Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Interstellar (2014)

Does it say something about my taste in movies that the two movies I really wanted to see this year were purely because of the director?  The first was Godzilla.  I was so impressed by Gareth Edwards’ debut Monsters (2010) that I was really excited with what he’d do with Japan’s most famousest monster.  The only other film on my definite hit list was Interstellar.  I’ve been a fan of Christopher Nolan ever since I first saw Memento (2000) and was desperate to see a film of his out in space; especially since Gravity (2013) blew me away last year.  I wasn’t disappointed.

I should point out that there are a couple of spoilers in this review.  I generally try not to spoil anything in my writing, but if you’re anything like me, you won’t read anything to do with a film that you want to see and form your own opinion on.  So, to infinity and beyond!

With the Earth increasingly unable to feed itself due to an undefined “blight” ruining crops (and presumably a desperate lack of Food Security policy), an underground group of NASA scientists are looking to the stars for an alternative home.  That might sound like an IMDB descriptor, but that, in a nutshell, is the setup for everything that follows.

It’s probably hard not to make comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but I’m going to try.  The only comparison I will draw is scientific (ish), and that is the lack of any noise (other than music) when we are exterior to the spacecraft.  There is no sound of boosters, or thrusters and indeed a spectacular crash later on has all the more impact because it is so sudden and silent.  That’s probably where the good science ends; I’m not an astrophysicist though, so my enjoyment wasn't ruined; and after all this is science fiction not fact.

I had no problem following the plot, certainly more straightforward than Inception (2010); this could be because we at least have some concept of space travel, while delving into different levels of the subconscious is a little more obtuse.  Having said that, there is a similar theme of temporal distortion running through both films; though here it has the rather accepted name of relativity as a consequence of speed and gravity rather than lower levels of dreams moving slower.

In terms of the film-making, Interstellar looks as good as anything we see on our screens these days, with excellent production value.  Almost all movies set in space since Alien and Star Wars have that space-truckin’ lived in look, and the NASA craft here are no different; everything is functional and important, even more so as the agency is essentially an underground movement.  Initially surprised that Nolan favourite Wally Pfister wasn’t DOP (I’m guessing he was busy with Transcendence when this was being filmed) I thought Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, 2008; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 2011) does an amazing job of lensing this epic.

Certainly some of the money shots (in terms of punter-pulling as well as cost to put on screen) are some of the exterior shots as the Endurance transits across Saturn or Gargantua, and these do look phenomenal (I’m praying this is still on at the BFI IMAX in London when I’m there next month).  Interestingly, Endurance is also the name of the ship that Ernest Shackleton sailed on perhaps his most famous voyage to the Antarctic.  Following calamitous ice conditions, Shackleton’s expedition changes to one of rescuing his ship-mates and getting them home; similar to the feat undertaken by the Endurance of the movie as they try to rescue astronauts from their various planets, hoping they can bring them home.

I thought it refreshing that things go wrong because of human error rather than that of a machine. Error, or blind devotion to the mission.  In this way Dr Mann is the HAL 9000 (sorry, 2001 reference) of the story in that the mission is everything, crew expendable.  It actually turns out that TARS (the robot) is benign/useful/sarcastic and actually happy to sacrifice himself!

Having praised everything so far, I did think it was overlong, and a bit twee that Cooper was in fact behind the books communicating with his daughter; I just felt it tied everything together a bit too neatly (like the perfect rug).  Though I did appreciate the attempt to render time as a fourth dimension, and it allowed for some more excellent Escher-like moments.

The cast are fine without being outstanding. McConaughey is good as Cooper and I forgot that I was watching a big star; in contrast I always thought of Anne Hathaway as Anne Hathaway.  I actually thought that the 10 year old Murph (Mackenzie Foy) was better than Jessica Chastain, however I thought that Casey Affleck as the older older brother Tom was excellent, but criminally underused.  I also had no idea Matt Damon was in this, so his introduction was a real curve-ball for me, especially given his actions.  However, I would have liked to have seen more of John Lithgow, whose work I’ve admired ever since Footloose!

The score was excellent but quite un-Hans Zimmer-ish.  Initially l was sure it would be long-term Nolan collaborator Zimmer who was composer.  But about halfway through I became convinced that the score was composed by Philip Glass.  The music sounded so much more like some of his delicate compositions from Kundun (1997) or Watchmen (2009) rather than the traditional big bold themes that Zimmer is so good at.  Though of course there is still the occasional BRAHHHMMM!

