Physics Saturday: Interstellar and The Theory of Everything

I saw two very different movies on Saturday, but both were about physics. Well, sort of. Physics and fiction don’t blend together unless you can work in suspense, romance, tragedy, horrible diseases, and special effects.

Although one movie is a big, expensive Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, and the other a British Indiewood biopic, their titles are almost interchangeable.

C+ Interstellar
Christopher Nolan’s space epic tries hard to be another 2001: A Space Odyssey–plot points, individual shots, and at least one character comes straight from Kubrick’s work. But whereas Kubrick explained very little, Nolan fills his picture with badly-written expository dialog. And despite all that, the movie still confuses audiences. And when it’s not confusing, it’s often dumb.

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Not that Interstellar is a complete loss. It’s visually stunning, and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. It’s often exciting and suspenseful. And for most of its runtime, it carries a strong sense of doom for both the main characters and the human race as a whole. It’s set in a near future where the few remaining people are facing eventual starvation (oddly, there’s no violence). NASA sends four humans (you guessed it; two white men, one white woman, and a black man–guess who dies) through a wormhole to find a habitable planet.

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Despite the holes in the science and the plot, and despite a female astronaut (Anne Hathaway) who behaves in an offensively stereotypically female way, I still found the picture reasonably interesting and enjoyable. That is, until the interminable third act. In the last hour, everything slows down to a crawl, the story and scientific logic collapse into a black hole, and the whole thing makes no sense at all. It’s explained, but the explanation doesn’t hold up.

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I saw Interstellar in 70mm at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. I’ll write another post about the presentation.

B+ The Theory of Everything
No one in this Stephen Hawking biopic blasts into space and dives into a wormhole, but the theories that suggest such things are possible play an important supporting role. Far more important roles are played by love, romance, and disabilities.

The film concentrates on Hawking’s first marriage, to Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). She proposes to Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) soon after he’s diagnosed with motor neuron disease, with doctors giving him about two years to live. They broke up 25 years later, and he’s still working 24 years after that.

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Like so many British pictures, Theory provides a showcase for great acting. Jones plays Jane from a young college girl to a middle-aged mother, still in love with her husband but frustrated with the responsibilities thrust upon her as her husband deteriorates. Other respected talents in the cast include David Thewlis and Emily Watson.

But Redmayne has the big, showy role, and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t walk away with an Oscar next year. His Hawking doesn’t just age over the movie, he deteriorates. At first he’s just clumsy. Then his hands and feet don’t quite work properly. Slowly he becomes the Hawking we know, crumpled in his wheelchair, using a mouse-like device in his one good hand to communicate to the world via an electronic voice. Redmayne catches not only Hawking’s brilliance and his disability, but also his impish humor. I’m not quite ready to say this is the best performance of the year, but it’s certainly the most noticeable.

The Theory of Everything pushes no cinematic boundaries. If you’ve ever seen a 21st century British film set in the 20th century, you know exactly what you’re going to get. But that doesn’t make a bad film. In fact, it’s a very good one. It’s just not exceptional.

The Better Angels

B+ Historical drama

  • Written and directed by A.J. Edwards

About half way through A.J. Edwards’ gentle exploration of our 16th president (and my namesake), it occurred to me that a native-born American who hadn’t paid much attention in history class might not realize that the film was about Abraham Lincoln. Names are seldom spoken, and if the very young protagonist was ever called Abe, Abraham, or Lincoln, I missed it.

This is the story of Abe’s childhood in the backwoods of Kentucky and Indiana; and his relationship with his mother (Brit Marling), his father (Jason Clarke), and the stepmother who came into his life a little more than a year after his mother’s death (Diane Kruger). It was these two women who recognized something special in Abe and made sure he got an education–a rare luxury for that time and place.

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Edwards finds an unusual way to tell the story. There’s little dialog, and almost no exposition. The artful, widescreen, black-and-white cinematography makes heavy use of  a Steadicam and some very short lens. The resulting, heavy atmosphere produces a distancing effect, as if we’re watching an old memory.

And that, in fact, is what the film is meant to be. What little exposition there is comes from narration spoken in the character of Abe’s older cousin, Dennis, as an old man. Cameron Mitchell Williams plays the young Dennis; I don’t know who spoke the narration.

