Stephen Miller

Stanford PhD student, movie podcaster, person, etc.

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.

Review: While We’re Young

I have a love/hate relationship with Noah Baumbach. Like Woody Allen, he puts “real life” on display in uncomfortable, often brutal detail. Except his “reality” is alien to me: highly articulate artists living in the Village, alternately discussing their latest novel/film/ballet and sexually-liberated exploits. The Squid And The Whale, like Manhattan, initially drove me crazy. I hated every one of those beautifully-framed, entitled brats and their droll, New York City “problems.” But something changed on second viewing: the specifics still felt opaque, but something universal glimmered through the cracks. Made more beautiful, somehow, by the fact that I could barely access it. Empathy is best when it’s fought for, and even if I don’t always get there — I loved Frances Ha for her obvious flaws, hated Greenberg for his — there’s always something interesting in the struggle.

That struggle is totally absent in While We’re Young — it’s easy to like from the get-go. The film is effectively Baumbach’s riff on This Is Forty: Cornelia (Naomi Watts) and Josh (a remarkably good Ben Stiller) are a childless married couple grappling with the stasis of middle age. Or maybe middle-middle-age: not free enough to be hipsters but too restlessly self-aware to be yuppies, they’re stranded. Their peers, Baby Bjorn-adorn and bobbing to nightmarish sing-a-longs, have sacrificed Personhood to the idol of Parenthood. Meanwhile, the new generation (hilariously played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) is lawless: they hike through subway tracks, throw “beach parties” in the street, wear post-post-post-ironic tees, and drop ayahuasca with Shamans and Spotify Radio. Baumbach mines keen observations and laughs from all sides: it’s the funniest, and most accessible, he’s ever been. Even when the jokes don’t land, you really want them to.

Tonally, it’s standard indie fare: charming leads, witty dialogue, lows played for laughs and quickly resolved. But, like plenty of comedy, there’s a certain sadness to it. Josh and Cornelia aren’t really stranded, because neither side actually exists: they’re cultivated fantasies. Everyone is stuck somewhere, and no journey towards self-acceptance can change that. Whether they numb it with smartphones they pretend to hate or vintage kitsch they pretend to love; run from it in sockless loafers or belittle it with faux-weary acceptance; fuel it with sharp-elbowed egotism or wear “selflessness” like armor — nobody nails the landing. It’s clichéd, but personal: you can just feel Baumbach tearing down his younger pretensions and grown-up sentiment, brazen and giddy. But it’s not clear he’s found anything real to replace it with…or that he was even particularly interested in looking. Confronted with the void, he shrugs and rolls credits.

While We’re Young is a good movie: it’s clever, fun, and well worth the price of admission. I just wish it’d put up more of a fight.

Throwback Review: Short Term 12

I hold many films close to my heart, but it rarely matters if others agree. If you don’t like Boyhood, I totally get it: I can see aspects of myself that wouldn’t like it either. If you find Wes Anderson too precious, that’s your prerogative: I have a blast indulging in his whimsy, but I have no desire to defend it. Some things, though, hit me in a deeper place. Eternal Sunshine. The Before series. Lost In Translation. If you dislike them, I certainly can respect why — in the cool, sentiment-free light of day, their flaws are evident. But it signifies a disconnect between us: a particular way of looking at the world that I treasure, which for whatever reason you don’t. It actually sort of matters.

Short Term 12 is one such film. When I saw it in theatres I was transfixed. I loved it. But somehow, my knee-jerk reaction was to write off those emotions in favor of nitpicks: it’s overly sentimental, the third act strains credulity, its conclusion is too neat. When the end of the year came and I still hadn’t gotten a chance to revisit it, I sheepishly included it in the middle of a Best Of list as an “indefensible, personal” choice — a guilty pleasure at best, hardly worth mentioning in the same breath as real, Oscar-worthy fare.

A year has gone by since I made that list, and I’ve rewatched this film embarrassingly many times: in hotel beds, on airplanes, at home with a fever, on a Vienna-bound train (yes, along with the obvious companion.) I can now safely say that Short Term 12 is my favorite film of 2013, and is on a very short list for the decade.

I love this movie in the most tender, uncool way possible. I love Larson’s lived-in authenticity. Grace is a person I’ve met many times: her struggles are real, and her quiet looks speak volumes. I love Cretton’s keen attention to detail: the game of Big Booty, Jayden’s many wristbands, the way Mason cultivates a lenient, unkempt approachability that never undercuts Grace’s authority. I love Marcus’ heartbreaking rap, and the precise amount of stunned silence we’re allotted when he finishes his refrain. I love West’s gorgeous score, where unabashedly lush melodies swell above an undercurrent of gingerly plucked strings. I love the gentle shaky cam and the empathy inherent in its gaze. I love when that gaze lingers on empty rooms: like Before Sunrise, there’s a catharsis in the morning after, of familiar settings having outlived, but not forgotten, the emotions they contained. I love that the film isn’t afraid to be as flagrantly sentimental as this review; that it asks us to laugh, mourn, and walk alongside real kids and their very adult pain, no eye-roll in sight.

