DUNKIRK (2017) – Innovative Movie Brings Miraculous World War II Rescue to Life

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dunkirk-movie-poster

Forget everything you know about traditional storytelling.

DUNKIRK (2017), the new World War II movie by writer/director Christopher Nolan, changes the rules and then some.

As he has been known to do in the past, Christopher Nolan tells this story in a nonlinear fashion, and he does it with a minimum of dialogue and character development.  Yet, the film doesn’t suffer for it.  Nolan has called DUNKIRK his most experimental film, and I would have to agree.

In an interview, Nolan described the soldiers’ experiences at Dunkirk in three parts: those on the beach were there a week, the rescue on the water took a day, and the planes in the air had fuel for one hour.  To tell this story,  Nolan separates it into these three parts- the week on the beach, the day at sea, and the crucial hour in the air, but he does this in a nonlinear fashion, meaning all three events are shown happening concurrently and interspersed with each other.  Surprisingly, the result isn’t confusing. Instead, this bold use of time generates heightened tension and maximum suspense.

DUNKIRK tells the amazing story of the rescue of 338,000 British soldiers from the French port town of Dunkirk in events which transpired from May 26 – June 4, 1940.  The soldiers were surrounded by German forces and the only escape was by sea, which was covered by German planes.  In effect, there was no escape.

However, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius, instead of sending the navy, the British authorities sent out a call for civilian ships to go to Dunkirk, which they did and they miraculously rescued the soldiers.  The smaller civilian ships had the advantage of being able to navigate the shallow waters off the beaches of Dunkirk.  And while militarily speaking Dunkirk was a massive failure, one big surrender and escape mission, in terms of morale, it became a major turning point in the war.  Had the British soldiers been captured, Germany would have advanced, most likely on their way to a successful invasion of Great Britain.  But the soldiers escaped to fight another day, and Churchill turned the event on its head, claiming a moral victory and using it to espouse the spirit of resistance.

On land, the movie follows a young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on the beaches of Dunkirk as he attempts with his fellow soldiers to survive long enough to be rescued.  On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) set off in their small ship to Dunkirk to assist with the rescue.  And in the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) do their best to fend off the German planes long enough for the rescue to be a success.

It’s a dramatic yet simple story told in an innovative way by Christopher Nolan. While my favorite Christopher Nolan film remains THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) a close second, his work here on DUNKIRK rivals both these movies.

Of course, the film that set the bar for war movies remains Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).  Is DUNKIRK as disturbing as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN?  No, but it doesn’t have to be.  It’s an effective movie in its own right.

And while the opening moments of DUNKIRK are not as in-your-face horrific as the opening in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, it’s still intense and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.  Young Tommy’s early escapes from death are riveting and tense.  The film is rated PG-13 and as such you won’t see much bloodshed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  R-rated movies these days use CGI blood which often looks fake. There’s nothing fake looking about DUNKIRK.  It all looks very real.

Christopher Nolan purposely chose unknown actors to portray the soldiers on the beach, and there is a minimal of dialogue.  We learn nothing about Tommy’s background, and he and his fellow soldiers do little more than looked dazed, exhausted, and frightened, which is exactly how they are supposed to look.  In most other movies, this lack of character development and lack of dialogue would be troubling, but not so here.  Here in DUNKIRK it comes off as authentic and real.

As such, Fionn Whitehead is effective and believable as Tommy, a character we know little about but we still want him to survive.  All we need to know is he’s on that beach and needs to get home.  In this situation, that’s enough to make his character work.

Aneurin Barnard is equally as good as Gibson, a French soldier Tommy befriends as they try to escape.  Since Gibson is French and speaks no English, he speaks in the movie even less than Tommy.  One Direction band member Harry Styles plays Alex, a soldier Tommy and Gibson rescue.  Styles gives Alex more personality than any other soldier in the film, and he makes Alex a cynical young man who gives away Gibson’s secret, that he is a French soldier impersonating a British one in order to be rescued by the British.

The folks on the boat probably deliver the best performances in the movie.  Mark Rylance is excellent as Mr. Dawson, the man who we learn later lost a son to the war and seems to embrace this mission as a way to save all his other “sons.”  Tom Glynn-Carney as Dawson’s son Peter and Barry Keoghan as Peter’s friend George also have some fine moments.

And Cillian Murphy is very good as the first soldier rescued by Dawson.  Shell-shocked, he resists their attempt to go to Dunkirk to rescue more soldiers.  He does not want to go back, as he is convinced they will die.

