Talking Movies

February 7, 2020

20:20 on 2000: Part II

On the 3rd of February 2000 The Beach was released…

It’s hard to overstate the hype attached to it; DiCaprio’s first choice following the success of Titanic, after American Psycho had hoved into view and then hoved out again. The novel itself was a zeitgeist-surfing cause celebre, as much a part of the wider Britpop moment as 1960s nostalgia and This Life.

Did The Beach deserve the pithy review given by an acquaintance at the time, “It started off sh*te, and went downhill from there”? Probably not.

But that’s a verdict only possible once removed from the bubble of the initial release.

January 13, 2020

From the Archives: Top 10 Films of 2007

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

[10] 300

Bloodthirsty, outlandish, stupid, just macho to the point of insanity and altogether great quotable fun. I don’t know if this film is objectively any good I just know it’s deliriously entertaining, especially if viewed from the perspective of Irish actor Michael Fassbender who romps his way through it.

[9] Control

Director Anton Corbijn made a fine film debut with this biopic of troubled Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. Control combined thrilling live music performances with kitchen sink realism. That mix between humorously observed period setting and a deep emotional engagement with a rock star’s normal life simply dazzled.

[8] I’m Not There

Deeply crazy not-biopic of Bob Dylan which reinvented a number of Dylan’s greatest songs by using different actors for different aspects of his career set against changes in American culture. Cate Blanchett was disturbingly accurate in her impression of Dylan touring Blonde on Blonde in England.

[6] 3:10 to Yuma

Hats off to director James Mangold who remade a Western classic and actually improved on the original. The acting is uniformly superb with the human substance of the story showing there’s space for drama as well as suspense and bloody gun-battles in the slowly reviving genre.

[6] Enchanted

A hilarious self-parody by Disney which threw their animated characters into the rather different conventions of New York City, this was joyful, sweet and damn near flawless. Everyone involved is clearly having a ball but James Marsden steals every scene he appears in and finally gets the girl.

[5] Hot Fuzz

Less of a straight parody than Shaun of the Dead, but far, far funnier. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s double act is a joy to watch and the rip-offs of Michael Bay and his ilk becomes ever more absurd and deliriously enjoyable as the action parodies escalate.

[4] Sunshine

Absolutely meaningless despite its promotional claims, this said nothing about the purpose of existence or religious belief. What it did do was offer a gripping white knuckle ride through an escalating series of catastrophes onboard a claustrophobic space-ship in the hands of a masterful director and committed cast.

[3] Transformers

The feel good hit of the summer was a Michael Bay film for people who hate Michael Bay and far funnier than anyone expected. The CGI robots were dazzling, the action unrelenting and Peter Cullen’s return as the voice of Optimus Prime heart-warming for all us 80s kids.

[2] Atonement

Pitch perfectly played by a terrific ensemble, this was an incredibly structured film that is among the saddest love stories which cinema has ever produced. Director Joe Wright proved through small details as well as the Dunkirk tracking shot that he is a coming force in British film.

[1] Zodiac

David Fincher’s gripping procedural epic followed three characters as they destroyed their lives in an obsessive hunt for 1970s San Francisco serial killer The Zodiac. Eschewing his usual Fincherisms for the most part this was All the President’s Men for a new generation, but with a serial killer.

October 15, 2019

From the Archives: Resident Evil: Extinction

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

The T-Virus has populated the world with zombies. A convoy of survivors led by Claire (Larter) encounters Alice (Jovovich) in the Nevada desert and gets drawn into her fight against the evil Umbrella Corp who created the virus.

