Stephen Miller

Stanford PhD student, person, etc.

Review: The Babadook

When I was fifteen, I saw The Grudge in theatres. The Ring had been a huge success two years earlier, and lesser imitators started cropping up; a sort of arms race developed over how many traumatic visuals directors could cram into two mediocre hours. One friend walked out and we all teased him for it, but he’d understood something important: torturing yourself for torture’s sake isn’t brave, it’s stupid. When you’ve got class in the morning and you’re afraid a pale woman with a droopy jaw will make frog noises at you if you close your eyes, there’s not much solace in the “fun of it”. I learned my lesson, and have avoided horror films ever since. No shame. Life’s too short to be miserable.

Recently The Babadook, a low-budget Australian debut, dropped on iTunes. Almost immediately it went from total unknown to critical darling, with a 98% on RottenTomatoes and William Friedkin (of The Exorcist)’s label as “the scariest film [he’s] ever seen.” I still hate being scared, but this one seemed worth the risk. After putting it off all week, I finally made the purchase and braced for impact.

Maybe a decade without horror movies has left me with unrealistic expectations, and now I’m just a crotchety old man who thinks all music is ripping off Dylan. But I was underwhelmed, and — being the same person who got nightmares from Minority Report (true story) — surprisingly unafraid. Not that it wasn’t good: it’s a solid entry in a genre known for camp. It just didn’t tread any new ground. A timid single mother lives in a dark house (The Others) with an outsider child who claims to see things which aren’t there (The Sixth Sense). One day a piece of entertainment appears (The Ring) foreboding the arrival of Mr. Babadook, a man with a top hat and finger knives (do I need to say it?) Terror ensues. Great acting, Coraline-creepy art direction, an emphasis on the psyche, and a refusal to go for cheap jump scares gave it a promising start. But it eventually devolves into more over-the-top fare, leaving whiffs of better films (Carrie, The Shining) in its wake. War-torn critics might call that a refreshing throwback after years of trashy-horror PTSD, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s pretty decent, but nothing new.

Chris and I discuss my general wimpy-ness and argue over the merits of the film at:

Review: Foxcatcher

Bennett Miller has carved out a pretty solid niche for himself: slow-burning character pieces based on extremely particular, real-life figures, whose peculiarities elicit breakout performances and critical acclaim for its stars. Muted, somber Phillip Seymour Hoffman turns brash socialite Truman Capote. Fart-joke Jonah Hill becomes socially-awkward savant Peter Brand. And Steve “Lovable Goofball” Carell inhabits schizophrenic, power-hungry John du Pont. Tonally, though, they couldn’t be more different. Capote was high-intensity, award-baity [almost melo-]drama, and Moneyball a rousing crowd pleaser with a relevant contemporary message. Foxcatcher is difficult and jarring: it won’t make you stand up and cheer but it also won’t permit you to cry. If there’s a decipherable message it’s pretty bleak.

It tells the true(ish) story of Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), his acclaimed brother/trainer Dave (Mark Ruffalo), and John du Pont (Carell), the reclusive millionaire who promises to launch him out of Dave’s shadow. These are meaty, nuanced roles, and they’re almost perfectly captured. But like The Master taught me, masterfully telling something unpleasant is still unpleasant, and it can make for a rough couple of hours if you’re too committed to throw the audience a bone. Mark and John are impotently power-obsessed, and the relationship they form is twisted and chilling. Carell is scene-stealingly terrifying as a sort of patriotic, philanthropic Norman Bates, and Tatum his deeply repressed pupil; they’re incredible transformations, believable to the point of being suffocating. We get glimpses of warmth from (an equally fantastic) Ruffalo, but never enough to serve as real relief, especially if you’ve Wikipedia’d how things will eventually go down. The story is almost too crazy to be true, and Miller tells it with a confident voice and remarkable attention to detail. But it’s a cold, uncomfortable experience, and I’m not convinced it drove home a point enough to justify the difficulty. It’s easy to love the craft — the tone lingers for days — but in the moment, it’s tough to enjoy the product.

