Interstellar – Blu-ray Review

MM and MC

I’ve tried to explain to you all before why Interstellar is worth your time and now it is out on a variety of shiny discs I think it bears repeating. I’ve watched every single one of the special features so my opinion is valid and should be respected.

Film
In the near future life on earth has become almost untenable as crops fail and dust storms barrel across the landscape. Thanks to a bizarre gravitational anomaly astronaut-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles across the secret residual base of NASA; an organisation now seen as frivolous in an age where farming comes before scientific exploration. After a bit of exposition from Michael Caine Cooper finds himself travelling with a small crew through a wormhole in search of a new planet that can sustain life and ensure the future of mankind. As Cooper travels on his interstellar journey his science-loving daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy & Jessica Chastain) stays behind on Earth growing up fast without her parental unit. Thanks to the relativities of space and time as days pass in space years are flying by back on Earth. Cooper and his crew not only have to contend with running out of fuel but running out of time to find the new home for the human race.

On the big screen Interstellar was an absolute marvel. The music was original but somehow timeless, the visuals were stunning and unlike anything I had seen before, and the sheer ambition and craftsmanship from director Christopher Nolan was admirable. Though some sitting close to me disagreed it was love at first sight for me and Interstellar. It was not a perfect film but it was an experience I wouldn’t forget soon. Sitting down with the Blu-ray on my less than stellar TV I was a little nervous that the experience would be tricky to replicate.

I needn’t have worried. While I wasn’t going to be able to create the visual impact of a 70mm print at home I dimmed the lights and let the film do its work. The picture was crystal clear on my vintage flat screen with the scenes on Earth looking suitably grubby and dust-covered while the planetary visuals were sublimely realised in cold sterile clarity. My non-existent sound system even managed to do some justice to Hans Zimmer’s excellent organ-based score which lends the film a religious feel befitting a film with the fate of our species at its core.

You may despise Interstellar, some certainly do, but for those willing to turn down their scorn temporarily there are moments of real awe to be had. Even on your TV at home.

For more pro-Interstellar rambling please see my full review.

Christopher and Matthew

Extras
Once you’ve finished the film allow yourself a short comfort break before getting stuck into the special features as the two-disc Blu-ray is full of the things. Proceedings start with a 50 minute documentary about the real scientific theory that went into the making of Interstellar that will fascinate or bore in equal measure depending on just how much physics you are willing to indulge in for the sake of cinema. I can take a lot of physics so was very pleased with this in-depth look at black holes, relativity, and space-time. Lovely stuff.

From there we get no less than fourteen featurettes of decent length detailing every aspect of the production from physical and computer generated effects, through farming and simulating zero-gravity, to recording the music in an actual church. On a Christopher Nolan film as much is done without the aid of computers as possible and a lot of what I had assumed was CGI was actually done for real. It’s hard to appreciate all this while watching the film itself so the extras allow the hard work to be fully appreciated.

As with the physics I know not everyone wants to get too stuck into the behind the scenes but for my fellow nerds there is plenty to enjoy here.

Everyone else can be quiet.

Interstellar is out now on DVD, Blu-ray, and super-special-Blu-ray. Extras vary depending on which one you buy.

The Salvation – Film Review

The Salvation - Mads Mikkelsen

The year is 1870-ish and after years of forging a new life in America with his brother our hero Jon (Mads “Cheekbones” Mikkelsen) is finally able to bring his wife and son over from his native Denmark. Before they even reach their new home Jon and his family find themselves in a carriage with the wrong type of men. They soon experience the sort of journey you dread when taking the night bus alone in London. His family having been severely wronged Jon takes his revenge on their assailants and things get steadily worse. Unfortunately one of the men Jon takes revenge on is the brother of the local gang leader Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and so now it is up to Delarue and his gang (which distractingly includes Eric Cantona) to seek vengeance on Jon. Thus a vicious cycle of violence, brooding, and revenge continues.

It is clear that writer/director Kristian Levring has a love for classic westerns and wanted to make his own mark on the genrefrom a Danish point of view. Clint Eastwood minus fifty years wouldn’t look out of place in The Salvation with its gentle pace, stark landscape, and sparse dialogue and Mikkelsen is a fine substitute conveying all he needs to through a clenched jaw, narrowed eyes, and dramatic cheeks. The Salvation is precisely what a Western should be; it looks right, sounds right, and generally feels as it should do. Mikkelsen is a superb, captivating lead and Morgan gives his best villainous performance with relish and conviction. And yet…

The Salvation - Jeffrey Dean Morgan

In giving us everything we have come to expect from a Western The Salvation has forgotten to give us anything new. This is anything but the reinvention of the Western and the only Danish influence to be found is in Mikkelsen’s accent. This doesn’t make the film bad necessarily just a little boring.

