Greed (1924)

Greed3With some cinematic endeavors, there is simply an aura that surrounds them which informs how we look at them. Erich von Stroheim’s ambitious silent film Greed is such a picture. To this day, a full cut of the film has never been found and perhaps never will be, but it has survived in two versions. A four-hour cut which attempted to maintain the original continuity through stills and then a 2 and a half hour cut which I saw. So you could question whether I got the full experience of Greed or not, but that is almost beside the point because the essence of this film is summed up in the title. True, it could just as easily be called sin, avarice, grudge, humanity, or all of the above. But allow me to explain more fully what I mean.

The narrative follows a slow-witted man named McTeague (Gibson Gowland), who picks up the dentistry trade from a traveling doctor. He moves to San Francisco and soon becomes smitten with the cousin of his boisterous pal Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Trina (Zasu Pitts) is quiet and a bit timid around a man as intimidating as McTeague, but they make it work. Soon enough they’re engaged and a lottery ticket Trina picked up on a whim pays off handsomely. $5,000 to be exact and this is the 1920s! They’re getting on alright because McTeague is still working and his wife is very, very frugal. But Marcus feels entitled and a grudge over the money ensues. He wants part of the cut because he thinks he deserves some good fortune too. Things between him and John finally reach the boiling point and there’s no turning back. Rather than try and patch things up, Marcus decides to get into ranching and says goodbye to his formerly close friend, but not before serving up a little revenge. He sets the dentistry board on McTeague and since he doesn’t have a true credential, his right to practice is terminated.

The loss of John’s job is aggravated by the fact that Trina is increasingly stingy, never wanting to dip into her big payoff, even when they really need it. Gold in many ways has become her master, and it leads to marital turmoil. McTeague was always a big man, but usually quite gentle. But his inner fury is finally uncorked and in one angry outburst, he goes so far as to bite his wife.

Mac leaves only to come back again and the results are not pretty. Soon he has a price on his head and he makes his way as a fugitive into the desert. And thus, the finale is shot on location in Death Valley, the perfect place for a climactic showdown between McTeague and his old pal Marcus. Of course, money doesn’t help much when you’re trapped in the desert, or when you’re dead for that matter.

Obviously, greed doesn’t bode well, but this story is an interesting inversion of the typical plot line, because in this case it is the woman who has the money, and she’s the one that the greed eats away at. She becomes obsessive and even bitter about every last piece of change. But her money also has a ripple effect that reveals the pettiness, avarice, and begrudging nature that plagues both her husband and cousin.

So in order to enjoy this film, you need to have an appreciation for the spectacle that von Stroheim has developed and the commentary he has weaved through his narrative about greed. That in itself makes this film one to truly ruminate over because it suggests so much about the ugly side of human nature, and that has hardly changed in the past century.

The Crowd (1928)

220px-Crowd-1928-PosterThe Crowd is a true piece of urban Americana, setting the standard when it comes to your average everyday American. King Vidor’s film lacks big-name star power and plays on a universal story similar to Murnau’s Sunrise. Our protagonist is Johnny Sims, who was fittingly born on the 4th of July. He’s the quintessential stand-in for anyone who has ever pursued the American Dream. He faces the death of his father at an early age and grows up getting lost in the masses of New York. With wall to wall skyscrapers towering above and a hopping city life, it’s easy to disappear.

This film is not Metropolis, but it is about a metropolis with the same behemoth sets swimming over the top with extras. In fact, at his job, Johnny looks like the original C.C. Baxter from The Apartment. He’s a cog in the giant mass of humanity, a little stop in the ever-churning conveyor belt.  Like Baxter, Sims becomes smitten with Mary, a lovely girl he meets on a double date with his joking colleague Bert. A lively night at a carnival and going through the tunnel of love cements their relationship. Soon they are married and heading off to the perfect honeymoon destination: Niagara Falls. This is where the love story is at its peak, riding on a wave of euphoria since these two are loved and in love. They feel indestructible, and there’s no one in the world that they would rather be with.

