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Film Review: Interstellar

Interstellar

With the Earth’s food supplies running out, farmer and former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) travels across the universe in search of an alternative home for Earth’s inhabitants.

There are few directors whose films generate as much excitement as Christopher Nolan’s. And for good reason. With a back catalogue to date including Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception, Nolan might not be prolific but he certainly knows how to make a film.

Which brings us on to Interstellar, his most ambitious project yet, which given the head fuck that was Inception, is no mean feat.

What starts off on Earth as a relatively low key drama soon expands to the far reaches of our universe and beyond. Space exploration in films is of course nothing new but here it feels special for the most part, and some of that is down to the film being routed in realism. Sure, some of the science may not totally add up, but much of the film (the first two thirds in particular) feels plausible and not beyond the realms of possibility. It’s both exciting and scary to think this may one day become science fact rather than fiction.

Space exploration is only one aspect of the film, however, and as with the majority of Nolan’s films, Interstellar has family at its heart. It owes a debt to Robert Zemeckis’ Contact in this respect, knowing all the while that Cooper’s daughter Murph (but weirdly not his son) is at the forefront of his mind. It adds some emotional weight to the story that hasn’t worked for some but I thought gave the film a more human feel.

Black Hole in Insterstellar

Unfortunately, this good work is partly undone by some pretty hefty plot contrivances and whole strands of story that simply don’t work. Matt Damon’s brief storyline, for example, just feels forced and unnecessary, whilst trying to work out how Cooper ended up finding the NASA headquarters and being involved in the mission makes less sense than anything else that happens in the film.

But what Interstellar lacks on plot and script, it more than makes up for in ambition and grandeur. It looks absolutely stunning for a start, particularly some of the shots in the depths of space, whilst its final act is a brave one for a mainstream blockbuster. It does things other films would be afraid to do and should be applauded for that. It takes its cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey and whilst it does fall some way short of Kubrick’s masterpiece, it’s still quite the spectacle.

All the actors give decent performances with Matthew McConnaughey, Anna Hathaway and Jessica Chastain all handling their roles pretty well. None are particularly spectacular but do what they need to do when they need to do it.  However, it’s Mackenzie Foy as the young Murph who truly sparkles and adds some real emotional clout to the film. Foy’s character is central to everything happening to the film and fortunately she carries such pressure with ease.

Interstellar is not Christopher Nolan’s best film but is still a film to be appreciated, if just for its technical achievements. Like Gravity, it may not have the strongest script but is a visual marvel and will make you realise why you fell in love with cinema, particularly if you’re a sci-fi can. See it on the biggest screen possible and just drink it in.

Pros

  • Amazing cinematography
  • Pure cinema at times
  • Great performance by Mackenzie Foy

Cons

  • Some horrible plot contrivances
  • Some sections *cough* Matt Damon *cough* just don’t work

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark ThirtyEvery so often a film comes along that courts controversy for whatever reason. A Clockwork Orange was controversial because it featured rape scenes, Brokeback Mountain was considered controversial because of its portrayal of homosexuality, and there are countless others that have had the Mary Whitehouses of this world wagging their fingers disapprovingly. Now Zero Dark Thirty, the latest film from director Kathryn Bigelow, is another to get people jumping on their high horse due to its apparent glorification of torture.

Zero Dark Thirty is the story of the hunt and assassination of Osama Bin Laden. It is largely based on fact although it’s fair to say that some embellishment and artistic license has occurred. The original script was about the fruitless hunt for the Al Qaeda figure as it was written before his death, but this was changed to include his eventual demise. More specifically, the film focuses on CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her involvement in locating where Bin Laden was hiding.

This issue of torture in Zero Dark Thirty is little more than a fuss over nothing. Bigelow defended herself by saying that portraying the torture is not the same as excusing it and that’s spot on the money. It’s an honest telling and leaving out the torture would do the film a disservice. Ethics don’t come into it here.

It’s a somewhat slower film than some may expect, punctuated with the occasional terrorist explosion, although the real meat of the story comes in Maya’s constant battle with her superiors. The sporadic action set pieces are, however, a welcome change of pace although they do occasionally feel like the film trying to remind us who the bad guys are and that everything the CIA are doing is justified. The final act, the actual assassination of Bin Laden, is superbly filmed (at times through nothing more than night vision) and is incredibly tense even though you know pretty much how it’s going to play out.

Jessica Chastain gives a very good (but no better than very good) performance as Maya and it’s interesting to see the character grow in confidence and stature from timid at the outset to ballsy and assertive by the film’s conclusion. Jason Clarke and Mark Strong also give entertaining turns in their respective roles of fellow CIA operative and CIA director.

