Criterion Sunday 164: Солярис Solaris (1972)

Undoubtedly ponderous in its pacing, for me this still feels like Tarkovsky’s weakest film — which is to say, a lot better than most other films, but somehow thin, especially in comparison to his later science-fiction Stalker (1979). That said, it’s a film about grief and memory that happens to be partially set in space, as astronaut/psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to figure out what’s going wrong on board the space station orbiting the title planet. It is beautifully shot, and it’s not even the pacing which mars it for me, so much as the sense of it being this choreography of people walking into and around the frame while grappling with some portentous metaphysics. Give me a few more decades on this one and I may come round.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky Андре́й Тарко́вский; Writers Fridrikh Gorenshtein Фридрих Горенштейн and Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stanisław Lem); Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вадим Юсов; Starring Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk Наталья Бондарчук; Length 166 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 23 December 1999 (also before that on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1999, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 July 2017).

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Finally, the review I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for, as undoubtedly you’ve all been hanging back, waiting cautiously about whether to see this film on the basis of my verdict. Well, I can unequivocally state that if you are fond of George Lucas’s original trilogy, then you’ll enjoy this new instalment from the auteur behind Star Trek Into Darkness, whereas if you are at best ambivalent about his franchise’s politically retrogressive and genocidally destructive worldview, then… it’s probably not for you? On the plus side is the welcome focus on three new and diverse young protagonists — Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. There are some heartwarming reappearances by original cast members, and there are more silly chirruping droids. Plotwise, it feels of a piece with the original film, but the spoiler police are out in force on this one, so I’m not going to go into detail and, frankly, I’m not even sure I could. Suffice to say I laughed at a joke about the Force, and in general there’s a good sense of bonhomie amid the good-vs-evil derring-do.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens film posterCREDITS
Director J.J. Abrams; Writers Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt; Cinematographer Dan Mindel; Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Sunday 20 December 2015.

Criterion Sunday 54: For All Mankind (1989)

I can’t really fault this documentary about the Apollo space missions of the late-1960s and early-1970s: it tells a big story using archival footage of the era, shot by the astronauts and those working at NASA, and it does so using only these images and the voices of the astronauts. The value is in seeing this footage, some of which is shot from space and presents uncanny views of the Earth and of the work the astronauts were doing, and hearing from the participants. Nevertheless it can at times be a little difficult to tell apart all these buzz-cut white guys in their control centre, and the missions are interwoven fairly fluidly, meaning we jump back and forward in time. It’s a fascinating and informative work for those with a strong interest in the space race, and for those people this is likely to be far more interesting than it was to me.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Al Reinert; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 13 September 2015.

The Martian (2015)

A few years ago I went to see The Counselor and I hated it so much I called it my least favourite film of the year. Which means I haven’t exactly been seeking out the work of Ridley Scott since then. But some friends said hey this new film of his was pretty good and so finding myself with an empty day and having exhausted everything else I needed to see, I steeled myself for 141 minutes of more of his noxious worldview (whyyyyy?) and… well… it was actually pretty enjoyable stuff. But I suspect that’s partly Scott’s directorial vision being paired with a more sympathetic screenwriter in Drew Goddard — most of the battle in making a good film, after all, is starting with a good script. It’s a science-fiction film, but fairly easy on the distancing techy BS that distracts in other efforts. Sure there are actors who pop up just to be savant geniuses (like Donald Glover), but for the most part this is just about determined people trying to do their best with (apparently) very little regard to budget — I guess we should assume the future has solved all its financial problems. Therefore, amongst these driven players — including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent, the mission director, Jessica Chastain as Melissa, commanding the actual expedition, and Jeff Daniels as the NASA director Teddy — astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is just the most notable, for he’s the one stuck on Mars. Most of the extended running time just lingers on him solving problems, and Scott’s work is to build tension through emphasising his very isolation, and the impossibility of those back on Earth helping him in any meaningful way. In that sense, it has a bit of Apollo 13 to it, and it’s immensely likeable in the way that there are no villains in the piece, and everyone gets their time. Sure, our Everyman character is still a white guy (and Damon’s run into a bit of criticism for his views on that this year), but this is a well-crafted film which fits in easily alongside Gravity as a solid bit of space-based entertainment. I suspect we’ll be getting more of that as 2015 draws to a close.

The Martian film posterCREDITS
Director Ridley Scott; Writer Drew Goddard (based on the novel by Andy Weir); Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 31 October 2015.