But as per usual, life happens to get in the way of love. Johnny isn’t too fond of Mary’s brothers and her mother, and the feelings are mutual. They just don’t see eye to eye, and they are skeptical of his prospects as a breadwinner. Matters are made worse during a tiff where Mary threatens to leave, and Sims does little to object. Their house is slowly falling apart, although they keep it together momentarily since she announces her pregnancy. That is the thin thread that binds them together.

Following their baby boy, comes a little girl, and finally, the raise that Johnny has been hoping for, but it’s not much. Things continue to be difficult as Johnny still waits for his ship to come in. His wife is annoyed with him and the meager prospects ahead. We are reminded that it’s not the big things but often the little ones that cause the most damage. Like little biting remarks that cut to the quick. And yet somehow, Johnny and Mary hang onto their romance.

In one scene she gazes down from the windowsill at him on the street below and they make up after a row. It’s rather reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, reflecting that they still care about each other. But matters are not helped by the fact that Johnny seems pretty useless. On a beach holiday Mary struggles to get everything right, and despite her best efforts, it all turns out wrong.

Only a few years before Johnny laughed out loud at a man forced to humiliate himself carrying signs masquerading as a clown. How embarrassing! And yet a desperate Johnny winds up with a similar lot. It doesn’t help that personal tragedy strikes his family where they are most vulnerable. In its day it was actually considered obscene (for featuring a toilet), and it was far from a success due to a downbeat ending. This is a Pre-Depression world, and yet life is still far from easy.  And that allows The Crowd to stand the test of time fairly resiliently because it’s still possible to relate with its patriotism, its tragedy, and its resolute optimism.

4.5/5 Stars

Metropolis (1927)

MetropolisposterFritz Lang’s archetypal sci-fi epic is steeped in politics, religion, and humanity, but above all, it is a true cinematic experience. It is visually arresting, and it still causes us to marvel with set-pieces that remain extraordinary. How did Fritz Lang piece together such a gargantuan accomplishment? Maybe even equally extraordinary, how was I able to see almost a complete cut of this film, which was at different times thought to be lost, incomplete, and ruined?

Metropolis really feels like one of the earliest blockbusters, although I would have to further substantiate that. Still, it’s basic story is generally captivating following a young man named Freder from the upper echelon of society with a father who runs things. This young man is really in the perfect position to succeed, the way society is set up. He even goes to the preeminent school where all the boys are dressed in white. Little does he know in the lower depths the beleaguered, grungy, weary masses in black are slowly killing themselves with work. The machine that drives this society is never satisfied, always desiring to be fed more and more and more.

When the boy finally sees the reality of the infrastructure his paradise is built upon, he cries out in horror. This is not the way things are supposed to be. He eventually switches places with one of these workers and attends a meeting deep in the catacombs (an allusion to the early Christians), where the pure goddess Maria lifts the spirits of her fellow man. But of course, the evil inventor Rotwang is enlisted by Freder’s father Joh Frederson. Their own relationship is marred by conflict over a woman they both loved. Freder’s dead mother. And so the scientist looks to resurrect his long lost love, and he needs Maria to develop his plan. He kidnaps her and from her likeness creates a double, who goes out to wreak havoc on all of Metropolis. The apocalyptic words of the Book of Revelation ring true as the whore of Babylon deceives the masses and leads them to destruction.

But Freder is the Mediator, he is the Savior of his people, and he is necessary to bring peace and tranquility to a world that has descended into such brokenness. So Metropolis is certainly a film full of symbolic touches, religious connotations, and political commentary, but all of this is developed by Fritz Lang through an archetypal hero’s narrative.

