Review – Interstellar

For a film that puts so much currency in science, Christopher Nolan’s most grandly ambitious work to date ultimately asks us for something far more down to earth – our faith.

As a spectacle, Interstellar is astonishing and its ambition is virtually unmatched, but an overblown final act means we're going to have to wait that little bit longer for Nolan's masterpiece

As a spectacle, Interstellar is astonishing and its ambition is virtually unmatched, but an overblown final act means we’re going to have to wait that little bit longer for Nolan’s masterpiece

In many ways Interstellar can be seen as a companion piece to Robert Zemeckis’ Contact. Aside from starring Matthew McConaughey and featuring imput from theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, the galaxy-spanning premise of both films is grounded by a seemingly impossible human connection between a daughter and her father.

The hard science at the core of each movie gradually gives way to a far more intimate tale wherein love is the rocket fuel that propels us to the closing credits and faith, when given into, can transcend time and space. In that respect it also bears more than a passing resemblance to Solaris (more the Steven Soderbergh version rather than Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Russian classic).

Watching Interstellar, the excitable talk surrounding the picture prior to its release was that Nolan had delivered his masterwork; his 2001: A Space Odyssey. While there are obvious threads to Kubrick’s magnum opus and Hans Zimmer’s use of organs is as direct a nod as you’re ever likely to get, this is a very different animal; one that, for good or ill, is a product of 21st Century moviemaking.

The Endurance crew - Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and Romilly (David Gyasi)  in Interstellar

The Endurance crew – Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and Romilly (David Gyasi) in Interstellar

Nolan’s script, written with his brother Jonathan (who originally penned it with Spielberg in mind to direct, interestingly), falls into the trap of so many sci-fi films before it (2001 notwithstanding, it must be said) of turning certain characters into walking exposition announcers. Michael Caine is particularly ill-served in this regard as Professor Brand, who very swiftly convinces NASA test pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (McConaughey) to leave his kids Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet) in the care of father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) in order to embark on a grand quest to save humanity.

Professor Brand (Michael Caine) spells it out in Interstellar

Professor Brand (Michael Caine) spells it out in Interstellar

The lapses in logic that marred The Dark Knight Rises (exactly how did a penniless/passport-less Bruce Wayne get back to Gotham City from the arse end of nowhere?) come back to haunt Nolan here. Glaring moments, such as when fellow crew member Romilly (David Gyasi) gives a ‘wormholes for dummies’ talk to Cooper as they are about to enter one (as opposed to before they’d even left Earth, for example), pull you out of the film.

The criticism often lazily thrown at Nolan that he’s too ‘cold’ and doesn’t invest enough in his characters doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny here, thanks largely to a committed cast who work extremely hard to overcome the occasionally clunky script. McConaughey anchors the film as an everyman who never forgets the reason why he’s risked life and limb travelling thousands of light years from home. He’s smart enough not to overdo it, which gives his big moment when an increasingly distraught Cooper watches a series of family videos transmitted from Earth that much more impact.

TARS comes to the rescue in Interstellar

TARS comes to the rescue in Interstellar

Anne Hathaway successfully convinces as Cooper’s fellow intrepid astronaut Amelia in spite of having to utter more than a few leaden lines, while Jessica Chastain’s flinty-eyed scientist adds heft to her scenes as she tries to save an Earth succumbing to blight and ferocious dust storms that resemble something out of The Grapes Of Wrath.

If the script doesn’t entirely convince, the visuals surely do and it’s here that Interstellar goes, well, interstellar. Right from his devious debut film Following, Nolan has proven extremely adept at knowing what to do with the camera and over the course of an increasingly revered career has continued to refine this skill. He also tries where possible to use physical effects in-camera rather than relying on CGI and by having his actors interact with replicas of spacecraft or go on location to an Icelandic glacier (captured beautifully by the director’s new cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema) to represent an alien world adds an authenticity that computer effects cannot match.

Interstellar goes, errrr, Interstellar

Interstellar goes, errrr, Interstellar

The film’s several set pieces are edge-of-the-seat stuff, in particular an enthralling sequence in which Cooper attempts to dock with a damaged mothership. It’s in these near-wordless moments when Zimmer’s bombastic score lifts the film, but too often elsewhere the soundtrack ends up overcooking the tension and drowning out sections of dialogue.

