Film & TV Reviews
We Have Lift-Off
FILM REVIEW: Interstellar (Director: Christopher Nolan) Posted on Nov 13 2014:
Ultimately, this is a story of humanity’s foibles and the human instinct for survival rather than a grandiose science fiction film. Yes, the plot is standard SF fare: an apocalyptic scenario unfolds on Earth and NASA pilot turned dirt-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) goes into space along with Brand (Anne Hathaway) plus some others on a mission to ensure the future of the human race. So far so science fictional, but Interstellar delivers much more than bloated space opera. The screenplay (Jonathan & Chris Nolan) is top notch apart from one jarring cliché about what parents should never have to go through with their children. Given the plot situation at this late stage of the movie, this cliché is intended to convey supreme irony, but instead comes across as heavy-handed and would be better left out. As would one too many references to Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Any other small potatoes to moan about? Not really. A plot that involves, at the start of the space voyage, an orbital docking and, near the end, an astronaut lost and drifting through a wormhole ‘star gate’ is bound to invite comparisons with Kubrick. Nolan doffs his hat neatly to 2001 in the docking sequence, right down to choice of music (which is first rate throughout, thanks to Hans Zimmer’s score). The homage near the conclusion, as Cooper drifts helplessly, is also adroit and successful.
One could say the film is overlong (169 minutes); that it sags during the sequence involving Dr Mann (Matt Damon), but look on the bright side: what you get is an intelligent and challenging take on our place in the universe – and a damning comment on our attitude to the environment. The script has an eclectic depth involving a discourse on human nature, something we get too little of in run-of-the-mill FX blockbusters. Here we are treated as adults: information is fed on a slow drip; the couple of info-dumps that do occur (wormholes being explained to astronauts) feel clunky and out of place in an otherwise excellent production. Where the film falls down is in its justification for the benign appearance of a certain Black Hole (not the only hole in the plot). What’s presented as something that ‘they’ (aliens) have granted to ‘us’ turns out to be explained too handily in the film’s denouement – which is redolent of the Robert Zemeckis 1997 vehicle for Jodie Foster: Contact. As in the Zemeckis film the ending here is too convenient and a cop-out. Hey, am I being negative again? There are many positives here. The aforementioned script. The sound. The cast (McConaughey, despite his annoying Southern Man drawl, is in danger of becoming an actor of repute). What do I want? Perfection? Well, yes, but I’ll settle for this. Christopher Nolan’s (Inception, The Prestige, Batman Begins, Memento) Interstellar is not perfection, but it’s close enough to be light years ahead of most of the competition and good enough to merit five whole stars.
Holes in the Hubble – Holes in the Plot
Film Review: Gravity – 3D (Director: Alfonso Cuaron) Posted on Dec 19 2013:
Matt Kowarsky (George Clooney) and Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are stranded in space when their shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Telescope suffers a disastrous encounter with catastrophic orbital debris. That’s the premise – and that’s the story. Sandra Bullock is an actress I can take or leave – normally leave – and here she does her usual Miss Panicky-Two-Shoes routine, which is acceptable in this film given the perilous situation her character, Dr Stone, finds herself in. Mr Clooney’s presence in Gravity seems to revolve around giving us a plausible impersonation of Buzz Lightyear, which he does effectively.
Those paying attention may detect the opening to a negative review, unlike the many good reviews garnered by this 91-minute effort directed by Alfonso Cuaron (the very fine Children of Men). Quite how this latest offering from Cuaron has attracted so many positive reviews is a puzzle to this pair of eyes. It’s a typical Hollywood roller-coaster ride – everything that can go wrong for Stone and Kowarsky does go wrong. Bullock’s character extricates herself from one hazardous situation too many, and has the annoying habit of talking to herself – to make sure the thicks who’ve paid into the cinema to watch the film understand what’s going on. Not that there’s much to comprehend; the storyline is as thin as some of the spacesuit tethers that keep Dr Stone alive as the film reaches a climax that disappoints, though it has to be said the closing quarter gives ample opportunity to study Ms Bullock’s legs – and an interesting pair of pins they are.
Gravity has its moments. The visual background is, of course, stunning (were we to expect anything less?) and one of the scenes where Dr Stone is in a capsule is excellent in parts but ruined (this is not really a plot-spoiler) by a development involving, of all things, dogs. Subsequently, Dr Stone conveys loneliness and loss in a more subtle manner, but, hey, subtlety? Forget it; Hollywood does not do subtlety which is a shame because Bullock does have moments of quiet introspection and muted reflection that show she can act. Then the cloying sentimentality takes over once again and culminates in an overdone moment when a single floating tear dominates the 3D screen in a manner that screams ‘sledgehammer alert!’
Leave part of your brain at the popcorn dispenser for this one. And the holes in the plot? How about these for starters (again giving away no spoilers here): blaming it all on the nasty Russians, oxygen depletion (where did that extra supply come from?), interpreting instruction manuals written in another language without too much bother at all – oh, and flying and landing a foreign spacecraft without much bother at all at all. I consoled myself with the thought that my previous visit to Cineworld had been to see Woody Allen’s latest: the wonderful Blue Jasmine, a fine study in character and observation. Then, trudging home, I considered another consolation – the finale of season 3 of Homeland lay waiting in my plus box. And what a consolation – now there’s something worth watching.