Hollywood has become an industry seemingly so obsessed with story, screenplays, plots. Certainly, a film like Metropolis is at least adequate in that area alone, but what really sets a film such as this apart is its cinematic scope. The sheer vast expanses it fills. The scope it creates through its plethora of extras and encompassing sets is hard to downplay. How to describe scenes where water is literally breaking down walls and covering masses of fleeing children? Or smokestacks spewing out refuse while trains, planes, and automobiles pass by in every direction. People scattering this way and that, following the false Maria in a chaotic frenzy. It reminds us what the motion picture, the moving picture, is all about. The images that are brought before us lead to a suspension of disbelief because more importantly they are incredibly affecting. At the atypical 20 frames per second, they are images full of tension, full of energy, and full of life.

Metropolis-new-tower-of-babelIn a sense, with Metropolis, we can easily see a precursor to Chaplin’s Modern Times a decade later. There is a general apprehension of the machine and the impact of a true industrial revolution. There is a fear that there are more positives than negatives. That machines will take over and man will become outdated. Perhaps someday our creation will destroy us. By today’s standards, such notions seem archaic, but are they? We still live in a society ever more obsessed with advancement, technology, and all the things that come with that. However outdated some of Metropolis might feel, and there are numerous such moments, at its core is the final resolution that between the body and the mind there must be a heart to regulate. We are not simply animals with bodies or rational machines with minds, but the beauty of humanity is that we have a heart, pulsing with life and vitality. That is something to be grateful for and never lose sight of.

5/5 Stars

Intolerance (1916)

800px-Intolerance_(film)His ambitious follow-up to The Birth of the Nation a year before, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance boasts four narrative threads meant to intertwine in a story of grand design. Transcending time, eras, and cultures, this monumental undertaking grabs hold of some of the cataclysmic markers of world history. They include the fall of Babylon, the life, ministry, and crucifixion of Christ, along with the persecution of the Huguenots in France circa the 16th century.

The stories are stitched together and become only a few touchstones in a contemporary tale of a young man and woman battling against the bleak world around them. The Dear One must try and recover her child from the clutches of a society crippled by corruption, while her husband must battle against a criminal past that looks to ruin his life forever. Each setting has its lulls and crescendos that fluctuate between the mundane and the overtly bleak.

Although some of the religious undertones are somewhat simplistic they still have some resounding power in their successive notes. A Christ subjected to the crucifixion sent there by hypocritical Pharisees. A mother crying to God that she might recover her child because the corrupt and evil seem to be having their way with her. These are the low points of despair. But just as Babylon fell at the hand of Cyrus the Great, our hero The Boy escapes the business end of the hangman’s noose literally by a matter of seconds. It’s perhaps the most intense and ultimately gratifying moment in a film that runs the gamut emotionally.

The film’s four arcs are certainly not in equal parts or equal in impact, but nevertheless, they suggest the complex plotting that Griffith was attempting to experiment with and it’s still quite impressive even by today’s standards. He takes such a broad, universal theme like intolerance and gives it legs in the form of a story that crosses time and space, cultures and languages to really meet all people where they are at. I will stop short of calling it overlong, because Intolerance is one of the truly epic films out there, and while it’s possible to lose a bit of the film’s cohesion, it nevertheless is an impressive endeavor.

So perhaps it’s true that he made the film due to people’s criticism of The Birth of the Nation — though it seems rightly justified. Still, even to this day, the film stands as an emblem of something more and perhaps the best “sequel” to a film of such a dubious nature. It cannot cover up for the sins of the former film, but it can certainly overshadow them. History has looked kindly on Intolerance and if it is not more widely known than its predecessor than it certainly deserves to be.

