Interesting questions get lost in space melodrama

People can feel pretty small in space
Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence discover that people can feel small in space

Film: Passengers

Director: Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game 2014)

Writer: Jon Spaihts

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: Apocalypse 2016, Joy 2015), Chris Pratt (The Magnificent Seven 2016, Jurassic World 2015), Michael Sheen (Nocturnal Animals 2016)

Plot: The starship Avalon is taking 5,000 passengers on a 120-year journey from Earth to a colony planet when an asteroid storm causes a malfunction in one of the hibernation pods. As a result, Jim (Pratt) is woken up – with 90 years still to go before the ship reaches its destination. Jim is joined by fellow passenger Aurora (Lawrence). They and Arthur the android barman (Sheen) are the only beings awake as the ship continues on its journey.

I liked the first half of this film much more than the second. It has some interesting things to say about the human condition, including our overwhelming need for companionship (spoiler alert: the circumstances of Aurora’s awakening are shocking) and the fact that all of us are passengers on our own journeys to a destination we never reach.

It also makes the point that people are becoming increasingly dependent on the technology that surrounds them. That obviously can be dangerous when the machine fails, as in the pod malfunction.

You can trust an android barman to keep a secret - or can you?
You can trust an android barman to keep a secret – or can you?

But even when the technology works perfectly – according to its own coding – it can have profound consequences, as Jim discovers when he reveals a shocking secret to Arthur.

But halfway through exploring the interesting – if hardly original – idea that we should not neglect living in the present by focussing too much on an uncertain and unknowable future, the film seems to lose confidence in itself, and switches to a fairly standard space melodrama.

The second half does contain one terrific scene involving what happens to a swimming pool when gravity is switched off, but for the most part all of the space science stuff has been done before in films like Gravity and The Martian.

Retired Bloke Rating: ***

An unknown story that needed to be told

Film: A United Kingdom

Director: Amma Asante (Belle, 2014)

Writer: Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky): from the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams.

Starring: David Oyelowo (Selma, 2014), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, 2014), Jack Davenport (Kingsman: The Secret Service, 2015).

Plot: Serente Kharma (Oyelowo) is the Prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana). In 1948 he meets and falls in love with London office worker Ruth Williams (Pike). Their interracial relationship is opposed by both of their families. Their subsequent marriage provokes extreme reaction from both the British and South African governments. To be together, they must defy apartheid and imposed exile.

Asante, a female British director of Ghanian heritage, has said she wants “to make pieces of entertainment and art that mean something.” She succeeds with her latest film.

Neither I nor The Current Mrs Feeney knew anything about Serente Kharma’s story; I suspect most people who go to see the film will be equally ignorant about this pretty shameful piece of British colonial history.

The racism and intolerance of ‘the other’ that it highlights are, sadly, still topical (in fact, intolerance seems to be on the increase). I thought that, in one key scene where Kharma addresses his tribe on the impossibility of separating his duty to his people from his love for his wife, there were also uncanny echoes of the British crown’s abdication crisis in the 30s.

At least one reviewer had criticised the film’s portrayal of Ruth Williams as a rather silly and naive woman; that’s not what I saw. Pike presents a character who is much stronger and more politically aware than that.

Oyelowo, who could be described as having rehearsed for this role with his portrayal of Martin Luther King in Selma, is simply superb as a man who keeps his integrity and his dignity as he is battered by the competing forces of tradition and progress.

Some of the dialogue is undeniably cheesy. But overall, this is a well-crafted story that deserves, now of all times, to be told. I especially like the way Asante contrasts 1940s London – colours so muted as to be almost monotone – with a sunburnt Bechuanaland of searing ochres and oranges.

****

Cinema 2016: the films I’ve seen this year and what I thought of them.

It’s about time to make time to see this film

Film: Arrival

Director: Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners 2010, Sicario 2013).

Writer: Eric Heisserer (based on a short story by Ted Chiang.).

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker.

Plot: When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team – led by expert linguist Louise Banks (Adams) – is brought together to investigate. Banks and her team, Including a brilliant physicist (Renner), race against time to find answers to why the aliens have arrived. To find them, she will take a chance that threatens her life, and possibly humanity.

CALLING this terrific film a sic-fi alien invasion thriller is doing it a huge injustice. Yes, it is all of that – with the threat of global war looming ever larger as the story progresses – but it is also a lot more.

Let’s deal with the aliens first: Always seen through a thick mist, they look like a cross between a giant squid and a jellyfish; when they talk, they sound like something that incorporates the songs of deep-ocean whales, and the roars of big cats.

So, seriously other-worldly. And yet it is the humans, struggling to interpret these alien beings and understand why they have arrived on Earth, who are the real focus of the film’s attention.

Adams (Nocturnal Animals; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is superb as the expert whose intuitive feel for other languages develops into something much more startling as the film moves towards its tense climax.

