Review: Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Kubrick, always Kubrick.

Why is it that whenever a new and ripe filmmaking talent comes along, some critics feel a need to make a comparison to the late, singular Stanley? Besides being a lazy comparison, it’s a dead weight around the person being praised. It gives them a shadow they’ll spend forever trying to escape (A notable recent example was Jonathan Glazer, whom more than one critic nominated as an heir to Kubrick in reviews of Under The Skin). When Memento launched his career proper (Following is a fascinating but problematic experiment), Christopher Nolan was suddenly encumbered with the Kubrick comparisons, and they’ve never totally disappeared. But they make no sense. He’s based his career to date on thrillers with a sci-fi edge. Presumably too many people are still reeling from 2001: A Space Odyssey to remember there are other sci-fi directors, or that Nolan’s yet to make a black comedy or a war film.

Now, Nolan actively invites the Kubrick comparisons with Interstellar, a film grappling with heady themes and huge effects-driven set-pieces similar to 2001, not to mention Hans Zimmer’s organ-led Strauss-baiting score. One has to praise both Nolan and his film for their gumption; they’re going after something far bigger than their contemporaries could ever manage. Mainstream films don’t generally ‘do’ ideas as grand as the effect of a black hole on the driving power of love, but Interstellar isn’t really all that mainstream. Yes, it’s from the director of the Dark Knight trilogy. Yes, it stars Mr. ‘Alright Alright Alright’, Catwoman and Jessica ‘Scannain‘s reviews editor wants to marry me’ Chastain. Despite all this, Interstellar is aiming higher. Therein, however, lies the film’s inherent risk. Comparisons between Nolan and Kubrick do neither much favour, but to compare this new space opera to Kubrick’s opus will only serve to demean the new pretender. Take it on its own terms, because Interstellar is too indebted to 2001 for it to step out of the monolith’s shadow.

It begins promisingly enough, with talking head interviews of older people recalling a crisis we have yet to experience. A global blight threatens our food supply; indeed, it has done so for years forcing much of the population in this distant future to take up farming to provide sustenance. One such farmer is engineer and former pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). Like many Nolan leading men, Cooper is widowed and struggling to do right by those left behind. In this case, he’s trying to raise two children in this massive dystopian dustbowl. His son Tom (Timothée Chalemet) is destined/doomed to be a farmer, but daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) is more scientifically inclined, like her pop. This father-daughter relationship drives Interstellar; it carries across galaxies and through black holes, like a constant anchor. It’s good to have something so solid to cling to when the rest of the film demands a few leaps of faith.

The first leap of faith sees Cooper being led to a covert NASA base. Here, a search for a new planet for humanity to inhabit/destroy/do what we will is being headed up by Prof. Brand (Nolan’s good luck charm, Michael Caine). Brand and his theories on black holes are modelled on the work of astrophysicist (and Interstellar producer) Kip Thorne. His ideas of the possibility of interstellar travel are the basis for Nolan’s script, co-written with his brother Jonathan. In this case, a black hole near Saturn is a gateway to at least three planets that might host us. Thus, off go Cooper, Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and fellow scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), plus robotic assistant TARS, a source of much-needed levity voiced by Bill Irwin. From the start of the film until the eventual blastoff is when Interstellar is at its strongest, effectively establishing a world and a populace under threat, even if we’re not sure when the film’s set or why the blight is so rampant. Having fine actors like John Lithgow and David Oyelowo inhabiting even small roles does help. Meanwhile, McConaughey continues his winning streak with another committed performance, all slow-boil emotion and weariness.

It’s not long after blasting off into the second act that Interstellar begins to lose its footing. Within this black hole, there are large time loops to contend with; depending on the planet, minutes could be weeks, months or even years back on Earth. Nolan played with a similar structural gambit in Inception, but the distances and passage of time in Interstellar deny it the same immediacy. It’s hard to get pulses racing about wasting years in the space of an hour when characters are too far away from each other to feel the effects. Cooper wants to get home to his children, but his children grow up into Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain in the blink of an eye. The children themselves are battling to maintain what lives they have left, all the while not knowing whether their father is alive or not. This is Interstellar‘s failing; its plotting is far, far too ambitious. The second act attempts to dovetail the Earth and space story strands via simultaneously-occurring conflicts, but it doesn’t quite work. 2001 was relatively plotless next to its stirring imagery; Insterstellar tries too hard to explain its earlier leaps of faith. The brothers Nolan cannot make a virtue of exposition as Inception did.

