American Beauty (1999)

american beauty


American Beauty is the kind of filmgoing experience that eludes rating systems. It’s as predictable as it is surprising, an occasionally entrancing, frequently annoying and finally overwhelming case study in human frailty that turns out to be just as frail as the humans it depicts — and all the more fascinating for it. In sixteen years, it has aged terribly yet hasn’t aged at all, and a reasonable case could be made for giving it either two or five stars. I’m going with four because more than that would be unfair and less would be insincere, but I can’t recall another film to which the amount of stars given was of less significance.

Stars, it pays to remember, are just stuff. I don’t think this movie is above qualification, but it is so adamant in its appeal to subjectivity that it all but begs you not to step back and pick it apart. Most fiction aims for certain preordained emotional or intellectual responses; American Beauty appears to fall into that box for a good deal of its running time, but in the end, the accumulation of its manipulative moments seems deliberately designed to elicit a different response in each viewer. Yes, we can all sympathize with its investigation of grace and happiness in a hopelessly imperfect world, but that investigation is done in a way that keeps the highest common factor at a minimum, perhaps because director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball realize that the titular beauty is inherently relative.

Consider Wes Bentley’s character. A shell-shocked, perfectly incoherent weirdo, he walks around with a camcorder in hand, filming everything and everyone with no regard for privacy, because he believes that his pursuit of everyday allure is more important than whatever mundane limitations he’s transgressing. In one way, he seems to be the embodiment of the movie’s ethos, but, even discounting his social difficulties, there’s something off about his beliefs: he speaks of a dying homeless woman as if she were a double rainbow whose suffering is meant to give him chills, and, for all his talk of appreciating the hidden beauty of things, he’s so quick to dismiss a girl he doesn’t like as boring and ordinary that you’d think the poor creature was a cardboard cutout. The script presents his immaturity bluntly enough to leave no doubt about it, but it’s never interested in judging or even questioning him. Ultimately, he’s another messed-up piece in the narrative’s mosaic of clashing worldviews, and we’re free to be moved by his thoughts or repelled by his actions as we see fit; to find our own beauty, so to speak, in his pain and his coping.

In that way, he really is an embodiment of the filmmakers’ mission, not as a mouthpiece so much as a synecdoche. American Beauty wants to be the archetypal “story about the human condition,” and it’s made by people who really want you to know that our flaws are as important as our virtues. Which, to be fair, may be a bit of a self-serving point, depending on whether you consider the film’s slovenliness to be a deliberate meta-defense of its own principles or a plain old case of clumsy execution. I’m not sure where I stand on that matter, but, like I said, that doesn’t matter much. It’s better to simply accept American Beauty for what it is, and it is something of a beautiful mess.

That’s why it’s perfectly possible to celebrate its affirmation of life without ignoring, say, the intermittent artificiality that seems to diminish its understanding of said life, or to admire its titanic ambition while acknowledging that some of Mendes and Ball’s flourishes are simply too much. (Case in point: the in media res opening, which creates some suffocating tension, then never pays off.) This is the rare movie in which the protagonist is someone you can simultaneously root for and roll your eyes at, and all the other characters are attended to with the same balance of acidity and empathy. It’s a movie that begins full of promise, slogs through a trite first act, throws itself into an inconsistent middle portion, comes together amazingly in its final minutes and ends on the smuggest final line ever written. I don’t know if a leaner, less arrogant, more incisive picture would have been necessarily preferable to this one. I do know that the crew and cast have accomplished something unique and worth examining.

Especially the cast. Where Ball falters as a writer, the actors consistently rise to the occasion, turning even the most dated of stereotypes — Chris Cooper’s angry dad is transparent from the moment he first appears — into striking tragic figures. The highlight is Annette Bening, whose nagging wife is benefited the most by the film’s eventual upgrade from shallow cultural satire to sprawling character study; Bening masterfully takes her from a man’s emasculating suburban nightmare on two legs to a layered, heartbreaking individual.

The only one whose performance doesn’t ring entirely true is, as it should be, Kevin Spacey himself; Lester Burnham is one of the defining characters of the ’90s less because of his complexity and more because of his improbability. Unlike his fellow cast members, Spacey doesn’t try to ground his character; he plays him exactly as he is written, a passive-aggressive, scenery-chewing, perpetually baffled everyman who communicates mostly through sarcasm and fits of rage. A lot of the time, it’s a marvel to behold, such as when he attends a fancy party and can barely disguise his contempt for everyone in attendance, but it mostly comes through as a jarring deviation from the rest of the ensemble’s more natural acting. That’s not a bad thing, only a strange one, and Lester’s larger-than-life persona ends up making him the ideal man to headline this strange film — not least because, to Spacey’s credit, the character’s hammy exterior never keeps us from seeing his agonizing spirit.