Renner (Captain America: Civil War) is also very good in his more understated role as the scientist trying to apply brain power in the middle of a growing military crisis.

Despite the abundance of military hardware on screen, what Villeneuve has produced is a philosophical musing about life, and how much we determine the shape of our own lives, as well as a meditation on our contact with, and understanding of, death.

Arrival plays, devastatingly at the end, with its audience’s understanding of time.

And while it is visually exciting, it is the power of language – its ability to bring us together or drive us apart – that lies at the heart of the story. Let’s hear it for the linguist as super hero!

Cinema 2016: the films I’ve seen this year and what I thought of them.

A slightly magical way to spend a couple of hours

Film: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Director: David Yates. Writer: J.K. Rowling. Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterstone, Alison Sudol.

Plot: Wizard and magical creatures scholar Newt Scamander (Redmayne) arrives in 1920s New York with a suitcase full of the titular fantastic beasts. When his suitcase is accidentally switched, some of the creatures escape, bringing mayhem to the streets of the Big Apple. Meanwhile, a group called the New Salemers are on the hunt for modern witches.

This is a spin-off from the enormously successful Harry Potter franchise, though set decades before Potter’s adventures. It is also penned by Rowling, but mercifully without any boy wizards.

Having said that, as the grown-up wizard, Redmayne – channeling his by now familiar ‘thoroughly-nice-chap’ persona, – does not seem very grown-up to me. Perhaps I’m missing something; I was never more than lukewarm about Pottermania.

Given Rowling’s impeccable liberal cultural credentials, the film unsurprisingly wants to be more than a simple magical adventure romp. So there are messages about witch hunts and discrimination, which felt more topical than Rowling might have anticipated. Or perhaps she saw it all coming.

The film – which real Potter enthusiasts might find a little thin – is nevertheless a pleasant way to while away a couple of hours.

***

Cinema 2016: the films I’ve seen this year, and what I thought of them.

 

 

Should violent death look this beautiful?

Film: Nocturnal Animals

Director and Writer: Tom Ford. Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon.

Plot: There are three parts to the film: 1) Art gallery owner Susan (Adams) receives a book manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal); 2) the story of the manuscript, a novel called Nocturnal Animals, a violent crime and revenge tale set in the badlands of West Texas; 3) flashbacks to how Susan and Edward met, married and divorced.

Having achieved fame and fortune as a fashion designer, Ford is now carving out a second successful career as a film director. The three separate yet interlocking storylines could have been confusing, but he handles them with great competence.

My only gripe (and it’s quite a big one) is that Ford’s fashion-artist eye is so evident in every perfectly-composed scene. There is something chilling about such attention to how everything looks just-so.

Everybody in the film looks like a fashion model; even the scumbags look like scumbag models.

And, without giving too much away, even the corpses in one of the storylines are beautifully arranged, their limbs shockingly white against the blood-red sofa on which they are gracefully intertwined.

You might, like me, wonder if violent death should look this beautiful. You might also, however, like me decide that this is still a serious, and seriously good, film.

****

Cinema 2016: the films I’ve seen this year, and what I thought of them.

Uncomfortable truths confronted

Film: I, Daniel Blake

Director: Ken Loach. Writer: Paul Laverty. Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy.

Plot: A 59-year-old carpenter recovering from a heart attack (Johns) befriends a single mum (Squires) and her two children as they all try to make sense of the state’s bewildering and demoralising benefits system.

A typically plain tale, plainly told, from veteran left-wing director Loach. The characters are rarely more than one dimensional, and live in a world with few nuances or shades of grey.

But it still forces the audience (10 in the lunchtime screening I attended) to confront uncomfortable truths about Britain’s system of unemployment and sickness benefits, and our easy assumptions about the people who claim them. And there is one scene in a food bank that is genuinely shocking.

For all of its faults as a piece of cinematic art, this film deserves a wider audience than I suspect it will attract.

****

Cinema 2016: the films I’ve seen this year, and what I thought of them.

An undemanding screening

LAST week’s sunny weather having disappeared (well, this is Wales, where every silver lining has a cloud), The Current Mrs Feeney and I headed to the cinema today for a lunchtime (the benefits of retirement) showing of Our Kind Of Traitor, the film of the John Le Carre novel about a money-launderer for the Russian mafia who befriends an English Literature university lecturer, in order to pass on details about British politicians’ and bankers’ links with organised crime, in exchange for the British secret service arranging safe passage to the UK for his family.

I enjoy Le Carre. His is a world where nobody and nothing is untainted. I suppose it is quite religious in that aspect.

Ewan McGregor played the lecturer, Stellan Skarsgard the money launderer, and Damian Lewis the MI6 agent trying to seal the deal despite the dark forces of corruption lined up against him.

They – like the film itself – were competent but unremarkable. It was a pleasant enough way to while away a couple of hours.

Retired Bloke rating: OK.