Saturday, 8 November 2014

Interstellar

(M) ★★★½

Director: Christopher Nolan.

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow.

McConaughey took a wrong turn in the produce aisle.

FILM-MAKERS have long tried to predict the future.

One of the most intriguing of these sci-fi predictions is 2001: A Space Odyssey - a film that's now confusingly set in the past - and it is the obvious reference point for Christopher Nolan's own attempt at prophetic cinema.

Just as 2001 wanted to explore the possibilities of space and beyond, Interstellar aims to go to the final frontier and further, all the while exploring the nature of humanity and the unknowns of the universe.

Even the structures of the two films are similar, which makes it even harder to avoid these comparisons - it's impossible not to think of Interstellar as Nolan's Space Odyssey.

As such, this film is incredibly ambitious, even for the director who took us into a dream inside a dream inside a dream with relative ease. However, this might be a starbridge too far.

As fascinating and scientifically intriguing as it is, Interstellar asks a lot of the viewer in terms of endurance (it's almost three hours long) and whether you will buy into the plot twists that come with its cosmic destination. And after just one viewing it's not immediately obvious how successful it is.

The film spends the first hour on Earth sometime in the possibly not-too-distant future, where climate change has wiped out billions of people and ruined most of the world's crops, leaving the planet a dusty husk of its former self.

Among the farmers struggling to keep the world's mouths fed is Cooper (McConaughey), a former test pilot who turns to corn farming after the government shuts down non-essential programs, and while he still secretly yearns for the adventures of his youth, Cooper is mostly content to raise his two kids.

That is until some weird happenings in the family home inadvertently lead him into space as part of a mission to find a new home on a new planet in order to save what remains of humanity.


Obviously there are some major plot points removed from this synopsis, but you're better off not knowing them and just enjoying the surprises. Nolan's typical secrecy meant the trailers gave away little about this film in the lead up other than "McConaughey goes to space to save dusty world" and that's one thing of the key things Interstellar has going for it - it's a journey into the unknown for the characters and audience alike.

But is it an enjoyable one? That's the question you might find yourself asking as you walk out of the cinema after three bum-numbing hours.

Interstellar is definitely fascinating. It's filled with amazing ideas, stunning visuals, great performances, and what is apparently a level of scientific theory that's interesting if you're so inclined.

But after all this brain fodder and some genuinely awe-inspiring moments we finally reach the third act - and it's a long time coming - the story takes a turn that will either leave you tearing up your ticket or glued to your seat.

My initial reaction was the former but the more the film went on and the more I think about the film in the hours since watching it, the more I am willing to forgive it. Maybe. To be honest I'm still undecided.

And that's the general feeling I'm left with after seeing Interstellar - a sensation of indecision.

Large parts of the film are stunning, such as the depictions of blackholes, wormholes and space travel, but other bits are not so great, such as some of the dialogue, the lack of characterisation, and that plot twist. There are questions unanswered - some deliberately so but some seemingly ignored - and while this does make me want to watch it again to dig a little deeper into the film, its length is kind of off-putting. At the same time, the fact that I'm still thinking about it so much is probably a positive.

Interstellar is ambitious, perhaps overly so, and it's engaging and intriguing, perhaps at the expense of being truly entertaining. For now, the best I can say is that, yeah, it's pretty cool and particularly impressive on the big screen but not quite the five-star classic that Inception or 2001: A Space Odyssey is.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Guardians Of The Galaxy

(M) ★★★★

Director: James Gunn.

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel.

"Who is Keyser Soze?"

WHILE comic book powerhouse DC were dithering about rebooting Superman and Batman yet again rather than daring to do something different, its rival Marvel looked at its vast roster of characters and said, "whatever - let's make a superhero movie starring a tree and a talking raccoon".

Almost every article about Guardians Of The Galaxy has called it "a gamble". Marvel's film-making arm has taken its fair share of risks in setting up its Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) - Iron Man wasn't exactly a household name, The Hulk was rebooted not long after the Ang Lee debacle, Captain America had to overcome perceptions of being a mere jingoistic flag-waver, and Thor's mixture of Norse myth, faux-Shakespearean dialogue and hammer-throwing was seen as unwieldy.

Even with all that in mind, taking the little-known Guardians Of The Galaxy to the big screen was seen as a bridge too far.

