The Barkley Marathons: A Doc Not Just for Trail Runners, but Extremists Who Must Succeed

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The Barkley Marathons; I bet you’ve never heard of the long distance trail run competition. Neither had I before I saw the poster for this new documentary with its intriguing tag line: The race that eats its young.  Sounds more like a horror film than a sports doc.  And the poster’s artwork is reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film.  With all that going for it, I just had to check it out.  And surprisingly, I was kind of right on both my initial impressions, which is a good thing in the most interesting ways.

Having had no idea about the Barkley, or the sport of Trail Running I didn’t know what to expect from a film on the subject.  After all, how interesting can it possibly be to anyone outside the realm of athletes dedicated to that specific niche sport?  But it seems the directors; Annika Iltis and Timothy James Kane (two long time professional camera assistants working in TV) didn’t know anything about this intriguing little world either before they decided to make the film.  According to Kane (Iltis was unfortunately unavailable for my interview) the two started out wanting to make a movie that would allow them to branch out and showcase their own abilities as filmmakers.  And they accomplish that quite well with a documentary that really draws the viewer in through the most basic human trait: curiosity.

barkley1-videoLarge-v2Inspired by a magazine article on the subject the two decided to find out more about something they knew absolutely nothing about, beyond the realms of Hollywood and the Los Angeles lifestyle in general.  Because of their own perspective their approach to the topic does not assume any knowledge on the audience’s part (a pitfall for the average documentary).  Instead the film is a logical presentation of the who, what, where, why and how of the subject, complete with on site coverage of the annual event.  This refreshing and mindful approach serves its subject well, and keeps the viewer in tandem with the camera, as if everything is presented from the audience’s point of view rather than that of being along for the ride with an insider.  There is a distinct difference in those two approaches, and one that really makes The Barkley Marathons a fun and compelling experience regardless if one has any interest in the sport or not.

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I’m not one for spoilers, so I won’t be going into much detail.  What I can tell you is that you’ll find yourself being drawn in deeper and deeper as the story builds, virtually hanging on the edge of your seat as the surprisingly dramatic tale takes it’s twists and turns.  There’s plenty of humor and lighter moments with the colorful inhabitants of the base camp where runners check in after every completed circuit, but you’ll be particularly impressed with the bodily damage the participants inflict upon their selves in the pursuit of a personal best against the elements.  You’ll route for odd ball characters who range from first time “virgins”, to repeat competitors who enter knowing they will never complete the run but migrate annually to a remote part of Tennessee for the camaraderie that comes with the physical and mental challenge unique to the Barkley.  Front-runners will fail; defeated by the elements, and an unknown up and comer will emerge to challenge the existing champion.  The final moments are exciting as we wait to see if a new record will be made in a twenty five year old competition that has seen only ten finalists.

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Winning all sorts of accolades at festivals that feature “Trail” films (who knew?), The Barkley Marathons may just be spearheading widespread acceptance with a cult genre, much like that of the surf films of the 1960s and 70s.  Like co-director Kane noted, with the abundant beauty inherent in shots featuring such rich topography these films inspire rabid fans.  Although The Barkley Marathons is far short of what is known as “trail porn” due to its inclusion of the gritty reality of the competition.  And as Kane went on to say, if the film were glossier it would come off as false, lacking the reality of the harsh extremes of the race.  That is an observation to which I couldn’t agree with more.

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A particularly notable aspect of the movie is the abundant number of cameras utilized through out the filming process.  Fortunately, the two camera savvy directors recognized ahead of time the need for coverage and employed as many independent camera operators as they could entice to the remote hills of Tennessee.  Although the most sophisticated camera is a 5D and the others down grade from there, there is no image within the film that is less than professional – a true testament to the skills of the operators.  And one of the race participants graciously allowed the use of the footage he shot from his own chest mounted GoPro.  Remarkable footage indeed, considering each shooter was out in the field for twelve or more hours at a time across a sixty hour time period, while keeping out of site of the competitors.  One wannabe crew member actually showed up only to quake at the reality of the situation in which he would be shooting and quickly left (quitter).

Wade-Payne-AP-USA-TodayWith this remarkable first film under their belts it will be exciting to see what these two young filmmakers will come up with next.  So-called sophomore films can be disappointing, but I do not fore see such a problem in the case of Annika Iltis and Timothy James Kane.  Whether it is a narrative feature or another documentary film I’m sure the two directors will have plenty of offers to assist them and guide them through that awkward stage.  Perhaps then we will have the satisfaction of seeing them justifiably in contention for an Oscar.  Sadly it won’t happen with The Barkley Marathons.  Iltis and Kane were unaware of the appeal the film would ultimately have and lacked the finances to open the film where necessary in order to qualify the film.  In fact, you’re only going to able to see this film via VOD, which I think is particularly fitting since you’re going to want to be as comfortable as you can be while watching such an exhausting race.

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I encourage you to see it now, perhaps as a break from all the holiday, Oscar vying films that are out there now.  See it, and tell your friends about it.  Then you’ll see and they’ll see that The Barkley Marathons is about people who won’t give up even when facing insurmountable odds made by people of the same ilk, made to inspire others who live the same way.  Who knows, maybe The Barkley Marathons will be the next inspirational film shown to sales people, executives and small business owners alike.  After all, it’s about those with the will to succeed no matter the cost.  That’s just about as entrepreneurial as it gets, and speaks to the core of American values.  That’s a lot for a little documentary.  But then again, that’s exactly what documentaries are supposed to do – inspire greatness.  The Barkley Marathons achieves this goal beautifully.

 

 

 

Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back

by Jeffery Bui  

imagesAround twenty years ago, almost every child’s dream was to become a Pokémon Master. The fantasy created by the Pokémon franchise acted as a safe haven for children—allowing them to both catch a break from the hectic life of long division as well as catch Pokémon while they were at it. When the franchise finally announced the 1998 release of their first feature-film Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back, the Y2K scare was put on hold as Pokémon fanatics could not contain their excitement to see a ten-year old boy and his furry yellow mouse at their local movie theater.

