Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Whilst easier to appreciate his aspirations as a filmmaker in the 21st Century, I’ve never found myself wholly enamored with the lauded Christopher Nolan’s body of work. In fact, divisive is an appropriate label, what with the ratio of admirers to detractors not particularly favoring the former. Widely recognized for a brand of “maximalist” storytelling laden with epic proportions and the conceptual scope that fuels it, to say that the larger-than-life scale corresponding with these aspects is more hit than miss would be fair. In the case of Interstellar – the Nolan siblings’ sprawling dimension-hopping sci-fi epic – the script’s incongruous personality often quells the air of ambition permeating the overarching core concept.

Set in an eerily not-too-distant future, Earth is gradually succumbing to symptoms of a long-gestating apocalypse. Brought on by cyclical dust storms that wipe out one viable food source after another, one Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) – a grounded former NASA engineer – lives idly from day-to-day as something of an ordinary everyman with a family he loves. Always one to challenge convention with an equally audacious daughter, a recurring mini-anomaly leads the two on an at-first wild goose chase to a highly secretive NASA outpost. From here, Cooper is tasked with exploring various leads via space travel with a minimal team of experts. The mission? To seek out an inhabitable alternative to humanity’s dying home.

It’s not secret that Nolan’s scripts are inherently a mixed bag. Scatterbrained if accessible and appealingly pseudo-intelligent, I for one admire his love of the medium and subsequent attempt to reinvigorate it. Burdening his core narratives with droves of intricacies that bewilder as much as they engage, Interstellar effortlessly fits the mold as it often takes one step forward for every two steps back. The science of the film – now referred to as (well-researched) speculation by Nolan himself – is an easy-to-criticize key aspect that’s meant to pique ours interests instead of unwittingly throwing four humans and a robot into the far reaches of space. To his and brother Jonathan’s credit, it kind-of-mostly works, veering quite jarringly off the rails here and there when inherent suspense involving the outcome of said sojourn isn’t punching you in the face.

Interstellar also boasts a palpably cloying, moreover tragic sense of humanism that forces you to care for the characters in question. Like Inception, important individuals’ backgrounds and motives feel pulled from a long list of the simplest of tropes and, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Barring the film’s implementation of space-time as one vast (if agreeably alluring) asshole of an antagonist, some occurrences come off as bland and/or forced for the sake of attempted well-roundedness. As Cooper openly weeps while viewing messages sent from Earth – complete with operatic score – I couldn’t help but simultaneously roll my eyes and sympathize with an ordinary person’s extraordinary predicament.

What with my screening being enhanced by an alternately painful and captivating 70mm IMAX setting, the film’s most striking attribute is its presentation. From the always-intimidating vacuum of unending space to the environments scattered throughout it, many a sequence plays like segment straight out of an educational planetarium feature. Yes, the ones you saw and rarely understood on elementary school field trips. In fact, its the beautiful enormity of Interstellar‘s well-crafted setting that competently compels amid noticeable weak suits.

Despite a full-on descent into agreeably batshit, almost high-fantasy territory during its latter third, Interstellar is still one of the most bizarrely multifaceted things I’ve seen. “Multifaceted,” however, isn’t solely meant to be a descriptor of the film’s uniqueness. In fact, I’d say it speaks more to Nolan’s unending desire to break from the norm as much as he can for the longest amount of time, each time, as we’re given an extensive tour of each universe he’s lovingly crafted. Don’t get me wrong, the film as a unified whole almost fucking isn’t, yet to deny the singularity of its individual parts – botched theoretical jargon and all – would be unfair given the fact that Interstellar is more of an experience than a masterclass in traditional filmmaking.

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The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)

Steadfastly exuding its purposefully salacious substance, The Wolf of Wall Street‘s key players in front of and behind the camera do wonders to ceaselessly entertain those deemed less squeamish. Focusing on one Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he ravenously claws his way to the top of the stock brokers’ career ladder, Scorsese’s latest is a morally reprehensible retread of the real-life inspiration’s comparably reprehensible, moreover greed-centric life choices and values. From booze to drugs to hookers, Mr. Belfort’s sleazy pursuit of the American Dream is one of nigh unbelievable impudence as he and his firm exploit rich investors’ gullibility for profit.

For starters, those looking for something weighty in the vein of a typical seriocomic romp are in the wrong place. While the stakes are high and Belfort’s deplorable antics illustrated hilariously, The Wolf of Wall Street is a feel-bad movie but in the best of ways. Deftly painting a caricature of such an unfortunately disarming scumbag, Scorsese’s kinetic handling of the material is wonderfully engaging despite how thoroughly unlikable everyone is. From nearly every stitch of vulgarity-laden dialogue to snorting coke off of a girlfriend’s breasts in the back of a limousine, The Wolf of Wall Street‘s more-than-passable substance is laudably and wildly unpredictable if a bit one-note.

