Christopher Nolan is undeniably one of the most ambitious, forward thinking filmmakers working in the industry today. Known for writing and directing mind-bending films such as Inception and Memento, his thought-provoking style pushes the boundaries of cinema, challenging audiences to unravel his narratives. His latest picture is sci-fi epic ‘Interstellar’ and it is perhaps his most daring yet. Set on a decaying planet Earth running low on natural resources, Matthew McConaughey takes the leading role as former NASA pilot Cooper and is tasked with the almighty responsibility of finding a new home planet for the human race. After much deliberation with his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and persuasion from Professor Brand (Michael Caine), he leaves his family behind for the greater good, taking off with biologist Amelia (Anne Hathaway) for a journey through space and time.
Part family drama, part wormhole wonder, the film attempts to combine sentimentality with science and doesn’t always get it right. The heartiness appears to be leftover from Spielberg’s early involvement with the project, and to me, this distorts Nolan’s vision. Earth’s dusty surface is presented effectively in the opening third and the imagining of a near apocalyptic environment is intelligently put together. However, it is not until we are taken to the unknown that the stunning visuals really take hold, accompanied by a typically brilliant score by regular Nolan composer Hans Zimmer. The music waivers from subtle to astounding, and its absence creates an unnerving atmosphere in moments of terrifying silence. The plot gets complicated to say the least as it develops, and the scope of the story-telling is unmatched, but if you don’t get too caught up in the technicalities, it is a powerful cinematic experience.
Aside from his aesthetic flair as a filmmaker, Christopher Nolan and his co-writing brother Jonathan are usually experts at getting the very best from their cast. This time around, I think the concept is so expansive that the actors become little more than passengers in an idea. McConaughey who has been enjoying a career-transforming run of form is swallowed up by the scenery and despite the distance travelled by Coop, the acting never really gets off the ground. Father/daughter relationships are at the core of the proceedings throughout but the complexities of Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway’s characters are never really delved into in full, causing their performances to lack impact also, as if they’re there purely to enjoy the ride. A few more big-time names filter through as the time-space continuum becomes convoluted, and Jessica Chastain steps up with what is the most moving turn of the lot.
‘Interstellar’ didn’t wow me quite as much as last year’s space drama Gravity and didn’t entertain me in the way his previous works have but by no means does this make it a failure. It is, in fact, an exciting leap in the right direction for cinema as a whole, and illustrates the increasing capabilities of the medium. A fine but flawed example of movie escapism, we can allow ourselves to see the world and beyond through the eyes of a true pioneer of modern filmmaking, breaking through dimensions and the barriers of the art form.
In a year that has pushed the envelope in terms of experimental filmmaking, is there still a demand for simplistic cinema? Or is it in fact more ambitious to do the stripped-back style well, with solid acting and an intelligent script, than convolute your story with gimmicks to stand out from the crowd? Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam brings together an excellent cast for neo-noir drama ‘The Drop’, which harks back to the classic gangster genre movies where nobody can be trusted and danger lurks around every corner. Tom Hardy stars as soft-spoken and unassuming bartender Bob Saginowski who looks after a drinking den alongside his Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), which is regularly used as a ‘drop’ for the local lowlifes to launder their illegally gotten gains. When a robbery takes place after hours, Bob and Marv find themselves in a precarious predicament, forced to face the wrath of the mob.
Brooklyn’s grimy underworld provides the backdrop for Dennis Lehane’s tightly woven script to unfold. Having previously worked on The Wire as well as collaborating with legendary crime film director Scorsese, his influences are clear as they bleed into the flawed but fascinating characters. Very much character driven rather than narrative driven, the study of the morals and masculinity of the protagonists is always interesting and an appealing subplot plays out naturally about the responsibilities involved in taking on a pit bull pup. While events never really veer too far out of the ordinary story-wise, Roskam puts on a masterclass in tension building, heightening to a satisfying final third.
