“The Theory of Everything”: Life, Love and the Pursuit of Equations

Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014)

Biopics – or biographical pictures – all face the same challenge: how to reduce the essence of one person’s life into recognizable and digestible components while balancing the needs of drama within the approximate two-hour length of most movies. It’s not an easy equation to solve, and sometimes the better films are the ones that choose to focus on one particular moment in that person’s life, as in last year’s marvelous The Invisible Woman, about the affair that 19th-century English author Charles Dickens had with a much younger woman. Since Felicity Jones, a powerfully engaging young actress who portrays Jane Wilde – or the woman who was physicist Stephen Hawking’s first wife – in The Theory of Everything, was also in The Invisible Woman, perhaps we can claim that one of the requirements of a successful biopic be that it feature her. For while The Theory of Everything has the usual flaws of many a biopic – compression, conflation and oversimplification – it is nevertheless among the best of its genre, thanks in no small part to Jones and Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn), who plays Hawking in an astonishing, career-making performance that rivals anything the great Daniel Day-Lewis did in My Left Foot.

One thing this film does not do well, though, is explain Hawking’s theories of the universe (which is clearly not its intention, anyway). For that, I recommend you check out Errol Morris’s superb 1991 documentary A Brief History of Time, which was based on Hawking’s best-selling book of the same title. In that film (or book), you’ll learn all about Hawking’s obsessions with (as his website tells us) “gravity, black holes, the Big Bang, the nature of time and physicists’ search for a grand unifying theory.” Hawking is probably one of the most important scientific minds of the 20th (and now 21st) century. But that’s what The Theory of Everything is about, despite its grandiose title.

Instead, this is a story of love, resilience and overcoming adversity. When the movie begins, in 1963, Hawking and his bride-to-be, Jane, are students at Cambridge University. They meet cute, fall in love – she studies medieval Spanish literature and he, physics, and it’s the difference that attracts – all is beautiful, and then one day Hawking takes a nasty fall and it is revealed that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS) and only two years left to live (Hawking, born in 1942, is still alive as of this writing). It is, as his father intones, “a heavy defeat.” But Jane genuinely loves Stephen, and is a lot tougher than she first appears to be, and soon she is nursemaid to the great (though physically deteriorating) genius, putting her own dreams on hold to be wife, and then mother, as the couple has not one, but two and then, finally, three children. She is a saint, though, to be fair, the movie is based on Jane’s account of her life with Hawking, so we’ll have to take the truths therein as simply her own version thereof.

As a portrait of two strong-willed individuals, the film is a marvel. But while Jones is luminous, it’s Redmayne who impresses the most. From a dashing nerd, he morphs into a twisted physical shell of a man with eyes that shine through the pain to show the giant brain within. It is a truly remarkable transformation. And we need to see Hawking’s daily struggle in this visceral way so that when, towards the end of the movie, in front of an American audience during his book tour for A Brief History of Time, his computer-generated voice (Hawking underwent a tracheotomy in the 1980s after a bout with pneumonia, and lost his vocal chords) intones, “‘However bad life may seem, while there is life, there’s hope,” it resonates with meaning. So while you may not learn a lot about science in The Theory of Everything, you may learn a lot about life, and living it to the fullest.

The Metafictional Penultimatum of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1″

Hunger Games - Mockingjay 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (Francis Lawrence, 2014)

There is a moment in the first third of the new Hunger Games movie – yet another “Part 1″ of a two-part adaptation of the final volume in a popular young adult book series – that is the perfect encapsulation of the inextricability of movie making and movie marketing; the ultimate metafictional moment. Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant warrior heroine of Panem’s revolution, has been drafted to play the role of the “mockingjay” – the symbol of the rebellion against the Capital – and has failed miserably to deliver camera-ready performances for District 13’s propaganda team. She’s no actress, and the studio setting of the rebels’ bunker is no battlefield: Katniss is best when she’s authentic. And so the leaders send her out to visit another, recently bombed, district. While Katniss is there – camera crew in tow – the Capital attacks again, and she fires off an explosive arrow, destroying an enemy airplane, then turns and delivers – to the camera – an improvised speech that is everything her handlers have wanted. Next scene: the residents of District 13 gather to watch the short propaganda film, or “propo,” edited to showcase the highlights of the skirmish and of Katniss’s righteous battle cry. The piece ends with the mockingjay logo – the same one used on much of the marketing materials for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – accompanied by the four-note mockingjay melody – the same one used at the end of the movie’s official trailer. The movie within the movie is a tie-in for the movie, in other words.* Expect the evil President Snow to be playing with a Katniss Everdeen action figure in Part 2!

