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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

Two big Oscar hopefuls and a middling Mockingjay

12/03/2014

Gerald Schmitz As the Oscar wars heat up, the past month has seen the release of several almost certain best-picture nominees and a sure-fire franchise fattening box-office bottom lines. Here’s my verdict.


Interstellar


Director Christopher Nolan’s ambitious new epic, co-written with his brother Jonathan, is, in a word, stellar. And using that rarity, traditional celluloid filmstock (both 35mm and 70mm), every minute of its 169 looks amazing — worth seeing in Imax for the full effect.

Combining deep emotional resonance with far-out theoretical physics, Interstellar’s potent screen alchemy becomes a futuristic love story defying conventional limitations of time and space. Start with a farm family in the American heartland (actually southern Alberta) struggling to grow food as Earth is ravaged by crop blight and frequent dust storms.

Civilization has regressed in the face of famine; forget about exploring technological frontiers. So ace test-pilot engineer and aspiring astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is back growing corn to survive. A widower, he’s raising 15-year-old Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and precocious 10-year-old Murph (Mackenzie Foy) with the help of father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow).

Laments Cooper: “We used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars, now we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt.” That’s when a series of happenings and Murph’s preternatural awareness literally drive the narrative in a cosmic direction. Father and daughter locate a top-secret facility in which the remnants of NASA are engaged in no less a project than finding a replacement planet for earthlings threatened with extinction. The brains behind the operation belong to aging Professor Brand (Michael Caine), continuing a lifetime of research to solve the mysteries of gravity reconciling relativity with quantum physics, and his scientist daughter Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway). There’s a plan A to save all humanity and a Plan B to colonize a new planet with frozen human embryos. After discovering a “wormhole” rift in space-time near Saturn, allowing travel across vast light-year distances, a decade earlier 12 brave souls were sent on a Lazarus probe to investigate planets in a faraway galaxy. With Earth’s habitable threshold looming, it’s time for a new decisive mission to dock with the space station Endurance and proceed several years into the Saturn-orbiting entry point to new possible worlds.

Cooper becomes the chosen one to lead it, alongside the younger Brand, two other crew members, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), as well as droll robot TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) whose rescue and transmitting efforts will become crucial when crossing a final extra-dimensional frontier into a black hole named Gargantua. A black hole is a “singularity” with a gravitational mass so dense that not even light can escape it. The filmmakers drew on the expertise of physicist Kip Thorne who has a book out on the science behind Interstellar’s seemingly implausible developments.

Indeed, as The New York Times David Brooks observes, central to the movie’s hopeful outcome is the notion of “quantum entanglement” in which interconnection, as in the force of human love, remains possible across great expanses of space-time.

Before that though there is initial trauma — Murph is inconsolable about her father leaving despite his promise to return — followed much later by several major deceptions. One of these occurs on an icebound planet where Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), sole survivor of the apostolic 12 Lazarus pioneers, nearly sabotages everything. The bigger lie belongs to the dying Prof. Brand (hint: what Plan A?). It will be up to the grownup Murph (Jessica Chastain) as NASA scientist to overcome the personal and astrophysical challenges, saving humanity from its folly through future encounters with a father who can appear much younger due to differences in gravitational relativity. (The grownup Tom, played by Casey Affleck, has a lesser role in a flurry of sequences alternating between earthbound and galactic dilemmas.)

If not as revolutionary as Kubrick’s still astonishing 2001: A Space Odyssey (Nolan’s favourite movie), Interstellar outdoes last year’s Gravity considerably. What makes it special are the intense humanistic qualities — McConaughey, superb as Cooper, heads a strong cast — that add gravitas to thrilling sci-fi spectacle. As if to say: Never doubt the gravitational power of love.


Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


This has been some year for tour-de-force dramas about aging washed-up actors clawing their way back: Al Pacino in The Humbling, Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria, Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars. But Michael Keaton in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s savagely satirical Birdman tops them all. Keaton, who was once cast as Batman, plays Riggan Thomson, an ex-superhero (a.k.a. Birdman) having abandoned Hollywood fame and fortune after nixing a franchise fourth instalment. Desperate to regain self-respect and recognition he’s putting it on the line as actor-director mounting an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in Broadway’s venerable St. James Theatre.

Thomson’s life is a high-wire mess, plagued by a deep-throated inner voice that either mocks his pathetic circumstances or tempts him to soar once more. His ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) reproaches him for being a terrible father to their daughter Sam (Emma Stone), whom he hires as an assistant fresh from drug rehab. She gets by on sarcastic wit and truth or dares. Sometime lover and cast member Laura (Andrea Riseborough) claims a false pregnancy. When a key actor’s “accident” causes a panic, insecure co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), also making her Broadway debut, gets her squeeze Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to fill the gap, and how — it’s a brilliant turn as the egotistical jerk who’s box-office gold. Keeping the production going through a series of disastrous previews is harried producer/attorney Jake (Zach Galifianakis). Vowing to “kill your play” out of hatred for shallow celebrity culture is NY Times critical maven Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan).

Still, one should expect the unexpected and on opening night it comes with a bang and some bloodletting that isn’t just theatrical, inspiring an unexpected review from Tabitha (hence the movie’s confounding subtitle). Maybe the wounded Thomson can fly again?

Keaton literally bares all in a career-topping performance. While I winced occasionally at profanities and a few ribald moments, overall this is a stunner of acting virtuosity. Equally spellbinding is the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) — the camera gliding in sinuous long takes — and the jazzy drum score by Antonio Sanchez.

Already the recipient of multiple honours, Birdman leads the Independent Spirit Awards with six nominations.


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I


Jennifer Lawrence already has her Oscar, won opposite Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook) with whom she co-stars in Danish director Susanne Bier’s much-delayed Serena (shot in 2012) that’s finally scheduled for an early 2015 North American release. So why worry, right?

Lawrence will ever be heroine-survivor Katniss Everdeen to legions of fans, and doubtless Mockingjay I will rake in a ton of money. (On opening weekend residents of Ottawa-Gatineau could choose from 280 screening times!).

Traumatized and torn by the fate of co-survivor Peeta, Katniss is transported to gaze on the smoking ruins of her native District 12. She’s the chosen one to embody the mockingjay spirit of rebellion against Panem’s dictatorial President Snow (Donald Sutherland) as his overthrow is being plotted by the controlling triumvirate of District 13 led by Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) in league with ex-Capitol game designer Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and wheelchair bound tech-wizard Beetee (Jeffrey Wright). It’s a thin narrative stretched over a couple hours, left hanging with Katniss’s steely-eyed determination troubled by visions of a bound Peeta still in the lurch.

Part II is done, though held for another year to further milk the franchise (thereby extending Hoffman’s screen afterlife, which may be its only virtue). I was intrigued by the first Hunger Games but this third instalment, middling at best, is a letdown. To quote The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy, Mockingjay I “has all the personality of an industrial film. . . . it feels like a manufactured product through and through, ironic and sad given its revolutionary theme.”