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Second Opinion: Seriously, ‘Interstellar’ Is Worth Another Watch

interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s ambitious sci-fi space epic Interstellar has proven itself to be a very contentious topic of discussion among hardcore moviegoers (and Nolan fans). And in the three years since its release and after Nolan’s newest film Dunkirk, the debate has only gotten more divisive.

Some liked it, some (including Jon Negroni himself) didn’t, some were indifferent, etc. Despite all this debate, Interstellar has managed to gain a surprisingly devoted following, many of them (like myself) even more impressed the second time watching it.

As the title of this article suggests, I remain a staunch defender of Interstellar. Yes, it definitely has flaws, but there’s still a lot to love. When I first saw the movie, however, I was sad to say that I didn’t like it much. I found it boring and confusing, and it just kind of left me disappointed. It wasn’t until the recent release of Dunkirk that I decided to give it another shot, along with some other Nolan movies, to gain a fresher perspective.

I was amazed by how much I loved Interstellar the second time.

I almost didn’t think I was watching the same movie, and I eventually came to the conclusion that time was the key factor here. It had been over two years since I first saw the film, so I had actually forgotten a lot of what had happened, weirdly enough. I did remember most of the actual plot thanks to a combination of my disjointed memory and some of the online discussions I had observed over the years, so I pretty much knew the basic premise going in, which I think made for a much more complete experience. An emotional one.

In fact, the emotion of it all is what surprised me the most watching Interstellar the second time. The personal story of the characters, the beautiful imagery, and the score by Hans Zimmer all worked together to sell me on humanity being at stake. I truly felt like time was running out and that every second was important. The relativity scene and the docking sequence stick out as being especially tense and heavy, making for some decent thrills among the more conceptual material.

On top of all that, I was impressed by how Nolan balanced all this heaviness with a very unique story about a father and his daughter. Although Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain) don’t have a lot of screen time together, the connection between them managed to be as potent as it needed to be, even across time and space (a point the movie directly addresses, of course).

interstellar

That said, I attribute this successful character relationship to the editing by Lee Smith. He cut these scarce scenes together in just the right way for them to display the mutual care between Cooper and Murph and how they can’t seem to move on, even though it may be in their best interest to do so. The performances by McConaughey, Foy, and Chastain obviously help too. They’re able to convey the pain of leaving a loved one behind in a very convincing way, and I was excited to see where the story was going even though I already knew the ending. That’s not easy to pull off.

But what I liked the most while rewatching Interstellar was the overall message I must have missed the first time around. It might be a hackneyed thing to say, but I was impressed by what I think Nolan was getting at with a recurring motif in the movie in the form of Professor Brand (Michael Caine) repeating these lines from a Dylan Thomas poem:

“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.”

First, recall the premise of the movie: humanity is on the verge of extinction and/or famine as a result of a second dust bowl destroying the world’s resources. You get the sense early on that most people have basically accepted their fate and are just trying to have as good a time as possible before it all slowly ends.

What I think Professor Brand, and by extension Christopher Nolan, is getting at with the poem is that we shouldn’t just give up on life. We possess the intelligence, the potential, and the technology to resist the natural order of things, and we should use our humanity wisely. Just because we can. Why not fulfill our potential as intelligent beings?

It’s this kind of compelling philosophy that makes me love science fiction as a genre.

Despite all of the praise I’ve given it, I still don’t think Interstellar is a perfect movie. Most of my flaws stem from pure filmmaking aspects. For instance, I think the shifts in tone between intellect and emotion can be very jarring at times, and some scenes can be a little too wordy and bogged down in exposition.

interstellar

I think there are numerous wasted characters, as well, most notably Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) and Dr. Mann (Matt Damon). They’re both a bit underwritten and don’t have as clear motivations as you’d expect from the rest of the script. Plus, Dr. Mann is a little on-the-nose in that one scene I don’t think I have to spell out.

Also, and this is painful to say, the ending is…perfunctory. I think most people agree the story wraps up sappy and with little apparent thought put into the broader implications of the whole enterprise. I don’t want to accuse the studio of meddling, but it really seems like someone put something into the movie at the last minute in an attempt to make the film more accessible. Who knows?

Problems aside, I’m happy to say I finally got my money’s worth after almost three years. If there’s anything I would like you to take away from this belated review, it can be found right in the title. Maybe Interstellar is worth another try. Coming from the perspective of someone who came around after just one rewatch, I think there could be more to it than you originally imagined.

Second Opinion Grade: B+


 

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Second Opinion: ‘Sing Street’ Proves Not all Crowd-Pleasers Are Created Equal

sing street

As of September, my favorite movie of 2016 is John Carney’s Sing Street, a musical throwback set during the 80s boom in the U.K. Consider this my (late) review, perhaps made better by the fact that I’ve had months to process Sing Street and even revisit it.

For that reason, this is a Second Opinion, in the sense that I’m also forced to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Sing Street against the critic community at large. And it’s not quite so clear where critics landed with this film.