That said, this new entry in what is a hugely successful film franchise (The Hunger Games grossed almost $700 million worldwide, and it’s sequel – Catching Fire – over $850 million) is not always so crass (or clever, depending on your point of view). There is genuine feeling in the performances, and Francis Lawrence, the director of the previous movie (and also of Water for Elephants, among other works), continues to show a real strength with actors and action scenes, alike. Forever banished are the missed beats and false notes of the first film, and we feel we are in the hands of a consummate craftsman who knows how to direct his cast and crew. Mockingjay – Part 1 largely delivers on its promise to set up a rousing finale for next year’s Mockingjay – Part 2. Still, while it (more or less) holds together as a movie in its own right, there’s a certain lack of energy in the plot development that all too often reduces tension and slows things down for no apparent reason other than to fill out the half-story to feature length and make room for the conclusion. Other than the fact that the two-part series ending has become de rigeur, thanks to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and Part 2, there’s no real raison d’être for this particular movie’s penultimate status. With (much) tighter editing and another 30 minutes tacked on, we’d have one hell of a finish.

All major actors from the first two films are here again (unless their characters died, earlier), and in fine form. It’s bittersweet to see the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) as Plutarch Heavensbee, but there he is, good as always. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) and Liam Hemsworth (Empire State) incarnate the three sides of the central love triangle with appropriately moist eyes and trembling voices, though it’s Hutcherson, as the captured (and tortured) Peeta Mellark who gets to really act this time, as his body and mind reflect, more and more, the scars of his captivity. Woody Harrelson (Out of the Furnace) and Elizabeth Banks (Little Accidents) are back as comic relief (of which this gloomy film needs much more than it has), and are each perfect, as is Jeffrey Wright (“Boardwalk Empire“) as the Capital’s erstwhile tech security guy who now works for the rebellion. Julianne Moore (Don Jon) joins the cast as Alma Coin, leader of District 13, opposite the great Donald Sutherland’s (Man on the Train) President Snow. They’re all very good together.

Overall, the film is much better than its source text (which, granted, isn’t saying a lot). The first book of the series was by far the strongest and yet its cinematic adaptation was, so far, the weakest of the bunch. As author Suzanne Collins wrote books 2 and 3, she seemed to lose her way, and the final book – in particular its final half – was an underwritten mess. So far, the movies are following the reverse quality trajectory. If Part 2 has all of the strengths of Part 1 plus more energy (i.e. none of its weaknesses) and less gloom, than there’s no doubt that the finale will continue this trend. I wish they had made one movie, rather than two, but my desires are insignificant compared to the demands of the box office.

*[Noted on 11/24/14 – in this interesting article in “The New York Times,” the author discusses the innovative marketing techniques of Lionsgate, the studio which released the film.]

3 (Descending) Cinematic Degrees of Finesse: “Diplomacy,” “Dear White People” and “Rosewater”

Right now, at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre, you can see three very different films about diplomacy and negotiation. Each movie tackles, in its own unique way, the idea that words matter. They don’t always matter equally, however, and these films are certainly unequal in quality (though even the least of them is not without some interest). In descending order of quality, I present DiplomacyDear White People, and Rosewater.

