Criterion Sunday 164: 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 | Writers Fridrikh Gorenshtein and Andrei Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stanisław Lem) | Cinematographer Vadim Yusov | Starring Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk | 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.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director J.J. Abrams | Writers Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. 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.


© 20th Century Fox

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
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)

© The Criterion Collection

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)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at Vue Croydon Grant’s, London, Saturday 14 February 2015


© Warner Bros. Pictures

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.


CREDITS || Directors/Writers Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski | Cinematographer John Toll | Starring Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth | Length 127 minutes

Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films

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 A-Z and year pages.)


© 20th Century Fox

Gone Girl (2014) || Seen at Odeon Camden Town, London, Tuesday 7 October 2014 || Director David Fincher | Writer Gillian Flynn (based on her novel) | Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth | Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris | Length 149 minutes || My Rating 3.5 stars very good

David Fincher continues to extend his auteurist credentials with another film dwelling in the twists, turns and dead-ends of narrative fiction, shot in a coolly modernist style, with dark corners and muted colours befitting the shifting allegiances and motivations of the characters. Ben Affleck does well as the put-upon husband Nick in small-town America whose wife has gone missing, and Rosamund Pike has a piercing intensity as that New York-born and bred wife Amy, but beyond those plot points it would not be wise to stray, suffice to say there is a twist, and more than one at that. It’s a film that doesn’t just find its drama in the orchestrated chameleonic performances of its core cast, but is itself about performance, about lives moulded by societal or parental pressures (whether the expectations of precocity and feminine perfection as forced upon Amy by her author parents, or the expectations of marriage taken on by both leads, or the requirements of the ‘gone girl’ narrative when reconfigured by the media). In a sense — and to this extent I agree with criticism of its misogynistic underpinnings — it’s about a clueless husband taken advantage of by a conniving woman deploying rape allegations and other standbys of the tabloid press, but yet the film seems too self-aware of the ways that all of its protagonists shape and control their representation for it to fully fall into that trap. However, basically what I’m saying is that this film, more than most blockbusters of 2014, would seem to repay further investigation.


© Paramount Pictures

Interstellar (2014) || Seen at Science Museum (IMAX), London, Tuesday 11 November 2014 || Director Christopher Nolan | Writers Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan | Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema | Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine | Length 169 minutes || My Rating 3 stars good

Christopher Nolan is another kind of auteur, though he seems to specialise in unselfconscious pomposity (or at least, so it seems to my mind). Seen on a 70mm IMAX screen, this is undeniably big and undeniably epic in scope, with huge bassy rumblings and the kind of sound design and picturesque cinematographic vision engineered to convince of the earnestness of the undertaking. Without giving away any prized ‘spoilers’, it increasingly suggests an updating of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (also recently on re-release) albeit without the kind of understated intelligence of design that Kubrick’s films always exhibited. Aside from some affecting early scenes with McConaughey’s astronaut/engineer/farmer and his children, I’m not even sure the more upfront sentimentality always works in the film’s favour, as it progressively becomes more loopy — and it certainly seems to me that the almost mystical treatment afforded to black holes and other astral phenomena are somewhat akin to religious texts’ relationship to God (though with that latter concept somewhat ponderously replaced here by Gravity and/or Love). Some of the ideas seem rather too incredulous, at the same time grounded in character interactions which smack rather more of cliché, but I cannot deny that it held my attention effortlessly for three hours, and should at least be given points for trying something bold, epic and heartfelt.


© Lionsgate

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) || Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Monday 24 November 2014 || Director Francis Lawrence | Writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig (based on the novel Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins) | Cinematographer Jo Willems | Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Natalie Dormer | Length 123 minutes || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable

Another instalment in the ongoing young-adult dystopianism that’s been part of all our lives for the last decade or so (whether under this franchise’s title, or previous ones you may guess at; even if you haven’t read any books or seen any films, you can’t possibly be unaware of the trend). I certainly enjoy the range of darker and more complicated emotions this kind of thing leads to, even if the way they’re handled remains strictly teenage (although most mainstream entertainment pitches itself to that age range, to be fair). With Mockingjay, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss starts to really doubt her own abilities to lead a revolution as the stakes become more serious (the film is largely based in the underground compound of District 13, as they make periodic sorties to disrupt the Capitol and its propaganda), though even when crying in a dark corner, Lawrence remains effortlessly watchable. If there are any ‘games’ here, they take place in the real world of the film (Panem), which seems to make them curiously less engaging than the engineered ones of the previous two films. It also seems to squander an obvious cliffhanger ending point, but I’ll undoubtedly be back next year to see how things wrap up.

Gravity (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || 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 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Warner Bros. Pictures

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).

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