Murph (Jessica Chastain) faces the slow death of Earth in Interstellar

Murph (Jessica Chastain) faces the slow death of Earth in Interstellar

The crew’s robot companions TARS (humourously voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart) – which resemble 2001-esque monoliths when motionless – are both believable in their functionality and engaging in their own right. We root for them in the same way we would Cooper or the rest of the crew and form a genuine emotional bond in much the same way as we do with Dewey, Huey and Louie in Silent Running.

As a spectacle, Interstellar is astonishing and its ambition is virtually unmatched, but an overblown final act means we’re going to have to wait that little bit longer for Nolan’s masterpiece. The question now is, where does he go from here?

Review – Transcendence

The argument that Hollywood should be making movies that aspire to something smarter than big dumb action hasn’t been well served by this misguided sci-fi disappointment.

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director's chair

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Wally Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director’s chair

Wally Pfister’s directorial debut was among the most highly anticipated films of the year. Certainly the pedigree was there; Pfister’s work as Christopher Nolan’s DoP on such striking works as Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy set pulses racing, while the mouth-watering cast of Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Nolan veterans Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy promised much.

What a shame then that such promise has been squandered on a movie that fails to turn an interesting central concept into a logical and engaging viewing experience.

Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) explains his theories in Transcendence

Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) explains his theories in Transcendence

Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a genius in artificial intelligence whose work to create a sentient computer – a tipping point he calls transcendence – rubs up against an extremist group who shoot Caster and launch a series of terror attacks against tech labs. As Will slowly dies from his wound, his wife and colleague Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Bettany) work on a radical plan to upload his consciousness into a super computer.

Now free to roam online, Will-A.Im (sorry) promises technological nirvana and a better world, but invites suspicion among even those closest to him, including scientist Joseph Tagger (Freeman), as well as FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Murphy).

Scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) are shown around by Will's wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) in Transcendence

Scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) are shown around by Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) in Transcendence

The thrust of Pfister’s film, based on a script rescued from the Black List, is both intriguing and prescient – have we becomes slaves to technology that’s now moving so fast we can’t control it? Will the ‘singularity’ – the moment when machines achieve the ability to think for themselves – be a defining moment in mankind’s technological revolution or spell our doom, a la Skynet?

However, a sound idea does not a great script make and the cracks quickly start to show. The film takes odd leaps of logic; characters make decisions that aren’t properly explained; and dialogue gets bogged down in expository ramblings that make conversations sound stilted.

The shady Bree (Kate Mara) gets chatting to Max Waters (Paul Bettany) in Transcendence

The shady Bree (Kate Mara) gets chatting to Max Waters (Paul Bettany) in Transcendence

As you’d expect from Pfister’s background, the film looks great. His use of stark lighting is especially impressive and gives the impression of a cold intelligence at work, while the dead-end town of Brightwood, which is turned into Will’s HQ, is an effective location; all be it one Pfister isn’t able to take full advantage of, especially in the film’s lackadaisical final act.

Depp, who must be wondering if his box office magic is on the wane in light of Transcendence‘s and The Lone Ranger‘s disastrous performances, never looks comfortable, least of all when he’s playing a less sardonic version of Holly from Red Dwarf. The further Depp walks away from his more interesting ‘indie’ career choices, the less interested he looks.

Will (Johnny Depp) reaches out to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) beyond the internet in Transcendence

Will (Johnny Depp) reaches out to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) beyond the internet in Transcendence

Hall and Bettany are fine actors and do their best, but as the movie goes on they start to look less convinced of the material, while Freeman (whose terrible line – “It will be the end of mankind as we know it” – from the trailer was a stupid marketing decision rather than a Pfister-ism apparently and doesn’t appear in the finished movie) and Murphy are given next to nothing to do.

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director’s chair. Oh well, at least we have Interstellar to look forward to, right?

Debuts Blogathon: Christopher Nolan – Following (1998)

Debuts Blogathon

It’s Day 7 of the Debuts Blogathon hosted by myself and Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop and next up we have Elroy from The Silver Screener‘s insightful take on Christopher Nolan’s low-budget neo-noir debut Following (1998). Elroy’s great looking site covers new releases in an intriguing way, while his Kubrick Awards dig deep into why cinematic ‘classics’ are so revered. As if that wasn’t enough, Elroy also does audio reviews on YouTube and SoundCloud. This guy’s got it covered!

Christopher Nolan

Following (1998)

Following is a beautiful film to watch. It unfortunately suffers from ‘amateur-itis’ in several ways, but had it been made by a Christopher Nolan 10 years into his professional career, I believe it would almost certainly be considered one of the great crime dramas of the modern era.