Diplomacy

Diplomacy (Volker Schlöndorff, 2014)

Based on a stage play by Cyril Gély – who, along with director Volker Schlöndorff (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), co-wrote the movie adaptation – Diplomacy tells the story of how, towards the end of World War II (August 25-26, 1944, to be exact), the Paris-born Swedish consul-general to France, Raoul Nordling, convinced Nazi General Dietrich von Choltitz – the military governor of Paris – to refrain from blowing up the “City of Light” as the Nazis retreated from the Allied invasion. This material has been covered before, in the 1966 action-adventure war film Is Paris Burning? (an adaptation of the book of the same title), but whereas that film was all battles and explosions (and very good for what it was), this new film is about a different kind of tension. Will Nordling convince von Choltitz to disobey a direct order from der Führer and save Paris? The fact that the movie is largely fictional (at least according to the great academic historian Ian Buruma) does not diminish from its success at creating a brilliant cat-and-mouse game of verbal fencing. It’s particularly rewarding because the roles of cat and mouse (who is who?) remain unclear until the very end. It is a brilliant exploration of the art of diplomacy.

Both André Dussolier (Un coeur en hiver), as Nordling, and Niels Arestrup (Un prophète), as von Choltitz, are more than up to the task that Schlöndorff and Gély devise. We believe them as men of strong will and strong minds (Dussolier, especially). And we understand the stakes at play, for the movie opens with archival images of the destruction of Warsaw (another petty act of Nazi terror that served no strategic purpose). Should Nordling fail, not only will centuries – nay, millennia – of human culture and history be destroyed, but so, too, will hundreds of thousands of lives be lost, for the demolition of the bridges over the Seine will cause widespread surges that will break the river’s banks and flood the city. This knowledge lends an urgency to the sometimes-casual conversation between the two men that makes even the most seemingly trivial line resonate with meaning. In this movie, words do, indeed, matter a great deal.

Dear White People

Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)

I must confess that I found both the trailer and the hype surrounding Dear White People more than a little annoying. The jokes and the premise, itself (white people are racist!), seemed clumsy and unoriginal. Racism exists and pervades our culture – of that I have no doubt (just look at the lack of diversity in major films coming out of Hollywood) – but that doesn’t mean that any film that takes on that subject is going to be good. Still, one of my favorite films from the 1980s remains Robert Townsend’s biting satire on race and popular culture, Hollywood Shuffle, and that had plenty of crude humor in it, so I finally made up my mind to go see first-time feature director Justin Simien’s movie. Much to my pleasant surprise, it was a lot better than I expected. Yes, it was messy – the way many first movies are – but it was also pretty smart in many places, and filled with appealing actors delivering fine (and often nuanced) performances. And yes, words do matter here, too, since they are the weapons wielded by one group against another in the negotiations over campus (and racial) supremacy.

The four main actors – Tyler James Williams (“Everybody Hates Chris“) as Lionel, Tessa Thompson (For Colored Girls) as Sam White, Teyonah Parris (“Mad Men“) as Coco, and Brandon P. Bell (“Hollywood Heights“) as Troy  – all deserve immense credit for what works in the film, as they make the dumb stuff seem smart and the smart stuff seem brilliant. Lionel is the gay black (Trekker) nerd with a huge afro who fits in nowhere; Sam is the conflicted bi-racial (“tragic mulatto” as her otherwise sweet white boyfriend mockingly calls her) who hosts the titular “Dear White People” on-campus radio show; Coco is the aspirational reality TV wannabe who will do anything to draw attention to herself; and Troy is the man-about-campus son of the Dean of Students who is normally so un-confrontational that he has no real identity to speak of. All four come together in ways both contrived (the white President and black Dean of Students not only went to college together but now have children attending the same university and dating each other?) and amusing as a white-run humor magazine throws a “negro”-themed Halloween party, complete with blackface, fried chicken and watermelon, which leads to a race riot. It may not be entirely believable (why don’t the black students have their own party, as the folks over at NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour pointed out – would they really be sitting around having a Black Student Union meeting?), but much of it is good fun. And the ultimate “why can’t we all get along message” of the movie, coupled with its cynical take on (campus) politics (which is believable), is hard to argue with. So it’s a mixed bag, for sure, but one filled with lots of goodies.

