Birdman, Whiplash and the percussion of passion

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” –Thomas Merton

“My passions have killed me, and my passions have made me live.” –Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It may be a coincidence that two of the year’s best films feature heavily percussive scores, but it’s an intriguing one. Both Birdman and Whiplash follow the lives of artists who, for good or ill, find their entire identities inextricably linked to their passions for their professions. The increasingly quickening drum beats reflect the characters’ relentless pursuit of perfection in their craft, and the sudden cymbal crash of disappointment when they can’t reach their own impossible, self-imposed goals.

The similarities between Birdman and Whiplash don’t end there. While very different films, they both have something vital to say about what Rousseau and Merton wrote. Great art—the kind that inspires true passion and the desire for perfection—can destroy us, but it can also teach us what it truly means to live. Art is an inherently risky endeavor, and if it does not carry the simultaneous potential for birth and death, creation and destruction, then it is not true art.

Birdman features a relentless, stylized percussive score by Antonio Sanchez. It gives the film a nervous energy that perfectly matches Emmanuel Lubezki’s innovative cinematography, in which the entire film (through some creative editing) is filmed as though it were all one shot. The drum fills click alongside the constantly moving camera, which swirls, dips and pans around its eccentric cast of characters, afraid to miss one breathless moment of the drama that unfolds before us.

What initially seems like an artsy-fartsy gimmick actually reveals itself as a powerful artistic reflection of the minds of its characters. The primary player is Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), who, as an actor attempting a late-career grab at artistic legitimacy, is staging a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. As both director and star, he hopes to prove to the public that he is a “serious” artist. But, as various complications threaten to derail the production before it even opens, the spirit of The Birdman mocks Riggan’s artistic legitimacy and his sanity. Like Keaton himself (who played Batman in Tim Burton’s original films), Riggan has difficult living up to (or living down) his role as a famous superhero. As his identity is torn between artistically fulfilling work and commercial success, the movie begins to blur the line between reality and fantasy.

Thankfully, Birdman is about far more than Riggan. Taking place entirely in and around a New York theater, the camera captures plenty of other fascinating subjects in this oddball theater community. There’s Riggan’s exasperated agent (Zack Galifianakis, funny but more subtle than normal), his demanding co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), his other co-star and lover, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and his daughter Sam (a brilliant Emma Stone), fresh out of drug rehab and helping out as a production assistant. This tight-knit group is rocked by the arrival of big-shot actor Mike Shiner, who is brought in last-minute to play a lead character and begins to bring out the best and worst in his fellow actors.

Birdman looks at the value of true, lasting art, and how the pursuit of it affects both individuals and communities of artists.

Birdman looks at the value of true, lasting art, and how the pursuit of it affects both individuals and communities of artists.

In Birdman’s community of artists, no character feels “supporting” or “minor.”  Because the nonstop camera frequently leaves characters in the middle of conversations to go spy on others, we get a fascinating milieu of emotions and perspectives as all the characters get to speak their mind and share their perspectives. Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu seems very much occupied with artistic identity, and the way that a community can be wrapped up, body and soul, in a common artistic goal. Of course, opinions vary wildly over how that goal should be met.

The film also reminds me of Billy Joel’s classic album The Stranger, and the way we all wear masks of some sort to hide our true selves. In particular, Mike only feels truly “alive” when he is on stage (in a hilarious segment, he gets a little too into an on-stage bedroom scene, after commenting that he hadn’t been able to “get it up” in years). In varying ways, these actors have become so reliant on their artistic identities that they have difficult functioning in real, human relationships. Riggan’s obsession with his own ego and artistic legacy pushed away Sam, who turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with an absent father. We get the feeling that these characters have possibly lived entire lives of artifice, but, during two thrilling hours, everything is put on the table.

A true sign of a great film is when every scene feels important, and Birdman passes this test with flying colors. Every conversation, every throwaway line, contributes something; if not to the plot, then to the internal lives of the characters. I suppose not much happens plot-wise, but we still get the distinct feeling that, for these characters, nothing will ever be the same. Birdman is a thrilling testament to the power that art can have in both bringing people together and dividing them, in inspiring the kind of passion that thrills and the kind of passion that kills. It’s all wrapped up in one of the most exciting packages all of modern film has to offer.

Whiplash is about jazz musicians the same way Birdman is about the theater, which is to say that the movie’s commentary on artistic identity goes much farther than its subject matter.

But, as a jazz musician myself, I was immediately drawn to this intimate tale of a young, aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and the relationship with his intimidating and impossibly demanding mentor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). While Birdman is very much interested in the identity of artistic communities, Whiplash feels much more intimate and less sprawling, focusing primarily on the way that the relentless pursuit of artistic greatness affects the life of one young, ambitious 19 year old.