Although marketing to the hearts of eight-year olds, the movie did not disappoint. The plot begins with the backstory of a laboratory experiment gone wrong, Mewtwo. What Mewtwo does is exactly what you would expect in a children’s movie that explicitly includes “Mewtwo Strikes Back” in its title: it strikes back—getting revenge on the dastardly group of scientists at the expense of the entire Pokémon world. As a result, the stars somehow align and the naïve yet courageous protagonist, Ash Ketchum, is put in the position to save the Pokémon world from devastation and prevent Mewtwo from obliterating everything the Pokémon world knows and loves.

MV5BMjE3OTcxNDA1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNDI2MDE3._V1_SX640_SY720_Of course, being a children’s movie, it is suited for the resolution to be nothing less than rainbows and butterflies. However, the beauty of Pokémon: The First Movie is not found in the “what happens,” but the “how it happens.” The idea of how Ash is able to be the underdog and halt what seems to be the most powerful being exposed to the Pokémon world seems almost impossible; Yet, it happens—and in quite tear-jerking fashion. Pokémon: The First Movie takes the juvenile concept of Pokémon and alters it into something a little more tenderhearted. Shinji Miyazaki’s choice in music paired with the cinematography of Hisao Shirai caused for elicited emotions that one would expect watching something along the lines of Titanic or Marley & Me, not Pokémon.  

Pokemon.The.First.Movie.1998.DVDR.NTSC.R4.LATiNO-18-20130128-18211911The most notable aspect to the movie that sets it apart from being an ordinary animation is Takeshi Shudo’s creation of multiple layers within the characters. In just 96 minutes, Shudo is able to develop the character of Mewtwo as a hostile psychopath while still causing the audience to sympathize for it and almost justify its actions. Intended to simply empower and glorify the scientists who made it, Mewtwo is tasked with issues everyone faces, whether it be during confusing teenage years or a mid-life crisis: self-worth and self-identity. As a result, Mewtwo, just like many of us, channels the confusion into frustration towards those around it.  

There are only two plausible reasons that come to mind as to why I would not recommend this movie to anyone: I either strongly dislike them or they saw it right before I could recommend it to them. It may be the nostalgic toddler in me speaking, but the movie was a masterpiece. The fact that I have such firm support in Pokémon: The First Movie 17 years after its release means that the Pokémon franchise did its job. Even at a box office standpoint, the Pokémon franchise’s ability to net a revenue of $130 million in a 1998-valued economy speaks for itself.  

pokemon1sub_4The positive message entailed in Pokémon: The First Movie is both universal and eternal as it contributes to the progressive world we live in today. Regardless of the Pokémon’s origin, purebred or artificial, they come to an understanding that we can use in our daily lives: “Maybe if we start looking at what’s the same instead of always looking at what’s different, well, who knows?”

Birdman: Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is Phenomenal

by Erik Harty

Birdman-1Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a phenomenal film.  Written and directed by the lesser-known Alejandro González Iñárittu, it finds its life very much in the technical magic behind the scenes.  It is made to look like it is one continuous shot until the end of the movie, where some obvious hard cuts take place. But was it actually one continuous shot?  Absolutely not.  There are dramatic shifts in setting and time, not to mention the insanity of trying to choreograph every single moving part for nearly two straight hours.  So no, the film is not one single shot. Rather, it is a magical tapestry, woven together by the magic of clever cinematography, solid editing, and polished visual effects.

As an aspiring editor, I thoroughly enjoy learning about the inner-workings of the post-production process.  I love hearing editors, colorists, sound mixers, and visual effects artists discuss their work and the very specific decisions they made during their time with a particular film.  In the case of Birdman, the editors have actually kept a lot of their “secrets” to themselves, but that doesn’t mean their work can’t be dissected from the outside.  

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When examining the film to find its edits, one of the things that immediately struck me were the interior/exterior transitions.  At many places throughout the film, a character will be moving from indoors to outdoors, or from one room to another through a doorway.  Often times, the camera pushes in to fill the frame with the character’s back or the area around the doorway is so dark that the frame is briefly entirely dark.  Assuming that lighting and color are consistent, a cut can be placed unnoticeably at the point where the frame is completely dark.  This particular method is very reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), where he attempted to make a continuously shot film, but was limited by the amount of film that a camera could hold.  To hide the cuts, he had the camera push in to fill the frame with someone’s back.  Fortunately for Iñárittu, technology has progressed enormously since Hitchcock’s time.  The other two methods of hiding Birdman’s cuts require a little more post-production magic.

birdman_movie_stillThe first of these two methods is dramatically simpler than the second.  Known as “whip” or “swish” pans, these cuts find their strength in movement.  They work by cutting on the action, where the action is blurred because of fast camera movement.  The effect is further improved by using a frame rate near the cinematic standard of 24 frames per second.  Often times, a well-executed whip pan can even provide an unnoticeable transition between two completely different settings, so a discreet transition between two shots in the same setting is very feasible.  Birdman utilizes this technique all over the place, which actually helps add some energy to the film, in addition to its function as a transition.

birdman-emma-stone-changing-room-xlargeThe final technique used to mask transitions in Birdman is really more of a category than it is a specific technique.  “Visual effects” is a broad term than can mean a whole lot of things, but in the context of the cuts in this film, it refers to a method of smoothing transitions.  In some cases, such as the small number of exterior shots that showcase the transition from night to day, the effects are more akin to a very complex dissolve.  In other cases, they may add some extra blur to a whip pan to make it more believable.  Depending on the situation, they may even be a reanimation of some aspect of a cut that makes it almost unnoticeable.  Some might consider this category cheating, since it wasn’t how the film was originally shot, but it certainly rounds out the continuous feel of the movie.

Birdman-5Ultimately, I love Birdman because the unique way that it was shot and edited contributes significantly to the film.  It isn’t made to look like a continuous shot just for the sake of being different.  Rather, the continuous, almost dreamlike flow of the framing assists in characterizing this chapter of Riggan Thomson’s life as confused, dazed, and lost.  Birdman is a film worth viewing for its success in accomplishing a technical feat, but more importantly, for how its technical feat contributes to the overall character of the movie.

 

A Red Letter Film – A Review of The Martian

by Jonathan Davidson

97-frontHow to transfer vast amounts of information in the smallest package—that’s the holy grail of communication.  Several weeks before hearing about The Martian film, I was buying books on Amazon and saw a suggestion for a book called The Martian.  I’d never heard of the book, but it had nearly 10,000 five-star reviews.  John Grisham, James Patterson, and even Stephen King rarely command such a mass of raving reviewers on one of their novels.