The bottom line here seems to be that, no matter how much we try to disguise it, everyone can’t help but go through the motions, and we might as well own up to that because hey, that’s beautiful. Or maybe it isn’t; it really depends on whether you’re the soulful teenager or the dying homeless woman. Sam Mendes is a little bit of both, and there are moments in American Beauty that stir the soul regardless of which perspective you favor, even if they are a little lost amid the mishmash. It’s funny, really, how he’s almost accidentally made a movie that’s kind of exactly like life.


Foxcatcher (2014)



Foxcatcher isn’t for everybody. Hell, it’s barely even for me. It creeps through its real-life chain of aggravating episodes with quiet resolution, almost never raising its voice, painting every place and person with measured, desaturated strokes, and when it moves in for the (figurative and literal) kill, it’s in a blunt, deliberately frustrating fashion. This is just the way things were, director Bennett Miller seems to be telling us; however much the film’s script may have deviated from the facts, Miller never disrespects their stranger-than-fiction edge in the name of Hollywoodness. If anything, he overplays the offputting and bizarre in his material, from Steve Carell’s slightly-too-uncanny demeanor in the skin of noted weirdo John Du Pont to the unabashed thematic fixation with America, America, America and her vices. Some things in Foxcatcher absolutely do not belong in the plain, messy, non-metaphoric realm of real life from where it was theoretically drawn. It’s a strange direction for a ripped-from-the-headlines movie to go in, this determination to fill every corner of the screen with waveringly visible subtext, but I respect Miller for trying it — after all, it just about worked. The movie it produced is an engrossing, commendably discomfiting slice of Greek tragedy, with just enough thesis-statement introspection to make it worth revisiting.

Yes, it’s boring. Its plot would have trouble piquing anyone’s interest, I suspect even Miller’s, were it not for its horrible, tabloid-fueling conclusion. There’s very little amusement to derive from the messed-up psychological match between an aimless freestyle wrestler and the stern, narcissistic billionaire who offers him the world, especially when both men are so painfully incapable of communicating their thoughts and emotions. A lot of the dialogue in Foxcatcher is found not in spoken words but in the sour, subtly volatile expressions of Carell and Channing Tatum, who give Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons a run for their money as the pair of male leads with the strangest, most captivating dynamic of 2014. (I’m tempted to say both this and Whiplash focus on mentor-pupil relationships, but that’s not true of Foxcatcher: Carell and the filmmakers go out of their way to show Du Pont is only a “coach” in his own head.) And yes, close-ups of faces aren’t particularly fun to watch for two hours. Personally, I think the word “boring” is an empty accusation in and of itself; it’s perfectly acceptable as a subjective reason to dislike a movie, but when it comes to film criticism, one must try to look past it. If this film were “boring” and offered nothing in lieu of entertainment, then yes, I would be the first to dismiss it. But a “boring” movie in the conventional, slow-moving, uneventful sense is not always the same as an uninteresting one (my favorite movie of 2012 was The Master, a film that got called boring so many times some doctors may have started prescribing it as insomnia treatment), and Foxcatcher is eminently interesting if you’re on board with its peculiar aesthetic.

First and foremost, of course, because Miller has the tact to find what’s intriguing in his true narrative, and to never lose focus on that. The murder at the center of the Foxcatcher furor may have been what drew the filmmakers to this story, but it turns out that it wasn’t a random act of violence: the possible “why”s found in the preceding years of desolation, uncertainty and ass-kissing at the training facility thus form the meat of the film. The notorious killing itself is not the gist of the story, but a result of it. When it happens in the movie, it feels almost like a non-sequitur. It isn’t, though; the subtle psychoanalisis leading to that moment is always on point — even if it’s sometimes too subtle for some tastes, if not outright vague. Is Du Pont sponsoring a wrestling team because he’s compelled to embody the great American values he keeps bringing up, or because he wants to impress his mother? Is he a normal person consumed by entitlement or does he have some sort of mental illness? Are Mark Schultz’s constant attempts to please him a reflex of deep-seated father issues, or just a childish response to his aid? Does Mark eventually want to leave Foxcatcher because he feels harassed by Du Pont or because he has had enough of freestyle wrestling? None of those questions have clear answers, and the movie allows for multiple readings, but the character work never rings a false note. In the end, any interpretations take us to the same conclusions regarding the film’s grander themes.

Admittedly, those conclusions aren’t exactly revolutionary: the United States are a country fueled by false ideology, ruled by petty magnates and tormented by unhealthy delusions of grandeur. Miller is more interested in showing the effects of those well-known national maladies on a personal level than in diagnosing new ones. This is a less profound study than the likes of The Social Network or The Master, then, but it’s still a fascinating snapshot in its own right, as rarely has a movie felt so disturbingly Eaglelandish. The simultaneously lifeless and excessive production design, the punctual and incisive appearance of handguns, the omnipresence of cameras and television footage as a repackaging of reality, everything on screen collaborates to create the aura of a revelatory American nightmare. Again, that’s an unexpectedly expressionistic vein for a true-crime flick, but again it is called for. How could it not with such an innately weird subject matter?

