An elegantly directed sci-fi adventure considerably undermined by yet another painfully flat Nolan screenplay, Interstellar charts the epic attempts of a small group of scientists and astronauts to locate a planet capable of supporting the human race as its Earthly sustenance quickly dries up. Mathew McConaughey heads the cast as the mission’s pilot desperate to get back to the children he left behind before they age beyond the point where he can help them while Ann Hathaway’s stiffish scientist and a couple of nicely conceived robots keep him company on board the spacecraft. Back on Earth, Michael Caine is the brains behind the mission, Jessica Chastain is the grown up version of McConaughey’s equally clever daughter, and Casey Affleck is his son who, like the majority of remaining humans, is attempting to farm what’s left of their desertification-headed planet.
Regaining his 2008 Dark Knight directorial form, writer-director Christopher Nolan composes a quite beautiful and thrilling action thriller that achieves a perfect balance between mood and energy with no small help from Hans Zimmer’s sublime score. Making the deftest use of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stark and striking cinematography, he avoids overplaying the CGI card keeping the story front and centre. The story isn’t bad either and, predictable as its key moments are, it serves Nolan’s grand ambitions for a Kubrickian like space epic. More the pity then that the screenplay does not. Bloated with expositional dialogue and artificial sentiment, it bungles its way towards a gargantuan mishandling of a straightforward (“save the world before it’s too late”) premise with the kind of overblown piece of psycho-physical drivel that plagued Inception. Co-penned with his more adept writer-brother (Jonathan sat Inception out), this script at least shows more restraint than that 2010 monument to tedium but not nearly enough to engender its protagonists nor their dilemmas with the depth and cadences that the premise deserved. The well conceived drama emerging from the astronauts ageing more slowly than their loved ones back home is an exception to this and proves to be the movie’s one successful appeal to the audience’s emotions.
Ultimately, the problem with Interstellar is yet again one of Nolan reaching beyond his capabilities by attempting to match the work of masters who simply operated at a level higher than his own (that’s not an insult Chris, most filmmakers toil in the shadows of Kubrick and Tarkovsky!). The innumerable references to 2001: A Space Odyssey eventually feel less like a homage and more like an attempt to disguise that failure, proving far more imitative than emulative. That said, the couple of HAL-inspired robots (the Bill Irwin-voiced “TARS” in particular) work fantastically within the confines of this story, coming alive in a whirl of mechanised motion during the best of the action sequences and adding most of the humour outside of them. And, thankfully, it’s these such lighter more grounded touches that sees Interstellar passing muster as a sci-fi thriller even while failing as an attempt at something more profound.
Rating: The Good – 78.3 Genre: Drama, Crime Duration: 125 mins Director: J.C. Chandor Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Al Brooks
The rise and further rise of writer-director J.C. Chandor continues with this bleak morality play about a resolute family man (Oscar Isaac) attempting to build an honest company in the crooked world of home oil delivery. When his trucks are repeatedly hijacked, he must resist pressure from both his mob-daughter wife (Jessica Chastain) and his desperate business partner (Al Brooks) to adopt the violent practices of the business while simultaneously trying to save the biggest deal of his life. The story plays out in 1981 New York, a historical high point in the city’s crime statistics and against this backdrop, his determined decency seems at odds with everything around him and the plot hinges entirely on his ability to maintain an even keel.
Chandor approaches this one as stoically as he did All is Lost, a 106 minute long film about a man alone on a sinking boat, and that’s saying something given the multitude of characters that we encounter here. However, because he approaches them consistently from the perspective of Isaac’s self-made man and because he is a lone island in troubled waters, the film evokes a heavy loneliness from the middle of the first act onwards. Shot in the flat lighting of the gritty 1970’s and 80’s New York crime thrillers, Chandor seamlessly conflates his film’s moody aesthetic with its central theme and then simply drops Isaac smack in the middle. The director clearly knew he had an actor who was up to the task. It’s a calm but powerful turn that maintains a razor sharp edge despite his character’s inherent inability to intimidate. That edge is no doubt tempered by Chastain’s spiky performance as the increasingly impatient other half who may take matters into her own hands at any minute and, to be fair, she supports the film substantially despite her character’s necessary marginalisation. Brooks puts in solid shift too and a host of lesser know actors fill out the rest of the cast with varying degrees of pathos and personality.
It’s far from an energised ride and the plot coalesces in a severely unorthodox manner but A Most Violent Year develops an intrigue that many dramas lack. Right now, US cinema is going through a renewed phase of self-discovery and so singular films like this one will pop up from time to time, uninfluenced by what came before and unlikely to have much affect on what follows. But for discerning film-goers, they represent a special kind of treat and should be approached accordingly.
Rating: The Good – 80.4 Genre: Thriller, Drama Duration: 157 mins Director: Kathryn Bigelow Stars: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt
The search for Osama Bin Laden was always going to make a thrilling story but few would’ve expected it to be depicted in the manner Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty did. Rather than give us a sprawling manhunt full of thrills and close calls or a tense forensic investigative mystery, she and her writer Mark Boal offer up something more contemplative and altogether more unorthodox. Jessica Chastain plays the driven young agent who is charged with fulfilling the increasingly unpopular remit of finding the world’s most wanted man. Beginning in 2003, we see the eroding yet hardening effect the eight year manhunt has on her as she moves from one source to another (the infamous “detainees”) trying to piece together the puzzle from their scant accounts. The controversial torture scenes are incorporated incidentally and without judgement (this shouldn’t be mistaken for approval) so that an overall picture is painted. This of course encourages a more objective assessment of the entire affair and lets the viewers make up their own minds. It’s the personality of the main players that keeps the audience interested during the protracted first and second acts, watching them wear and tear in relation to the pressure of a fruitless endeavour and changes in political climate. Chastain is real and reveals a curiously compelling strength but there’s no doubt her character can grate (there are a few misjudged brattish moments where she genuinely tests the audience’s loyalty). Jason Clarke is excellent as the lead investigator and Jennifer Ehle shows yet again how important she can be to a movie in a well written support role.
As he did with The Hurt Locker, Boal shows that script writing is not his first trade. The structure is almost alien to what we are used to but thanks to the uniqueness of the story and a more refined working relationship with Bigelow, they manage to steer this one home. The first two acts can be slow going but there’s an organic flow to the chapters and events as they unfold. There’s also a serious payout because during the final act when we leave Chastain’s character and pick up with the SEAL team who execute the ultimate search and destroy mission, this films morphs into sleekest depiction of stealth warfare we’ve ever witnessed on film. A series of rugged and grizzled looking men (a mix between lesser known actors and actual former SEALs) begin to fill the cast and Greig Fraser’s cinematography comes into its own as the bleached deserts of day time Pakistan are replaced with the steely grey of the extended night-time mission. The action is slick, real, and very hardcore for when the SEALs aren’t busy surviving helicopter crashes and improvising their entries they’re executing their plan and training with formidable precision. And it’s in this feature that the true strength of Zero Dark Thirty is revealed. It’s authenticity. Based on real life accounts and informed by a team of consultants, this film pulses with realism. Everything in this film from the experimental stealth helicopters, the four goggle night vision apparatus, to the relatively more modest even humdrum tools of the earlier investigation (with the exception of that cool “predator bay”) feels legitimate. And when combined with Bigelow’s methodical buildup and tightly controlled tension, it all amounts to a cinematic experience that is genuinely unique and immensely competent.