Andrew Neiman, a new student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music, desires to be an all-time great jazz drummer. He spends his days practicing his licks and his nights listening to Buddy Rich records. His goal is to catch the eye of Fletcher and become the go-to drummer for his world-renown jazz ensemble. Soon, Fletcher sees potential in Niemen, and pushes his both psychologically and creatively to be the best he can be. Fletcher’s methods are unorthodox; he screams at his trombone players for not knowing if they’re sharp or flat, and throws chairs at his drummers for not keeping on “his time.” As Fletcher’s ruthless tactics push Niemen to a breaking point, he begins to literally bleed for his art.

In its examination of the pursuit of perfection inherent in many young, passionate musicians, Whiplash is one of the great films about modern musicians; it deserves mention alongside the likes of Once and Almost Famous. As Niemen grows in his craft, he pushes everything else aside, including his promising relationship with his girlfriend and his connection to his father. We see that music, particularly jazz, is an all-consuming beast, commanding the entirety of a musician’s focus to the detriment of everything else.

Whiplash examines the all-consuming passion music can inspire in us, and the disturbing lengths artists can go to to achieve greatness.

Whiplash examines the all-consuming passion music can inspire in us, and the disturbing lengths artists can go to to achieve greatness.

The shadow that hangs over the entire film is Fletcher’s story about the” greatest musician of the 20th century,” Charlie Parker. Parker may have never become “Bird” if a drummer hadn’t thrown a cymbal at his head and told him he sucked. If the drummer had told Parker “the two most dangerous words in the English language: Good job,” Bird may never have been. Fletcher believes that all great art is born of strife, struggle and hardship, but he seems to discount the fact that music, and jazz in particular, can elicit tremendous, indescribable joy. The question for us is whether we agree with him, and does Niemen? We only have one life to live, and the two choices, according to Fletcher, seem to be either miserable and memorable (Parker, a heavy drinker and drug user for most of his career, died at 34) or content and forgotten. The creation of great art, in other words, ruins lives, but its legacy saves many more.

I was ready to passionately disagree with Fletcher’s conclusion, until the film’s haunting final scene, where J.K. Simmons’ brilliant “I told you so” smirk takes on an entirely new and troubling dimension. Why are so many legendary artists also remembered for how miserable they were? Although the “mundane” things in life (family, faith and community) are often those that bring us the greatest joy, they’re often the first things many artists forgo in pursuit of their passion. Why is the choice between life and legacy such a dichotomy for so many?

These questions are beyond what any one film can answer, but rarely have they been raised in such a memorable and thought-provoking way. Birdman and Whiplash seem to understand the mind and soul of an artist better than almost any movie I’ve ever seen. Art, whether it lifts us up or destroys us, is important, and both films take both their artistic implications and their own brilliant filmic artistry very seriously.

There’s one more important thing that great art gives us: a thrill, an exhilarating rush like no other when we realize we are witness true greatness. In great film, like in great theater or great music, we can hear the distinct drive of our hearts beating to the rhythm of awe.

As a bonus, here’s Antonio Sanchez’s incredible percussion work for Birdman.

Mel Brooks Monday: High Anxiety

Alfred Hitchcock once said that puns are the highest form of literature. If that’s true, then Mel Brooks must be Shakespeare.

Case-in-point: High Anxiety, Brooks’ hilarious send-up of classic Hitchcock thrillers. Although it takes a lot of shots and gets a lot of laughs, I see this movie as more of a love letter to everything Hitchcock than a spoof of his movies (the opening credits dedicate the movie to “the master of suspense”). Like all of Brooks’ enduring works, it is an interesting look into the movies and experiences that shaped him as a filmmaker.

High Anxiety plays like an almost perfect replica of a classic Hitchcock thriller, with so many references to the master it’s tough to catch them all in one sitting. Everything is here, from the could-it-be-murder plot to the California locations to the Bernard Herrmann-esque score by John Morris.

High Anxiety is an absolute treat for Hitchcock fans.

High Anxiety is an absolute treat for Hitchcock fans.

Brooks casts himself as renown psychiatrist Richard Thorndyke (instead of Roger Thornhill), who is flown out to L.A. to take over as head of a mental hospital (The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous). The previous director, Dr. Ashley, died under mysterious circumstances, and the sharply dressed Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) thought he was a shoo-in to take over until Thorndyke was called in. Not long after he settles in, Thorndyke suspects that not everything is as it should be. Patients that should be completely cured are acting even more insane than before (one thinks he’s a cocker spaniel), and both Montague and the menacing Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) seem to be hiding something from him. Combine the intrigue with Thorndyke’s crippling case of High Anxiety (instead of Vertigo) and you have a recipe worthy of the master of suspense.