In addition, Interstellar’s underlying emotionality is problematic. Cooper’s love for his family, his daughter especially, is his driving force through this intergalactic chaos. Again, Nolan has covered this story before, but he attempts to give it more air than usual. He goes so far as to introduce the concept of love as a scientific variable. At one point, Hathaway’s Dr. Brand explains her motivation for the mission as an extension of love; it’s the point at which audience goodwill may get sucked out of the airlock. It’s a noble and poetic idea, but any scientist caught saying this in reality may find themselves a laughing stock. Next to this, it’s the moments of more recognisable love and humanity that prove most compelling. The remaining Earthlings send one-way video messages to the crew. One particularly spiteful message from Chastain’s Murphy to her long-gone pop threatens the tear ducts. But next to the over-reaching theories of love in the blackness of space, it’s a wonder the film gets near that level of emotionality at all. The Cooper-Murphy story works; there’s just too much else getting in the way.

If the script threatens to derail Interstellar‘s efforts, the technical skill on show elevates it. The special effects are necessarily impressive, but their heft comes from the efforts of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her). Space is none more black, against which the stars dazzle. In one of the most stirring shots of any film this year, the spacecraft carrying our heroes passes by Saturn, a tiny twinkling diamond rapt to the ringed gas giant. The visual thrills of Interstellar demand as big a screen as possible. Mile-high tidal waves, frozen clouds and an explanation-defying climax will stretch the eyelids to bursting point. Nolan elevates theatricality to artistry, delivering money shots worth every penny. As for that climax, the time loop is closed in a baffling sequence that seeks to explain all. Is Nolan being too neat about this? Probably, but you’ll be astonished he even dared to try.

To date, the films of Christopher Nolan have been accused of lacking in emotional resonance. With Insterstellar, he tries too hard to redress the balance, taking too long and too many liberties to make his point. Interstellar gets to its intended destination, somewhere under a Saturnine ring, but was the scenic route really necessary? Caine’s Prof. Brand quotes Dylan Thomas upon blast-off, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Nolan has raged and rallied against mainstream complacency in his oeuvre, but now might be a good time for him to calm down and come back down to Earth.

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Review: Mud (2013)

Director: Jeff Nichols

****

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

It’s a commonly-held belief that Matthew McConaughey has only just lifted himself out of a cinematic purgatory with a string of great performances in one excellent film after another. However, that’s three fallacies for the price of one. He’s always been a capable performer, full of charisma with side portions of menace or dignity as required. What’s more, there are plenty of little gems scattered throughout his CV. For every Sahara, there’s a Frailty; for every Fool’s Gold there is a Lone Star.

Yet McConaughey has yet to star in a classic that could come to define his career. The closest he’s come thus far is arguably his debut, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. His latest string of winning performances have all been in films that, entertaining and well-made as they may be, are far from their directors’ bests (Friedkin’s Killer Joe, Magic Mike for Steven Soderbergh, reuniting with Linklater on Bernie). Alas, Jeff Nichols’ Mud continues in that vein. It’s compelling viewing on its own terms, but a lot of its cred comes from its leading man. Credit where credit’s due, however, Mud benefits from the efforts of two leading men.

After the solitary paranoia of Michael Shannon’s bug-eyed turn in Take Shelter, Nichols widens his gaze to include two fascinating portraits of male isolation. Ellis (a terrifically steely-eyed Tye Sheridan) is a typical teenager, restlessly looking for adventure in the everyday. One day, he and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) borrow a motorboat and sneak down their local river, a little stream by the name of the Mississippi. This setting alone invokes a certain atmosphere, ripe with clammy air and the scent of whitewash from a Mark Twain novel. They head for an island down river where they discover a boat washed up into the trees from a flood years before. This is the point where Tom Sawyer becomes a little too obvious as an influence, with our own Tom and Huck Finn on the Mississippi. The film’s version of Injun Joe goes only by the monicker of Mud (McConaughey), a stranger who’s living in the boy’s boat when they discover it. With a past as murky as the waters surrounding the island, Ellis is fascinated by Mud, to the point that he agrees to help Mud out. Anyone on the run from the law needs all the help he can get.