I think that’s all I want to say, other than my brain didn’t stop running for several hours afterwards; not through incomprehension, just processing it all.  I actually thought it was pretty great, though there’s something that prevents me from saying it was amazing.  I don’t know what it is.  Perhaps it was a little more style over substance, although for the most part the substance blasts a lot of other sci-fis out of the solar system.  But, you know, that's just, like, my opinion man.

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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Fury (2014)

With events that take place in the final months of the second world war, Fury tells of the exploits of a tank crew and the hell they have to endure.  Having fought their way from Africa, through France and Belgium, the crew of the Fury commanded by Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) are now in the lion’s den and are fighting their way through Germany.

Many war films concentrate on how horrible war really is, and though few have the impact of those first scenes in Saving Private Ryan (1998), Fury is none the less very visceral and hellish.  However, when he does it right, director David Ayer creates some very dramatic, tense battles.  There's a tremendous sequence when four allied Sherman tanks face off against a singular but far superior German Tiger tank; I think I really did hold my breath.

Brad Pitt is Brad Pitt; his tank commander a toned down version of his character from Inglorious Basterds (2009).  Though despite enjoying the killing, Wardaddy does still like behaving like a human, as witnessed in the scene with the two German girls in their flat.

Perhaps not a revelation, Shia LaBeouf shows again that he can be good, as he was in Lawless (2012).  As gunner Boyd “Bible” Swan and resident pastor, he's a well written character and the most memorable along with Wardaddy and Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) the newbie to the crew, through whose eyes we see the world of Fury.  Norman is very wet behind the ears, thrown into a situation he never thought he'd be.  His first task is to clean out the remains of the guy he's replacing: finding half a face by your seat is enough to make anyone throw up.

Steven Price who composed the excellent score for Gravity (2013) is the maestro here as well; though to be honest I don’t really remember the music as the percussion of firing tanks and artillery provide most of the accompanying sound.  There isn’t as much gore and viscera as I expected and that’s probably a good thing otherwise it may have strayed into sensationalist territory.  However, since the film was essentially about 5 men in a tank, I had hoped for better focus on the characters with more of a cabin fever vibe to proceedings.

Having said that, I thought this was a great film, with some very tense moments, made all the more real as so little computer imagery was used.  I think I remember reading/hearing that the only CG used was for the tracer fire from the guns.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

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Tuesday, 28 October 2014

What We Did on Our Holiday (2014)

Following on from their success with Outnumbered (and Drop the Dead Donkey), writers/directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin now bring us What We Did on our Holiday; a suitably sad, funny and uplifting film that places the kids at the centre of all the events.

With an ailing father (Billy Connolly), David Tennant takes his family (including estranged wife Rosamund Pike) to Scotland to celebrate his Dad's 75th birthday. Both Tennant and Pike are solid as is Ben Miller - Tennant's brother. Billy Connolly plays Billy Connolly, but that's no bad thing, and as it happens there's probably no one else who could encapsulate this character better.

Of course it's really the kids who are the crucial part of the film, and as such are spot on. They are obviously the primary source of the LOLs early on, including the youngest who has stones and breeze blocks as friends; but as the story progresses, the kids are the driving force behind the unfolding drama. You always hear that you should never work with children or animals when making a movie; but whatever experience Hamilton and Jenkin have with working with kids on Outnumbered, pays off here. They manage to get spontaneous, funny, yet sometimes nuanced performances out of these children

There are some glorious shots of the West coast of Scotland, so much so that it could almost be a visit Scotland advert. The landscape provides a beautiful backdrop for this dysfunctional family's tragedy, as well as a world inhabited by lovely peripheral characters such as Celia Imrie and Annette Crosbie.

The movie is typical in terms of its tragedy, humour and general upliftyness, very much in the style of Waking Ned (1998), The Dish (2000) or The Angels’ Share. But that's no bad thing, and it's certainly that little bit different as the kids are the focus of the movie. But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Batman Trilogy (2005 - 2012)

Certainly one of the most celebrated trilogies of recent years, The Dark Knight films are not only some of the best superhero films, they are some of the best films.  Chris Nolan has brought incredible vision, production and outstanding performances to these movies about Gotham's most famous son.

Batman Begins

As far as genesis stories go, I think that this could be my favourite.   I really like Sam Raimi’s Spider-man (2002), but seeing Bruce Wayne overcome his fears and then channelling this fear to terrorise his enemies is magnificent.  Where many stories are desperate to get to the action, Batman Begins really takes its time, and I think it must be almost an hour before we actually see the Batman strut his stuff.  A lot of this superbity is due to excellent writing by David S. Goyer, as well as Chris Nolan’s wonderful interpretation.

