Stephen Miller

Stanford PhD student, movie podcaster, person, etc.

Review: Southpaw

Super late in posting this, so I’ll cut to the chase: Southpaw is a thoroughly entertaining, skillfully crafted, totally unnecessary adrenaline hit. There’s no good reason for you to see it, but you’ll probably have a great time if you do.

Antoine Fuqua, of Training Day and (more recently) Equalizer fame, is an expert at turning two guys beating the crap out of each other into a madly addictive spectacle. This primarily holds when one of those two guys is Denzel Washington. But what Jake Gyllenhaal lacks in the being-Denzel department, he more than makes up for in sheer commitment: his turn as hot-headed heavyweight champion Billy Hope is utterly transformative. Brokeback and Nightcrawler may have stretched him emotionally, but this is the first time I’ve seen him physically embody someone else — let alone someone capable of terrifying me. Rachel McAdams and Forest Whitaker are equally strong in their supporting roles, elevating everything they touch. With such unrelenting talent on both sides of the camera, it’s easy to forget you’re basically watching an extended Eminem music video.

Dig deeper than raw machismo, though, and you’re bound to come up empty. Here’s the arc in a nutshell: Billy’s aggression brings him fame, Billy’s aggression destroys his life, Billy learns to channel his aggression through a slightly smaller pinhole, Billy’s aggression (possibly?) saves the day. The film’s first act does a phenomenal job of convincing me that a particular brand of punching someone in the face for money is barbaric, and takes a dangerous emotional toll on the victor. What it totally fails to do is persuade me that alternate ways of punching someone in the face for money circumvent this. Yet by the end of the film, no one is mourning an absurd vicious cycle a la The Wrestler; there’s no palpable sadness on display. Instead, we find ourselves cheering, Rocky-style, for a father to win back his daughter via the same vice that (deservingly) lost her. And whether or not he succeeds, that’s a hollow message to stomach. Like the original 300, I liked it well enough; I just don’t think I like what that says about me.

Review: Paper Towns

Is it possible for eyebrows to break the fourth wall?

I know it sounds like a low blow, but I mean it as a complement. Cara Delevingne is striking and intense: runway model, Instagram superstar, Saint Vincent sweetheart, bane of Sacramento morning talk shows. She’s a real person who knows precisely what she wants, not a blurry average of every other teenage fantasy. She’s John Green’s thesis and third-act twist — and she’s on screen in the first two minutes of the movie.

I can’t quite explain why Paper Towns felt so off to me. It’s not that it felt untrue: Green’s prose sounded remarkably accurate, and even if it was only slightly less manipulative than your run-of-the-mill YA fiction, it pegged teenage wish-fulfillment to a T. And it’s not that it was half-assed, halfhearted, or poorly acted. Quite the contrary. Everyone is talented, hearts firmly affixed in the right place. I really respect where they went with this one. I only wish I could have joined them earlier along the way.

Instead I felt stuck in a noisy theatre for the first 70 minutes, watching a handful of fully-grown characters pantomime a Bildungsroman. Actors learning lessons I never believed they needed, to right a wrong that only existed when the script and (quite good!) soundtrack called for it. The journey required me to immediately accept a few things as Gospel: that Quentin is hopelessly obsessed with Margo, that she’s a conventionally popular teenager desperate for escape, that he needs to learn to put himself out there, to take a risk for once. “You need to learn to put yourself out there — take a risk for once!” [a paraphrased] Margo insists, in a scene meant to be laden with either naive fantasy or knowing nostalgia. But as much as I appreciated the attempt, I couldn’t identify with it at a distance or feel its emotional pull up close. Minus the heartstring tugs, the variably-charming collection of moments barely held together in service of its admirable message. It’s a shame, isn’t it? When all those strings just break?

Review: Ant Man

No child dreams of becoming Ant Man, but plenty want to direct. So when internet chatter first erupted in 2012, the buzz had less to do with any superhero than the underdog at the helm: Edgar Wright, whose credentials as a genre geek (Cornetto Trilogy) and hyper-real stylist (Scott Pilgrim) fit uncannily with the Marvel aesthetic. Fans were excited, sure, but mostly in the vicarious sense. When that meta-hero was ousted, everyone rooting for him — myself included — felt their excitement shrink faster than [OBVIOUS ANALOGY].

