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?

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Great Films You Need To See – Red Rock West (1993)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about John Dahl’s 1993 western neo noir thriller Red Rock West was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Cinema’s dustbin is littered with movies that disappeared between the cracks or didn’t fit neatly into any easy-to-sell marketing category.

Watched now, more than 20 years on, Red Rock West has barely aged a day and deserves its place alongside the likes of the Coens’ Blood Simple as one of cinema’s most ingenious neo-noirs

Watched now, more than 20 years on, Red Rock West has barely aged a day and deserves its place alongside the likes of the Coens’ Blood Simple as one of cinema’s most ingenious neo-noirs

It’s a fate that befell the criminally underseen Red Rock West, John Dahl’s sophomore feature that, according to the late Roger Ebert, “exists sneakily between a western and a thriller, between a film noir and a black comedy”.

The film is worth seeing for the cast alone. Nicolas Cage gives one of his most hangdog turns as Michael Williams, an ordinary Joe on the road to nowhere who rolls into dead-end Red Rock and is immediately mistaken for “Lyle from Dallas” by bar owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh).

Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) fools bar owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh) he's "Lyle from Dallas" in Red Rock West

Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) fools bar owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh) he’s “Lyle from Dallas” in Red Rock West

Down on his luck, Michael keeps his mouth shut when he accepts $5,000 by Wayne to kill his wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). He’s then offered double by Suzanne to kill Wayne after telling her about the contract. The plot takes a turn for the perilous with the arrival of the real Lyle (Dennis Hopper), a psychopathic hitman who dresses like he stepped out of a Garth Brooks concert.

Dahl, who co-wrote the script with brother Rick, throws in more twists than a pretzel factory and has a ball in the process. There’s an amusing running joke that sees the exasperated Michael continually trying to leave Red Rock but, like Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank, is seemingly never able to escape.

Michael (Nicolas Cage) gets himself into hot water with Wayne's wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle) in Red Rock West

Michael (Nicolas Cage) gets himself into hot water with Wayne’s wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle) in Red Rock West

There’s more than a little of David Lynch in the film, and not just because three-quarters of the main cast have worked with him. Hopper is in full-on Frank Booth mode, while Boyle exudes the sort of old school matinee seduction she displayed in Twin Peaks.

In a film of meaty performances, the tastiest is given by Walsh (who should have appeared in a Lynch film, but never did). In lesser hands Wayne could have been a stock villain, but Walsh imbues him with a banality that is all the more chilling for being so underplayed.

Dennis Hopper is in full-on Frank Booth mode as Lyle in Red Rock West

Dennis Hopper is in full-on Frank Booth mode as Lyle in Red Rock West

Dahl is one of life’s nearly men. Now predominately a director of high-end cable and network TV shows, his film career never garnered the commercial success it was due in spite of such entertaining fare as The Last Seduction and Rounders, the Matt Damon and Edward Norton joint that helped launch the current poker craze.

Released in the wake of Reservoir Dogs (1992), Red Rock West became a casualty of the rapidly changing landscape of American independent cinema post-Tarantino. Watched now, more than 20 years on, the film has barely aged a day and deserves its place alongside the likes of the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984) as one of cinema’s most ingenious neo-noirs.

Review – Behind The Candelabra

It’s an unfortunate twist of fate that a film featuring an outrageously flamboyant central figure who was one of the world’s biggest stars ended up being relegated to the small screen in the United States.

Behind The Candelabra may be a relatively low key film for Soderbergh to bow out on, but it is consumate filmmaking nonetheless and fully advocates Liberace's motto that "too much of a good thing is wonderful".

Behind The Candelabra may be a relatively low key film for Soderbergh to bow out on, but it is consumate filmmaking nonetheless and fully advocates Liberace’s motto that “too much of a good thing is wonderful”.

Despite starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon and featuring Steven Soderbergh behind he camera for what is supposedly his final film, the Hollywood studio system shamed itself by refusing to back Behind The Candelabra for being ‘too gay’.

In the end, it took HBO to fund the picture and remind those who had forgotten that we’re living in the 21st century. This meant the movie only saw the light of day in America via the cable TV giant, a bittersweet irony considering it played in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and made it into cinemas outside of the States.

'Mr Showmanship' Liberace (Michael Douglas) in action in Behind the Candelabra

‘Mr Showmanship’ Liberace (Michael Douglas) in action in Behind the Candelabra

Best known for overtly masculine roles in the likes of Basic Instinct, Wall Street and Fatal Attraction, Douglas plays seriously against type as Walter ‘Lee’ Liberace, the world-famous pianist extraordinaire who became the highest-paid entertainer on the planet and the epitome of Las Vegas excess.