At first glance, you’d think Sing Street is the indie darling of the year, maybe because of its high score on Rotten Tomatoes or if you’ve heard me gush about the film on Now Conspiring. But that’s not to say the film hasn’t received some tepid responses as well, with many critics both praising the film and undercutting it with the “low” side of positive scores.

From what I can tell, the main reason is because Sing Street commits a “sin” in the eyes of a lot of serious film critics: it’s a crowd-pleaser.

sing street

You’ve heard the term, but let’s be more specific. The idea of a movie being a crowd-pleaser is an underhanded compliment, meant to criticize the film for using familiar tropes to elicit a specific reaction from the audience. It’s also used to note a film that is essentially boring in its formula and afraid of taking risks. Relevant crowd-pleasers include the likes of Marvel superhero movies, nostalgic franchise sequels, and even Oscar-bait — those Fall films that seemed designed to do nothing more than win awards.

So yes, it’s pretty accurate to call Sing Street a crowd-pleaser, perhaps to an even heavier degree because the film it draws so much heart from is John Carney’s previous film, Once (we’ll just skip Begin Again for obvious reasons if you’ve seen it).

Yet Sing Street also makes the case for why some crowd-pleasers are far superior to others. At the end of the film, I did find myself realizing how loud Carney’s voice was throughout, and the heart of the movie couldn’t be clearer. It’s a film you discuss and analyze for its craft in filmmaking and how it made you feel. Lesser crowd-pleasers suffer from only having the latter.

sing street

Let’s talk about how the film is set up. Set in Dublin, the movie centers around the life and journey of Conor (played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a shy teenager who slowly cultivates a passion for music while attempting to win the heart of an older, beautiful girl (Raphina, played by Lucy Boynton). He starts a band in order to impress her, but the film splinters his motivations in a lot of surprising ways. Conor wants to break free of the rules of his claustrophobic prep school, suffer through his parents’ divorce, live up to his brother’s dreams, find success with his band…oh, and get the girl.

There’s real beauty in how simple the film appears, but it’s anything but straightforward. The film starts with a jumble of problems coming Conor’s way as he has to adjust to a new life at Synge Street, which is packed with bullies and a disturbing menace of a headmaster. But the moment he sees the girl, all those problems get thrown aside completely — a perfect capturing of what it’s like to fall in “love.”

That would be fine enough if the film didn’t also execute the rest of its content so fluidly and with so much endearing music (the soundtrack is sure to make an impression). There’s no crystallizing moment or raw talent in Conor that suggests movie magic. He starts like most other musicians and creatives: by ripping people off.

sing street

Eamon (Conor’s first recruit for the band, played by Mark McKenna) is the true prodigy, able to play multiple instruments and come up with the majority of the actual music. Conor’s brother (Brendan, played by Jack Reynor) mentors him on which music is worth mimicking, paving the way for Conor to gradually work his way to becoming a real musician. Even songwriting, Conor’s only apparent gift he’s discovered for himself, is only made possible because of, you guessed it, the girl.

Watching this creative process unfold as a love story is one of the most unique and charming experiences I’ve been entertained by in years. It’s a standout script with standout music and performances that makes it a crowd-pleaser for all of the right reasons, not the wrong ones. That’s not to say the film is perfect, and I could list several problems I have with the film, but at this point, they’re perfunctory and removed from what makes the film a keeper.

I think what makes Sing Street somewhat better than everything else I’ve seen this year has a lot to do with two reasons: for one thing, it transcends its genres (the comedy and romance never overshadow the darkness and melodrama). Second, the movie tackles a feeling that only movies can truly provide. And that’s creative spectacle unrestrained by a director’s heart.

Grade: A


Thanks for reading this. Seriously. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. 

Or just say hello on Twitter: @JonNegroni


Second Opinion: Why ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ Isn’t a Masterpiece

captain america winter soldier opinion

It’s strange that the sequel to one of Marvel Studios’ most ho-hum superhero origin stories is among the most celebrated as a standalone feature (and easily the best sequel of the now large catalogue of films).

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is often the film to talk about when discussing the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But is it ever talked about as a movie that stands among the greatest superhero movies? That’s not as clear and most likely not the case.

Unlike “First Avenger,” Winter Soldier is not a superhero movie that happens to be a period piece. It is instead a superhero movie that happens to be a spy thriller that Robert Redford himself is cast in to echo Three Days of the Condor. Notice, though, that neither movie starts first as a genre that happens to contain superheroes in it, which arguably the best superhero movies do. Because this is, after all, a movie that has to lay the seeds down for future films, for better or worse.

