REVIEW: “Light of My Life” (2019)

LIGHTposter

I’m always drawn to movies that highlight fathers and daughters and explore the dynamics that often define their relationships. You can probably guess why, but movies that do it well really speak to me. Last year it was Debra Granik’s brilliant “Leave No Trace”. This year Casey Affleck’s “Light of My Life” strikes many of the same powerful chords.

Affleck directs, writes, co-produces, and stars in this slow-brewing but intimate survival drama. It uses some of the same elements found in Granik’s film and laces them with the dystopian flavor of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. It’s a compelling stew, but at its core it’s still a story about a dad named Caleb (Affleck) and his daughter Rag (played by impressive newcomer Anna Pniowsky).

The story takes place a decade after a devastating plague has wiped out almost all of the world’s female population. Included among the casualties is Caleb’s wife and Rag’s mom (played in a handful of flashbacks by Elisabeth Moss). Affleck paints a bleak portrait of a world without women. It’s dark, ugly, and on the brink of total collapse.

LIGHT2

In one scene Caleb explains the crumbling world as being unbalanced. An inquisitive Rags asks “When will it be balanced?” Her father can only respond “When there are more women.” It’s all he knows to say. He’s being honest while trying to offer his daughter a glimmer of hope. At the same time he knows the outlook is grim and there is no guarantee that the world will ever be the same again.

Caleb and Rag live along the outskirts of this shell of civilization. Rag’s hair is kept short and she dresses as a boy in order to keep safe. The reasons why are both obvious and ominous, bringing a heightened level of tension and suspicion to every encounter. Affleck’s fierce development of atmosphere and mood causes us to question the motives and intents of every person they meet.

The setting is undeniably dour, but Affleck’s interests are considerably more intimate. As the movie’s title implies, it’s a story about paternal love, the anxieties of parenting, and growing up in unforgiving circumstances. The film tosses aside practically every modern convention and puts an extraordinary amount of time into its two main characters. Take the opening scene where Caleb lays next to Rag telling her a version of Noah’s Ark. It’s a gutsy long take featuring a static camera locked on Affleck and Pniowsky. It may go a hair too long but it’s still an ambitious character-focused approach.

LIGHT3

Elsewhere we get heart-to-heart conversations about mortality, the state of the world, and the difference between morals and ethics. We even get a lighthearted dinner table scene where Caleb awkwardly attempts to cover everything from racism to…(you know)…’THE talk’ all in one uncomfortable sitting. It’s a tender and welcomed moment of levity that shines a light On the fantastic chemistry between Affleck and Pniowsky.

But then you have the film’s dark side vividly seen in its sketch of a male-dominated society. Aside from being a potent metaphor, Affleck’s grim milieu and its undercurrent of savagery makes for some harrowing sequences. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw coats his images in blues, whites, and grays while shooting in a way that highlights the emptiness of the landscapes. And when we do get glimpses of approaching men in the distance it can be genuinely frightening.

At the end of Caleb’s Noah’s Ark story Rag challenges her father “You said it would be about the girl, why do you keep talking about the boy? You can’t miss the subtle indictment in light of how male-centered our perspectives can be. And considering this is a movie about a father driven to shield his daughter from aggressive men, you can’t help but wonder if this is Affleck dealing with his past transgressions. It’s hard to say, but the film’s message is forceful, its approach is thoughtful, and its storytelling is raw and unflinching. It’s sure to be too slow for some and too gloomy for others. I fell in with its rhythm and found plenty of heart to light a path through the darkness.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Interstellar”

INTER Poster

While some people may not love his movies, even they would have to admit that Christopher Nolan is a cinematic artist who has given us a number of movies known for their artistry and uniqueness. Personally I find myself smitten with every feature he brings to the screen. Nolan creates experiences. Through breathtaking visuals and challenging narratives, he takes his audiences places that must be navigating by the senses AND the intellect. I think he is a brilliant filmmaker, but even the greats sometimes miss the mark. There have been a lot of mixed opinions about Nolan’s latest work “Interstellar”. Is this his first shoot and miss?

Much of “Interstellar’s” divisiveness is rooted in extremely high expectations and/or the audiences’ willingness to not just quickly consume the film’s themes but to chew and meditate on them. It’s a film rich with ideas and questions, some of which are only barely touched on but which are still relevant and worth our attention. “Interstellar” is also soaked in science, not in the arrogant or haughty sense, but in a way that convincingly melds science fiction and reputable theory. It’s also ripe with emotion, something that I never expected going into it. In other words it’s a movie with a number of different components but none of which conflict thanks the masterful control Nolan has of his material.