What threatens to brand the film as bad or ugly (aside from an unworkable mix of practical and CGI fire) is the lacklustre use of female characters. I realise the film is set in the Old West so scope for female roles is limited but having every woman as either a mute victim or a prostitute is taking it a bit too far. The two main victims female characters are Jon’s wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius) and Delarue’s love interest/brother’s widow Madelaine (Eva Green). In the short period before becoming a victim to a heinous crime Marie barely says a word because she hasn’t learnt any English yet and while Madelaine gets a lot more screen time her dialogue is nil thanks to having had her tongue cut out in a previous incident of victimisation. Eva Green is a fine actress and her eyes can do as much acting as Mikkelsen’s cheekbones but there was no need to literally mute her.

The Salvation looks great and gives you what you expect with some added Mads Mikkelsen sprinkled on top. Overall though the film is unsatisfying with nothing new to bring to its genre and a frustrating use of female characters.

The Salvation is in UK cinemas now.

Outlander – TV Review

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I give in! After much nudging from Amazon I have given in and given Outlander a try on Amazon Prime Instant Video.

Adapted from a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon Outlander is a series with an odd premise. The year is 1945 and WWII is over. To try to rekindle their marriage after years of enforced separation combat nurse Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Frank (the always great Tobias Menzies) travel to Scotland for a second honeymoon. Before too long the couple are filled with highland air and the highland air is filled with love. What can possibly go wrong? After a healthy dose of marital holiday bliss Claire travels alone to visit some standing stones and after placing her hands upon the rock she blacks out. When she comes to her car is missing and British red coats are fighting Highlander rebels all around. Oh, and Claire has travels back 202 years to 1743. After almost being raped by one of Frank’s English ancestors Claire finds herself being taken in by a Scottish clan where she finds the dashing Jamie (Sam Heughan) and uses her nursing skills to gain their trust. Can Claire find her way back to the stones and back to 1945!?

There’s the concept. When I first read it I rolled my eyes too. A period drama with a time travel plot taking it to a whole other period, how could I possibly enjoy something like that? I was going to need some convincing and with subtlety, style, and a slow pace Outlander was up to the challenge. My token effort at watching the first episode snowballed into my watching the first three back to back.

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What won me over initially was the show’s confidence in taking its time. Rather than rush to get the time travel underway Outlander instead allows us plenty of time in the first episode to spend with the happy couple. Claire and Frank’s post-war vacation feels idyllic, very sweet, and a little sexy as they reconnect after half a decade kept apart by war. With time spent in the life she is to leave behind I actually cared when she was exiled once more, this time with years rather than miles keeping her husband from her. When the time travel does come around we are spared cheesy special effects in favour of a simple fade to black. Even with the obligatory violence and nudity accounted for Outlander is a master of understatement and restraint.

And doesn’t it look gorgeous! Despite the setting there is nothing artificial looking about Outlander; no polystyrene and plywood castle walls to be found. Every actor appears to have dirt under their fingernails and scars beneath their clothes and the cinematography is flawlessly cinematic and distinct. We are a million miles away from Saturday or Sunday night on the BBC here. Visual aesthetic aside where Outlander really excels is in putting characters above plot. The basic storyline is high concept but the show isn’t burning through plot in trying to get Claire home or explain how she managed to travel two centuries into the past. Instead the approach is to take a slower pace and let the characters take priority. It is their interactions, and the performances that serve them so well, that make the show worth coming back to. For all the praise a show like Poldark might garner its characters never feel truly real whereas in Outlander every person is an authentic human in a fantastical situation.

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It wasn’t until the first episode had finished and I hadn’t stopped the second from starting automatically that I noticed a familiar name in the opening credits; Ronald D Moore. Moore is best known for reinventing Battlestar Galactica as a piece of modern TV history and has worked his magic again here. Using fine British talent he has created a show of real quality that is almost too easy to dismiss because of its unusual synopsis.

What other show can use bagpipes to score an action scene?

Finally we should focus on the fact that Outlander is a show with a strong female character at its core ably played by Caitriona Balfe. What is particularly satisfying about Claire is that despite a lot of obstacles standing in her way she is a character with agency and a desire to save herself. Lost in a strange land and time she is not waiting for a knight to come and save her but it trying to get back home on her own terms. The series is set in times when women were not afforded equal status with men but with a female lead we can see this imbalance played out and not have all female characters reduced to background decoration as maids and whores.

After scoffing initially I now find myself six episodes in after just four days. Outlander‘s charm has won me over completely and a particularly powerful speech from Tobias Menzies in my latest episode has me hooked.

For those I have convinced the first eight episode of Outlander are available on Amazon Instant Video right now with the rest of this first season arriving weekly from 5th April.

Insurgent – Film Review

Insurgent

Before we begin I think I should tell you my YA credentials so you know where this review is coming from. I have read all the Hunger Games books and seen the first two films which I don’t rate too highly. I have read all the Divergent books and liked them more than the Hunger Games though the previous film left me a little cold. As for Shailene Woodley and her troop of men in the world of YA I have read and watched both Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars and have mixed feelings for the former pair and moderate praise for the latter. I’ve done my fair share of reading and watching YA and in particular watching Woodley starring in their film adaptations.