The same can be said about a lot of Foxcatcher, and the movie’s greatest merit lies in never going overboard with its larger-than-life stylistic choices. That balance is hard to pull off, so props to Bennett Miller for managing it. His Best Director win at Cannes seems fair enough on that front. For an example of that, take Carell’s performance. Considering his past work, surely the actor himself is more than capable of manifesting a wide range of emotions, with or without a truckload of prosthetic makeup covering his face (though it begs remembrance that the real Du Pont did have the static eyebrows and awkward facial tics that many found disconcerting in Carell’s characterization), so the almost imperturbable stillness of his countenance must have been a directorial choice. Watch videos of Du Pont giving interviews and you may find yourself wondering what’s the point; he was a creepy man for sure, but he seemed capable enough of expressing human emotion, at least in front of the cameras. In Foxcatcher, Du Pont remains austere even when he’s being filmed. We barely see him as a human being. Carell’s work impeccably captures the man at his least sociable, but never goes for more than that facet; even his complexities are contained within a constant coldness. Yet it works — not as a faithful reproduction of real life so much as a re-interpretation of Du Pont’s conduct that serves the film’s artistic intentions. This is not a man, this is a vampire. A billionaire, quixotic, extremely influential vampire. There must be others like him.

Self-effacingly venturous traits like that make Foxcatcher an astutely terrifying film, especially if you’re American and have to live with its insinuations. That it’s overall very successful at sustaining its hair-raising tone is a fortunate quality, too, because, putting aside its firm command of the basic elements of compelling fiction, this is a movie of multiple ambitions. It’s part character study, part social/cultural critique, part interpersonal drama, fluctuating between these three aptitudes almost experimentally. Miller and company always appear to know what they’re doing but sometimes they lead us to question what they’re doing it for — are they trying to conjure a meaningful fable of patriotic subversion? Are they mounting a showcase for the great trio of principal actors? Are they simply just trying to tell a story they thought was worth telling? The last hypothesis seems unlikely; as said before, there’s nothing starkly cinematic about the facts themselves, just the rather mundane saga of two very problematic men going head-to-head. If a movie was made out of this particular tale, it’s because somebody saw something worthy of attention beneath the surface, which brings me back to the possibility that Foxcatcher wants to be a capital-I Important movie. You know, about the perils of wealth and the psychology of combat sports and stuff like that.

If so, does it succeed? Partly; its ruminations are sometimes a little on-the-nose, and its concerns are never quite universal. As hard as everybody tries, this falls short of being a great film. Maybe it’s how opaque it is, maybe it’s the ambivalence of its driving purpose, maybe it’s the incomprehensibly shoddy makeup work done on Mark Ruffalo’s forehead. It’s not an easy movie to enjoy, respect or admire, not that it’s interested in being one. Just what it’s really interested in may be an even more absorbing question than the ones posed by the script, actually. Still, it’s very well-made, with scenes of reliable individual power and more than a few positively haunting moments. And as much as it may keep us guessing to the point of resisting analysis, it does leave at least three unequivocal legacies: first, it reminds the public of the huge talents of Tatum, Carell and Ruffalo, all three of whom have some trouble being taken seriously as actors. Second, it gives us a rare, attentive portrayal of an often-overlooked sport.

Third, and that’s what really justifies the movie’s existence regardless of quibbles, it’s an affecting, invaluable tribute to Dave Schultz, whose death exceeded any observations.

Boyhood (2014)



I began writing this review of Boyhood almost a month ago, but never got around to finishing it until now — half because the year-end surge of interesting DVD releases (a lot of great films don’t really make theaters in Brazil, mind you) has kept me busy, and half because it’s a tough task to write about this film in any capacity. Many, many movies and a whole month of festivities and resentments after seeing it, I still remember walking out of the theater in absolute awe, wondering how I would ever explain to my friends, or to anyone, just why they should go and see it when my unforgettable experience watching it was so connected with my own personal experiences. That’s the closest I can get to formulating a useful verdict about Boyhood, I think — it’s capable of connecting with viewers so much that it’s very hard, once you’ve seen it, to take a few steps back, objectively determine its worth as a piece of art, and make arguments for it or against it. Which then again, given its similarly affectionate response among critics and audiences in general, means it managed to fulfill one of the primary goals of artistic creation. But a film review can’t only consist of something so vague as “This is great art,” so you see why it took me so long to write all of this.

In other words: I loved Boyhood to a degree that I don’t think can be made explicit through words alone.