And then I saw the cover of the book: An astronaut wearing the brilliant white of a modern American spacesuit, his feet ripped from the Martian soil by fierce wind, his body—twisted in an odd, helpless angle—obscured by reddish-brown dust.  That’s all I needed to see.  Indeed, some graphic designer sitting in some cubical at Broadway Books had stumbled upon the holy grail of communication, marrying simplicity to enormous meaning.  The faceless fear of that astronaut reached out and gripped my science-fiction-loving heart with icy talons.  I clicked, “Buy Now with One-Click®,” and started reading the book the moment it arrived. Every page exceeded my expectations.

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And then I heard they were making a movie. Since movies always have a hard time living up to great books, I tried to approach this one as a standalone piece of art, something wholly separate from its paperback father.  Yet I found it impossible to prevent myself from making comparisons.  The movie promised disappointment in the first nano-second I heard about it.  Instead of the terrifying and moving image of an astronaut fighting against the elements of Mars (a battle even more symbolic when one remembers that, in Roman mythology, Mars was the god of war), the movie poster showed an extreme close-up of Matt Damon’s spacesuit-protected face, one eyebrow slightly raised, his lips pursed as if he’s trying to look suave. Apparently the graphic designer in some cubical at Twentieth Century Fox doesn’t know his trade like the designer in some cubical at Broadway Books. Thus, even on Sol 1 (a Martian day) it appeared that the movie might not live up to the book.

The-Martian-TrailerTrying to keep an open mind, I went to see the film.  As I had suspected, it was very hard to live up to such a gripping masterpiece of science fiction literature.  However, viewed as a separate piece of art, The Martian does what any good film should—carry the viewer into a new and spectacular world where an immersive and emotional experience awaits. This new and spectacular world attracted considerable talent.  Ridley Scott, director of dozens of projects including Blade Runner, Gladiator, and American Gangster, directed.  Drew Goddard, writer of Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods, and many episodes for shows such as Lost, Alias, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, adapted the screenplay.  Matt Damon, who needs no introduction unless you haven’t been to the theater since the 1980s, played the role of the protagonist Mark Watney.  Other prominent actors such as Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara, and Sean Bean, played roles as other astronauts or administrators and staff at NASA and JPL.

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The Martian tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut whose sub-specialty happens to be botany who travels to Mars with several crew mates on the third manned mission to the red planet.  On Sol 6, a storm blows into the landing zone with such intensity that the mission must be aborted.  In the scramble to reach the evacuation shuttle, Mark Watney gets hit by flying debris.  Unable to delay the launch any longer and getting no readings from Watney’s bio-monitor, the crew decides to blast off.  Hours later, Watney awakes to discover that not only is he alive, but he’s profoundly alone, unable to communicate with NASA or his crew mates, and completely undersupplied to live until the next manned mission to mars which will arrive more than two years later.  Determined to live, Watney sets out to use every scrap of his training and creativity to survive, unaware of exactly how inhospitable Mars will turn out to be.

martian-gallery5-gallery-imageTo Goddard’s credit, he did a great job adapting the screenplay.  The book, written mostly in the form of Mark Watney’s journal entries, derives most of its charms from what’s in the head of the hilariously inappropriate yet scientifically genius protagonist.  By having Watney record a video journal and overlapping his recordings with b-roll of the events described, Goddard managed to tell the story in the same manner of the book while making use of the visual storytelling techniques that makes film so compelling.  Also, Goddard must be commended for sticking to the storyline of the book.  While he had to drop dozens of events in order to keep the film under two and a half hours, those he did portray were lifted almost verbatim from the novel.

Another strength of this film is in the cinematography, beautifully captured by Dariusz Wolski.  Sweeping panoramas of the Martian landscape and lots of aerial shots revealed just how alone Mark Watney was on the treacherous planet.  Such long shots were balanced out with lots of extreme close-ups, allowing Damon to convey Watney’s unique personality.  What’s more, I noticed a tasteful number of unconventional shots, with the camera attached to odd objects or from Dutch angles.  Wolski also effectively used lighting to convey the inherent themes of the film.  The sun hardly dimmed by the thin Martian atmosphere, casts stark shadows, accentuating the planet’s unfeeling harshness.  Dark lighting at JPL underscored how the technicians felt as they labored under the heavy burden of knowing that Mark Watney’s survival depended on them.  My only major criticism of the cinematography deals with the aerial shots.  Apparently their perspective algorithms weren’t finally turned, leading to slight distortions in reality when objects slide past each other.  For instance, as distant mountains changed position relative to close objects, they didn’t seem to interact realistically. Perhaps this is nitpicking, but it bothered me enough that I noticed exactly what was happening.

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My greatest criticism of the film in general is aimed at Ridley Scott.  With a cast that lesser directors would sacrifice their children for, one would assume that Scott would command an incredible symphony of acting.  Yet with the possible exception of Damon, all the actors seemed somewhat listless and sedate.  Even in the most critical moments of the film, the actors were fairly reserved, hardly ever raising their voices or acting as if people’s lives and billions of dollars were on the line.  I have to assume that Scott directed the actors to behave this way on purpose.  Perhaps NASA trains their people to behave with great restraint even in the most dire of circumstances.  Even still, I felt a palpable lack of enthusiasm from most of the cast.  The same could be said for the pacing in general.  It lacked an energy and immediateness that I expected.  The novel was a very gripping read, so perhaps it set up unfair expectations.  Other films such as Gravity might have also set an unrealistically high bar for excitement in space stories, or perhaps Scott directed the film in a slightly lower-key manner in order to avoid the appearance that he copied Gravity.

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Despite these objections, The Martian was a great experience. Matt Damon followed well in Tom Hanks’s shoes as a cast away, his strong acting allowing me to feel with Watney the steep and alternating peaks of desperation, fear, and hope. The desolate yet beautiful Martian world transported me to a new and raw place where anything could happen. Watney’s humor and intelligence made him a pleasure to spend almost two and a half hours observing. Perhaps this film didn’t live up to the book, but it made a very enjoyable movie.

