Interstellar – the sky is not the limit



Interstellar is no doubt the most powerful cinematic experience I’ve had in a while. Between impressive trailers leading systematically to seriously disappointing movies that always lack that little something (like a main topic or an exciting dialogue) that keeps me hooked on the screen, I might have given up on the possibility to find a truly thrilling movie any time soon. Nolan’s Interstellar gave me hope in the cinema again.

Without disclosing anything of the topic, which could not have been more contemporary, I’d say Nolan has created a mind-blowing movie in terms of visuals, beautifully supported by two exceptional actors. Matthew McConaughey who has kept on dazzling me with one exceptional performance after the other lately (from the monumental and practically unforgettable 5 minutes’ appearance in The Wolf of Wall Street to the flawless interpretation of an HIV dying cowboy in Dallas Buyers Club) is pivotal in Nolan’s tale. Jessica Chastain, timidly marketed by Hollywood still, but shining a powerful light in all her roles – I was particularly impressed with her role in Zero Dark Thirty, a movie, that if you asked me, received much less appreciation that it truly deserved (and I’m sure all Kathryn Bigelow fans will agree) – is once more stunningly natural and convincing here. Two absolutely perfect performances delivered in a supremely intelligent movie filled with exciting scenes and dialogue exchanges on the backdrop of uplifting Hans Zimmer music. What more can one ask from a movie?

When Cooper (McConaughey’s character) struggles to breathe at one point, I feel strangely breathless myself. I count the seconds till I breathe again and hope Cooper will keep on breathing, too. Remaining still in one’s chair is impossible. I’ve seen people bending towards the big screen, visibly alert and absorbing the tension in the same way I did, being part of the action.

The movie literally takes hold of you. This because it has all the ingredients that make one live and feel the movie. Nolan embarks us on a powerful sensory journey. He is possibly not of this world himself, so skilled are his endeavours. The details are fascinating and work together like little stars in a wonderfully sparkling galaxy. I’m always fascinated by how coherent the little bits and pieces, the fragmentary action and flashbacks come together under Nolan directions. He cannot make simple movies, there is no A to B flow, there’s X and then there’s T, Y, and then he throws you into A – sequences unfold irregularly but never randomly in front of our eyes; no one can predict what comes next.

Nolan gives me headaches: his scenes are so filled with intelligence, humour, wisdom, emotions, logic, rapidity, possibility, imagination, novelty, that it shakes the whole of you. He can easily give you a ride through a black hole and other places you didn’t suspect. You couldn’t have. It’s his universe, so impeccably architectured that you have no option but to follow and be dazzled. Nolan is difficult because he obliges you to be 100% present, to follow the course of the action which is preferred nonlinear. He commands involvement, mentally and emotionally, which is strenuous. Interstellar is a beautiful, sensitive, spectacular accomplishment of one of the liveliest and most spirited directors of our times.

Looking at the script, some lines have the potential to stay with us for a while. “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends time and space,” says Anne Hathaway in the movie and guess what? It doesn’t sound cliche. Probably because it fits the movie context so well when it is uttered – and time and timing are Nolan’s obsessions and specialties, after all. He knows this is bound to resonate with the audience. Even if the movie reality is mould to be dramatic, Nolan powders it with a great dose of humour. It has great pace and tension. It has logical, meaningful scenes. It has rhythm and exceptional soundtracks. I personally take a bow; Nolan is a tremendously skilled director.

It was about time I remembered what an intense movie was like. About time a movie asked so much of me. Interstellar is clearly my “wow” movie so far this year. I’m running out of words to convince you to go to the cinema and see it. I hope you will, for it is rare to see movies of such exquisite complexity nowadays. Unless they are signed Christopher Nolan, that is.

East side to the West side

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Courtesy of Wikipedia

I have never thought I’d be reading books about volcanoes one day. There’s hardly anything I hate more than earthquakes and related catastrophes. But when you’re travelling to Sumatra, Indonesia – situated somewhere in the Pacific Ring of Fire, it only seems appropriate. And if I was to get into it, I wouldn’t have settled for anything less than the real thing. This is how “Krakatao – the Day the World Exploded” ended up on my desk.