Braydon Denney, a talented child actor who looks remarkably like a young Abraham Lincoln, plays Abe as a boy torn between the backwards life that is all he’s ever known and a larger world that pulls his curiosity. He works hard in the fields, and enjoys roughhouse play with other kids. But he has a thirst that can’t be slaked by what’s in the woods. He reads whenever he can, and that’s limited by the hard, physical work and the few books available.

More than anyone else, his stepmother sees something special in Abe, and helps him get an education. His rough-hewn father doesn’t quite understand. He’s a strict disciplinarian, quick with a switch, without enough reading to understand the value of an education. But he loves Abe and the rest of his family, and he comes to accept what is happening.

At times the aforementioned cinematography (by Matthew J. Lloyd) gets in the way of the story. Several panning and tracking shots made the distortions caused by the short lens just plain annoying. But most of the time, the technique worked, creating the sense of a distant but very personal memory, centering on a poverty-stricken but very intelligent young boy. Who he will become is almost irrelevant.

The film opens Friday.

Thoughts on The Bicycle Thief

If you want to understand Italian neorealism, the desperation of poverty, or simply the power of cinema, you have to see Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief (AKA Bicycle Thieves or Ladri di biciclette). You’ll find it deservedly on any short list of great motion pictures.

This film pits the desperately poor against the desperately poor, in a story that you know, deep down in your bones, can’t possibly end well. And yet, there are many touches of beauty, human kindness, and humor. It also has a young Enzo Staiola in what is probably the most adorable little kid role in the history of movies. Staiola’s Bruno, a practical but adoring boy still at the age of father worship, provides most of the humor, as well as the story’s heart. The protagonist, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) sacrifices so much not for his own benefit, but for his family–especially his young son.

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I first saw The Bicycle Thief, in 16mm, in a college class in 1972. I instantly fell in love with it. And yet, I didn’t get around to seeing it again for many years. I next saw it, in 35mm, at the UC Theatre of blessed memory. That was probably in the 1980s, although I’m not sure. I revisited it again last Saturday night, streaming off of Netflix.

Let’s get the multiple versions of the title out of the way. The film was originally released in its native Italy as Ladri di biciclette. According to both Google’s translation tool and Wikipedia, that translates into Bicycle Thieves (or at least bike thieves). But when it opened in America, it was called The Bicycle Thief. Today, Netflix uses the singular title; Criterion the plural one. Both seem appropriate, but I stick with The Bicycle Thief because that’s the title I first knew, and the one on every version I’ve seen..

As the film begins, the unemployed Antonio, desperate to feed his family, finally gets a job–in part because he owns a bike, although his wife has to hock their bed sheets to get it out of hock. Then, on his first day on the job, his bike is stolen. Most of the film follows Antonio and Bruno in a desperate search through Rome, hoping against hope to find the bike.

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(Why would a grown man take his young son on such a quest? Officially, it’s because Bruno did the bike-repair chores, and therefore knows it better than anyone. The real reason, of course, is that Bruno adds to the drama while providing adorableness and  comic relief.)

Neither Maggiorani nor Staiola were professional actors. That was the point of neorealism. As much as possible, the short-lived style used real people in real locations to capture realistic stories of desperate poverty.

De Sica makes sure you know that Antonio’s poverty is the norm, not an exception. Even the thief, when you get to know him, is desperate and did what he had to do.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their lack of experience, both Maggiorani and Staiola display considerable acting talent and star charisma. Both had modest movie careers after this film. Unfortunately, at certain angles, Maggiorani reminded me of a dark-haired Dick Cavett, but since Cavett was a kid when the film was made, I can’t blame that on the actor or the director.

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This is a sad, heart-breaking story, relieved only by the love of family–even if it’s the family that is in crisis. I definitely give it an A+.

Early and Excellent Kubrick at PFA

As I discussed last week, I lost a lot of my love of Stanley Kubrick over the decades. But I didn’t lose my love for all of his pictures. And amongst my favorites are his first two Hollywood pictures, The Killing and Paths of Glory. Saturday night, I revisited these favorites at the Pacific Film Archive, where they were screened as part of the series Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.

Some historical background: Kubrick started his career with two super-low budget independent features–Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss. I saw Fear and Desire some years ago and hated it (Kubrick eventually disowned it), and have never seen Killer’s Kiss. The PFA screened them Thursday night, but I was unable to attend.