Cartel Land

by Timothy Kennelly

maxresdefaultThe recent recipient of the Sundance Jury Prize for Documentary Directing is one of the most powerful and gripping docs I’ve seen in many years. Director Matthew Heineman’s up-close look at the drug cartel’s impact on Mexico opens with a nighttime scene of masked men offloading chemicals from a truck and doing a large-scale meth cook in a secret location in the Michocoan mountains.  Is that up-close enough for you? The movie follows parallel stories of citizen vigilantes, militias formed in the absence of government support, or in the presence of government corruption.

Cartel-LandA pickup truck drives along a dusty road bordering the fence between Arizona and Mexico, with both the road and the fence fading into the infinity of the desert.  A voiceover says, “There’s a line between good and evil—maybe imaginary, but I believe it’s real—and I see myself as guardian of that line, protecting the good people from evil.”  The words spoken by Arizona resident Timothy Nailer, leader of a self-organized militia trying to keep Mexican meth smugglers from bringing drugs into the U.S.  Like many big city liberals, I tend to associate border-guarding militiamen with gun-happy racists.  Yet Nailer is empathetic and earnest as a local man whose life was almost ruined by drugs, and turned his near-ruin into redemption, organizing patrols to capture drug smugglers and turning them over to Border Police.  He makes it clear he’s not after innocent migrant families who pose no security threat.  He and his fellow militiamen (most from the region, and ex-military) are dedicated to capturing criminals and staunching the flow of poison into the US, and money back to Mexico.  The filmmaker is smart to focus on Nailer, as when the camera picks up the chatter of some of his cohorts, a bit more unfocused racism seeps through the cracks of their casual conversation.  Still, Nailer is an inspiring and eloquent leader, glad to have the help from others, whatever their political views, and he puts his life on the line for the cause he believes in.  After hearing the body count of the cartel wars (80,000 killed and 20,000 missing since 2007,) it’s impossible to not reevaluate my own preconceptions about these militiamen, who are in their own way “Watchers on the Wall, Guardians of the realms of Men.”

#3 - Dr. Jose Mireles (center), in CARTEL LAND, a film by Matthew HeinemanAcross the border, we’re dropped in middle of a small Mexican town’s funeral for victims of a massacre by the local drug gang—including many children.  There’s no short supply of harrowing tales in Cartel Land.  I had to close my eyes for some scenes, not wanting to read any more subtitles of survivors’ tales, and they were the lucky ones.  Terrorized by the biggest gang, sickeningly ironically named “Knights Templar” (an ancient Catholic order), and abandoned by their corrupt government, the citizens finally declare a war against the cartel.  Men old and young respond to the call, and are given T-shirts, training and weaponry, and a true “folk militia” is born.  In an early scene, they move into a neighboring town, taking over the central square and declare it “liberated”. Soon the army shows up (any government body as we soon learn is completely in the pocket of drug gangs).  The way the small town citizens surround the military and make them back downis one of the high points of this film.  A bullied population suddenly sensing and seizing their moment of power is electric and unforgettable.  One wonders how many small towns around the globe are only one spark away from similar explosion of repressed righteous anger.

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During the rise of the vigilante defense force, we see the predictable stages such as the government minister calling them “hoodlums with no respect for the proper authorities”, an assassination attempt on the leader, the jockeying between power-seeking lieutenants, and of course the government’s attempt to eventually co-opt them by offering to make them an official government militia.  We also witness the ethical transgressions of its leader, almost inevitable in a man of such charisma and hubris.  There are more external factors behind the transfiguration of the Civilian Defense Force (Autodefensas), but I won’t ruin it because you should see it yourself unfolding in the movie.

The “no man’s land” of Timothy Nailer’s Arizona/ Mexico desert is a physical metaphor of the moral landscape.  Proactive self-defense is survival, where lines of morality disappear in the desert sand, and traditional authorities are nowhere on the horizon.  Justice is often a mirage that disappears as one approaches.  Perhaps the saddest manifestation of this, is the slow change of the Mexican Autodefensas from liberators to harassers to oppressors. We have a front row seat to this including a car chase and firefight so intense the filmmakers have to leap out of the SUV and run down an alley for their lives, still filming. Citizen Defenders capture what they believe to be a member of a drug gang, who may have just been an innocent man driving down the wrong street.  They pull him away from his screaming child and wife to interrogate him in the back of their SUV.  The temptation to bully the handcuffed man is too great, and the camera, inside the claustrophobic car, captures all this intimately, as if to remind us indelibly, “This is the way of the world—the devil hands the victim the whip and whispers to him use it on his tormentor.”  In the next scene he’s at the “questioning/processing center” in a line of handcuffed, fearful men, hearing the screams of the current interviewee behind the wall.  No overt statement is needed to conjure the image of Abu Gharib and America losing its moral compass down the blind alley of the War on Terror.

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In a movie full of moments tearing away the veil, I found this unmasking to be the most haunting, that the victimized can turn into hero, only to be seduced by power into becoming the victimizer.  In many ways it’s the oldest and saddest tale of human history. It’s the journey from 9/11 Ground Zero to Rumsfeld’s Gitmo, it’s Israel walling Palestinians inside a West Bank ghetto, it’s Tamora of the Goths in “Titus Andronicus” turning from Titus’ prisoner to Titus’ destroyer after she becomes Roman queen. Shakespeare 400 years ago, casting his lens back 1600 years further, vividly showing us that the seductive siren song of Retribution is the force pulls all Progress inexorably back down into the History’s whirlpool of perpetual violence.  “I do believe the cycles can be broken”….said the filmmaker Heinemann in his Q&A. “The population is approaching the tipping point of tolerance.. The recent murder of 43 university students inspired hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets and demand an end to this catastrophe.”  Let’s hope that this documentary can open even more eyes and help bring real-world changes.

 

About Time and Meaning

abouttimeby Jonathan Davidson

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably not an eagle.  So when my wife said that she wanted to see the romantic comedy About Time, I agreed to go, expecting a shallow yet cute film that would hopefully make me laugh.  Later, I saw the trailer and profoundly regretted my decision.  Not only was it a romantic comedy—which real men can handle, enjoy even—but a time traveling romantic comedy. What at first appeared to be a noble, healthy duck from a good bloodline now looked like a crippled duck with laryngitis, quacking into the void of Hollywood creativity.