You could argue that D.W. Griffith was the first person to really explore the language that is film, as a mode of artistic expression. Because, although it may have cleaned Griffith out and ended up an unfulfilled commercial flop, there is no doubt that this colossal silent left an indelible mark on the industry. Perhaps Hollywood took note and began to turn away from the single-minded vision of auteurs in favor of a regimented machine that churned out a commercial product. That ‘s the Classic Hollywood period for you. However, Griffith perhaps unwittingly created many of the rules and dimensions that Hollywood would take to heart and systematically put to work in its future works. Furthermore, a case can be made that Griffith also set the groundwork for European cinema that often gave birth to loftier, more artistically inspired works altogether. Thus, the influence of Griffith cannot be understated. He was vastly important to the medium of film as we now know it.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: North By Northwest (1959)

1024px-North_by_Northwest_movie_trailer_screenshot_(6)Wedged between two landmark Hitchcock films in Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), North by Northwest is iconic in its own right, but it boasts sprawling adventure and a bit of a lighter tone. It’s rather like Teddy Roosevelt wedged in between Jefferson and Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore but that comes later.

Supposedly the film was once to be called In Lincoln’s Nose, but when the now famous slanted North by Northwest logo hits the screen you instantly know you’re in for something extraordinary. The title sequence is wonderfully exciting given a boost by yet another impeccable score from Bernard Hermann.

This film is once again beautifully shot in color (VistaVision), but it covers more ground than Vertigo and has far more elaborate set pieces. The action begins ordinarily enough at an office building where advertising man Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) makes his way out of the office. It’s a busy day at the office, but Roger has a dinner engagement and an evening at the theater to look forward to. His plans and his whole life are put on hold after he fatefully flags down a waiter. His actions don’t go unnoticed and two menacing men lead him off at gunpoint as he tries to head to a phone. He is utterly confused, but we know it has something to do with the name George Caplan. These men think that’s who he is, and not to be persuaded otherwise, they take him to their leader (James Mason), who is very interested to meet him. Over the course of a harrowing evening, Thornhill is left on the edge of the road in a completely drunken state to die. But instead he gets brought in on a drunk driving charge and of course, no one will believe his cockamamie story, even his skeptical mother (Jesse Royce Landis).

North_by_Northwest_movie_trailer_screenshot_(21)Next it’s onto the U.N. Building to find out who Lester Townsend is, but of course, his captors are on his trail and just like that Thornhill is framed for murder and a fugitive on the run from the thugs and the cops. He tries to get away train ticket out of town, but in order to evade the law he ducks onto a train and meets the pretty blonde Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Sainte), who extends a favor. Little does he know what her angle is. Right now all he cares about is a little tete a tete and perhaps an amorous evening.

Kendall wistfully sends her new lover off to meet Caplan. Instead, he is met by a bi-plane and once again running for his life. But the build-up of this now iconic scene is wonderful. Hitchcock utilizes his background in silents to allow the scene to progress without hardly any dialogue and it unfolds ominously. However, he proves that even on an isolated roadside stop danger can still be present. Thornhill has new opinions of Kendall now and continues following the trail of Caplan which leads him to his old nemesis (Mason) and wouldn’t you know, Eve is by his side.

North_by_Northwest_movie_trailer_screenshot_(31)Roger feels like he has everything figured out, but he gets a visit from the mysterious Professor (Leo G. Carroll), who helps straighten him out with all the business surrounding the elusive George Caplan. With this new insight, Roger goes to the Professor to Rapid City and the one and only Mount Rushmore. It’s the perfect spot for a Hitchcockian finale to satisfy the director’s flair for the thematic.

North By Northwest is fun because we get to be right alongside Grant when he gets caught up in the whole mess. Although we see the picture a little more clearly than him, all the details are not handed over to us. So in a sense Hitch lets us in on a few secrets without showing us his entire hand. The staging is also wonderful whether it is the U.N. Building (with that marvelous aerial shot), or desolate Bakersfield, and even the soundstage set up to look like the surrounding area of Mt. Rushmore. It’s such a contrast to Rear Window and it uses the scenery very effectively similar to Vertigo. Ernest Lehman’s script simply put is a lot of fun, because we have our villains, we have our romantic leads having a lot of great scenes together, and the pacing is surprisingly good. I am amazed how spry Cary Grant looks for his age (especially compared to aging Jimmy Stewart). Eva Marie Saint is great and in my estimation, she is the second best Hitchcock Blond following Grace Kelly, but you can easily disagree. James Mason plays yet another debonair villain and there are a handful of fun appearances by the likes of Martin Landau and Edward Platt.