Once again, Tom Hardy is playing a role with a minimum of dialogue and with his face covered.  I’m starting to get used to Hardy playing roles where we can’t see his face, from Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) to Mad Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015). As pilot Farrier he only has a handful of lines here.  But that doesn’t stop Hardy from delivering a memorable performance.

Jack Lowden is also very good as Farrier’s fellow pilot Collins.

And while he’s not in the movie a whole lot, Kenneth Branagh also makes his mark as the well-respected Commander Bolton.

In another buck of traditional storytelling, there isn’t a major woman character to be found, but again, it doesn’t hurt this powerhouse movie.

There are a lot of riveting sequences. Tommy’s initial escape from German soldiers gets the film off to a tense start. The sequence where Tommy, Gibson and Alex hide out in an abandoned ship stranded on the beach during low tide just before it is used as target practice by the German soldiers is as suspenseful as it gets.

Scenes of ships being bombed and sunk are harrowing and cinematic.  And the editing during the climactic sequence is second to none.  It’s one of the more suspenseful last acts to a movie I’ve seen in a while.

Nolan also makes full use of sound.  When the planes attack, the sound effects are loud and harsh.  They make you want to cover your ears.  In short, during the battle scenes in DUNKIRK, the audience truly feels as if they are part of the battle.  You’ll want to duck for cover.

Sure, I could have used a bit more dialogue and character development.  Perhaps that would have made this movie perfect for me.  But as it stands, it’s still a pretty remarkable film.

DUNKIRK is a harrowing adventure, a rousing look at a pivotal moment in history, a rescue that had it not happened, would have changed the future of western civilization because the Nazis most likely would have conquered England and France, and who knows what would have happened after that.

But that’s not what happened, thanks to the herculean efforts of hundreds of civilians and their small ships, who against all odds rescued 338,000 trapped British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

DUNKIRK tells this improbable story in mind-bending fashion, thanks to the innovative efforts of Christopher Nolan, one of the most talented writer/directors working today.

It’s history brought to life by a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.

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YOUR MOVIE LISTS: THE AVENGERS MOVIES

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YOUR MOVIE LISTS:  Marvel’s THE AVENGERS Movies avengers-age-of-ultron

By Michael Arruda

Welcome to another edition of YOUR MOVIE LISTS, the column where you’ll find lists of odds and ends about movies.  Today we’re looking at Marvel’s THE AVENGERS Movies.

 

Wait a minute.  Isn’t AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015) which opens in theaters on May 1 only the second AVENGERS movie?  Technically, yes, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON is only the first sequel to THE AVENGERS (2012)  but anyone who’s seen THE AVENGERS knows there are a lot of superheroes in this movie, and each of them have appeared in prior films leading up to these AVENGERS adventures.

Here’s a look at these movies:

IRON MAN (2008) – The film that started the AVENGERS journey.  Phenomenal movie, probably my third favorite superhero movie of all time, behind THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and THE AVENGERS (2012).  This is the film that introduced us to Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark aka Iron Man, one of the most entertaining and fascinating superhero personas ever.  Directed by Jon Favreau, this is a worthy film to kick off the franchise.  Also introduced Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, as well as first appearance by Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008) – Edward Norton makes for a credible and intense Bruce Banner aka The Hulk, and Tim Roth is even better as the main baddie.  Excellent movie, much better than Marvel’s previous HULK (2003).

IRON MAN 2 (2010) – Robert Downey Jr. is back as Tony Stark/Iron Man, as is director Jon Favreau, but this sequel is inferior to the first film and never really hits its stride.  Most notable for introducing Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.  Both Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson return for this sequel.

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) – Chris Evans is perfectly cast as Captain America in this handsomely filmed origin tale of the World War II superhero.  Nice IRON MAN tie-in as story features Tony Stark’s dad Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper).  Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury.  Well-made adventure, solid from beginning to end.

THOR (2011) – Uneven but colorful film by director Kenneth Branagh.  The best part of this Thor origin story is Chris Hemsworth as Thor.  He’s phenomenal and provides this one with its best moments.  The scenes on Earth work better than the scenes on Asgard.  On hand once more are Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson.  The first appearance by Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye.

THE AVENGERS (2012) – The biggie.  Arguably the best superhero movie ever made, although I give a slight nod to Christopher Nolan’s Batman masterpiece THE DARK KNIGHT.  This epic film by writer/director Joss Whedon brings together Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye as they battle Thor’s troublemaker brother Loki.  Fantastic cast includes Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner, each doing their thing, each incredibly entertaining, especially since they don’t get along for anything and sound more like a bickering family than a group of superfriends.

