Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Movie review: Interstellar


Having seen ("endured" is probably a better word) Christopher Nolan's new film, Interstellar, I'm befuddled by the favorable, even exuberant, reviews it has received.

Did I somehow wander into the wrong theater?

Interstellar is a film about near-future Earth, where environmental degradation is slowly rendering the planet uninhabitable. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is an honest farmer and former astronaut raising two children with the help of his father, Donald (John Lithgow). Cooper has been disrespected and unrecognized throughout his life: his wife died years earlier, the all-powerful school board has determined that his son cannot attend college, and the prospects for his daughter seem bleak. Cooper's future stretches before him like the dusty horizon. Nonetheless, he doesn't complain. Doggedly, heroically, he resigns himself to growing corn to feed the unseen masses that rely on his efforts. (He's holding up the world, don't you know?)

What a surprise, then, when Cooper is recruited by NASA to pilot a space craft through a recently-discovered wormhole to locate an alternate home for humanity. It's a risk that Cooper is reluctant to take. It would mean leaving his family. But the brains at NASA, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his biologist daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), prevail upon Cooper's inner martyr, convincing him that the risks he must take are worth it. It's for the sake of all of humanity, after all!

There were so many things wrong with this film that I don't really know where to start. But I guess I'll start with the acting. It was exceedingly poor. The child actors and the entire supporting cast were embarrassingly bad. Anne Hathaway was adequate. Acting heavyweights, Michael Caine and John Lithgow delivered mailed-in performances that really disappointed. (Mr. Caine, if this is all we can expect from you henceforth, just go ahead and retire already!)

But the biggest tragedy of this movie is the damage done to Matthew McConaughey's credibility as an actor. His performance seemed like a half-hearted encore of his role as Detective Rust Cohle from the HBO series, True Detective. His delivery was mumbled and terse, perhaps meant to sound profound, but coming across as lackluster.

All that said, I can understand if the actors didn't put their hearts into their performances. Lithgow and Caine certainly have enough savvy to recognize a shitty script when they read one. And boy did they get one in this film! Director Nolan and his brother, Jonathon, co-wrote the script, which is probably the biggest failing of this flick.

The dialog is appalling: stock, stale, uninspired. It's full of "gems" like these:
Cooper: You're ruling out college for my son now? He's fifteen.
Principal: Tom's score simply isn't high enough.
Cooper: What's your waist line? What 32, 33 inseam?
Principal: I'm not sure I see what you're getting at.
Cooper: You're telling me it takes two numbers to measure your own ass but only one to measure my son's future? 
(Har, har, har!)
Cooper: Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.
(Real head-scratcher, that one!)
Brand: Love is the one thing we're capable of perceiving that transcends time and space.
(This one defies further commentary.)  
The characters lack any kind of complexity. There's an R2D2-like robot that lacked even enough depth to be annoying. There are a couple extraneous crewmen that are more robot-like than the robot. The most developed relationship in the flick is the creepy relationship between Cooper and his 10-year-old daughter Murph. In one particularly unsettling scene, Cooper clings to his daughter as she lays in bed, her back to him. Tears stream down his face as begs the young girl for forgiveness. Uncomfortable!

Although this is billed as a science fiction film, the science of it is inane. Much of it is explained in wooden, expository dialog that kills whatever momentum the film might hope to develop. (This seems to be a habit with Nolan. Remember Inception?) The script uses all the right keywords ("event horizon," "quantum entanglement," and so on) but none of it makes any real sense.

And then, in the ultimate failure, the script relies on a cheap deux et machina enigma to close the loop. I read a review that compared this film's unexplained ending to that of Stanley Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's an offensive comparison and an insult to a master like Kubrik.

Hans Zimmer's score was overbearing and cheap and at times it overpowered the dialog. Worst of all, Nolan used it to cue viewers. "You see? This music is suspenseful! This is a scary part!" God knows, without the score, the audience would often have had no clue how they should feel.

Ten minutes into the flick, I was ready to walk out. It was apparent to me that the film was specifically-targeted to middle-aged men with low self-esteem who feel they've been cheated by life. "You see?" Nolan says, "Even though your daughter hates you and your boss thinks you're an idiot, you're really a hero."

I spent most of the interminable 3 hours and 9 minutes of this film cringing and slapping my forehead. I felt like I should have been wearing a bag over my head when I left. 

Mr. Nolan, two strikes is all you get. Never again, by God!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The sins of Bill Cosby: I'd rather stay ignorant


By now, we've all heard of the allegations against Bill Cosby. Although it's not a new story (apparently, the first accusations came to light back in 2006), public attention has only lately become focused. The charges are that Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted multiple women throughout his career.