Given an unavoidably prolonged lack of tact, it’s safe to say that at around three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street‘s epic depiction of increasingly illegal activity can be misinterpreted as a glorification of it. While nearly everything is portrayed with an excellently ’80s-infused obdurateness, bits of the film are still shockingly cautionary and unflinching as such. Put plainly, Scorsese’s handling of Terence Winter’s script is apt in a way that most likely honors the real Belfort’s inflection throughout his source memoir, of which will undoubtedly prove to be off-putting for conservative viewers.

Rife with highly engaging debauchery of quite literally all kinds, The Wolf of Wall Street is something of a modest masterpiece, Scorsese’s technical proclivity doing wonders in aiding what’s an agreeably vivacious retelling of such a story. Remarkable performances further aid the film’s loudmouthed immodesty, DiCaprio’s ever-present conviction once again solidifying himself as one of the best in the business. Although its drug-addled shenanigans and stock broker swindling runs its course, The Wolf of Wall Street certainly scores a heap of points for its distinctly energetic narrative personality.

Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013)

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Exquisitely targeting a key benefactor during the AIDS epidemic of the mid-1980s, Dallas Buyers Club revolves around one Ron Woodroof’s (Matthew McConaughey) resilience in the face of certain death following his own diagnosis. As disbelief, drug abuse and homophobia evolves into self-education and maturation, startling discoveries involving the AZT-heavy treatment of AIDS patients prompt Ron to seek out better medicinal alternatives. Upon doing so and establishing the profitable titular drug racket, he and transsexual business partner Rayon (Jared Leto) frequently combat the advances of the FDA – an administration that time and again fails to acknowledge the helpful validity of Ron’s extensive research.

For starters, Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t particularly shed any new light on the harsh realities AIDS victims suffered through at the height of the chosen time period. For all intents and purposes, homophobia ran rampant and the syndrome was frighteningly unprecedented in its onset and continuing symptoms, therefore the focus on AZT as an initial treatment strategy is necessary as Ron’s primary impetus and nothing more. This in mind, the film solely triumphs in its depiction of the central character, chronicling Mr. Woodroof’s transition in as compelling a manner as one could hope, crippling blemishes and all.

As a predictably structured biopic, Leto and McConaughey’s combined conviction are what benchmark an ordinary if agreeably enlightening trudge through the remaining months and years of these individuals’ lives. Banking on the inherent emotionality and intrigue surrounding the inception of Buyers Clubs throughout America, Vallée’s handling of the material lays the sympathy on thick, effectively transforming Dallas Buyers Club from merely informative to touching and appealingly, moreover appropriately unflinching in its depiction of Ron Woodroof’s evolving role.

Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012)

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Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter was more than just a fine film. An unflinching realist’s portrait of mental illness as seen through the eyes of the afflicted – his family’s support and social standing both dwindling at an alarming rate – its unfailing sense of sympathy remained an infallibly respectable high point. Deftly executed through and through, I eagerly anticipated Nichols’ follow-up, Mud. This time playing as a sort of Southern-fried semi-fairy tale-cum-coming-of-age tale, it’s apparent that this now established filmmaker has found his niche as an accomplished storyteller, even if his latest can’t quite hold a candle to what’s to this day one of 2011’s absolute best.

Mud shines the spotlight on two best friends – Ellis and Neckbone – as their typically heightened adolescent sense of adventure lands them on an island inhabited by one “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey). Unknowing of the man’s past but supportive of his plans for a hopeful future, the two boys become increasingly involved in his plan to leave the island via a capsized yacht. Details naturally unravel pertaining to the former as Ellis’ curiosity digs himself into a seedy hole he may not be able to crawl out of; Mud’s very existence irrevocably altering his future.

Merely reviewing that long-winded but compelling synopsis reveals that Mud should be something of a gem among typically uninspired fare – a proverbial diamond in the rough that allows McConaughey to continue along a critically favorable path. Sadly, the film isn’t much more than aptly put together as its narrative walks a simple path of least resistance, pairing a concise coming-of-age element as it dully unravels its baser elements. Put plainly, the core concept is in itself more engaging than a bulk of the details fueled by Mud’s naive good-naturedness and foolish longing for the so-called love of his life.

In summary, Mud is rarely even particularly surprising albeit solidly, moreover routinely constructed. There’s a requisite amount of deep water for its characters to wallow in as events unfold, heartfelt interaction between them and noticeable if subdued dramatic highs, however it never manages to peak regarding its potential. It’s a serviceable third feature from Nichols, but outside of a simple air of intrigue and a partially self-redeeming third act, it all comes off as a bit lackluster in relation to what we now know the aspiring auteur is capable of.

