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Interstellar

Interstellar film posterSynopsis

Starring Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a NASA trained astronaut and engineer who lives in a near future world of poverty, food shortages, and urban deterioration.  His daughter (Jennifer Chastain is her as an adult) has the makings of a top scientist. Cooper lives with his family and grandfather John Lithgow.  Educational priorities are about survival so Cooper’s son is to be a farmer not an engineer.  Cooper and his daughter come upon the NASA base where Cooper is asked to pioneer through a worm hole in Saturn’s orbit. He and his crew must reach habitable planets in other star systems with a view to their colonnnization.  He travels in space with Amelia (Anne Hathaway) daughter of NASA scientist Michael Caine.  They visit a planet where Matt Damon is marooned.  Does Cooper get beyond the black hole back to Saturn’s orbit, what then?

Review

One thinks of Kubrick’s 2001, the eco concerns of Silent Running, and Contact.  The links with Contact are that McConaughey played the priest, not the astronaut, in that film by Carl Sagan who originated the fictional idea of travel by wormhole.  The visionary optimism of 2001 is replaced here with a sombre desperation, space exploration is no longer about wisdom and knowledge but about survival.  Indeed, on Earth the authorities do not even acknowledge the reality of the moon landings, preferring to dismiss them as Cold War fakes.  NASA must act clandestinely.  Interstellar has lost hope in humanity’s ability to save its ravaged planet, so running away seems the best option.  Hi-tech interiors at NASA, and in space, are not gloomy but dirty and shabby.  There is marvellous visual poetry in the scenes over Earth and around Saturn (in the book of 2001 the stargate is in one of Saturn’s moons, in the film it’s from Jupiter).  Nolan here shows his fascination with the turning upside down of urbanscapes, in the space station the streets whirl in a vast merry-go-round like in Inception.  From his Batman film Nolan has brought in Michael Caine, now a professor.  Jessica Chastain as Cooper’s genius daughter does a lot of emotional gurning.  She’s a bright scientist who leap frogs over blackboard theory with messianic intuitions.  Running around in maize fields she must have felt she was stranded again in Terence Mallick’s Tree of Life.  Whenever a film shows us a lot of maize fields we know this is an American dream land, here is the pioneering spirit, great truths revealed by Mum and Dad, the heart of American enterprise.  Family crisis means scenes of universal significance.

The dialogue often tells us what the film should show.  We get lots of junior school science with all the explanatory power of Superman comics when people tell each other things they must already know.  They talk about extra dimensions like earnest and easily confused hippies. The robot is a dark glass box going for a walk.  Its manner is agreeably witty (unlike the precious Hal of 2001 or the cute R2D2 of Star Wars).  The scenes on the planets show a giant oceanic wave on one, and frozen clouds and mountains on another, complete with a pissed-off Matt Damon trying to get back to earth.  The music is of a metronomically mesmeric kind we’ve come to expect of space dockings and so on.  Always watchable but the script needed sharpening.

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Posted by on January 15, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 film posterSynopsis

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is with the underground rebel movement and is being designed as its leader.  Julianne Moore  is the rebel president.  Alma Coin (Donald Sutherland) is her foe, President Snow of Capitol.  Both rebel and Capitol forces attack each other. Katniss invents the mockingjay song as the anthem of revolution.  Her friend Peeta from Catching Fire has been brainwashed by the government and he is interviewed by impresario Stanley Tucci.  The rebels cut off Capitol’s power and infiltrate it.  Will they rescue Peeta?

Review

The first book of Hunger Games has been split in two as the franchise takes its cue from the Harry Potter gravy train.  Mockingjay appears to have jettisoned the futurism of the previous films, as decadent nabobs have scrapped the make up for the born again puritan look in boiler suits, and Katniss has settled for teen war chic as (rather approprietely with ironic intentions as to the power of film) she engages in a media image as well as an arms war.  Our heroes stroll through the war rubble like world-redeeming rock stars, posing against disaster backdrops as if telling us this is what’s happening right now in some parts of the world.  Jennifer Lawrence is a pretty good teen hero model. She has the charisma and the face for it, she is a sci-fi messiah as a feminist riposte to Paul in Dune.  The film is going for contemporary relevance not just regarding the horrors of war but also enviromental disaster.  Julianne Moore is icily effective as the iron-like president, as she and her team create a charismatic role for Katniss.  This, for me, is a canny self acknowledgement of Mockingjay’s own merchandizing power as a franchise, as it fosters luvvie delusions about being spokespersons for the world.  It appears to be distancing itself from the other teen franchises too, as it tries to be a thinking person’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Why Katniss would love someone as feeble as Peeta is a mystery since she is superior in every way.  There is an inescapable aura of sadness in this film because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death..

