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?

Advertisements

Review – Killer Joe

Some directors mellow in their old age; not so William Friedkin, as his grisly and grimy take on Tracy Letts’ grand slice of southern gothic Guignol shows.

Killer Joe certainly isn't to everyone's tastes, but for those who enjoy their movies trashy it's finger lickin' good

Killer Joe certainly isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but for those who enjoy their movies trashy it’s finger lickin’ good

Friedkin’s controversy-baiting style has won him an army of devotees and led to a back catalogue that many filmmakers would sell their soul for. The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) have rightly earned their place in cinema’s Valhalla, while pictures like Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980) and To Live And Die In LA (1985) may be lesser known, but are equally absorbing.

He made a welcome return to horror in his disturbing 2007 adaptation of Letts’ suffocating play Bug and collaborated again with the celebrated playwright four years later for what, according to the poster, is “a totally twisted deep fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story”.

Dumb Chris (Emile Hirsch) makes a play too far in Killer Joe

Dumb Chris (Emile Hirsch) makes a play too far in Killer Joe

The film centres around the Smith clan, a less-than-functional trailer trash brood who make the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look sweet in comparison. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a drug dealer who’s got himself into debt with the wrong people and, with the help of his simple-minded dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), makes a pact with the devil in the shape of Mephistophelean hitman-cop Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to murder his mother and collect on the life insurance.

Dottie (Juno Temple) takes her retribution in Killer Joe

Dottie (Juno Temple) takes her retribution in Killer Joe

Chris is unable to provide a down-payment to the dark and mysterious Joe, who decides instead to take a retainer in the form of Chris’ childlike sister Dottie (Juno Temple) until the cash is forthcoming.

Friedkin has never been one to shy away from down and dirty filmmaking and is at his most gleefully scuzzy here in what’s effectively a good old-fashioned exploitation B-movie. There’s something of the 1980s here, especially in the montage of close-ups as we’re introduced to Joe, who’s such a badass even the chained-up psycho dog sat outside the family trailer goes quiet when he strolls past.

'Angel of death' Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in Killer Joe

‘Angel of death’ Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in Killer Joe

Furthermore, a pretty good clue of what to expect comes early on when the first sign we get of Chris’ loathsome stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) is of her naked from the waist down. Subtle it ain’t.

The film’s blackly comic tone adds fuel to the argument that Friedkin is mocking the characters; the only one who seems remotely redeemable is Dottie, although you’re left with the sneaking suspicion she knows more than she’s letting on.

Redneck Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and trailer trash wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) in Killer Joe

Redneck Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and trailer trash wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) in Killer Joe

Killer Joe has been likened to a fairytale, with Dottie as the princess looking for her Prince Charming and Joe the wolf at the door, yet no-one emerges from this particular tale with a happy ending. The Smiths’ murderous greed and back-stabbing comes back to bite them hard as the evil they’ve invited into their home arrives for its pound of flesh in the film’s closing scenes, most notoriously involving a fried chicken drumstick.

The film is held together by McConaughey’s shark-eyed turn as Joe, who glides around like some Stetson-wearing angel of death and remains unnervingly calm until his thirst for violence takes over.

Killer Joe certainly isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but for those who enjoy their movies trashy it’s finger lickin’ good.

Review – Dallas Buyers Club

The McConaissance goes from strength to strength in this moving period drama that breaks free of its Oscar-grabbing shackles thanks to a pair of magnetic performances.

Dallas Buyers Club is a forthright and rousing tale of dogged determination in the face of death lifted by a pair of remarkably raw performances

Dallas Buyers Club is a forthright and rousing tale of dogged determination in the face of death lifted by a pair of remarkably raw performances

The dark days of Failure To Launch and other dire rom-coms that demanded he lean next to someone on the poster are thankfully an increasingly distant chapter in the career of Matthew McConaughey.

In the past couple of years, McConaughey has finally fulfilled the early promise he showed in the likes of Dazed And Confused (“well alright, alright, alright”) and Lone Star and in that relatively short time has become one of the most exciting screen actors working today.