Although it wasn’t a commercial success, Killer’s Kiss impressed enough people to bring Kubrick into the Hollywood system, albeit on a low budget. United Artists financed and released his next two pictures, The Killing and Paths of Glory.

The PFA screened them in reverse order, showing Paths of Glory first.

Paths of Glory

To my mind, this is Kubrick’s masterpiece (with Dr. Strangelove a close second). This World War I tale of ruthless generals and the common foot soldiers they see as disposable pawns, shows Kubrick at his best. His visual flare brings a powerful contrast to the film’s two major settings: the ugly, dirty, and dangerous trenches of the front, and the opulent palace where the generals’ live in comfort and luxury.

The story is simple, but powerful. In 1916, with the war at a long stalemate, two French generals (Adolphe Menjou and George Macready) decide to take a German position that everyone knows can’t be taken. With little time to prepare and almost no support, the men leap out of their trenches and attack–only to be mowed down. The survivors understandably run back to their trenches. Unable to admit that their plan was impossible, the generals order that three men be arrested as examples, tried for cowardice, found guilty, and shot.

Before Saturday night, I had last seen Paths of Glory on a rented, Criterion Blu-ray about a year ago. I don’t remember when I last saw it theatrically, but I think it was in the 1980s.

Paths of Glory is one of the rare Kubrick films that allows us to care about the characters. This is especially true with the three condemned "examples," charged for failing an impossible task and knowing without a doubt that they will be executed. Each was chosen by their superior officer. One of them, played by Ralph Meeker, knows that his truly cowardly lieutenant (Wayne Morris) has reasons for wanting him dead.

Kubrick generally avoided heroes, but he got one in Paths of Glory–Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax–the lawyer-turned officer who leads the charge and becomes the men’s defense attorney. Douglas was the first big star to appear in a Kubrick film, and he probably demanded a rewrite to make his part larger and more noble. In a late scene, he angrily tells off a top-ranking general, calling him a "degenerate" and promising that "I’ll go to Hell before I ever apologize to you again." Kubrick generally avoided such moral preaching.

Kubrick’s visual sense comes to fully glory here. Tracking shots through the trenches help illustrate the claustrophobic, horrific nature of men’s predicament. Another tracking shot, leading up to the executions, help emphasize the ritual aspects of these legal and ceremonial murders. The court martial, or perhaps I should say the kangaroo court martial, is set in an opulent room whose floor suggest a chessboard.

World War I produced more great films than any other war. This is one of the best.

The Killing

It’s hardly surprising that a young filmmaker breaking into Hollywood in 1956 would start with a noir. After all, these gritty crime films were cheap to make and popular with audiences. But The Killing proved to be one of the best of the genre.

In this classic heist thriller, an experienced criminal (Sterling Hayden) orchestrates a complex racetrack robbery likely to net two million 1956 dollars. Of course, he needs collaborators. And each one of them has to do his job at the exact right time for everything to work.

Needless to say, human frailty is going to get in the way.

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Kubrick and screenplay collaborator Jim Thompson (working from a novel by Lionel White) found a unique structure to tell the story. It’s not in pure chronological order, but it’s not a flashback, either. Instead, the movie follows one member of the gang, then leaps back in time to follow someone else. The film’s eye-of-God narrator helps the audience keep all of this straight with simple statements like "Three hours earlier, Johnny left his apartment and headed for the motel." (Someone needs to write an essay on Kubrick’s use of spoken narration.)

Hayden’s Johnny Clay is a professional, but most of his collaborators are breaking the law for the first time, motivated by a desperate need for money. The most heartbreaking is Joe Sawyer’s racetrack bartender, who needs money to help the very sick wife he loves so much.

But Elisha Cook Jr.’s character is a different kind of marriage problem. He hopes that if he had more money, his dreadful, scornful, adulterous wife (Marie Windsor) might actually love him. We feel little sympathy for Cook’s character, and none at all for Windsor’s, but these two are clearly the most entertaining people in the story. When Clay meets that awful wife, he sees her for exactly what she is. "You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart."

As it should be, The Killing is filled with such snappy, pulp-heavy dialog–probably written by Thompson. In hiring a sharpshooter, Clay argues that the risks are limited. "You’d be killing a horse – that’s not first degree murder, in fact it’s not murder at all, in fact I don’t know what it is."  Hayden’s rat-a-tat-tat delivery makes that like explosive and funny.