It is of course terribly sad that this film will mostly be remembered for featuring James Gandolfini’s final screen performance, but it is testament to how phenomenally gifted he was as an actor. Widely known for his long-running portrayal of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, he was an expert in complex multi-faceted drama and playing cowardly Cousin Marv serves as a fitting swansong. Not to be outdone though is Tom Hardy, who matches Gandolfini blow for blow in a battle of acting prowess and again proves himself as one of the best of his generation. He gives a controlled and more subtle turn than we are used to seeing from him, nailing the accent and showing that sometimes less is more.
‘The Drop’ is an effective throwback genre picture, and what it lacks in narrative imagination, it makes up for with the powerful screen presence of the leads. The term ‘actor’s movie’ has never felt more apt. Roskam and screenwriter Lehane present a bleak Brooklyn exterior, an unappealing interpretation of the big apple which hides a black and bloody core of corruption. In this environment, it is equally dangerous whether you’re propping up the bar or serving beers with Bob and Marv from behind it, but where Hardy and Gandolfini are concerned, consider the metaphorical acting bar raised.
In his feature length debut, Yann Demange’s action thriller takes us to the height of the Troubles in Belfast where political conflict lasted for over a quarter of a century. We witness the hostilities through the fearful eyes of a young British soldier called Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) whose squad is caught in the middle of a riot, and who is accidentally left behind by his unit after events go terribly awry. As he desperately tries to get back to his barracks and fights for survival, he becomes embroiled in a local war of corruption and betrayal. This is a brutally realistic depiction of terror, enhanced by yet another stunning performance from one of Britain’s best.
There is a patient build-up as we’re first introduced to Private Gary Hook, and we get vital glimpses of his youthful innocence before he is thrust into the face of danger. The grainy cinematography as well as the shaky camera techniques assist in creating a pragmatically dangerous environment. An excellent chase sequence had me gripped as the protagonist is hunted down by a ruthless gang of nationalists. Tension drops slightly as Hook meets a young impressionable protestant who seems born to hate the ‘fenian bastards’ as he so eloquently, and continuously puts it. Their brief encounter offers the only glimmer of humour as the youngster struts the dishevelled streets like a mafia boss, but the friendship is brought to an abrupt, shocking climax which highlights the atmosphere of the film and illustrates how treacherous the situation was in Northern Ireland at that time.
In a role much more subtle and understated than we are used to, Jack O’Connell is excellent. With very little dialogue, his performance relies on his range of expression as well as his general screen presence. Earlier this year, we saw him in Starred Up as a disturbed prisoner, visceral and violent. Here, he is vulnerable, and lost in a antagonistic environment that he knows little about. Support comes in force from Paul Anderson and Sean Harris as crooked figures of authority. Harris’ squirrel faced villain is chilling, and with trouble around every corner, so-called factions are paper thin as every character seems willing to stab their allies in the back. The final third plays out a little predictably, though not without moments on extreme intensity as all sides close in on Hook and each other.
The focus of the thriller as a whole leans less on being a story of the Troubles as such, and more a survival movie as the lead is attacked from all angles throughout. It marks an impressive foray into cinema for the director Demange, who along with writer Gregory Burke and composer David Holmes, captures the threatening mood brilliantly. The main strength of the piece is the central turn from O’Connell. We’ll see him on the big screen again soon, this time as an American soldier in Angelina Jolie’s WWII directorial debut Unbroken, which demonstrates the impact he is having within the industry. Until then, we can celebrate the year he has in British film – the rising star has reached new heights.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was a complicated man, revered for his pioneering painting style, but his reputation tainted by his life away from the easel. In typically fluid fashion, veteran British filmmaker Mike Leigh writes and directs a biopic of the artist, which looks at the latter stages of Turner’s life. The great Timothy Spall stars in the eponymous role, and the narrative follows how he balanced his passion for his art with his personal demons. Both Leigh and his regular cinematographer Dick Pope are long-time fans of J.M.W. Turner and this comes across strongly on-screen as the director’s style departs from the zany and improvisational and is executed with great care and precision.
