More Dickens than Kubrick: Interstellar

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I went into Interstellar with a bad attitude. I wanted to hate this movie. It’s three hours long. It stars swaggering/ posturing Matthew McConaughey, an actor I find as irritating as sand in my shoe. It has Anne Hathaway who is not that far behind McConaughey in the line of annoyingly self-satisfied celebs. It is directed by Christopher Nolan, who seems to have gotten more ponderous and more pretentious with every successive flick. Hell, it has a score by Hans Zimmer, who has gotten so lazy that most of his latter-day scores seem like they were composed on auto-pilot by a drum machine.

I’m an ass. And I was wrong.

I loved this movie.

It is, in fact, too long by half and, yes, is a bit ponderous and pretentious. All of the aforementioned annoying attributes of cast and crew are apparent. And the score does sound like a drum machine having a nervous breakdown … a really LOUD! nervous breakdown. Yet, it all works so beautifully.

The film has been billed as Nolan’s version of 2001, but I found the movie more Charles Dickens than Stanley Kubrick. Yes, the narrative involves slow-moving, quietly-haunting, ethereally-staged space travel with the future of all mankind at stake, but at its heart, this is a film about the devastating impact of time’s passage and of well-intentioned decisions that unfortunately drive wedges between family/friends. There are moments, especially toward the film’s gonzo, fever-dream denouement that I thought I was watching A Christmas Carol … if staged by Twyla Tharp. That’s a compliment, by the way.

The older I get, the more I realize what an underrated gem Dickens’ holiday novella is. “Underrated” may seem like a strange word choice for something so widely known, but A Christmas Carol is often viewed as a lesser literary work or as a holiday novelty or as both. What Dickens captures so elegantly/efficiently, though, is that, with each year, we add layers and layers of memories – good and bad – and all the regrets and heartaches that accompany … like an ever-expanding box of ornaments gathering dust in the attic.

This is the psychological murk in which Interstellar traffics. Space exploration is but a metaphor for our unyielding pursuit of some brief, crystalline moments of unadulterated joy amidst all the sadness life brings.

The film is set in a disturbingly near-time future, a Ray Bradbury-esque Earth, where all of our selfish consumption has reduced our planet to a cruel, barren dustbowl in which the only remaining growable crop is corn. The world no longer needs engineers or scientists or professors – rather just people willing to grow corn with the aid of mindless robotic farm implements.

America appears to have been reduced to one continuous farm town (blink and you’ll miss the New York Yankees, now quite literally a farm team, playing ball in a sad little cornfield), and, periodically, the citizens have to set fire to the latest round of blight-infested crops. The only upshot I could see is that these circumstances finally force everyone to go vegetarian/vegan. 🙂

Nolan’s great gift is how he uses fantasy as metaphor for present-day turmoil. (See Dark Knight Rises for his take on the 1% ruling class). Interstellar is no exception. His muted gray yet epically widescreen cinematography creates some of the most indelible images in recent memory of our ongoing environmental crisis.

In the midst of this ecological upheaval, and in one of the film’s seemingly more nonsensical moments, McConaughey’s “Cooper” and his beloved daughter “Murphy” stumble across a hidden cadre of space scientists who decide that Cooper (yes, he just happens to be a former astronaut himself!) is our only hope to pilot the last remaining rocket ship off the planet, in order to find a new (less angrily dusty) world for us to inhabit.

If this movie weren’t so purposeful, so moving, and so well-acted, I would have lost it right there and been forcibly carried out of the theatre, racked by a convulsive giggle fit.

McConaughey and Hathaway are surrounded by top-shelf talent like Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, and Michael Caine, all exhibiting gravitas and heartache in poignantly compelling spades. There’s a surprise cameo that I won’t spoil, but said unnamed actor (whom I typically find a bit boring) does a marvelous job in a pivotal role as an appropriately dubious explorer.

Heck, we even get some subtly funny voice work from delightful Bill Irwin as robot companion TARS, a sleek automaton who bears more than a passing resemblance to a giant, walking/talking deck of cards. Humor? In a Nolan film? Crazy talk! That alone should tell you this is a (sort of) different direction for him. Sort of.

There is a lot of gobbledy-gook pseudo-science talk: singularity! relativity! event horizon! There are a lot of epically dreamy long-shots of planets and cosmic gases and spinning spacecraft. There are a lot of lines that are trying so hard for deep poetic thought that they sounds stilted and just darn goofy. And, yes, there is a lot of furrowed-brow, sweaty-faced ACTING!

Eventually, though, our intrepid spacefaring crew do end up on other worlds, most of which are as deadly as the one they left behind. I don’t want to ruin any of the surprises (or the movie’s more head-scratchingly kooky moments), but, in essence, humanity prevails … quite literally. The film, in total, is an argument for our innate goodness, even when we aren’t sure of it ourselves. Whether today or tomorrow, we will help each other and we will care.