But, as with pretty much everything it has done, Marvel has gambled and won with this comedic space opera. Sci-fi hasn't been this fun since Star Wars and it hasn't been this funny since Galaxy Quest.

The premise isn't ground-breaking - a Usual Suspects-style gang of criminals pool their talents to take on a bigger baddie who is after a powerful weapon they have stolen.

What makes Guardians Of The Galaxy cool is that said criminals are a quirky bunch. There's the human thief Peter Quill aka Starlord (Pratt) whose most prized possession is a Walkman, the tree-like Groot (Diesel), a raccoon named Rocket (Cooper), a literal-minded mountain of muscle called Drax The Destroyer (Bautista), and a green-skinned assassin with trust issues named Gamora (Saldana).


The performances are top notch. Pratt, in just one film, has leapt from wacky supporting character to the A-list with an endearing and funny turn as Quill, who comes across as a goofier Han Solo. As expected Rocket and Groot steal the show, but the big surprise is wrestler-turned-actor Bautista, whose Drax is unknowingly hilarious and a real highlight of the film.

With such a set-up, Guardians Of The Galaxy's brilliantly succeeds in not taking itself too seriously, except when it needs too.

The perfect example of this can be found in the first five minutes. The opening scene poignantly sets up Quill's relationship with his mother, but immediately follows that by introducing the film's irreverent nature with a sequence that introduces Quill and his beloved Walkman.

The Tarantino-esque soundtrack he's listening to is a good example of how clever Guardians Of The Galaxy is. Not only do we get to watch spaceship shoot-outs and visit alien worlds accompanied by the smooth sounds of Marvin Gaye, The Runaways, David Bowie, The Jackson 5, and 10CC, but the music is part of the story and a clever plot device.

With its timely bad language, a hilarious Kevin Bacon reference, Groot's three-word vocabulary ("I am Groot"), and a very funny dig at the "stirring speech" cliché, this film is shaping up to be the funniest of the year. It even uses its post-credit sequence as a joke, although one likely to go over the heads of all but the nerdiest of Marvel fans.

Underneath the gags however, Guardians Of The Galaxy uses its MacGuffin-centric plot to address themes of friendship and loss, giving its five Guardians just enough development and baggage to make us care about them and their growing bond.

The biggest criticism of the film is the way it delivers some of its important information such as character backstories or details about the galaxy. There's always going to be a fair amount of necessary exposition in this type of movie, but the script feels a little bit clunky at times, such as when a new character arrives and immediately spouts their motivations and background seemingly unprompted.

Despite this, Guardians Of The Galaxy is pleasingly restrained in its world-building. It hints at so much more that is going on its galaxy but doesn't get bogged down in it, nor does it labour over connections to the pre-existing Marvel Cinematic Universe - aside from The Other and Thanos (who were seen in The Avengers) and The Collector (who popped up in Thor 2's post-credit sequence), this is a stand-alone property that doesn't require watching the previous nine MCU movies.

Overall, Guardians Of The Galaxy is just downright enjoyable. It's the kind of movie that makes you wish you were a kid again, because you know that if you'd seen it at the right age it would have definitely become your favourite movie of all time.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

(M) ★★★★

Director: Matt Reeves.

Cast:  Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer.

"Grapes? That's not what I thought you sent me to the shops for."
ONE of the biggest cinematic surprises in recent years was Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes - another unwanted reboot/reimagining/prequel that turned out to be one of the best films of 2011.

So here's the sequel to that movie no one wanted and - surprise, surprise - it's also really good.

While not as tautly scripted as its predecessor, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (known as DOTPOTA from here on in) is another great balance of emotional punch, great characters (all apes), and action thrills.

Eight years after chief chimp Caesar (Serkis) led his fellow chemically enhanced apes to freedom across the Golden Gate Bridge, the world is a very different place. A virus has wiped out much of humanity, with the survivors eking out an existence in small communities, such as one in San Francisco.

At the other end of the Golden Gate Bridge, Caesar's colony is thriving, unaware any humans remain alive.

However a run-in between Caesar's forces and a small group of human survivors led by Malcolm (Clarke) sets in motion a chain of events that will lead the two species to either mutually beneficial peace or bloody war.


DOTPOTA pulls a few of the same tricks as its predecessor (which we will call ROTPOTA), but it's a very different film. Its misty forest and dark broken city settings give a suitably ape-ocalyptic (sorry) vibe to proceedings that's a stark contrast to the warm homely tones and bright clinical labs of the first film.