Faced with watching Ender’s Game by myself or a potential train wreck of genre mixing with my gorgeous wife, I capitulated.  And far from cringing at a train wreck, I smiled often, laughed frequently, learned a life lesson that I still think about every day, and to my complete astonishment, cried more than at any other time in my life.

Richard Curtis, responsible for Love Actually, Notting Hill, and many other successful stories, wrote and directed About Time.  Such a record of success has allowed him to join the privileged ranks of filmmakers who are able to write and direct their own work. Thankfully, there seems to be a trend toward allowing talented writers to oversee the entire creative development of their stories.  Richard Curtis, Christopher Nolan, Alfonso Cuarón, James Cameron, and select others have gained this level of trust from the studios and have released a string of runaway successes.  Perhaps this single-author control leads to better stories, preventing the mission creep and mangling that can occur when producers, directors, lead actors and executives tinker with the material.  Indeed, About Time feels as if it were crafted by someone who cared deeply about every detail of the story, no matter how inconsequential.

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About Time starts by establishing the flat-line life of twenty-one-year-old, gangly, redheaded Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson).  Shortly after a New Year’s Eve party, Tim’s father (Bill Nighy) pulls him aside and explains that men in the family have always had the ability to travel through time. Of course, Tim thinks his father has gone mad.  Yet after successfully time traveling, Tim wants to learn more.  The film quickly distinguishes itself from lesser time traveling stories by building unique restraints around Tim’s ability.  This avoids so many of the clichés that could have swiftly ruined the film.  For instance, Tim’s father explains that he can only travel back through his own lifetime.  Thus, Tim can’t go back and marry Helen of Troy or assassinate Hitler or do any of the other neat yet predictable things that come to mind.  Naturally, Tim wants to use the power for money, but his father quickly dispels this notion by pointing out how fabulous wealth ruined various ancestors.  Clichés dealt with, Tim’s father shares his advice: use this power to do what truly makes you happy.  And what would make an average, gangly, redhead truly happy?  Love, of course.

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Pleasantly awkward and insecure, yet emboldened by his ability to step back in time and try a different tact, Tim thoroughly embarrasses himself in pursuit of a girlfriend, leading to a lot of the comedy one might expect from the premise. At first, I feared the film would fall apart at this juncture, descending into a ridiculous parade of sexual exploits. Yet in the same way that this film distinguishes itself from other time traveling stories by striving for originality, it surprised me with Tim’s gentlemanly attempts to charm women.  Tim finally meets his equal in Mary (Rachel McAdams), a shy, geeky yet beautiful woman who hates parties and shares Tim’s discomfort when dealing with strangers. Immediately smitten and thoroughly determined to win her affection, Tim uses the fullness of his time travel ability to make sure everything goes just right. Together they fall into a truly authentic, humorous and touching romance.

abouttime01About Time further distinguishes its originality by celebrating normal introverts. Most movies have a “hero,” which by definition suggests one who passes through the world with a charming, skillful ease. Such stories often portray introverts as boring hermits to be pitied and laughed at, or at best for their geeky usefulness when the world is at stake and the only person who can save the day is a quirky programmer. About Time accurately depicts introverts as those who tire of crowds, parties and strangers, but who come alive as creative, humorous, kind and thoughtful people when together with close friends, family, or one on one.  While all these qualities make About Time an unusually good film, what makes it truly soar is Richard Curtis’s grasp of a very undervalued storytelling technique. Of all the advice given to aspiring writers, perhaps the most frequent is, “Good stories arise from conflict.” Thus, novice storytellers detail epic battles, chase scenes and constant arguments, chasing down as much conflict and as high of stakes as possible in an attempt to craft exciting stories. Yet veteran storytellers know that there’s another story element that’s equally if not more important than conflict: connection. We certainly deal with conflict in our lives and we’re wired to be fascinated by watching others fight through its ravages. Yet we feel even stronger vicarious emotions when characters connect to each other in surprising and inspiring ways. Consider Les Misérables. Certainly, it has its share of conflict, but its most memorable moments arise from connection, such as when Bishop Myriel forgives Jean Valjean for stealing his silverware, a gesture that has more impact on Jean Valjean than the vastly disproportionate amount of conflict he has endured.

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In the same way, About Time has several such startlingly poignant moments of connection. The quality of one such moment—the one that reduced me to crying harder than I ever have in my life—shocked me with its tenderness and made me long for the ability to step back in time. I experienced in real life the tragedy that befalls Tim, yet here I am, drawn along by the unstoppable pull of time, vibrantly unable to do anything about it. But even if loss has largely passed you by, there’s little doubt this moment of profound human connection will leave you unaffected.  The film ends by imparting a lesson so simple yet profound that I have thought about it almost every day since seeing the film. I can’t tell you what it is, for that would ruin the experience of realizing it for yourself. But don’t worry. You won’t miss it. And if applied, every day of your life will be significantly richer.  Obviously, I was completely taken by this film. And, as always, my wife was right (why do I ever question her?) Sometime when your heart is open and you want to enjoy a thoughtful journey through love, time, and meaning, watch this film.

 

Penelope: A Tale of Discovering Self Worth

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by Sarah Leong

Penelope is a story of discovering and creating one’s identity. The plot follows Penelope Wilhern (Christina Ricci), a young woman who’s born with a curse upon her wealthy family—that the next girl to the line would be born with the nose of a pig. The only way for the curse to be lifted is by “one of their own” to accept her, which her parents interpreted as someone of Wilhern descent accepting her hand in marriage. The movie follows her story of trying to find a suitor in order to lift the curse and involves multiple interactions with people from the outside world.