When you’re hauling $130M of cargo and the captain’s suddenly been ejected, it’s not the time to bust out fancy aerobatics. You keep your head down, and aim for a safe landing. That’s the only explanation I can think of for why the Ant Man Marvel salvaged manages to be so impressive while leaving such a tiny mental footprint. Shooting somewhere between the horizon and the moon, it’s an inconsequential but confident bullseye.

I had plenty of fun with this movie, mostly because it was having so much fun at its own expense. Self-deprecation is Ant Man’s real superpower, and Marvel has never seemed so in on the joke. Like that final rap battle in 8 Mile, self-criticism is levied before you can get a word in edgewise. Think the Avengers’ stakes are getting absurdly high? Sidelined female characters, perfunctory romance? You’re in good company: Paul Rudd thinks so too, and it’ll be way funnier when he says it first. Neither universe-protecting demigod nor war-torn antihero, he’s just a regular guy in an ant suit. And someone else’s suit at that.

But while Rudd is typically great and Michael Douglas makes for a surprisingly game foil, it’s Michael Peña’s scene-stealing role that left the biggest impression. Which is telling, because he’s the furthest removed from the action. By contrast, the monster-of-the-week villain and corresponding set pieces were half-gone the moment I’d left the theatre. As a “superhero movie” the beats barely stuck while they were going on, let alone enough to make me crave a sequel. Which is fine! If the only alternative is fatigued grandeur a la Age of Ultron, I’m more than happy for snappy fluff. It’s probably truer to the comic book spirit. But calibrate your expectations accordingly: for a planet in the Marvel Universe, it’s an awfully small, small world.

Review: The Overnighters

The Overnighters

I love documentaries for the same reason I hate reality television: everyone knows they’re being watched. It permeates everything. Every broad emotion, every word, every well-placed tear is unconvincingly choreographed to maximize our empathy for the subject. I love it, because people are such terrible actors. Not only do we still see them for who they are, we get to see who they think they ought to be in our eyes. Ego and superego battling on screen.

That dynamic informs The Overnighters in more ways than one. The film centers around Williston, North Dakota, where the recent oil boom has caused a massive employment spike rivaled only by a complementary spike in immigration. Poor blue-collar laborers from across the country have flocked to the promise of high-paying, low-barrier-to-entry jobs. When barriers to entry inevitably arise, they turn to Pastor Jay Reinke, whose “Overnighters” program allows them to sleep on his church grounds free of charge. Much to the chagrin of his holier-than-thou congregants. Not that they’d come out and say it explicitly — God, and the camera, are watching.

Of all the masks people hide behind, the Overnighters’ are the most empathetic: fresh haircuts, apologetic slips of profanity, lipservice to “the grace of God” when they really mean “thanks for the couch.” True hypocrisy is a luxury the poor can’t afford, and the Christian detractors are far more convincing in their imagined roles. Don’t get them wrong, it’s a wonderful ministry to help the poor! Praise Christ, serve the least of these, blessings and so forth. They’re just concerned, is all. Widows and lepers have a romantic King-James-ian sterility to them — but deadbeat baby-daddies and registered sex offenders? In their parking lot? Think of the children!

Reinke is hiding behind something too, and that complexity is what keeps this from being another weepy, finger-wagging morality tale. Wide-eyed and soft-spoken, his convictions are constantly at odds with his spine; through the funnel of “pastor” each glimmer of holy fire is reduced to a hunched, muted whimper. He knows exactly what sort of people his church is comprised of, but propriety won’t grant him the adjectives. Waging war without artillery, he’s left hunting for compromises: enforce stricter guidelines, omit details from the elders, keep the more “controversial” Overnighters in his own home or, sadly, send them packing. Whitewash every tomb. Strained relationships breed enemies on all sides, and he meets them all with the same cheery, loving disposition. A smile, a hand on the shoulder, a mostly-earnest laugh.