The moment Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) learns he has Aids in Dallas Buyers Club

The moment Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) learns he has Aids in Dallas Buyers Club

Hot on the heels of his memorable cameo in The Wolf Of Wall Street, McConaughey switches gears to play Ron Woodroof, the hard-living redneck electrician and rodeo cowboy whose world collapses from under his feet when he learns he is HIV-positive and in all likelihood will be dead in a month.

Set in 1985, myth and conjecture were still rife when it came to the growing Aids epidemic, not least of all in the mind of the homophobic Ron who, like many people at the time, thought it was a disease restricted to homosexuals. Shunned by friends and family and denied access to what Government-approved antivirals there were at the time, Ron takes matters into his own hands and seeks out whatever drugs he can find that might prolong his life.

Ron (Matthew McConaughey) forms an unlikely business partnership with Rayon (Jared Leto) in Dallas Buyers Club

Ron (Matthew McConaughey) forms an unlikely business partnership with Rayon (Jared Leto) in Dallas Buyers Club

Realising there are many more like him out there, he goes into business with Rayon (Jared Leto), a HIV-positive transgender woman who has the necessary contacts to facilitate the set-up of the Dallas Buyers Club wherein ‘members’ pay a month fee for unapproved medication. As business booms it attracts the unwanted attention of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which threatens legal action.

Much has been made of the weight both McConaughey (50 lbs) and Leto (30 lbs) lost for their roles and it’s admittedly startling at first to see just how emaciated each actor looks, McConaughey in particular. However, this dramatic weight loss should not distract from what are two of the most committed and honest performances you’ll see all year.

A bond is formed between the sweet-talking Ron (Matthew McConaughey) and his Doc Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) in Dallas Buyers Club

A bond is formed between the sweet-talking Ron (Matthew McConaughey) and his Doc Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) in Dallas Buyers Club

These are golden days for McConaughey and the actor disappears into the role to deliver his most complete performance to date. Ron’s journey from free-wheeling homophobic redneck to compassionate social campaigner never once feels false or ham-fisted and the actor maintains the character’s charm, humour and stubbornness even during his darkest moments.

In his first role for six years, Leto is a revelation. Male actors dressing up as women has largely been used as a tool for comedy in the past, but Leto finds a similar conviction and voraciousness to the remarkable performance given by Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game.

Jared Leto gives a wholly convincing performance as Rayon, a HIV-positive transgender woman, in Dallas Buyers Club

Jared Leto gives a wholly convincing performance as Rayon, a HIV-positive transgender woman, in Dallas Buyers Club

Likewise, Jennifer Garner does well in the tough role of Dr Eve Saks, who forms a bond with Ron and starts to question whether what she and her supervisor Dr Sevard (Dennis O’Hare) are doing to ‘help’ Aids sufferers is actually making a positive difference.

Where the film does fall down is in the black and white way it portrays the conflict between Ron on one side and the FDA and American health care system on the other.

Ron (Matthew McConaughey) in one of his numerous scrapes with the law in Dallas Buyers Club

Ron (Matthew McConaughey) in one of his numerous scrapes with the law in Dallas Buyers Club

Director Jean-Marc Vallée appears to ask Michael O’Neill’s FDA official Richard Barkley to just look angry and menacing the whole time, while O’Hare’s Dr Sevard is little more than a cipher to show how cuddly the health care system and big pharma are.

While the relationship Ron strikes up with Eve is sweetly affecting, it’s his bond with Rayon that’s Dallas Buyers Club‘s beating heart. The moment when Ron instinctively defends Rayon against a former buddy who’s ostracised him comes as much as a surprise to us as it does to the two of them. It’s a beautifully played moment that signals a turning point in their relationship from business associates to friends.

To the film’s credit it never wallows in grief or cynically pulls the heartstrings; what we get instead is a forthright and rousing tale of dogged determination in the face of death lifted by a pair of remarkably raw performances.

Review – The Wolf Of Wall Street

The ugly reality of what constitutes the modern day American Dream is writ large over Martin Scorsese’s outrageous and intelligent trawl through the moral sewer of a world fuelled by power, prostitutes and pesos.

