Interstellar

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, and Mackenzie Foy.

Since I never published anything here, I figured there was no time like the present to share my thoughts on Interstellar, a bold and beautiful piece of filmmaking that regrettably stumbles a bit towards the end.

For anyone who does not know the premise of Interstellar, it is as follows. When the future of the earth is severely threatened with dust storms and famine, former NASA scientist and now corn famer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is chosen to lead a team of astronauts into space to search for a new planet on which mankind can survive. Staunchly opposed to this mission is Cooper’s daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy who grows up into Jessica Chastain), who fears she will never see her father again. Whether he succeeds, whether he returns home, and whether he sees his daughter again all take second place to the dazzling special effects and complex world building, until Nolan decides to shift gears in the final hour.

(Mild spoilers in the next paragraph; skip to the following one if you don’t want the ending hinted at.)

In response to the more disappointing aspects of Interstellar, I came up with a snarky dismissal which is unfair to the film’s ambition, scope, and stunning visuals, but it does convey my biggest problem with Interstellar. So here goes: apparently, it takes three hours and a black hole to accomplish what you can accomplish in five minutes with weeping angels and a TARDIS. Also, the main theme of the movie can be summarized more succinctly and just as thoughtfully by a famous Beatles’ song.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I really did like Interstellar. A lot, actually. It is undoubtedly Nolan’s most ambitious film to date, and to watch him reach for the stars is breathtaking. The first hour and 45 minutes were just short of sublime, and I was thoroughly captivated by the stunning imagery, Cooper’s quest, and the dynamics between him, his daughter, the head of NASA (Michael Caine), and his fellow astronauts (led by Anne Hathaway). The relationships don’t rise that far beyond those of the standard Hollywood blockbuster. The eventual outcome of the mission is kind of obvious, and there is a big twist that I found easy to predict, but none of that bothered me. I was completely sold on the film.

Then shortly before the two hour mark, it started to go off the rails. When Hathaway made a big, important speech, Nolan tried to leave behind the puzzle making and science fiction, and tackle emotional and spiritual themes which transcend all else. It didn’t work. The scenes are too forced, the dialogue is too on the nose, and the scenarios aren’t original enough to rise above generic conventions the way Nolan wanted to.

By no means is the last hour bad filmmaking, but it falls back on tired formulas after the first two hours had pushed forward boldly and beautifully. Still, I would pretty highly recommend Interstellar; its triumphs more than make up for its flaws. If the film failed to reach Saturn, it at least made it to Jupiter.

 

Content Advisory: Violence and peril, brief strong language.                       MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: B

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Cinderella and Cinematic Saints

Disney’s recent live action film of Cinderella provides what has become — perhaps fortunately, perhaps unfortunately — a unique take on the fairytale. It is a straightforward, old-fashioned telling of the traditional story without any deconstruction, subversive twists, or rewriting of roles, all of which have become increasingly common in recent tellings of fairy stories from Wicked to Shrek to Frozen to Maleficent. (That statement is meant neither as a criticism nor as compliment, just a mere fact.)

In adapting Cinderella, director Kenneth Branagh said that he wanted to make a movie which showed kindness to be a superpower. That approach enabled him to preserve the classical elements of the fairytale and create a heroine who is intelligent and resourceful while refusing to become bitter and vindictive due to the misfortunes she suffers.

Aren Bergstrom of Three Brothers Film made an insightful comparison regarding Cinderella‘s “kindness as a superpower” theme on Twitter. Aren suggested that Branagh’s take on the classic fairytale heroine puts her in a similar league with cinematic saints like Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons and Joan in The Passion of Joan of Arc, a comparison which is not undeserved.

One recurring line in Cinderella is what Ella’s mother (Hayley Atwell) says to her daughter (Lily James) before she dies: “Be kind and have courage.” That line could also be applied to some of the most determined and most inspiring cinematic portrayals of saints from the past century.

