Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything
is that most unusual of films, the kind that actually gets better as you’re watching it. Directed by James Marsh,  the film is the story of the marriage of physicist Stephen Hawking (an impressively committed Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones). The two meet in 1963 at Cambridge, where Stephen is a talented but directionless doctoral candidate and Jane is pursuing a Ph.D. in poetry. If you’re hoping to learn something about Hawking’s scientific work then  The Theory of Everything will probably disappoint you. There is talk of time and black holes, but the first section of the film feels rushed as Stephen meets Jane, makes his first breakthrough, and is diagnosed with the motor neuron disease that will define his life from the neck down. Once he receives his diagnosis both Stephen and his father (Simon McBurney) gently warn Jane from becoming too attached, but she is undaunted and becomes both a devoted caregiver and the mother of Stephen’s three children.

It was at about this point that I began to worry about The Theory of Everything. Stephen seemed to have been reduced to his disability, and I feared I was about to watch a film in which a Great Man skipped from strength to strength professionally while his illness failed to derail his home life only on account of an unendingly supportive wife. Then Anthony McCarten’s script (based on Jane Hawking’s memoir) changes course. Stephen is playing with his children in the living room while Jane does her own academic work in the kitchen. She can’t concentrate because of the noise, and Felicity Jones plays the moment with such a complicated brew of emotions that I actually leaned closer to the screen. The Theory of Everything tells Jane’s story too, and despite a impressively soulful performance from Eddie Redmayne it must be said that Felicity Jones is the reason to see it. This is the story of a modern marriage, and the spikiness and sensuality of Jones’s performance saves a movie that had threatened to become too polite. The story is also given heat by the arrival of a supportive neighbor named Jonathan (Charlie Cox) who introduces some erotic complication into the Hawkings’ marriage.

If only Marsh and McCarten had treated Stephen Hawking as more than a symbol of the indomitable human spirit. Throughout the film the fact that Hawking is doing something is more remarkable than what he actually does. Marsh even cuts away from a physically deteriorating Hawking explaining a key advance in his work to hear a friend (Harry Lloyd) explaining the same thing to colleagues in a pub. Late in the film - after A Brief History of Time makes Hawking a celebrity - there’s a public appearance at which Hawking is reduced to a dispenser of aphorisms about human possibility. While The Theory of Everything contains moments of real honesty and connection it also can’t quite grapple with a man the size of Stephen Hawking, and it’s there that the film can’t quite live up to its title.

Monday, November 17, 2014


There is nothing in the previous films of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu to prepare you for the scene early in Birdman in which a man named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) uses telekinetic powers to make a paint can fall on someone’s head. Riggan is an actor, once the star of the “Birdman” superhero franchise, who in an effort to regain his reputation is on Broadway directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Birdman follows the last few days before the production opens and Riggan and his collaborators face an assortment of reckonings. If Birdman (full title: Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is to be taken at face value then Innaritu means it as a critique of art-as-product, both in Hollywood and the most commercial American theatre. Innaritu has chosen big targets and brought technical virtuosity and an unimpeachable cast to bear, but finally I’m not sure that the arguments Birdman is making are either interesting or all that accurate.

 Much of Birdman takes place in a Broadway theatre, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) uses the set as his stage to give a performance that may win him a second Oscar. The bulk of the film appears to be one single take; Lubezki’s camera swoops around corners and inside dressing rooms with a breathlessness that is I think meant to invoke the onrushing opening night of Riggan’s play and the careening psychological health of its star. Riggan has extended himself both professionally and personally, risking his own money on the play and hiring his recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) as an assistant. Michael Keaton is more than game for what Innaritu asks of him, and he throws himself into the more surreal scenes with the perfect amount of dry wit. Yet I’m not sure Riggan - who hears a running interior monologue from his Birdman character - is quite the holy fool that Innaritu wants him to be. Riggan is meant to be reclaiming his soul as an artist, but he has been handed the keys (really, he has a key) to the summit of American professional theatre and given what appears to be unchecked creative control of a production that in the glimpses we get combines kitchen-sink drama with surrealism and the most awkward moments of actors walking downstage to deliver a Big Speech. There are no producers hounding Riggan to make cuts or cast changes, only Zach Galifianakis as a beleaguered flunky. Innaritu’s placement of Hollywood and “The Theatre” as opposite poles of artistic achievement doesn’t hold up when we see Riggan’s ego being fed at the theatre just as much as it would have been on a blockbuster film set, and that’s why when surrealism begins to take over there is a sense that the film is out of control. Indeed, what does the “Birdman” character represent? By Innaritu’s own logic he should be a symbol of Hollywood as a destroyer of art, right there with Iron Man and the Transformers who are seen in a fantasy sequence as fighting on the stage of Riggan’s play. Instead it’s when Riggan embraces Birdman that the film suggests he brushes against genius.

