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.
War is inherently cinematic. The stark comparison between good and bad, the grey areas of moral or amoral behavior, the stripping away of the thin veneer of civilization and civilized behavior, and the historical replay — or reinvention — of heinous situations. It’s no wonder that for any given war there are dozens if not hundreds of films. No war has been covered more thoroughly than World War II, however, with its deep and profound impact on all peoples and all corners of the globe.
The grand sweep of the war has been covered effectively before, but it’s the ability to zero in on an individual, on one person’s journey through the horrors of war that makes a film most effective. It was our ability to experience the Normandy Invasion and subsequent tour of the battlefield through the eyes of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in the superb, intense Saving Private Ryan that made that film so powerful.
Similarly, Fury is about the experiences of raw recruit Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who is dumped into Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt)’s platoon as assistant driver for the big tank. But Ellison’s been trained to be a typist back at HQ and he’s not combat ready. Worse, he is a threat to the safety of the other men in the tank nicknamed “Fury”: if he can’t become as callous and aggressive towards the Germans as the rest of the crew, they could all end up dead.
While the popular mythology of vampires seems to be all sparkly and romantic (to wit, the banal Twilight series) the creatures themselves have a darker past, tapping into a mythic, archetypal fear of things that stir in the dark. Modern beliefs stem from 1890’s author Bram Stoker and his sensational book Dracula, but the myth is widely believed to have been based on the life of 15th Century nobleman Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia and member of the House of Draculesti. A bloodthirsty and vicious soldier, he was dubbed Vlad the Impaler for his habit of impaling his enemies on stakes, sometimes hundreds at a time.
Dracula Untold explores a different sort of origin story for this well known villain and mainstay of hundreds of horror movies: as a boy who was torn from his family and taught by the Persians to be a heartless unthinking killer. Finally released from the service of the Sultan, Vlad (Luke Evans) goes back to his family castle in Transylvania and vows to never again let the Persians take boys from his kingdom to turn into soldiers. Ten years later, he’s brought peace to the kingdom, has a beautiful wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and a handsome son Ingeras (Art Parkinson), and is even a reluctant Christian.
Then during an Easter celebration, the Turkish envoy arrives for the customary annual tribute of silver coins. And – no surprise – an additional 1000 boys to be trained by the Turks as soldiers. Vlad travels to the Turkish camp to beg Turkish Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) not to insist on the conscription of the boys. Mehmed laughs and says that it’s now “1000 and 1″ because he wants to have Vlad’s son Ingeras by his side, not with his mother and father.
Whistle-blowers are rarely appreciated, even when we desperately want to know the story and get the inside scoop on what’s happening. It’s not just true in real life, it’s a trope of cinema too, from Cloud Atlas to The China Syndrome, if you go public with what’s really going on in your company or organization, it generally doesn’t end well.
Kill the Messenger examines one of the most shocking misuses of power to ever come out of that most corrupt of agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency: In the 1990’s, the CIA was helping Nicaraguan rebels by helping Central American drug smugglers bring cocaine into the United States.
Or were they?
That’s the puzzle that’s incompletely examined in this otherwise powerful and fact-based thriller about San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), who has the story dumped on his lap by drug traffickers girlfriend Coral Baca (Paz Vega) when she gives him a confidential Grand Jury transcript that reveals the link between the CIA and the smugglers. He digs in to the story with a vengeance and finally convinces his editor Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he publishes in the SJ Mercury. And wins both a Pulitzer Prize and the award for journalist of the year.
At the brink of human destruction, with almost all of the Earth’s population killed by a massive increase in solar storms, one city remains. It’s humanity’s last gasp, complete with artificial cloud cover created and managed by the primitive Automata Pilgrim 7000 robots. Millions of them. All working to keep the last vestige of humanity alive.
In a nod to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the millions of robots in this dismal future world are ruled by two inalterable, built-in security protocols: Robots are prohibited from harming any form of life and Robots cannot alter themselves or any other robots. But what if they started modifying themselves anyway?
