar (Andy Serkis in a motion capture performance), is taken home by Will, who realizes that the drug was passed down hereditarily. As the years go by, Caesar becomes smarter and smarter, eventually leading to a revelation and beginning the rise of the apes.

Though sometimes billed as a prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is more a reboot of the series, or even a reimagining of the fourth film in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which tackled similar territory, but it’s different enough that it can skillfully stand alone. It could almost entirely exist outside of the rest of the series had it not been for a couple of nods to the original film, one humorous and welcome and one so blatantly out of place it pulls you out of the movie (though it really shouldn’t come as a surprise). It takes a couple of things from Conquest, namely the ape being walked around on a leash and treated like a pet, but otherwise, it’s totally different, and that’s a good thing because Conquest is one of the worst in the series.

What the movie does so beautifully is make us understand why Caesar comes to act the way he does. He isn’t treated well and, though it suffers from exaggerated cruelty from a few human characters, the film does a good job of making us sympathize with the apes and root against our own species. Some of Caesar’s action, which become more and more humanlike as the movie goes on, will come off as cheesy to some, if the constant snickering in my screening is any indication, but I found his decisions to be hard hitting and narratively necessary. Rise does a great job of establishing the effects of the drug that has been coursing through his body since birth, so of course he’s going to learn human behavior. It takes the phrase “monkey see, monkey do” to a whole new level.

The few times it gets a bit too silly for its own good are in its use of subtitles when the apes sign to each other, which are dumbed down to sound prehistoric (“Human no like smart ape”), and when Caesar essentially becomes a rebellious teenager, like in one scene where he defiantly pushes his plate of food away after being told to eat it. But on the whole, Rise of the Planet of the Apes should be taken as a serious, dramatic movie that can be interpreted in one of two ways: as a message about playing God or as one against animal testing. The problem is it thinks it’s profound, when it really isn’t. The former message is cliché and overheard while the latter is preachy and laughable. I wouldn’t say this is a particularly deep movie; it’s just well made and interesting. It’s a disappointment to be sure, but it had lofty expectations to live up to. The fact that it’s still pretty good is something for which to be grateful.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes receives 3.5/5