This is also very much the apes' film. Whereas Caesar (a combination of Serkis' motion-captured performance and some CG wizardry) and his simian sidekicks stole the show last time, this time they own the show.

The interplay and relationships between Caesar, the tortured human-hating bonobo Koba (Kebbell), the wise Bornean orangutan Maurice (Konoval), and Caesar's son Blue Eyes (Thurston) are far more fascinating than those of the humans. While Clarke gets a lot to do as a sort-of go-between for the humans and the apes, Oldman does little but give vaguely rousing speeches and mourn for the past and Russell is a plot device disguised as a doctor.

This doesn't matter though because the apes are the reason to watch. They are wonderfully realised characters built from nuanced performances (particularly from Serkis and Kebbell) and some near flawless special effects.

The moral questions raised, the themes of trust and power, and the emotional moments are no less effective for being provided by a cast of CG primates.

As with ROTPOTA, DOTPOTA (yep, it's ridiculous but stick with me here) takes us to a destination we're expecting - a planet of, well, apes - but does so in an unexpected manner. It's this that helped make the first one so enjoyable and intriguing and the feat is impressive once again here.

While the humans are the weakest link, the apes more than make up for it, creating a sequel that's well worth watching.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

(M) ★★★★

Director: Joe and Anthony Russo.

Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L Jackson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Frank Grillo.

Insert joke about farting in elevators here.
NINE films into Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and this megafranchise shows no signs of slowing.

The only perceptible weakness has been getting their sequels – Iron Man 2 and 3, and Thor 2 – to match up to the incredibly high standards of their predecessors.

It’s a tough ask, but one they ably meet in Captain America 2, with the resulting film that rarest of movie beasts – a sequel as good as the original.

Of course, this is more than just a sequel to the 2011 debut of supersoldier Steve Rogers (Evans). It follows on from the hero team-up The Avengers and makes more than a few passing references to the larger Marvel universe, continuing to weave its interconnected web, which fans are finding almost as enjoyable as the films themselves.

But with an ever-expanding universe, there’s a danger that the standalone character films could become redundant in a post-Avengers world – when facing peril, why not just call up Iron Man, Hulk and Thor to lend a hand?

Thankfully, this isn’t a problem in Captain America 2, where a subterfuge-reliant plot means things move too fast and too secretively to wonder why Rogers isn’t calling his superpowered buddies to lend a hand.

Not that he’s alone in his mission fighting the film’s Big Bad (the less you know about the actual what and who of the plot and its villains, the better for your enjoyment). The Black Widow aka Natasha Romanoff (Johnasson) returns for her third Marvel outing, as does head spy Nick Fury (Jackson making his sixth appearance), while newcomer Sam Wilson aka The Falcon (Mackie) is a welcome addition as an army veteran with a very cool jetpack.


Each of these characters – plus the titular metal-armed Winter Soldier – gets plenty of screen time to do their thing. The Falcon feels like a fully fledged superhero as opposed to a crammed-in sidekick, while Black Widow and Nick Fury continue to develop as interesting players who could easily carry their own spin-off films.

As for Captain America himself, people who see him as a jingoistic piece of chestbeating patriotism will be surprised to learn he doesn’t represent a country but rather an ideal that is at loggerheads with his country. The plot is particularly timely, with its electronic espionage angles tackling the NSA phone-tapping scandal and governments' ability to monitor our movements and behaviour in an age when we share everything online, leaving it to Captain America to ask the question "is this really freedom?".

As a result, the tone of the film and its security-vs-privacy notions is more akin to the political conspiracy films of the ‘70s, as opposed to the Raiders Of The Lost Ark vibe of the first Captain America movie, or the sci-fi/fantasy blend of the Thor films, or the epic blockbuster stylings of The Avengers.

The action sequences and fight scenes are superb, especially Captain America’s near-singlehanded takedown of a boatload of pirates, his punch-ons with The Winter Soldier and Batroc, and the moment when The Falcon finally shows what his jet pack can do.

It’s hard to judge whether this film makes any sense without having seen the first Captain America movie, but I get the feeling it does, with plenty of backstory helpfully spliced in throughout.

And if that feeling is correct, then this is already shaping up as one of the best actioners of the year, whether you’re a Marvel fan or not.