Could the third act have been more restrained? Was the conclusion a bit too tidy? Maybe. I honestly can’t bring myself to care. In that maybe-too-tidy penultimate scene, as the camera zoomed and soundtrack roared, I cried very uncool tears in that theatre. And I’ve cried every time since: in hotel beds, on airplanes, at home with a fever, and yes, on that clichéd Vienna-bound train. Cretton has infinite reserves of grace for every character he brings to screen, and I’m happy to afford him the same. Short Term 12 is a lovely, heartfelt masterpiece.

Review: Divergent and Insurgent

The first Hunger Games was frustrating. After an hour preparing us for intense ethical dilemmas, Katniss had managed to avert them all, lobbing righteous arrows from a tree while well-defined baddies did all the necessary heavy lifting. As successive sequels continued to polish her shiny Action Figure halo, I found myself wishing that /just once/ they would let a little darkness in. This weekend a duo, clad in underage angst and Hot Topic pleather, summersaulted out of a train and into my life as if to say “Be careful what you wish for, stiff.” The Divergent Series had arrived.

Divergent and Insurgent take place in a shameless mashup of every other Dystopian future, which really isn’t as problematic as it sounds. After freedom inevitably led to anarchy, society salvaged itself the only way it knew how: rigid structure and cautionary-tale-tailored naivity. The world is broken into five Factions, and the Sorting Ha—no, The Exam—pairs citizen with Faction based on well-defined archetypes. Self-Sacrificing (Abnegation), Peaceful (Amity), Honest (Candor), Intelligent (Erudite), and Bro (Dauntless). Triss (Shailene Woodley) is born Abnegation and chooses Dauntless, but (like all teenagers) she, like, doesn’t fit into your labels, Dad. She’s refuses to be any one thing: she’s Divergent. And that deeply threatens Kate Winslet’s Order Of Things™. No subtlety points in that regard, but far be it from me to trash a YA series for a little on-the-nose relatability. There’s a reason this stuff gets recycled: it connects.

My problem has more to do with priorities. Unlike The Hunger Games, the series — and Insurgent in particular — isn’t afraid to bloody its protagonists’ hands. Multiple people take their own life, bad guys effectively commit genocide, and Triss and Scowly Face (“Four”, the film’s romantic variant of Christian Grey and/or a sack of potatoes) shoot to kill. Sometimes it provokes genuine guilt, giving Woodley a chance to showcase her (fantastic) dramatic chops in an otherwise miscast role. But more often it’s ignored or, worse, acknowledged in service of bland teenage melodrama: grief from suicide is resolved by a hug and “Come here”, mass-killings are stopped (not prevented) with lamely empowering quips, and a single death haunts Triss til (fifty discardable bodies later) she’s learned to love herself again.

Almost every notable aspect of the series comes with regrettable sacrifice. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, but its largely male supporting players are unbearably vapid. (Rounding out the cast with Platonic-fixer-upper “Four”: The Fault In Our Stars-ex Ansel Elgort as her pouty Vulcan brother, The Spectacular Now-ex Miles Teller her inexplicably flip-flopping frenemy, and a thousand tattooed douchebags who hang out at “The Pit” and can jump real high.) It tackles ambitious themes, but only via contrived scenarios and totally irrational egos. And it introduces genuinely heavy concepts, but its follow-through is spotty and ultimately reckless. Somewhere on the cutting room floor lie a popcorn flick, a weighty epic, a Twilight reboot, and an episode of Tool Academy. Kate Winslet was right after all: it’s dangerous to try to be too many things.

Review: Run All Night

It’s hard to say much about a movie which doesn’t try to say anything at all, so I’ll keep this short and sweet: you’ve already seen Run All Night. X is a goodhearted criminal who’s been out of the game a while. Y is a powerful man with a misplaced sense of decency, and his younger henchmen are erratic douchebags. X crosses Y to save an innocent party, Y vows to come after X with “everything he’s got”, and thousands of inconsequential bullets later they’re face-to-face, destroying one another with the utmost respect and allusions to an archaic “code.“ John Wick, The Equalizer, and every other Liam Neeson movie have riffed on the aesthetic with varying degrees of success — and that’s just talking about the past year.

There will always be mindless shoot-em-ups in the name of vengeance and family. There will always be serious Common cameos, and they’ll always make me laugh. There will always be CG blood to mix with CG rain in the gutters of blue-tinted, CG Manhattan, and it will always sell popcorn. With engaging leads like Liam Neeson and Ed Harris, this particular film sold it just fine — nothing new, nothing wrong. Its trailer promised a couple hours of escape, and like any good aging mobster, it aims to keep that promise with zero surprises, tried-and-true methods, and just a whiff of weary obligation. See it or don’t, you won’t regret a thing.