Zero Dark Thirty could well have been flag waving propaganda and there is somewhat of a sense of that at times, be it intended or accidental. Despite that, it’s also an incredibly well made film, superbly paced and with a strong female lead that gives the film more of an identity. However, whether this is how events really did play out or whether this is what we’re encouraged to believe is a different matter.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Lawless

Seeing Tom Hardy crack someone with brass knuckles is a thing of brutal beauty. Sure, we may be getting used to him doing that kind of thing by now (after all, we’ve seen him as the sadistic Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, cage fighting machine Tommy Conlon in Warrior and the crazy Charles Bronson in, erm, Bronson over the past few years), but when someone’s good at something, it’s often best to just let them get on with it.

The Bondurant brothers

In Lawless, Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant who along with his two brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LeBeouf) are successful alcohol bootleggers, producing moonshine during the Prohibition era. Forrest is the bumbling hard man who is in charge of operations, whilst Howard likes to sample the moonshine a little too much. Jack is the runt of Bondurant litter and is in the constant shadow of his older brothers.

All is well in the bootlegging world until Special Detective Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is employed with shutting them down and will go to extreme lengths to ensure he does so. However, Forrest and his brothers aren’t keen on going quietly. The film is based on a true story and adapted from Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World.

One of the most striking things about Lawless is how violent it is. There are throats slit, necks broken and skulls caved in, and there are times when it can feel a little unnecessary and over the top. Indeed, at times the violence threatens to define the film, especially considering the somewhat flimsy plot.

Hardy & LeBeoufThere’s enough to keep the story going but there’s little else going on aside from the usual good guys vs bad guys story arc. However, it’s interesting working out who the good and the bad guys actually are. The Bondurant brothers are the ones breaking the law, yet it’s they who we root for, not the authorities trying to uphold the law.

The actual issue of bootlegging is nothing more than a MacGuffin; the real focus of the film is the relationship between the brothers and their struggle to adapt to changes in the law and technology. Due to this, it very much feels like it should be a character driven film, but with little exposition and character development (aside from perhaps Jack), it falls short on this front also.

There’s some confusion as to who the film wants to make its real protagonist. It’s narrated by Jack, but for large portions of the film the focus is firmly on Forest. It shifts between the two throughout, whilst Howard remains nothing more than a secondary character. And talking of secondary characters, there is criminal under use of the film’s leading ladies. Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) is the daughter of a local preacher and becomes Jack’s love interest in the film, whilst Forrest’s attentions are turned by city girl Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). Again, Howard doesn’t get a look in.

Both of these characters feel a little like an after thought, as if the filmmakers realised they hadn’t actually included any women in the script and so wedged them in where they could, which is a shame because they do add another dimension to the film and the actresses’ performances are excellent. Gary Oldman is also reduced to little more than a cameo; again, his character, mobster Floyd Banner, could easily have had a little more screen time. In fact, there are so many interesting characters that Lawless could well have been a mini-series, offering more time with each, although Boardwalk Empire has pretty much got that period sewn up right now.

Special Detectice Charlie RakesAlthough this review has been quite damning, there is a lot that Lawless gets right. It’s not just Wasikowska and Chastain who provide top notch performances; the acting is superb across the board. Hardy once again proves he’s much more than just muscle, and even Shia Lebeouf proves he’s got some talent there after all. With Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac on the horizon, LeBeouf is clearly trying to move away from the Hollywood blockbusters that have earned him a somewhat tarnished reputation. Dane DeHaan also gives an entertaining performance as the brainy but rickets-riddled Cricket who help the brothers with their operation.

It’s arguably Guy Pearce’s Detective Rakes who’s the star of the show, however. His creepy, eyebrow-less visual is enhanced further by his equally creepy demeanour and willingness to go to any lengths to stop the three brothers. Pearce is superb as Rakes, giving the role the attitude and uneasiness it requires.

The film also looks absolutely fantastic. Director John Hillcoat has created a totally believable snapshot of the Prohibition era; the costumes, locales and cinematography all help create an incredibly rich mise-en-scène and a world you want to invest your time in. There’s also an excellent original soundtrack, but with Nick Cave behind the script (and some of the tracks), the music was always going to have elevated importance.

Whilst Lawless doesn’t quite reach the epic heights it clearly aspires for, it’s still an excellent watch with great performances and an interesting, if sometimes one-dimensional, narrative. It could, and perhaps should, have done a little more with the subject matter and the characters, but what it has done is immensely enjoyable and a worthy addition to all of the actors’ filmographies.

Words: Chris Thomson

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