Christian Bale is a very good Bruce Wayne, suitably playboy-ish, but able to be grim and violent when necessary.  In fact, everyone is great; Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Gary Oldman; but then we wouldn't really expect this cast to be anything but excellent.

The slow start takes time to set up both Bruce's background (which we essentially know) showing how disenchanted he's become with Gotham, the justice system as well as his wealth.   It also sets up The League of Shadows; not only crucial for the final third of the film, but also a recurrent theme that reaches a climax in Dark Knight Rises.

The Dark Knight

The second film in a trilogy can often be a tricky one to judge, but The Dark Knight is a stunning sequel to BB, and this can probably be largely attributed to a dazzling display by Heath Ledger as The Joker.  Freed from the yoke of introductory exposition, TDK gets straight down to business; though you could be forgiven for thinking that you were watching Point Break’s Dead Presidents as the opening robbery begins.  Until of course The Joker is revealed, then everything becomes unpredictable.  Alfred tells Bruce “...some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money.  Some men just want to watch the world burn”, and that’s exactly what The Joker is about, and Heath Ledger owns that role like a boss.

Sequels are always trying to be bigger than the first installment, and TDK is no different.  Filming key sequences in IMAX was one way Nolan upped his game, and (though I haven’t experienced IMAX at all) the amount of effort that went into working with these enormous cameras is incredible.

I always remember George Lucas gushing about the increasing number of digital effects shots in the Star Wars prequels like it was a good thing.  In TDK, Nolan and crew insert much more action than BB, but unlike GL, a lot of the effects they did were in camera.  Incredibly including flipping the massive lorry that the Joker is driving, as well as the helicopter crash; both down actual city streets.  Not to mention of course the hospital explosion.

It is often the case that a sequel is bigger and better than the initial film (Terminator 2, 1991; X-men 2, 2003; Spider-man 2, 2004; Hellboy 2, 2008). What Chris Nolan has done with TDK is produce a sequel that doesn’t feel like a sequel, rather a continuation of the story.  Can he continue that ambience into the final chapter?

The Dark Knight Rises

Truly a fitting finale to the trilogy, and once again Chris Nolan ups his game.  With an amazing cast and literally hundreds of extras, the scope of TDKR is enormous.  There are so many reasons why this is so good a film, but here are just a few.

We didn't think we'd see another tremendous performance like Heath Ledger's Joker; but in Bane, Nolan created another memorable villain, and casting the brilliant Tom Hardy was inspired.  Tom would have had the ability to create a phenomenal presence anyway, but the physical size of him makes him even more dominant.  The scene where he beats up Batman in the sewer is so excellent, both Tom and Christian are fantastic (actually them fighting), and the harsh down-lighting created by Wally Pfister enhances the brutality of this key scene.

In Anne Hathaway we have Nolan’s interpretation of Catwoman, though she is never referred to as such.  Selina is an accomplished thief trying to survive in a post Dent-act society. Her story arc is fairly predictable, but it is done well; especially the way she is initially unopposed to what Bane is doing but then is distraught by the amount of chaos he has actually created.

The only problem I have with TDKR is the music.  In itself it is another great score from Hans Zimmer, but it's mixed wrong and is far too loud at times.  There is one scene in particular (there are actually several) where Commissioner Gordon is meeting some resistance support in a basement and the music is loud and tense when it doesn't need to be.  So loud that I struggle to hear what Gary Oldman is saying.  There are several other instances of not hearing Commsr Gordon, Bane sometimes too, which is a pity as it slightly spoils what might otherwise be a perfect film.

Final Thoughts

Having recently become quite a fan of some of the Batman graphic novels, it was nice to see some referential moments.  There’s a lovely moment when two cops in a car are chasing Bane et al.; then when Batman reappears, they slow down and one says “You’re about to see something real special”. Straight out of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.  Also the randoms dressed as Batman at the beginning of The Dark Knight are a nod to the Sons of Batman.  David S Goyer did read a lot of graphic novels while planning Batman Begins, so it’s not too surprising that there are these moments in the films.

The plot throughout the trilogy is a classic genesis, fall and rise story with each film addressing different themes.  There is really very little to fault in these films at all, they are all superbly crafted, with incredible attention to detail and amazing practical effects.  Chris Nolan has proved he can direct and produce enormous films without dumbing down to the lowest common denominator. I am very excited about the films he will make in the future.