On a final note: one interesting way in which we can argue that popular culture has changed a bit over the years is that there have been no alarms over how this film might incite racial rioting, as there were back in 1989, when Spike Lee released his seminal masterpiece Do the Right Thing. We’re still far from a post-racial world (if that’s even possible), but that may count as progress, of a sort.

Rosewater

Rosewater (Jon Stewart, 2014)

Would we care that much about this film if Jon Stewart – he of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” – were not the director? I doubt it (and I’m a fan of Stewart’s). While it tells a worthy story – how Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari was imprisoned for 118 days in 2009 by the Iranian regime after he reported on the disputed 2009 presidential election between then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the main opposition leader, Mir Hossein Moussavi, it does not tell it in any particularly exciting way. This is a film – like Dear White People – by a first-time director (and Justin Simien, above, had at least made a number of short films, first, and worked as an editor), so to expect more would be unrealistic. Still, Stewart does not embarrass himself, and gets a fine performance out of Mexican actor Gael García Bernal (Y tu mamá también), who plays Bahari. But the script (which Stewart wrote, based on Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me) and the direction almost succeed in making a compelling story seem pedestrian (starting with the horrible music by Howard Shore, who has done much better work in films like Doubt and The Departed, among many others). Stewart felt driven to make this film in part because Bahari had appeared on his show a few days before being arrested, an appearance which was one of the pieces of evidence used against him during his incarceration (dictators never seem to have a sense of humor, sadly). Nevertheless, it would have been better to have a Paul Greengrass (United 93) or an Alan Parker (Midnight Express) direct it. Oh, well.

What we get is a film that purports to show us a horrible ordeal at the hands of a totalitarian regime that manages to make said ordeal seem like no big deal. There is very little tension anywhere, although both Bernal and his interrogator, “Rosewater” (so nicknamed by Bahari – though we never learn this from the movie – because of the scent he applied to himself daily) – played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia (In a Better World) – do their best. There is one moment in the film where the story suddenly takes a turn for the captivating, and that is when the über-interragotor who supervises “Rosewater” challenges Bahari to prove – given the history of the Western media and of the CIA in Iran (he argues that both conspired to turn public opinion against the regime of Mohammad Mosaddeq and supported his ouster in favor of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi) – that he is not a spy. “How can you say that when the media worked with the CIA to bring the Shah to power?” It’s true – the CIA did usher in the Shah. In the ongoing Kafkaesque negotiations between Bahari and his torturers, where words matter less than subjugation, this scene proves interesting. The rest is just noise (which may be Stewart’s point, but which does not make for captivating cinema). Good try, Jon. You got this out of your system. I’ll wait for your next movie.

Second Episode of “Reel Talk” Now Available

Reel Talk 2

From L to R: Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, with Ben Tschirgi, his second guest.

The second episode of Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reedon HCC-TV, is now available. My second guest was a former student of mine, Stevenson University/Howard Community College alumnus and actor/writer/director Ben Tschirgi. We reviewed NightcrawlerWhiplash and Birdman. You can watch the episode on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), or online. The above link to the show takes you to its general landing page, which has whichever episode is most current up on the site. If, in the future, you want to see this second episode – even after the next episodes air – you’ll need to click on this permanent link to it. Enjoy!

The amazing HCC-TV team did a wonderful job, as always, putting this together. There will be a new episode aired after the start of the new year. If you want to watch the first episode, click here.

“Beyond the Lights” Does Not Go Beyond Much

Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2014)

About halfway through Beyond the Lights - the new soapy tearjerker of a pop-infused romance by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees) – Nate Parker (Red Tails) takes his shirt off to dress the self-inflicted wounds of Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle). As the camera lingers on his perfect chest, biceps and abs (which it will do with increasing frequency throughout the film), what should be a moving moment of crisis turns, instead, into a risible and crass display of a sexy body. The audience in the theater laughed, as they did with each subsequent nude shot. And that’s the essence of the problem with the movie. Though Prince-Bythewood, a talented writer/director, has made the film with the best of intentions – tackling universal themes of love, despair, identity and self-determination – the net result rarely rises above the general (and generic) clichés of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. With more than a few shades of 1992’s The Bodyguard (and most other pop star-centered stories) in its DNA, Beyond the Lights – though entertaining in spots, and featuring a riveting performance from its female lead – does not, in fact, go beyond much at all.

Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, the mixed-race daughter of Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) – in a thankless one-note role as a domineering stage mother – and an unknown father, whom we first meet as a child (nicely incarnated by newcomer India Jean-Jacques) as she is about to perform in a talent contest, singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.” When she comes in second, her mother forces her to throw away the trophy, telling her, “You wanna be a runner-up or you wanna be a winner?” With a sudden smash cut to the present, we see what Noni has become: a rising R&B star who, through a series of sex-fueled music videos with a white rapper, is poised on the brink of superstardom (with her first solo album on the way). But then, one night, inebriated, she tries to throw herself off a balcony, and we discover that the journey from child to adult, and from authentic performance to the artificiality of the music business, has taken a serious toll on Noni.

Fortunately, Kaz (Parker), a twenty-something police officer moonlighting on Noni’s security detail, is there to catch Noni as she falls (physically and emotionally). The rest of the movie centers on the way their relationship could either derail both of their career prospects (he is an aspiring politician), or show them each a new way forward, towards the selves they were meant to be. It’s a sweet story, but often rendered so clumsily, and with music  – even the final ballad that Noni composes as an example of true self-expression – so insistently banal that is often hard to appreciate the moving message beneath the noise. The sole exception to this is the scene in the film when Noni, in Mexico with Kaz, sings, once more, Simone’s “Blackbird,” and we feel – for one brief shining moment – something real happening on screen (Mbatha-Raw is great throughout, but not well served by the material).

In spite of it all, the film is eminently watchable, with appealing actors. It’s just not very good.

“Force Majeure” Is a Cinematic Tour de Force

Force Majeure

Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, 2014)

In Force Majeure, a Swedish film (originally entitled “Turist“) by Ruben Östlund (Play), a family – seemingly happy together – on vacation at a ski resort (the gorgeous Les Arcs, in the Savoie region of Alpine France) faces one (natural) disaster that then leads to another, more serious (familial) one. After an avalanche comes dangerously close to the outdoor restaurant where they are lunching, the father bolts as the snow rushes upon them, leaving the mother to frantically protect her two kids. After that, nothing is the same. As a meditation on manhood, heroism and gender roles, the film is a masterpiece.

I knew none of the actors beforehand, but both Johannes Kuhnke – as Tomas, the father – and Lisa Loven Kongsli – as Ebba, the mother, are brilliant. We believe both their early easy physical intimacy and later dissolution. For Ebba cannot forgive Tomas for running; or, rather, she can’t forgive him for not owning up to his behavior. As their children (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren, each equally terrific) look on helplessly, Tomas and Ebba intermittently argue and avoid each other.

But this is also a wonderfully funny film. In fact, it’s one of the funniest films I’ve seen all year: a true “dramedy.” Both Tomas’s narcissism and Ebba’s never-ending amazement at that narcissism, coupled with their unrecognized sense of entitlement (only the wealthy can afford Les Arcs), make for wonderfully biting comedy. As do their interactions with other guests at the resort, including Tomas’s good friend Mats – played by the wonderfully charismatic (what a great big red beard!) Kristofer Hivju (Tormund Giantsbane on Game of Thrones) – and his 20-year-old girlfriend Fanny (the charming Fanni Metelius). Mats, especially, tries to help Tomas justify his selfish behavior through a verbal jujitsu that just makes it worse (and leads to his own subsequent problems with Fanny). There is no way out except through confession. Which turns out to not be true at all, since Tomas manages to suffer his breakdown in the most self-pitying, self-centered way imaginable. By the time the film ends (in a spectacularly inconclusive fashion), we sense that the marriage is over, even while Tomas – his guilt off his chest – seems revived. Ebba knows better, as do we. It’s Tomas’s refusal to do more than just admit to cowardice – his refusal to change in any substantive way – that spells doom. It’s a perfect portrait of how and why relationships can go wrong.