I would normally be wary of such hyperbole, but right now I’m more than willing to make an exception because this movie is really that good. It wasn’t just the best film I’ve seen all year; it was one of the best films I have ever seen, point-blank. Having watched it for the first time less than a month ago, I would gladly watch it again right now, were it not for the fact that I want to wait a few years before I see it anew. It is so absolutely amazing on so many levels that writing about it is, to add to my previous point, a simultaneously futile and necessary exercise; even with all the detachment in the world, it would still take me a hundred posts to really dig into its greatness, and yet I can never hope to write something truly complete about Boyhood because my perspective on it is surely going to shift over time. I suspect I’ll never not love it, though, and that’s why it’s necessary for me to write something. I am a teenager, after all. How I feel about this particular movie now may be more relevant than however else I ever feel about it.

Not that it isn’t universal, of course. It is very universal, its loose narrative progression so unconcerned with conventional plot formations that it’s literally not possible for me or anyone to provide a summary other than “the life of a young male and his family over 12 years.” I’m sure you’ve heard everything about it that has been said since it was released last summer — that it presents the highs and lows of life with immaculate sincerity, that it’s as deeply generous to its characters as you’d expect from director Richard Linklater, that it’s rich and groundbreaking enough to be called a landmark film. All of these things are true, and they’re not even getting into some of the film’s ancillary value. Boyhood is, for instance, the most intimate summation yet of the changes in American culture over the past decade, with a soundtrack that employs the likes of early Coldplay, Gnarls Barkley, Cobra Starship and Arcade Fire to mark the passage of time. (What a long way have we come from singing “Oops, I Did It Again” to annoy our younger siblings.) Its characters engage in impassioned discussions about politics, religion, and other pressing matters, and in doing so paint a historically valuable, human-sized picture of the big concerns of our turbulent days. Yet Boyhood is never really about these environmental modifications; the changes it cares for are personal, and they are what make this movie what it is.

But, like I just wrote, everything superlative that can be said about the enthralling humanity of Boyhood has been already said and re-said and countered and said again with a vengeance. I personally have no problem with adding my voice to the chorus of acclaim, but that would almost certainly feel redundant by this point, so what I will say is this: as someone who’s more-or-less in the middle of the strange curve usually chronicled by coming of age films, I thought Boyhood was one of the first films of that sort to really speak to me in a meaningful way. I don’t mean it elicits the “oh, this is so relatable” feel usually sought by “teen movies,” though it most certainly does, nor do I mean it’s filled to the brink with boldface lessons on growing up, though it occasionally offers up a few dashes of quiet wisdom (one particular line near the end has, in fact, stayed with me ever since I heard it). It spoke to me in the sense that it finally understood the tribulations of young age as opposed to just reproducing them from a distance, almost as if the scenes had been written by the titular boy himself just before they were shot. That unusual empathy, combined with Linklater’s self-evident skill as a mature storyteller, makes for the rare cinematic childhood/adolescence that feels lived rather than filmed, but at the same time considered rather than laid bare. A bad haircut, for instance, would be sitcom fodder elsewhere; here, it’s a disarmingly important dramatic moment, from which the writer/director and his wonderful lead Ellar Coltrane manage to extract more truth and heft than ten other coming of age flicks combined. It’s unusual for a relatively mainstream American movie to embrace that kind of naturalism, but if anybody was going to do it, thank god it was Richard Linklater.

This is where I have to acknowledge that of course my opinion on Boyhood is partial, because how else would I respond to this film, a film that focuses so sincerely and meaningfully on both my own demographic and the one I belonged to a few years ago, but with unbridled enthusiasm? Rest assured, however: it gets everybody right, not just the kids. In the rare occasions where it paints the adults with stronger, less natural colors — such as when a certain stepfather gets unexpectedly aggressive –, it does so in a continued effort to shape our hero Mason, Jr.’s worldview and advance his growth, and I can certainly not fault it for going that way one or two times when people act exaggeratedly and out of character in real life so often. Conversely, when it does take its time with Mason’s older influences, notably his hard-working mother and well-meaning father, the effect of watching them also grow from financially challenged young adults to the weary, altruistic variety of adults that reluctantly send their kids off to college is breathtaking, in no small part due to the brilliantly understated performances of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. They, too, unfold as people before our eyes, both in and out of the movie, as does Mason’s sister, as do his step siblings, as does his college girlfriend who appears only for a couple of scenes, as do even the somewhat peripheral stepparents. That’s all quite a feat when you stop to think that the movie is essentially one boy’s story from beginning to end.