Inter1

I firmly believe that the less you know about “Interstellar” going in the better. But to offer a little about its story, Matthew McConaughey plays a widowed ex-NASA pilot named Cooper who now runs a farm with his father-in-law, teenaged son, and 10-year-old daughter. It’s the future and times are hard for the human race. A devastating blight has ravaged crops and able farmers have become more valuable than pilots or engineers. Government programs like NASA and the military have been abandoned and the focus put on the urgent need of food. In reality Earth’s plight is incurable and Cooper is recruited by an old acquaintance Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to head a space expedition to find a habitable planet. But it would require Cooper to leave what he holds dearest in order to potentially save it.

Nolan takes his time developing his scenarios and his characters. It starts with McConaughey and his fabulous performance. His weather-worn face and calloused hands puts him right at home on the dustbowl that Earth has become. McConaughey has a natural and magnetic presence that helps him sell every scene he’s in. It may be a poignant scene with his young daughter Murphy (remarkably played by Mackenzie Foy) or a vigorous debate with a room of physicists. I connected with his character early on and stayed invested until the end.

There is also a host of fantastic supporting work. Anne Hathaway is great as Professor Brand’s daughter and fellow scientist. I also enjoyed David Gyasi as a physicist who joins the expedition. And later on Jessica Chastain appears and gives a performance that grounds and emotionally energizes the second half of the film. Once again she is fabulous. Other castings that I really liked included John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, David Oyelowo, and Ellen Burstyn. Only one performance stuck out like a sore thumb. Neither Topher Grace nor his character ever quite fit.

INTER2

But just having a great cast isn’t good enough. There has to be good material for them to work with and Christopher Nolan, along with his brother Jonathan, provide it. Their script pulls influence everywhere from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Alien”. From “Metropolis” to “Wall-E”. Yet despite that “Interstellar” is uniquely Nolan’s. Like many of his films it is cinematic brain food. It challenges us on a personal level by looking at our decisions and their consequences. It looks at self-sacrifice and the costs that some pay. It also challenges us on a philosophical level. What is our purpose of being? What is our place in the world?

And as I mentioned earlier there is a lot of science. This leaks into one of the complaints I’ve read in several places. Many count the film’s numerous science-laced conversations as a flaw. Some have seen them as nothing more than convoluted exposition. I couldn’t disagree more. Exposition is filling in gaps with back story or explanation and there is certainly some of that. But so many of the conversations center around the peril the characters are in and ways to handle it. They are dealing with unknowns, not providing filler. And of course I didn’t understand all of the talk about quantum physics, relativity, singularities, etc., but I believed it because the characters believed it and were passionate in their conversations about it. I bought into them so their knowledge was all I needed.

And then there is the emotional component of it. Surprisingly “Interstellar” is a film so full of emotion and some have had a hard time connecting with it. That’s a shame because emotion is the centerpiece of the film. At the core of “Interstellar” lies the one human force that transcends time and space. This is a movie about love. And it actually dares to be unashamedly sentimental, something else that many have viewed as a flaw. Again, I couldn’t disagree more. That’s because none of the heavy emotional scenes (all connected to the central theme of love) feel false or fabricated. In fact on several occasions I found myself deeply effected and more than once I was wiping tears from my cheeks. To add some perspective, that is very rare for me. But that’s not the only human side we see. Selfishness, cowardice, and deception all show their heads. Some at odds with love. Others born out of a twisted form of love.

inter3

It should go without saying that “Interstellar” looks and sounds amazing. Whether it’s the dry, abrasive, decaying Earth ushering in mankind’s extinction or space and its beautiful palette of stars, planets, clusters, and wormholes, the film offers a number of stunning effects and visual treats. It’s never as spectacular as last year’s “Gravity” but it’s equally impressive. There is a style employed that reminded me of real archived footage. It made many of the sequences all the more immersive. I also loved the use of sound from the space ambiance to Hans Zimmer’s precise score. “Interstellar” is a technical delight.

So why is “Interstellar” a divisive film? I can see a few areas where some may struggle with it. Some may find it too talky. Some may find it to confusing. Some may find it too sentimental. I respect those criticisms yet disagree with each of them. “Interstellar” is a space opera that is inspired by many films but it lays its own course. It’s a contemplative adventure and an emotional exploration that captivated me from its opening moments. More than that, it is one of the deepest and most moving experiences I’ve ever had with a film. It challenged me to self-reflect. It asked questions that I’m still tossing around in my head. It entertained me in a way that few movies of the last decade have. In a nutshell “Interstellar” is the reason I love movies and I can see this film becoming one of my favorites of all-time. Boring, overly sentimental, convoluted? No way. It’s a graceful, stimulating, a beautiful movie that gave me a motion picture experience I won’t soon forget.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M