 It is too bad that the message of Birdman is so muddled because the cast delivers to a degree worthy of the filmmaking skill on hand. Edward Norton plays a vain stage actor who joins the production late and who is gradually revealed to be as bad at life as he is good at acting. Norton’s character is dating another member of the cast (a wonderful and raw Naomi Watts) and might make a better study of the sacrifices one must make for art than Riggan does. Norton is drawing on his own public image in the same way Keaton is, but I left the theater thinking about the women of Birdman. I’ve never seen Naomi Watts this earthy, and she is matched by Andrea Riseborough as her co-star and Riggan’s lover. Amy Ryan is touching as Riggan’s ex, but the movie belongs to Emma Stone as Sam. Stone is not asked to be charming for maybe the first time in her career and she runs with it, playing a messed-up young woman with untapped soul. (There is also Lindsay Duncan as a critic, but she gets saddled with a speech about how soul-killing Hollywood is.) If Birdman weren’t peddling such misconceived ideas then it could have been a glorious one-off about showbiz, the equivalent of finding a beloved book with illustrations you’ve never seen. Instead it ends up being a well-made curiosity best remembered for bringing Michael Keaton back where he belongs.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is an ambitious and at times unwieldy piece of work, a ragged but moving affair that puts a beating heart onscreen where Nolan’s previous films have often felt cold and overly determined. Nolan and his brother and co-writer Jonathan have a great deal on their minds here, from the environment and single parenting to the ways that humans are connected across time. Though at 2 hours and 49 minutes Interstellar can feel baggy in spots, the unity of Nolan’s vision ultimately marks it as a step forward for a director who can still do anything he wants for a while longer yet.

Sometime in the near future human society has all but fallen apart. The first image we seen in Interstellar is of a woman played by Ellen Burstyn who is part of a group older people talking about the present of the film we’re watching. Blights have put the food supply in peril and geopolitical conflicts have turned the world back towards an agrarian society. The American government is strong enough to determine which children will go to college and which (most) will become farmers, but this America seems to have no plan to help families fleeing a second Dust Bowl. There is an early scene, the film’s strangest,  in which a pilot-turned-farmer named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) attends a conference at his daughter’s school and we learn that the idea of a fake moon landing as a stunt to bankrupt the Soviets is now a part of our history. This early world-building contains some shaky exposition, and I didn’t understand why when Cooper stumbles upon NASA headquarters it appears to consist of eight people hiding out in a bunker. Cooper is asked to pilot a spaceship through a wormhole in an effort to find a new habitable world, and he agrees over the tearful objections of his young daugher Murph. (MacKenzie Foy).

Interstellar is exquisitely shot (by Hoyte Van Hoytema) and designed. Though the emotional tenor of the film bears no resemblance to that of 2001 the shots of spaceships framed against huge planets and docking sequences owe something to Kubrick. Nolan’s best and most refreshing joke is the creation of helpful robots that look like walking monoliths, the most prominent a dryly funny unit called TARS voiced by Bill Irwin. Cooper and his team (including Anne Hathaway and David Gyasi) have three planets to visit and these scenes are among the film’s strongest, especially on a water planet on which the astronauts suffer their first casualty and realize the difficulty of their mission. It’s on the water planet that the idea of “time slippage” comes into play. You’ll have to have a good ear to catch the details, but for every hour that Cooper spends on the planet Murph (who grows up to be a scientist played by Jessica Chastain) will age seven years back on Earth. Nolan keeps cutting back to a deteriorating Earth to find Murph working for the professor (Michael Caine) who organized the initial mission. The motives of Caine’s character are rushed through in order to motivate the film’s climax, which involves an encounter with a survivor of a previous mission.

Your tolerance for the ending of Interstellar - which actually feels like it ends a few times -  will depend on how you feel about Nolan’s belief in the limits of human possibility and in our collective ability to pull ourselves together as a species. Of all the themes in play it might be said that the greatest of these is love, as a speech by Hathaway’s character earlier in the film is referred to when Cooper is confronted with his chance to save the world. Our sense of the film working to resolve itself is at its strongest here, but though things could get sentimental they’re redeemed by the wit of McConaughey (who plays Cooper like a Right Stuff character alive at the wrong time) and some splendid visual effects. Interstellar is the kind of film one leaves with questions about plot holes and logic, but it also feels like a sort of personal notebook of concerns over how to be a good father, a good citizen, a good man. If Christopher Nolan can keep working at a pitch that combines the grand and the intimate like this, then he has something truly epic in his future.