When the hell did Resident Evil become a franchise? How is it even possible that Paul WS Anderson is still given big budgets for this dreck? Who out there keeps going to these damn films? Paul WS Anderson after showing some initial promise as a writer/director has become the Ed Wood of our times, only with a budget – which he is given repeatedly in his baffling capacity as Hollywood’s go-to-guy for bad horror adaptations of computer games. He has written, directed and produced everything from Mortal Kombat to Alien Vs Predator and has scripted all three Resident Evil films. Anderson, whether out of guilt that he got the job of writer/director on Resident Evil after horror legend George Romero was unceremoniously fired, or because he’s sick of the critical pastings he always receives, has lifted large chunks of George Romero’s Day of the Dead for his screenplay here. From the tension between military and scientists trapped underground, to the skeletal makeup effects for the long time undead, to the infected heroes who won’t admit that they’re now a threat to the notion that the real evil is inside the souls of humans, this film revisits themes and even scenes from that bleak 1985 film.

Sadly none of this gives any depth to Resident Evil: Extinction. What it does do is waste time that could be better used for zombie ass-kicking. Milla Jovovich now has super-strength and can use The Force (no, I’m not making this up). This means that watching Alice fight hordes of zombies you feel she’s in about as much peril as Buffy facing one vampire in a cemetery. The fight choreography should make this a lot of fun but here director Russell Mulcahy fails badly. There are sequences in this film like an attack by a flock of infected crows and an assault by mutated zombies that could have been bravura set-pieces under the direction of Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) but are just insipid as orchestrated by Mulcahy.

Oded Fehr as Alice’s old comrade Carlos, Heroes star Ali Larter as Claire, Spencer Locke as convoy mascot K-Mart and Jason O’Mara as the Chairman of Umbrella Corp all give committed performances, but they’re working with thinly written characters. I’m happy to say Iain Glen enjoys himself far too much as Dr Isaacs, head scientist for the evil Umbrella Corp. Newcomers to this franchise would know they’re evil because they’re introduced to us by Dr Isaacs who, using the cinematic shorthand for villainy, is a ‘Sneering British Person’ who stops just short of ending his first appearance with a “MRHAHAHAHA!!!”. The film ends with this franchise’s irritating trademark: a CGI enhanced ‘shock’ pull-out shot and wait… What!! Another sequel?!

2/5

September 30, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XX

As the title suggests, so forth.

Whither Fassbender?

Things have not been going well for Michael Fassbender of late. 2015 was something of an annus mirabilis with the glorious offbeat Western Slow West, a cinematic and brutal Macbeth, and the Sorkin/Boyle dream-team walk-and-talk of Steve Jobs. And that coming on the heels of 2014’s feel-good time-travel blockbuster X-Men: Days of Future Past and eccentric musical comedy Frank. And then everything seemed to go sideways in 2016. X-Men: Apocalypse was an unmitigated disaster, gangster film Trespass Against Us and period drama The Light Between Oceans failed to find even an art-house audience, and video game romp Assassin’s Creed, which he also produced and was intended as the ‘one for them’ for Macbeth, backfired spectacularly. Then came 2017. Song to Song only fuelled the flames of Malick fatigue where it was released, horror sequel Alien: Covenant infuriated everyone despite his entertainingly ridiculous turn as two androids, and Scandi-noir The Snowman was crippled from the start by production ending before it had, um, quite ended. Either of these years would be an annus horribilis. To have one after the other spectacularly bad luck. Almost of Jude Law 2004 proportions. Since then Fassbender has only made one film – X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Sigh. As of today Fassbender is filming a part in Kung Fury 2. A sequel to a 2015 short film. And this may well be merely a glorious cameo. There is nothing else confirmed for the man from Kerry. How can he turn this around?

June 30, 2019

Notes on Yesterday

Richard Curtis’ Beatles rom-com Yesterday was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

Danny Boyle may be the director but this is a Richard Curtis film, and it would be much better if it weren’t. A world in which The Beatles have been erased from existence save for the memory of one struggling musician is a high concept comedy, but Curtis insists on making it a ho-hum rom-com. Kevin Willmott’s CSA showed that you have to rein in the butterfly effect for alternate history because everything would become unfamiliar. Would the Beach Boys be as important without Pet Sounds, their riposte to the Beatles? Curtis displays no such interest, save an Oasis joke, in exploring the butterfly effect of his own bloody high concept. Kate McKinnon is the most reliably comic element of this film, and she is lip-smackingly playing a caricature record executive – Hunter S Thompson’s famous jibe mixed with notes of her SNL Hillary Clinton. But then all the characters in this film are caricatures. This poses a problem when Curtis wants you to care about the romance as if it involved characters with some humanity.

