Interstellar (2014)

Whether by pure chance or design, the cinema I was sitting in to see Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic “Interstellar” ran the trailer for the grand daddy of sci-fi epics “2001 : A Space Odyssey” before hand. It was a prescient choice, given that the parallels between the two are obvious. Indeed the trailer, for the upcoming re-release of Stanley Kubrick’s cerebral masterpiece features a quote from Nolan himself, who refers to “2001” as “Pure cinema”.

At their core, both movies share the same basic story; a mysterious, possibly alien, presence compels man to travel to the stars in search of answers. In “2001” the motivation is purely curiosity, but in “Interstellar” there is a more pressing drive. Man must venture beyond this planet because this planet is dying, or at least becoming uninhabitable. The answer to this impending doom lies out there, and man is guided by a mysterious hand from beyond, referred to as “they”.

That is where the similarities end. If “2001” is pure cinema, and it is, then “Interstellar” is Nolan’s attempt at such purity and he approaches it with a scientist’s precision. But cinema is not a science, it is an art, and any attempts to distil its purest form in any kind of formulaic way will end up being sterile and cold, devoid of humanity.

The first half of “Interstellar” appears to be almost entirely exposition dialogue. Almost every line uttered seems to be in service to explaining the situation that the characters find themselves in, clumsily disguised as natural conversation peppered with plot points to note down. And if they are not driving the story, they are instead sign posting the films message with polemic statements about mans place in the universe that are ham fistedly dropped into conversations. It brings to mind the character from “Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood” who popped up to shout “message!” every time a character made a John Singleton-esque piece of social commentary. There is nothing wrong with polemic film making, but it can’t feel like you are attending a lecture. Or worse still, a morality play put on a by a local church to warn kids of the dangers of some vice.

Narrative dialogue pervades whole swathes of “Interstellar”. Contrast with the relative sparseness of “2001”’s dialogue. The maxim “show, don’t tell” is completely abandoned here. Everything is narrated by the characters explaining it to each other, and us, the audience. There is, admittedly, a core of humanity represented by the break up of a family as the father goes off to “save humanity”. This core is hindered by clunky dialogue, but saved by excellent acting from all involved.

Once our characters get up into space the film begins to pick up. Nolan can create a thrilling action sequence, and “Interstellar” has a number of them. The mid section of the movie settles into an entertaining enough yarn, and you are carried along by the combination of special effects, roller coaster action and bombastic music. It does “peril in space” well, but I couldn’t help but think of last year’s “Gravity” which took this to its logical conclusion. Still, it thrills and delights for a good extended period. But it feels like slight of hand, a diversion to distract you from looking behind the curtain and finding out there’s nothing there. In time however, “Interstellar” begins to set up its big final reveal, as the mysterious other is unveiled.

Both “2001” and Nolan’s film culminate in the central hero astronaut, having defeated a nefarious interfering menace, confronting the central ‘alien’ mystery. But whereas Kubrick gives the audience space to interpret, ponder and imagine in the incredible “Star Gate” sequence and beyond, Nolan takes you by the hand and begins to point out the pieces bit-by-bit (all driven by external character narrative). “2001” leaves a void in which the audience can speculate, but “Interstellar” literally tells you almost everything, but in doing so unveils a mystery which ultimately collapses under its the weight of its own logic. “2001” gives you enough to fill in the gaps yourself, “Interstellar” gives you so much, you are left with a gap that makes no sense. The sad thing is the central premise of the mystery in “Interstellar” is a great idea, but so literally explained and revealed it ultimately feels silly.

The scientists in “Interstellar” are obsessed with solving an equation which will reveal humanity’s salvation. Nolan appears to look upon film making in a similar way. Like his characters he is looking for all the variables which will complete the puzzle, and he proceeds through them in an objectively literal way. It is no surprise that the man who in “Inception” (which I enjoyed) presented dreams not as the hazy, shimmering experience they are, but as tightly bound rule driven video games, does something similar with the mysteries of a multi-dimensional universe. Like the similarly cosmic and ambitious “The Tree of Life” by Terrence Malick, the film could have ended 20 minutes before it did and chopped off a whole section of explanation and I would have been left much more satisfied. Fade to white and let us finish it.

“2001” and “Interstellar” are two planets orbiting the same star. But “2001” is a world partly cast in darkness, in the shadow of a monolith which invites us to explore its mysteries for ourselves. “Interstellar” is bathed in the cold light of day, where everything is revealed and its mysteries are exposed in an objective, joyless glare and ultimately is found wanting.