I remember having seen at some point in childhood a movie called “Krakatoa, East of Java”. While it didn’t leave me with more significant memories other than that of a volcano spreading ashes and lava all over, it at least left me with some knowledge as to the geographical position of the mountain/island. Which, I realized as I opened my newly acquired book and had a look at the map on the first page, was completely wrong. The last thing I expected was to find Krakatao very much opposite where the movie title so self-confidently placed it. Because (and there go some years of conviction down the toilet) Krakatao is, was and, unless some massive tectonic movements put it elsewhere, West of Java!

In a moment’s hesitation, I do a quick mental review of my understanding of the four cardinal points. Did I skip the wrong geography class? Well, someone evidently has. I get mad at the thought that my intelligence has been so badly insulted for years and start playing the detective. What I found on Wikipedia is priceless. It goes like this: “some problems with the film include inaccuracy in detail. Krakatoa is, in fact, west of Java.” Come again: SOME problems? No, no, no, Wiki, this is huge, biiiig, biiig problem; this is a non-fiction movie which shamelessly sells geographic inaccuracy to an audience already unacquainted in its large majority with the subject matter: the regular popcorn-eating cinema goer in want of special effects.

But wait, it gets even better – hang on: “While the film was in production, its makers became aware of the geographic error in its title but used it anyway, apparently believing that this was a more exotic title than “Krakatoa, West of Java.” So let me get this straight: a script (with a carefully chosen title) is drafted and sets the real volcano somewhere it is not. Only THEN, at a much later stage (and I don’t even dare to think how many people are usually involved in the approval of a movie production) does someone finally have a look at the map and understands that Krakatao is in the other east, traditionally called west.

I admit, I was seriously impressed with this. One always is when it comes to things that go beyond one’s own capacities, I suppose. Now, no one is perfect, but how can a screenplay writer (oh, wait, there were two!) and a movie director refuse to put in the minimum effort of documenting themselves on the volcano, the base on which they were building on their entire story, and check the accuracy of the title? After all, they were trying to recreate historic events, for Christ’s sake and the title only consists of 4 words! How can one move a real volcano and the actual events to the wrong side of the island? This is just too huge not to be impressed.

I’d be seriously disappointed if I were to find out that the production team did not make any public apologies. Later on, having collected a series of complaints, they decided to play it safe and the movie was eventually reissued under the name “Volcano” – much less exotic, if you asked me, but at least it leaves aside the risk of spelling mistakes and the like. Their greatest achievement with this movie was probably to make a mistake commensurate with the size of the cataclysm itself, but fortunately, with fewer casualties. While Krakatao is described as “the 1883 volcanic eruption known as the world’s most spectacularly recorded natural disaster that sent shock waves across the globe seven times” (Dennis Schwartz), the script (and title) of the eponymous movie will be remembered as “man-made disaster.” At least some consistency on the catastrophe line.

August: Osage County – Women Got Nerves

The world has been swarming with problem-loaded families almost for as long as the Earth has been revolving around the Sun and rotating around its own axis. But for all the amount of problems one sole family can possess, it is the Westons’ that seem to own the record by a far margin. John Wells, director of August: Osage County brings Tracy Letts’ eponymous Pulitzer Prize awarded play on-screen and introduces us to the nuttiest family in the Universe – a fictional one, I pray.

The result is explosively hilarious. Though clearly a family drama founded on dark secrets that are never truly kept, unfaithfulness, divorce, suicide, inbreeding, addiction, and whatever other worldly problem you can think of, the portrayal is never tragic, but farcical. Letts has the unique gift of caricaturing the dramatic and making it so much fun. Wells and the entire cast not only respect, but elevate the originality of the play’s ideas and words, making the movie beautifully grotesque.

Meryl Streep is a cancer-hit drug-addict and above all spiteful mother who issues sarcastic, offensive remarks with every breath she takes, in or out. Ironically, Letts gives her mouth cancer. Julia Roberts is the stern, mature and control-freak daughter who decides to take the family’s problems upon her and hence turns into a bitter, acid woman, just like the mother she runs away from. These two massively talented actors undoubtedly lead the game. Almost hairless and purposefully made to look “ugly”, Meryl Streep acts an exquisitely funny opening scene, so naturally interpreting the drug-crazed woman who I had a hard time believing she was not de facto under the influence. While Julia Roberts is fascinating in her role even when she appears in pyjamas and talks about fish. Mostly then.