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Lucy

Lucy film posterSynopsis

Luc Besson’s film about a young woman Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) who is set up by her boyfriend to deliver what turns out to be brain enhancing chemicals to a Chinese gang lord.  She is implanted with these chemicals as a dry mule but she develops her brain’s use from 10% (we allegedly only use that amount of our brain power) to 100%.  She becomes an avenger as her superpowers sort out the world, bringing the other implant victims to the police dealing with the gangsters and academies in Paris.  What happens when she reaches 100%?

Review

A silly caper movie which copies Bradley Cooper’s Limitless but with zonkier special effects.  Lucy means ‘light’ of course, so she is due to achieve mystical transcendence, right?  The trouble is, that her superpowers are so exaggerated that they pre-emptively deny the plot, she can have no serious rivals or competittors.  The special effects try to cover up for lack of dramatic tension.  She outstrips all the superheroes.  This seems to go the way of Johansson’s other recent films, Her  and Under the Skin.  In those films she was grappling with being human, here she’s transcending it as she zips around time and place.  She meets Native Americans and dinosaurs, and the original Lucy our supposed hominid ancestors.  It all gets a bit ‘Terence Mallick’ until we realize we’re watching another deft sci-fi vehicle a la Nicholas Cage.  Brain enhancement ought to be an opportunity for satire at the expense of fallen humanity’s follies like The Man Who Fell to Earth, but she only seems to amplify them as she doesn’t hesitate needlessly to kill people.  Morgan Freeman is the professor who tells us about 10% brain use and he does it so ponderously there seems to be a danger of his using only 5% of his brainpower.  This being a Besson film there are sumptuous visuals but it’s like a computer commercial, somebody sponsoring glossy dreck.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Transcendence

transSynopsis

Jonny Depp’s mathematician (Will Caster) is a leading light in artificial intelligence.  Rebecca Hall is his partner and Paul Bettany is his friend.  Caster is shot by a Luddite afraid of the hubristic implications of his research and his group sabotage decades of it.  Caster dies but his consciousness is updated to a mainframe in the desert.  Hall is his faithful helper but Bettany’s doubts lead him to being recruited by the Luddites and then by the government fearful of the threat Caster’s intelligence poses. Is Hall won over to Bettany’s cause, what happens to Caster?

Review

At first I dismissed this as solemn bog standard sci-fi which, like the film I Robot, tends to side-step the more complicated issues concerning what it is to be human vis a vis artificial intelligence.  Depp’s disembodied face in the computer almost had me giggling, as it made me want for his Jack Sparrow routine in Pirates of the Caribbean.  It doesn’t help that Hall and Bettany are lumbered with such corny roles:  Hall being superstitiously reverential to any scientific project (no matter how Faustian), and Bettany the tortured voice of conscience  (a role appropriated by a British actor allowed to be a good guy).  The film itself can’t resist the Humanities’ default mode, which insists if you can’t beat science you might as well worship it.  Will Depp undergo a spiritual change when endowed with God-like power?  The human element in this sort of sci-fi consists of the emotional confessional directed at due humility.  In spite of these familiar burdens, the film is not as bad as its hostile critical reception would tell you.  After all it tackles the same subject as Her in which Scarlett Johannsen plays a disembodied intelligence in a mobile phone, yet I heard no disbelieving laughter there.  Transcendence steers between scientific hubris and the redemptive power of love with a fair degree of aplomb.  Its lack of reliance on clunkingly silly special effects shouldn’t necessarily be held in its favour, but its few effects are all the more effective.  Morgan Freeman plays concerned scientist friend with his usual statesmanlike gravitas.  Given its potential for absurdity, Transcendence manages to be thoughtful, and occasionally well argued enough to be worth a careful viewing.

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Gravity

Gravity film posterSynopsis

Alfonso Cuarón’s film about missile fragments wrecking a Hubble space shuttle killing one astronaut and spinning Sandra Bullock and George Clooney into a state of marooned drifting.  There is a Russian station nearby and a Chinese one further away.  Can they reach a station and get back to Earth…?

Review

One of the first Son et Lumiere films of 1894 was of a moon shot, so it’s highly appropriate that a film set in outer space should be a landmark in cinema.  Gravity is visually superb, making 2001 and Silent Running look like toy models on black paper.  The rolling three dimensional effect gives you an idea of what it might be like to be in space.  The story itself is an old one in space movies: isolation in which space becomes a pervasive metaphor of the mind itself, which might struggle with the idea of God or loneliness or emotional issues.  Gravity reminds me of that Ray Bradbury story about astronauts adrift in space.  There is a reference to the ill-fated Apollo 13 which starred Ed Harris, and here he is the ground control voice.  Bullock plays a bereaved mother (having a child always confers ultimate human status in American films).  She plays a sort of Robinson Crusoe pioneer dealing with the Russian equipment in a Heath-Robinson way, never too fazed by the peril of her situation.  When she gets emotional her tears float towards us (the film might have been called “Where Tears Don’t Fall”).  She deals with the surrounding isolation and terror by using verbal distractions and noise for her comfort code.  As she clambers out of her space suit she is like Ripley in Alien.  In Gravity no one can hear you scream but there is no alien enemy, just the silence of infinite spaces that terrified Pascal.  She adapts the foetal posture as if awaiting the emotional epiphany that came to Jodie Foster in Contact when she met her ‘Father’.  Critics interested in reviving Freudian tropes might note the birth, womb imagery of the umbilical rope, the foetal appearance of the space suits, and the blazing projectiles from the space shuttle as they re-enter the atmosphere (they look like sperm hurtling towards the Earth egg).  