One reason I’m constantly drawn to this film is that it feels rather like a road trip as we slowly cross the continental United States with Cary Grant. Furthermore, it’s simply good, unadulterated fun. There’s not a ton of analysis or commentary to mull over or to think deeply about (maybe some implications to the Cold War). But I’m content to sit back and watch with glee as a crop duster nearly clotheslines Cary Grant. Movies don’t get much better than this, seriously.

5/5 Stars

Review: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Once_upon_a_Time_in_the_West 2I’m not well versed in Spaghetti Westerns, but I certainly do not need someone to tell me that Sergio Leone’s film is a sprawling epic. That’s an understatement if there ever was one. The cast, the score, the visuals. Everything about it fits together so marvelously. All the moving parts succeed in developing a majestic piece of cinema that really is awesome. I try not to use that word lightly.

Recently I saw Tarantino’s Django Unchained which of course pays homage to the Spaghetti Western, and it undoubtedly exhibits the Tarantino style. However, Leone’s film lingers as well, but with Once Upon a Time in the West, I didn’t mind. The film, after all, has a cold open that lasts 13 minutes and most of it is spent staring at Jack Elam and Woody Strode. Except the way Leone captures it all, I don’t really mind. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy it. Whereas Tarantino’s film felt like it was dawdling, Leone’s film didn’t seem to dawdle. It was just stylish in its makeup.  The pacing at times feels like a lazy Sunday afternoon underlined by dread for something to come. Then for a brief blip, the trouble comes violently and then just like that it’s gone. Everything’s back to the status quo except this structure makes every killing and gunfight seem all the more dynamic.

The main players are Claudia Cardinale, James Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda. Cardinale, of course, is one of the icons of cinema, and here she feels like a wonderful embodiment of this woman who helps bring civility to this land. Whether it’s simply her immense beauty or some emotion behind her eyes, it’s hard not to watch her every movement. First, as she learns she is a widow, next when she is introduced to the other main players, and finally when she sees her dead’s husband’s dreams forming all around her.

James Bronson as the aloof, but deadly “Harmonica” has to be at his coolest. He hardly has to say anything because that ominous harmonica music is his calling card. Every time we hear it we know he’s around and also his eyes are so expressive. Sergio Leone is never squeamish about lingering on his star’s faces. In fact, that paired with landscapes is one of his signatures that helps define his iconic style. The contrasts stand out and the interludes often lacking dialogue somehow help make his characters even cooler. They take on an air of mystery and in the case of “Harmonica”, we only understand his vendetta near the very end. It all starts to make sense.

Robards is the outlaw Cheyenne, who is pinned with the murder of McBain’s wife and children. A posse is after him and his gang, but he was actually pinned for the rap. He is cast in the light of a scruffy anti-hero and Robards plays him rough around the edges, but most importantly with a heart. He’s one of the few characters who seems to get Jill. He knows enough that none of the men around her are worthy of her, because she is a special class of woman, in spite of what her past may say.

Perhaps the most striking of casting choices was Henry Fonda because by now he was well along in his career and most certainly best known for his plain-speaking heroes. That’s what makes Frank such a great character because dressed in all black and armed with a revolver, he guns someone down the first moment we see him. It’s a shock and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. He goes on to backstab his sickly employer and continues to put pressure on Mrs. McBain to give up her land. It goes so far as taking advantage of her at her home. He’s a monster, but the part is such the antithesis of the Henry Fonda we know, making it a pure stroke of genius.