Calvary (2014)

I was instantly interested in seeing John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” the moment I saw the trailer some months ago. This was despite having viscerally disliked the writer/director’s previous collaboration with Brendan Gleeson “The Guard”. I remember watching “The Guard” and being genuinely disturbed by how much acclaim it got. For me it was a tone-deaf mess, not sure of what it was supposed to be and shot through with a streak of nastiness wherein (like McDonagh’s brother Martin’s “In Bruges”) much of the comedic value seems to rest on having gombeenish cartoon Irish men say bigoted offensive slurs. But despite this, “Calvary” seemed to offer something; a compelling story (a priest is threatened with murder and has one week to put his house in order), beautifully shot, with a powerful Brendan Gleeson performance at its centre.

Having now seen the film, I can report that it retains all of those things (trailers can be deceptive) but despite these, the film is an unholy (pun intended) mess. Like “In Bruges” it is tone-deaf, shifting from solemness one moment to slap stick panto acting the next. Gleeson appears to be occupying a different universe than everyone else, like a character from one film has stumbled into a sketch show, or like Bob Hoskin’s grizzled detective wandering into cartoon land in “Who Frames Roger Rabbit?”. Black comedy can be a beautiful thing, but must be handled deftly. Here there is no subtly and it comes apart at the seems.

It is also as subtle as a brick. Clearly a film about a priest in modern Ireland is going to carry a message, and there is something needed to be discussed, but “Calvary” wants to say too much. Almost every scene features a caricature of modern Ireland, many played by skilled actors who have turned their performances to 11, some 20. In Father James Lavelle’s final week he does a greatest hits tour of troubled souls, ticking off many boxes as he goes, including a serial killer, secluded novelist, Celtic Tiger hyper capitalist, and a village idiot type that appears to have been created in a costume shop. One character even remarks about how themselves are cliché, but a knowing self referential wink at the camera does not forgive such laziness. At it’s core it does have something to say about forgiveness, but this is almost drowned in everything else. Only Gleeson’s masterful performance and the films stunning cinematography keep the film in any way ticking along.

I remarked to someone who liked the movie that the characters did not feel real and they retorted that it wasn’t supposed to be reality. That may be so, and I love movies that distort, extend and play with reality. The films of Wes Anderson, for instance, occur in a parallel universe, with people portrayed in an exaggerated way, but they still are relatable. “Calvary” exaggerates, but does it in the most ham fisted way. These characters seem so unreal to the point where I cannot recognise them, or worse still, I cannot sympathise with them. Only Gleeson’s Father James, his daughter Fiona (played by Kelly Reilly ) and David McSavage’s Bishop Montgomery really worked for me.

It has moments of fleeting beauty, mainly between Father James and Fiona, and of the stunning Sligo landscape, and some genuinely funny moments but they are few and fair between in this over cooked movie, which culminates in a montage sequence so prescriptive that it could have come out of an episode of Hollyoaks.

Robot and Frank

“Robot and Frank” hasn’t really made a splash in the public domain but it’s a great little movie. The Oscar’s pretty much mean nothing to me, and certainly not since Russell Crowe took home the Award for Gladiator, but how Frank Langella didn’t get even a nod for his wonderfully nuanced portrayal of a retired cat burglar struggling with old age who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a robot is beyond me. He’s the centrepiece of a lovely piece of film making. It makes subtle points about old age, the role of technology in our lives, friendship and memories whilst also being laugh out loud funny.
Check it out.

Cloud Atlas

When I saw the trailer for Cloud Atlas I knew it was something I had to see. When it finally arrived here it came with the baggage of having been a commercial flop in the States and dividing critics between those who proclaimed it one of the best of the year, and one of the worst. I can sadly appreciate why it flopped as its a hugely ambitious concept, taking David Mitchell’s complex interweaving novel structure of multiple stories across different timezones (stretching from the 19th century to the far, far future) and having different actors portray people of different genders, race, nationality etc, all packed in to a dizzying 3 hours. On the surface it probably feels a lot more complex than it actually is, its really much more straightforward.

It’s brilliant. As a friend who saw it with me said “I enjoyed every minute of that.” It never once felt slow or long, I was never once bored, the pacing expertly timed to introduce the characters and concepts before gradually pulling all the threads together, making the links between all the disparate elements clear. Parts of it reminded me of the finale of Inception as the different story lines converge (although, it must be said, Inception probably pulled off the big ‘convergent’ scene better, but it had less to do). The ensemble cast are excellent (although, as good as Tom Hanks is, his brief turn as an Irishman produced guffaws from the Dublin audience…his accent is up there with the all time great bad Oirish brogues from Hollywood), and its a technical tour-de-force (how it didn’t get Oscar nods for editing, effects or make-up is beyond me).