Behind The Candelabra chronicles the last 10 years of Liberace’s life, focussing in particular on the covert affair he had with the much younger Scott Thorson (Damon), on whose eponymous memoir the film is based. An animal trainer for movies, Scott is introduced to Liberace through Bob Black (Scott Bakula), a Hollywood producer who he meets in a gay bar. Scott is dazzled by Liberace’s piano skills, while Lee is instantly taken with the handsome younger man.

Liberace (Michael Douglas) tells Scott (Matt Damon) how he feels in Behind the Candelabra

Liberace (Michael Douglas) tells Scott (Matt Damon) how he feels in Behind the Candelabra

While’s Liberace’s carefully managed public persona portrays him as being straight, in real life he and Scott become lovers and behind the candelabra embark on a passionate relationship that takes a turn for the surreal before finally ending up in acrimony.

The slightly fuzzy lens reflects the affection Soderbergh clearly has with his subject matter. There are similarities to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, both in the late 70s and early 80s setting and Damon’s beautifully observed portrayal of Thorson, whose journey from eager-to-please greenhorn to a hurt and embittered shadow of his former self calls to mind Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler.

Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) all dolled-up in Behind the Candelabra

Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) all dolled-up in Behind the Candelabra

When the story takes a painful turn, Soderbergh is careful not to trade in black and whites and place the blame on any one person’s doorstep. Liberace and Scott are essentially two sides of the same coin, both lonely and desperate to be loved. In Scott’s case this stems from his time as a foster child, in Lee’s it’s from his mother Frances (played by Debbie Reynolds), whom he feels stiffled by. In a telling scene, Frances wins the jackpot on a slot machine she’s playing in Lee’s home, but no money comes out. Lee offers her whatever money he can find, but she refuses and demands a cheque instead.

Being two such lonely souls looking for companionship, it’s of little surprise their relationship is so intense, although things start to get very odd when Lee brings in plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) to perform some off-kilter work on Scott.

Scott (Matt Damon) and half-baked plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) in Behind the Candelabra

Scott (Matt Damon) and half-baked plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) in Behind the Candelabra

Watching Behind The Candelabra, it’s remarkable to think no-one publicly questioned Liberace’s sexuality when he minced about on stage in all manner of camp and ostentatious costumes because it naturally formed part of his self-styled ‘Mr Showmanship’ image. Even Scott looks taken aback when, after watching Liberace on stage for the first time and suggesting to Bob “it’s funny the crowd would like something this gay”, Bob tells him: “They have no idea he’s gay.”

A scene that's probably 'too gay' for the studios in Behind the Candelabra

A scene that’s probably ‘too gay’ for the studios in Behind the Candelabra

Although ironically one of Soderbergh’s least flashy films considerig the subject matter, he still includes a number of clever touches, not least of which when a surly Scott is eating a meal while Lee is flirting with a group of younger men which subtly parallels a scene earlier in the film when Lee’s piano protegé Billy (Cheyenne Jackson) is sat in the same seat dourly eating food while Lee is first chatting to Scott. It’s a nicely observed moment of how disposable things are in Liberace’s world.

While Damon is superb, Douglas is just as good, showing a pain behind the eyes and the showman’s smile that looks decades old. He tells Scott he wants to be his “father, brother, lover and best friend”, but doesn’t know how to be any of them. Lowe, meanwhile, is hilarious as the half-baked nip/tuck doc who’s hardly the greatest advert for plastic surgery.

Behind The Candelabra may be a relatively low key film for Soderbergh to bow out on, but it is consumate filmmaking nonetheless and fully advocates Liberace’s motto that “too much of a good thing is wonderful”.

In Retrospect – The Departed (2006)

This review forms part of the Martin Scorsese Guest Review series on the very impressive Rorschach Reviews site. If you’re a lover of film like me, you’ll find a lot of interesting stuff over there.

One of cinema’s great injustices was finally laid to rest at the 2007 Oscars when Academy voters ended Martin Scorsese’s 30-year wait for a best directing award.

The Departed

The Departed will be best remembered as the film that bagged Scorsese that elusive Oscar. Judged against the director’s other work, however, it’s an entertaining footnote, but a footnote just the same.

That it was for The Departed, a solid, entertaining crime thriller and not for any one of his five previous nominations, most of which are better pictures, must have been a bittersweet feeling for Scorsese, who joked it probably won its accolades because it was “the first movie I’ve done with a plot”.