Brooks was wise to cast himself in the lead role. Besides To Be or Not to Be, this is his finest performance in any of his own films. He’s perfectly believable as a brilliant psychiatrist that somehow still manages to be a clueless-yet-lovable doofus. His Thorndyke has that unique combination of charm and folly that typified Hitchcock’s most relatable protagonists. The great Harvey Korman is also back, and almost as cartoonishly evil as he was in Blazing Saddles. He is, once again, uproarious. Leachman and Madeline Kahn, who shows up as a classic Hitchcock blonde, are also perfectly cast in juicy supporting roles.

The movie’s greatest joy comes from its cavalcade of sequences riffing on classic Hitchcock scenes. My favorite is Brooks’ take on the shower scene from Psycho, but there’s also sequences cut straight from Vertigo, North by Northwest and The Birds, among others. The physical comedy on display is elaborate and sophisticated; it never feels cheap. Any Hitchcock fan will get a huge kick out of Brooks’ vast, geeky Hitchcock knowledge (one scene even mentions a “Mr. McGuffin”).

Perhaps inspired by one of the greatest directors who ever lived, Brooks even channels Hitchcock’s artistic eye by making his most visually accomplished movie to date. His eye for composition is uncharacteristically astute, filling the movie with creative pans, zooms and odd angles (the constantly moving camera even becomes the butt of one of the movie’s funniest running jokes).

As a Hitchcock fan, I can’t help but categorize High Anxiety as one of my favorite Mel Brooks movies. Anyone not familiar with the famed director’s work might find significantly less to enjoy. But the highest compliment I can pay the film is that it comes off less as a spoof of Hitchcock than a very, very funny caper that could have come from the master himself.

Mel Brooks Monday: Silent Movie

You have to admire a filmmaker who immediately admits the fact that no one wants to watch his movie. At least, that appears to be the gag behind Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, which is, well…silent.

Brooks stars as washed up, alcoholic movie director Mel Funn, who cruises around Hollywood with an odd band of cohorts (Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman) while getting into various shenanigans. But Funn has been planning his comeback, the first silent movie in decades. When he takes it to a near-bankrupt studio chief (Sid Caesar), he gets a predictable response; laughter, followed by an “are you serious?” look. “Nobody wants a silent movie,” he says, adding that “slapstick is dead” (this of course results in the chief’s chair being dragged across the room…with him still in it). The chief reluctantly agrees to produce the silent film if Mel can convince the biggest stars in Hollywood to sign on. Meanwhile, menacing executives with the totally-not-obvious names of Engulf and Devour (Harold Gould and Ron Carey) want to watch the studio go down in flames so they can buy it out. Which means Mel’s movie must never see the light of day.

Leave it to Mel Brooks to wrap a gimmick (silent movie) around a thin story (even by his standards) and spin gold out of it. This movie is insanely funny, and much of that has to do with the fact that it is, indeed, silent (with the exception of one very memorable word). Brooks plays with a lot of silent movie tropes, including cue cards, which rarely match up with the exaggerated movements of the characters’ mouths.

Silent Movie gets big laughs despite its gimmicky premise.

Silent Movie gets big laughs despite its gimmicky premise.

With a silent film, Brooks has to get by on visual gags, since there can be no verbal jokes. So he goes for broke, creating some of the more elaborate slapstick of his career. Funn, Eggs and Bell are essentially the Three Stooges, and they act like it; they’re gloriously, almost impossibly dumb.  This would throw most people off if Brooks didn’t bring along two of the most gifted physical comedians in the business. Dom DeLuise gets jokes that are as good as or better than anything in The Twelve Chairs, and Feldman’s unique look and comedic rhythms prove he can carry a movie without talking.

Much of the movie’s running time is devoted to the gang’s attempts at recruiting major celebrities, and each one is more elaborate and hilarious than the last. The guest stars are also brilliant; none of them showed up just to phone in a cameo. My favorite sequences include breaking in to Burt Reynolds’ house and trying to sit down at a table with Liza Minnelli while dressed in a full suit of armor (one of the funniest sequences in all Brooks films).

The movie is admittedly pretty fluffy, perhaps a case of style over substance, but what style! I particularly like the movie’s brilliant use of sound effects; without any dialogue, the filmmakers were able to let their imaginations run wild. But I actually think there is some depth in the film’s subtext. By making a silent movie that nobody wanted to see, it seems like Brooks was expressing fears over his own decreasing artistic viability in an environment obsessed with commercial success. I don’t know if that’s true, but I see that subtle commentary slinking under the surface.

I imagine Brooks probably gets a kick out of the fact that his movie turned out to be oddly prescient. He made a silent film at a time when they were neither commercially or artistically viable. Yet, 35 years later, a silent film would bridge both commerce and art by winning an Oscar for Best Picture. So, really, while Silent Movie was 35 years too late, it also, in the grand scheme of history, was 35 years ahead of its time. That’s an observation deserving of the finest Mel Brooks riff.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 review

When judging the success of a franchise “midquel,” such as The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, I ask two primary questions. Does the movie get me excited for the next film in the series? And, more importantly, does it stand on its own as a complete and compelling work? The third film in the hugely popular Hunger Games franchise answers the first question with a solid “yes.” As for the second question…kind of?

