Interstellar

At the heart of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is a dilemma, one that is not so easily resolved.  Earth is on the verge of a mass famine.  Corn is the only remaining crop that can be successfully cultivated by farmers, a profession in dire need of new recruits.  Everything else has died out.  Soon, conditions will be unsuitable for anything else to be planted.

Dust is everywhere, an ominous sign.  Dust storms are common.  You have to flip over bowls, cups and glasses when not in use so it doesn’t accumulate on the inside.  Once it gets in your lungs, the coughing starts.  And it never stops.  People are getting desperate.  But no one has any concrete solutions, not even NASA.

Matthew McConaughey plays one of those farmers but he hates the job.  A widow with a teenage son who will be forced to take over the family farm some day and a curious daughter who loves science as much as he does, he remains haunted by a mistake.  Despite that, he would much rather be flying.

Then his daughter tells him about her “ghost”.  In her bedroom, some mysterious thing has been shoving books off the shelves and leaving coded messages in the dust.  She translates one but it seemingly makes no sense.  Another message unknowingly leads them on a ride to a secret NASA facility.

It is here where we learn about a secret plan (well, two, to be exact), a scientific hail mary that relies on a lot of good fortune and more faith than absolute certainty.  Unbeknownst to the general public, professor Michael Caine and his team of NASA scientists have been trying to find a replacement Earth at great expense.  They’ve sent 12 astronauts on doomed solitary suicide missions to remote worlds hoping for a miracle.  They’re down to three options, none of which are sure things.

And that leads to McConaughey’s aching dilemma.  Do I go on this risky mission with a team of astronauts knowing I will sacrifice decades for no guarantee of success or do I stay, build lasting memories with my family and go down with the sinking ship?

That’s an intriguingly heartbreaking premise, and because we like McConaughey and his family (especially father-in-law John Lithgow who provides much-needed levity when warranted), we understand why he’s reluctant to leave at first.  We don’t envy his situation.

There’s a good scene where he tells his daughter the bad news.  She doesn’t understand.  She’s angry.  He tries to reassure her:  I’ll be back.  I love you forever.  She doesn’t believe him.  She’s still mad.  It’s a scene he will revisit in a most surprising way despite its rather obvious contrivance.

Even after he’s launched into space, she refuses to send video messages to his ship.  When the crew lands on their first planet and discover there’s nothing but tidal waves of water, making it absolutely useless for colonization, 23 years pass in the single hour they’ve wasted there.  When McConaughey returns to the ship, he weeps uncontrollably for all the important family milestones he’s missed reflected in a series of clips featuring Lithgow, his son (who becomes a stubborn, emotionally distant Casey Affleck) and his grandchild who doesn’t survive.  He never meets the second one who does.

During the Earth time foolishly squandered on that ocean planet, his daughter grows up to be Jessica Chastain who lands a job at NASA working alongside a now wheelchair-bound Michael Caine.  On his death bed, he makes a rather startling admission which makes her reassess her conflicted feelings about her father.  Caine’s daughter, Anne Hathaway, is part of McConaughey’s crew and in a rare video message announcing his demise, Chastain wonders if she was in on the secret.

Down to two possible substitute planets to inhabit, McConaughey overrules Hathaway’s emotional attachment to a scientist in one world in favour of another presided over by an unbilled Matt Damon.  This turns out to be a very big mistake.

I first screened Interstellar when it hit theatres back in November 2014.  Very early on, I was mixed (I didn’t catch all the dialogue in real time which greatly affected my confidence going forward) and as the movie progressed, I zoned out as I found myself intellectually adrift from all the science jargon.  In the end, I couldn’t decide where I stood because so much went over my pea-brained, perfectionistic head.

How grateful I am for captions and the rewind button.  Watching the film again recently on Blu-ray (complete with stops for quick contemplation and pee breaks), I realized I missed all the funny jokes, most of which come courtesy of robots.  Once the space mission is under way, we meet TARS and CASE.  Humourously programmed to the specifications of their human masters, they’re basically obedient, life size, metallic, four-legged Kit Kat bars.  TARS’ attempts at humour in two scenes make you wish there was more of it.