The film has no intention of preaching morality lessons: this is not a case study of the American family by excellence, nor is it ever finger-pointing to types of human behaviour or aims at being judgemental. August: Osage County is entirely focused on the characters’ play, which is truly high-calibre. The fucked-up family background is not even important, it merely provides the characters with the playground on which they can go wild and neurotic and shine through remarkable performances and deliciously sarcastic dialogues. August: Osage County is a random topic assigned to a random family which everyone should be grateful is not theirs, backed-up by a refreshingly smart script and act. It could have stayed a theatre play. It turned out a sparkling movie, too. So much the better.

Bon appétit!

12 years a slave – One to see. Once

12 years a slave

12 years a slave made me go two years back to the very first lesson that my SEO teacher sent me in the inbox when I took to being a copywriter: relevancy. This word that rules my professional and personal writing experience is glued to the low left side of my computer screen as a reminder, just in case the natural tendency to overdo takes hold of me. Relevancy makes you ask yourself “why?”, and “so what?”, essential when you address any kind of audience.

Going back to 12 years a slave, at the end of its 133 minutes which, truth be told, felt much longer, I had a hard time understanding why it is bound to win this year’s Oscar for Best Motion Picture and more worryingly, why the vast majority of critics sell it as a cinematic masterpiece. I do not set myself the ambition of understanding what Steve McQueen’s intention was as he directed the movie. But were some scenes really necessary or meaningful to build this blockbuster that deals with some aspects of slavery?

For instance, we could have easily been spared the long, hysterical and not quite credible cry of the woman slave-character who is parted from her children. The separation act in itself was sufficient for us, viewers, to identify as infinitely painful; did we really need the long audio abuse of an incessantly weeping lady as an overemphasis? Clearly, McQueen does not rely on subtlety (or on our intelligence to that) to make his point. He wants it highlighted, and with a red marker. The effect he tries to create comes out as quite the opposite: instead of sympathising with her, I almost feel relief when she is finally carried away and most likely finished with.

And on it goes. At some point in the movie, Solomon Northup, the main character and the man whose biography we’re witnessing, is sent to deliver a letter and accidentally comes across two “niggers” who were about to be executed. Now, executing black people was, tragically, not uncommon in the 19th century Americas in the cotton fields. But the way in which the scene is literally dropped out of nowhere in that particular moment is awkward, to say the least.

But McQueen has clearly his own take on relevancy. When a black man drops dead on the plantation, the surviving slaves engage in a very long song that accompanies the man to the grave and Solomon gets the benefit of a loooong close-up of himself crying his heart out. While I really wanted to cry with him, too, because that’s why I went to see this movie, my brain was fighting to attach significance to this yet another long sequence: we had not been previously introduced to the departed, ok, they sing well but then again they are black, and they are all sad as they should because one, it’s a funeral, and two, they are slaves. If there’s anything that justifies the length and even existence of this particular scene, I’m afraid I might have missed it.

Steve McQueen’s choices are confusing and the conversation is at no time satisfactory. Not even when Brad Pitt guest-stars for few moments. But movie critics are resolute: this is the next best thing about slavery (you know, that thing that lasted 400 years and involved a lot of whipping of which you get to see plenty in McQueen’s new movie). I had a hard time finding one who resisted the general trend of complimenting this movie as a wonderful cinema achievement. But I did:

Steve McQueen’s takes are long and frankly boring. Ok, the movie makes an effort not to fall in the trap of being cheesy and melodramatic, as it would only come naturally with topics such as slavery. The problem is that this effort shows. Besides, it lacks historic and emotional involvement and that long-lasting effect that would make one want to see it again. Try as I might, I could not connect to it.

McQueen complains that there are not many movies about slavery to date. And he is right. This might also explain why people seem to be so readily fascinated with 12 years a slave. I’m afraid the appreciation comes more from the fact that it deals with the (still) taboo topic of slavery than from its purely artistic merits. It is not because the movie has chosen to discuss a shameful page of the American past that it should be labelled as outstanding.