As the latest chapter of the ‘McConaissance’, Mud sees McConaughey at great ease, with a drawl so low and laid back, it practically reaches his ankles. With a single look, he inspires suspicion yet still maintains a magnetic allure that he’s impossible to ignore. McConaughey makes Mud’s mysteries mythical. Yet, as good as the Texan is, the real star is young Sheridan as Ellis. With a shaky home (Ray McKinnion and Sarah Paulson star as Ellis’ parents) and little to do in the local one-horse town, Ellis could have been a standard mopey teen. Instead, over the course of the film Sheridan’s wide-eyed innocence becomes rigid determination before succumbing to childishness once more. It’s a rich and varied performance from the newcomer; woe betide any studio executive who opts to waste him on a tween-friendly franchise. Sheridan and McConaughey make Mud more than a Twain rip-off, though its myriad influences bleed in repeatedly. When it’s not being Huck Finn 2.0, it feels like a less gritty version of Stand By Me. These are high watermarks that even a talent like Nichols struggles to overcome.

As Mud runs from the law and bounty hunters towards his waiting love (Reese Witherspoon, sober), Mud runs from being southern-fried character study to something more generic by the denouement. The measured pacing of the first two-thirds meanders into gun-toting thriller territory. By that stage, though, Mud has lodged in the memory. To be more precise, McConaughey and Sheridan lodge in the memory, whilst the rest can be taken or left. Mud lacks Take Shelter’s edge but, with a hazy look and feel and winning performances, it works just fine.

Review: Killer Joe (2011)

Director: William Friedkin

****

There’s only so many times Matthew McConaughey could make lobotomized rom-coms with Kate Hudson before thinking, “I’m better than this.” A violent crime thriller sounds like a jump into the deep end, but if Hudson can prove herself in Michael Winterbottom’s unflinchingly nasty The Killer Inside Me, what’s to stop McConaughey’s move to the dark side?

William Friedkin is now in his late ‘70s, but his longevity has not blunted the raw edge he showed in the likes of The French Connection and The Exorcist. Boasting the trashiest of white-trash characters and a penchant for gallows humour that barely offsets the violence (both physical and mental) inflicted on that white trash, Killer Joe would probably make directors half Friedkin’s age flinch. McConaughey is the eponymous Joe Cooper, a Texas police detective with a neat sideline in contract killings. When Chris (Emile Hirsch) finds himself in danger over a drug debt, he and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) decide to hire Joe to kill Ansel’s ex-wife (and Chris’ mother) to collect on her life insurance. In theory, this sounds foolproof, but Chris and Ansel are fools and the plan isn’t so proven in practice. Joe wants his payment in advance, but decides to take Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a bizarre form of retainer. Dottie is adorably simple; if she were any smarter she would have thought twice about blindly going along with her father and brother’s rather optimistic plan. However, her obedience probably spares some premature bloodshed; ignorance sometimes can be bliss.

Tracey Letts (who also wrote Friedkin’s underrated Bug) adapts his stageplay for the screen, and it’s a story that translates well. The violent nature of the story already renders it very cinematic. There’s plenty of dialogue to chew over, but the violence (or even the persistent possibility of violence) and Friedkin’s nimble direction keep the energy flowing. The atmosphere is thick with heat and threat, and neither the bloodshed nor the none-more-dark laughs (mostly at Ansel’s expense) provide catharsis or closure. The cast are excellent, but McConaughey (the chiseled rom-com star turned ac-tor) and Temple (the new indie girl on the block) have the most to prove, and they absolutely shine. His coiled, barely-veiled menace and her melancholy naïveté drive the action and ground Killer Joe, even when the bloodshed comes back to haunt the family. An encounter between Joe, Ansel’s wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and a chicken drumstick would make even Colonel Sanders think twice about ordering KFC.

There’s little that’s nice about Killer Joe, especially not the characters nor their actions, but niceness isn’t Friedkin’s oeuvre. The evil in Killer Joe isn’t Pazuzu; it’s more banal and efficient. If you’re prepared for a little Southern-Fried murder (with extra blood, natch), Killer Joe might float your boat. You won’t like Joe Cooper, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.