In 1928 Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, gave audiences what is possibly the ultimate cinematic example of a suffering servant. Comprised primarily of long takes and still close-ups, Dreyer’s film dwells on the sufferings of Joan through her trial and martyrdom, and with evocations of Biblical imagery, such as a crown of thorns and a lamb led to the slaughter, the film clearly suggests that Joan’s sufferings are a way for her to partake in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Throughout her tribulations, Joan of Arc, much like Branagh’s Cinderella, never becomes bitter or angry toward her persecutors. Sorrowful and fearful, yes, but both of them face their sufferings which dignity and all the courage they can muster (which must be pointed out, is far harder for Joan as she is being tortured and threatened with death). After their worst trials, both of them receive a gift of grace which brings them to a new and better home, something which is also true for the following examples.

Finally, I am sure this is a coincidence, but even if this pose is a common villain expression, the similarity between these shots of Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine and Eugene Silvain as Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Joan of Arc’s chief persecutor) is worth pointing out.

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Another cinematic saint who has even more in common with Branagh’s Cinderella is Bernadette Soubirous as played by Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette (1943). Bernadette may have come from a loving and supportive family, but her frail health caused her much pain throughout her life, pain which she always bore courageously as she treated everyone with love and kindness, even when she least wished to. On top of that, her visions of the Blessed Mother asking for a chapel to be built were received with skepticism by a couple of the religious authorities and outright disdain and threats by the town magistrates. The Song of Bernadette suggests that one reason the magistrates bully and threaten a young, defenseless girl is that in secular and agnostic post-revolution France, the officials did not care to see a mass-hysteria over what they viewed to be an antiquated belief system.

To my knowledge, there has been no backlash against Cinderella, but like Bernadette called attention to something which many thought of as passé, Cinderella portrays a world and style of storytelling steeped in classicism that noticeably contrasts our increasingly cynical postmodern culture.

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If Robert Bolt’s brilliant screenplay for the 1966 A Man for All Seasons does not constitute one of the most inspiringly quotable movies ever, then I don’t know what would. Cinderella‘s screenplay by Chris Weitz is not on the same level as that of A Man for All Seasons, but there is one line that captures Cinderella’s bravery and compassion, which she shows to everyone, even her step-family, even after they have been unusually cruel toward her. That line is, “They treat me as well as they’re able,” and it expresses a similar sentiment to the final words spoken by Thomas More after he has been found guilty of treason via an obvious perjury.

I am the King’s true subject, and pray for him and all the realm. I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live. I have, since I came into prison, been several times in such a case that I thought to die within the hour, and I think Our Lord I was never sorry for it, but rather sorry when it passed. And therefore, my poor body is at the King’s pleasure. Would God my death might do him some good.

Sophie Scholl may not be a canonized saint of the Catholic Church, but there can be little doubt that she is in heaven. As an active member of the White Rose, an underground resistance group to the Nazis, she was executed along with her brother Hans for treason against the Third Reich. Their arrest and trial are dramatized in the 2005 film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. The film primarily focuses on Sophie, and the young protagonist is another example of a heroine who remains dignified and courageously kind in the face of adversity which can often seem inhuman.

One of the most noticeable similarities between Cinderella and Sophie is that both of them choose not to hold a grudge against those who cause their suffering. Indeed, Sophie’s calmness as she is interrogated takes an admirable level of self-control, much like Cinderella’s final action in Branagh’s film. Even when they are imprisoned unjustly, both women care for others who are worse off than they. Finally, both also have the humility to realize when they need help and spiritual guidance from someone else and accept it.

Although the film is a fairytale rather than a dramatization of an historical event, Cinderella features a protagonist with similar traits to some of the most dignified and determined saints who have graced the silver screen. However, it is fitting that a fairytale should continue this characterization. As I’ve said before, at a fundamental level, fairytales are morality tales for children. In opting for a classical retelling of Cinderella, with its saintly protagonist, Branagh’s film lauds two virtues which are found in some of the most famous cinematic portrayals of saints, two virtues which do have a sort of superpower to carry one through suffering to a new and better world: courage and kindness.