I only see one reason why 12 years a slave should take all those Oscars it has been nominated for: maybe this is the American way of asking forgiveness for the centuries of black oppression. As if Mr Oscar could potentially wipe it all away. For all the ingredients that were undoubtedly there – a strong topic which echoes back to a dramatic past, a remarkable true story, a great cast – the movie could have been a memorable one. Instead, it is just another Oscar movie that will not shine thereafter.

On “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

The perks of being a flower

Here is a simple and touching storyline: Charlie is a wallflower, aka an introvert, lonely teenager who spends time reading, writing to a non-identified friend and connecting to the people in his life whom he lost. He also has a problem that he would not talk about. Discreet and consumed with inner demons, he hopes to make real friends. It is when he integrates a group of outsiders that his potential comes out and he finds the freedom to finally become himself.

One may criticise the film’s emotional overflow, because what really stands out in this movie is love, and some may be allergic to strong feelings exposure. But one cannot fail to admit that it is precisely this load of sensibility, along with excellent delivery from the actors and powerfully written lines that leave the audience hanging in sweet awe, long after the closing credits’ scrolling down is complete.

Yes, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is utterly expressive, allowing adolescence agonies to surface plentifully and prevail. It is also a conglomerate of life’s touching issues and struggles, of basic realities that we are so bad at acknowledging. Everyday paradoxes are highlighted here: we all know that nobody can save anybody, yet we try. We all know that we must end-up a dead-end relationship, but turning the page is wearisome. We would all like to be seen by the person we love and we would all like to possess that nonexistent remote-control with a “Love me and not somebody else” button to press on until it works. This is the movie’s recipe for timelessness and inspiration. Resolutely a must see.

You see things. You understand. You are a wallflower.

Anna Karenina revived

Bringing an old-time classic to the foreground again is a daring attempt that can easily turn into complete failure. Unless you do it the “wright” way. Especially when the classic is Anna Karenina, a heroine that has successfully crossed centuries and needs no introduction for what she does to herself. Yet this is precisely what director Joe Wright decides to do: he takes her off the shelves, breathes new life into her and puts her on a theatre stage in a different movie that stands no comparison.

After Romeo and Juliet’s forbidden love that turns into a party-of-two suicide due to various unfortunate misunderstandings, Anna Karenina ranks probably as the second most applauded suicide in literature. Wright has a very intelligent take on the Russian classic and exceeds all expectations. Nothing changes to the good old Tolstoy story line, but the dynamics, the vision, the portrayal, the interpretation, the engagement are totally different.

All the original ingredients are there: we’ve got passionate vs. reasonable love, social circumstances working against the lovers and we have Anna, inevitably under the train as the absolute tragic ending. But Wright employs a “life as a theatre” technique and suddenly we forget that we are at the cinema. He plays a lot with imagination, his and ours, realizes beautiful visual imagery, zooms on detailed gestures and dramatics that are typical of theatre actors, and somehow, while making us slightly confused, manages to keep the emotion alight.

Rather than giving away too much, Wright plays on suggestion. He invites us to cogitate while we roller-coast through an unexpected fake decor drawn up to mock the Russian aristocracy. Keira Knightley, sparkling in her ever-changing costumes and moods, walks as agonising Anna in the middle of a crowd which stands still: her world stops and everything else falls silent with it. So do we, as we witness it. Blending the lightness of musical comedies with an atmosphere that is somehow reminiscent of Almodovar, and occasionally bordering parody, Wright manages to leave even the connoisseurs with a shade of doubt: is she really going to do it?

It would be unfair to compare this movie with its forerunner: there would have been no purpose in Wright wanting to reproduce exactly the same pattern that has been screened before. Was Mercutio ever black in Shakespeare’s vision? But by being innovative, Wright provokes polemics and takes the chance of dividing his public in two: hate it or love it. His merit is that he re-constructs a lost world in an incomparable style without ever losing focus on the actual tragedy: love and passion, equally uplifting and devastating, the most explosive cocktail of feelings that has ever driven the human kind. A classic brilliantly re-visited and an experimental director who scores high.