In response, NBC has cancelled a planned sitcom featuring the 77-year-old comedian, and Netflix has put on hold a comedy special, originally planned to air on Thanksgiving Day. Cosby hasn't helped himself at all. He's refused any comment and just yesterday, tried to intimidate a reporter into scuttling any mention of the issue in an interview.

The whole thing sickens me. If the allegations are true (and, given the number of women coming forward, and the consistency of their stories, it seems likely) Bill Cosby would not be the first hero to fall. But unlike Joe Paterno, a football coach (I know a thing or two about football coaches), or Michael Jackson, who was out-of-touch crazy, Bill Cosby, or rather the myth of Bill Cosby, was so beloved and unstained and such an integral part of my childhood that these allegations wound me to my core.

Sexual assault is a heinous crime. Perpetrators deserve reprobation, at the very least; criminal prosecution, ideally. If the allegations against Bill Cosby are true, he must pay with his reputation, his career, and whatever justice our legal system can mete out.

But I don't want to know the details. I know too much already. Let it play out as it must. I don't want to know any more about it.

Mine is not a courageous stand. In fact, it's cowardly and hypocritical. I admit it.

But I just can't bring myself to take part in the destruction of the beloved myth. The myth of Bill Cosby.

I'd rather stay ignorant.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Movie review: Whiplash


Yesterday, I took advantage of the bright, crisp weather (a rarity in November, Portland's rainiest month) to walk the ~four miles from condo to Fox Tower Cinema, there to view a matinee showing of Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. The film received much praise from critics and the preview intrigued.

The film stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman, a first year student at the prestigious Shaffer Music Conservatory in New York. Andrew comes from humble beginnings, being the son of a failed writer, Jim (Paul Reiser), and is determined to achieve greatness. Specifically, he hopes to become a great jazz drummer in the mold of Buddy Rich. His playing catches the eye of a virtuoso jazz instructor, Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), who brings him into Shaffer's elite jazz ensemble. Fletcher is a demanding instructor. His tools include emotional manipulation, intimidation, physical and verbal abuse, and sabotage. Andrew, suffering under the demands placed on him by Fletcher, finds some comfort in the company of Nicole (Melissa Benoist), whom he sees working the concession counter at a movie theater. As the story progresses, Andrew discovers the price demanded by greatness, and must decide if he is willing to pay it.

This is a very good flick.

The writing is good. There are some great exchanges, in particular the dinner scene in which Andrew explains his aspirations to his bewildered family. But the writing is secondary. What really makes this film work is the acting.

The two headliners, Teller and Simmons, are especially good. I've liked JK Simmons since his days on Law & Order, and his role as Fletcher seems like a breakthrough performance. Miles Teller used to play drums for a church youth group and that real life experience seems requisite for his role in this movie. 

The music, by the way, is infectious. I was tapping my foot throughout the 107 minute run time. On the bus ride home, I added Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker to my Pandora play list.

I came away from the flick with a new appreciation of jazz, certainly. But more than that, Whiplash (and Birdman, which I saw a while back) provided fresh insight into the toll that creation exacts on the artist. 

Everything comes at a price. And you get what you pay for.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Anxiety is a thief


I got robbed the other day.

Maty and I were sitting on the couch together in the front room of our brand new condo in the early evening. We had the fireplace going. I was playing with my iPad and Maty was watching YouTube videos on the television. A rare moment. Most evenings, one or the other or both of us are off doing something. But this evening we were there together, relaxing. 

Maty was delighted when a Senegalese music video came on the screen. The percussive, happy music reminded her of her home. She popped up off the couch and danced an Mbalax dance while the music played. The joy on her face lit up the room.

I recognized the moment for what it was: a thing to remember, a Good Time to hold in my memory and savor.

And yet, in that moment I was robbed. Although I did experience joy and happiness watching my wife dancing and smiling, I was also sad and afraid and angry at myself. Sad, because I knew the moment would be fleeting. Afraid, because I live in dread of some unforeseen cataclysm that will dispel all the joy I felt in that moment. And angry at myself, because I knew my worry was irrational and stupid, and it was robbing me of a precious moment of happiness.

That's the way anxiety disorders work, I'm afraid. I take meds to keep it under control, but nonetheless, at odd times and for no particular reason, anxiety breaks through all my safeguards and grabs at my soul.

And I f*cking hate it.

Still, life is good. And I will always remember that moment when Maty was dancing in front of the fire, with her face turned to the ceiling, beaming joy out to the cosmos.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Election 2014: Oregon provides the silver lining


Democrats nationwide are in the doldrums today. And for good reason. The GOP increased its majority in the US House, won some big gubernatorial races, and, biggest of all, won the majority in the US Senate! Now we can all look forward to evenings with  Mitch McConnell's palid, corpse-like visage on the telly, spewing forth more bile and deception.