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

I wanted to write my typical meandering lead-in paragraph to Mockingjay Part 1: mention how the first Hunger Games avoided the “Successful YA Novel Series –> Fan Pandering, Incomplete Films” trap with a premise full of deep possibilities, how its biggest weakness was a refusal to let any interesting dilemmas actually play out, and how rather than getting heavier (see: Harry Potter) the second film took a step backwards towards its lesser fan servicing tendencies. But why bother? It’d be like criticizing Grown Ups 2 for not exploring ennui as deftly as Sideways. Lofty aims are the least of its problems.

I didn’t really expect the Hunger Games series to live up to its (remarkable) potential, but I at least expected it to be fun. Mockingjay Part 1 isn’t fun at all. It isn’t much of anything, really: the entire 2 hour plot could have been squeezed into a 20 minute intro to Part 2. I criticized Catching Fire for focusing on a same-old adventure which never adds up to much, but this film had me begging for another silly puzzle about clocks. A calm-before-the-storm plot would be semi-forgivable if it fleshed it out with strong character moments; here it seems like the only directorial input was “Be one-note and muted…except you, JLaw, you need keep crying so all the fans remember how much you love their favorite character. And if that doesn’t stick, we’ll have a secondary character elaborate on that love out loud.” People appear on screen, pause to let the crowd cheer, then proceed to do nothing with their lives. Dialogue is used as a platform for the characters to blandly run through all the finer points of the story, then remark on how well it ties together with the earlier films. All the interesting ethical questions have been replaced with mediocre teen drama. Which hunk does she truly love more? Can she handle this burden in 20 minute intervals? Will Katniss Everdeen finally become Cat-less Everdeen? I don’t really care anymore. It’s finally embraced the Twilight within, the teenage Jekyll to its smart Sci-Fi Hyde. It’s worse than a blatant cash grab: it’s boring.

Review: The Theory of Everything

Everything about The Theory of Everything should drive me crazy, in theory. You’ve got science reduced to self-explanatory equations and the word “brilliant!” You’ve got a lead character who overcomes great adversity, inevitably garnering the actor praise for his “total transformation.” You’ve got a trailer which manages to shoehorn both shaky-cam-wedding-footage and motivational-speech-with-standing-ovation. And the ultimate trump card: “it’s a true story”, so the cheese is immune to critique. It should be the Lifetime version of A Beautiful Mind. It should be a Jobs you’re not allowed to hate.

But wind back the inspirational speeches and hokey science, and you’ll find an odd, pleasantly small love story. I braced myself for a sledgehammer biopic about Stephen, only to be hit by the nuanced story of Jane; informed by his genius and hardships, but never overshadowed by them. Not that his life is sidelined: Eddie Redmayne gives an enormous performance which, yes, sigh, really ought to be praised as a “transformation.” He’s wonderful. But with a story this powerful, less is more: give it too much weight and it’ll crush everything else beneath its emotional horizon. Instead we watch the bullet points of Hawking’s life in (unexpected) fast-forward, through a character who respects him, roots for him, and is frequently burdened and dismissed by him. His otherwise idolized character is humanized, and occasionally made infuriating, by Felicity Jone’s gaze. Some might be disappointed by that point of view, but I found it fascinating and charming. The film is a little oddly paced, and seemed to cave to melodrama whenever I was about to love it for its restraint. But I liked it quite a bit, warts and all. It had all the sap I expected, but for some reason that didn’t phase me: there’s probably some elegant equation on a blackboard to define that balance. Something about love, black holes, and gravity transcending space and time. Either way, quit criticizing, it’s a true story.

Our review of this, plus a bonus discussion of the glorious absurdity that is Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, at:

Review: Rosewater

I consider myself a huge Daily Show fan, all flaws considered. Not just for the Steve C’s it’s generated, but for the straight-faced foil at the center. Like him or hate him, Jon Stewart has made a mark on the growing media landscape: he makes viral interviews out of typically un-sellable interviewees, exposes hypocrisy in damning clarity, and — by making it “comedy” — convinces disillusioned young people to care. As a sole source of news it’s far from complete. But if I have to choose a bias to sway me, I’ll take this one. Despite every interview Stewart gives to the contrary, there’s clearly a conscientious message underneath: people are people, hyperbole is silly, we owe ourselves better.