PFS Sneak Preview: Killer Joe (2011)

To be honest, words escape me when trying to describe William Friedkin’s most recent collaboration with playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts. On one hand, Killer Joe is so wonderfully depraved and subversive in every sense of the words that to dislike it makes one seem ignorant, however it’s also easy to see why these qualities would turn off any particular number of casual viewers. From start to finish, the film’s relentlessly sleazy and darkly humorous mantra is rarely ineffective, and with a central story arc as ludicrous as they come, to shun Killer Joe is to fail in realizing its obvious intentions.

Embracing its hard NC-17 rating nearly everywhere you’d expect it to, Killer Joe is a direct reference to the title character “Killer” Joe Cooper, a local Dallas detective that moonlights as a contract killer. Hired by young local scumbag Chris (Emile Hirsch) to off his good-for-nothing mother for her hefty life insurance policy, Joe agrees to claim Chris’ underage sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a (sexual) retainer until he receives his monetary fee that wasn’t paid upfront. Periodic aberrant violence and questionable human behavior permeate the proceedings, what with an awkward, rather disturbing sexual encounter benchmarking them effortlessly barring one hell of a latter act.

Celebrating said violence rather than using it for authenticity’s sake, these instances are purposefully presented as something out of an XXX-rated comic book, alternating between plain fucked up and quite humorous with bone-chilling finesse. McConaughey and Temple’s performances alone are, frankly, almost worth the price of admission alone, and each instance of role committal here is nothing short of commendable. In fact, the only thing that Killer Joe suffers from is a sense of predictability brought about by idle chatter pertaining to the film’s rating; ensuring us that what we see won’t hit quite as hard as it should, even despite what the film has in store for audiences as it creeps closer to its unsettling end.

There isn’t much else left to say that can accurately classify Killer Joe as something that’s whole-heartedly way out in left field; it’s a given that it effortlessly embraces this mold thanks to both its source material’s relentless mean streak and how that translates seamlessly to the big screen. Sex, violence and a tasteless embracing of Southern stereotypes supports the film’s outrageous intentions, of which are simply to entertain despite how off-putting a bulk of it truly and very obviously is. It goes without saying that Friedkin’s already found his audience for this one, but coupled with fantastic performances, Killer Joe is a trashy treat.

Review: Magic Mike (2012)

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey

It was a bit awkward attending the midnight premiere of Magic Mike as a male, entering a packed theater full of giggling members of the opposite sex gleefully anticipating Sir Tatum and friends in all their male stripper glory. Although Soderbergh’s latest features what you’d expect of a cinematic endeavor centered on a troupe of said entertainers, his adroitness in handling Reid Carolin’s intelligent, well-rounded script ensures that all intricacies of the central character himself are touched upon in equal measure, assuring us that Magic Mike not only “wants more,” but ismore.

Flip-flopping between the borderline subversive showmanship, business “ethics” and the one-dimensional lives of the professionals at its core, the film explores all walks of this dead-end career path, chronicling the life of Magic Mike himself as he takes naive, starry-eyed youngster Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing. While at first agreeing to watch over Adam, show him the ropes and give him a taste of what his coworkers consider to be the American Dream,  Mike predictably wants more than what’s expected of him, shedding light on his aspirations as a furniture designer among other things littering his surprisingly mature, business-oriented mindset.

Gazing hopelessly at a reflection of himself as an attractive upstart in the male entertainment biz, Mike watches almost helplessly as Adam travels down the same perilous path he once did, ensuring us that another life could potentially hang in the balance not too far down the road. For as cliched as Magic Mike‘s subplot involving the titular performer’s longing for both a sense of viable purpose and meaningful companionship is, Soderbergh sidesteps melodrama while simultaneously shying away from appealing solely to flesh-hungry female filmgoers. Subsequently, the events that transpire are predictable, exposing us to the inevitable as Mike continually realizes the drawbacks of sticking to this particular career path for the better part of a decade.

Matthew McConaughey as the prototypical veteran and proverbial father figure Dallas is as lamebrained as they come, but in an appropriate manner. Seeing nothing but the glitz and glamor that coincide with the lifestyle he’s embraced for what could be considered an eternity, Dallas begins to rub off on Adam like he once did Mike, further assuring us that in between bouts of provocative nude male choreography, there’s a soul that warrants exposure at frequent intervals.

With stellar performances across the board to further accentuate Magic Mike‘s deftly balanced sensibilities and a sunbathed hue that radiates over its gorgeous Floridian locales, Soderbergh further proves that he’s easily one of the most versatile auteurs of his generation. Coupling the business-oriented festivities with a discernible, if subdued bit of heartfelt sincerity, Channing Tatum’s Mike is a surprisingly dynamic character amid the exceedingly provocative nature of his profession. Deftly exploring both the ups and downs of the industry at its core, Carolin’s script remains one of the more original efforts in recent memory as it avoids taking itself too seriously while alternately exploring the true nature of an individual struggling to break free from the mold he’s snugly fit into all these years. To put it plainly, Magic Mike has something for everyone, not just the ladies, so do yourself a huge favor and embrace it with an open mind.