The romance is already scuppered by Jack (Himesh Patel) and Elly (Lily James) patently having the chemistry of hopeless dreamer and dutiful girlfriend in the opening scenes, until it’s bafflingly revealed they’re just friends. They do not hold themselves as fast platonic friends like Holmes and Watson in Elementary. When she complains she always wanted more, and Curtis writes improbable scenes doggedly making this fetch happen he, like Nick Hornby in Juliet, Naked, defies the felt experience of human nature. But this aggravating drive to the grand romantic gesture reaches a new low for Curtis. GK Chesterton once quipped that art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere. I draw the line at Curtis; in the vein of his Doctor Who episode in which he shamefully zipped Van Gogh to the future to hear Bill Nighy valorise him then returned him to the past to kill himself to general hand-wringing; resurrecting the murdered John Lennon as septuagenarian sage giving Jack a pep talk to make the finale’s grand romantic gesture. No… No. No. No!

Listen here:

January 13, 2016

Top 10 Films of 2015

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(10) Steve Jobs

The combination of Michael Fassbender, Aaron Sorkin, and Danny Boyle produced a far warmer movie than Sorkin’s previous tech biopic The Social Network. Sorkin’s theatrical script was tense, hilarious, meta-textual, and heart-warming as if each iteration of the same confrontations pushed Jobs closer to doing the right thing, as Daniel Pemberton’s rousing score became less electronic and more orchestral, while Boyle’s changing film formats emphasised the passage of time and  thereby generated unexpected pathos.

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(9) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Since JJ Abrams became Tom Cruise’s producing co-pilot this vanity franchise has suddenly become great fun. This doesn’t equal the blast that was Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol, but writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s combined great comedy and stunts, with a truly mysterious femme fatale, and some well staged action sequences; the highlight being assassins’ night out at the Viennese opera, riffing shamelessly and gloriously on Alfred Hitchcock’s twice-told Royal Albert Hall sequence.

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(8) The Martian

Director Ridley Scott may have demurred at this being a Golden Globe ‘comedy’ but Drew Goddard should write all Scott’s future movies on the basis of this screenplay chock-full of great jokes. You know you’re looking at an unprecedented ensemble of scene-stealers when Kristen Wiig ends up straight man to the Fassbendering all around her, and this valorisation of can-do science arguably realised Tomorrowland’s stated intention of restoring technological optimism to the popular imagination.

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(7) Sicario

Denis Villeneuve once again directed a thriller so spare, savage, and elemental that, like Incendies, it invited comparison with Greek tragedy. Amidst Roger Deakins’ stunning aerial photography and Johann Johannsson’s unnerving score Emily Blunt’s steely FBI heroine, in her conflict with Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro, became a veritable Creon to his Antigone: for her devotion to upholding the law is the right thing, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing.

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(6) Listen Up Philip

Jason Schwartzman was on top form as an obnoxiously solipsistic novelist who retreated to the place in the country of new mentor Jonathan Pryce, and alienated his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss), his mentor’s daughter (Krysten Ritter), his students, and, well, just about everybody else. This was a tour-de-force by writer/director Alex Ross Perry who threw in a wonderfully gloomy jazz score, a narrator, and alternating perspectives to create an unashamedly literary, unhappy, ‘unrelatable’ story.