Far from slowing down in his autumn years, Scorsese's The Wolf Of Wall Street finds the director back at his very best.

Far from slowing down in his autumn years, Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street finds the director back at his very best.

The Wolf Of Wall Street begins with an advert for Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) church of capitalism, Stratton Oakmont, espousing the firm’s “stability” and “integrity”, before cutting to its “trained professionals” betting huge sums of money on a dwarf throwing contest.

It’s none-too-subtle – like much of the film – but this observation of the unbridled hypocrisy and moral vacuum at the black heart of Belfort and his army of disciples runs through the core of Scorsese’s exhilarating and exhausting 22nd feature.

Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets taken under the wing of sulphurous boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets taken under the wing of sulphurous boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

Scorsese revisits the dwarf tossing scene later in the film when Belfort, his best friend and Vice President Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and a couple of other senior traders discuss how best to exploit the dwarf and agree not to “consider him a human”. It’s a cleverly symbolic moment – we are the ‘little people’ being taken advantage of by these monsters for financial gain and their own amusement.

These guys know they’re crooks but are having too much fun in their grotesque bubble to care. When a potential client remarks over the phone that Belfort seems like “a pretty sincere guy”, his team collapse into howls of laughter; while Belfort literally and figuratively ‘closes the deal’ by simulating having sex as he makes the sale.

Naomi (Margot Robbie), Jordan's trophy wife in The Wolf Of Wall Street

Naomi (Margot Robbie), Jordan’s trophy wife in The Wolf Of Wall Street

Told through Belfort’s unreliable eyes, we follow him from his wet-behind-the-ears early days through to his rebirth following the Wall Street crash of 1987 to become a wildly successful stockbroker making money hand over fist by selling worthless stocks to unwitting schumcks who have bought into the get rich quick mantra peddled to them by the ‘free’ market.

Belfort’s success leads to the creation of Stratton Oakmont, a boiler room where illegal activity and corruption go hand in hand with opprobrious excess and decadence on a scale that would make Caligula blush.

The best of times... stockbroker-turned-rock star Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

The best of times… stockbroker-turned-rock star Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

It’s easy to get blindsided by the film’s numerous scenes of drug taking, orgiastic partying and general debauchery, but those who claim the director gives Belfort a pass are completely missing the point of The Wolf Of Wall Street. It is politicians, the legal system and society in general who let – and continue to let – snake oil salesmen like Belfort off the hook by allowing ourselves to be seduced by empty promises of riches beyond the dreams of avarice.

A key scene takes place towards the start of the film involving Matthew McConaughey’s obscenely immoral broker Mark Hanna taking a young Belfort out to lunch to explain to him – and us  – that the name of the game is to “move the money from your client’s pocket into your pocket” and to “keep the clients on the ferris wheel and keep the park open 24/7/365”.

The worst of times... the wheels start coming off for Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and partner-in-crime Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

The worst of times… the wheels start coming off for Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and partner-in-crime Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

As appalling as Hanna’s pep talk is, we laugh in spite of ourselves, thanks in no small part to McConaughey’s inspired cameo. A similar reaction is had throughout what is at times a laugh-out-loud comedy. Belfort lives and breathes the words Hanna has taught him, which makes for numerous scenes of ridiculous comedy, most notably when he’s almost paralysed by an particularly strong batch of Quaaludes.

Based on Belfort’s book of the same name, the film follows in the ‘visual novel’ footsteps of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino by relying heavily on narration to tell the tale. Just as Ray Liotta’s delivery sucked us in to a tale of New York gangsters, so too does DiCaprio, who builds an irresistible rapport with the audience through a mix of buddy-buddy repartee and matter-of-fact exposition.

FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) investigates Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) investigates Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

It’s an electric performance from DiCaprio, arguably the highlight of his career and certainly his best under Scorsese’s mentorship. The over-the-top banter with his besotted staff and explosive physicality may be what grabs the headlines, but his more nuanced work, particularly opposite trophy wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) and FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) are what sets the performance apart. DiCaprio is lent excellent support from all quarters, especially Robbie and a never-better Hill.

