Film reviews: Interstellar | Say When | Leviathan

Christopher Nolan’s triumph is to balance emotion and effects in this powerful space adventure

Christopher Nolan’s triumph is to balance emotion and effects in this powerful space adventure

Interstellar (12A)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain

Rating: * * * * *

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Over the course of his eight previous movies, Christopher Nolan has become Hollywood’s premier practitioner of intelligent blockbusters, able to marry increasingly grand ideas and appropriately scaled-up visuals with pulse-pounding plots so intricately worked out that their credulity-stretching nature only adds to the tension of the film as a whole. What he’s never done, though, is make a film with emotions as big as the action. Inception, for instance, may have been driven by its protagonist’s desire to see his children again, but the skill with which Nolan pulled off the dazzling narrative tricks that set up and explained the ambiguous nature of that movie’s dream world was the connecting tissue to the audience, not the inner turmoil of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character.

With his latest film, Interstellar, however, he’s made something that’s as unashamedly emotional and sentimental as it is visually spectacular and narratively audacious, a film that may be dense with the kind of synapse-frying concepts that noodle your brain (in a good way), but connects first and foremost on a human level. Indeed Interstellar’s expansive tale of a mission to find a new planet for the inhabitants of a dying Earth almost serves as a nifty counterpoint to the perceived coldness of Inception.

Which isn’t to suggest he’s created Terms of Endearment in space, but there’s a definite tear-swelling rawness here that’s inextricably bound up with some of the scientific concepts he layers into the story to justify the epic set pieces that come later. That emotional shift is primarily down to the father-daughter story at its centre, and in particular the remarkable performance Matthew McConaughey gives as its hero, Cooper. Cooper’s a Chuck Yeager type, a former NASA pilot living in a near future that has little need for engineers or pilots but plenty of need for farmers who can help maintain basic levels of food production at a time when the world is literally starving (the combined effects of population explosion and repeated crop failures are to blame).

Having never had a chance to do what he was trained to do, he’s resigned himself to working the land with his teenage son and his father-in-law (John Lithgow); yet flashes of his reach-for-the-stars idealism burst through in his relationship with his ten-year-old daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), whose chip-off-the-old-block inquisitiveness sets Cooper on a trajectory that will see them wrenched apart for the greater good of humanity as he’s enlisted (by an old NASA professor, played by Michael Caine) for an exploratory mission that might guarantee the future survival of humankind.

These are big stakes for a movie, but Nolan proves adept at communicating them economically through the prism of a relatable family drama – with one prolonged reaction shot of McConaughey in particular proving utterly devastating in the simple way it conveys a lifetime of hurt and sorrow in only a few seconds. This also frees Nolan up to convey the overwhelming scale of the problem facing Earth via the film’s sojourn into space. It’s here that he can really let his imagination rip by having Cooper and his fellow crew members (most notably Anne Hathaway’s Dr Brand) contend with worm holes, tidal waves, frozen clouds and all sorts of issues related to relativity that have grave implications for the characters.

As so many pleasures of the movie come from the gradual revelation of the story, it would be remiss to go into any more plot specifics, but suffice to say that the dramatic foundations on which Nolan has built the film help tether a finale that may at first seem a little goofy, but is justified by the movie’s own internal logic. That logic has inevitably been informed by the cosmic weirdness of landmark films such as Solaris and, of course, Nolan’s favourite movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the riffs on the latter are playful rather than reverential. The AI machines in Interstellar, for instance, are fashioned after the mysterious monolith from that movie and they make self-aware gags about their own mechanical malevolence, neatly subverting the inevitability of a Hal-esque meltdown. The sudden cuts to silence in space are similarly effective dramatic punctuation points learned from Kubrick’s masterwork, and Nolan even uses the notion of that film’s rotating space stations as the basis for a plot point that has a nerve-shredding pay-off late on. But this is not an ersatz Kubrick movie, nor is an attempt to riff on Steven Spielberg (this was once a project for the director). Nolan’s a master of his own universe and, in pushing beyond his comfort zone with Interstellar, he’s really proved it.

Say When (15)

Directed by: Lynn Shelton

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Starring: Keira Knightley, Sam Rockwell, Chloë Grace Mortetz

Rating: * * * *

American comedies are full of man-child protagonists that require women to be the joy-killing sensible ones, but Your Sister’s Sister director Lynn Shelton switches things up with her latest. Casting Keira Knightley as a late twenty-something graduate who hasn’t yet figured out what she wants to do with her life, Say When begins with Knightley’s character Megan doing menial work for her accountant father (Jeff Garlin) and half-heartedly helping the latest member of her group of friends plan their wedding. Though in a steady long-term relationship herself with her photographer boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber), something’s a little off about her life in general – a feeling that the settled-down lifestyle Anthony and her friends are chasing may not be for her.