Criterion Sunday 40: Armageddon (1998)

If my eyes were raised at the inclusion in Criterion’s august collection of the respective pairs of John Woo’s Hong Kong gangster films or Paul Morrissey’s 70s Euro-horror exploitation flicks, then this blockbusting Michael Bay action film is surely the most idiosyncratic choice yet. It’s not that a case can’t be made for it: the liner notes set out an adulatory essay on the film’s claim to greatness, while reading the comments on Criterion’s own page for the film suggest that there’s value in its inclusion just as a gesture of épater le bourgeois (cinéaste). I might add that it does, after all, exemplify a certain trend in Hollywood filmmaking, of which Michael Bay is surely the auteurist hero — the tradition of bigger, louder, stupider explosiveness on all counts. This doesn’t make it a good film, though. It’s not even the pummelling sound design and frenetic editing which do it in, but the utterly predictable character arcs — gung-ho and grizzled miner Harry (Bruce Willis) assembles a team to save the world from an asteroid collision, in the process accepting the feckless A.J. (Ben Affleck) as a suitable husband for his equally gung-ho daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) — all of which are punctuated by the most perfunctorily saccharine music cues. It’s not that I hate the film — though the characterisation of Steve Buscemi as a ladies’ man, while surely intended as comic, just seems gratuitous — it’s that I find it on the whole rather boring and forgettable. In the end, you’d be best advised to save yourself the two and a half hours, and instead just watch the Aerosmith music video, which distills it down to around three minutes without sacrificing any of the drama.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay; Writers Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi; Length 153 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 June 2015.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

The Wachowskis are filmmakers with a strong directorial vision, who’ve put some pretty good films together (also, admittedly, some bad ones; I do not intend to make a case for any of the Matrix sequels), so when you see the kind of critical mauling that Jupiter Ascending has been getting from some quarters, well I think that’s as good a recommendation as any to get oneself along to the film in question. Sure, it’s a big confusing mess, but there’s nothing in it that seems to invite the derision it’s been getting, though this may in fact be down to a lot of similar factors to Inherent Vice‘s reception — that the plot is so elaborate that it’s turned some viewers off. But, weirdly, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, this is a much an exercise in evoking the fabric of a lost world (or, here, an imagined universe), which should always be something worth celebrating. It’s no mean feat to try and visualise the textures of such a vast system of planets (think Star Wars) and power factions (think Dune), so if there’s a bit of recycling involved, well that’s to be expected — in fact, one sequence has such an indebtedness to Brazil that Terry Gilliam himself turns up. There’s plenty enough that’s unfamiliar — new experiences and imagery, created jargon for new technology — that as a viewer you feel sympathy for Mila Kunis’s titular heroine Jupiter when, like Vice‘s Doc, she is called on to continually express confusion at what’s happening. It’s refreshing too to see a woman playing the central character for such a big film — she is a lowly Russian cleaner who turns out to be (via some method) the owner of Earth — though Channing Tatum (with quite the silliest facial hair of the season) provides plenty of valuable support as the ‘spliced’ mercenary (think Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps) who has her back. The acting star here though is Eddie Redmayne, who chews up the scenery with such a hammy performance that it goes through badness to being sheer genius, and perfectly matches the tone of the film. Other performers can be uneven, and taken as a whole it doesn’t always hold together perfectly, but as an experience it’s every bit the equal in imagination and scope as any other big budget blockbuster, and as a “space opera” it’s more interesting than any nonsense from 1977.


Jupiter Ascending film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Vue Croydon Grant’s, London, Saturday 14 February 2015.

Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (all 2014)

Unlike in 2013, I haven’t been writing reviews of every film I’ve seen this year. I also had trouble finding enough enthusiasm to write about some of the big tentpole blockbusters of the year, mainly because so many others have cast in their two cents, that mine seem entirely beside the point. Still, you’re more likely to have seen these films, so I thought I should at least write a few sentences to give my opinions, and you can disagree with me in the comments if you wish! (For what it’s worth, I’ve also taken to adding my ratings for unreviewed films on my film reviews by year page.)

Continue reading “Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (all 2014)”

Gravity (2013)

I can’t help but wonder if I’m maybe going through a bit of a fallow period with my film writing. There’s only so many reviews you can bang out in a week (and I’ve been posting every weekday for the last few months, pretty much) without it all feeling a bit same-y. Perhaps I’m unenthused by what’s on offer at the cinemas right now, or maybe it’s just an autumnal thing of feeling like getting out and doing more exercise. In any case, when I think about Gravity — and more specifically, when I think about all the hype around it, about all the reviews of it that I’ve read over the last couple of months (for it was on release around the rest of the world before it came to the UK) — I don’t really feel I have a whole lot new to add. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it: that might actually be a new angle on it. No, it was great in several respects. You’ve probably seen it, and you may well agree. If you haven’t, it’s a disaster movie set in space and it focuses on two astronauts, Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney).