Automata is a dark and intriguing dystopic sci-fi film that’s just as much about Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) searching for his humanity as it is about the singularity, the point at which artificial intelligence becomes self-aware and acts upon it. With his stark Bulgarian post-industrial exteriors and harsh lighting, Spanish director Gabe Ibanez delivers a smart, original sci-fi thriller about evolution and the sunset of humankind on Earth.
Children’s films are generally pretty darn benign, with little tension and few intense visual effects or scenes. Yeah, sure, the hero’s in peril from the monster or bad guy, but most children’s films take the Disney way out of 95% sweet, fun, light and 5% tension. Don’t want to scare the kiddies, after all. Except drama is all about tensions, and great storytelling is all about the protagonist being threatened and having to figure out how to overcome.
A few years ago, the stop-motion animated feature Coraline offered just such a dark vision, a compelling and visually inventive story from the splendid Neil Gaiman about a girl whose parents were more interested in their work than her, so she explores their new home and finds a mirror world where those parents pay lots of attention to her. I was blown away by Coraline when I first saw it and the animators awareness of the audience offers up some really splendid scenes. ParaNorman came next from the production company and I was far less taken by that story about a boy fighting ghosts, zombies and grown-ups to save his town.
The BoxTrolls is the third film from this production team, another stop-motion animation film, and it’s utterly delightful. There’s a wonderful steampunk feel running through the entire story and it’s not only another dark and creepy film, but there’s tons of funny and self-aware dialog, even scenes where the characters make a comment then look at you, the audience, to see if you got the joke or the sight gag. And then there’s the surprisingly metaphysical sequence slipped into the closing titles that had everyone at the screening laughing appreciatively.
It’s a dystopic, post-apocalyptic future and teens are being picked on again. They’re not the keeper of the community’s memories, they aren’t supposed to kill each other, they’re just stuck in this massive concrete and steel edifice with only their own wits and guile to make it through each day. In fact, some of the teen boys — and it’s all boys, for no obvious reason — have been in The Glade for years, trying to eke out sustenance while avoiding The Maze. Yes, in case you haven’t figured it out, they’re all stuck in the middle of this massive maze.
Everything revolves around the newest “greenie”, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), who has appeared in the Glade exactly how everyone else has: via a freight elevator that comes up to the surface from a subterranean complex. He’s different than the other boys (of course!) in that he’s driven to figure out what’s going on, what the Maze is all about and why they’re stuck there. The status quo, a fragile society built by old-timer Gally (Will Poulter), Thomas finds completely unacceptable, with its caste system and fear of exploration.
There are a group of boys called Maze Runners who dash into the massive Maze every morning, running up and down the different lanes to map it all out and find a way out. But they have to be swift: the maze closes and leaves the boys in the glade isolated every night at sunset. Anyone left inside the maze at night is killed by the Grievers. Maze, meet Minotaur.
This is a guest piece by film buff Alexander Bailey…
The moment I heard about the Jesse Stone movie series, I was instantly reminded of the Alex Cross book and movie series. I did what any self-respecting movie lover would do and fired up Netflix to compare them.
The first film in the Stone series is Stone Cold (2005) and the first Cross film is the self-titled Alex Cross (2012). The two have an almost eerily similar premise: A bad to the bone, take nothing from nobody, super detective fights a vicious serial killer who makes the hunt personal. The stories take you through the cat and mouse game of police officers who have both experienced great personal loss as part of catching infamous criminals who had evaded the rest of the police force.
The similarities between these two movies are so comprehensive that writing about the differences is going to be a challenge. Let’s start with their family lives. Both of the detectives were married, and both of them lost their wives. Stone lost his to divorce and Cross lost his wife to a killer he was pursuing. More similarities unfold during the rising action of Stone Cold, when Stone’s girlfriend at the time is murdered. Just like in the Cross movies, the murder was vengeful, done by a killer he was pursuing.