Mark Ruffalo takes over the role of Bruce Banner/the Hulk from Edward Norton and does a fine job, immediately making the role his own.  Also features Samuel J. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson.

If there’s one weakness, it’s that Loki is a somewhat lame villain.  The Avengers deserve a worthier foe.

Still, THE AVENGERS is grand entertainment from beginning to end, by far the best of the Marvel superhero movies.

IRON MAN 3 (2013) – Robert Downey Jr.’s third turn as Iron Man is better than the second film but not as good as the first.  The twist involving the villain Mandarin may not be for everybody, but all in all this is a very entertaining superhero film, a worthy installment in the IRON MAN franchise.  Gwyneth Paltrow, who has played Tony Stark’s love interest Pepper Potts in all three IRON MAN films, probably enjoys her best moments in this third film.

THOR:  THE DARK WORLD (2013) – Chris Hemsworth as Thor is once again the best part of this THOR sequel.  As in the first movie, the scenes on Earth are compelling while the fantasy-injected scenes on Asgard in spite of their dazzling look fail to resonate.  The villains here are Dark Elves.  They should have stuck to baking cookies.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – This Captain America sequel is even better than the first.  This time Captain America (Chris Evans) teams with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) as he becomes a fugitive from the law while investigating the “murder” of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  Darker entry than the first film, this Captain America sequel is yet another high quality well-made Marvel superhero movie.

AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON (2015) – With writer/director Joss Whedon back at the helm, all your favorite Avengers return for this action packed sequel where Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye take on the all-powerful Ultron, voiced with nasty conviction by James Spader.  Topnotch cast includes Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.  Also introduces Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch.

Okay, that about wraps things up here and brings us up to date, but the story is not yet finished, not by a long shot.  Marvel has more adventures planned.  It looks like another Captain America film will be out in 2016 followed by another Thor movie in 2017.  And of course, the Avengers will be back in their own third movie, so as of right now, all is well with the Marvel universe, and since these movies continue to provide quality entertainment, that’s fine with me.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Best Movies of 2014

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GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY poster- my pick for the second best movie of the year.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY poster- my pick for the second best movie of the year.

BEST MOVIES OF 2014

By

Michael Arruda

 

Here’s my list for the Top 10 Best Films that I saw in 2014.

 

10 – JERSEY BOYS – Clint Eastwood’s film version of the popular musical about the life of singer Frankie Valli.

9 – CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE WINTER SOLDIER – I love the Marvel superhero movies, and I enjoyed this Captain America sequel more than the original.

8 – EDGE OF TOMORROW – I really enjoyed this science fiction tale starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.  Clever, creative, and so much more than just a science fiction variation of the GROUNDHOG DAY gimmick.

7 – THE BABADOOK – creepy horror film most notable for me for its lack of false scares.  Nearly every fright in this one is genuine.

6 – THE QUIET ONES– this horror film by Hammer Films about a college professor trying to disprove a demonic possession case didn’t do well at the box office but it really is an intelligently made horror movie that is as eerie as it is thought-provoking.

5 – NIGHTCRAWLER –slick thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a sociopath named Louis Bloom who spends his evenings stealing scrap metal and other items in order to sell them and make some cash, before deciding to become a photographer for the nightly news.  This high-energy thriller came out of nowhere this year, as I had heard very little about it, and then suddenly there it was.

Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a phenomenal performance, as he gives the main character Louis such tremendous energy and vitality that everything he does, no matter how outlandish, you believe it.  He also makes Louis likable, which is no easy task.  NIGHTCRAWLER also has a lot to say about today’s media, as the television news station continues to buy Louis’s videos, even when they know he’s manipulating events to get the footage.  It’s all about ratings!

NIGHTCRAWLER is a high octane thriller that features an outstanding performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.  It’s not to be missed.

 

4 – GONE GIRL – superior thriller in which nearly everything works, thanks to director David Fincher. It features a terrific performance by Ben Affleck, and an even better one by Rosamund Pike.  The story of a husband blamed for his wife’s disappearance starts out as a straightforward thriller but there’s oh-so-much-more going on here, with twists and turns you’ll no doubt won’t see coming.  The other thing I really liked about this movie was that three of the main characters were women, and that’s not something you see every day, unfortunately.  There was Rosamund Pike as the missing wife Amy Dunne, Carrie Coon as Ben Affleck’s sister, Margo, and Kim Dickens as the hard-nosed Detective Rhonda Boney, and all three of these performers are excellent.