It’s a must-see, and also very entertaining.

“Interstellar” Reaches for the Stars but Gets Stuck in the Clouds

Interstellar

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Dust is everywhere. The only crop that can still grow on earth is corn, but every year more crops fail. Most of the world’s population has died, and the remaining humans struggle to make ends meet, and view science – which they imagine as responsible for their dreary fate – with great skepticism. New textbooks claim that the 20th-century moon landing was faked, and anyone who disagrees is seen as a troublemaker. It’s only a matter of time, though, until the ever-multiplying dust clouds kill off the last people on earth. This is the future as imagined by Christopher Nolan (Inception) and his brother and frequent co-writer Jonathan (The Dark Knight), and it’s a dreary, but not unusual (these days, anyway), cinematic scenario.

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) plays Cooper, a former NASA pilot who know farms corn and does his best to raise two kids: an older boy, Tom – who will be played as an adult by Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) – and a younger girl, Murphy (or Murph) who will grow up first to be (disappointingly), the lightweight Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) and then (less disappointingly) Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream). Murph is the true apple of her father’s eye, and a dreamer like him. As first incarnated by young Mackenzie Foy (The Conjuring), she is a powerful intellectual and creative force, and we understand why Cooper would invest so much ardent energy on her. And it’s important that we do, for their relationship is the key to the entire film. Without these early scenes on earth, the rest of the movie would have little emotional resonance. That the movie works at all (when it works) is in no small part due to the rapport between McConaughey and Foy, both of whom deliver electrifying performances.

This (dust-choked) idyll is soon threatened when Murphy and Cooper, tracking coordinates mysteriously spelled out in dust on Murph’s bedroom floor, come across a secret NASA bunker, where Cooper reunites with an old mentor, Professor Brand, played with his (now) usual curmudgeonly charm by Michael Caine (Batman Begins). Brand has a daughter – also a “professor” – known simply as “Brand,” and played with a delightful combination of whimsy and seriousness by Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables), an actress I don’t always like, but very much do here. It turns out that father and daughter have designed an interstellar mission to reach a wormhole that they’ve discovered near Saturn. On a previous mission – departed a decade prior – over a dozen astronauts traveled through that wormhole to a distant galaxy in search of new planets to settle, since ours is so quickly failing. Since they haven’t returned, NASA plans to send a new vessel to the wormhole, and needs an experienced pilot like Cooper in charge. Cooper – bored with farming and needing no convincing that this is the only way to save our species – signs on, but not without great regret, since that means leaving Murphy (and Tom) behind. Fortunately, crusty father-in-law Donald – played by a fine John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun) – can fill in as parent, but Murph is devastated, and will spend the rest of her life bitterly angry with her father for abandoning her.

The rest of her life? Well, yes, because beyond the set-up of the film’s core relationship, the other thing Interstellar does well is to dramatize what we know about time dilation in space travel: how people stuck on earth would age more rapidly than people traveling great distances at close to the speed of light (as a kid, one of my favorite books about this phenomenon was Robert Heinlein’s Starman’s Quest). As Cooper and Brand (daughter) journey first to the wormhole and then go through it, they age in months and years, while their family on earth ages in decades. It’s a steep price to pay, but the stakes are nothing less than the survival of the human race.

The problem with Interstellar, though, is that it can never figure out what kind of movie it wants to be: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both films deal with humans desperately seeking answers in the cosmos, but the former traffics in trite (if entertaining) action clichés, while the latter tackles large existential issues with finesse and grace. Nolan, who has made a career out of combining pop-cultural aesthetics and metaphysical questions (the best of his work remains Memento), here gets the equation all wrong. He steals the banal concepts from Scott and the (by now banal, because repeated ad nauseam since then) visuals and action sequences from Kubrick, rather than emulating Kubrick’s philosophical meditations and Scott’s sense of pace. So we get a slow – if beautiful – story about not much at all. Yes, we are doomed, but the method by which we eventually rescue ourselves from oblivion manages to be both impenetrable and hackneyed: love it seems, conquers all. Sweet, but . . . that’s it? Still, awkward pacing and silly ideas and all, even at almost 3 hours the film is not without interest. It’s just, sadly, without a lot of interest.

