It’s hard to believe that I’ve already cranked out 50 columns. Here’s to 50 more!
The buildup: Our future Earth is beset by famine, dying crops, and malevolent dust storms. Brilliant pilot turned farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles into a secret NASA program to visit other worlds for repopulation that have been scouted by Earthlings who cannot return. Enlisted for this crucial important mission, Cooper and his crew (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, and David Gyasi among them) plus two robots journey to Saturn and beyond, unsure of what they will find and whether they can save the human race from mass extinction.
The breakdown: Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi extravaganza, like all of his films, serves up intense performances, stunning visuals, and heady subject matter worthy of repeat viewing. That said, this 168-minute epic can get a bit dense at times even as it sucks you into its beautiful alternate worlds. The exploration of our survival instincts, how they can betray or help us, and looking beyond the third dimension make Interstellar very worthy of debate after the last frame, even if the finale offers a somewhat cryptic resolution. The three hours of bonus features offer more food for thought.
THE BABADOOK (2014)
The buildup: Widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) copes with isolation, depression, and her young son’s obsession with building weapons to fight imaginary monsters. But when a storybook creation called Mr. Babadook emerges to terrify them, she begins to realize that it is not just coming for her son, it’s coming for her.
The breakdown: This Australian horror film is one of the genre’s most original and best from the last several years. Writer-director Jennifer Kent conjures up a fear fest with a message as the sinister Babadook represents the repressed grief and anger that Amelia feels at her unfortunate circumstances, and as his influence becomes stronger she begins to rage at her son. Kent crafts some very unnerving sequences and delivers a perfect ending to a tale about the dark side of motherhood.
ODD MAN OUT (1947)
The buildup: Following a robbery gone bad in which he unintentionally kills a man, a revolutionary jailbird (James Mason), wounded during the event, goes on the lam as his allies, law enforcement, and his unrequited lover seek him out on the streets of Belfast. The clock is ticking throughout a very tense and violent night.
The breakdown: The first in an acclaimed trio of films by director Carol Reed that also includes The Third Man (with Orson Welles), Odd Man Out implements a film noir style in a tale that combines crime drama and romantic melodrama. The characters are refreshingly complex and few can fully elicit our full sympathy, and the politics are kept to a minimum. Most fascinating is the fact that Mason’s character becomes a commodity for so many people who want to either make an example of him or profit from his misfortune. In the end, we truly know little about him, like many infamous public figures.
THE LAST OF ROBIN HOOD (2013)
The buildup: As the career of dashing ‘40s action film star Errol Flynn (Kevin Kline) wanes, he enters a midlife crisis where he courts an underage aspiring actress (Dakota Fanning) and seeks artistic redemption even as many Hollywood insiders and the public are writing him off. But his controversial relationship not only jeopardizes his career but is smothering her childhood, and his ill health from years of hard living threatens his life.
The breakdown: The Last Of Robin Hood is a solid drama that failed to charge up the box office but deserved more attention. Kline is almost a dead ringer for an aging Flynn, and he slips into the role comfortably. Susan Sarandon plays the embittered stage mom whose dancing career was cut short by an auto accident and who wants her daughter to experience the success she never did, despite her misgivings about Flynn. The story focuses as much on the ladies’ dysfunctional life as Flynn’s manipulations. The best and most ironic scene takes place when director Stanley Kubrick considers the aging star as the male lead for Lolita but refuses to cast Flynn’s young paramour, which would have been inappropriate but perfect casting.
STUDIO GHIBLI DELIGHTS
While Studio Ghibli is best known for the films of the iconic Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Ponyo), it has produced many fine animated works by different Japanese directors, many of which are finally getting their Blu-ray due. In the frequently funny Pom Poko (directed by Isao Takahata), raccoons with magical abilities are encroached upon by modern human development and fight back against those who would displace them from their homes. Tales Of Earthsea (directed by Gorio Miyazaki) adapts material from four books in the Ursula K. LeGuin series to depict an epic clash between two sorcerers as the balance of their world starts to go out of whack. The wild card of the story is a young prince who inexplicably assassinates his father, flees, and struggles with his dark side, and the story is both intimate and grand. The ace WWI pilot of Porco Rosso (directed by Hayao Miyazaki) has had his face transformed into that of a pig, but that does not stop him from performing feats of fancy, clashing with sky pirates, and wooing a beauty named Gina. The recent Oscar nominee The Tale Of Princess Kaguya (also directed by Takahata) takes a more minimalist visual approach as a tiny young princess discovered in a stalk of bamboo grows into a beautiful, normal sized woman, but the real reason for her imprisonment later becomes revealed. Each Studio Ghibli film offers its own delights and rewards and offers mature themes, and they serve as a refreshing alternative to the often nauseatingly cute animated movies churned out by Hollywood for the family set. (The American dubbing is pretty good too.) It’s nice when a movie that can appeal to kids and adults offers something substantial for the latter.
RETRO VIEW: A first look at older video releases
THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970)
The buildup: Ever seeking exciting new cases to work on, Sherlock Holmes and his faithful and exuberant sidekick Dr. Watson help a young woman seek out her missing husband. But while the eternal bachelor Holmes is beguiled by this beauty and goes on a grand Scottish adventure involving a secret society and the Loch Ness Monster, it becomes apparent that deception is afoot.
The breakdown: Those movie fans used to seeing A-list movie stars playing the iconic duo might be thrown off at first by the pairing of respected UK actors Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, but they make a great team, with Blakely’s Watson showcasing a particular joie de vivre. Less than savory aspects of Holmes’ persona (his arrogance, opium addiction, and fear of intimacy) become integral parts of Billy Wilder’s fun take on the sophisticated sleuth. Christopher Lee appears as Holmes’ equally difficult brother Mycroft (and a vintage interview offers his perspective on working with Wilder). This Holmes adventure may not be as well known as some others, but it is one of the better ones, even though two of the four cases that comprised the original screenplay were cut by the studio. The film is underscored by a hauntingly beautiful violin melody at the heart of Miklos Rozsa’s score.