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(5) Mistress America

Expectations were high after Frances Ha, and Baumbach and Gerwig’s follow-up did not disappoint. Their script provided compelling characters, with great jokes and screwball set-ups, as well as a literary sense of melancholy. The story of Brooke and Tracy is one of the best observer/hero films I’ve seen lately; from Tracy’s loneliness at college, to her meeting with the whirlwind of energy that is Brooke, to her co-option into Brooke’s restaurant dream, and all the fall-out from Tracy’s attempts to have her cake and eat it; sharply observed, but with great sympathy.

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(4) Carol

The Brief Encounter set-up of the extended flashback to explain the true nature of what superficially appeared to be casual meeting was played out with immense delicacy by stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Maray in a feast of glances and little gestures under the subtle direction of Todd Haynes. Carter Burwell’s score added the emotion forced to go unspoken in Phyllis Nagy’s sleek adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel which mixed romance with coming-of-age story as Mara’s shopgirl followed her artistic path and so moved from ingénue to the equal of Blanchett’s socialite.

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(3) Eden

Mia Hansen-Love followed-up Goodbye First Love with another exploration of 20 years in a character’s life. Paul (Felix de Givry) was the guy standing just next to Daft Punk in the 1993 photo of Parisian house music enthusiasts, and the story of his rise as a DJ wasn’t just about the music. We met the women in his life, including Pauline Etienne’s Louise and Greta Gerwig’s American writer Julia, and the male friends who came and went. Eden was always engaging, hilarious, tender, poignant, and rousing; in short it felt like a life.

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(2) Furious 7

Paul Walker bowed out with a gloriously nonsensical romp which made pigswill of the laws of physics because Vin Diesel, The Rock and The State said so. This franchise under the direction of Justin Lin, and now James Wan, has broken free of any link to humdrum reality to become distilled cinematic joy. And it’s so much fun they can even break rules, like not killing the mentor, yet still set themselves up for an awesome finale. CC: Whedon & Abrams, there are other ways to motivate characters and raise the stakes…

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(1) Birdman

Michael Keaton made a spectacular leading man comeback in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s meta-riff on Keaton being overshadowed by his Bat-past. Keaton was hilarious and affecting by turns, and in support Edward Norton shone in a play on his persona: preening self-regard with notes of self-loathing. Emmanuel Lubezski’s camera-work was spectacularly fluid in maintaining the illusion of a single take, but the time-lapses made you suspect it was a cinematic conceit designed to conceal the theatrical nature of essentially four long-takes. Indeed the characters were highly conscious that theatre was the only medium for a Carver adaptation; the days of Short Cuts are gone. Birdman was interesting, funny, and experimental; and to consistently pull off all three of those at the same time was enough to overcome any quibbles.

November 13, 2015

Steve Jobs

The Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin returns to the well of abrasive tech innovators for an unconventional biopic of Apple main-man Steve Jobs.

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We first encounter Jobs (Michael Fassbender) backstage at the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, pushing Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to do the impossible: fix a glitch within 40 minutes so that during the demo Jobs can make the computer say a cheerful ‘Hello’ to accentuate its friendly design. Meanwhile marketing maven Joanna Hoffmann (Kate Winslet) is trying to contain another potential PR disaster, as backstage also lurks Jobs’ ex-girlfriend Chrisanne Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and their daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss); who Jobs refuses to acknowledge despite all evidence to the contrary. Throw in Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) also jumping into the fray to beg Jobs to acknowledge the work of the Apple 2 team and it’s little wonder Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) feels the need to descend from Olympus to make sure that Jobs is calm enough to wow the audience. And that’s just the first of three product launches…

The unusual structure of Sorkin’s adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs works tremendously well, even if its central conceit is mischievously acknowledged in-camera on the third go-round, “It’s like 5 minutes before every product launch everyone gets drunk in a bar and decides to tell me how they really feel about me.” We watch the same characters recur, arguing about the same things in different guises, and the cumulative effect is akin to a super-sizing of Sorkin’s most theatrical television episodes; like The Newsroom season 3 episode about ethics. Danny Boyle has spoken of not wanting to get in the way of Sorkin’s script, but his shooting in different formats for each act emphasises the passage of time and really makes us feel, as much as Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden, that we are watching a life unfold.