Insurgent, and to a greater extent the Divergent trilogy of four, does not stray far from the dystopian future familiar to YA fans. This second instalment finds Tris (Shailene Woodley), our uniquely gifted female lead, hiding as an outlaw while plotting to bring down the Machiavellian Jeanine (Kate Winslet), our evil leader, and shake up their society which has naturally been split into a number of houses districts factions. Along the way people die, secrets are revealed, and allegiances are tested.

The test of a YA film is arguably not in its originality but in how well it executes what we know is coming. Is the action suitably thrilling? Is the plot understandable to those who have not read the books? (Let’s ignore anyone who hasn’t seen the first film, they are on their own.) Can the actors convince us that the world is real? Does the film ever slip into boredom, ridiculousness, or outright confusion?

For my money Insurgent largely succeeds. It takes the plot of the book and streamlines it so that rather than having characters dotting around back and forth the film has more forward momentum and less down time for the audience to lose interest. The action scenes are exciting and Insurgent makes the most of having the half of its set pieces taking place in virtual reality. The CGI is mostly convincing and lends a hand in creating a real looking world for the action to take place in. With the film confined to a city the size of Chicago (because it is Chicago) a few swooping camera shots help to give the audience a lay of the land and get to grips with the dystopia at hand. As a structure the film is all good and just needs the right cast to populate it.

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Setting aside Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts who pop up occasionally to add credibility to the film, and a franchise to their filmography, the casting for the young characters is pretty impressive. For the most part. Woodley herself has a track record for bringing strength and soul to a literary character and does more of the same here. The film really does rest on her shoulders and she, and her sad eyes, do not disappoint. Theo James reprises his role of Four, the love interest, but I couldn’t help but feel as though the film-makers had wisely minimised his screen time. James is not this cast’s strongest performer and isn’t asked to do much more than look sad/angry and generally be but. Woodley’s frequent co-stars, and love interests elsewhere, Ansel Elgort and Miles Teller provide solid support as Tris’ brother and rival respectively. Teller in particular bring a special quality to his performance as the unreadable Peter and provides the only humour in what is otherwise a very dark film.

And boy is it dark. I lost count of the number of people we got to see being shot in the head. All shooting happens just off-screen of course, this is a 12A. Despite the family friendly age certificate Insurgent doesn’t hold back too much as adult themes of death and (OMG!) sex are never far from cropping up. I realise death is part and parcel of the YA genre but here the killing felt that bit more direct.

Overall Insurgent is perfectly fine. A strong cast, a decent pace, and enjoyable set pieces help Insurgent stand out from its predecessor. All is not perfect, there are plenty of convenient coincidences and sometimes everyone seems a little too serious, but for the genre you could do a lot worse.

If you’ve seen Divergent or read the books then there’s no reason not to see Insurgent. For everyone else… good luck to you.

Insurgent is in UK cinemas now.

Focus – Film Review

Focus

Watching a mediocre film is not much fun but trying to write about it is even worse. No high praise or undiluted rage; just minor complaints and a general feeling of apathy to share with the world.

Will Smith is a veteran con man who takes Margo Robbie’s amateur thief under his wing when she fails to rip him off. Smith runs a gang of thieves who work together to pull off major heists including stealing watches and picking pockets. Oceans Eleven this is not. Over a short space of time Smith and Robbie fall in love. OR DO THEY?!?!? Then with the initial petty theft completed they do not see each other for three years. It must be true love. They are reunited when Smith starts working for an F1 team as a freelance hustler and lo and behold his new boss’ beau is Robbie. Robbie is in love and out of the scamming game. OR IS SHE?!?!? Events unfold from here in a predictably twisty turning way.

Focus is not just a con movie but has desires on being a romantic comedy too. As such it needs to succeed on two fronts to win over its audience; it needs a strong con and a believable romance. Sadly it has neither. Rather than stealing millions from The Man™ in an elaborate web of subterfuge our heroes are out there on the street taking mobile phones from distracted tourists before selling them off for small amounts. These are the people I am supposed to be on the look out for when I leave the office. These are not the sleek and sexy rogues Focus wants us to embrace. A second scheme in the latter half of the film’s weird structure is a bit more complicated but fails at blowing minds when the big reveal comes round.

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So the film does not have a strong con. OR DOES IT?!?!? It doesn’t. But how does the romance stack up? Margot Robbie and Will Smith are both perfectly fine actors, and we should applaud any film that includes an interracial relationship without drawing attention to it, but the chemistry between the two is sadly lacking. We need to believe that, cons aside, at least one of the pair is in love with the other but we aren’t given any reason to. Their time together is fleeting and often filled with deception leaving their romance sceptical at best, and that’s before even thinking about the age difference.

A film that wants to be a sleek and sexy con movie with a romantic comedy twist instead comes across as a mismatched relationship between two petty thieves. There are a few laughs along the way, and some welcome distraction in the form of Adrian Martinez, but for the most part Focus is just a bland film about unlikeable criminals who don’t seem to pause for a second to question the morality of their chosen profession. If you are looking for an inoffensive film then you have found it, but if you want to see something truly exciting I suggest you look elsewhere.

Focus is on general release now.