The film centers around a freshly minted Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans, as confident as ever), the man out of time who’s having trouble adjusting to a life beyond the one he had in the 1940s. His friends, connections, and even his values have been severely outpaced by his biology (and circumstantial preservation), as he’s trapped in a new world that uses him a lot more than they seem to need him.

captain america winter soldier

And he embraces this workload by diving headfirst into his job at S.H.I.E.L.D. and ignoring the suggestions of fellow Avenger Black Widow (played expertly here by Scarlett Johansson)  to get out there again and make a new life for himself. But he’s unable to do this anyway when a shadowed figure from his past arrives to disrupt a Big Brother world that Steve himself is disillusioned by, making the audience wonder why Captain America has to fight this battle at all.

It’s amazing that throughout this runtime, that is the question audiences are wondering. They aren’t put off by Captain America’s name, his moralistic nature, or his costume. Despite the fact that it’s hardly easy to relate to a man who represents excellence in every aspect, from his physical prowess to his righteousness. But the way he represents these ideals is something we can relate to, because almost all of us wish we were a little bit like Captain America, especially those of us who have grown up idolizing superheroes.

It just so happens that the handiwork of Winter Soldier is good cinema as well. The atmosphere, action scenes, and acting are all enhanced by the Russo Brothers’ vision and a solid script as mentioned. The movie is much like Captain America himself, in that it gets the job done — no more, no less.

But it’s the “no more” aspect that ultimately inhibits Winter Soldier from being one of the great superhero movies. Nothing in the film is exactly new or intriguing outside itself, but it’s still ust a great recipe that someone has managed to put together perfectly, rather than a turning point for the genre (not that it needed to be).

captain america winter soldier

This is fine because Winter Soldier already exceeded expectations by daring to even be good at all, putting forward an incredibly entertaining sequel about a character who’s seemed behind the times in more ways than one. Perhaps the film’s status as an underdog is why so many fans call it their favorite of the MCU, even above massive hits like The Avengers. I have a hard time disagreeing with them, because despite all of the credit Winter Soldier owes to previous Marvel films, it’s easily the most complete out of all of them.

Second Opinion Grade: A-


I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

Second Opinion: ‘Prince of Persia’ Could Have Been Something Special

prince of persia opinion

Directed by Mike Newell (who also directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and some other fantasy films), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time came out in 2010 as one of the later attempts to revitalize (or just vitalize) the trend of adapting popular video games into movies.

When this film was on the horizon, a lot of gamers were ready to love it, because unlike a lot of other ill-fated adaptations, everyone agreed that Prince of Persia was a game that lent itself nicely to the feature film treatment. Even better, this was a game franchise that had already been successfully reinvented many times since the 80s.

That said, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was intended to be a film adaptation of the 2003 hit video game of the same name. But that didn’t really happen. Instead, Jerry Bruckheimer produced a film that deviated heavily from its video game source material, maintaining only the most superficial aspects of the game that define its identity.

Yes, the main character has the power (somewhat) to turn back time with a dagger, though it’s hardly used in this movie. And he’s a quick-moving prince living in a Persian empire who must team up with a feisty princess (played well here by Gemma Arterton). But rather than adapt the more thrilling aspects of this character, who loses his family in the night due to the villainous treachery of their sorcerer advisor amidst a castle magicked to all hell, Prince of Persia (the movie) focuses on traditional swashbuckling adventure akin to Bruckheimer’s work in Pirates of the Caribbean.

prince of persia opinion

This isn’t inherently a bad thing, as long as you’re able to buy into a British-accent Jake Gyllenhaal playing someone who lives as Persian royalty after being adopted as a street orphan. The adventure boils down to the prince being framed for treason and then trying to prevent a magical sandstorm that will wipe out everyone in the world, which is a far cry from the more singular, human adventure in the games where only a kingdom is at stake.

For all of the fun Prince of Persia tries to have, its main problem is lacking any sort of identity that it could have easily gleaned from its source material. A generic plot and world-ending villainy are even less interesting when none of the characters (even Gemma Arterton, Alfred Molina, and Ben Kingsley) have nothing interesting to say beyond their simplistic motivations.

There are bright spots whenever the film shows off some now-dated parkour reminiscent of the games, but even the Dagger of Time, a powerful plot device in and of itself, is relegated to B-movie time travel plots we’ve seen before, rather than the effect that reversing mistakes at will can have on a person trying to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, the movie never really gets that interesting, but it also manages to stay light and entertaining throughout. Like National Treasure to a lesser degree, Sands of Time is full of breezy action with likable enough characters thrown into the chaos. But even its own special effects are hard to swallow, since even basic rooftop antics are enhanced with CGI for the sake of spectacle, and it was just as noticeable 6 years ago as it is now.

prince of persia opinion

Getting down to it, the major problem with Sands of Time has nothing to do with it being an imperfect movie. Plenty of enjoyable adventure films have glaring flaws that you forgive because you love being in this world that’s been created for you. Sands of Time lacks this type of setting, with characters whose chosen names could have used more debate, a historical backdrop devoid of awe (Secret Guardian Temple, anyone?), and an uninspired…well, everything else.

Second Opinion Grade: C-


I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

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