My Fundamentalist self would have seen his disposition as a Christlike joy in all circumstances. Today, I found it heartbreaking. It’s a portrait of a man who knows, deep down, that his worldview won’t survive this unbruised. That his love runs deeper than Christian platitudes, try as he may to conflate them. Doubt is the unspoken theme of the film: be it the American Dream or the Good News, everything is in flux. We first meet Pastor Jay as he’s ministering to his flock, greeting the sunrise with a cheery hymn. By the penultimate sunset, there are no hymns — and any reference to God sounds empty and perfunctory. When a meth addict misquotes “Psalms, no, Proverbs” to describe his sexual history as some frenetic demonic transaction, Pastor Jay feels no need to correct him. A stare, a pause, a vulnerable hug. “We’re both broken” he sobs, and it hurts to know how much he means it.

The Overnighters is a soulful ode to those who journey to any sort of Promised Land, only to find it doesn’t have room for them. It’s heart wrenching without being sentimental, damning without ever losing love for its subjects. It’s nothing but people, and it’s wonderful.

Get it on iTunes here

Review: San Andreas

At one moment during San Andreas, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson dives out of a Cessna clutching his soon-to-be-ex wife. Below, the world has gone to hell: residential skyscrapers crumbled, human debris littering Chinatown like discarded Dim Sum coupons, remnants of a nation far too shocked to mourn. 95% of San Franciscans have been annihilated, and TED-talk-auditioning scientists promise that the worst is still to come. “I haven’t gotten to second base with you in a while,” he quips.

The Disaster Movie formula is inherently ridiculous, and any attempt I make to criticize this one is going to feel profoundly tone deaf. You already know why it’s stupid. Co-opting the visuals of real-life tragedies for popcorn-flick amusement isn’t exactly ethically sound. Nor are the priorities it begs of us: precisely five lives are sacred in this film, five million more are utterly expendable, and at least one is disposed of with jeers and whistles. Value of life is inversely proportional to wealth and directly proportional to upper body strength. Melodrama is shoehorned in the least opportune places. “You had another kid, but she drowned, right?” is seen as valid exposition. Plot, when feebly attempted, is absurd.

But there’s a reason we’re drawn to this stupid genre: utter powerlessness is exhilarating. It may be the only truly universal human experience, and the more realistic the setting, the greater the thrill. With its clear geography and detailed set design, San Andreas is more than adequate at communicating that thrill — even as it’s cartoony enough to sidestep most ethical concerns. It’s a total What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get flick, and from my vantage point in Ground Zero, I had an embarrassingly fun time watching my city get destroyed. A forgettable, inexcusably dumb time, to be sure. But if you saw the trailer and expected anything better, it’s your own damn fault.

Armed with an hour of disastrous puns and worse Paul Giamatti impressions, Chris and I review it on this week’s Spoiler Warning.

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

Everything tastes better covered in bacon, but the “best” restaurants don’t serve it by the pound. Why? Read any celebrity chef’s tell-all and compare guilty pleasures: a bucket of fried chicken, a spoonful of Ben and Jerry’s, a crispy grilled cheese with way too much butter. They know you want it and they know how to make it, but their job isn’t to give you what you already know you want. Paula Deen and a thousand post-last-call burrito joints have that market cornered. The best meal of your life won’t satisfy a pre-existing craving; it will invent a new one to haunt you. And in a world where bacon satisfies pretty much everything, newness demands restraint.

But what if bacon had more to say? What if you could make bacon be so uniquely bacon that its own excess became art? That’s the question George Miller poses with Mad Max: Fury Road…er, you know, figuratively. With a script that consists entirely of crescendos and a character palette whose primary colors are “evil”, “badass”, and “fire”, it has precisely one objective and it aims to maximize it: adrenaline. No narrative frills, few humanizing character arcs, nothing toned-back or off-limits. Just two hours of raw, frenetic, gleefully unrestrained mayhem that’s so much much it feels fresh.

John Wick taunted my need for subtlety and Furious 7 got me too drunk to care, but Fury Road is the first film in recent memory to flat out rebut it. With a unique visual lexicon and exquisite choreography that feels less like battle than deranged ballet, it’s hardly a “guilty pleasure.” Proudly unsubtle and viscerally pleasing, yes, but too damn good to be guilty. Some of that goodness is thematic. By sporting strong female leads who espouse a weak-shall-inherit-the-earth populism, it manages to one-up the Other Miller’s graphic aesthetic while inverting his garbage worldview. Charlize Theron rules the film with her non-iron fist, and Hardy’s just along for the ride — this is no 300-esque flex-off. But the film is 1% message and 99% chaos, and that chaos is really why it works. To borrow Chris’ comparison on the podcast, it’s a haunting fever dream a la Cirque du Soleil. You’re not quite sold on the “who”’s and “why”’s, but art lies in the motion.