Rosewater seems tailor-made to propel that message. It presents the [roughly true] account of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian Newsweek reporter who was sent to Tehran to cover the 2009 Ahmadinejad/Mousavi elections and, after filming the violent protests that followed, was imprisoned as a spy. The film follows his months of interrogation and solitary confinement, as he struggles to find common ground with the fundamentalism of his captors. Fresh after watching Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful Persepolis, I was excited to see more of Iran’s contradictory struggle put to screen. It was clearly a passion project, and I was rooting for it to do something cool.

Ultimately, it just didn’t do much at all. It’s not that it did anything especially wrong; on the contrary, there’s plenty to commend. Stewart’s style was solid for a first-time director, subdued when needed to be but not afraid of the occasional left-field visual touch. Gael Garcia Bernal is always powerful and believable. And the message was on point: no standard xenophobic flourishes, no overly simplistic ideals, refusing to paint Bahari as any stronger than he was. Unfortunately, there’s also a reason most films don’t push for verisimilitude: real life is a mess of competing factors, and it’s really, really hard to make that mess cohere for a bunch of strangers in 2 hours. Great films like Persepolis rise to the occasion and are better for their subtlety, but here nothing seems to sustain momentum: Bernal’s Bahari isn’t notably heroic, his captors aren’t notably evil, his situation isn’t notably hopeless, and his conclusion is sobering and muted. You care, of course, but always at an intellectual level. The stakes are never felt for too long. Which is a shame, because when it loosens up a bit it has moments of genuine greatness. I just wish those moments had more than dry exposition and tempered ideals to tie them together. If you would be unloved and forgotten, be reasonable. God bless you, Rosewater, but you should have aimed higher.

Review: Interstellar

It’s easy to understand the Nolan-haters — the guy’s a walking contradiction. He’s positioned himself as an auteur who can make a film so clever “you probably won’t get it”, but his mainstream sensibilities suggest he’ll absolutely see that you do. He makes films which everyone says aren’t for everyone; crowdpleasers with the added satisfaction of feeling difficult. That’s an art in itself; Inception is that aesthetic taken to an extreme, and I loved it. But like a cocky Bill Hicks describing how he’s probably going to alienate his audience, there’s something frustrating about low-hanging fruit being presented as in-crowd genius. Even if it’s great, you kinda want to punch it in its smug, “meaningful” face.

As a former citizen of Planet Nolan, Interstellar is frustrating to review. Because I see the same forces at play as before, and I get why they should draw me in. There’s so much worth loving about this movie: the unbelievable ambition, the jaw-dropping artwork, the overwhelming score, that timeless quality of practical set pieces on genuine film. It should have been a classic Big Movie; if not challenging like 2001, at least memorable like Contact or Apollo 13 or Close Encounters. It should have been a powerful experience, and for many people I’m sure it will be. For me it was ruined by that smug, “meaningful” face.

Not only is the script offensively bad, it inexplicably puts its weaknesses on a pedestal. The science is par for the course (i.e. silly), but the movie is so devoted to bland overexposition it just begs you to take it seriously. Absolutely terrible dialogue is delivered with they’ll-be-quoting-this-forever grandeur, each lame aphorism treated like manna from Nolan Heaven. The human element is shallow and one-dimensional, yet the entire multi-dimensional sci-fi arc is dismantled to make a pithy statement about love. It’s OK to be corny, but this presents corn as the serious, mind-blowing point, sidestepping the only things that made it good.

I was seriously let down. But it’s a let-down worth experiencing for yourself (and hopefully disagreeing with.) If nothing else, at least you’ll finally understand the mechanics of McConaughey’s “my hero is me in the future” Oscar speech. Ain’t nothin’ but gravity, Murph.