As you’d expect from a Scorsese picture, the needle-drop soundtrack is a music lover’s delight (although Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter is notable by its absence), while Terrence Winter’s volcanic script justifies the film’s three-hour running time.

Far from slowing down in his autumn years, Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street finds the director back at his very best.

Review – Mud

A serious contender for this year’s Great American Film, Jeff Nicholls’ lyrical, poetic third feature evokes a timeless quality all-too-rare in today’s cinematic landscape.

A serious contender for this year's Great American Film, Jeff Nicholls' lyrical, poetic Mud evokes a timeless quality all-too-rare in today's cinematic landscape

A serious contender for this year’s Great American Film, Jeff Nicholls’ lyrical, poetic Mud evokes a timeless quality all-too-rare in today’s cinematic landscape

Nicholls has quietly positioned himself among the most visionary and essential directors at work today with his striking 2007 debut Shotgun Stories and his belated follow-up, the disturbing and astonishing Take Shelter (2011).

The incredible boat in a tree in Mud

The incredible boat in a tree in Mud

In both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, their leading characters (played each time by the mesmeric Michael Shannon) are driven by an almost insane conviction. That same dogmatic approach is adopted by Mud (Matthew McConaughey), the charismatic fugitive living out on a small island in the Mississippi River who befriends inquisitive teenagers Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Mud has risked his freedom by returning to the area in which he grew up to be reunited with his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), but a group of killers arrive in town looking to avenge a past crime by Mud.

Nicholls has been quick to acknowledge the debt the film owes to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the overtly Finn/Tom Sawyer relationship between Ellis, who lives on a river boat with his squabbling parents (played by the excellent Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) and Neckbone.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) first meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey) in Mud

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) first meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey) in Mud

The 14-year-old Ellis is an idealist who’s obsessed with reuniting Mud and Juniper because he believes in the power of love. As young teenagers, the concept of true love can be all-encompassing and Ellis acts with such doggedness in order to counterbalance the failing relationship of his parents. Likewise, he gets a tough lesson in the ways of love courtesy of an older girl he falls for.

The love of Mud's life, Junniper (Reese Witherspoon) in Mud

The love of Mud’s life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) in Mud

Mud brings to mind Terence Malick in its penchant for the Magic Hour (and its fascination with nature) and Nicholls with long-time director of photography Adam Stone captures a string of breathtaking shots. The relationship with Malick doesn’t end there; Mud’s producer Sarah Green worked on The Tree of Life, while Sheridan was given his debut in that film.

Jeff Nicholls' long-time partner Michael Shannon plays Galen in Mud

Jeff Nicholls’ long-time partner Michael Shannon plays Galen in Mud

He only has a limited filmography, but Sheridan is already showing himself as a young actor with a lot of promise. It’s a demanding role and he brings a lot of maturity to it. All he wants is for people to be happy and for things to be in order, so you can feel his pain when he realises life is much harder to get a handle on.

Maintaining his remarkable career renaissance (aka, his McConaisance), McConaughey is a revelation in the title role. Once the butt of many a joke for his languid, cheque-grabbing performances in duds like Failure to Launch, McConaughey of late has returned to the high watermark he achieved in the likes of Dazed and Confused and Lone Star. Lovelorn, scared, but determined also, his Mud is not so very different from Ellis.

Mud (Matthew McConaughey) tries to save his skin in Mud

Mud (Matthew McConaughey) tries to save his skin in Mud

The excellent supporting cast includes Shannon as Neckbone’s placid Uncle Galen (as far removed from Take Shelter‘s Curtis LaForche as you can get) and the impeccable Sam Shepard as Tom, who may or may not be a former CIA agent living off the grid in the Mississippi swamps.

Just as Malick managed to capture the coming of age adventure of adolescence in The Tree of Life, so too does Nicholls here. When we see a boat stuck up a tree (Mud’s temporary home), we marvel instead of questioning the unlikelihood of what we’re watching; such is the power of Nicholls’ persuasive vision.

The slightly fumbled ending doesn’t detract from what is a work of true poetry from Nicholls. Much like last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Mud is a real one-off that will stay with you for a long time after.