NOT AN INTERSTELLAR EFFORT

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SPOILER WARNING

Very few films warrant long running times. Epics like Lawrence of Arabia or The Godfather justify breaking the two-hour mark. Director Christopher Nolan seems to have made a career out of very long films but he has managed thanks to the commercial success of the three Batman films to put himself in an envied position in modern Hollywood. Interstellar is a film that has been eagerly awaited, looking like an intelligent sci fi film with an impressive cast and the sort of visual flourishes that Nolan has become associated with. The world has been hit by a terrible disaster, wiping out the crops and obliterating technology. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former engineer who has turned his hand to farming. His life changes when he encounters Professor Brand (Michael Caine), a scientist with a plan to save Earth by sending a team in a rocket through a wormhole to find a new planet for us to colonise. But of course, nothing is what it seems and Cooper discovers that the professor’s plan has some major flaws. Anne Hathaway plays Brand’s daughter Amelia, who accompanies Cooper on the mission. Interstellar is a fairly ambitious film and some of it looks stunning. The cinematography by Hoyt Van Hoytema is spectacular and Nathan Crowley’s production design, with its nods to classics like 2001 and Alien, is superb but there are some serious problems with Interstellar. Clocking in at just shy of three hours, the film drags in several places and what begins as an intriguing concept becomes quite tiresome in places. It would have been a better film if it had a tighter running time. The other problem, which is arguably a more major one, is that the plot is filled with holes and you get a mcguffin that is foreshadowed but just doesn’t really make any sense. Just like Inception, or perhaps more so, Nolan and his brother love the idea they have created here but they don’t really know how to wrap it all up. McConaughey is very good here, Caine is wasted and Hathaway is bland and annoying. It does have its moments but these mostly occur in the first half of the film. John Lithgow appears but is also wasted because he disappears early on in the film. There is also a sizeable Matt Damon cameo in the film. The brothers have set up an interesting premise about a world riven by a blight but the cause is not explained satisfactorily for the viewers. Interstellar feels like a three hour EC or Twilight Zone story with a poorly executed pay off. It will be interesting to see just how well it does. Nolan is a talented director but here he has been given too much freedom and so we end up with a film that wants to be groundbreaking and seminal but is just a very frustrating failure. A shame really…

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OFF TO A FLYING START
DC have been desperate to resurrect the idea of a Superman franchise on screen for a while now. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), despite a few initial positive reviews, didn’t set the box office alight and buried the idea of bringing DC’s alien icon back to the big screen. Fast-forward to 2013 and we have Man of Steel, directed by Zach Snyder (Sucker Punch, Watchmen) and produced and co-written by Christopher Nolan (Batman trilogy) with David Goyer (screenwriter on all three Batman films). Snyder has been capable of visual flourishes in the past but his worst indulgences have sunk some of his previous efforts, so presumably Nolan was brought in to keep his flaws in check. Man of Steel is obviously an origin story, where we are treated to the destruction of Krypton and Clark Kent coming to terms with who and what he is. As with every Superman origin story, we see him brought up by Ma and Pa Kent (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner respectively) and Snyder has decided to forego Lex Luthor in favour of General Zod (a brutal Michael Shannon here) as his first adversary. Man of Steel isn’t perfect: it takes itself very, very seriously and is a very dark and cold film with little emotional connection. But considering Nolan’s take on Batman, this doesn’t come as a huge shock. But, despite this, Snyder has made some very clever casting choices (Russell Crowe as Kal-El’s father, Jor-El, has enough gravitas to pull this off, and Shannon is excellent as the psychotic Zod) and Brit Henry Cavill in the lead role channels Christopher Reeve while bringing a fresh vulnerability to the part. Amy Adams as Lois Lane is also very good: the filmmakers have made the reporter feisty but tough and actually quite sympathetic at the same time. In terms of its look, the more lowkey character scenes have a quiet majesty to them which acts as a nice counterpoint to the action sequences, which manage to be bold, dynamic and in your face, with more mayhem than you’ve seen in any other superhero film before. The stakes were very high here for DC and Warner Bros: Marvel had stolen a march on them with Avengers (Assemble), Thor and the three Iron Man films. But the combination of Snyder and Goyer has created a surprisingly measured summer superhero blockbuster film with some very assured touches and set the scene for future big screen Superman adventures the equal of their rival’s movie adaptations. There has been much debate about the way that Superman defeats General Zod and I won’t confirm what other people have spelt out elsewhere but it does throw up some interesting moral questions for the future. Man of Steel has washed the bad taste out of everyone’s mouths created by Superman Returns and it will be genuinely interesting to see how Snyder and Nolan develop the character in future instalments…