Having a better handle on the early scenes which are crucial to establishing our connection to the characters and with full concentration regarding all the scientific matters pertaining to the plot, I now have a mostly clear understanding and true appreciation, even though, let’s face it, the big twist in the final act requires a huge suspension of disbelief.  I went with it, though, because of Interstellar’s strongest quality, its incredible special effects.  Even back in 2014, I couldn’t deny how spectacular the visuals are in this film.

Like M. Night Shyamalan’s best work, silence becomes its own character, most especially during the space travel scenes.  As that spinning space station rolls on beyond the Earth up close or past Saturn at a distance, the use of no sound is stunning.  When a major character meets a grisly demise, you hear the interior explosion for a second.  And then, as we quickly witness the damage done from the outside, absolute quiet.  Really effective.  I’ve been trying to think of another production that has used this technique but I’m drawing a blank.

When the space crew lands on these treacherous, distant globes, even though these sequences were shot in Iceland and Ireland, they feel otherworldly, especially the cold, white-rocked planet where you can’t breathe freely because there’s only ammonia in the air, not oxygen.

I liked all the performances.  For a while there, Matthew McConaughey seemed resigned to slumming it in bad romantic comedies, so it’s a relief to see him in a more satisfying dramatic role.  His breezy, familial charm neatly belies a tough survival instinct that serves him well over the course of the movie.  We like him, we care about him and we feel for his impossible undertaking and what he has abandoned to pursue it.

Anne Hathaway holds her own as one of his crew members.  It’s not exactly a surprise that these characters find themselves drawn to each other despite some occasional strategic tension although the movie wisely pushes that idea far into the background for the most part.  Wes Bentley and David Gyasi could’ve been relegated to nothing roles as the rest of the team but they deliver convincing performances and make the most of their limited screen time.  They’re smart characters in over their heads.

Chastain and Affleck do good work, as well, playing the adult versions of McConaughey’s children and I must acknowledge Topher Grace, a NASA doc, who continues to prove there’s more to him than sitcom parts.

Matt Damon’s sudden appearance in the final stretch jolts the movie at just the right time and temporarily turns it into an action film.  I love a good heel turn and God knows it’s necessary here.  Running close to three hours, Interstellar is definitely too long and could’ve easily been trimmed by a good 15-20 minutes.  About midway through, after the tidal wave planet fiasco, the film drags a bit, wallowing in failure and frustration, before thankfully regrouping and regaining its momentum.

Having seen the film a second time now, I understand why it didn’t receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination, despite some critics like Richard Roeper arguing for its excellence.  Interstellar just doesn’t compare to Christopher Nolan’s best work, Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy.  Hell, I don’t even think it’s as compelling as the Insomnia remake.  All of these superior efforts build tension in a much more forceful way where you become acutely aware of the clock.  Because we don’t know exactly how much time human beings on Earth have left before they’re wiped out completely because of the coming famine, you don’t feel the urgency of this seemingly doomed mission.  It doesn’t help that the movie’s pacing can be uneven at times.

As for the somewhat questionable scientific theories put forth, they are intriguing nonetheless and do lead to that memorable final act where all is revealed.  There are some nice, emotional pay-offs.

In the end, Interstellar is a good movie that acts and thinks like a great one without really earning it.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, July 24, 2017
3:21 a.m.

Published in: on July 24, 2017 at 3:21 am  Leave a Comment  

The Transformers: The Movie

Let’s see if I have this right.  The Decepticons, the villainous robots that can also pass for weapons, planes, audio equipment and insects, are settler-colonists who conquer their sworn enemies, the Autobots, the good robots who can also pass for cars, trucks, audio equipment and dinosaurs.

While the Decepticons occupy the Autobots on their home planet, secret plans for an eventual uprising take place on one of their two moons.  Megatron, the leader of the Decepticons who can also pass for a gun, sends a loyal surveillance spy (really a smaller, robotic bird that can transform into a tape recorder) to record their resistance plans.  This allows the Decepticons to sneak attack an Autobots shuttle in mid-flight in space and overtake it as it heads towards a secret base on a different planet as they hope to kill more Autobots.