3 – THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY – a deliciously smart and enjoyable feel-good movie starring Helen Mirren, THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY tells the story of an Indian family led by its patriarch, Papa (Om Puri), that relocates to France where they open an Indian restaurant 100 feet across the street from the most popular eatery in the area, a fine French restaurant owned by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).  The comedy stems from Mallory’s and Papa’s efforts to continually try to one-up the other, and things grow more complicated when Papa’s son Hassan (Manish Dayal), who he promotes as the finest Indian chef in the land, turns to Madame Mallory for training so he can become an even better chef.  Everything works in this movie, as it has terrific acting, a top-notch directorial effort by director Lasse Hallstrom, and an excellent script by Steven Knight.  Just don’t see it on an empty stomach.  The dishes in this flick are absolutely delectable.

My favorite feel-good movie of the year, featuring some of the most mouth-watering dishes you’ll see in a movie.

 

2 – GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – the most fun at the movies I had this year, this is one of the best superhero movies ever made, and it’s hilarious to boot.

I loved this movie! The humor was spot-on, thanks to a hilarious script by Nicole Perlman and director James Gunn, and the performances were all top-notch, from Chris Pratt in the lead role of Peter Quill, “Star Lord,” Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, and the voice talents of Bradley Cooper as Rocket and Vin Diesel as Groot.  There hasn’t been a superhero group like this since The Avengers, and these guys are more fun!  If there were an Island for Misfit Superheroes, these guys would be on it.

There was pretty much nothing I didn’t like about this film, and in terms of all-time great superhero movies, it’s up there with THE AVENGERS (2012), IRON MAN (2008), and THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), but what I think makes this one so special is just how light and funny it is without sacrificing the integrity of the superhero story.  It’s not mindlessly stupid.  On the contrary, it’s intelligently funny.

 

It also has an amazing soundtrack.

 

1 -INTERSTELLAR – My pick for the Number 1 film of 2014 is INTERSTELLAR, Christopher Nolan‘s ambitious big budget science fiction thriller which one day may rank as one of the all-time great science fiction films.  It stars Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut who leaves his family and travels to the far reaches of space in a desperation mission to find a habitable planet on which to relocate the human race because Earth is dying due to a lack of food.

For me, INTERSTELLAR was a near perfect film.  It had everything:  acting, direction, script, pacing, twists and turns, but by far the best part for me was that it tackled some truly big ideas:  it dealt with worm holes, the theory of relativity, time travel, black holes, and what happens when someone enters a black hole.  It remained intelligent enough throughout to keep its science fiction believable.  It also scored high with its human element, as the tale of McConaughey’s character Hooper’s plight to return home to his family no matter what was a winner and grabbed me from the get-go.  It also had an excellent cast led by McConaughey that also featured Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Michael Caine, and John Lithgow.

Of all the films I saw in 2014, INTERSTELLAR was the most satisfying.

 

So, there you have it, my picks for the best films that I saw in 2014.

Next time I’ll share my list for the worst films that I saw in 2014.

Until then, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

INTERSTELLAR (2014) – Science Fiction at its Best

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interstellar - posterMovie Review:  INTERSTELLAR (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

INTERSTELLAR, the latest film by writer/director Christopher Nolan of THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy fame is an instant classic, not only one of the best movies of the year, but also destined to be one of the all-time classic science fiction films ever made.  No kidding!

INTERSTELLAR takes place in the not too distant future, a time when Earth is in crisis due to a shortage of food.  People work as farmers, because the need for food is so great, even though the soil is dying, and the time is coming when the Earth will no longer be able to sustain life.

 Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut/pilot who now works as a farmer, and he’s none too happy about it.  He has to raise his children on his own, as his wife recently died from cancer, and he receives some help from his father, Donald (John Lithgow).  Through an odd series of events, Cooper and his young daughter Murph find themselves inside a secret NASA base in which Cooper is reunited with his former professor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

Professor Brand informs Cooper that NASA is secretly working on a plan to save the human race.  A worm hole has been discovered near Saturn, and Brand reports that they have already sent manned space crafts through the worm hole in search of other habitable planets.  Now they need to send a new mission to seek out those previous missions in order to learn which planets if any are inhabitable.  Brand wants Cooper to pilot the mission.

Cooper decides to go, against the wishes of his ten year-old daughter Murph, and even though he promises her that he will come back, she doesn’t believe him.  Cooper leads the mission through the worm hole, and in a race against time, as their voyage through time and space will take years, they attempt to find a new planet able to sustain human life and then get the word back to Earth before the planet dies.