The plotting is slow and brooding, documenting the solemn, and at times reclusive existence of the man known as ‘the painter of light’. Using his art as his escapism from the troubles around him, Turner seems to be in his own little world and for a while, we are invited in. Pope’s cinematography is impeccable, particularly in several landscape shots that are cleverly set up to look like Turner’s paintings before pulling out to see Spall in the shot examining his environment to prepare for his next masterpiece. These moments of cinematic magic are like spots of light in the dreariness of the narrative which is often as miserable as Turner’s scowl. Spall is passionate, and almost animalistic in his portrayal, grunting his way through his lines and showing occasional signs of black humour.
‘Mr. Turner’ is a love-letter from Mike Leigh to the work of the artist that lasts an ambitious two and a half hour running time, but rightly and realistically refuses to make him into some sort of hero figure. Billy, as he was referred to by his peers, was not a nice man but an important one, and Spall’s performance gets this spot on. Actresses Hannah Danby and Marion Bailey put in stellar turns as the women of his life – his housekeeper and mistress respectively – but it is Timothy Spall who sturdily holds the piece together, and deservedly picked up the illustrious Best Actor award at Cannes as his reward, and subsequently putting himself in with a chance of more awards recognition next year.
Inspired by his own film Beautiful Young Minds, British filmmaker Morgan Matthews directs ‘X+Y’, a story of a young boy with autism who has a gift for mathematics. The cast includes Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan and Sally Hawkins. It screened at Glasgow Film Festival and I was fortunate enough to speak to Morgan Matthews about the project…
Coming from a career in documentary filmmaking, why was this the right time for your first foray into feature fiction?
“I’ve made a lot of documentaries and have done so in differing styles but at the same time felt that I was making them in quite a similar way. I want to be creatively challenged every time I make a film and try all the different forms of storytelling, and whether it’s documentary or fiction you’re still telling a story. In some ways there are a lot of similarities.
When I started making documentaries, it was in a way that wasn’t really original but definitely felt original to me. For example, I made a film called ‘Britain in a Day’ where we used user generated content shot by people all around the country with mobile phones. We ended up with around 800 hours of footage! This was a model used I think for the first time by Kevin Macdonald when he made ‘Life in Day’. He was the exec producer on my film. I wanted to do that film because it was challenging so I guess I reached a point where each project needs to be a challenge for me creatively. If I did go back to making films as I used which involved me running around with a camera on my shoulder and doing it that way, there’d be something liberating in going back to that as it would feel fresh and new again.
The main reason would be that I got the chance to be creative with a story and work with amazing actors and other talented people. To be in that world and have the privilege of working with those people made sense!”
Your latest film was inspired by your documentary Beautiful Young Minds. Can you tell me how the transition came about to develop the idea into ‘X+Y’?
“I made Beautiful Young Minds eight years ago and that followed a group of young mathematicians on their way to the International Mathematical Olympiad and I got to meet a lot of people at that time, from the students themselves to the tutors teaching them and also the parents. It felt like a very rich world worth exploring in fiction so I was inspired to develop it. I didn’t see purpose in just remaking the story in the documentary so I got together with James Graham who is a fantastic young writer. At the time he was emerging in fringe theatre and we began working on a script.
The process of getting it to shoot took around five years, which also involved getting the funding and casting for it. We had the support of the UK Film Council as it was then and in particularly that of BFI’s Lizzie Francke who is a big supporter of British films. BBC Films then got involved as well as a few other organisations to make the film happen.”
The cast list for the film is full of star studded names such as Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall and Eddie Marsan. What was the secret to attracting such an impressive group of actors?