Most of the confusion comes from Lionsgate Studios’ seemingly financial impetus to split the final Hunger Games book into two parts. After the success of two-part splits in the final chapters of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, it’s easy to understand the desire to milk a franchise for an extra movie and an extra $800 million global gross. With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I think the decision made some artistic sense, given that book’s formidable length. But Mockingjay is only 400 pages; does the movie adaptation make an argument for splitting the final chapter in half?

We meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she continues to be psychologically tormented by the memories of the brutal Hunger Games and the fact that her home, District 12, has been completely destroyed. But she has little time to rest, as her actions in the previous film have inspired whispers of revolution among Panem’s districts, rallying against the vindictive President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The leaders of the revolution, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Havensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final roles), want to use Katniss as a symbol to turn the peoples’ rebellious thoughts into actions.

But President Snow has his own weapon; Peeta Mellark, Katniss’ fellow Hunger Games survivor and possible love interest, who was kidnapped by the Capitol and is now telling the districts to lay down their arms and surrender. Has Peeta turned to the dark side, or is there something more sinister afoot?

Much of the film consists of a Public Relations war between the Capitol and the rebels, with each salvo more potent than the last. But humming under the surface is the knowledge that words will only get them so far; the revolution is certainly televised, but it must eventually go beyond that into outright war. Nonetheless, the movie does a good job of conveying the power of words and images in guiding the hearts and minds of people.

Mockingjay Part 1 is an effective sci-fi thriller, but it sometimes struggles to justify the decision to split the final book into two movies.

Mockingjay Part 1 is an effective sci-fi thriller, but it sometimes struggles to justify the decision to split the final book into two movies.

As most of the book’s action has been saved for part two, there is a lot of talking and crying in this movie, as various characters set up a sure-to-be-epic finale. But the movie isn’t all big breath and no plunge; there’s some real depth here. I appreciate the filmmakers’ boldness to allow the film to be boring, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. This is a slowly paced film, but it’s also shorter than its predecessors. Without worrying about completing a full story, the characters are allowed to breathe and develop with little concern for running along to the next plot point (an issue that plagued some of the earlier Harry Potter films). I appreciate how much screen time is devoted to Katniss’ mental anguish and the psychological torment of leadership.

There is also a distinct lack of Hunger Games in this Hunger Games movie, which is both good and bad. In Catching Fire, I was almost disappointed when we had to go back to the arena after getting wrapped up in the political intrigue of the districts and the ideological tug-of-war between Katniss and President Snow. Here, we get a lot more politics and a lot less sci-fi. The downside is that it makes for a pretty visually bland movie. Without any exotic game locales, we get lots of drab corridors and meeting rooms, with lighting so dim it can sometimes be difficult to see what’s going on. Even the few outdoor scenes have a drab, generic, gray dystopia tone to them, a tired visual aesthetic that Catching Fire wisely avoided.

The movie does feature two major actions set pieces, and they are both excellent. They feel much more realistic and grounded in reality than anything in the arena, and are that much more exciting for it. A tactical espionage rescue effort near the end could have come straight out of a Mission Impossible film.

The standout feature here is the caliber of the acting, which helps to atone for the movie’s sometimes slack pacing and drab cinematography. Jennifer Lawrence has several scenes of quiet anguish that are flat-out brilliant, especially when contrasted with the tightly controlled and manipulated performance she is asked to give for the rebels’ camera. Her ability to show a strange combination of fear, anger and sadness, even without dialogue, is truly remarkable. It’s a performance I can’t praise highly enough. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last roles, shows us what made him so brilliant. When he smiles, we don’t necessarily see happiness, but rather a layer of emotions we can’t quite figure out. His Plutarch is playful yet righteous, determined yet willing to have fun in the process. It’s a complex performance befitting one of the book’s strongest characters. And Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta, is brilliant; I think there was a lot to criticize in his performance in the original Hunger Games, but here he is asked to plumb the dark depths of Peeta’s deepest fears. It’s a performance so good it made me appreciate and connect with the character in a way the books never did. We also get a bit more depth from Finnick Odair (Sam Clalflin, also perfectly cast).

Alas, the unfinished nature of the story leaves several characters with little to do (at least until the next film). Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) returns, as does a now-sober Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), but, while these two were a major highlight of the previous films, they’re now reduced to small parts that almost constitute walk-on roles. Julianne Moore gets very little meat as rebel President Coin; much of her screen time is devoted to giving a series of speeches and looking flustered. Plutarch’s crack PR camera team introduces us to new characters, including film director Cressida (Natalie Dormer), but they seem like little more than background props. And, no matter how hard Liam Hemsworth tries, hunky love interest Gale will always be as bland as Wheat Thins.