At least for me, you soon forget about the dubbing of certain characters and just allow yourself to become fully engaged in the dynamic West as envisioned by Leone. After all, since there isn’t a whole lot a dialogue, in some scenes it loses its importance. It’s often about the desolately depicted visuals. The wry smile on a face. The buzz of a pestering fly or the squeaking of a windmill. That’s another thing. This film puts sound to use so wonderfully. Whether it’s the harmonica, Morricone’s engaging score, or diegetic sounds. In fact, the score evolves and reprises in concordance with the pacing of the film. It can be ominous. It can be playful. And sometimes it’s nonexistent.

When it all comes down to it, we get the final showdown between “Harmonica” and Frank, but the film is a lot larger than that. After all, we have been following multiple characters. Jill finally sees the world around here coming to life, and she has weathered the Wild West as an independent woman. As for Cheyenne, he ends as a tragic hero of sorts. There’s no question, Leone’s film, arguably his greatest alongside The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, helps define a version of the West, with iconic characterizations placed up against striking pictorials. It’s one of those film’s that despite the length, never feels like a labor. A smile is constantly forming on my face, to mirror the visage of James Bronson. I really wish I could play the harmonica now. It’s so ridiculously cool! That’s what I really took away from this film.

5/5 Stars

The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

fea8c-fellowship1Without the inventiveness and lore that J.R.R. Tolkien created in his books, there would never be something as visceral and grand in scope as The Lord of the Rings. However, it is a vibrant mythology that Peter Jackson breathed life into, and it becomes evident in the opening minutes of the Fellowship.

There is so much ground to cover as far as history and context go and Jackson sets it up beautifully with an epic prologue narrated by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) which became synonymous with this trilogy.

“But something happened then that the Ring did not intend. It was picked up by the most unlikely creature imaginable: a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, of the Shire. For the time will soon come when hobbits will shape the fortune of all.”

Thus, begins the Fellowship of the Ring. We find ourselves in the awesomely beautiful Shire (courtesy of New Zealand) backed by an exuberant score by Howard Shore. This is the home of a now elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm) and his relation Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). The backdrop is Bilbo’s Eleventy-First Birthday and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is making an appearance for his old friends birthday.

There is a lot of merriment to be had complete with Gandalf’s world famous fireworks, however, Bilbo is also preparing to say adieu, and he must finally give up the Ring. It is at this time that Gandalf is reminded of its power as it gets handed off to the unknowing Frodo. It is now this little hobbit’s task to flee everything he has ever known because 9 Black Riders sent by the evil Sauron are heading to retrieve the Ring.

By his side is the loyal gardener Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) and his two jesting friends Merry and Pippin. As for Gandalf, he must deal with some business with the head of his order Saruman (Christopher Lee).

With the Riders in hot pursuit, the hobbits stop at the Prancing Pony. By this time Gandalf has yet to return but they cross paths with a ranger named Strider (Viggo Mortensen). He agrees to lead them to the Elvin city Rivendell but before they can get their Frodo is ambushed by the Ring-Wraiths and receives a fatal wound. He survives and is reunited with Bilbo as well as Gandalf who was forced to flee Saruman who has switched his allegiance.

A decision is made to destroy the Ring in Mount Doom from whence it came and Frodo is joined by his friends, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom), Gimli the dwarf (John Rys-Davies) and Boromir (Sean Bean) the man.

They must take a treacherous path leading to the Mines of Moria which are in complete ruins. The area has been completely overrun by orcs and Gandalf must stave off an ancient demon called a Balrog so the others can escape.

They wind up in Lothlorien the home of more Elves including Galadriel who informs Frodo of what the future hold for him. Boromir is the next person to be tempted by the Ring and he tries to get it away from Frodo who starts to flee once more.

Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas take on a legion orcs and Boromir attempts to redeem himself but is struck down. Merry and Pippin get kidnapped leading the enemy away from Frodo. Ever faithful Sam follows Frodo because of the promise he made. And the three other members of the Fellowship resolve to go after the press-ganged hobbits after they pay their respects to Boromir.