But in Oregon, things aren't nearly so bad. Just like in 2010, the Beaver state shattered the Big Red Wave.

US Senator - Jeff Merkley


Senator Merkley won reelection handily, defeating Dr. Monica Webhy by a solid 19-point margin, 56%-37%. A look at the county-by-county returns shows that not only did the Senator get a big margin from blue-as-hydrangeas Multnomah County, but also won less blue counties like Deschutes, Jackson, and Coos. Times have changed in Oregon, that's for sure.

Dr. Webhy ran a terrible campaign: dodging the press, not showing up for interviews, and so on. It's not necessarily her fault. I'm afraid it's a reflection of the poor state of the Republican party in Oregon. I really wish they could do something to restore their credibility. Right now, they have none.

Senator Merkley has to feel pretty good about this win. He hardly had to break a sweat to win his second term. From my standpoint, he's an ideal representative: from a small lumber town in Oregon, with populist views (just like me). Here's to a long career, Senator Merkley.

US Representative, 3rd District - Earl Blumenauer


Earl won huge in the 3rd Congressional District, with 73% of the vote. As I mentioned in my pre-election post, I didn't vote for him, but that's because I knew he was a shoo-in. Anyway, the other 4 congressional incumbents won as well (Bonamici, DeFazio, Schrader, and Walden) which maintains the 4 to 1 advantage Democrats hold in the Oregon delegation. This is a very blue state.

Governor - John Kitzhaber

John Kitzhaber will serve a fourth term as governor of Oregon, an historic first. Despite late-breaking scandals (which, I suspect, will turn out to be insignificant), and a considerable degree of Kitz-fatigue, he managed to beat Dennis Richardson by a bigger margin (6 points) than the margin by which he defeated Chris Dudley in 2010.

To add to the good news for Kitzhaber, Democrats scored big in the state legislature, increasing their majorities in both the Senate and the House. In the Senate, Democrats hold 17 seats versus the Republican's 12. As of this writing, one Senate seat is still undecided. In the House, Democrats won 35 seats versus the Republican's 25.

Got that? Democrats control both state houses and the governor's mansion. If you're an Oregon Republican, that's got to sting. They just can't win for losing.

State Representative, 42nd District - Rob Nosse

As was generally acknowledged, the primary turned out to be Rob's biggest challenge. He won in the general by a huge margin. The Republicans didn't even bother to field a candidate to run against him.

State Measure 86: Post-secondary education fund - No
This measure was defeated. I'm disappointed but not surprised.

State Measure 87: Employ state judges by National Guard and state public universities - Yes
Passed. I never heard a good reason (in fact, I never heard any reason at all) to vote against it.

State Measure 88: Oregon resident driver card without proof of legal residence - No
This measure got clobbered. My county, Multnomah, was the only county where it carried. In my opinion, this measure's defeat is due almost entirely to stinginess and xenophobia. Undocumented immigrants are here; they're not going away. And they're going to continue to drive on our streets and highways. It only makes sense to get them into the system.

State Measure 89: Prohibits denial or abridgement of equal rights based on gender - Yes
Passed overwhelmingly. It's about time.

State Measure 90: Changes general election nomination processes; top two vote-getters in primary face-off in general election - No
This measure got crushed, which came as a complete (albeit pleasant) surprise to me. Oregonians saw through the slick ad campaign promoting this measure as voter empowerment. Take that, Koch Brothers!

State Measure 91: Allows possession, sale of marijuana to/by adults, subject to state licensing, regulation, taxation - Yes!
I never thought I'd see this day, but marijuana will soon be legal for recreational use in the state of Oregon. It's a realistic, practical solution, of course. But when have realism and practicality ever carried any weight in politics?

State Measure 92: Requires food manufacturers and retailers to label "genetically-engineered" foods -No
This measure was defeated by less than a single percentage point. Supporters can take some small amount of solace by considering that the campaign to defeat the measure spent $20 million, the most ever spent in an initiative campaign. At the very least, we bled Monsanto.

City of Portland Measure 26-159: Bonds to fix playgrounds, trails, parks - Yes
Passed overwhelmingly. Dollars for Mount Tabor!

Metro Measure 26-160: Retain prohibition on Metro-required single-family neighborhood density increases - Yes
Passed.

Portland School District #1JT: Levy renewal - Yes
Try as I might, I haven't been able to find the results for this measure. But I think it passed. Which is good.

Well, there you have it. That's how it all shook out this time around. Although the national results leave a lot to be desired, I'm pretty happy with things here in Oregon. We win again, Oregon progressives!

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Movie review: Birdman


Brilliant.

Alejandro González Iñárritu's new flick, Birdman, is nothing short of it. Two minutes into the film, hypnotized by Antonio Sanchez's pulse-quickening drum score, held rapt by the vision of a fiery, portentous comet burning through the sky, I was entranced. I stayed that way throughout the film's entire 119 minute run time.