You may have noticed, as I did just now, that, six paragraphs in, I have yet to mention the movie’s major technical innovation, the thing you remember when people tell you about it — and believe me, I haven’t been deliberately avoiding it. I hope that goes to showing that this movie is truly more than its so-called gimmick, even if I have to concede that it’s easy, even instinctive, to wonder how much of its success is attributable to the inevitable “wow” factor rather than the makers’ talent. Yes, the novelty of seeing the same actors play the same characters over a period of twelve years condensed into less than three swift hours would, by itself, provide us all with a unique cinematic experience, and I can’t say that accomplishment isn’t part of Boyhood‘s appeal. Of course it is. The lead actor all but doubles in height over the course of the movie — we have never seen anything quite like this in the history of film. That alone would make this a memorable venture even if the filmmaking itself wasn’t particularly noteworthy. And in all honesty, the story told in Boyhood also has the prior advantage of encompassing the very period of life that everybody agrees is most packed with twists and turns and dramatic changes in mind, body and soul: a film that focused on someone from, say, ages 35 to 47 might have been just as skillfully made, and would, of course, be fascinating in its own way, but it would probably not feel as epic as this one because look at how fast that effing kid is growing up. I get how those things can feel like an unfair head start — how could this movie not be striking? When it wins the Best Picture Oscar, the internet will be flooded with disparagers saying that everyone got carried away by the 12-year thing and that the movie would be nothing special without it.

For my part, I can only affirm it’s pointless to wonder whether this project would have been as winning in lesser hands, and more pointless still to try to distinguish between its concept and its workmanship — just as it was asinine last year to question Gravity‘s merit aside from the effects. The fact of the matter is that the idea behind Boyhood, to simply capture a boy growing into a man over a long time period and to do it as breathlessly up close as possible, is so good that it’s unbelievable nobody has tried it before, yet the execution of that exquisite concept is so accomplished that it actually makes us glad nobody has tried it but the people who did. Factor in the amount of things outside of anyone’s control that could have gone wrong in that risky 12-year production, and wow, this movie is a fucking miracle. I’m grateful to live in a world where it exists and I get to watch it, empathize with the people in it, be tenderly reminded of the deceptive simplicity of childhood and the overwhelming possibility of early adolescence, realize my sixteen-year-old self is still a long way from self-awareness, and somehow feel as though I myself have lived for twelve years in Texas as something more than a spectator. Boyhood is a work of art that taps into the ceaseless enchantment of life itself, and that’s why it’s going to be on our minds and in our hearts for a very, very long time.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

dawn of the planet of the apes


As someone who’s really fond of writing, it would be my first instinct to tell you that a screenplay is the most important part of a film — after all, we only ever come to take any interest in certain images or set pieces because there are complex, interesting characters and an original, compelling narrative behind them. Right? Well, sort of; it is almost universally true that a movie can’t be really great if the screenplay isn’t at least good, and it is very hard for a movie to not be at least good if the screenplay is great. But, though I’d be ready to fight alongside the writers if civil war ever broke out in Tinseltown, I can’t say with a straight face that a screenplay has to be great in order for the movie to be great as well. All of which is to say that, upon finishing watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the first thought that occurred to me was this: not since Avatar has a film’s adherence to well-worn tropes and black-and-white characterization been so completely beside the point.

Because, let’s be honest, this is a movie with well-worn tropes and black-and-white characterization. The plot follows many of the conventional war epic rhythms to a letter, from the confused teenage son (of which there are two, actually) to the gradual approximation between members of the two sides, from the idiot who ruins everything to the token female character whose role in the plot is to take care of everyone’s wounds. With the exception of Gary Oldman’s actually pretty interesting authority figure, everyone who’s good is good and everyone who’s bad is bad, with little room for ethical complexity — this isn’t the sort of movie where we waste much time questioning the hero’s motives. And that’s for the better, all of that is for the better, because Dawn… is so exciting and astonishing on a visceral, purely cinematic level that you can’t fault it for being structurally conventional. Its script is unabashedly old-fashioned, yes, but there’s enough groundbreaking stuff everywhere else to make a great film.

In fact, part of what makes this movie great is exactly the way the director, Matt Reeves of Cloverfield and Let Me In fame, resorts to storytelling customs to maximize the impact of the film’s more novel elements. In taking all the big movie commonplaces, distilling them, and using the remaining space to do things no other movie has ever done so efficiently, Reeves imbues Dawn… with an even more precise iteration of the high-spirited sturdiness that made the first film work so well; here’s a rare high-concept movie that more than does justice to the possibilities of its high concept, be it exploring humans’ unprecedented fear of submission to a different species or speculating which of man’s societal structures a civilization of apes might come to replicate. And so we watch, in the opening minutes, as they viciously hunt down deer with wooden spears, or sit around a wise, literate orangutan to be taught new things, or ride horses to San Francisco to tell those pesky humans to get off their lawn, and all of that is treated very seriously and in a way that makes the simian way of life feel plausible and fascinating.