This is where I come to a bit of an impasse regarding Mockingjay: Part 1. In a way, it’s supposed to feel like half a movie—that’s what will get you coming back to the theater for part two. But it still feels like a lot of setup for a finale that hasn’t yet arrived, and it leaves some characters in the lurch as they wait around to do something interesting in the next movie. I expect, much like with the final two Harry Potter films, part one will find greater appreciation when it stands alongside its companion film. But the filmmakers are asking us to see it as one movie, so we must engage it as such. I can’t help but think that one three (or even three and a half) hour Mockingjay movie would have been excellent. But, for half a movie, part 1 is still thought-provoking and occasionally thrilling sci-fi filmmaking.

Mel Brooks Monday: Young Frankenstein

Today, it’s hard to imagine a time when a horror movie spoof seemed novel. Seemingly endless Scary Movie sequels and other efforts such as A Haunted House are about as tired and unfunny as you could imagine. Thankfully, 1974 was that time, and Young Frankenstein was that spoof. But, while Young Frankenstein is very funny, what truly makes it stand out even today is its faithfulness to its source material. Although it is very much a riff on Mary Shelley’s classic monster story, it’s also, ironically, probably the best adaptation of the story ever filmed (even while it’s not really the story at all).

That might sound confusing, but seeing Mel Brooks’ follow-up to Blazing Saddles is believing. Brooks wisely re-casts Gene Wilder, this time as the main character, the titular Dr. Frankenstein. But he is not Victor Frankenstein but rather his grandson, Frederick, a well-respected neuroscientist. Frederick is living in the shadow of his infamous grandfather, who he tells people was a crackpot for believing dead tissue could become living matter and creating an abomination in the process. He attempts to disassociate himself from his troubled legacy by insisting people call him FRONK-EN-STEEN. But, after he inherits his grandad’s Transylvanian estate, he finds himself drawn to Victor’s research and becomes obsessed with recreating his experiments. He enlists the hunchbacked grandson of Igor, Frankenstein’s infamous assistant (Marty Feldman), who insists he be called EYE-GOR and an impossibly attractive “assistant” Inga (Terri Garr).

Young Frankenstein is a great spoof that also doubles as a brilliant adaptation of its source material.

Young Frankenstein is a great spoof that also doubles as a brilliant adaptation of its source material.

More than most Brooks films, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of puns (an infamous knock about “knockers” comes to mind), but thankfully this was a time when Brooks puns were still funny. Really funny. The film’s first half contains so much rapid-fire wordplay that it’s hard to take a breath between jokes. Many of them are courtesy of the brilliant Feldman, who plays Igor as an ultra-literalist who has a tough time understanding double meanings. His trademark enormous eyes are so expressive he gets a laugh just by looking at the camera.

The visuals also stand out here. Gerald Hirschfeld’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography perfectly matches the style of old monster movies. This is, I suppose, a more professionally made and polished movie than Blazing Saddles, though it never quite reaches that film’s comedic heights. This, along with the quality of the story (kind of a given, considering the original story’s tremendous staying power) probably make this the most accessible of all Brooks’ films, and, therefore, probably the one most widely viewed (it also helps that, as with The Producers, Brooks adapted the movie into a recent Broadway smash musical).

Young Frankenstein’s second half is perhaps less funny, but also more memorable. Although Wilder is brilliant in the title role, the film’s lasting brilliance is primarily due to two performances. The bumbling, Clouseau-style Inspector Kemp, played by Kenneth Mars, gets a lot of laughs with his fake wooden arm. It’s one of the funniest, most physical performances in any Brooks film. Kemp leads the Transylvanian townspeople against Frankenstein when they realize he has created another monster with the potential to further terrorize their small town. Speaking of the monster, Peter Boyle is beyond amazing as the misunderstood creature, who was designed to be a genius but, through a hilarious mix-up, receives an “abnormal” brain instead. He has his moments of rage, but his tender moments, where he is simply seeking to understand and be understood, make him an incredibly sympathetic figure. It would have been easy for Boyle and Brooks to make the monster an extended punchline, but he is instead a flesh-and-blood character (just don’t ask whose flesh or whose blood). In some ways, Boyle is the best actor to every play the infamous monster.

Young Frankenstein is a consistently surprising delight, not because it’s funny (though it certainly is), but because it’s such a well-made adaptation of a classic story. Although it doesn’t follow the plot of the original monster tale, it does share its thought-provoking themes and beating heart. You could put it in any dug-up graveyard corpse and it would beat just as heartily.