Before Saturday night, I had last seen The Killing at the UC Theater, probably in1996 or 1997. I was glad to remake its acquaintance.

Digital projection done mostly right

Both movies were made by United Artists after 1951, which means that they’re now owned by MGM/UA. But MGM/UA no longer distributes its own films. Criterion has released both of these films for home use. Other UA titles have been released on video by Fox and Kino.

A company I’d never heard of, Park Circus, now distributes these two titles theatrically on DCP. Both films started with a Park Circus logo, and then the MGM lion. Every UA film, no matter who distributes it, now starts with the MGM lion–even though none of them are real MGM films. And that lion is in color, even before a black and white film.

Other than that, this were excellent transfers. Whoever supervised the digital mastering respected the film look and the grain structure. They kept the original mono soundtracks, without trying to convert them to 5.1. Both movies looked and sounded great, and still felt like works of their time.

Boyhood: As Real as Fiction Gets

A Long-form drama

  • Written and directed by Richard Linklater

I’m a sucker for long films that take place over the course of several years. But I’ve never seen one as real as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. This isn’t a story of an extraordinary person, or of a normal person going through an extraordinary experience. But it does something even more special. It follows the experiences of a relatively normal boy growing up, from elementary school until his arrival at college. With few exceptions, most of his experiences are pretty common.

The result is an exceptional motion picture. Running nearly three hours, without conventional setups and manufactured disasters, it never lags. This just may be the best new film of the year.

You probably already know Boyhood‘s gimmick–it was shot off and on over a period of 12 years. Thus, we get to watch young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow up for real. And we see his parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) move into middle age.

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But this time, the gimmick works–beautifully. In most films set over a long period of time, we’re aware of the moment when the child actor is replaced by an adult. Or we notice the changing makeup as the characters age. Not here. Aside from occasional hairstyle changes, people in one scene look pretty much as they did in the last. But not quite. You can see those subtle, barely noticeable changes that happen to everyone year by year. The 18-year-old Mason looks very different from the six-year-old, but since we see the whole transition, as we do in life.

This technique has another benefit. The film begins in 2002, with the attitudes, fads, and technologies of the time, and slowly works up to 2013. Yet the early scenes never feel like period pieces, because they weren’t shot as period pieces. The scenes set in 2002 were shot in 2002, by people who didn’t know about smartphones or Barak Obama.

Now then, on to the story:

Mason’s life isn’t all that easy. His parents are divorced, and neither of them have much money. He and his sister live with their mom, who became a mother way too soon and has a history of making poor romantic choices. Their father loves them, but needs to grow up himself.

For the most part, Boyhood avoids the sort of dramatic and disastrous situations that drive most narrative films. Several times, I thought that a horrible accident was eminent, or that Linklater was setting up a conflict for a subplot, but I was almost always wrong. For instance, a scene involving middle school bullies lacks the obvious follow-up.

A lifetime of movie going had taught me to expect these plot points. But when they didn’t materialize, I felt relieved, not disappointed.

Which isn’t to say that everything goes smoothly for Mason and his family. There are the usual problems of childhood and adolescence, but there are also some very scary scenes that go beyond normal childhood experiences. Like I said, their mom makes some poor romantic choices.

Fifty years from now, if civilization survives, people will still be watching Boyhood, both as a document of the early 21st century, and because it so perfectly reflects life as we all know it. It’s a remarkable work.

Palo Alto: More Dazed and Completely Confused

B+

  • Written and directed by Gia Coppola
  • From the book Palo Alto Stores by James Franco

High school kids lead rough lives. They’re under great pressure to get into a good university. They desperately want to break free of their parents. They have to deal with an immense peer pressure. They’re trying to work out their own, often bizarre philosophies. Their hormones are raging, and even the sexually experienced among them don’t really understand what to do about it (and not to do about it). Booze and pot don’t help.

In Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, based on a collection of short stories by James Franco, many of the teenagers are reaching an emotional boiling point. Disaster seems right around the corner. Coppola (Francis’ granddaughter) weaves their stories into a slick yet compassionate drama.

The central characters, April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), sort of like each other, but neither of them seem to know how to approach the other. Although they’re both upper-middle-class white kids growing up in the same town, they seem to have little in common. (Judging from this film, almost everyone in Palo Alto is white.)