Following Poster As I said, it does suffer from ‘amateur-itis’ – a term I’ve made up to describe elements of a film that really tell us ‘this was made by someone early into his career’. There is a fight scene that isn’t the most amazingly shot sequence in film history. Some of the acting seriously lacks.

FollowingThe main character is referred to by Nolan as The Young Man, and played by Jeremy Theobald pretty well actually, although really there isn’t much to do emotionally – all the emotions are written into the dialogue. But the other two leads, Cobb and The Blonde, are not very well portrayed by their actors – Alex Haw (Cobb) seems to have difficulty making any of the swears he so often says seem needed, and Lucy Russell (The Blonde) just isn’t believable in the first place.

The sound mixing isn’t very good as well, which is somewhat surprising seeing as the editing of the shots is one of the better exponents of the film. A lot of the time it’s hard to hear what the actors are saying, yet I guess we can probably assume that Cobb’s swearing his head off.

FollowingBut put all of that aside and you have yourself with a pretty damn good film.

FollowingNolan’s direction early on, while the actual premise itself of ‘following’ was being explained, gives us a great connection to the action. We are viewing things from a faraway point, in the midst of cars blocking our view as they pass by, as people scatter the streets, like we’re the ones spying, like someone’s being watched, and that really taps into the tone of the film – black and white colours, two-faced people, two-faced situations. That’s one of the real feats of the film; how it establishes the mystery, the disguises these people represent.

The non-linear structure of the screenplay isn’t too dissimilar to that of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in that it tosses back and forth between time periods, so the story isn’t told completely in a row. That technique, when harnessed properly, can be extremely effective. It is harnessed very properly in Following. It works so well because we feel confused in the beginning when the non-linear style kicks in, but by the end of the film we can understand why this is done – because the effect of mystery and deceit in confusing times is transferred perfectly from characters to viewer by Christopher Nolan.

FollowingFollowingBut I find that the film isn’t as similar to Reservoir Dogs as it is to one of my all-time favourite movies, The Usual Suspects. That story is also somewhat non-linear and told through flashbacks and a constant narrative from the protagonist, Verbal. That’s how the early goings work in Following – we hear The Young Man telling his story and giving background. But more than that is how the story unravels to such a point where it finally gets to the ending and the plot twist hits you over the head in a blaze of smoke and sudden surprise. That’s the best thing about The Usual Suspects and it’s also the best thing about Following. We know it’s perfectly choreographed because once you see the film and think back, you can visualise all the clues left, and say to yourself “wow, that’s damn smart”.

I have no doubt that this is Christopher Nolan’s love letter to noir films of the 50s; the Dial M for Murder’s, the Double Indemnity’s, the Sunset Boulevard’s. It was shot in lovely black and white; I was completely infatuated with its raw beauty, and even though I didn’t get the chance to watch it on a cinema screen, I could still feel the raw graininess of Nolan’s Following. That’s how lovely it was to watch. I could feel mystery in the air.

It was almost like it had put the thought in my mind that at any moment, I could turn around and find a completely unknown man following me.

Meanwhile, over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, Kim from Tranquil Dreams provides a great piece on Hayao Miyazaki’s directorial debut The Castle of Cagliostro. Head over to Chris’s site now by clicking here.

Next on the slate I have the pleasure of introducing Mark from Marked Movies‘s take on Joel ‘Coen Brothers’ Coen’s Blood Simple. Hope you’re looking forward to this one as much as I am. See you then.

Review – Man Of Steel

The superhero’s superhero is back, but not as we’ve seen him before, in Zack Snyder’s earnest origin story that strives to put the king-daddy of comic books back on his throne.

There's enough in Man Of Steel to promise much for future adventures, but let's hope there's more fun next time around

There’s enough in Man Of Steel to promise much for future adventures, but let’s hope there’s more fun next time around

While his ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound and run faster than a speeding locomotive naturally lend themselves to incredible set pieces, Superman as a character has always been tricky to build a movie around. His intrinsic capacity for good is far less dramatic than the dark, brooding of Batman, for instance, or the cocksure machismo of Iron Man.

Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares to sending his son away from a dying Krypton in Man Of Steel

Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares to send his son away from a dying Krypton in Man Of Steel

Uninspiring action sequences, a lacklustre plot and an over-extended running time sank Supes’ last cinematic outing, 2006’s Superman Returns, so the challenge was on to rediscover the magic of 1978’s Superman and make him relevant to a modern day audience.