It’s not my favorite film of the year, but Mad Max: Fury Road easily lives up to the hype.

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

What’s left to say about Marvel? After years of aimless wandering with Hulkish consistency and Daredevil clarity, they hit a magic formula with Tony Stark and have been striking that increasingly lucrative iron ever since. Seven years and some ten films later, they might be the most bankable brand in showbusiness — and critically successful, to boot. Granted, they lack the fan-loyalty of Harry Potter and the critical transcendence of Pixar, but absent also are the total misfires: no Larry the Cable Guy, no jettisoning of great source material in favor of banal teenage love triangles, did I mention no Larry the Cable Guy? With self-deprecating whimsy and an encyclopaedic sense of their target demo, it’s hard to even /imagine/ a clunker. The films aren’t always amazing, but they’re never not fun.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron doesn’t break Marvel’s remarkable winning streak. But for the first time, I’m getting a vision of how it might end: not with any discernible misstep, but with natural exhaustion. Because everything is still very entertaining here: the easy rapport between Downey & Co., the impossibly-escalating stakes, the throwaway, PG-13 gags that pepper the mayhem. James Spader is particularly good as the gruff, Birdman-ish Ultron, embracing that sardonic brand of nihilism which makes cartoon supervillains so fun to watch. He’s going to murder your whole species, sure, but he needs you to know how terribly boring he’ll find it. Everything is done in good, just-the-right-amount-of-clean fun. It’s just exactly the sort of fun we’ve come to expect, and for some reason that feels like a letdown. Maybe it’s the somewhat bloated cast that makes every character moment feel a bit too diluted, or the knowledge that so many of these ridiculous movies are still in the works. No routine, however good, can last forever. Even if this formula hasn’t totally been tapped, I hope they shake things up soon. But what’s left for Marvel to say?

Review: Ex Machina

There are two questions Sci-Fi can beg of me: what did it say, and how did it feel? Being well-versed in the fields Hollywood loves to bastardize, my bar for the specifics is unreasonably high. Whether they say it with dumb sincerity (Transcendence), playfulness (Lucy), or aggravating grandeur (Interstellar), most die by over-exposition. The best of them sidestep the specifics and go for the jugular. No one wants to know how Moon’s space station was architected, or whether Samantha actually runs Linux. There’s only one question worth asking: how would it feel?

Ex Machina takes this lesson to heart: first-time director Alex Garland has far more to say about the human psyche than science, and he tells you so up front. Set in an undisclosed location in a who-cares-how-soon future, the film functions less like a story than a three-character morality play. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is a sort of Ghost of Sergey Brin Future; a wealthy, bearded brogrammer who lives in recluse, crafting the future with giddy disregard for privacy or ethics. His latest creation is Eva (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot who, he believes, will pass the elusive Turing Test. Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is flown in to conduct that test and, like any mid-level talent, he’s initially bogged down in low-level details. But true-to-type, Nathan insists on abstraction: it’s not about “stochastic processes” or hand-wavey explanations, but how it feels to meet her. So how does it feel?

Exhilarating. And that’s why it’s the best film of the year, so far. Vikander’s Eva is the anti-Scarlett Johansson, lacking both the warmth of Her and the chill of Under The Skin. With literally unblinking focus, adolescent flirtation, eerie precision and just a hint of menace, she’s (brilliantly) never less than a machine. She’s set up camp in the Uncanny Valley, and the film dares you not to empathize. As the story unfolds with predictable shape, the texture is new and unsettling. You can feel it in every detail: gorgeous waterfalls flowing over industrial-gray concrete, nudity that defies the male-gazing camera, art and philosophy interspersed with orgiastic terror, a soundtrack whose fuzzy ambiance shouts louder than a Hans Zimmer choir. Something beautiful is happening, but it’s not yours to own. Nathan fancies himself Creator God and Caleb postures as a Savior, but the real Deus comes from elsewhere.