We get no indication that April drives drunk, has sex with people she barely knows, or commits acts of random vandalism. I suppose that makes her a “good girl.” But she has a major crush on her soccer coach (James Franco), and she sees a lot of him since she babysits his son. The real problem: The soccer coach, who’s a single dad, has a pretty strong crush on April, as well.

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Teddy, on the other hand, is definitely a bad boy. He’s almost constantly stoned, drives recklessly, and appears to care little about anything. But there’s a soft spot in his soul that suggests he can be better.

Unfortunately, he’s fallen in with Fred (Nat Wolff), another heavy drinker and pot smoker who also gets his kicks from danger and destruction. A complete sociopath, Freddy can act the perfect gentleman while trying to bed a girl, then treat her like dirt as soon as he succeeds. Much of the film involves Teddy’s emotional tightrope walk between Fred’s dangerous excitement and his own better half.

If April is the good girl, than Emily (Zoe Levin) is the “bad” one. She gives blowjobs to just about any boy who smiles at her. Afterwards, she doesn’t understand why she’s unsatisfied.

Coppola clearly doesn’t approve of heavy pot and booze use among teenagers, but she seems to accept a more deadly drug without question. Judging from this film, every teenager in Palo Alto smokes cigarettes, and no one seems to think there’s anything wrong about it. There’s even talk about getting a wish when you smoke the last cigarette in the pack.

Despite the title, Palo Alto could have taken place in any affluent town. There’s no real sense of Palo Alto as a unique place. Neither Stanford University nor Silicon Valley are ever mentioned. The film wasn’t even shot in Palo Alto.

Wherever it’s set and shot, Palo Alto is a clear-eyed look at teenagers on the brink. It’s worth catching.

The San Francisco International Film Festival closes with Alex in Venice

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival ended Thursday night at the Castro with a screening of Chris Messina’s directorial debut, Alex of Venice. It was not a perfect way to end the festival, but it was a good way.

The crowd was surprisingly thin. There was an empty seat next to me, and the row in front of me had one person in it. I recognized Francis Coppola in the audience, and Don Johnson (one of the film’s stars) in the lobby.

The show was supposed to start at 7:00, but it as 7:14 before Executive Director Noah Cowan came onstage and asked us to applaud the staff. “I could not be more imageimpressed by their hard work. I came into this organization less than 10 weeks ago, so what you saw was their hard work, not mine.”

He introduced Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, who said that she: "can’t wait to do it again next year." After some brief praise for the night’s film, Alex of Venice, she introduced actor-turned-director Chris Messina. He talked about being a first-time director, and of working with other first-time directors ("They usually tell you to watch a John Cassavetes film.") He said that, because of his inexperience, everyone involved from the actors to the investors had had to make :a leap of faith." He was glad they did.

The film started at 7:29.

A- Alex in Venice

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The work-vs.-family dynamic comes into full force in this drama set in Venice, California. Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has more than her hands full. She’s an environmental lawyer working very long hours. She has a son and a senile father (Don Johnson) to worry about. Then her husband (Messina) leaves her. Aside from one unbelievably stupid action, Alex of Venice works beautifully. The characters reveal themselves nicely. They’re sweet, funny, and usually very real. The acting is never short of perfect, and this is the sort of story that depends entirely upon the acting.

After the film, five of the filmmakers came onstage for Q&A. They were director/actor Chris Messina, star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, actor Don Johnson, co-writer/actor Katie Nehra, and producer Jamie Patricof.

Some highlights:

  • On how new director Messina got the cast to trust him:
    Nehra: He’s very convincing. When you meet Chris, you see he had a really clear vision of the film…When I wrote this script, I wanted him to play George; he ended up playing George and directing.
    Johnson: He couldn’t see anyone else playing this part and I couldn’t see myself playing it…" With a smile he added "He talked a lot about John Cassavetes"
  • Someone asked if there was much improvisation. Messina: "I loved the script. We said the words, we wanted to say the words." He then explained how they would run the camera as long as they could at the end of a take and improvise non-verbally. "When I was in the editing room I had a lot to cut with."
  • Messina: “For years I made the mistake of telling my family what a great director I would be. Then I discovered that there were a million challenges that I never thought about before.”

After the Q&A, I went to The Chapel for the Festival’s closing party. It was a fine party, but I couldn’t stay long.

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