In this scenario, the Decepticons are like Zionists, robot supremacists with a false sense of entitlement towards land that doesn’t belong to them, and the Autobots are like Palestinians, victims of an illegal occupation who resist being conquered and eliminated.

That’s a pretty provocative set-up for an animated kids movie.

But The Transformers: The Movie isn’t interested in politics.  All it cares about is action.  Lots of it.  Oh, and, because it’s an 80s movie, it has an unhealthy love for glam metal.  As two sets of transforming robots (I will always love that sound effect) attempt to obliterate each other on numerous planets, moons and in outer space for almost 90 minutes, there’s rarely a moment when some overwrought metal singer isn’t trying to hog the spotlight with “inspirational” lyrics.

Only one song really stands out.  The Touch, the cheesetastic anthem later improved upon by a surprisingly game Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. (How fitting that he ended up replacing Shia LaBeouf in the live-action Transformers series.)  It’s ridiculous but the original is also undeniably catchy, a true guilty pleasure.

Actually, there’s two, now that I think about it.  Because the Scotti Brothers were responsible for releasing the soundtrack, there’s “Weird” Al Yankovic, their most successful signing, paying homage to Devo in Dare To Be Stupid during a sequence set on a planet made entirely of spare robot parts.  Like some of the instrumental rock tracks here, it seems oddly out of place (it’s not exactly an ideal fight song), that is until an impromptu robot dance party breaks out.  Are the filmmakers admiting defeat?  Are they acknowledging they made a bad film?

Wait, I’m forgetting the title track, a revved-up metal pop version of the theme song from the original TV series (which began two years before this movie).  Performed by Lion (was Whitesnake unavailable?), we get a short version with minimum lyrics during the start of the opening titles and then a more fleshed out take during the end credits.  It’s so over the top (the singer is trying so hard to sell this shit) but the arrangement is unfortunately far from exciting.  The opening drum break is a little too similar to We’re Not Gonna Take It so it never gets off to a strong start.

Far from exciting is how I would also describe the animated action sequences that make up the bulk of The Transformers: The Movie (yes, that is its official title).  We just don’t care.  Although we can tell the difference between the two groups, there are too many characters to keep track of.  And because the film is dedicated to showcasing constant war at almost every turn, there’s very little time to develop their personalities in distinctly interesting ways, though admittedly there are modest, mostly unamusing efforts in that regard.  (Curiously, the live action Michael Bay films have the same problem even though the running times average a punishing two and a half hours.)

The Transformers: The Movie features some surprisingly famous voices.  A sometimes stiff Judd Nelson is Hot Rod, the Autobot who is close to a young boy, the son of a scientist who works with the occupied robots on one of their home planet moons.  (They’re the only human characters in the film.)  Robert Stack is fine as Ultra Magnus, another Autobot given an important responsibility.  Casey Kasem has a small, thankless role as an Autobot named Cliffjumper.  Ditto Scatman Crothers who voices Jazz, a robot Uhura.  Eric Idle is annoying as the awkwardly named Wreck-Gar, a Mexican-looking transformer that lives on that planet of junk and does nothing but quote TV, mostly commercial and newscast clichés.

In the film’s first scene, we meet Unicron.  (Nope, that’s not a typo.)  Believe it or not, this planet-sized transformer with an insatiable appetite (he’s a robot Death Star) is voiced by none other than Orson Welles which seems like a cruel joke.  (This was his last movie role.  He died before the film’s theatrical release.)  When Megatron loses a battle against the Autobots, the badly damaged Decepticon leader is summoned by Unicron who forces him to go on an inevitably doomed mission.  He wants him to retrieve this glowing ball of light known as the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, a very misleading name as it turns out, and destroy it.

Too weak to continue on as Megatron (gotta love that name), Unicron transforms him into Galvatron who is suddenly voiced by…Leonard Nimoy?  (Not logical, Captain.)  When one of the Decepticons attempts to take over leadership duties in his absence, Galvatron swoops in during his swearing-in ceremony and, well, that’s the end of that attempted coup.