“Big Hero 6″ – A Franchise in Search of a Raison d’Etre

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 (Don Hall/Chris Williams, 2014)

From Walt Disney comes a new adaptation of a lesser-known Marvel comics super team. This summer saw the release of the hip and cool (and terrifically fun) live-action Guardians of the Galaxy – also from Disney, and also taken from a heretofore obscure series – and now we get Big Hero 6, a much weaker animated confection that is trying so hard to be all things to all people that it ends up being very little to anyone at all. There are a few genuine laughs and some truly spectacular animation on display (though the 3D was unnecessary, and added nothing) – we would hope so, since this is Disney – but the end result is a fairly insipid mess, perhaps good for kids who don’t have anything else to see, but not worth watching beyond that.

Which is too bad, since the basic premise – that nerds are cool – is a good one. Too bad that they otherwise aren’t that different from any other misfit Disney heroes of the past. I did myself no favors by mistakenly assuming that this was a Pixar film before the screening, and so the lack of originality in the character development came as a bitter disappointment. Add to that the brutal barrage of video game music throughout the movie and my head was hurting by the time it was over. Though it is perhaps a little too obviously sentimental, the cute short film – Feast – that precedes the feature is far more interesting than the main event.

I had to laugh – which was not the directors’ intention – at the set-up of the movie. We are in “San Fransokyo,” a heavily Asianized – or Japanified, anyway – version of San Francisco (which in our real world is already a happy home to a large and diverse Asian population). There’s nothing wrong with that, but it feels like such an obvious pitch to the lucrative Chinese and pan-Asian market, as opposed to something organically justified by the story, that from the get-go I was on the defensive, expecting more crass commercialism, rather than pure story. After researching the source material, I see that the original comics take place entirely in Japan, and I think the movie would have been better served had the filmmakers kept to that location. The hybrid they create is not without its visual inventiveness (pagoda arches on the Golden Gate bridge, for example), but it feels like a cheap trick: let’s appeal to our traditional audience – and include an African-American nerd for good measure – but also position ourselves for the future.

The story focuses on Hiro, a 14-year-old genius whose early graduation from high school has left him free to pursue a black-market career in “bot fighting,” where he uses his small size and seemingly innocuous (but very lethal) robot to hustle larger and older players. His older brother Tadashi (also a brilliant robotics engineer) rescues Hiro from this aimless pursuit and convinces Hiro to apply to the same super college which he, himself, attends. In order to get in, Hiro must first come up with an original idea to impress the school’s leader, Professor Callaghan. Without much effort, it seems (indeed, another weakness of the film is how it sells genius as something that comes without the necessity for labor), Hiro creates – with help from Tadashi’s ragtag group of college friends – a swarm of “micro-bots” that he can control with a powerful computer headband. Wearing that device, he is able to make these tiny robots coalesce into any form he dreams up. He is, in short, like a god. Obviously, he is accepted into the college. But not before attracting the attention of some nefarious sorts who covet those micro-bots.

And then – of course – tragedy strikes, and Hiro is left on his own, in mourning. To his rescue comes an unlikely savior in the form of a first-aid robot – Baymax – designed by Tadashi. Baymax is the big, white fluffy Michelin man-like creature featured on the posters and in the trailers for the film. He’s a dear, and the scenes between him and Hiro are genuinely sweet and adorable . . . until they become cloyingly so. Soon, Hiro must re-program Baymax as a fighter (and design some nifty heavy-duty armor and jet propulsion for him, too), once he discovers a nasty super villain at work to destroy the city. With his mighty redesigned helpmate and Tadashi’s college buds in tow, Hiro becomes the de facto leader of the super nerds, redubbed at the end of the movie “Big Hero 6.” I think I see a potential franchise, no?