Ham, Eggs & Michael Fassbender
Film Review: Prometheus (Director: Ridley Scott) Posted on June 7 2012:
Any science fiction film that includes, early on, scenes of an astronaut, David (Michael Fassbender), doing physical exercises while his colleagues sleep in life-support pods as their ship journeys through space – and to a soundtrack of classical music – is a film that invites comparisons. So, let’s compare. Prometheus starts superbly. This is science fiction on a grand scale: a magnificent ship, stunning views of planetary passes, a very fine landing sequence. It is when we are on the target planet that the film’s problems mount up.
The ship has a crew of seventeen, and what a motley lot they are. Clichéd crew members abound, which suggests two things – A: this is compulsory in deep space Hollywood blockbusters – B: the mission controllers were rather lax in their candidate selection process, which defies logic and common sense in that almost immediately upon setting down on the planet the landing party begin to behave in the most ill-disciplined, unscientific manner possible. That again seems to be part of the Hollywood template and begs the question: aren’t these supposed to be scientists? You know what we’re in for when the team is advised to wait till morning before venturing out as there’s only six hours of daylight left. The team ignore the advice, of course, reminding us instantly of all those horror films where the victims always wait until nightfall before entering the haunted house.
From this point on the film degenerates, which is a pity as Fassbender, Noomi Rapace (Elizabeth Shaw) and Idris Elba (Captain Janek), give fine performances. However, Charlize Theron’s role is badly defined and intermittant in the development of the plot; her performance that of an ice queen. The Grand Science Fiction alluded to earlier gets a nod and a wink in several scenes where crew members discuss profound questions such as Why Are We Here? Where Have We Come From? The answers are throwaway and bland, which suggests that writers Jon Spaights and Damon Lindelof took up the sword but failed to wield it. Lindelof has form in this regard – just think of the cop-out that was Lost.
So let’s make the comparison hinted at in the opening paragraph. 2001: A Space Odyssey this is not, but some day a director will stand up to that omnipotent Hollywood template and create a film of grand vision, where ‘Action!’ will not be an imperative, a movie that will explore not only deep space but inner space also. Prometheus does not fit that bill – speaking of bills, what about that veggie meal in Govinda’s? Let’s put it like this. Our food had something in common with the film we had just seen. We looked forward to it, it looked appetizing and promised much, but ultimately was lacking in the most basic of ingredients – meat.
TV Review: The Bridge. Posted on April 25 2012:
Watched a double-bill of the first two episodes of The Bridge on BBC Four last Saturday night – just the thing to plug the gap now that Homeland has ended. The Bridge is a new series, a Danish-Swedish co-production based on the discovery of a body placed exactly on the Swedish-Danish border which is in the middle of the Oresund Bridge that links the metropolitan areas of Copenhagen and Malmo. Half the corpse lies in Sweden, the other half in Denmark, hence the co-production as the police forces of both countries get involved trying to solve the crime.
The Scandinavians seem to have extraordinary talent when it comes to visual storytelling. Think of Thomas Alfredson’s quietly brilliant Let the Right One In, Niel Arden Oplev’s Swedish language version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or the original TV series The Killing – these are all recent, never mind referencing the work of the late and great Ingmar Bergman. This latest offering is in that same fine tradition: short on Hollywood histrionics, generous with mood and location. The camera lingers in that voyeuristic yet so realistic Scandinavian way. It’s like being in the same room as the cast who act as real people would behave, not as cut-outs of heroes and villains. Characters in The Bridge do things in a naturalistic way. Events just happen – no souped-up sense of foreboding, no heavy-handed hints for dumbass viewers, no over-indulgent cinematography, no over-the-top music, no jump-cuts every four seconds because the audience attention span is that of a goldfish. This is television for those who do not mind being stretched, not merely entertained. Save the popcorn for the next dose of blockbuster syrup. Don’t miss this.
Film Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Director: Tomas Alfredson) Posted on September 21 2011:
Being long enough in the tooth to have good memories of the famous British TV series starring Alec Guinness et al, it was with some trepidation that I approached this film. Could it possibly be as good? Be warned: there are no psychotic villains, an absence of car chase sequences, no frenetic Bourne-style pacing, very little FX – in short, none of the furniture of a modern blockbuster thriller. In fact, what furniture there is in the domestic interior shots is redolent more of the fifties than 1973, when the film is set. All of which helps to deepen the grainy atmospherics on which this movie by Tomas Alfredson (the superb Let the Right One In) is very strong indeed.
Gary Oldman, as George Smiley, steals the show – uncannily matching the performance of Alec Guinness in the earlier series right down to voice, even facial and mouth movements in some scenes. An onscreen chemistry exists between Oldman and the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays the part of Peter Guillam), and a general squalid murkiness also exists that is just right. Given the time constraints of a film, and the complexity of the plot, all those other evocatively-named and fondly remembered (though hardly endearing) characters: Bill Heydon (Colin Firth), Control (John Hurt), Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) are not as well developed as one might hope. That is a small quibble and unavoidable given only two hours of screen-time to work with. How this film with its Cold War jargon and multiplex of subtleties would come across to a viewer not familiar with the world as it was in 1973, is another matter.
