Time travel movies generally try to sidestep the fundamental paradox inherent in being able to go back in time: what if you change things and as a result aren’t born? You’ve seen the films where the family portrait slowly fades as one or more children are “unborn” (think Back to the Future), but still, most sci-fi films avoid the issue because it can undermine the sappy love story or whatever else is going on narratively.
Go back and read the original time travel story, Verne’s classic The Time Machine and you’ll see how he side-stepped the issue rather neatly. Verne’s the exception, however, and most scriptwriters are just stumped by the genre’s challenges.
But just as Chris Nolan’s brilliant film Inception took a deep dive into the temporal paradoxes associated with dreams and dreaming, so does the Spierig brothers’ new indie sci-fi film Predestination leap headlong into the greatest paradox associated with time travel: meeting your parents. With its quasi-steampunk sensibilities and nimble cuts between the 1940s, 70s and 80s, Predestination also has an ambience that’s very reminiscent of yet another brilliant sci-fi film: Gattica, perhaps with a bit of Dark City mixed in for mood.
Predestination revolves around the Temporal Agent known as “The Barkeep” (Ethan Hawke) who has been sent on a complicated set of journeys through the 20th Century to prevent an urban terrorist known as “The Fizzle Bomber” from killing thousands of people. His boss is the shadowy Mr. Robertson (Noah Taylor), who shows up in the most mysterious ways and directs The Barkeep to accomplish various unsavory tasks in different time periods, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Who is he and what are his motivations?
No film has garnered as much controversy this year than the crass, sophomoric comedy The Interview, about American interview TV show host Dave Skylark (James Franco) being invited to North Korea to interview leader Kim Jung-Un (Randall Park), just be tasked by the CIA to assassinate Jung-Un. This is the film that almost wasn’t released: Production company Sony Films was allegedly hacked by North Koreans and warned not to release the film. They capitulated and five days prior to release announced the cancellation of the film. Then the day before Christmas — its scheduled release date — Sony announced that The Interview would be released both into theaters and through various video on demand channels, including Google Play and YouTube.
Unfortunately, it’s not worth the wait or drama. In fact, The Interview is a stupid movie that could have been amusing but ends up so stuck in the sophomoric, the worst of modern American humor that trades wit for drunken banter and sexual banter, that it’s quite forgettable.
The film starts by documenting the ten year, 1000 episode Dave Skylark Show, hosted by Skylark and produced by his best friend Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen). Rapoport bumps into a former classmate who’s now senior producer on 60 Minutes and that gets him thinking about serious journalism, so when Skylark bursts into his office to share that North Korean supreme leader Kim Jung-Un loves Big Bang Theory and The Dave Skylark Show, they contact the North Koreans to request an opportunity to interview Jung-Un.
It’s tricky to translate musicals onto the big screen for a modern audience, which is why we rarely see them at the local cineplex. Les Miserables was an exception and surprised a lot of people with its strong box office performance, but it’s hard to think about another recent live action musical that was worth watching.
Following its previous hit, the Disney musical Into the Woods is unsurprisingly similar to Les Miserables with its superb sets and star-studded cast. The biggest difference is that Into the Woods has a sly, twisted sense of humor about its source material that proves a great addition, turning this into one of the most delightful films of the year.
The story revolves around a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who are desperate to have a child but cannot conceive. They learn from the neighborhood evil witch (Meryl Streep) that he’s actually cursed to remain childless, the end of his family line, but if they can collect a set of magical totems by the next full moon that the witch can lift the curse. Maybe.
Interwoven into the story is the hapless Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of beanstalk fame, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and even an amusingly vain Prince Charming (Chris Pine).
You know the stories. Jack sells a cow to get magic beans, which grow into a massive beanstalk that he climbs to find treasure. Little Red Riding Hood stops by the baker to get treats for Granny in the woods, then encounters a strange and alarming Wolf (Johnny Depp) en route. She also bumps into Cinderella running away from the castle, pursued by Prince Charming and his brother, another prince (Billy Magnussen) who only has eyes for Rapunzel, who has to let down her golden hair because she’s trapped in a tower deep in the woods.