Spoiler Alert!!! As she ejects from the pod womb she takes staggering baby steps on Earth or maybe she’s Eve returned to paradise.

At times George Clooney is laid back as if he’s still selling coffee but generally the tension is at breaking point. Please watch this excellent film.

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Oblivion

Oblivion film posterSynopsis

Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) has battled aliens in the 21st century.  With partner Victoria (Andrea Risborough) he must check out what’s left of Earth before most of its people left.  He must hunt “Scavs” (scavengers) hiding on Earth.  His memory has been taken from him to prevent aliens using his knowledge.  He has visions of pre-catastrophe New York and meets Julie (Olga Krylenko) among his memories that he must recover.  He is captured by freedom fighter Morgan Freeman…

Review

A very unoriginal film, its story has bits of Philip K Dick (regarding personal identity issues), Mad Max, and any other post apocalyptic film.  Visually it’s like the recent Alien, Independence Day, and Planet of the Apes.  It copies that film’s final scene where Heston discovers the Statue of Liberty as a wreck in a future world.  Undeniably, Cruise’s dream home in the sky is quite spectacular but we know his perfect relationship with Victoria is a fraud, that she is Circe to Cruise’s Odysseus because similar films have told us so.  The clues are in the perfect penthouse blandness where the merest suspicion that things are wrong, promotes frantic techno editing by mysterious controllers (usually from an implant in the hero’s head).  The visits to a devastated Earth are the usual sci-fi treatment of ‘watch out’ for the famous (now derelict) building.  The aerial battles are from Star WarsEnemy Mine, and Star Trek.  Cruise himself, of course, always must be the hero, that facial oxymoron of the innocent smirk substitutes for variety of expressions.  He squeaks his way through reality challenges like the predictable presence only he can be.  Cruise is as sterile as his hero requires him to be, there is no development of character only action man certainties built on middle American resolution into family piety.  Morgan Freeman plays his usual role as the ironically amused patriarch on the side of integrity helped out with Mad Max gimmicks.  Nothing for the mind to work on.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Man of Steel

Man of Steel film posterSynopsis

Zack Snyder’s origin myth of Superman.  Krypton (Superman’s home planet) is engaged in a war to the death where General Zod (Michael Shannon) fights Superman’s dad (Russell Crowe).  He sends his son (Henry Cavill) to Earth from the doomed Krypton.  Superman becomes Clark Kent and is brought up on a farm by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane.  He meets up with Lois Lane (Amy Adams).  Zod battles with Superman for the Earth and guess who wins.

Review

This film is ludicrously po-faced, pompous, silly nonsense.  Why are we expected to take this comic book hero so seriously?  I wouldn’t mind if it were just knockabout fun but it looks like it’s a reboot of modern myths featuring a man in blue tights and red underpants for heaven’s sake!  It deals with Superman’s origins in such dense (though visually impressive) detail,  I think it’s trying to out do Star Wars in gravitas and narrative reach.  Russell Crowe looks like he’s straining on the toilet whilst coping with bad tooth ache.  We get the same weary disclaimers of superpower skills:  the reluctant hero as sensitive liberal suffering from familial crises of identity, all straight out of our therapy culture’s beloved catalogue of predictable vulnerabilities.  There’s the Spiderman fake philosophy of using power responsibly.  Henry Cavill does look like our idea of Superman, which means that he needs no more acting talent than a corpse.  Christopher Reeve at least had the decency to act woodenly, I don’t think Cavill can even come up with that.  Costner adds stolid decency to American mid western myths and “America’s place in the world”.  Superman’s loyalties are under question, like a Guantanamo prisoner he must demonstrate he’s worthy of the U.S. military’s trust, he must demonstrate his right to be free.  It seems being brought up on a Kansas farm is no longer enough to make you a signed-up American.  I’ve never been a fan of these heroes of the comics but surely Superman should start from small deeds and build up to the big world–saving stuff.  In this film he has already saved our planet from Zod and his gang, where can he go from here?  Watching these C.G.I. scenes make me feel like I’ve been strapped to a shaking bed while someone is banging my head with an iron bat.  Please don’t bother with a sequel.

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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