Interstellar review

No one does head trips quite like Christopher Nolan. The British director has successfully bridged the philosophical and the popular with hits like Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy. His latest film, the sci-fi epic Interstellar, is his passion project. Executive produced by theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, the film attempts to channel 2001: A Space Odyssey in its exploration of lofty scientific concepts such as black holes, event horizons and fifth-dimensions. And, while the film does get bogged down by its excessive plotting and self-seriousness, Nolan provides enough visual grandeur and emotion to make the plot’s mental gymnastics worth the effort.

Matthew McConaughey gives an incredibly grounded performance as Cooper, a former pilot turned farmer who is caring for his teenage son Tom and 10-year-old daughter Murphy after his wife’s death, with the help of his aging father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow). They live in a near-future version of earth that is decimated by a global dust bowl, a blight that has destroyed most major crops and caused a massive food shortage. Most major technological enterprises, including space travel, have been abandoned in favor of concerted efforts to increase the world’s food supply.

Through some rather convoluted plot machinations, Cooper is recruited by an underground NASA organization to pilot a ship that will hopefully find a habitable replacement planet for humanity to travel through via a mysterious worm hole that has opened up near Saturn. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) have come up with an incomplete equation that, when finished, will allow a mass-transit of humanity to the new planet. A much less desirable “plan B” involves a “population bomb,” which would use fertilized egg embryos to re-populate the new planet, saving humanity but sacrificing the remainder of earth’s population. All along, Cooper must cope with the fact that, in his mission to save humanity, he may never see his family again.

The early scenes on the farm are incredibly effective, as Cooper juggles his responsibility to his family with the dangers of his grim mission. McConaughey, fresh off of his Oscar win, give a marvelous performance here. His down-to-earth presence help keep the film’s lofty ideas grounded in the realm of human experience. His relationship with his daughter (and, to a lesser extent, his son, whose arc feels kind of brushed over) is affecting, and the early dialogue shows Nolan’s knack for setting up grand ideas without pulling us away from the plot’s emotional center: the relationship between a father and his children.

Interstellar is a heady mix of lofty philosophical quandaries and grounded human emotions.

Interstellar is a heady mix of lofty philosophical quandaries and grounded human emotions.

McConaughey is backed by fine supporting performances (particularly Hathaway and a surprise guest actor I won’t spoil), but what really sends the film into the stratosphere is its technical wonders. Much like Inception, Interstellar would be a much lesser film without its mind-blowing visuals and sound design. The vast scale of space is given the grand scope it demands, creating a sense of awe and wonder at the cosmos that few sci-fi films have ever conveyed quite so forcefully. The sound design is out of this world, bolstered by a Hans Zimmer-penned score that’s one of the best I’ve ever heard. Nolan reportedly asked Zimmer to score the film off of a few lines of dialogue, providing no major plot details or even a genre. The result, a mix of electronics and pulsing organs, is beyond remarkable. Even better, the score knows when to stop; there are several thrilling silent sequences that help convey the scope of outer space better than any music (or sound effects) ever could.

Where Interstellar falters is in maintaining its momentum over its lengthy running time. After a while, Nolan’s storytelling flaws start to surface. His insistence on grand, speechifying dialogue grows tiring (Dr. Brand’s repeated recitation of a Dylan Thomas poem is particularly eye-rolling). And the plot’s far-reaching intellectual theories, while intriguing, exceed its grasp. Inception contained similar heady concepts, but ultimately did a much better job of giving the audience the tools it needs to fully grasp the messages and meanings it was trying to convey. This film contains no such handholding, for good or ill.

And yet, all of the reasons why I love Christopher Nolan are here to. His emphasis on the power of love and an optimistic faith that humanity will always find a way to work toward its own good is refreshing in a world of cynical auteurs. His work produces a genuine awe at the complexity of life and existence that are tough to find elsewhere. And, of course, his technical chops are through the roof; there are sequences here that are beyond jaw-dropping, both in their technical complexity and their artistic composition.

Interstellar is not for everyone. And I don’t mean that in a condescending, “this movie is only for smart people” way. I think Nolan reached a point where he let his grand ideas run a bit amok. This nearly three-hour marathon is so dense that there are stretches where it’s a bit tough to sit through. It’s the kind of movie that practically requires internet research afterwards in order to make some sense of it all. And, for those who think movies should give us all of the tools we need to figure out things on our own, that may be a fatal flaw. I wouldn’t disagree.

But I can also say that I can’t wait to see Interstellar again. With the exception of Nolan’s more populist Dark Knight trilogy, the director’s best films, like Inception and The Prestige, require multiple viewings to unravel not just the dense plots, but the complex and sometimes overwhelming emotions they convey. But, the moment where I finally “get” a Nolan film have been some of the most rewarding I’ve ever had watching movies. I look forward to the moment when Interstellar fully clicks for me. Or, maybe it’s just a load of bunk. But, with its grand spectacle, epic scale and heartfelt emotion, Interstellar strikes me as simply stellar.