Full (looong) review:

Review: Big Hero 6

When I saw the trailers for Big Hero 6, I had zero desire to seek it out. Techie kid and his giant goofy inflatable friend turn into superheroes? It looked like Disney was trying to cash in on the Marvel magic while simultaneously getting some cheap How To Train Your Dragon boy-and-his-pet cuteness in the mix; but since dogs, dragons, and aliens had already been used, they went for the Michelin Man. Kids won’t care about the particulars, just make sure he falls down a lot and makes funny noises.

I’m glad Chris was adamant about reviewing this film, because it would have been a huge shame to miss. Big Hero 6 was fantastically entertaining — an easy contender with the LEGO movie for my favorite animated film of the year. It centers around Hero, a gifted hacker whose brother urges him to apply to a robotics lab and put his skills towards loftier aims than personal gain. Enter the inflatable Baymax, a robotic nurse with infinite reserves of patience and a refusal to leave til you are satisfied with his treatment. Far from being the contrived Stay Puft Marshmallow Man my knee-jerk cynicism expected, the character is absolutely inspired: he’s earnest, naive, and a constant source of (uncannily accurate) humor about the limits of robotics. The relationship he forms with Hero is on par with any between Toothless and Hiccup, but with an arguably more interesting dynamic: he’s a blank slate, a vehicle for good-intention with no motive. It’s up to Hero to use him for good.

If the relationship is the centerpiece, the supporting details really make the film. The setting, San Fransokyo, is brilliant: what could have been a one-off portmanteau becomes a totally well-defined universe (unlike some other universes depicted in big-budget movies this weekend…). Every detail is carefully considered, and there’s a genuine sense of geography which would put Godzilla to shame. Supporting actors are just barely two-dimensional enough to keep adults laughing while keeping kids entertained, and even if the plot and villains are a little cookie-cutter, the energy and message make it impossible not to root for this film. It’s a charming counterpoint to both the anti-tech activism here and the one-guy’s-violent-genius-makes-him-a-superhero simplicity of the Marvelverse down south. Each character’s talent brings a unique strength to the film, but heroism is about where they choose to put it.

Review: Nightcrawler

“At 4am last night, a carjacking occurred at knifepoint on Olympic and Hanover. The victim is alive but in critical condition, and is currently being held at St. blah blah’s Hospital in…” While the morning newscaster continues her description of a thing that happened while we all were sleeping, we cut to grainy footage of a man on the sidewalk surrounded by paramedics, camera in voyeuristic zoom, lit by an eerie yellow glow. There were no reporters at the scene of the crime, and police are refusing to release additional information. So who was holding the camera? A nightcrawler.

Nightcrawler is one of those rare films which can take a premise you’ve probably never considered and turn it into a gripping narrative. It feels funny to call that kind of basic storytelling “rare”, but when you see it in action you can feel the difference. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an unemployed jack-of-all-trades who discovers the seedy world of amateur crime photojournalism and decides to give it a shot. This entails cruising a streetlamp-lit Los Angeles, camcorder in tow, ready to race across town the moment the police scanner signals a crime grisly enough to film. The premise alone could have made any straightforward procedural pretty strong, but here it’s just the backdrop for an insane character study. Bloom is a sociopath, willing to do absolutely anything to get his footage to the bloodthirsty media, and he’s played incredibly by Gyllenhaal. He doesn’t undergo a classic absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely “descent” into madness: he’s terrible from the very first scene. With violence juxtaposed against nostalgic imagery of the empty streets and an uplifting Lost-in-Translation style soundtrack, the whole thing becomes a twisted, unsettling rags-to-riches story. You hate the protagonist but somehow still want him to succeed, and that makes for a totally compelling experience — even if the final act sacrifices a bit of its edge for thrill.

I didn’t think it was a “brilliant satire of the media” like some are saying — but it’s the coolest L.A. has looked since Drive, and one of the strongest performances of the year.