After directing what were arguably the landmark American films of the 1970s (Taxi Driver, 1976), 1980s (Raging Bull, 1980) and 1990s (Goodfellas, 1990), Scorsese entered a new phase of his career in the 2000s, flip-flopping between prestige studio pictures like The Aviator and personal documentaries, such as his Bob Dylan project No Direction Home.

William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes undercover in The Departed

William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes undercover in The Departed

Arriving in 2006, The Departed feels like the last throw of the dice for Scorsese, who at this time must have been wondering if he’d ever collect one of those little golden statuettes.

A remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s superb Infernal Affairs (2002), William Monahan’s script stays pretty faithful to the original, but transfers the storyline from Hong Kong to the mean streets of South Boston.

Psychopathic mob kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in The Departed

Psychopathic mob kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in The Departed

Irish mob kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) plants young acolyte Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) as a mole within the Massachusetts State Police. At the same time, William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a kid trying to escape his family’s criminal ways by becoming a cop is persuaded to go deep undercover into Costello’s notorious gang in order to expose its murderous leader. Essentially negative images of one another, the stakes are raised as each risks life and limb to expose the other ‘rat’.

The Departed feels like a Scorsese Greatest Hits package in many ways. With long time Editor Thelma Schoonmaker once again on board, the kinetic editing style he employed to such great effect in Goodfellas and Casino is used throughout the picture, as are the director’s trademark freeze frames and restless, back-and-forth camerawork, lending the film a hyper-reality.

Costello's mole in the police, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in The Departed

Costello’s mole in the police, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in The Departed

Music has always played a major part of Scorsese’s oeuvre and here it’s no different. Although the soundtrack is fantastic the songs tend to telegraph the action on screen a little too obviously. The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter (seriously, how many times has Scorsese used that song in his films?) is played as Costello takes Sullivan under his wing, while Comfortably Numb (the version featuring Roger Waters, Van Morrison and The Band) soundtracks Costigan finding solace with state-appointed psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), and Roy Buchanan’s cover of Sweet Dreams is used to ironic effect over the closing credits.

A celebrated film historian, Marty also litters the movie with homages, from Scarface (both versions) to Night and the Hunter and The Third Man among others.

Psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), torn between two men in The Departed

Psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), torn between two men in The Departed

One of the film’s biggest diversions from Infernal Affairs is its preoccupation with Catholicism, specifically its hang-ups with sin, guilt and redemption. For someone who almost entered the priesthood in his formative years, it’s no surprise many of his films deal with these issues, although not since his breakout film Mean Streets has Catholicism been so integral to the story.

The church and the streets (literally) bleed together, most viscerally when Costigan uses a picture of Jesus to smash over a guy’s head. Costello represents the devil, luring an impressionable Sullivan into his fold, while Sullivan tellingly purchases an apartment in view of the local church. Also, the guilt Sullivan feels manifests itself in his struggle to perform sexually with Madden.

Foul-mouthed cop Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) in The Departed

Foul-mouthed cop Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) in The Departed

The concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are integral to The Departed and fascinated Scorsese, who said in an interview: “Good and bad become very blurred. That is something I know I’m attracted to. It’s a world where morality doesn’t exist, good doesn’t exist, so you can’t even sin any more as there’s nothing to sin against. There’s no redemption of any kind.”

The film is full of memorable performances, including Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg, who make a great double act as Costigan’s chalk and cheese undercover handlers. Likewise, Alec Baldwin has a ball playing big as Sullivan’s boss, while Farmiga holds her own in the picture’s only significant female role.

Martin Scorsese with the Best Director Oscar he won for The Departed

Martin Scorsese with the Best Director Oscar he won for The Departed

Damon, a far more talented actor than he’s given credit for, gives a performance of impressive restraint. DiCaprio on the other hand goes in the other direction and too often falls back on that trademark look he gives of squinting his eyes, pursing his lips and jutting out his jaw to imply anger or stress. It’s to DiCaprio’s credit as an actor that in spite of all that he still gives an impressive performance.

But DiCaprio’s positively catatonic when compared to Nicholson. A legend he may be, but when let off the leash he generally can’t help going way overboard. It’s well established that Costello is a psychopath (his reaction to executing a woman says as much – “Jeez, she fell funny”), but Nicholson’s rabid portrayal bypasses unhinged and goes straight to cartoonish.

The Departed will be best remembered as the film that bagged Scorsese that elusive Oscar. Judged against the director’s other work, however, it’s an entertaining footnote, but a footnote just the same.