Stephen Miller

Stanford PhD student, person, etc.

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.

Review: John Wick

I think I’ve established by now that I’m not a B-movie guy. If a movie is too “dumb”, I can’t completely get behind it. It doesn’t matter that it was self-consciously dumb; it doesn’t even matter that I had a great time. I can have a great time watching corny reality shows and scrolling through cat GIFs too, but that doesn’t make me want to praise them. Sometimes a movie is just a couple hours of escape, but at its best, it lingers. Adrenaline alone doesn’t stick.

John Wick really puts those convictions to the test. At just over an hour and a half, it’s a lean, well-choreographed killing machine. Someone steals Keanu Reeve’s car and kills his dog. He’s angry, so he’s going to kill a lot of Russians. How many? All of them. Who is he? The guy who just did a backflip over your head, that’s who. Where did he come from? Too late for questions, he already shot you in the face to the rhythm of a thousand Linkin Park power chords. Considering how much world-building potential the film had — with social hierarchies, currencies, and codes of ethics that are hinted at but never explained — it’s clear that being plotless was a stylistic decision, not a necessity. It’s a decision that frees it from all of the groanworthy moments other action flicks feel obligated to squeeze in: theres no night in Gethsemane, no chubby coworker for Denzel to inspire, nothing but bullets and vengeance. That’s a smart trick, which Nicholas Sparks, porn directors, and Mumford and Sons have also learned: drop the difficult stuff and cut to the crescendo. It makes for a pure shot of adrenaline, a return to form for Keanu, and a whole lot of fun in the same way that playing a video game is fun. But it felt a little like cheating.

After technical difficulties made us scrap the entire first recording, Chris, Carson, and I did a much sillier re-review at:

Review: Fury

Call me a buzzkill, but my enjoyment of war movies is nearly always clouded by the message. In my mind there are really only two valid routes to go: War Is Absurd (The Grand Illusion) or War Is Hell (Thin Red Line, The Hurt Locker.) That doesn’t mean they all need to be depressing — Inglourious Basterds certainly wasn’t. But it’s hard to imagine a good reason for them to be uplifting. That point where the music swells, as Mark Wahlberg or Tom Hanks cling to life in slow-mo, feels uncomfortable when I remember the hundred slow-mo-free deaths of cartoon villains it took to get there. Necessary evil or not, the asymmetry between protagonist (for whom we’re spoon-fed infinite reserves of empathy, whatever their flaws) and enemy (for whom, without drastic acts of goodness or the outright betrayal of their leaders, we’re given none) is troubling. It may be true to the characters and the emotions of war, and it may even be beautiful — but it’s hard to want to cheer. I can’t quite express what tone /would/ be appropriate: it’s humanism and nihilism side by side, and it’s complicated. War movies are hard to make, and I’m glad I don’t need to.

David Ayer probably didn’t need to make one either, but here we are. Fury tells the story of a young U.S. soldier (Logan Lerman) on the German front in the final days of World War 2, thrust into a tank commanded by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt). It started out as a seriously promising War Is Hell movie: years of warfare have hardened the crew to barbaric proportions, and life inside the tank seems insane to the innocent recruit. “We’re not here for right and wrong, we’re here to kill Krauts” says Wardaddy, and I was pretty sure the audience was supposed to be terrified of that sentiment. But somewhere along the way the film pivots from War Is Hell to Hell Yeah, and by the Rambo-ish finale it’s hard to know how to feel — it doesn’t come across as a tragedy (innocent recruit becomes hardened) but a coming-of-age story (innocent recruit becomes a man), and the tonal shift is ultra jarring. It could have been great: I thought it captured the claustrophobia of tank warfare extremely well, and the (phenomenal) cast kept the tension cranked to 11 the whole way through. But I’m not sure it had a point. Fury was a tale told for pure adrenaline: full of sound, signifying nothing.

Wolf in White Van

“It was a simple truth, something self-apparent. Something somebody might point out to you in kindergarten: when your dad was little, your grandmother was just his mom. Like looking at a 9 upside-down. I pictured my dad as a teenager: hair combed straight and parted on the side, head cocked at the direction of a portrait studio photographer. Big smile and a far-off gaze. ‘Dad, I am so, so sorry,’ I said, and I could see the distance from the rim of the tower to the ground, all that wasted Kansas plain going on and on forever, soaking up daylight and cooling to an inky black at night that spreads out uninterrupted for so long that eventually you can’t see any tower at all.”

I finished “Wolf In White Van” a little over a week ago, and have been wanting to say something about it ever since. But I keep backing off, because I can’t fit everything I want to say about it in a reasonable form factor. Someone should read it and talk to me about it. Til that happens… “Wolf” tells the story of Sean, a 30-ish year old trauma survivor who operates a text-based adventure game via snail mail. The game details a never-ending quest towards the Trace Italian, a mythical refuge in post-apocalyptic Kansas. As the first-person account works backwards towards an (at first mysterious) accident, both the Trace and its creator become deeply entwined. Post-accident Sean exists in a world comprised of discrete moves and theoretical futures; everything is a jigsaw piece, a series of doors and alleyways, all occupying space. “Like most things [Mom] started to say about the accident, this went nowhere: there were too many places for it to go, so when it opened out onto its great vista of sad possibilities it just rested there, frozen by the view.”

It’s the first full novel by John Darnielle (of The Mountain Goats), and I was amazed at how well his lyrical sensibilities were adapted to prose. It’s gorgeously written. Like his music, “Wolf” imbibes daily struggles with unblinking earnestness and romance, taking wild leaps from realism to fantasy mid-sentence while making perfect emotional sense. There are a handful of passages which blew me away in how well they communicated the feeling of growing up and forgetting, of “belong[ing] to a tiny secret brotherhood of people who’d forgotten something hard.” Engaging, sad, and — like all of his work — extremely hopeful, it’s a book about seeking refuge whether or not refuge can ever be found. Because “It’s really just simple math, the whole of it. There are only two stories: either you go forward or you die.”

I really loved it.

Musical example 1: realism vs romantic fantasy

Musical example 2: loose associations, refocusing

Musical example 3: future possibilities, the dream of escape

Musical example 4: self-seriousness of youth