Be Sure to Give Yourself “Whiplash”

Whiplash

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014)

Whiplash, the overwhelmingly riveting second feature from young (born 1985) writer/director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) opens with a scene of an aspiring jazz drummer, Andrew – played with searing commitment by rising star Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) – rehearsing in an empty studio space. Suddenly, he stops, noticing the eavesdropping (more like lurking) figure of a man outside. He knows who it is, though we don’t, yet. Then that man walks in, and we meet resident musical guru Fletcher – played with powerful intensity by a J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man) as you’ve never seen him before – and the pas-de-deux that will drive the movie for the next 100+ minutes begins.

Fletcher is the most charismatic and demanding teacher at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York, and it’s his role (as he sees it), to create the next generation of geniuses. He sees something in Andrew. Is it genius? Is it hunger? Both? Or is it a willingness to suffer abuse in the pursuit of art? For Fletcher is not a conventional pedagogue. If you want to be great, you must suffer to become so, even if that means having a chair thrown at your head.

Fletcher is clearly a sadist, though he has convinced himself that his methods are the best, and that they are definitely justified by the ends. His students adore him or, at least, believe in his greatness (and fear him). When he tells Andrew, later, that there are no two words more harmful in the English language than “good job,” we know that not only does Fletcher believe this mantra, but so do his (damaged) pupils, Andrew included. Like all successful abusers, Fletcher can also be charming, mixing sugar with his spice, and the kids feed as much on his occasional kindnesses as they do on the nastiness.

It’s an interesting contrast to Andrew’s father, played by a well-cast Paul Reiser (of Mad About You fame), who offers only nurturing support (the mother is long gone). When Andrew eventually breaks down, Dad is there, arms open. But is such unconditional love what Andrew wants or needs?

I loved this film, because it asks us to think about the nature of art, perfectionism, learning and mentorship, and what is acceptable in the pursuit of greatness (or, at least, of mastery). Most of us are (and should be) horrified by Fletcher’s behavior, but there’s something in his desire to accept nothing less than the absolute best that is hard to resist. Wouldn’t we rather listen to a musician who’s been through some kind of crucible of pain and suffering – and survived – than someone who just breezily decided to play one day and has remained forever mediocre? Still, many of us have probably also had mentors who have managed to be demanding without resorting to physical and/or mental assault. It is to Chazelle’s credit that he raises these questions without pushing one specific ideological agenda on us (although the final scene of the movie does skew in favor of triumph over adversity).

The performances are revelatory. Teller and Simmons are quite a pair, and well matched. Teller plays his own drums, for the most part, and we believe his passion. As we believe in the passion of this gifted filmmaker. So go. Give yourself Whiplash and experience perfection through the vicarious suffering of the characters on screen, rather than your own.

Midday on the Great War at the Movies: 11/7/14 @ 1pm

[NOTE: If you missed the show, you can listen to the podcast on the WYPR website.]

2014-11-07_Rodricks WWI Banner

World War I began 100 years ago this past summer, in 1914, and little did its participants know how much this “war to end all wars” would change the world they lived in. In fact, most thought, at the time, that the war would last but a few months. Before it was over, however, monarchies would fall, empires would crumble and our modern era would be born in a horrible baptism of literal fire and brimstone, the crucible of 19th-century thinking and 20th-century technology. This horrific struggle ran on until 1918, and nearly wiped out a generation of young men. Its duration parallels the rise of the feature-length movie as the dominant expression of global popular culture, yet not as many great – or even memorable – films have been made about the Great War than about its direct descendant, World War II. Still, there a number that are worth discussing, which include – but are not limited to – WingsAll Quiet on the Western FrontLa grande illusionPaths of GloryOh! What a Lovely WarGallipoli and War Horse.

Join us on Midday with Dan Rodricks (WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station) during the second hour, 1-2pm, on Friday, November 7, as Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – honor the work of filmmakers who have created indelible cinematic depictions of European civilization’s near total collapse.

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast.

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show! Feel free to offer your own thoughts on good World War I movies in the comments to this post.