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Small step for Hero, Interstellar takes a leap

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BIG HERO 6. If the movie were more captivating, with a story that rose occasionally above boiler-plate predictability, I might not have been so distracted by the 2-year-old tirelessly running and screaming in the front row. But Big Hero 6 wasn't enough.

In nearish-future San Fransokyo — a thinly veiled San Francisco where everybody has a Japanese-derived name — adolescent Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) squanders his genius for robotics running the grift at back alley "Bot Fights," much to the chagrin of his studious older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney). Flighty Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) is a loving if ineffectual stand-in for the boys' parents, who died a decade earlier. To convince him to put his formidable talents to better use, Tadashi gives Hiro a tour of the technological institute he attends. There, Hiro meets a collection of eccentric geniuses, each with his or her own particular skillset — see where this is going? Hiro flips for the out-there tech in the lab, and avuncular Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell) invites him to apply to the program. Of course, his application will take the form of a live presentation at the school's annual robotics competition. Not surprisingly, Hiro's invention — "microbots" — puts everybody else to shame, and he's a shoo-in to become the institute's youngest student. As he and Tadashi are leaving the event, though, a fire breaks out. Tadashi rushes to Callaghan's aid, only to perish in the blaze.

After the funeral, Hiro is too grief-stricken to do much of anything, least of all attend the college whose campus still rings with the voice of his dead brother. When he rediscovers Tadashi's final project, a sort of inflatable robot nurse named Baymax (Scott Adsit), he gets a little spring back in his step. And when he finds out a villain in a trench coat and a kabuki mask is mass-producing microbots, he becomes singularly focused. Enlisting the aid of Baymax and the aforementioned quirky nerds, Hiro assembles the titular crew, with sinister Kabuki guy in the crosshairs.

To its credit, Big Hero 6 approaches adolescent grief head-on, giving Hiro some pretty authentic (if PG-rated) reactions to growing up without parents, then losing his brother/role model/best/only friend. His depression in the wake of Tadashi's tragic death is palpable, if conveniently short-lived. And his transition to anger and wrath upon finding someone to blame has the sort of pressure-relief intensity of real life. Unfortunately, those flashes of genuine emotion, set as they are against a bright, vividly detailed imaginary world, are hobbled by rote storytelling and characterization. The twist and the reveal in the third act aren't likely to surprise, and the supporting characters don't really live beyond bullet-point description. The most engaging among them is probably Baymax, but mostly because he serves as a mirror for and foil to Hiro's emotional reactions to trauma.

Big Hero 6 is good looking and colorful, as one expects from a Disney-Marvel venture. But it never transcends its own glossiness, except in brief, emotional moments that only highlight its general superficiality. PG. 108m.

INTERSTELLAR. This late-period Christopher Nolan (Inception, the Dark Knight trilogy) project starts off slowly, moodily. Like watching a spacecraft leaving Earth's orbit, one can feel the immense undertaking, the sheer power required to get the thing moving. It's slow and ponderous at first, occasionally a little awkward, but once in its element (in this case, it takes 45 minutes to an hour), it moves with astounding grace.

Decades after the onset of a global food crisis and the subsequent dissolution of most of the world's armies and infrastructure, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) works on a struggling farm somewhere in middle-America. He's a former NASA pilot, a trained engineer and a father raising two children after the death of his wife. With starvation an imminent danger and flight a distant memory, his primary skill-sets have limited applications. Until he and his 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) follow some cryptic coordinates to what remains of NORAD. There, Cooper is convinced to join a last-ditch effort to save humanity by searching for habitable planets beyond our solar system.

We all know this much about Interstellar from the trailers. To paraphrase badly, that is all we know on Earth and all we need know. The real meat of the story, the stuff that gives it momentum and impact, takes place in the second and third acts and isn't even hinted at in the promotional material. And I'm not going to be the one to spoil the surprise, especially because it worked so well on me.

Some will complain about the intellectal gamesmanship of the brothers Nolan (Jonathan writes with Christopher): the way they nerd out on space science, then try to explain it to the rest of us. But more power to them. For forgiving the few elements of Interstellar that feel slightly forced, we receive the gift of a hugely ambitious, atmospheric and painstakingly planned and crafted movie experience. Nolan has somehow, from the ashes of the Hollywood system, managed a career of largest-scale, old-school moviemaking. He creates beautiful works of imagination dressed as commercial art. Even if I didn't like Interstellar as much as I do, which is quite a lot, I would still applaud its grand ambition and execution. PG13. 169m.

— John J. Bennett


BEYOND THE LIGHTS. Depressed pop star and a cop fall in love. PG13. 116m.

BIRDMAN. Michael Keaton goes meta in a comedy about an actor who once played a superhero. R. 120m.

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE. African-American college students stir things up at an ivy-league school in this "post-racial" satire. R. 108m.

DUMB AND DUMBER TO. The boys and their bad hair are back to find a long-lost daughter. PG13. 109m.


ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY. A luckless kid helps his normally lucky family. PG. 81m.

THE BOOK OF LIFE. Zoe Saldana and Diego Luna voice an animated adventure that's not as rich as its visuals. PG13. 118m.

FURY. Director David Ayer's fine drama about the simple evil of war and the complex team of men who fight. Starring Brad Pitt. R. 134m.

GONE GIRL. An engaging and tightly controlled thriller with standout performances from Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. R. 149m.

JOHN WICK. Keanu Reeves is the eponymous badass avenging his dog. Stylish action with brilliant choreography and stunts. R. 101m.

NIGHTCRAWLER. A taut, well-crafted, character-driven film noir with Jake Gyllenhaal as a shady freelance news photographer. R. 117m.

OUIJA. Maybe just play Trivial Pursuit. PG13. 90m.

ST. VINCENT. Bill Murray plays a grumpy neighbor turned mentor in this sweet, well-observed and well-acted story. PG13. 103m.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill


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John J. Bennett

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