Of course, there’s already a backlash but that’s to be expected. A lot of the criticism seems to focus on the science, and not being a scientist I cannot contribute to such arguments, save that if you’re obsessing about these things and then writing off the film as a result, you probably don’t understand much about art. The film certainly works as an immersive experience. It’s the first film I’ve seen in the IMAX format, and it impressed me. Even the 3D impressed me, and that’s a gimmick I tend not to have much time for. I suspect it may have been the fact that Gravity builds far more deliberately and quietly than most 3D films, with slower, more fluid camera movements reducing the ocular strain that usually accompanies the format (given that big budget movies tend more towards speedy, fast-cutting action). As a film, it has more confidence in its script and its images to create tension than in artificially engineering such feelings through throwing things at you, and I welcome that.

More persuasive are criticisms regarding the screenplay and characterisations. Not so much about the way it builds from a quiet opening through to the first act disaster that threatens the crew of a space mission working on the Hubble telescope — that much is done superbly well — as the actual dialogue which at times shades towards the mawkish. Then again, by the time we get to the worst of it (when Ryan encounters Matt in the space station’s landing craft), it feels like this has been somewhat earned by the film: Bullock’s character has, to say the least, had to deal with a lot of stress by this point. It also points to the way the film is a generation away from those films of the 1950s and 60s that expressed a wonder at the vastness of creation; the key take-home feeling of this film, via Bullock’s character, is relief at being spared the terror of this final frontier.

Then there are the characters. Clooney’s in particular seems a bit thin — he’s basically playing his usual ‘type’, bantering on with an easy charm and totally unflappable — though in a sense his calmness is like a decoy to the terror that hangs over the mission from the outset (there are more astronauts initially involved than just Ryan and Matt, but they don’t get any screen time). After all, from the pre-credits title informing us that nothing can live in space, to the precarious work they’re doing and the news of approaching debris from a satellite accident, the film frontloads the suspense. Added to this is the sound of Ed Harris’s recognisable voice from mission control, which for the movie-savvy amongst us is rarely a portent of good news.

The next paragraph may be classified as containing spoilers, although I’ve tried to be as oblique as possible. Skip to the final paragraph if you’re concerned.

Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr Ryan Stone, is possibly more problematic, as she’s loaded down with a sentimental backstory of the type that doesn’t trouble Matt’s experienced (male) astronaut. She too is basically a ‘type’, a mother-figure (after a fashion), tethered to the Earth by her experiences and her innate nature. If there’s some mythological heft to it, then it’s a mythology that trades on age-old tropes of woman-as-life-giver-and-nurturer. That said, the film problematises these links a little bit. If there’s a feeling at times that being in space is like being a defenceless baby in a womb (and maybe part of that is just my own flashbacks to the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, another formative space-set event film), space is instead clearly presented here as deadly and hostile, and Ryan is frequently untethered and terrifyingly afloat. And in recounting her backstory, her own status as mother has, it turns out, been undercut by gravity, the very force which is denying her safety in space. Her survival then is never assured, and the ambiguity even extends to the film’s final sequence, which seems to rehearse the ‘ascent of man’ and suggests a rebirth, or perhaps a new set of challenges to her survival.

Whatever the deeper meaning that one takes from it, the film is nevertheless assured at the visual level. The special effects and the cinematography is transporting and rather demands the immersion of the cinema; whether it will work in quite the same way at home on smaller screens remains to be seen. In that sense, this is a return to proper ‘event cinema’ status. It may eschew a lot of the extraneous noise of your standard big-budget big-screen spectacular, but it still trades on many of these ideas, aided by canny marketing and hype. However, it boasts an excellent performance by Bullock (far stronger than her recent work in The Heat to my mind), a clipped running time (all blockbuster films should be this concise) and those incredible space-set special effects sequences. The possibility of space travel may seem further than ever from our current generation, but if this film has any effect then it’s to make us rather more comfortable with that reality; the only terrors that await us are in the darkened auditorium of a cinema. I’m not sure whether that’s depressing, or a great thing. But for 90 minutes it tends a bit more towards the latter.

Gravity film posterCREDITS
Director Alfonso Cuarón; Writers Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield [IMAX 3D], London, Monday 18 November 2013.