There’s always been a slightly uncomfortable relationship between the voyeuristic viewer and the pandering filmmaker, whether it’s highbrow cinema, big-budget television, crass pornography or the nightly TV news. During the Vietnam War, the great debate was whether to show the bodies of soldiers killed in the conflict on television, but in our collective zeal for that which is salacious we’ve made that question quaint and dated: now the modern TV news watchword is “if it bleeds, it leads.”
In Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a drifter, loser and petty thief, and when he stumbles into the voyeuristic world of independent video news stringers, he’s hooked. It’s perfect for his skills and strengths: he’s brilliant, manipulative, and completely amoral. Los Angeles TV news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is the real villain of the film, however, as she exploits Bloom’s newfound fascination by buying and airing his most gruesome and grisly footage. Her only question before including it in the nightly news is “will we get sued?”
Nightcrawler is a dark film about the seamy underbelly of American culture that challenges us to look in the mirror and ask if we are part of the problem, if we are drawn to blood and hooked on fear, if we are the audience who watches the footage Bloom sells to Romina.
In its cynicism, Nightcrawler is similar to the HBO series The Newsroom, with its similarly dark view of the manipulation inherent in a system that must filter hundreds of stories to determine which should “lead” the show. We’d like to think that decision is predicated on what’s most important but there’s a certain inevitability that the final decision is frequently instead made based on ratings.
I’ll start out by assuring you that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is really good, a satisfying ending to director Peter Jackson’s trilogy of Hobbit movies. Smaug is vanquished, Bilbo returns to the Shire, and the dwarves emerge victorious from the epic battle between the forces of good, the forces of evil and the greed that Smaug’s massive gold horde produces in even the least covetous.
If you’ve read the book you already know the basics of the tale, a story far simpler than The Lord of the Rings trilogy. By splitting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into a trilogy, Jackson created lots of space for narrative discourse, for new characters (like the wonderful Tauriel), and for side stories that create an even richer and more interesting Middle Earth. All of this comes to fruition in The Battle of the Five Armies.
The second installment of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug, ended with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the rest of the dwarves realizing they’ve failed to kill the monstrous dragon Smaug. He’s furious and is heading towards Laketown to wreak his terrible vengeance, even as Laketown resident Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), the man most likely to kill the dragon, is imprisoned and is forced to watch the destruction through the window of his cell.
Unlike the transition from the first film — An Unexpected Journey — to the second, the switch from #2 to The Battle of the Five Armies is remarkably seamless, picking up exactly where the second ends. Smaug must clearly be killed, but once he dies, word travels quickly through Middle Earth that his massive horde of gold and treasure is up for grabs.
When it comes to back stories, there’s no work more frequently tapped than The Bible. A rich document with thousands of stories, it’s produced solid cinema, like 1956’s The Ten Commandments, 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, 1959’s terrific Ben-Hur, the silly fun of Life of Brian from 1979, and even daft reinterpretations like the recent Noah [read my review of Noah]. There’s something inherently epic about the mythic story of the origin of humanity, and the story of Exodus (from the Biblical book of the same name) has every element you’d want in a great drama.
Which is why it’s surprising how poorly director Ridley Scott did with Exodus: Gods and Kings.
In the spirit of the holidays, however, let’s start with what’s right: the look of the film is gorgeous and the visual effects are extraordinarily effective. Indeed, this is the first film where the plagues are portrayed in a horrific manner that helps propel the narrative forward and helps demonstrate how obstinate Pharaoh Rameses (Joel Edgerton) was as the God of Moses sends increasingly nasty creatures and events to the Kingdom of Egypt.
The death of the firstborn male child — a plague perhaps macabrely commemorated in the Jewish holiday of Passover — was particularly well portrayed as Rameses, a loving father to his young son, stands vigil over the boy’s bed just to fall asleep and awaken to his young corpse.
The basic storyline is compelling: it’s a dystopic future and the totalitarian government that controls everything keeps a tight lid on the twelve outlying Districts with the annual Hunger Games. Each district must send two children chosen at random, and when District 12’s choice is Prim Everdeen (Willow Shields), her big sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) courageously volunteers to go in her place. The first film in the series, The Hunger Games, is about the Games, but when Katniss and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) win, they are forced into a winners-only Hunger Games rematch: the Quarter Quell, the focus of the second film, Catching Fire.