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A revelation about her own parents’ less-than-perfect marriage and an ill-timed proposal from Anthony only confirms that she’s not quite ready to dive headlong into a sensible grown-up future. She’s in love, just not with coupledom, and so she flees into the unlikely but welcoming embrace of a gang of high school kids led by the not-as-worldly-as-she-thinks Annika (Chloë Grace Mortetz).

Although this plot development might seem a little incongruous at first, Shelton’s good at taking the blatant movie set-up of Andrea Seigel’s entertainingly spiky script and making it resonate thematically. Thus while Megan’s skills with a skateboard and her ability to buy booze may endear her to Annika and her friends, her emotional confusion chimes with Annika’s own tangled teenage view of the world in ways that are admirably complex. Arrested development isn’t played as a kooky character trait but as a relatable response to a world in which adhering to expected societal norms is difficult when you know deep down you don’t fit in.

This is teased out in amusing and perceptive fashion as Megan bonds with Annika but also falls into a flirty rapport with Annika’s father Craig (Sam Rockwell), whose amusingly abrasive manner belies his own marital disillusionment at having been left by Annika’s mother (Gretchen Mol in a great little cameo). Rockwell is the kind of actor who’s innately likeable and while he essentially performs the same charisma-boosting function in Say When as he did in last year’s The Way, Way Back, he’s playing a much more grown-up character this time out, one with far more layers than Annika’s teen-eyed view of him initially suggests. He also strikes up a nice, easy-going chemistry with Knightley, who’s more relaxed and natural here than she’s been in a while, ensuring the film hits some gratifying rom-com beats without committing to the spontaneity-sucking formula that has brought the genre into disrepute over the last 15 years.

The Skeleton Twins (15)

Directed by: Craig Johnson

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Ty Burrell, Luke Wilson

Rating: * * * *

What if the wrong people peaked in high school, wonders struggling gay actor Milo (Bill Hader) while lamenting the going-nowhere status of his life in The Skeleton Twins? Returning to his home town following a failed suicide bid, Milo has come to the realisation that his miserable outcast teen years may well have been the high point of his life. That’s the dark underbelly of co-writer/director Craig Johnson’s Sundance winner, but such bleakness is offset by the humour that comes from exploring Milo’s dysfunction through his relationship with his estranged – and only slightly less dysfunctional – sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig). Riffing on their shared comic credentials as former stars of US sketch show Saturday Night Live, Wiig and Hader bring a real poignancy to their characters here, playing them as damaged, larger-than-life souls who’ve never quite found the right outlet for their inner turmoil, something that allows the film to tread the fine line between comedy and tragedy with humour and grace.

Leviathan (15)

Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Starring: Alexey Serebryakov. Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov

Rating: * * * *

After emerging on to the world cinema scene with his masterful 2003 debut The Return, Russian auteur Andrey Zvyagintsev threatened to slip into obscurity with his woefully pretentious follow-up The Banishment. But he’s very much found his form again, first with 2011’s Elena and now with this festival-fêted tale of political corruption in modern Russia. Leviathan, inset, revolves around a hardworking mechanic who has the found himself with a pretty wife and a prime piece of real estate, both of which are being coveted by men far more devious and powerful than him. The subsequent trials he undergoes prove richly symbolic, something Zvyagintsev transforms into a haunting comment on the diminished power of the people in Putin’s Russia.

Nativity 3: Dude Where’s My Donkey (U)

Directed by: Debbie Isitt

Starring: Martin Clunes, Catherine Tate, Celia Imrie

Rating: *

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This latest addition to Debbie Isitt’s grating Christmas franchise displays nothing but contempt for the undiscerning family audiences who made the first two barrel-scrapers sizable hits. Its unhinged plot revolves around the threatened Christmas nuptials of Catherine Tate and single father Martin Cloones following a donkey kick to the head that leaves the latter with severe amnesia. In order to save the day, the pupils of St Bernadette’s primary school, together with flatulent teaching assistant Mr Poppy (Mark Wooton), must travel to New York, but not before first entering a flash-mob competition in London. Why? Isitt doesn’t seem to care as she strings together amateurish choreography and ear-bleeding musical numbers while using the memory-loss plot device to riff on A Christmas Carol – a spurious move best forgotten.

Set Fire to the Stars (15)

Directed by: Andrew Goddard

Starring: Elijah Wood, Celyn Jones, Kelly Reilly

Rating: * *

Quoted prominently in Interstellar this week, Dylan Thomas gets even more screen time in this dreary effort depicting his alcohol-fuelled tour of America under the guidance of Harvard graduate, Thomas obsessive and aspiring poet John Michael Brinnin (Elijah Wood). Unable to move beyond the drunken artist clichés, the film presents Thomas (Celyn Jones) as a genius and a boor whose behaviour destroys the exalted image Brinnan has of him. Black-and-white cinematography cleverly evokes period detail in budget-saving fashion, but it’s the drama that really lacks colour.