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.

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.