Was the director foolhardy to take on this remake of a seventies classic? Perhaps, but thank goodness Tomas Alfredson took up the challenge. This is not a film to take your popcorn-eating kids to see – it’s that rare beast: an espionage movie for grown-ups. Highly recommended.
Film Review: The Rite (Director: Mikael Hafstrom) Posted on NEWS page March 3 2011:
‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.’
‘What is your sin, my son?’
‘Profligacy, Father. I wasted two hours watching a film.’
‘Tell me about it, my son.’
‘Well, Father, there are several other sinners involved. Colin O’Donoghue, for instance. If overacting is a mortal sin and underacting a venial one, then O’Donoghue committed the latter offence. He stood there stony-faced throughout. Hardly as much as a facial twitch.
‘Ciarán Hinds plays a supporting role of professor-priest (Fr Xavier) whose task is to deliver a series of lectures (on the subject of exorcism) to an audience of mature students in the Vatican. Trouble is, his lectures consist of imparting such gems as: ‘there are good angels and there are bad angels’. Now Father, I heard that in infant class. My incredulity stretched to breaking point that a lecturer delivering a serious talk on a deadly matter such as exorcism could impart such drivel to an audience most of whom already seemed to be experts in the field. Also, my companion in the cinema later remarked that Hinds’ accent (think: sonorous pulpit-speak) was ‘all over the place’.
‘What about Anthony Hopkins, my son?’
‘Ah now, Father. I’d be spoiling the ending if I told you what happened to him. His was a fine performance but suffice to say that I left the cinema thinking he’s in danger of being typecast. At one stage Fr Lucas (Hopkins) says to his young assistant Michael Kovak (O’Donoghue): ‘What do you expect in an exorcism – spinning heads and pea-soup?’. Well, Father, that’s exactly what the director (Mikael Hafstrom) gave us. Not spinning heads exactly, more like impossibly contorted limbs accompanied by overdone sound effects that consisted largely of creaky noises to mimic the sound of twisting bones.
‘That’s another sin I must tell you about, Father – the soundtrack. The music swelled when St Peter’s Basilica loomed on screen, which it did too often, inducing in me a feeling of nausea that a film could be so fawning. I also disliked the deep rumbling foretelling whenever anything evil was about to manifest itself. That soundtrack is a real mortaler, Father.’
‘Did you take pleasure in your sin, my son?’
‘No, Father. I failed to engage with any of the characters. The middle bit featuring a possessed young girl (Marta Gastini) wasn’t too bad, but the opening was slow, obvious, and unoriginal. The Italian street scenes were full of stereotypes (angry policemen trying to cope with chaotic traffic, mini-skirted girls on mopeds, etc). As for the ending, I don’t want to give it away, Father. I’m sure you and all the other priests can’t wait to see it.’
‘Are you sorry for your sin, my son?’
‘Yes, Father. Believe me, I’m very sorry for my profligacy.’
‘Very well. For your penance go see the latest Cecelia Ahern film.’
‘Oh no, Father, please – anything but that.’
TV Review: Posted on MySpace May 25 2010 (Tues 11:11am) under the title:
The Lost Episode of LAST
Trying to confine this blog to writing and book-related topics can be a hard task at times, especially when it comes to something that compels you to write about it because it has supposed tie-ins with creative and imaginative fiction – the last episode of the TV series LOST, for instance. Last night I watched the final episode and soon realised why I’d abandoned watching the series a few years ago.
Ordinary soap operas tend to have about three emotional peaks per half-hour episode. That’s the formula to which many of them are written. LOST was overly emotional in almost every scene. Enough tears fell from, or welled up in, the eyes of the characters to flood the entire island. The scene toward the end where Our Hero spoke to his ‘father’ summed it all up. Thanks to modern technology I rewound their conversation and replayed it. My ears stood out on stalks – yes, I’d heard it right the first time. Their conversation floated around the edges of things. Like the series itself, it was coy and hinting but delivered nothing. Almost every question was answered with another question, like listening to two cute Kerry farmers talking around the price of their land. Example: Our Hero – “But she told me I was leaving…?” ‘Father’-figure – “You’re not leaving, kiddo, you’re ……….. movin’ on.” (Please, spare me.)
To put it plainly, the entire series was built on twaddle. Not even clever twaddle, just recycled old tosh, completely annoying and devoid of texture or depth. Cloyingly manipulative music was used shamelessly in almost every scene – sickly sweet, a fitting accompaniment to the emotional hokum unfolding before our eyes. What’s maddening and saddening about all of this is that people out there really believe this series was ground-breaking, interesting, original and cool – which compels me to say it was the opposite: dreadful rubbish – a triumph of style over substance, shallowness over depth – in short, a complete victory for marketeering.