Birdman is the story of Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), a has-been actor, best known for his decades-old performance in a superhero flick called The Birdman. The role made him famous and type-cast him for life. Ever since Riggan turned down an offer to play the lead role in a Birdman sequel, his career has stalled. (The parallels between fictional Riggan's Birdman, and real-life Keaton's 1989 Batman flick are obvious, n'est pas?)

In an attempt to reestablish his relevance, Thomas undertakes to write, direct, and star in a Broadway production of a work by Raymond Carver, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." When the film begins, opening night is three days away and Riggan is struggling to put the final touches on his production. It's an exercise in disaster management. At the same time, his personal life teeters on collapse, as his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) attempts to reenter life after a stint in rehab and his sometime girlfriend and co-star, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) informs him that she might be pregnant.

Iñárritu places enormous demands on his cast. Although Birdman conforms to the classic five act play structure, there is no break between scenes. It's all done in one "shot," with each scene leading into the next. Intimate camera work reveals the most minute facial expressions of the actors. The dialog is sharp, complex, and rapid-fire. 

Naomi Watts, who plays Lesley, the female lead in Thomas's production, said "[Birdman]'s the hardest thing I've ever done," and it's easy to see why.

All of the cast delivers. Zach Galifianakis plays producer Jake superbly in a role I never would have expected from him. But I can't say that any one performance outshone the others (they were all over-the-top great). My favorite was Emma Stone's portrayal of Riggan's troubled daughter. Check out this discourse she delivers in Act III.



As I said, the lines come hard and fast and there are no throw-aways. Everything is significant. And there are some great lines:

"Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige, my friend" quips Riggan's co-star, Mike (Edward Norton).

"Why don't I have any self-respect?" wails Lesley. "You're an actress, honey," consoles Laura.

Birdman is funny, touching, and disturbing by turns. Riggan's struggle is a struggle we all know: the struggle for significance, the struggle to believe that we matter. It's an old story that's been told countless times, but rarely so effectively. In one particularly surreal scene, Iñárritu inserts an homage to the Bard, when a raving, other-worldly voice delivers my favorite Shakespearean soliloquy.

When I first saw the (rather perplexing) trailer for this flick I didn't imagine I would bother to go see it. But I thank my lucky stars that a rainy Portland morning with nothing else on the schedule had me give it a go. This is the most excited I've been about a flick since No Country for Old Men, back in 2007.

Michael Keaton's performance is iconic. Iñárritu's acheivement is dazzling and awesome.

I'm going to see it again next weekend.

Birdman!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Movie review: The Judge


I count myself lucky to have even heard about The Judge, David Dobkin's new film about --well about a lot of things, really. The film doesn't seem to have been promoted much.

I became aware of it when I just happened to catch Charlie Rose interviewing Robert Downey, Junior, a few weeks back. Rose played a short clip from the film during the interview, an exchange between Robert Downey and Robert Duvall. It was a powerful clip featuring two of my favorite actors and I knew immediately that this was a flick I wanted to see.

Wish fulfilled last weekend.

The Judge is the story of a hot-shot Chicago lawyer, Hank Palmer (Downey), who returns home to  small-town Indiana to bid farewell to his recently-deceased mother. Any homecoming is fraught with peril, as we all know, and Hank's is no exception. He's confronted with his past sins, which include a partially-crippled older brother, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), and an abandoned lover, Samantha (Vera Farmiga). But Hank's biggest challenge is his long-avoided reunion with his stern father, Joseph (Duvall). Joseph is a prominent citizen, the much-respected judge of the small town. The relationship between Hank and his father is complex and fraught with both respect and resentment. The plot thickens when an incident occurs on a dark night drive along a country road. The consequences of the event culminate in Judge Joseph being accused of murder and facing prosecution from a resolute and ruthlessly competent DA, Dwight Dickam (masterfully played by Billy Bob Thornton). Things look very bleak for the Judge, and Hank, the prodigal son, must defend his father in the very courtroom where Joseph most recently presided.

The strength of this film, as one might imagine, is the acting. It's a powerhouse cast and Dobkin seems a skilled hand at getting the most out of his actors. But despite all the big names, there is no scenery-chewing. The performances are restrained, but powerful.

Some reviewers complain that the story is cliché, but that seems like a nit. The film's value isn't so much its moral explorations or its bizarre characters. The Judge is a film about ordinary people facing ordinary dilemmas. That's why it succeeds. Nearly everyone can find a character in this film with whom to relate: the failed baseball star, the old man plagued with doubt, the resentful son. The superb cast does the rest, delivering convincing, heart-felt performances.

The Judge is a good flick that I can recommend to anyone.