Interstellar

Big budgets and creativity don’t often go together. Limitations force us to be creative, to think and plan and dream; effectively unlimited resources too often mean a death to original thinking and problem-solving. Director Christopher Nolan may just be proving himself to be an exception to this rule: his smaller, early films like Memento and The Prestige are creative, intriguing, involving and engaging; all qualities found in mega-budget Inception and the occasion he was handed the reins of that most precious of commercial enterprises, Batman (in the form of his trilogy Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises). All of these are films which throw spectacle as well as ideas at the viewer, expecting the audience to work as well as be wowed.

Interstellar is the synthesis of this, a dizzying spectacle almost impossible to describe or articulate. It’s science-fiction set in a future where humanity’s food sources are dwindling out-of-control; a solution must be found elsewhere. What follows involves space-travel, space-ships and some very big philosophical and scientific ideas.

If all that sounds like the stuff of fan-boy culture, you’d be doing yourself and the film a grave dis-service; the opening act is earth-bound and centred around what becomes the film’s key relationship – father-daughter. For all the hyper-reality and wow factor that follows, this is seeking to be a very human story.

Watching Interstellar and then trying to form a coherent opinion of it is like trying to self-diagnose after beaten about the head by one of Pacific Rim‘s gargantuan robots. That’s not to suggest the film is clumsy; it’s that it’s so overwhelming, so expansive, so … big … that you’re left grasping for a response that actually does justice to the experience of seeing the film. It’s far from perfect – the script is clunky, at times giving in to some laboured plot exposition; it sometimes feels like a blessing that the sound mix is such that some lines are near-drowned out by Hans Zimmer’s intense, searing score. That means that the actors don’t really shine; especially those with a lot to do. The best performances are more to the fringe than the centre – especially striking is Mackenzie Foy as the 10-year old daughter, carrying an emotionally laden part that’s vital to the plot and the especially the film’s first third with a disarming ease. Nolan regular Michael Caine is on fine form; Matthew McConaughey struggles gamely with the inadequate script in the central role, and comes up short.

The film wants to ask big questions of the nature of reality, belief and existence; questions so big that it’s impossible to articulate them properly even in a near-three hour running time. It’s also trying to hymn the human capacity for the extraordinary; it does that successfully, with room to spare. For me however, it runs that alongside a deep awareness of humanity’s over-arching arrogance, capacity for self-destruction and the ability to ignore that which is self-evident. For all the wonder, the film never feels naive or misty-eyed.

In the end, it’s an essential, flawed experience; one of the few films that can tip such obvious references to works of the scope of 2001: A Space Odyssey and not seem ridiculous; that’s big enough in vision to ignore the lazy temptations of a third-dimension; the reach of which exceeds its grasp but somehow that’s all part of the experience, exactly appropriate for what the film is portraying.

Christopher Nolan has made many all-round better films, and will make more; but he will not make one that does such full justice to the purpose and experience of cinema as an art form. Neither will he make one as satisfying in its vision despite its failures; nor is it likely that any film, Nolan’s or anyone’s, will make you feel the way this will. It demands to be seen on a screen big enough to do justice to its ambition and scope.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

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Man Of Steel

Some people just don’t know when to stop. Zack Snyder, director of this new Superman movie, is one of those. With films like 300 and Watchmen in his past we can’t say we don’t know what to expect. A slightly surreal comic book aesthetic, stylised destruction and violence, a lack of humour and a very loud soundtrack with Wagnerian pretensions. I’ll be honest: I haven’t enjoyed his previous films. Hopes were higher here, though – not least because Christopher Nolan is the producer and co-writer. If anyone could reign Snyder’s excesses in, its the man who can handle huge budgets, gargantuan expectations and big stars and still produce something exciting, commercially successful and that’s still artistically and intellectually satisfying.

The result is Snyder’s best film. To put that in context, it’s possibly the worst film that Nolan has put his name to in any form. Granted, in this age of dark superhero reinventions, Superman was always going to present a challenge. He’s too easy to poke fun at – red underpants outside the trousers, flying and an enemy called Zod. Seriously.