Review: Birdman

Self conscious irony is a little bit unfair. It can be hilarious, but it sort of casts an invincibility spell on you. If it’s true-to-life, good on you, you’re meta-realism! If it’s broadly painted or overacted, it’s biting satire. If it’s plausible it’s “clever”, if not it’s “brutal”. It’s Stephen Colbert vs Jon Stewart — it doesn’t need to provide hard answers or elaborate on the problem, it just needs to be wrong with a wink. It’s not fair that Birdman is so irresistible. But like Colbert, it takes an unfair advantage and makes it great.

Birdman is the latest film by Alejandro Iñárritu, a satire about art taking itself too seriously by an artist who’s basically the Platonic Ideal of taking oneself too seriously. Michael Keaton (Batman) plays Riggan, a washed-up actor haunted by the shadow of a decades-old superhero franchise, investing the last shred of his star-power in a failing play. Edward Norton (ex-Hulk) plays Mike, a notoriously difficult method actor who is lauded by critics but despised by anyone forced to put up with him. Emma Stone (Spiderman) plays his daughter, who reminds him that nothing he’s done — the play or, especially, a stupid superhero blockbuster — matters. In case this all isn’t meta enough for you yet, Riggan lives in the same world where Robert Downey Jr. played Iron Man, Meg Ryan got a nose job, and his deepest fear is dying in the same plane crash as George Clooney (also Batman), whose obituary will steal all the headlines. Hollywood is a soul-crushing FX machine, and “true art” is made up of demigod-like actors and impossibly spiteful critics. The satire is overwhelming, but not exactly deep.

In the wrong hands, this would have been cute and a little cloying. In Iñárritu’s, it soars as one of the most confident, bombastic films of the year. The satire may not offer a thoughtful point of view, but it’s hilarious and visceral, sold with the perfect balance of seriousness and overacting by its leads. Speaking of things which should have felt gimmicky, the camerawork — which frames the entire film as one long take — is particularly phenomenal, alternating between claustrophobic close-ups and grand, sweeping flights through corridors and windows and New York City streets. Aided by an offbeat drum soundtrack and an unreliably-narrated script which effortlessly shifts between realism and fantasy, the whole thing feels like a sprawling, romantic play. Except it’s nothing like a play. It’s its own unique entity. It’s like Charlie Kauffman and Iñárritu swapped places to tell the same meta-artist story: where Synecdoche New York was bleak and depressing, Birdman is upbeat and untamable. It’s a fantastic film, and if it cheated along the way, that’s fine by me.

Review: Whiplash

In a year which gave us thrillers about missing persons (Gone Girl), WWII tanks (Fury), prison fights (Starred Up), threatened priests (Calvary), distopian uprisings (Snowpiercer), and a giant lizard fighting Walter White (you get it), you’d probably be surprised to learn that the most intense film didn’t involve any gunshots or explosions. It didn’t have any physical violence at all, unless you really want to nitpick. It was about drumming in a jazz band, and not much else.

Whiplash tells the story of Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a student at [basically Juilliard] who wants to become a great jazz drummer. He’s invited to join a competitive studio band whose conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), believes constant stress is the only path to greatness. If that means throwing chairs, spouting misogynistic insults, or forcing students to play the same three bars til their hands bleed, so be it. It’s like Jiro Dreams of Sushi’s nihilist cousin: where Jiro sees greatness as quiet dedication to a craft, Fletcher sees it as a state of constant panic.

Simmons is incredible in this. But for all the terror his performance brings to the table, the deepest stress comes from the musicianship he demands: the focused silence, honed instincts which could crumble from a second of overthinking, Fury tanks of adrenaline forced through a restrained staccato pinhole. It’s a unique brand of anxiety — like public speaking if you weren’t allowed to pause for air, or sports if there were nothing but free throws — and Teller emotes it all in his insane strive for perfection. He’s as monstrous as Simmons, and despite not being a professional drummer, makes entire story arcs rise and fall and rise again within a single drum solo. There’s no way to talk about Whiplash without using jazz lingo: the whole film is pulsing, electrifying, loose and alive with mechanical precision.

It almost gave me a panic attack, and you should definitely see it.