Which is essential, of course, in a sequel that takes place 10 years after the original, following such big events as a viral apocalypse and the blossoming of an entire community of previously irrational primates. A lesser film would have forced its audience to take the apes’ dexterity for granted (“Just watch the first film and it’ll make sense”); instead, the solid groundwork laid by 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is used only as a springboard. You may not understand just how the apes managed to learn how to read and write if you haven’t seen the first installment, but here that bit of information is presented so naturally and skillfully that you just accept is as the truth and let the film move right on to the implications. And there are many, many implications, enough for ten high-profile action movies; as a piece of popular entertainment, Dawn… feels positively literary in its subtext, musing earnestly and eloquently about mankind’s place on Earth, the necessity and/or futility of war, how much of the failure of political systems is linked to a species’s animal nature, and other things you aren’t supposed to think about when you go watch a blockbuster. (This has been a fortunate trend in mass cinema; between this, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the Hunger Games series, it’s like Hollywood is slowly remembering it has a brain. (Ironic, then, that the best popcorn flick of the year has perhaps been the unabashedly escapist Guardians of the Galaxy.)) In that sense, it sets itself apart from other recent movie-movie megahits like Gravity and the aforementioned Avatar because, while its plot elements and characterization are still rather thin, there is a lot going on beneath the surface.

And yet it should be reiterated: with a surface like this, all of that thematic ambition wouldn’t even be necessary for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to be a remarkable film. It’s already got enough flair that certain scenes in it — I’m thinking of the not-a-single-human-being-in-sight deer hunt at the beginning, or the arresting physical match between the two principal, rivaling apes — seem poised to become staples of effects-driven film, or even of modern film in general, shot as they are with nearly impressionistic visual panache. That also applies to the climatic battle, which is filmed clearly and atmospherically in a beautifully-designed post-doom San Francisco and induces complete emotional involvement even as it gets partly lost in questionable action mechanics. The motion capture technology, too, is employed to startling effects, making for some of the most expressive digital characters ever committed to film. In a year without Interstellar, the film’s VFX Oscar would be in the bag (on that note, it’s still a bit strange to remember that the first, equally revolutionary chapter lost Effects to Hugo of all films); in a year without such a crowded field, I wouldn’t be that surprised to find it among the actual Best Picture nominees. It’s certainly got the weightiness.

And of course, in a year without the Academy’s usual grumpy-old-man antics, Andy Serkis would get an acting nomination for his sensational work as Caesar. This is wishful thinking, of course, and will be so for a long time — but honestly, it’s the Oscars’ loss. What Serkis does here is already expectable of someone with his credits, yet somehow it’s doubly impressive if you’re familiar with his work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and triply impressive if you’ve seen the first film. After selling Caesar’s complicated emotional journey in Rise…, Serkis embodies him in this one as a stern, dependable, morally weary hero that wouldn’t be out of place in a Shakespeare production; the only way I can conceive of another actor watching him here and not finding it one of the best performances of the year is if they fooled themselves into thinking it’s all just post-production (it isn’t; there’s a reason Serkis always gets called upon for jobs like this). It’s a singular combination of voice-over, facial expressions, and physical language that would ruin the movie if handed to the wrong actor. Here, once again, it elevates it, as do the turns of his other digitalized castmates, notably Toby Kebbell as devious bonobo Koba.

Good thing, too, because the human cast is almost uniformly bland. This is the one thing the 2011 movie’s got on this one; its Homo sapiens ensemble of James Franco et al. may have been just as generic, but at least its participation amounted to more than “humans being humans”, what with the tender relationship between Caesar and his owner->teacher->staggered friend. Now, as hard as the capable likes of Jason Clarke and Keri Russell try, they can’t really do much for the walking clichés they’re playing. Still, the acting is good enough that I became roundly invested in the humans’ fate, and I believe that will be enough for most audiences. So there you have it, Dawn…‘s most glaring flaw is actually not that much of a nuisance. Not a lot of movies can say that for themselves. Nor do many works of art manage to speak so readily to audiences while still offering them things they’re not accustomed to, and that has been the great blessing cast upon the world by this increasingly surprising Apes reboot series. Should the trend follow, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Batman vs. Superman movie turned out to be a challenging meditation on the subjectivity of justice.

No, actually, Zack Snyder is directing it, isn’t he? So yes, I would still be surprised. But my point stands.

Interstellar (2014)


It’s been several days since I saw Interstellar, and I’m still not sure how I’m going to write about it.

There are certain films, you see, whose impact is so overwhelming that giving them a proper formal assessment becomes all but beside the point; you can’t dissect any piece of art without killing some of its raw strength, and, me being a moviegoer before anything else, I have little interest in sidestepping the personal effect of a movie that manages to truly, unfailingly get to me in order to write a few paragraphs about the quality of its actors and dramatic structure. As of my first viewing, Interstellar firmly appears to be one such movie, and, certain as I am that it’s going to be targeted by any number of ferocious dissidents in the coming weeks, months, years, what have you, I don’t really see a point in distancing myself from it just to add in my two cents. Film criticism is often bitter work in that regard. But I still want to write about this film, because I found it so great and it moved me to such a degree that I feel compelled to acknowledge it in some way — it’s a special thing, one that must not be overlooked, for a movie to elicit such a response from anyone. Be advised, then, that this text is not exactly a film review so much as a film response.