Mel Brooks Monday: Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles is the kind of movie you watch in slack-jawed amazement, wondering how it could be this good. Every time I watch it (many times, trust me), I expect to find some part of it lacking, some part of it disappointing compare to my fond nostalgic memories. But I am surprised anew every time; the film always responds with pure comedic perfection. This is one of the funniest, most artistically progressive comedies ever created, and what makes it even more impressive is the fact that it still holds up so well 40 years later.

Mel Brooks’ seminal western spoof follows the exploits of Bart (Cleavon Little), a black man working on a railroad line in the 1870s-era south. Although slavery has been outlawed, he and his fellow black and Asian workers are technically still enslaved in a country that is still incredibly racist. After assaulting one of his white bosses during a tussle, he is sentenced to be hanged.

But Attorney General Headley Lamarr (the late great Harvey Korman) has other plans. He wants his new railroad to go straight through the tow of Rock Ridge, but the town’s stubborn populace is unwilling to vacate. But the city is seeking a new sheriff, and Lamarr thinks that hiring Bart as sheriff might so repulse the backwards townspeople that they would rather leave town for good that be led by a black man. After befriending an enlightened former gunslinger named Jim (Gene Wilder), Bart makes it his goal to win over the townspeople and foil Lamarr’s nefarious plot.

What’s most immediately striking about Blazing Saddles to modern ears is the language. The “n” word is extremely plentiful, but the film is “racist” in the same way Huckleberry Finn is; which is to say, it’s actually very racially progressive. Much of that empowerment comes from Little, who plays Bart as the sly everyman that each audience member can relate to. He’s keenly aware how much the color of his skin matters, but, rather than despair, he’s intent to use it to his advantage in every situation. It’s obvious that Bart is infinitely smarter than the white hicks who count it as some kind of duty to subjugate and demean him.

Blazing Saddles earns its status as a legendary comedy and is well worth multiple viewings.

Blazing Saddles earns its status as a legendary comedy and is well worth multiple viewings.

The film’s racial themes are worth pondering further, but any Mel Brooks review has to get to the jokes, and these are easily some of his best. Inspired more by classic Looney Tunes shorts than any western, this is as madcap, zany and rapid-fire as movie comedies come. The humor is so lowbrow and yet so sophisticated that it should appease almost every viewer in some measure. Brooks riffs on classic skits like “Who’s on First?” There are some killer running puns (It’s HEADLEY!) and great visual gags, often perfectly timed with sound and music (the anachronistic Count Basie orchestra playing in the middle of the desert is my favorite). The jokes fly fast and furious (I still haven’t caught them all), and gags you think are long gone unexpectedly rear their heads again whole scenes later. But my favorite aspect of the film’s humor is the way it breaks the fourth wall left and right, gently letting the audience in on the humor in a rare and special way.

Of course, good jokes don’t go very far without good performances, and Blazing Saddles boasts some of the best in comedy history. Korman is having almost too much fun as the mustache-twirling villain, getting many of the film’s juiciest lines and speeches. Seeing a Shakespearean-quality actor going broke for the sake of a gag is something to behold. Slim Pickens gets some big laughs as his dim-witted assistant (he gets the punchline on the most infamous fart joke in movie history). And then there’s the magnificent Madeline Kahn, who, as the German seductress Lili Von Shtupp (in an Oscar-nominated performance) boasts one of the film’s high points in an extended (and surprisingly dirty) musical sequence. And I’d be remiss to forget Brooks, who plays several roles, most notably randy cross-eyed governor William J. LePetomane

But the emotional anchor of the film is Jim (most people call me…Jim) played with great subtlety and tremendous warmth by Gene Wilder. He’s a much more nuanced, warm presence than in The Producers, and the friendship he develops with Bart is truly affecting. Jim is the first person in the film to see Bart as an actual human being, an equal. We shouldn’t ask for too much subtlety or heart-tugging from a comedic spoof, but Brooks and his teams of writers go the extra mile here, and it shows.

What truly elevates the film from “great” to “legendary” is its climax, which descends into utter chaos and defies all traditional film logic. This is Brooks changing the language of cinema to do something completely new, and it’s absolutely thrilling to watch. You’ll be amazed how far the film is willing to take the greatest fourth-wall joke in movie history.

Blazing Saddles is everything I want in a comedy. It has clever visual gags, hilarious writing and acting, great production design and surprising (yet always subtle) politics. Best of all, it even has a heart. A great big one. Mel Brooks is a passionate filmmaker, and it shows in every framer here. Blazing Saddles re-wrote the movie comedy rulebook, and catapulted Brooks into his most prolific and creative period. Thankfully, there would be more side-splitting classics to come.