It’s a cliffhanger ending, but it is packed with enough epic drama and heart to make it a worthwhile ride. Just know that this is just the beginning of a long, hard journey.

Lord of the Rings is visually magnificent and it’s absolutely mind boggling that most of the scenery and extras in the film (ie. orcs) were actually real. Thus, it seems like The Lord of the Rings is one of the last great epics in a long line of epic films. It is sad to think that this kind of “real” epic is a dying breed with the use of CGI. Human actors and real life scenery is slowly, or actually quite rapidly, getting replaced by computers.

My criticism is that computers make the world and even characters look too perfect. You can tell that it is not real and it loses some of its allure in my mind. Furthermore, if characters are being created from scratch you lose the human interaction and thus a great deal of movie magic. My hope is that these type of epics will find a resurgence because they are usually well worth it.

Another observation has to do with Howard Shore’s magnificent score. If you removed it from this film we would have a completely different movie-going experience. It would be as if a piece of the puzzle is missing, because he seemed to so perfectly personify each locale and he accented each scene so wonderfully with music. Whether it was epic choral arrangements during dark moments or the flute for the gaiety of a sunny day in the Shire.

This certainly not my first romp in Middle Earth, but I was reminded why this world was so engaging. I am excited to revisit the other installments, because the story only gets better with time, even if we already know the ending. Thank you, Peter Jackson, and thank you, J.R.R. Tolkien.

5/5 Stars

Interstellar (2014)

77062-interstellar_film_posterAs has always been his calling card, Christopher Nolan has an eye for grand, expansive, thought-provoking experiences wrapped up in cinema. Perhaps his aims are too ambitious at times, but you can never accuse him of making an everyday film. He always shoots for the moon (or better yet a wormhole) and so his projects are ultimately better than most, even if they miss the target a bit. The reason being, Interstellar is still full of enough questions and concepts to leave us thinking for a good long time after we leave the theater.

Although approximately 2 hours and 49 minutes, hardly anyone could call Interstellar too long, because it is more often than not engaging, as we try and decipher where Nolan is going to take us next. His story starts on a world that is certainly earth but strangely dystopian compared to the planet that we know and love. Reminiscent of When Harry Met Sally or something, old folks speak of the way the world was when the dust first hit and the corn crops had to be burned. Not much explanation is given but it is what it is.

This is the climate that the engineer-turned-farmer Coop (Matthew McConaughey) has to raise his two kids after his wife passed away. They are good kids for the most part. Murph blames a so-called “ghost” for accidents that happen around the house and her brother teases her some. But they hardly complain about this life they have they; just push forward.

However, their father has always been an explorer at heart, a pilot who never got to truly test the vast seas of space or spread out his wings fully. That changes when he and his daughter come across an old relic from the past. No, it’s not a monolith but something far more human. He somewhat reluctantly teams up with his old professor Brandt (Sir Michael Caine) and the professor’s daughter Amelia(Anne Hathaway) in a major undertaking.

They want Coop to pilot a mission to a wormhole which is just out of humanity’s reach. It was seemingly miraculously gifted to the human race by some unknown third person. This is their chance to A: find a new planet for a mass exodus or B: restart a colony on a far away destination. The first option is far less grim. Coop takes the mission in the hopes of saving his kids, but he knows the ramifications. Since time is all relative he does not know when he is coming back. He does not even know what he will find or if he will be successful. He heads off as an angry Murph tearfully watches him fall out of her life.

In a match cut of his own, Nolan transports Coop from his truck to the outer reaches of the galaxy. The real adventure has begun. The mission is clear. Save humanity from most certain extinction. It does not make it easier however that messages are constantly being relayed from earth. Coop and his three colleagues set up a plan of action. Their first target is a water covered environment that looks promising. Not so. Next, Coop overrules Brandt and they head to a desolate world that a previous explorer had labeled as inhabitable. To put it bluntly, he lied and he was not the only one.