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The characters followed suit of a fairy-tale story, with a sheltered female protagonist, parents with old values, a charming romantic interest with deep, dark secrets, a meddling villain, and a happy ending. Penelope grew up hidden from the world because her parents didn’t want other people to see her pig-nose and make fun of her for it and make Penelope insecure. As a result, when Penelope was old enough, the parents set up private meetings for suitors to visit their home and meet Penelope. The suitors would freak out and try to make a run for it, but the family forced them to sign a contract of secrecy. Lemon (Peter Dinklage), a nosy reporter, hears about Penelope through a suitor that had seen Penelope and escaped the castle before signing the contract. As a result of desiring a juicy story, Lemon tracks down Max Campion (James McAvoy), who was discovered as a descendant of a wealthy family. Max was a son cut off from the family because of his gambling problem, so Lemon knew he would be able to hook Max into going through with his plan.

eli477_3Through an animated narrative voice-over thanks to Penelope herself, we get a great idea of the intelligent, curious, and thoughtful girl that she is. The viewer cannot help but to empathize with her desire to be free of her parents’ adamancy (primarily her mother) of getting the curse lifted. Ricci does a brilliant job bringing Penelope’s wanderlust character to life through a dynamic range of facial expressions around her nose as well as a character within her tone of voice to portray the endearing protagonist. In this way, Penelope proves relatable to many viewers who have a wide-eyed wonder about the world outside of their comfort zone.

penelope-03 Penelope’s father (Richard E. Grant) is the passive parent; therefore, most of the drama comes from Penelope’s high-strung mother, Jessica (Catherine O’Hara). Jessica is absolutely convinced that she’s doing what’s best for her daughter and going about it the right way. Unfortunately, she cannot see that Penelope is suffering because her mom is so bent on fixing her, that she completely misses the hardship Penelope is enduring. Viewers can relate to Penelope’s relationship with her mother because many people have felt frustrated or oppressed by his or her parents at times. The child feels the parent is completely blind to his or her suffering, and that simple miscommunication on the child’s part and failure to recognize the child’s misery on the parent’s part results in the tension that Penelope and Jessica encounter. 

Initially, Max Campion is a sketchy-looking character, but once the viewers see him interacting with Penelope, we witness him develop genuine interest in her, rather than the reward. Max is a complex character with a deep backstory that is touched on but not elaborated nearly enough in my opinion. He stands as the anticipated “saving grace” for Penelope, which turns out to be a flop. I found this to be an excellent salute to our tendency to believe we can help any situation, but soon realize that we cannot always play white knight.

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The film’s production utilized a time-period/modern setting, wide angles, and swelling music to emphasize the wonder and adventure Penelope experiences throughout the film. The castle-like home she lives in is very extravagant and had a very old-English time-period feel (similar to the setting of movies such as Nanny McPhee), whereas the world around her seems much more modern day London, with cobblestone roads and pubs and bustling bars. It was a fantastic balance between old and new in terms of fashion, culture, and dialogue. The shots included many bright colors and soft lights to enhance the entire magical feel to the film, which the music assisted as well.

Joby Talbot composed the score originally for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005; Arctic Tale, 2007). I was very pleased with the orchestration, consisting of strings in the high register, which always symbolizes either magic or love—or in the case of this movie, both. With dynamic swells and themes, the viewer can experience the emotions with the characters. During the scene of Max playing the piano, Talbot had composed a beautiful piano instrumental that was used in the theater showings of the film, but unfortunately replaced with a soundtrack song in the DVD release. This disappointed me because there was a lot of dimension in the piece, backed by a string section, emphasizing the emotions Max was experiencing from leaving Penelope, as well as paralleling the wonder Penelope experienced by riding around town and seeing the world for the first time.

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In my experience, recommending Penelope to my friends has proven to be difficult because I struggle to summarize the movie without giving away too much about what makes it such a feel-good film. It appears to be yet another damsel-in-distress film, and it’s not until the final plot twist at the end of the film (SPOILER) that it is revealed all she had to do was accept herself.

Families can pull lessons for discussion from the movie, although the topics may be too deep for younger children to engage in. I appreciate the message that emphasized on how, many times, we search for ways to fix our flaws, when all we really need to do is accept them and find ways to live with them. Unfortunately, our flaws cannot be whisked away as if they were a magic spell, but it may definitely feel that way when we feel alleviated by the things we once considered our “curses.” Ultimately, we are capable of finding our identity and happiness on our own without needing the approval of others around us.

Ned Rifle Completes Hal Hartley’s Trilogy of a Messed Up Family

 

by Carrie Specht

1388785480-dothis_lectores_010214-hal-hartleyThe Cinefamily’s Hal Hartley Film Retrospective runs April 2nd – 4th. This is the first-ever West Coast retrospective of the works of the iconic film auteur, but don’t worry if you miss it because there will be additional Saturday matinee screenings throughout the rest of the month featuring eight career spanning films. Although, Hartley is only in attendance for the April 2nd through 4th screenings, you still have the opportunity to see the rest of the films on the big screen, including the Los Angeles premiere of his latest feature, NED RIFLE. The film’s stars, including Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), James Urbaniak (American Splendor, Henry Fool) and Liam Aiken (Fay Grim, Road to Perdition) are expected to make appearances. This highly anticipated retrospective is the kickoff of a weeklong Cinefamily run of NED RIFLE April 3rd through April 9th.

Liam Aiken as Ned Rifle in NED RIFLE, directed by Hal HartleyNow it’s no secret that Hartley’s filmmaking style can be an acquired taste. However, his deadpan “dramadies” filled with taut dialogue and offbeat characters defined classic American independent filmmaking of the 1990s. And it was Hartley’s films that offered breakthrough roles to Parker Posey (The House of Yes, Waiting for Guffman), Edie Falco (The Sapranos, Nurse Jackie), Adrienne Shelley (The Unbelievable Truth, Waitress), and Martin Donovan (Insomnia, Weeds). It’s hard to believe, but NED RIFLE is Hartley’s first feature film in eight years. It premiered at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, and recently screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival, marking the triumphant completion of the trilogy that started with HENRY FOOL and continued with FAY GRIM. Although these films were made over a period of fifteen years, Hartley used the same actors to play the same characters in three different films over the course of a generation (if this sounds familiar it’s because recent Best Picture nominee BOYHOOD accomplished something similar but very different shooting one film over the corse of twelve years with the same actors). Each film in Hartley’s trilogy includes Parker Posey, Thomas James Ryan, James Urbaniak and actor Liam Aiken. Aiken was just seven years old in 1997, and in 2014 he returns in NED RIFLE as a teenage born-again Christian convinced it is his duty to hunt down and kill his father. This is most definitely not your typical family saga.