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WARNING SPOILERS



NICE KNIGHT FOR IT?
After a four-year gap, we have the third film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman, The Dark Knight Rises. This year has already seen Marvel’s Avengers (Assemble), which had a record-breaking box office internationally. The Dark Knight was a very impressive effort, not least because of the late Heath Ledger’s Joker performance. So Nolan had set the bar pretty high for this third film. The Dark Knight Rises opens eight years later. Batman has disappeared because he has been accused of the murder of Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne has become a Howard Hughes-like recluse. Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), an enigmatic mercenary figure, determined to take over Gotham City. We are also introduced to Selina Kyle/ Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), a thief whose motives are a little unclear. Bane seems to be a force of a nature, a character who appears to be unstoppable and when Batman tries, he is physically incapacitated and left to rot in a prison in a mystery country. There are returning characters here: Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and Michael Caine as Alfred are all back but we also have Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), whose role becomes more pivotal as the film progresses, and Matthew Modine as policeman Foley and Joseph Gordon Leavitt as police detective Blake. So The Dark Knight Rises deals with redemption and whether Batman, with the aid of people like Blake, Gordon and Fox, can help Gotham City rise phoenix-like from the ashes of what Bane has created: a city locked down under his control. Its running time is nearly three hours and I admit before I saw it, this did give me a little cause for concern. But Nolan has managed to craft a tale which is epic, cinematic and which mostly holds your attention. There are still flaws here: the audio for Tom Hardy’s Bane makes it impossible to make out everything he says and sometimes Bale’s gruff Bat-voice can be a little grating. But these are minor quibbles: The Dark Knight Rises feels like a film made by a grown-up, proper filmmaker where everything is there for a reason. It’s impossible not to compare this with The Avengers (Assemble) and, while Marvel’s team film was very enjoyable and a lot of fun, Nolan’s effort feels more like a real cinematic experience. Nolan manages to wrap up the story of Batman on screen with style and panache while leaving things open for further adventures. Both he and Bale have stated publicly that this will be the last Batman film from them but this means, presumably, that there will be a Spider-man-style reboot in about three years, which would be a real shame as Nolan has planted the seeds for a truly intriguing potential future for the character. It’s not perfect, and it’s not quite as well-made as The Dark Knight, but The Dark Knight Rises is a worthy addition to Nolan’s work as well as a great showcase for what can be done on the big screen these days…


NICE KNIGHT FOR IT
I went to two press screenings last week, one was Hellboy 2, which is embargoed over here until August because that’s when it’s out in the UK, a date that I shall honour, but the other was The Dark Knight. I admit that I was looking forward to Hellboy 2 more than The Dark Knight but I found that I was more impressed by the latter than the former. Christopher Nolan is an amazing director: just look at The Prestige or Memento if you don’t believe me. The Dark Knight is set a little later than Batman Begins and we see a Gotham riven by gangsters fighting with each other. Into this tinderbox enters The Joker played by Heath Ledger, a role that he doesn’t just make his own but totally inhabits for the two-and-a-half hours of the film. The Joker represents the chaos of the new kind of villain in Gotham and he upsets the status quo of the city. Enter Harvey Dent, likeably played by Aaron Eckhart, the DA brought in to clean up the city. But things don’t go according to plan and The Joker’s presence here is a catalyst for all manner of horrendous events. The Dark Knight is so much more accomplished, cohesive and cinematic than its predecessor that you sometimes have to slap yourself to remind you that this is by the same director. Everything is shot and lit in a grown-up and widescreen manner and Nolan turns Chicago, where most of the film was shot, into a beautiful but deadly Gotham City on screen. From the opening bank job, where you see the brutality of Ledger’s Joker and which is one of the most arresting starts to any film in the last three decades, to the tense conclusion in which the villain pits two groups of people on two different booby-trapped boats against each other, everything plays out with elegance and sophistication, two words that aren’t often used to describe your bog-standard summer tentpole movie. The script here is fantastically consistent too: unlike Batman Begins, which was all over the place, there is a sense of cohesion here that makes it gripping to watch it all play out. Ledger makes The Joker a force of nature and I shall admit that I was skeptical when people who had seen the film were tipping him for an Oscar nod but bloody hell does he deserve it. There are moments here that reminded me of Dirty Harry and I think this is a deliberate nod to classic Seventies movies like that. Batman is a limited character but Nolan has managed to invest so much in the other protagonists and antagonists here that this doesn’t detract from the overall film. The Dark Knight is probably the best superhero movie ever made and Nolan is one of the finest directors currently working in mainstream cinema today…