Now Murph is older (Jessica Chastain) and she still has a hard time reconciling the departure of her dad. In an especially impactful scene, a still ageless Coop watches tearfully as his older son’s life literally passes before his eyes through the video communications that have been relayed up.

Coop has no way to reply. He can only watch and push forward to try and find a solution. But the answers are few and far between as time continues to move rapidly faster on earth than with the crew of the Endurance. In one final act of selfless valor Coop heads into a black hole and thus begins his own mind-blowing leg of his space odyssey. Some connections are made and when all the pieces are put together all that really matters is his inextinguishable love and family. In the end, Coop spends a nice moment with his daughter under very different circumstances. Together they saved the human race. Together they survived.

For a film that was made for Physic nerds with talk of black holes, worm holes, relativity, quantum mechanics, Newton’s Third Law, gravity and the like, Nolan’s conclusion has a universal ring. As Amelia Brand claims, “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” There are still scientific questions left to be debated for years to come, but we know that love is one thing that is forever true.

There are obviously numerous comparisons that can be made between Interstellar and 2001. I would rather focus on the differences very briefly. In Nolan’s film, A.I. is actually useful and more reliable and kind than humanity itself. It is Man who lies, cheats and reverts to animalistic behavior all in the name of survival. Interstellar has a lot of scientific theory behind it (which I will acknowledge I do not know the ins and outs of), however, it also has a very human component. It is grounded on earth with Coop’s kids.

The visuals in Interstellar are often breathtaking but we would probably expect that for such an ambitious space saga. What I really took out of this film was the score and juxtaposition of sound. Hans Zimmer’s compositions were full of pounding organs that somehow fit the mood with their majestic and still austere sound. Furthermore, this film had a lot of dialogue and tense moments of noise, however, when we are outside the spacecraft it is almost completely silent reminding us of the reality of space. It is more often than not a vast, silent unknown.

I am reminded of when Coop explains to his daughter why she was named after Murphy’s Law which seems to be bad. He replies that “Murphy’s law doesn’t mean that something bad will happen. It means that whatever can happen, will happen.” And that was good enough for Coop and his late wife. In some ways I think these words can be used to describe Interstellar. With Nolan, there is the potential that whatever can happen, will. There is excitement and magic in that, even if it sometimes overshoots its bounds. It’s not necessarily a bad thing and that’s good enough for me.

4/5 Stars

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
~ Dylan Thomas

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

27ccb-once_upon_a_time_in_the_westStarring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, and Jason Robards with director Sergio Leone, this is another memorable Italian western. The film follows a recently widowed beauty (Cardinale), the villainous killer who is after her (Fonda), a anti-hero bandit (Robards), and of course the man with a harmonica who is looking for revenge (Bronson). The gunman Frank commits murders, turns on his employer the railroad tycoon, and forces the widow to auction off her land. However, “Harmonica” comes to her aid and then he is confronted by Frank several times since he wants to know the man’s purpose. After a flashback we know what “Harmonica” wants and another gunfight ensues. The ending is bittersweet but the town’s future looks bright thanks to the railroad and the radiant widow. The long opening sequence sets the tone nicely for this visually beautiful film. It moves at its own pace and it has a good score and great characters including an evil Henry Fonda!

5/5 Stars

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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Telling an amazing story of bravery, Saving Private Ryan is both inspiring and moving. Beginning with the invasion of Normandy on D-Day June 6, 1944, the film follows a group of American soldiers as they look for a Francis Ryan. Since all three of his brothers are dead their mission is to find him and send the private home . Despite the dangers and the subsequent deaths of many comrades, they finally complete their mission after one last heroic fight. The movie flashes forward to the present day Ryan as he kneels at the graves of those brave men who saved him. Unsure he asks his wife if he lived a good life because those soldiers payed the ultimate price for him. With director Steven Speilberg, Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and other good character actors, this is a powerful war film with great battle sequences as well as amazing heroism.

5/5 Stars