Nightcrawler Review

In the ruthless media satire Network, TV news anchor Howard Beale, fed up with the rampant voyeurism in American journalism famously screams, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” But for Lou Bloom, the so-called hero of Dan Gilroy’s arresting drama NIghtcrawler, the diatribe might include a line like “I will always give the people what they want.”

Bloom is a lonely drifter, traveling the night streets of L.A. looking for a sense of purpose when he comes across a fiery car crash and a man (Bill Paxton) filming the wreckage to sell to a local TV news outlet. He buys his own video equipment and police scanner, and starts tracking down breaking news stories. But journalistic ethics is the last thing on Bloom’s mind; his increasingly pushy methods leave him with few friends in law enforcement. Soon, a local station and its increasingly desperate news director (an icy Rene Russo) notices Bloom’s results, and soon he gains a reputation as the guy who will get the footage no one else can. But how far will he go to get the perfect shot, particularly when he’s the first to come across evidence at a major crime scene?

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Bloom in a revelatory performance. He’s hyperactive, twitchy and odd, but there’s a seething…something simmering underneath. Is it anger? Grief? Apathy? The film doesn’t provide any answers, but Gyllenhaal’s giant, expressive eyes tell more than dialogue ever could. His high-pitched, squealing voice and rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness cadence spill over every scene, giving the film a sharp, relentless edge. Gyllenhaal has consistently proven himself to be one of the best actors around, and here he turns in perhaps his finest performance. This is the kind of movie where the hero starts out creepy and unlikeable and grows into something much worse. It’s easy to lose an audience with an antihero so repulsive, but Gyllenhaal’s performance kept me engaged every step of the way.

In its depiction of a wandering loner prowling the streets of a metropolis, Nightcrawler has obvious parallels to Taxi Driver, my all-time favorite film. I see echoes of Paul Schrader’s concept of “God’s lonely man,” a disillusioned, post-Vietnam cynic looking for something in this world he doesn’t despise.

Nighcrawler is a ruthless dissection of the exploitation inherent in our modern mediated culture.

Nighcrawler is a ruthless dissection of the exploitation inherent in our modern mediated culture.

For Bloom, the looming shadow is not Vietnam but our increasingly isolating and sensationalist media culture, which emphasizes voyeurism over any sense of humanity. Studies have shown that TV news doesn’t help us feel more connected to the suffering of others; it actually insulates us from it. No matter how sad we might feel when we hear of a violent car wreck, our inner thoughts say, “I’m glad that wasn’t me.” In one of the film’s most memorable lines, news director Nina tells Bloom, “Think of our broadcast as a woman running down the street with her throat cut open.” That takes “if it bleeds, it leads” to a whole new level.

Rather than rail against this morally vacuous culture, as Travis Bickle did in Taxi Driver, Bloom dives in headlong, heedless of the human lives (and deaths) around him. Like with Bickle, we never get a true sense of who Bloom really is, or how he got to be so messed up. He remains cold and unknowable, almost like a robot. His eventual partner offers up this valuable critique that he doesn’t sound like a human being when he talks. Some might find this lack of empathy off-putting, but I think it works as a sort of meta-commentary on how hard it is to know someone when we view them as just another statistic. And, based on his actions, there would be nothing that could redeem Bloom in our eyes anyway.

The film is a slow, steady burn, building up to a relentlessly intense second half, featuring one of the most thrilling, realistic car chases I’ve ever seen. Like Travis Bickle, we’re shocked less by Bloom’s actions than we are of a culture that allows him to get away with them, and maybe even rewards him for it. This is a remarkably polished debut for writer-director Dan Gilroy. His cynical, bleak view of L.A.’s seedy media underbelly is both terrifying and kind of funny; with a strain of pitch-black humor sprinkled throughout. James Newton Howard’s brilliant score, which starts out impossibly hopeful, builds to a cacophonous climax, descending into absolute chaos alongside Bloom’s paper-thin sanity.

Network was an eerily prescient film, predicting the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the obsession with TV ratings over everything else. We didn’t listen to Howard Beale’s pleas, or, for that matter, Truman Burbank’s in The Truman Show. We’re more obsessed with watching other peoples’ lives than ever before. But reality TV is not interested in human beings, really; it’s interested in caricatures, controversial figures that lie on the opposite poles of any argument, while most people lie in the more sensible middle (the same can be said for our political culture). Is it really so surprising that such a culture might produce someone like Lou Bloom, interested not in other people but only in the mannequins that exist in his mind and how they can serve him?

The experience of watching Nightcrawler is dehumanizing and maybe even soul-sucking, but no matter how repulsed you are by it, you won’t be able to take your eyes off it. Sounds like how I feel when I turn on the evening news.