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(Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies

A riveting documentary about lying, why we lie, and how much we lie that is thus far my favorite film of 2015.

Full review: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/1morefilmblog/dishonesty-the-truth-about-lies-melamede-2015/

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Arts and Faith Top 25 Films on Memory

Cinema, after all, is a kind of collective memory. Films are both time capsules, preserving the original period of their release, and a collection of thoughts and ideas that extend from the artists and craftsmen that lived in its time.

Thus, the Arts & Faith Top 25 Films on Memory is an exercise in commemoration. It is an attempt by Image’s Arts & Faith online community to celebrate and examine the unique ability of cinema to speak to the theme of memory.

From Ryan Holt’s excellent introduction to the Arts and Faith top 25 films on memory.

I have been a member of Arts & Faith for over two years, and I participated in voting for the titles on this list, and I wrote three of the blurbs as well. Including films from How Green was My Valley to The Tree of Life and Rashomon to Last Year at Marienbad, this is an all-around great list of movies. Check it out!

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All About Eve

Year of Release: 1950     Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, and Marilyn Monroe.

As George Sanders provides his opening voiceover as the conceited theatre critic Addison DeWitt, the camera slowly zooms out from its focus on an aging actor, ignoring the actor – as DeWitt informs us we should – and instead revealing a prestigious awards ceremony, at the center of which is Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). That shift of focus is apt foreshadowing of the story which follows, a story of backstage backstabbing, insecure aging actors, rising new stars, occasional romance, and a masterclass in manipulation.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a star of the theatre; she became a star at four years old, and she will always be a star. However, Margo is aging, and at forty years old, she worries her glory days are soon going to end. After all, the good leading roles are twenty-year old characters. Compounding her insecurities are the new starlets whom Addison DeWitt touts, such as Miss Claudia Casswell (Marilyn Monroe in a meta bit of casting before she became famous). However, Margo can be nice to the wannabes; she has far greater acting chops than any of them will ever have, so they’re no real threat to her. But Margo is also reminded of her age by her talented director boyfriend, who as a director and as a man will remain thirty-two for his entire career. And then, there’s Eve, a devoted fan of Margo’s who dreams of an acting career herself.

Unlike the other young actresses, Eve is talented, very talented. With the help of Margo’s good friend Karen (Celeste Holm), playwright Lloyd Richard’s (Hugh Marlowe) wife, Eve soon finds herself in the good graces of Margo and working as her assistant. The only person Eve fails to win over is Margo’s crusty maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter), who remains suspicious of the young girl who studies Margo’s every move, “as if she were a play or a book.” Given Margo’s insecurity about her age, losing her relevance, and being replaced, she soon subscribes to Birdie’s distrust as well, even as her friends find her actions and her rants more paranoid and insufferable than her usual anxieties.

If this film about the ugly backstage life of insecure famous actors with an eclectic ensemble of vibrant characters, one of whom is an intelligent yet arrogant critic, sounds kind of similar to the recent Birdman (which won the best picture Oscar sixty-four years after All About Eve did), the two films do have some thematic similarities. However, whereas Birdman opts for an ambiguously happy ending that gives all its characters a celebration which may or may not be deserved, All About Eve is unafraid to follow its characters to the end of each of their storylines, where happiness results from suffering and learning from mistakes and selfishness begets more selfishness.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz penned one of his finest screenplays for All About Eve, filled with clever references to stage productions and Hollywood films, and the entire cast turns in fantastic performances, delivering one brilliant line after another, such as “Have you no human consideration?” “Show me a human, and I might have!” This story of killers pursuing their desires of prestige and importance makes a bumpy but thrilling ride. I’m sorry, did I say “killers?” I meant champions.

 

Content Advisory: Some intense discord and discreet sexual references.                              Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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