Watching a life unfold entails a great deal of sadness, a feeling of squandered potential and missed opportunities hangs over the third act as much as triumphant themes of resurrection and redemption. (Which also features an amazing unintentional [?] meta-moment where Fassbender critiques 39 images of a shark, as if searching for a secret self-portrait.) Boyle and Sorkin mesh in a way that makes them a more obvious fit than Sorkin and Fincher. There is a fundamental optimism to both as artists that when combined with Fassbender’s irrepressible warmth makes Jobs very different to Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg. Jobs says horrible things, but the Woz will always have a free pass, and Sorkin’s Zuckerberg would never proffer the quasi-apology quasi-motivator “I’m poorly made.” Steve Jobs, despite being filled with cruel zingers, is ultimately summed up by Daniel Pemberton score: rudimentary digital beats that evolve into something rousing and deeply human.

Startling footage from the late 1960s shows Arthur C Clarke describing the world we live in today. Sorkin puts both sides of the case regarding Jobs’ importance in achieving that vision, but Boyle and Sorkin have achieved something great themselves.

5/5

September 30, 2015

The Martian 3-D

Director Ridley Scott tacks away from the Erich von Daniken-inspired marvel of nonsense that is the Prometheusverse for a cracking foray into hard science sci-fi.

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Ares III astronauts carry out their varied tasks on the surface of Mars, until a storm unexpectedly lethally strengthens. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leads her crew; Martinez (Michael Pena), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), Vogel (Aksel Hennie); from their quarters, the Hab, through the blinding sandstorm to their ship, which blasts off just before it would’ve tipped fatally off-balance. But Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind, killed by flying debris. NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) leads mourning for Watney, but when Mars maven Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) convinces him to pinpoint Watney’s corpse via satellite, Sat Operator Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discovers Watney’s still alive. Teddy, Vincent, PR director Montrose (Kristen Wiig), and Ares director Mitch (Sean Bean), agonise over the ethical and logistical quandaries of a rescue mission, while Mark uses his wits to colonise Mars.

It’s a bold move to start with the evacuation: imagine Zemeckis cutting the lead-in to the plane crash in Cast Away. But it works because it so quickly funnels us to NASA, and the personalities who will decide Mark’s long-term future as he ensures his short-term survival. This is probably the most consistently funny film Scott’s ever directed, courtesy of Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. Goddard knowingly pushes ratings boundaries with Mark’s cursing, and renders Mark’s never-ending vlog a series of riffs and one-liners. But it’s not a one-man show. Prometheus’ Benedict Wong is wonderful as Bruce, the Jet Propulsion Lab director given impossible deadlines and tasks, Davis breaks out from indies (What If, Bad Turn Worse) to share archly comic moments with Ejiofor, Pena delivers another assured turn, while Daniels and Bean duel with gravitas and humour.

Sunshine showed one mistake creating dilemma after dilemma. The Martian shows a series of problems to be solved with a can-do spirit, and it’s nice to see characters mentally calculating trajectories, accelerations, and chemistry problems. Arguably this actually realises Tomorrowland’s stated intention to restore technological optimism to the popular imagination. Although the valorisation of science is complicated when you realise Mark only survives because his potatoes were not genetically modified to be barren… The sacrifice on the altar of Blake Snyder’s beats annoys, but Mark’s slight hubris and its inexplicable random flashing ‘Malfunction’ sign mitigate. It also makes the finale very tense because statistically something ought to go badly wrong after that long in space. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, a regular Scott collaborator, renders Earth in blue tones, Mars in red, and the Ares III in white; emphasising the different environments.

Ridley Scott has become a seriously prolific director this century, and on the evidence of this triumph he ought to sign Drew Goddard to write all his future films.

5/5

September 25, 2015

Miss You Already

Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore are thirty-something BFFs whose bond is sorely tested when Collette’s reformed wild child loses her way while battling breast cancer. Here’s a teaser of my review for HeadStuff.org.