“It always helps to work with a great casting director who has the connections and insight to make things happen. It falls into place once you get one person on board as it gives others the confidence that it’s going to be okay! I’d seen Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins acting together on stage in a play called Constellations, and so knew they liked working together and were great friends. There was a chemistry between them in terms of their performances. From this, I had the confidence to cast them together and I think when Rafe said yes, it helped Sally say yes!”
With the recent success of the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, comparisons can be drawn between his condition and that of Rafe Spall’s character Mr Humphreys, which is alluded to in the script. I found the physicality of the performance very moving. Was there a lot of training involved to achieve the effect of the deterioration caused by multiple sclerosis, and what was Rafe like to work with?
“There’s a scene in the film where Rafe’s character is sitting in a group of people, all of which are suffering from multiple sclerosis and in his research and training for the role he went to similar groups and spent time with people with MS. From talking to them and observing their physicality, he brought a lot to the table and some of the experiences actually fed into the script. I think this translated into his performance in a meaningful and authentic way.
I think it’s a different performance to Eddie Redmayne’s in that Eddie played the part of someone that is a very well known man. We all know what he looks like and about his condition so his performance would be scrutinized in a different way, in terms of how close it is to the real Stephen Hawking. Rafe didn’t have the challenge of playing a real person but it was still important that it was authentic, and he done that very well!”
As Nathan excels in maths throughout the film, his talent takes him to training in Taiwan. What was it like to shoot in Asia as opposed to in the UK and was it challenging to maintain the same tone despite quite a drastic change in setting?
“I really enjoyed the experience of going to Taiwan for a number of reasons and for me, it was quite liberating because it was less restrictive than shooting in the UK. In the UK, most of the shots were interiors and when we did do exteriors, all the other people in the scene are extras, whereas when we were out in the streets in Taipei, none of the people around us are extras. The fact that a film crew is moving through busy streets or parks isn’t something that seems to bother people there. That for me was great because it became very close to shooting a documentary and allowed us to show an authentic experience of Taipei without having to try and recreate it.”
For a young actor, Asa Butterfield has achieved so much and worked with some of the biggest in the business. As Nathan he gives an incredibly mature, touching performance. Can you describe what it was like to direct him, and did he bring a lot to the character that wasn’t planned in advance?
“You’ve probably done your homework and will have seen that Asa has been in a lot of big films from a very young age. ‘X+Y’ for him would’ve been quite a different experience because of the small scale of the production but for me it was very big compared to what I had done before. He was a very down to earth young man who was only sixteen at the time we were filming. Quite interestingly, when he walks down the street he is not necessarily recognised because he was a very young kid in the roles he is best known for and looked very different. He goes to a normal comprehensive school in London and lives a more or less normal life than goes off to shoot big feature films.
During the making of ‘X+Y’, Asa met Daniel who was in the documentary we’d spoken about earlier and who the character of Nathan was loosely based on. Daniel was able to explain to Asa what was going on in his head which is quite complex stuff but he could articulate his experiences. This really helped form Asa’s performance. Also he has this wonderfully expressive and very photogenic so that helps!”
In 1950, the troubled Welsh poet Dylan Thomas ventured to New York City to read at universities around the country. The man who made this possible was a professor called John Malcolm Brinnin. His account of this time, titled Dylan Thomas in America has formed the film ‘Set Fire to the Stars’, directed by Andy Goddard. Elijah Wood and Celyn Jones star as Brinnin and Thomas respectively. Filmed in glorious black and white, the story explores their friendship and Brinnin’s struggle to understand and tame Thomas’ whirlwind lifestyle as he spirals out of control.
The stylish, often snowy, city backdrop is presented impeccably, the clean and slick cinematography suitably matches John’s pristine appearance but clashes with Dylan’s haphazard existence. Initially, after an excellent opening sequence, it seems as though Brinnin, who is an obvious admirer of his work, is using Thomas for his own personal gain, but as he peels back the layers of his complex individual, he soon cares for and befriends the tortured soul. Dylan deflects attention to his talent by causing controversy and making lewd remarks, including reciting inappropriate yet amusing limericks. The performances though, of the poetry itself, are electric.
