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Interstellar, Nightcrawler and Whiplash

November 15, 2014



2014 is shaping up to be a very good year for movies. I’ve seen three films in the past few weeks that I’m just getting around to writing about—Interstellar, Nightcrawler & Whiplash—and two of them blew me away. Wanna guess which one didn’t? The one that tried the hardest to blow me away.

Interstellar is nothing if not ambitious. It’s also brutally slow. It takes forever to get off the ground, literally and figuratively. Once Matthew McConaughey—who’s coasting on his McConnaissance momentum here (he’s just all right, all right, all right)—finally blasts off into space, nearly an hour into this nearly three-hour slog, the movie creeps to a crawl. On one of the planets he and annoyingly plucky fellow astronaut Anne Hathaway visits, an hour is said to last seven years. This movie feels the same way.

It helps when Jessica Chastain shows up more than halfway through, because, let’s face it, Jessica Chastain makes everything better. But while Christopher Nolan creates some stunning visuals, his script (cowritten with his brother Jonathan) reads like conversations one might have over a bong in a college dorm. Is love the only force stronger than time and space? Do we really need to hear Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” poem recited four times? Interstellar doesn’t go gentle, or quickly. By the end, it devolves into a puddle of metaphysical gobbledygook.

But I’m not a sci-fi guy, so maybe Interstellar‘s appeal was lost on me. I prefer realism—gritty, grounded realism, which is why I loved every minute of Nightcrawler and Whiplash. Both revolve around obsessive characters: a freelance videographer (Jake Gyllenhaal, never better) who will stop at nothing to get the if-it-bleeds-it-leads shot and an up-and-coming jazz drummer (Miles Teller, who may be America’s finest young actor) who plays til his fingers (and other body parts) bleed, all to please the most terrifying of music-school taskmasters (J.K. Simmons, in his scariest work since he played neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger on Oz).

Both films, by neophyte directors (Nightcrawler‘s Dan Gilroy and Whiplash‘s Damien Chazelle), are every bit as visually intoxicating as Interstellar. But it’s the stories, and the characters, that really draw us in. Each one deals with a twisted kind of love affair—between Teller’s and Simmons’ hell-bent-for-glory hounds and between Gyllenhaal’s beyond socially awkward Lou and a barracuda-like TV news producer (Rene Russo, in a welcome and long-overdue return to the screen for real-life husband Gilroy).

The musical scenes in Whiplash are so thrillingly shot and edited, they play like action sequences. Nightcrawler has its share of action, but its most hypnotic elements are the eyes of its characters, all of which seem red-rimmed from lack of sleep and reflective, as if there’s no way to penetrate what’s behind them. Interstellar washes over you like one of those giant waves in the trailers, but it never grabs you and shakes you up like Whiplash and Nightcrawler do. They prove you don’t have to go into outer space to be truly out-of-this-world.

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