In this third film, Katniss becomes the reluctant figurehead for the rebels, fighting the central government of Panem as led by the malicious President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The rebels are hiding out in the hardened underground military bunkers of District 13, and their life is joyless, with grey jumpsuits, minimal food rations and lots of rules. They also have video production facilities and a way to broadcast to all the other Districts. Katniss is reluctant, so propaganda expert Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the severe President Coin (Julianne Moore) must plot how to get Katniss to reprise her role as the Mockingjay, the brave symbol of the rebellion.
Meanwhile, Peeta is held prisoner in the Capital, and much of the film is about his anti-rebellion propaganda broadcasts and the pro-rebel propaganda films Katniss records in response. Peeta still loves Katniss, and Katniss loves him, but the handsome Gale (Liam Hemsworth) loves her too, even as she makes it clear she’s devoted to Peeta. Does it sound like a teen love triangle? It is.
There’s surprisingly little action in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and much of the film transpires within the subterranean confines of District 13 with Katniss complaining that she doesn’t want to be the puppet of the rebellion and Plutarch trying to manipulate her into bringing her fierceness to the “propos” films needed to inspire the rebellion.
Cinema can explore the most intimate of topics or the grandest, and sometimes the stories can be connected in surprising ways. How much difference is there between our relationship to each other and our relationship with the universe after all? It’s the intersection between these two core stories that makes Interstellar one of the most powerful films of 2014 and one of the best science fiction films of a very long time.
The film is set in a dismal near future where horrendous dust storms decimate food and humankind is dying for something to eat. Wheat has died from blight, then the last okra crop is destroyed. The one remaining grain left to feed man is corn, and civilization has become focused on care-taking, not innovation, while technology is feared and discredited.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) runs a dusty, ramshackle ranch, along with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), his teen son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and his bright and adoring daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Before the bad times, Cooper had been a test pilot with NASA and when Murph suspects that there’s a ghost in her bedroom, she and “Coop” eventually realize the ghostly message is map coordinates that lead them to a secret research facility. The base is the last remnant of an earlier technological age, where Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) work with a team of scientists to figure out how to leave Earth and spread to the stars.
I love the 1956 film Around the World in Eighty Days, a remarkable travelogue of a film by first-time producer Michael Todd, based on the terrific Jules Verne book of the same name. My kids have seen it multiple times too, and it’s become a family favorite with its action, adventure, dancing, romance and beautiful world-hopping story. One of the very best parts of the film is the manservant Passepartout, played by the popular Mexican actor Cantinflas.
But who was Cantinflas? That’s what the 2014 art house biopic Cantinflas sets out to explore. Primarily in subtitled Spanish, it offers an art-deco sensibility as we meet Mario Moreno (Oscar Jaenada), a young clown of a man who sought first a career as a boxer, then as a stage actor. It was while deflecting cat-calls from the audience one evening that a drunk tent show attendee accused Moreno of being a cantina-fly (the Spanish-language equivalent of a “barfly”). “Cantinflas? Okay, call me Cantinflas!” he says in jest, and the audience loves it.
Through a series of mishaps and a journey propelled by his ego that was certainly visually inspired by the long, slow burn of Charles Kane in the brilliant Citizen Kane, we see his gaining stature as an entertainer through the ever-increasing size of his name on the marquee and his rocky relationship with beautiful Russian dancer Valentina Ivanova (Ilse Salas).
Some films lend themselves to the constraints of indie films with their lower budgets, slower pace and generally more claustrophobic sensibility. You can’t create Transformers or Inception on a shoestring. Fortunately, LFO is one of the indie films where it all really works perfectly, offering up a dark, twisted and wry sci-fi parable for our times.
LFO tells the story of Robert (Patrik Karlson), a reclusive and troubled sound engineer who creates a hypnotic sound wave that instantly puts people into a passive, hyper-suggestive state when heard. But Robert is a twisted and bitter guy who has “sound allergies” to certain kinds of music — at one point he destroys their stereo because his wife Clara (Ahnna Rasch) is listening to meditative yoga music — and his thoughts turn immediately to manipulation when he realizes what he’s invented.
The primary victims are his guileless neighbors Linn (Izabelle Jo Tschig) and Simon (Per Lofberg) who are programmed in increasingly bizarre, and often amusing, ways. Unsurprisingly, Robert begins by convincing Linn that she is desperate to have sex with him, just to be surprised when she then says just that and they end up in the bedroom, naked.