201503077_2_IMG_FIX_700x700 This beautifully shot film has an overall somber tone and pace that accentuates the personality of the characters. The matte color palate is undoubtedly the trademark of a low budget film, however in this case the desaturation of the world in which these characters live is pitch perfect and accentuates the muddled thinking of each. Those unfamiliar with Hartley and his approach to character may mistake the even keel performances as bad acting or misguided “helmsmanship”, but they would be mistaken. Hartley and his actors know exactly what they are doing, and the result is quiet rich and satisfying. These are real people, not movie people. And real people who behave in un-dramatic ways give punctuation to their actions when they stray from the norm. These are fine performances marked by the nuances of character that know what they need to do. And even though everyone’s quest is a serious one, there are never any high dramatic moments until absolutely necessary, and even then there is a quiet acceptance of events. 

cdn.indiewire-1Undoubtedly, NED RIFLE holds a greater impact for those who have seen the first two films. However, it is not necessary to see the first two to understand and enjoy the third. Like any well-made sequel, NED RIFLE has an impactful story of its own. In fact, the original film was never conceived as a three part series. It was not until FAY GRIM that Hartley decided there was to be a third film to complete the story. But that doesn’t even matter, because the story is a basic one. It is clear from the very beginning that Ned has issues with his parents and is determined to resolve the matter by avenging his mother for the wrong his father has done her. And thus the journey of a young man begins, but before all is over he emerges as a man. Although he is not the man he expected to be. How could he be with no one else being who he expected them to be? SPOILER – His presumed suffering mother seems to be enjoying prison life, his lovely companion appears to be a nymphomaniac bent on a twisted kind of revenge, and his father whom he has always envisioned as a son of the devil turns out to be a type of modern day sage. And it all fits together in a beautifully crafted tale without a single car chase, explosion, or computer-generated effect. NED RIFLE is just plain old good story telling. It’s definitely unique, very original and certainly twisted, but solidly good at its very core. 

cdn.indiewireOf course Parker Posey provides a solid performance as Ned’s mother, and the rest of the Hartley stable of actors (Aiken,Urbaniak,Thomas Jay Ryan and Martin Donovan) are just as reliable. Amazingly enough, it is the young television comedy star, Aubrey Plaza who stands out by fitting in so nicely with this well-established group of Hartley veterans. Her signature droll delivery is perfectly in step with the world Hartley has carefully established over the years. Her’s is a performance that straddles dry comedy, mystery and intrigue. It is a screen characterization that will propel her in directions we have not seen her attempt before, and the opportunities that are about to come her way are well deserved. Although the image above (used in many ads) depicts Plaza in a very sensational pose, her performance is far more subtle and complicated than implied. Much like a Hal Hartley film. You always get more than the sensational, there’s also depth.

The Hal Hartley Retrospective screening schedule includes the Friday night premier of NED RIFLE, the Saturday presentation of TRUST and THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, the Saturday April 11th screening of SURVIVING DESIRE, followed by the Saturday, April 18th afternoon show of SIMPLE MEN, finishing up Saturday, April 25th with THE BOOK OF LIFE. All screenings will take place at The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Avenue, LA 90036. Tickets and Screening information can be found at the Cinefamily’s official site: http://www.cinefamily.org/films/the-films-of-hal-hartley

 

 

American Sniper: American Masterpiece

by Jonathan Davidson

Gilbert Chesterson once remarked, “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees,” implying that humanity’s greatest accomplishments seldom arise from collaboration, but are the product of singular, enlightened minds. In light of this quote, it’s a wonder that any film relying on the effort of hundreds of individuals could prove itself a masterpiece. Yet each year, two or three films are blessed with just the right constellation of talent, producing an experience so compelling one couldn’t help but call it a masterpiece. 

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American Sniper is such a film. Directed by Clint Eastwood and featuring a precise, emotionally gripping performance by Bradley Cooper, this true story about Chris Kyle, the most deadly sniper in American military history, works on every level. Stunning cinematography and tactically accurate battles offer up all the excitement and suspense expected in a war film, yet its true power derives from examining the full spectrum of Chris’s experience as a warrior—how the all-consuming experience of combat can put “lighting in your bones” yet just as easily eviscerate the soul. It also shows how he must choose between being present for his family or his brothers in arms, and the nearly impossible task of coming off the extreme highs of combat and re-assimilating into the emotional flat-line of civilian life.

Bradley Cooper works through a grueling bootcamp workout on the set of American Sniper in Los AngelesThe film’s portrait of Chris Kyle begins early in his childhood. After beating up a bully for hurting his younger brother Jeff, Chris’s father congratulates him for “finishing it” and tells him that there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. Sheep allow themselves to be victims, sheepdogs protect the weak, and wolves prey on the weak. It’s clear from an early age that Chris sees himself as a sheepdog, ready to use violence to fend off the wolves. But what’s not so clear to Chris is that, even though a sheepdog appears to have noble motives, he’s being raised to be an animal, one who acts off of the base instinct of violence. Subtly, Chris’s upbringing makes the audience wonder, when does the sheepdog become a wolf? Where does the line fall between protecting the weak and becoming a monster? How long can he live by the sword?

detail.de524157Even though Chris never asks these questions of himself, they develop into the underlying themes of the film. In his book What It Is Like to Go to War, Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes says, “Once we recognize our shadow’s existence we must resist the enticing step of going with its flow.” Throughout the film, we see Chris becoming sucked deeper and deeper into the vortex of war, volunteering for multiple tours of duty despite the objections of his wife, who can tell he’s being enticed to follow his shadow into total darkness. On top of deep and rich themes, this picture excels in balancing action and story. Many high-budget films rely heavily on CGI action; hoping excitement can make up for a weak story. Recently I watched Captain America: Winter Soldier and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. In both movies I was appalled to see twenty minutes of story followed by two hours of chase sequences and combat. Thankfully, the makers of American Sniper understand that action can quickly lead to emotional fatigue, causing the audience to quit caring about what happens to the characters.

maxresdefaultInstead of relying on action, American Sniper focuses on Chris Kyle’s personal journey. The screenwriter Jason Hall, who also wrote Paranoia and Spread, recognizes that the audience connects to a film’s hero only after discovering the hero’s strong desires, for strong desires are universal and highly sympathetic. We see Chris’s desire to protect his younger brother as a child, and we like him. We see Chris working hard to become a cowboy, and we admire his dedication. We see his intense desire to defend his country, and we’re touched by his willingness to sacrifice on our behalf. We see him pursue a beautiful woman until marriage, and we’re charmed. And before long we have so connected with Chris’s desires that we can feel his anguish at having to choose again and again between staying with his family or returning to Iraq to hunt down the sniper—a Syrian Olympic medalist in sharpshooting—who has killed his comrades. Once ensuring we understand and empathize with Chris, the filmmakers put him and his buddies into a few gritty, frighteningly realistic engagements and an incredible climactic battle near the end, but never let those action sequences detract from the real story.