This is a more hopeful message then we typically see in a Christopher Nolan production, and the optimism suits him.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: Inside Llewyn Davis

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 5 days remain until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s Review of Inside Llewyn Davis: “I’ll tell you what I think. Inside Llewyn Davis is in keeping with a theme that shoots through much of the Coen Brothers work: frustration over the venom creative people spew at each other in their dogged competition for limited resources, attention, and fame. Actors and singers and writers and painters and dancers are all a bit broken, and they make their way into careers that are often doomed from the start, compounded by a cruelly competitive system that rewards the schemers and abandons the weak.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Folk music is hateful stuff: Inside Llewyn Davis

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I have to start with a disclaimer …

I cannot tolerate a movie where animals are hurt or in peril. I knew going into Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from the acerbic yet cynically humanistic writer/director team Joel and Ethan Coen, that a runaway cat is a central narrative element. Hell, the orange tabby is on the damn poster, clutched in the titular anti-hero’s arms as Llewyn saunters down a busy New York street.

Have you ever tried to hold a cat in one arm, a guitar in the other, while walking down a bustling thoroughfare?!? Exactly.

I will offer for my fellow animal advocates (spoiler alert!) that the cat is ok. Sort of.

A cat runs out a fire escape window and disappears. A cat reappears. A cat makes it home. A cat takes a road trip to Chicago. And a cat (or something) has a limp-inducing near miss with a car on a snowy road. Might be the same cat. Might not. I’m not sure what all these orange cats signify, but the Coen Brothers love their oddball metaphors, even if PETA (or yours truly) is inflamed in the process.

(As a side note, for viewers like me who, yes … of course! … worry about cinematic animal safety much more than that of human counterparts, there is a website for us. Thanks to Kim Elizabeth Johnson for alerting me to it.)

So, with that point made, how is the movie? Quite good actually. It is one of the Coens’ most sedate offerings, bleakly transporting viewers to grungy Greenwich Village in the 1960s where the folk music scene appears to be atrophying before the ascent of pop derivatives like Bob Dylan and his ilk.

Llewyn, played wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, is a failed troubadour, whose singing partner is long gone and who subsists on a steady diet of cigarettes, self-loathing, and couch-crashing at a succession of annoyed friends’ apartments. Isaac is a marvel, resisting every urge to make Llewyn one bit redeeming or likable. He is a wretched human (with a lovely voice) consumed by a toxic brew of pretension, insecurity, jealousy, bitterness, condescension, and holier than thou artsy-fartsiness.

(Oh, how I’ve known too many dudes like this fellow – folks who are so got by their own disappointments that they have to kick sand in the faces of any and everyone else with the tiniest shred of talent or even the slightest bit of creative happiness. Ah, that felt better.)

Often with a Coen Brothers film (in fact their best ones – like Barton Fink or the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men), you’re left wondering: what was their intention exactly? This film, like others in their oeuvre, offers their trademark circular non-ending ending, and, as we departed the theatre, I overheard a few folks asking, “What was that about?”

I’ll tell you what I think. Inside Llewyn Davis is in keeping with a theme that shoots through much of the Coen Brothers work: frustration over the venom creative people spew at each other in their dogged competition for limited resources, attention, and fame. Actors and singers and writers and painters and dancers are all a bit broken, and they make their way into careers that are often doomed from the start, compounded by a cruelly competitive system that rewards the schemers and abandons the weak.

With this acidic lens, the Coens turn their filmic gaze on folk music, one of the more self-satisfied forms of artistic expression. At surface, folk music has always been about gathering the tribe to celebrate our commonality; yet, in reality, it is usually a vehicle for some twee turtleneck-wearing phony to look down his or her nose at middle-class plebes who are scraping by with their staid corporate lives and suffocating mortgage payments.

The Coens dive right into the heart of that notion, and not with the campy satire of Christopher Guest’s similarly themed A Mighty Wind, but with the unsympathetic bruised heart of a Sidney Lumet or a John Cassavetes with just a smidge of their own asburdist twinkle.

The supporting cast is populated with assorted odd ducks stepping on the heads of their fellow “artists” in hopes of making a buck or two. Justin Timberlake is adequate in a throwaway role as an earnest folkie who writes a really godawful song with unsurprising populist appeal. John Goodman is sheer brilliance as a mean-as-a-rattlesnake jazz musician who shows his contempt for Llewyn and his chosen genre with a steady stream of vitriol, leveled at what he deems inane and amateurish musicianship. The normally exquisite Carey Mulligan struggles a bit with a one-note role (and equally bad wig) as an ambitious ladder-climbing folkie who may or may not be pregnant with Llewyn’s child.

Previously mentioned feline concerns aside, I recommend Inside Llewyn Davis to anyone who has found themselves lost in a creative bubble, not sure whom to trust or where to go. As they say, karma will get you, and perhaps that is the ultimate lesson we glean from Llewyn’s neglect of cats and people. What goes around comes around. And folk music is hateful stuff.