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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


The Conjuring

Modern horror directors aren’t easy to come by. The glory days of the George Romero’s and John Carpenter’s seem all but lost; only a handful of well-known horror-centric directors exist today and “well-known” can be argued given that many mainstream audiences may not recognize the likes of Xavier Gens or Ti West offhand (though they may have seen some of their movies). Arguably, the biggest name in horror currently is James Wan, the man responsible for sparking one of the biggest and most popular horror franchises today. With movies like “Saw,” “Insidious” and “Dead Silence” under his belt, he has proven himself, despite his critics, as one of the most stylish and interesting horror directors working today, yet his latest, “The Conjuring,” feels lackluster. The frights from his previous films are all but lost here and all ingenuity has dissipated. You’ve seen this movie dozens of times over and even Wan can’t do enough to reinvigorate old clichés.

This supposedly true story takes place in the late 60s and follows a team of husband and wife demon hunters, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). They’re the same folks who tackled the infamous Amityville Horror hauntings (which should give you a good indication of whether or not this is actually real), but this time they’re investigating a possible demonic entity in the household of Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), who have just moved into a new farmhouse with a dark history along with their five girls, Andrea (Shanley Caswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Cynthia (Mackenzie Foy), Christine (Joey King) and April (Kyla Deaver).

Lights are flickering on and off, birds are inexplicably crashing into their windows, televisions go static, loud noises go bump in the night and doors are creaking open all by themselves. And I mean lots of doors. I’m fairly certain that if we counted the number of creaking doors opened by an unseen entity,” “The Conjuring” would set the record. This tactic is indicative of the film as a whole: it has nothing new to present. It relies so heavily on obvious horror movie tropes that it never finds its own identity and, aside from a few effective moments that come forth through a game called “Hide and Clap,” it certainly never gets the heart racing. Unless you’ve never seen a horror movie before, you’ll quickly become aware of its tricks.

In fact, the film’s biggest asset doesn’t come from the horror atmosphere at all, but rather from its surprising focus on the characters, not unlike last year’s excellent “Sinister.” The build is slow and takes the time to develop them, not simply tossing them into a spooky house as fodder for jump scares. While they’re not necessarily interesting characters in and of themselves, it’s a welcome change of pace for a genre that regularly struggles to tell a meaningful story, which is mainly due to its skewed focus on things other than the people. Unfortunately, much of its attempts to build them into people we can care about, which come complete with soothing music and cheesy dialogue, are awkwardly wedged in between scenes of horrific nightmares, never segueing convincingly into and out of each other and throwing the whole tone off.

What “The Conjuring” boils down to is a talented and underrated horror director working with substandard material, though much of that talent undoubtedly stems from an outside source. So much of his style matches so well with frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell, who has written all of his horror outings, that many of his flaws shine through here. Take the finale of “Insidious” as an example. While the movie certainly had its issues, the ending took place in a surreal dreamlike state, almost like a cross between “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and the “Silent Hill” video games. This gave Wan some room to breathe and interpret as he saw fit. The frightening visual environment he created was haunting and unforgettable. “The Conjuring” has no unique moments like it, nothing that allows Wan to flex his creative muscle.

It even falls prey to the same typical dumb mistakes so many characters make in these things. While the ghost obviously needs to stay with the characters no matter where they go for the purposes of storytelling, an attempt to escape still needs to be made. In “Insidious,” the characters left the house as soon as things got too weird, an ultimately fruitless decision, but welcome in a genre so heavy laden with idiotic decisions. Comparatively, “The Conjuring” writes the notion off with one quick line of dialogue, a metaphor about stepping in gum so thin, it comes off as laughable, especially when it comes from the so-called demonologist experts who should be able to explain it better.

When all is said and done, “The Conjuring” is a huge disappointment. Early buzz was positive and it was reportedly deemed so scary by the MPAA that despite its lack of language, sex or violence, it was given an R rating (though this was said by the film’s executive producer and could very well be a clever marketing ploy). But if anything, that’s only going to raise expectations on a film that is anything but terrifying. Horror newbies may get a kick out of it, but if you’re looking for something to truly unnerve you, “The Conjuring” isn’t it.

The Conjuring receives 2/5