The Transformers: The Movie is probably best known for killing off a number of major characters including the most famous one from the original TV series.  It takes guts to knock off someone that important to your bottom line (remember, these were Hasbro toys originally) and it’s no wonder the decision was deeply unloved by fans.  (He was eventually resurrected Spock-like in the third and final season of the original TV show.)  Considering how he’s the best-voiced character in the film, it was clearly a mistake.  He’s irreplaceable.

Also surprising are the two curse words that pop up out of nowhere.  I never expected to hear “shit” from an Autobot.  And when Ultra Magnus tries to open the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, “damn” seems more than appropriate.  Funny how the Decepticons keep it clean.

Much has changed in the world of animation since the 1986 release of The Transformers: The Movie.  With the notable exception of anime, feature-length cartoons are now mostly three-dimensional computer-oriented ventures.  American studios, including Disney, have mostly abandoned 2D projects.

I have mixed feelings about this dramatic change.  Yes, the quality of the animation has greatly improved (more intricate details, more colourful), but the quality of the storytelling has greatly diminished.  The visuals of The Transformers: The Movie is by no means spectacular (it’s mostly average and unsuited for big screens) but the plot, while also not particularly good, at least has some ambition unlike recent dreck like The Secret Life Of Pets and Home.  There might not be much suspense (the film was meant as a bridge between the 2nd & 3rd seasons of the first TV series) but, gratuitous cartoon violence aside, at least it doesn’t pander.  The film isn’t stupid (well, except for that kangaroo robot court that bizarrely confuses “innocent” for “guilty”), just not interesting or deep.

If it had even more courage, better jokes and actual excitement, The Transformers: The Movie could’ve performed the ultimate transformation.  It could’ve been more than just an ad for Hasbro.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 16, 2017
3:33 p.m.

Published in: on July 16, 2017 at 3:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Cat In Paris

During the day, he comforts a young girl in mourning.  But by night, he’s an accomplice in a series of daring cat burglaries. 

The twist?  He’s not human.

A Cat In Paris is an animated feature from France that became a surprise Oscar nominee in 2012.  It hadn’t even been released in North America at the time (it was first seen in Europe in late 2010).  Whether or not its unexpected recognition from the Motion Picture Academy played a major role, it did eventually have a limited cinematic run here that same year.

Reviews were exuberant.  Critics were, for the most part, enthralled.  Now that I’ve had a chance to screen it myself, I have to say this mass enthusiasm is greatly misplaced.

A Cat In Paris looks and feels like something rejected out of the National Film Board of Canada.  The animation, while colourfully pastel, does not wow you or overwhelm you.  It is deliberately crude and artsy.  Some shots do look great, but you’re certainly not going to mistake this for a Disney feature. 

For its North American release, French voice actors from the original are replaced with Americans, some of whom employ various European accents.  (I can recall only one French-sounding supporting character.)

Marcia Gay Harden is a widowed cop whose husband, a fellow officer, was murdered by a gangster with a curious Cockney accent named Victor Costa.  (Harden doesn’t have any accent at all.)  He’s obsessed with an African artifact called The Colossus of Nairobi which he’s planning once again to steal.  (It has some strange connection to his childhood.)  During a police briefing, Harden informs her law enforcement colleagues that they need to keep an eye out during its secret relocation.  Knowing he’s going to make a play for it, this is Harden’s chance to finally nab the man who destroyed her family.

Meanwhile, her young daughter hasn’t spoken a word since her dad’s death.  (Gee, I wonder if she’ll ever talk again.)  The only thing keeping her going is that mysterious black tomcat that routinely kills and retrieves tiny lizards for her from nearby rooftops.  (Charming.)  She keeps them in a tiny box and when her overworked mother comes home from the precinct early on still talking to someone at work, she tries to show her her growing collection.  Harden’s indifference then her disgust (apparently it’s bad form for little girls to like creepy crawlies) pisses her off so much (leaving her bedroom, her mom takes yet another call on her cell phone in the middle of their own conversation) she throws the box against the wall.

Because she can’t be in two places at once, a guilt-ridden Harden hires a Scottish sounding Anjelica Huston to look after her kid.  She hates the cat.  He keeps sneezing at the smell of her rather potent perfume.  But Huston has a secret.  It’s no coincidence she sought out this broken family.