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The film opens with a quick gallop through the lives of Milly and Jess, from Jess’ arrival as an American kid to an English school, to hanging out with Milly’s actress mother Miranda (Jacqueline Bisset), to being groupies until an unplanned pregnancy sees Milly marry roadie Kit (Dominic Cooper) and settle down to a PR career while Kit embraces the business side of music. Jess meanwhile works for a Green NGO and lives on a houseboat with Jago (Paddy Considine), a builder and oil-rig worker. And then Milly is informed she has breast cancer. So begins debilitating bouts of chemotherapy and the psyche-destroying hair-loss before the emperor of maladies unleashes the full arsenal of horrors. As Milly’s condition deteriorates it takes a heavy toll not only on her marriage, but also drives a wedge between Jess and Jago as Jago becomes increasingly aggrieved at IVF being put on hold for the sake of Milly; especially as Milly becomes increasingly unbearable.

Click here to read the full review on HeadStuff.org with Judd Apatow, Greta Gerwig, and Mia Hansen-Love in the mix.

November 10, 2014

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan redeems himself after the patchy The Dark Knight Rises with a hard tack into heavy-duty theoretical sci-fi in a mind-bending, oddly abstract blockbuster.

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The McConaissance continues as Matthew McConaughey takes on the role of Cooper, a Texan engineer and pilot turned farmer in the near future. Cooper’s is a self-professed caretaker generation, trying to eke a subsistence living from a devastated planet with a collapsed population. Indeed Cooper’s daughter Murph is subjected to some Orwellian education about the futility of technological civilisation. But among the cornfields stalked by blight and storming dust-clouds there are still some people who dream big: NASA in hiding. Michael Caine’s wise professor and his icy daughter Brand (Anne Hathaway) convince Cooper to pilot their last ditch Lazarus mission, to travel through a wormhole next to Saturn in an attempt to find a new home for humanity. But as Cooper leaves an inconsolable Murph behind him, and joins fellow astronauts Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), he finds that the search for humanity’s salvation seems oddly underpinned by losing all traces of humanity…

Interstellar is a bold change of pace for the Brothers Nolan. The script, written by Jonathan Nolan and then reworked by Christopher, sketches in this future world in the manner of a John Wyndham novel; taking for granted that we know about the macro which we actually only learn about when it impacts the micro world of Cooper and Murph. This leads to some double-take moments, such as Bill Irwin’s comic relief, which are amplified by Nolan’s insistence on secrecy. Some familiar faces appear to shocking effect, which would be dissipated by mentioning them; but among them is a cheerful cameo from William Devane aka 24’s President Heller. Interstellar could best be described as a version of Sunshine written not by Alex Garland, but instead boasting a screenplay by Rod Serling based on a story outline by Carl Sagan. Hard science of a theoretical bent mixes with a soured vision of humanity’s worst tendencies being dominant.

Interstellar is unlikely to get as fond a welcome as previous Nolan movies, but it does have much in common with them; from the Twilight Zone finale like The Prestige, to simultaneous set-pieces as adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Cooper wrestle with similar dilemmas like Inception. Hans Zimmer’s score avoids nearing Richard Strauss’ template by borrowing Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible organ and plugging it into a million IMAX amplifiers; achieving solemnity (without melody) by dint of volume. The replacement of Wally Pfister as DP by Hoyte van Hoytema doesn’t jar, but the changeover is aided by the fact that a very different cinematic world is being captured than that of the Nolan/Pfister paradigm. Nolan wrings good performances from his large cast, with Mackenzie Foy blowing Jessica Chastain off the screen as the younger iteration of the indomitable Murph, and McConaughey counteracting the heartless science of the Brand family with the emotional sensitivity of the Coopers.

Interstellar walks a tricky high-wire, attempting to create a heart-rending family saga dependent for its emotion on theoretical physics being literalised in a way that defeats traditional blockbuster visuals.

4/5

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