And oh, what a vigorous response does a movie like this merit! I expected as much, really. Christopher Nolan is fairly liable to many of the same qualms as other successful Hollywood artists — he’s got trouble capturing humanity in its distilled form, he’s not quite as smart as he seems to think, he relies heavily on frequently unreliable instincts, he almost never writes women well — but I don’t think it’s a stretch to call him a visionary, and the way he always always always goes big has produced an assortment of what one might call “flawed masterpieces.” Yet Interstellar, in its easy-to-summarize tale of a group of astronauts leaving Earth for an unpredictable amount of time to find a new habitable planet after our own is plagued by environmental disaster, distinguishes itself from past juggernauts like Inception or the Dark Knight trilogy because, while those were feasts to the mind and eyes that used human feeling as their backbone, this ultra-long, ultra-costly space opera is first and foremost a film of emotions, where the tech and the puzzles are, all the way, second to the people on screen. That isn’t surprising of Nolan; if anything, it’s a formidable confirmation of something everyone who’s been following him for a while already saw coming. He was never a heartless director, and now, lo and behold, he is wearing his heart on his sleeve.

Which is why this is going to be his most divisive film yet. I can’t lie to anybody — Interstellar is just as ambitious, strange, confounding and weepy as you’d expect from the premise “Christopher Nolan does hard sci-fi,” and the result will be awe-inspiring to some and insufferable to others. To me, every last minute of it is awe-inspiring, every existential back-and-forth, every unexpected time lapse, every overbearing shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema. This is the modern space flick I and many others have been yearning for since it became clear that we could already portray space in film however we wanted; it’s intelligent, it’s lyrical, it’s philosophical, it’s not afraid to go out on a limb, and, by God, is it good-looking. It makes me even a little sad for Wally Pfister that he declined to work on this to go make Transcendence, because this is the sort of gig that can turn any D.P. into a living legend — something I honestly hope happens to Hoytema, who is overdue for recognition and does sensational work here.

That adjective is somewhat redundant, of course, with respect to Interstellar‘s technical crew. Everybody’s work is sensational; those who wished Gravity would have taken its technical prowess a bit further into space last year will be happy to find in this film set pieces that no one has ever attempted or been able to attempt before, from the inside of a black hole to waves the size of mountain ranges. In the haunting enormity of the unexplored cosmos, Nolan has found the ideal vessel for his obsession with scale — this is, therefore, a picture that must be seen on a large screen, with a theatrical sound system blasting left and right, in order to be duly experienced, which makes it fitting that it’s getting the widest IMAX release of all time. But of course, there were many movies in the past which were technical spectacles, so it would not be fair of me to give this one’s craftsmanship the spotlight when there is so much else going on in it.

This is, after all, a story about mankind. That’s really the whole, explicit, clearly-defined point of this film, and that’s one thing that makes it engrossing from the start — it’s a story about mankind, about its constant struggle to overcome insurmountable obstacles, about its way of forgoing rational thought, about its defining desire to “not go gentle into that good night” (that line from the famous Dylan Thomas villanelle, repeated throughout the film, was originally intended as a clamor against the mortality of one individual, but here it becomes a kind of survivalist motto for the whole of humanity). It’s rare for any big-budget pop extravaganza to have such a firm sense of purpose, and, in Interstellar‘s case, that thematic confidence helps the film carry on through even the most befuddling narrative developments, of which there are many. That’s one major reason why I believe this is poised to stand the test of time and eventually be regarded as the masterpiece it is, even with detractors so very keen on pointing out its rough edges, its inconsistencies, its plot holes: Nolan has aimed high, and I mean high, in the making of this film, both in terms of imagery and ideas, and, although he may not yet possess the formal mastery of cinematic language required to turn such a pharaonic project into a transcendental affair in the mold of 2001, he is still an exceptionally skilled, exceptionally intelligent director, and so Interstellar comes very close to inhabiting the same stratum as Kubrick’s masterwork — and even if they fall short of clearing that absurd bar, Nolan and his team’s efforts are more than enough to lift this movie above the vast majority of its kind, of any kind.

I could go on and on, really, but I guess it would become redundant, after a while, to praise Interstellar‘s visual accomplishment, its commitment to science as a narrative driving force, its courage to prize imagination over knowledge when it’s called for (the third act is so earnestly bonkers it will be the best thing about the movie to some and the worst to others). I could write entire paragraphs, maybe entire pieces, on scenes like the intertwined launch of the spacecraft/final goodbye between a daughter and her father, or the breakdown of a supporting character upon seeing another human being for the first time in years; I could try, and almost inevitably fail, to poke at the film’s metaphysical postulates in a way that did justice to their depth and complexity. But there’s no real reason for me to do any of that when, like I said before, it would probably just diminish the resounding impact of the whole thing. I understand that many people are seeing this movie for the actors, which is why I feel I should mention that they are all excellent, with Chastain and Hathaway as the unexpected standouts for a director whose female characters were never his strong suit, and a wonderful uncredited cameo around the midpoint. (You probably already know who it is by now, but I’m not gonna be the one to ruin anyone’s surprise.) Other than that, well, I think I’ve already complimented it plenty.