In the film’s first scene, the cat teams up with a nimble, nervy cat burglar who infiltrates a diamond company building (cleverly named Diacom) and easily outsmarts the two distracted security guards.  It’s played for laughs that never come.

The acrobatic thief apparently has no family or friends, just the cat who, for some reason, has no moral objections to helping him steal valuable items.  (In another scene, they rob a couple while they sleep.)  At first, it’s not clear why he even needs the cat.  He seems to be doing just fine on his own.  (Maybe he’s just lonely.)  But when he gets into a legal jam late in the film, you start to understand.

Like a typical episode of Seinfeld, all these storylines come together when Harden’s daughter, curious about where the cat goes at night, overhears Costa and his gang of loyal goons plotting to steal the Colossus.  (They’re not exactly discreet, which one of them openly acknowledges.)  When she gets caught, they go after her and she ends up temporarily hiding in the cat burglar’s place.  (The mobsters end up finding all his stolen loot in a secret room in the basement.)  When he comes home, he becomes surprisingly paternal and protective of her.

But then, while trying to lead the mob guys away from his new friend and the cat (who are headed towards the local zoo), Harden and her partner Matthew Modine arrest him and despite his many attempts to tell them the truth, they don’t believe a word he says.  By the time they realize he’s right, Harden’s daughter is missing.

A Cat In Paris has the curious distinction of feeling both overstuffed and incomplete.  (It runs a mere 65 minutes.)  Why does the cat burglar need all that valuable stuff?  Is he a collector?  Is he planning to sell it all?

Why is the cat burglar enamoured with Harden’s daughter when she exposed his secret?  Did Harden not do a thorough background check on Huston?  And why is she slow to realize the cat’s role in all the burglaries?

The film makes the mistake of trying to be too many things at once.  It’s a heist picture, a gangster movie, an action adventure, a revenge film, a drama, a thriller and a comedy.  It has no laughs, sadly, and the other elements, which aren’t as bad, aren’t strong enough to overcome its weak comic tone.  (I did admire the second musical cue, the string-heavy classical one, a thankfully recurring theme.  The slow, piano-driven motif is too derivative and dreary.) There’s a tired running gag involving the cat and a yappy dog that keeps annoying his owner.  And Costa, in an apparent tribute to Reservoir Dogs, gives his accomplices lame nicknames (Mr. Frog, Mr. Baby, Mr. Potato) in order to protect their identities.

A Cat In Paris is also fairly predictable and by the time we reach the finale at the gothic Notre Dame Cathedral (which I have to admit is well animated), it’s not exactly suspenseful or gripping.  Things get a little weird and then in the end, the final result is a bit too neat and tidy.  Are they really trying to push two characters together romantically?  And how exactly does one character avoid serious prison time?

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
4:19 a.m.

Published in: on July 11, 2017 at 4:19 am  Leave a Comment  

In An Attempt To Ban Overzealous Trump Supporters, John Cusack Accidentally Blocks 2 Journalists On Twitter. I’m One Of Them.

Being blocked by a celebrity on Twitter is something of a surreal experience.  Out of the thousands of mentions and messages they receive daily, somehow you’ve managed to break through and be acknowledged.  But then, just as quickly, rejected.

Sometimes, there’s a response before you get blocked.  Sometimes, nothing at all.

Usually, when I get blocked by a famous person, there’s a good reason for it:  I’ve pissed them off.

As I noted in this space four years ago, Obama apologist Sophia Bush wasn’t terribly thrilled with my harsh criticisms of her.  After lamely engaging with me twice, she ignored me for a couple of months.  Then, fed up with more criticism, I was blocked.

After arguing with Rosie O’Donnell about an article Radley Balko wrote in The Washington Post, she blocked me, too.

Porn star Eden Alexander, who I was friendly with for years on Twitter, didn’t realize I’m anti-Hillary Clinton (my roughly 800 followers know this wasn’t exactly a state secret) until I pointed out to her the former Secretary of State’s questionable human rights record.  After noting her awful history of espousing policies that disproportionately hurt already suffering people of colour, according to Alexander, an Asian-American, I was exercising my “white privilege”.  Then, she blocked me.  We haven’t spoken since.