INTERSTELLAR is a compelling, exciting movie that works on multiple levels.  It contains enough big ideas and gets enough of the science right to succeed as an exemplary work of science fiction, and it also scores high with the human element, as it contains major conflicts for nearly every character in the film to overcome.  It also works as a melodrama, as it tells a riveting and oftentimes suspenseful story.  It’s visually very satisfying, it contains great acting from nearly everyone involved, and it has a fantastic script by brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan.  And oh yeah, there’s the work of its talented director, Christopher Nolan.

Some of the ideas explored in INTERSTELLAR include worm holes, black holes, the theory of relativity, and time travel.  The worm hole is the plot device which sets the story in motion, as it allows our astronauts to travel impossible distances through space in one lifetime.  The theory of relativity also takes a prominent role in the story, as on certain planets years pass by as mere hours.  Spend a few hours on the planet, and back on earth two decades pass.  These are highly interesting topics, and they’re handled in this movie by screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan with near perfection.  The science isn’t dumbed down to the point where it plays as theatrical fantasy, nor is it so highbrow that it flies over our heads.  It strikes a nice balance.

Like last year’s GRAVITY (2013) it also gets the silence of space right, as scenes of space travel are shot in eerie silence.

Only the dealing with the black hole gave me pause— at first.  The fate of someone entering a black hole is most likely death, and anything else seems somewhat less than believable, but since the truth is, we really don’t know what happens inside a black hole, there are certain creative privileges that go hand in hand with this subject.  In other words, until there is definitive scientific proof of what really happens inside a black hole, writers can get away with certain creative indulgences, as long as they remain believable.  What happens inside the black hole in INTERSTELLAR ultimately passes the believability test.

Nearly every character in INTERSTELLAR has a major conflict to overcome.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in addition to trying to save the human race (yeah, that’s a biggie!) also wants to make good on his promise to his children that he will indeed return home.  Fellow astronaut Brand (Anne Hathaway), Professor Brand’s daughter, is in love with one of the astronauts from the previous mission and thus is biased about travelling to his planet.  Cooper’s adult daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) desperately wants to prove that her father didn’t lie to her, that he really planned to complete his mission and return home to her.  Professor Brand (Michael Caine) in spite of his herculean humanitarian effort is harboring a terrible secret.  It’s one of the reasons INTERSTELLAR remains compelling for all of its 169 minutes running time, because nearly every character has a conflict to work through.

Another reason it remains enthralling is it doesn’t play like a cold stoic science fiction tale.  INTERSTELLAR is a heartfelt melodrama, with characters you truly care about placed in some very dangerous and life threatening situations.  There are also some exciting scenes of suspense, including a fierce fight on an ice planet, and a nail biting sequence involving an impossible space docking maneuver on an out-of-control space station.

Matthew McConaughey leads the very talented cast with another neat performance, this time as Cooper, the former astronaut who makes the bold choice to pilot a ship through a wormhole into the unknown in order to save humankind, all the while believing in the improbable, that he’ll be able to make it back home alive.

Jessica Chastain is equally as good as Cooper’s adult daughter Murph, albeit her screen time is much smaller than McConaughey’s, but it is these two characters who drive this story along.

Anne Hathaway is also excellent as fellow astronaut and scientist Brand, as is Michael Caine as her father Professor Brand.  Throw in John Lithgow as Cooper’s father Donald, Casey Affleck as Cooper’s adult son Tom, and a few other familiar faces, including a major star who appears unbilled, and you have the makings for a phenomenal cast.

Visually, INTERSTELLAR is impressive and doesn’t disappoint.  Director Christopher Nolan fills this one with memorable scenes and images.  Even better is the screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan.  Everything seems to work.  I was hooked within the first few minutes and remained so for the nearly three hours the movie took to reach its conclusion.  It’s Nolan’s most satisfying film since THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

Still, it’s not perfect.  The logic behind the appearance of the worm hole, for example, doesn’t exactly hold up to scrutiny, and a key scene where Cooper attempts to communicate across dimensions to his daughter had me scratching my head.

But these are minor quibbles.

INTERSTELLAR is a superior science fiction movie.  It’s better than the recent science fiction efforts like GRAVITY (2013) and PROMETHEUS (2012), and it deserves to be included in the conversation with some of the all-time greats, films like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).

One of the best movies of the year, INTERSTELLAR is one voyage you definitely do not want to miss.

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