Truth be told, Interstellar isn’t immaculate, and it’s relatively easy to take issue with certain things in it. There are some scenes taking place on Earth toward the climax that feel rather superfluous, the inside of the spaceships where a great deal of the action takes place is visually bureaucratic, the cast is way too white for a film with such universal themes, the ending evokes an uncanny feeling of sequel hook, some of the dialogue is pretty clunky, and I’d be lying if I said there aren’t any muddy areas in the plot’s grand structure — one is likely to spend a good deal of the third act trying to make sense of what’s even going on. To put it briefly, it’s the sort of unselfconscious endeavor that our relentlessly ironic contemporary culture so readily ravages these days, because how dare a work of art have faith in its own worth, etc.. What’s more, I’d say the majority of the film’s malfunctioning parts could have been fixed pretty easily if the filmmakers were up for it. But I think Nolan has made the right call to release this movie exactly as it is, because, in its current state, Interstellar looks and feels like something distinctly personal, distinctly his, and that has to be more artistically significant than the ability to cater to this or that audience’s preexisting dramatic sensibilities. I think, for example, that, though the film would still be great without Anne Hathaway’s much-ridiculed “Love is the only thing that transcends time and space” line, that bit of dialogue is irreproachable and should stay right where it is; it’s an easy line to mock, but it contains deeper truths about the nature and significance of human subjectivity that those eager to apply a detached cynic’s eye to the film’s workings may find themselves overlooking.

The same goes for much of this unabashedly sentimental film; honestly, you have to be really finicky to complain about, say, the amount of onscreen crying while ignoring what a miracle it is that such a huge production has even dared to be so emotionally charged in the first place. And you have to be really finicky to dismiss Interstellar over plot issue x or overwritten conversation y when it is such a massive cinematic accomplishment on so many other levels. In the end, I think it’s a classic: it takes a risk, and does it with style. And substance, for that matter.

A brief introduction

I’m a 16-year-old Brazilian male, which means my cultural standpoint when I talk about movies is extremely limited. (Because I’m 16, not because I’m Brazilian or male.) Yet here I am, starting this WordPress blog, much as I’m aware that it’s probably never going to attract a whole lot of readers. Why? Well, firstly, it’s 8 PM on a Sunday, I’m bored, and I might as well. Secondly, as a member of the grossly misrepresented group of 16-year-old Brazilian males, I feel that I should try to show the world, even if through a very small window, that, our broken English and our obsession with “The Big Bang Theory” notwithstanding, we are people too. In fact, thanks to the miracle of informatization, we are now consumers of a lot of the same culture as anyone reading this text, and therefore just as capable of formulating our own humble opinions regarding that culture — some of us, you’ll learn quickly from my texts, can even be rather pedantic about it.

Thirdly and most importantly, I really like movies. And while common sense would have it that maybe I should be out there making them, that’s not nearly as easy as it sounds, and I believe a WordPress blog may be a healthy vehicle for my thoughts and observations on film until that gets sorted out. I know perfectly well, however, that there are hundreds upon hundreds, possibly thousands upon thousands of people out there writing about movies on WordPress blogs, which is why the title and central premise of this one is “Cheese Buns in the Dark.” Cheese buns, take note, are a popular Brazilian snack consisting of small, round buns that sort of taste like cheese but not really; they are as delicious as they are difficult to describe, and an aspect of my culture I take pride in. What outsiders may find interesting about that, though, is that some movie theater chains have begun selling them at retail counters as an alternative to popcorn, and, wouldn’t you know it, cheese buns and darkened screening rooms are actually a pretty fine match.

That doesn’t mean I intend to stop eating popcorn when I go to the movies — I’m not clinically insane — but it does mean that I have found in Brazilian multiplexes something that symbolizes very well the specificity of the moviegoing experience down here in Carnival Land, which is my selling point. Or, well, maybe it doesn’t symbolize jack and I’ve just found something that separates me from the thousands upon thousands — one way or another, I think it’s a good title and I’ll try to make this a good blog, or at least one worth reading. If you intend to stick with it, I love you and you may expect to find reviews, analyses, and occasional resentful rants about things such as why I don’t think Frozen was all that progressive. (You’ll notice I’m not very business-savvy, either — it’s been three paragraphs and I’ve already badmouthed Frozen.) I can’t promise you specifics about my identity, but I’m completely open to communication through comments and messages (can you leave messages here? I’m not really familiar with WordPress). Lastly, if you ever need to address me by name, feel free to call me Mr. Knoll. It’s not my actual surname; I’ll explain later.

I believe that’s it for the moment.