I didn’t even realize Bill Cosby was aware of me until out of curiosity I checked his account to see if he was publicly addressing the numerous women who’ve accused him of sexual assault.  Barely active on the social network, I was shocked to see he had blocked me.  I didn’t realize he knew I had been tweeting article after article about his predatory behaviour.  When I was younger, I was a huge fan of his.  But way too slowly over time, as an adult, I’ve eventually grown appalled by his actions.  Honestly, I’m pretty proud of that block.

The same thing happened with Jerry “The King” Lawler.  He was accused by his girlfriend of physical abuse and I tweeted some articles about the incident.  (The matter was eventually dropped altogether.)  That was enough to get me blocked.  John “Bradshaw” Layfield apparently doesn’t like people who support Mauro Ranallo, the former Smackdown Live play-by-play announcer he once worked with and allegedly bullied.  (Ranallo has since resurfaced on NXT.)  I was one of many who suddenly found themselves unable to read his tweets, even though I have never engaged with him on Twitter.

How weird to be blocked by two former colour commentators on Raw.

Harry Potter author JK Rowling doesn’t like those who support BDS for a free Palestine so she blocked me.  I still don’t know why Wil Wheaton won’t allow me to see his tweets any more.  I was actually following him for a while.

Certain journalists aren’t too fond of me, either.

I don’t remember what I did to annoy Tom Hawthorn years ago.  But he blocked me.

Cancer survivor and Boing Boing journo Xeni Jardin, who I otherwise had positive exchanges with, didn’t appreciate my listing of Obama’s worst policies, so, she rescinded my follow and shut the blinds on her tweets.

The Huffington Post’s Lauren Duca had some mysterious issue with me which led to me being blocked by her.  But, much to my surprise, I’m now unblocked.

I’m pretty sure the reason Alexa O’Brien temporarily blocked me was because I’m an Edward Snowden supporter.  Her animus towards him is baffling considering her strong, unquestioning backing of the recently released Chelsea Manning.  (I’ve been a Manning champion, as well.)  We had nothing but pleasant conversations, too.  Strange.

Arthur Chu and Media Matters For America’s Oliver Willis, who I called a “transphobic moron” for his anti-Manning views, don’t want anything to do with me, either.  (The feeling is mutual.)  I blocked Warren Kinsella, the controversial Liberal strategist, before he curiously blocked me.  Used to be friendly with him, too.  Not anymore.

Disappointingly, I can now add John Cusack to this growing list.

Recently, the actor (whose best movie remains The Grifters) and political activist (he was a Bernie Sanders supporter during the 2016 election) decided to mass block a number of overzealous Donald Trump “trolls”, as he frequently describes them, who have been swarming his timeline for months.  (Before that, he had been responding critically to some here and there.)  Unfortunately, this decision has led to some Trump critics getting blocked, as well.  Cusack seemed to anticipate this in a couple of subsequent tweets:

“Block lists have weeded out many of the [Trump] troll bots – but I’m sure some [were] blocked who aren’t trolls so sorry!”

“If you know any non maga [Trump’s campaign slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’] trolls who want to be unblocked let me know – ”

Shadowproof managing editor Kevin Gosztola was puzzled by his blocking, as I was by mine.  Considering the fact that I have been nothing but supportive of Cusack (we’ve had few exchanges but they’ve all been friendly), I’m more than a little miffed by his sudden rejection of my follow.  How did I, and Gosztola for that matter, end up on a Trump troll block list when neither of us have exactly been gung-ho for this misogynistic, racist, serial abuser?

Anyway, the longer I’m blocked by Cusack without explanation, the more irritated and offended I feel by his mistake.  I asked Gosztola on Twitter if Cusack unblocked him yet.  He didn’t respond.

What’s really ironic about all of this?  Like Xeni Jardin, Cusack’s on the board of the Freedom Of The Press Foundation.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, July 6, 2017
2:52 a.m.

Published in: on July 6, 2017 at 2:52 am  Leave a Comment