Snyder deals with this by constantly cutting back to Superman’s back story. Whether it’s his origins on Krypton born to Russel Crowe or his Earth-bound childhood of self-discovery with his father Kevin Costner these scenes are handled well. Lois Lane is the reporter trying to unearth if the elusive rescuer of people in danger is an urban myth, a figment of her imagination or an alien. All of this works well – it’s exciting, occasionally moving, and well handled. Crowe and Costner are especially well cast.

Where the film strays is with a distinct lack of wit and the climactic, seemingly endless battle with Zod. The missing wit and humour is notable because of the two scenes where it actually exists: one brilliant visual gag after a narrowly avoided bar-fight when Superman is still trying to remain anonymous; the other when he teaches himself to fly   – a scene which pops with exhilaration, grins and joy. In the aftermath of those you realise you haven’t smiled at all otherwise, and probably won’t. Snyder, crashing orchestral soundtrack and buildings together, wants to ram the portentous events down our throats, to see profound parallels, to take it all Seriously. We can’t. Because it’s too much and too long. The supposedly serious parallels (puberty, religion, identity) are so po-faced they wash over us; the wit so minimal we never have the chance to have fun. Christopher Nolan showed in his Batman trilogy that you can do serious superhero movies and still have fun; if he tried to teach Snyder this, then he didn’t get his point across.

British unknown Henry Cavill does a decent job in the lead role; he certainly looks the part and manages to invest the character with a modicum of depth. It’s a shame, that for all the bombast and spectacle, that’s lacking in the rest of the movie. When an actor of Richard Schiff’s skill is reduced to a few scenes where he stands and gawps, you’ve missed an opportunity. It’s not a bad film; there is much to enjoy. It just would have been so much the better 45 minutes shorter and with a sense of control. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel learns the a little less could leave us much more satisfied.

I rated this movie 3/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 6/10 on imdb.com

Inception

It’s almost hard to know what to say about this. It feels like everything has been pretty much said already. I can’t remember the last time such volume was aid or written about a summer blockbuster. Christopher Nolan – of Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight fame – has clearly been told by his studio to do whatever he likes with a huge budget after the runaway success of The Dark Knight.

I’ve enjoyed every one of Nolan’s. He’s fond of keeping the audience guessing, and woe to you if you tune out for a moment or two at the wrong time. He also knows how to put together a proper action sequence, which means that he’s finding for himself an audience for his brand of intelligent entertainment who would otherwise be going to see The Expendables. For which we can only thank him. He’s sometimes a bit too fond of showing off his narrative dexterity, but let’s be honest – when was the last time you felt the need to criticise a major blockbuster for being a bit too smart?  Exactly – even when he gets that a little wrong, we still owe him some praise for the willingness to raise the bar.

All this is there in Inception, in spades. You know the deal by now, I’m sure. Leo DiCaprio is specialist in the bizarre art/science of inserting ideas into the sub-conscious by way of manufactured dreams. This time he’s called up to do a job of such complexity that everyone else tells him it’s impossible – on the understanding that if he does, he’ll be able to see clear his name regarding his wife’s death and see his children again.

So it begins. Action sequences inside dreams that show us the at-times impossible created with the emphasis on the physical rather than compute generated. Which means more impact, more ‘crunch’, just a more visceral experience – and all the more exciting for it. A plot that layers and folds back on itself faster than a Freudian slip. Leo at his best, Ellen Page continuing her welcome journey to her surely inevitable stardom (I really hope she continues to choose the good stuff she’s chosen thus far…), and Michael Caine, who always seems to crop up somewhere in a Christopher Nolan film.

All of Nolan’s films are , in some way, about how our past affects our present  – and our future, before we’re even aware it’s doing so. If that’s been hinted at, sometimes only subtly but there all the same, since the backward storytelling of his debut Memento then it’s at the front and centre of this, the most successful film he’s made. In the unlikely event you haven’t seen it, I can’t say much more than that. For now, this: even as you let the film’s perfect final scene play in your mind and have the compulsory debate as to whether it means one thing or the other, you also know that you’ve seen a major blockbuster explore how past traumas worm into our sub-conscious and affect us more than we know. It’s hard to believe such a big film manages this – but perhaps that’s why it’s touched such a chord with so many. We all have pasts, all have skeletons of different sizes and shapes in our cupboards. Think about it and the film leaves you asking: what will happen if I don’t seek healing here? Get it, from the God of past, present and future.