The news that Man Of Steel would be ‘A Zack Snyder Film’ was hardly a great start. Since his highly watchable 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead, the quality of Snyder’s output has diminished further with each new release, to the extent that his most recent film, 2011’s Sucker Punch was virtually unwatchable.

Clark Kent flashbacks to his childhood in Man of Steel's best moments

Clark Kent flashbacks to his childhood in Man of Steel’s best moments

Although the presence of Batman alumnus Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer as, respectively, producer and screenwriter can be felt, there’s no mistaking this is a Snyder movie, which means stylised violence delivered at an ear-bleeding volume.

Taking the character back to his roots, Man Of Steel begins at the moment of his birth on a dying Krypton. His father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and mother Lara (Ayelet Zurer) manage to launch the spacecraft carrying Kal-El before maniacal rebel General Zod (Michael Shannan) is able to get his hands on the child. Crash-landing on Earth, he’s raised by honest-to-goodness farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who name him Clark. When Clark starts to develop super-human powers, his alien lineage is revealed to him by his father, who warns of the need to keep his abilities a secret for fear that a confused, frightened society would reject him. However, when Zod and his followers arrive years later demanding that Earth surrender Kal-El or suffer the consequences, Clark must finally embrace his Kryptonian ancestry and become the superman he was destined to be.

Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) consoles a confused Clark in Man Of Steel

Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) consoles a confused Clark in Man Of Steel

While the dark and serious approach taken by Nolan for his Dark Knight trilogy works for a superhero who lives in the shadows, the similar direction Man Of Steel takes doesn’t make much sense. Tossing words around like “edgy” and “realistic” is all well and good, but when you’re dealing with god-like alien beings beating the hell out of each other and laying waste to half of Metropolis (and killing thousands of faceless people in the process, although this doesn’t seem important) on a scale not seen since the The Matrix Revolutions, “realistic” is stretching it somewhat.

Taken on their own merits, the childhood flashbacks Clark has during his Christ-like wandering phase in the film’s first act are the film’s finest moments. Handsomely filmed, these scenes are richly evocative and beautifully played by Costner and Lane. Indeed, the brief, wordless moment when a young Clark plays with the family dog and wears a makeshift red cape is Man Of Steel‘s high watermark.

Intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Man Of Steel

Intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Man Of Steel

A typically restrained Michael Shannan as General Zod in Man Of Steel

A typically restrained Michael Shannon as General Zod in Man Of Steel

However, they look like they belong in another film when Snyder switches into default mode and lets the CGI do the talking. While there was a palpable sense of jeopardy for Iron Man and co during Avengers Assembled‘s extended final battle in New York, here the only thing you feel is a sore backside.

In his big break, Henry Cavill does everything that’s asked of him, from brooding lonerism to conflicted turmoil and finally self-assurance that falls on the right side of smug. He’s no Christopher Reeve, but then who is? Anyone aware of Shannon’s turns in the likes of Take Shelter and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire may wonder like me how much CGI was actually required to show Zod’s heat vision, so intense are Shannon’s eyes anyway. It’s hardly a stretch, but it’s fun nonetheless to watch him deliver Zod’s semi-regular meltdowns.

Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his staff take shelter in Man Of Steel

Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his staff take shelter in Man Of Steel

Although she starts out well as feisty reporter Lois Lane, Amy Adams struggles with a script that runs out of things for her to do. Laurence Fishburne, meanwhile, dons his Morpheus hat for a spot of sermonising as Daily Planet editor Perry White and Crowe at least gets to run around more than Marlon Brando.

Superman (Henry Cavill) at one with the suit in Man of Steel

Superman (Henry Cavill) at one with the suit in Man of Steel

Hans Zimmer’s score may indulge the Christ motif a little strongly at times (there’s only so many angels you need to hear), but is otherwise stirring and haunting in all the right places and doesn’t make you pine for Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic composition.

Snyder drops in a few nice touches to prepare the ground for the inevitable sequel (a Lexcorp lorry is overturned during the Superman vs Zod melee, suggesting Mr Luthor is being primed) and one can only hope it makes room for a bit more fun next time around.

It’s ironic that a film featuring a character gradually finding himself should lose its way as it goes on. There’s enough here to promise much for future adventures, but this man of steel still has a long way to fly if he hopes to reclaim his crown.