Despite their differences, they share the odd moment of togetherness and acknowledge the mutual respect they have for one another. A scene in which they pull an all-nighter to grade student’s work is majestic, as they discuss language over coffee and cigarettes. The mise-en-scène showing the passing of time is poetry in motion. Wood and Jones perform very well, and bring the necessary charisma and energy to their roles. An impressive supporting cast including Shirley Henderson, Kevin Eldon and Kelly Reilly is solid, and their characters are involved in carving out the personas of the two leading men, showing other facets of their deep personalities and hinting at their complicated pasts.
‘Set Fire to the Stars’ illustrates the fact that you don’t have to be a musician to live the rock and roll way, and Dylan Thomas is proof of that. In the city that never sleeps, he enjoyed an excess of fatty food, red eye liquor and feisty women while Brinnin cleaned up the mess he left behind. This is an enjoyable, and informative biopic with an excellent display of acting that sheds some light on the man behind the words of wizardry. Dylan says to John in one scene whilst dissecting his poetry that understanding is the least important thing, and that feeling the emotion behind it comes first. Perhaps the same could be set for him as an artist and his life, and this adaptation certainly feels satisfying.
‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is the heartless crime journalism motto in noir thriller, ‘Nightcrawler’ written and directed by first-timer Dan Gilroy. The film is centred wholly around entrepreneurial nutcase Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who roams the neon lit streets of Los Angeles in search of a money-making scheme. When he witnesses a terrible highway accident and a man capturing the events on camera, he sees an opportunity to capitalise on, deciding to have a go himself, selling his grisly footage to the highest bidding news station. This dark slice of cinema is fascinating throughout, exploring the moral philosophies of freelance reporting through the eyes of and focussed through the lens of a driven, but extremely intelligent lunatic, who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
The narrative ticks along at an alarming pace as Bloom quickly builds his reputation, hiring Rick as his hard-working assistant and forming a working relationship with Nina, a news channel director. Lou continuously pushes his assets to the absolute limits, always wanting more sales, more success and consequently more money. The gloomy style of the cinematography along with an unsettling score combine to create a creepy cloud that descends on LA after dark and is the suitable environment for the complex protagonist to go about his business. By day, he is calculating and clever, delivering motivational nuggets to justify his motives. When pestering a potential employer, he argues that ‘if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket’. By night, he is equally direct and eloquent in his methods of madness but possesses a cruel, dangerous streak.
Jake Gyllenhaal, who also produced the project, describes his latest character as a human interpretation of a coyote, lurking in the shadows of the metropolis. He lost twenty pounds in weight for the role and his gaunt look and inhumane glare give Lou Bloom a chilling exterior to match the mercilessness behind the glazy eyes. Aspects of other cinematic anti-heroes can be pulled from the intricacies of Lou Bloom; he has the social awkwardness of Travis Bickle and the driving prowess of Gosling’s unnamed stunt driver, as well as the psychotic tendencies of Patrick Bateman. These combined attributes though make Bloom memorable in his own right, and Gyllenhaal is scarily good in his portrayal. Excellent support comes from British star Riz Ahmed as Bloom’s loyal aide who goes against his ethical scruples in his desperation for steady employment.
‘Nightcrawler’ continues an interesting trend of major acting talent turning to darker, indie material in order to get more in-depth satisfying roles, though Gyllenhaal now finds himself on the wrong side of the moral compass, following his previous authoritative parts. Following Bloom from one crime scene to the next, we as an audience become almost complicit in his wicked ways, laughing at his words of warped wisdom and absorbed in his murky profession. While discussing his line of work with a police officer, he gleefully states ‘I like to think that if you see me, you’re having the worst day of your life’. I would never want to come across his kind face to face but on-screen, his company is well worth your time.