This one only gets better the more I think about it. Chris, Carson, and I review it at:

Review: True Story

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but usually it’s not: for every unbelievable true story, there are a thousand unremarkable ones that refuse to tell themselves. Great art can spring from the mundane, but rarely without a push. Be it a repackaging of the narrative, a fresh way to express it, or a uniquely empathetic vantage point, /something/ has to transpose the profundity of “living it” into “seeing it lived.” If the point-by-point truth won’t do the heavy lifting, a little finesse is necessary.

When New York Times journalist Michael Finkel was tasked with covering the African slave trade, he finessed the details and wound up unemployed. Unfortunately, True Story seems to have learned from his mistake. The film consists of a series of interviews between Finkel (Jonah Hill) and Chistian Longo (James Franco), and it’s resolved to tell the whole truth and nothing but. Verily a family man and all-around stand up guy, Longo is charged with the brutal murder of his wife and three children. Volumes could be written about the gap between who he “is” and what he’s done, and Finkel is promised the exclusive scoop. It’s a thrilling setup: as if Hill’s unblinking Moneyball character were thrown into Capote’s plot with a Foxcatcher slowburn (surprisingly, Bennett Miller doesn’t seem to be involved here.)

Unfortunately, neither Longo nor the film make good on their promise. Despite solid dramatic turns from both leads and moments of genuinely artful filmmaking, we’re never granted more than fleeting access to the killer’s psyche. Nor do we have reason to care about the unsurprising consequences. Despite Felicity Jones literally shouting the film’s overarching themes at us, nothing quite ties together. It’s a well crafted film with half of an interesting story — but it’s so committed to the truth, it doesn’t say anything real.

Review: Furious 7

We begin our sequel where we always begin: on the streets. Our protagonists, a ragtag group bound by fierce loyalty and a slick, colorful obsession, are back. One is struggling with the routine of new parenthood, and another is having communication issues with their spouse. Tensions are high after an unexpected bit of home redecoration, leading the gang to a swanky resort in the United Arab Emirates. When their racy behavior gets them thrown off the premises and an old flame threatens their internal stability, they jet back to the city they left behind.

Fast and the City 2 — scratch that, Furious 7 — is not supposed to be my kind of movie. I haven’t seen 1-6, can’t stand most big-budget action franchises, and I barely know how my car works, let alone care to fetishize it alongside dudes in wife-beaters and Now That’s What I Call Bro pump up jams. But I had an absolute blast with this one.

Is it stupid? I don’t know. Is a karate fight on a bus that’s about to topple off a cliff stupid? Is The Rock flexing out of an arm cast and shouting “Woman, I /am/ the Calvary [sic]” stupid? Is jumping a car out of a building and into another building so you can steal a device to locate the guy you’re currently driving away from, stupid? These are questions to be wrestled with in fear and trembling.

Reality holds little traction in the Furious universe, but what’s remarkable is how deftly it steers into the skid. Diesel and Walker (the Carrie and Charlotte of the group, respectively) routinely forego obvious weapons for quippy hand-to-hand combat, because…furious? Villains are ludicrous, Ludacris is a genius, Kurt Russell shills Belgian ale but Diesel insists on Corona. There are no laws here. Cars fall out of planes, tumble down mountains, skid under buses, and soar into helicopters. “God’s Eye” surveys the planet because Eagle Eye was trademarked. Everyone knows how to do a backflip, and sometimes the camera does one too: wanna fight about it? Josh Larsen described it best as a state of “Zen chaos”: the world is crumbling at breakneck pace, but everything feels just right.

At the end of all the mindless action is a tribute to the late Paul Walker. As with any “serious” scene, the dialogue is terribly clunky. But there’s very real emotion behind it and, like a heartfelt wedding speech from your boneheaded friend, it’s made all the more touching for its clunkiness. Subtlety is not this movie’s game, and it wasn’t mine watching it. When the car jumped out of a plane I cheered, when The Rock flexed out of a cast I laughed, and when that final Wiz Khalifa song came on I got a bit misty in spite of myself. There’s nothing more to it: Furious 7 an immensely fun ride, well worth seeing and forgetting.