Another area in which American Sniper adds to its richness is through exploring the politics of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Politically, Chris observes the war in stark white and jet black. When asked by fellow frogman Marc Lee if their presence in Iraq is a waste of time and lives, Chris blows off his friend’s concerns by saying things like, “There’s evil here. We’ve seen it. Would you want these f***ers in San Diego or New York?” Yet Marc and other characters in the film have a better appreciation for the complexities and vagaries inherent in the business of war, adding just enough counterpoint to Chris’s hyper patriotism to prevent the film from feeling like a raw-raw pro-war cheerleader.

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 What really surprised and pleased me about this film was its portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder. So many films focus on the heroic, cinematic battles of war, yet neglect to convey how, for many of the veterans, the battle rages for years after the bullets have stopped flying. In his book On Killing, Dave Grossman says, “Some psychiatric casualties have always been associated with war, but it was only in the twentieth century that our physical and logistical capability to sustain combat outstripped our psychological capacity to endure it.” Each time Chris returns from a tour of duty, the audience can see how modern war ravages the minds of those who fight. Each time his PTSD has grown worse, and its effects on his family prove the true costs of war even for those who are fortunate enough to have “survived.” 

For all these reasons and many more, American Sniper is an important, must-see film. By the end you’ll be thoroughly entertained, emotionally depleted, and will have likely gained significant insight into the lives of our most highly trained warriors.

Interstellar: Destined To Be A Classic

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A great film requires creativity, imagination and above all, a moving and relatable message. Interstellar fits those criteria perfectly. The essence of its story is simple yet intricate. It may take more than one trip to the theatre to fully understand the meaning of the movie, but its well worth it. With its pleasant fusion of science fiction and human relationships, Interstellar has become a must see of 2014. Its cinematography, soundtrack and characters will undoubtedly place it among the classics in cinematic history.

interstellar There is no question that the cinematography of the movie is absolutely extraordinary. It is one of the first feature films to have most of its footage shot in 15/70mm IMAX cameras, which allows the audience to get a better glimpse as to how majestic our universe is. In recent years, CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) has primarily been the source to create unreal scenarios, but director Christopher Nolan understandably prefers the effect of practical illusions instead. The practical illusions used in the movie create more realistic imagery by using miniature spaceship models and matting techniques instead of developing those images on software. Watching the film, you’re not distracted by poor CGI work but you’re paying closer attention to the story, due to the fact that everything surrounding the actors seems real. There are great segments where all we see is the edge of the spaceship as it flies through different locations in space. By showing this imagery, there is little confusion as to where the characters are in that very scene or where they are headed. Everything from the color pallet to camera angles make Interstellar what it is, an epic.

interstellar-skip-cropThis picture would not be what it is if Hans Zimmer was not responsible for the beautiful soundtrack of Interstellar. Nolan has worked with him several times in the past, but for this particular film he decided to do something different; something that greatly paid off. Nolan simply told Zimmer about the relationship between a man named Cooper and his daughter Murph. He was unaware of many crucial aspects of Interstellar, including the fact that it was a science fiction thriller. Even with such little insight, Zimmer was able to take the audience on a ride and enhance the film with what he created. His intelligent use of tone and knowledge of human emotion was evident throughout the movie. The film had much to do with a passionate will to survive and the soundtrack was guiding us through many of those emotional moments. If you felt on edge watching Interstellar, it was not only the cinematography and the believable visual effects doing the job; it was the combination of a powerful score and a beautiful picture.

Zimmer has composed musical scores for Divergent, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel, and several more chart topping blockbusters. It’s no mystery that he is partly responsible for the glory of these films. The soundtrack of a film will always be an essential part in creating a moving and mind-boggling motion picture. The music that joins the beautiful images of interstellar space travel completes the film. Another factor that made this feature film so majestic is the placement of different sound effects. Nolan films are known for suspense and its common to periodically see scenes where the sound is unexpected. This surprising audio makes a sequence more powerful and intriguing, leaving the mind excited for more to come.

Interstellar-05Matthew McConaughey, who played Cooper in the film, had many moments that can be considered, “Oscar worthy.” He captured the emotions of a brave spaceman but most importantly those of a loving father, wanting what is best for his family and his planet. His brave heart was the core of the film, as we were led through his eyes to the many wonders of space exploration. We begin the film with little information about Cooper’s past but McConaughey was able to act well enough to make us understand Cooper’s will to make a better life for his loved ones. We were on his side through the whole film, even if at moments we questioned his decisions. He shared the screen with Anne Hathaway, who also gave an “Oscar worthy” performance. She played a determined Dr. Brand who put all her motivation and time into completing the mission her father had been working on for several years. Hathaway is a phenomenal actress because she knows how to make the character her own. She was able to make us grow to love Dr. Brand throughout the film. As the movie progressed, we learned that she had a soft side, one we could all relate to. She was driven by her own heart and not by anything else. The cast of Interstellar is filled with several more Academy award winners and nominees including: Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Jessica Chastain and a cameo from another beloved Oscar winner that you don’t want to miss.

INTERSTELLARInterstellar was made to leave the audience thinking, questioning and trying to find their own conclusion for the film. Entering the theater you’ll think you’re going to watch a film about space and its benefits to the human existence, but once the credits roll, there will be so much more that you have learned than that. This movie is about love. It’s about how humanity saves itself through passion for survival. The film is three hours long yet there were no dull moments. I was so intrigued by all the visuals, sounds, music and exquisite acting that I never checked my phone once for the time. I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar, as will you when you experience it for the first time.