And running through it all is a central philosophy of interdependence and interconnectedness that is very dear to my heart. In many ways it’s a manifesto for a radical Buddhist-socialist-Wattsian revolution. I’m on for that.

I’ve described Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” as a glorious mess. “Cloud Atlas” is in the same spirit of adventurous, risk-taking, grand cinema. It is prone to over sentimentality, but I don’t think a film tackling these kind of themes in this way can’t be. And I guess in todays cynicism-as-default mode, anything like this can be dismissed as ‘sentimental’. But it works. It’s a glorious success.

It Is Happening Again: Twin Peaks Season Two (Part 1)

In my previous post about Twin Peaks, I remarked that the passage of time sometimes has the effect of reflecting the past through the flattering lens of nostalgia, but that Twin Peaks has remained a genuine curio of delights. In a similar manner, the passage of time also allows certain opinions to become widely accepted without much questioning. For instance, it is often said that whilst season one of Twin Peaks was a wildly original and entertaining series, the second season with the departure of David Lynch from day to day production and the revelation of Laura Palmer’s killer, was a pale imitation of the first. This is only true in part – indeed, it really applies to the _second half_ of season two. In retrospect, you can draw a clear line halfway through season two as a result.

Spoilers ahoy

Continue reading “It Is Happening Again: Twin Peaks Season Two (Part 1)”

“I reject absolutely: revenge, aggression and retaliation.”

One of my all time favourite scenes from Twin Peaks

Albert Rosenfield: You listen to me. While I will admit to a certain cynicism, the fact is that I am a naysayer and hatchet-man in the fight against violence. I pride myself in taking a punch and I’ll gladly take another because I choose to live my life in the company of Gandhi and King. My concerns are global. I reject absolutely: revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method… is love. I love you Sheriff Truman.

Dale Cooper: Albert’s path is a strange and difficult one.

Silence

‘Silence’ is a remarkable Irish movie about a sound recordist who returns to Ireland after 15 years to record soundscapes free from any man-made sound. As he does this, we are treated to a feast of visual and audio delights. The film is a slow, meditative piece, with minimal dialogue. I went into ‘Silence’ thinking it was a documentary, but left not knowing exactly what it is. It is, however, a stunning film. There are moments of breathtaking beauty as Eoghan journeys throughout Ireland looking for the elusive silence.

I’ve recently spent a few days off work and have done a bit of walking in some of the pockets of nature in Dublin city. When you live and work in the city centre you need to seek out and immerse yourself in whatever moments of silence you can. Whilst the places I visited are not as still or remote as the places ‘Silence’ take us, their proximity to the chaos of the inner city make their relative stillness all the more remarkable. Within a half hour of the heart of the city you can find yourself on a rocky outcrop overlooking a brilliant blue sea far below or wander through lesser known parts of our famous parks.

This is not escapism, however. I think finding moments and places of stillness and silence is like meditating – its benefits will be felt when you go back into the world with all its sound and fury. Going to these places is like visiting some kind of existential petrol station. I like to go, be still, and top up on the atmosphere, and try and take just a tiny bit of that back with me.

Silence is playing in the IFI.

Occupy Gotham City

Be warned: spoilers after the fold…

So, last night I saw the concluding part of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises”. This isn’t a review, but I thought it was excellent and probably the best of the series. (In a side note, I’ve come to the conclusion that the much lauded middle act “The Dark Knight” (whilst also excellent) is probably my least favourite entry).

Anyhow, of all the talk around the film, one of the interesting themes has been its politics. It’s alleged that “Rises..” has a strongly right-wing, conservative pro-capitalist message. It’s outlined quite succinctly here in The Guardian; Bane and his goons talk of returning Gotham to “the people” and literally attack the stock exchange, and the comparison is made to the Occupy Wall Street movement. In contrast, the hero of the hour is a philanthropist billionaire or as its put:

the new film demonises collective action against capital while asking us to put our hope and faith in a chastened rich.

It’s also been mentioned that Gotham appears to have no social welfare program, and its most needy citizens live off handouts from rich people. In fairness, its hard to deny this reading of the film – Bane and his movement do espouse the ‘take back your lives from the wealthy’ rhetoric of Occupy, and violently attack the literal heart of Big Finance, whilst Catwoman also waxes lyrical on how the rich have gotten away with ‘living so large for so long’.

So, I agree, you can definitely spin the movie that way. But I think many of these observations are made after a surface reading of the film. If you actually think about it, things are not so clear.

(Here be the spoilers)

Continue reading “Occupy Gotham City”