Oscar Isaac

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

21/12/19

In the early 70s, a young filmmaker called George Lucas had a vision. He wanted to make an epic space saga that would consist of nine episodes in total. (And one for which he would, naturally, retain all merchandising rights.) For reasons best known to himself, he decided to begin, in 1977, with episode four of what, for me, is one of the most overrated film franchises in history.

It began well enough – indeed, the first two films are great – but, from that point, it has descended into a whole series of misfires. There’s the one with the Ewoks. And those three awful prequels… oh God, those prequels!

Finally, here we are at episode nine: The Rise of Skywalker. After the bewildering cul de sac of The Last Jedi – and after the ignonimous departure of Skywalker’s original director, Colin Trevorrow – J J Abrams is back on board to bring the saga to an end. This seemed like a sensible decision when it was first announced. After all, his The Force Awakens was easily the best Star Wars movie in a very long time, a sort of lively ‘best of’ compilation. If anybody could offer a safe pair of hands, surely he was the man? So it’s sad to report that (for my money, at least) this final chapter provides a decidedly lacklustre conclusion.

The plot: a familiar voice from the past is threatening the rebel resistance, which is still being commanded by Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, courtesy of some visual trickery). Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) head off on a quest to try to find where that pesky voice is coming from, accompanied by C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is still intent on ruling the universe. And then… ah, who cares? It’s all lumpen and – dare I say it? – dull. I find myself bored after just twenty minutes of viewing. And considering the film opens with an all-out action sequence, that’s a problem.

So what has gone wrong? Is it the unnecessarily complicated storyline that sinks it? The seemingly endless procession of people we think are dead, but aren’t any more? (Maybe even the ones who actually are dead but don’t seem to know it – and I’m not talking about Carrie Fisher here, but the fictional characters.)

Is it the series of hopelessly turgid lightsaber duels that drag it down? The fact that people talk in a series of fridge magnet quotes? Is it that characters still can’t decide if they’re good eggs or dark, demonic nasties? Or is it simply that not enough time has passed since Jedi to allow audiences to summon up enough enthusiasm for this nonsense? Whatever the reasons, by the time we hit the (ho hum) extended space battle climax, I’m looking at my watch and praying for it to be over.

I appreciate that the diehard fans will rally round to support the film, because, well, that’s what Star Wars freaks tend to do but, apart from a couple of scenes here and there, I can’t honestly say that I enjoy this. And that’s a shame because, despite the curse of diminishing returns, Star Wars has had a remarkably good run down the decades and I want it to go out on a high.

Of course, I’m not so dumb as to imagine it’s really going to end here. As long as there’s more money to be made, there will be spin-offs and prequels and homages and tie-ins.

But I seriously doubt I’ll be watching them.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

At Eternity’s Gate

14/11/19

Here’s one I missed at the cinema, but – as is increasingly the case these days – it’s right there on Netflix for anyone to see at the click of a button. While this would definitely benefit from the immersive qualities of a big screen, beggars can’t be choosers.

Julian Schnabel’s film of Vincent Van Gogh concentrates on his years in Arles and, later, at Auvers Sur Oise. Willem Dafoe stars in what is possibly the role he was born to play, so convincingly does he settle into the great man’s persona, and he greatly deserved his Oscar nomination.

This is far from a straightforward biopic, however. Indeed, anybody who prefers a clear narrative arc will probably have a tough time with this. There’s a lot of footage of the artist, easel strapped to his back, wandering for miles across the French countryside in search of the elusive ‘perfect light’ and the film takes its own sweet time over those sections. But there’s no doubting the power of the sumptuous cinematography of Benoit Delhomme, which really does capture the unique look of Van Gogh’s paintings.

A lot of big names pop up in cameo roles. Oscar Isaac is a suitably swashbuckling Paul Gaugin, Rupert Friend is Vincent’s endlessly patient brother, Theo, and Mads Mikkelsen gets the dubious honour of portraying the priest at an asylum, who unashamedly informs the artist that his work is ‘ugly and without merit.’ Dafoe, meanwhile, suffers for his art in utterly convincing style and generates pity for Vincent as well as anger at the horrible treatment he receives on an almost daily basis.

There’s a powerful payoff when, after his mysterious death (which is frustratingly skipped over), we witness Vincent lying in his coffin, surrounded by his paintings and we cannot help but see that the mourners are already taking more interest in his work than they ever did when he was alive.

An interesting effort, then, and – while it lacks the jaw-dropping power of Finding Vincent – it’s still essential viewing for fans of one of history’s greatest artists.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Life Itself

02/01/19

There’s a lovely little movie trapped inside Life Itself. An arch, playful, beautifully acted and intriguingly populated film, with a gently emotive storyline. It’s all there: ripe and ready. Unfortunately, it’s covered in an unwelcome layer of fridge-magnet cod-philosophy, with a side helping of pomposity thrown in. Oh dear.

Things start well. We meet Will (Oscar Isaac) as he stumbles drunkenly into a coffee shop, clearly having hit hard times. His therapist (Annette Bening) encourages him to talk about his relationship with his wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde), and their back-story is revealed in a series of flashbacks. The idea of the unreliable narrator is introduced early on, and reinforced by Abby’s student thesis on the subject. Life, concludes Abby, is the ultimate unreliable narrator, more random and unpredictable than anyone cares to acknowledge. Her friends like the idea, but she fails her course, because the essay strays too far from literary criticism.

Still, as the film goes on to show: she’s right. Time and again, writer-director Dan Fogelman pulls the rug from under our feet, throwing us swerve balls and catching us unawares. The action moves, almost arbitrarily,  from Will and Abby’s New York to Javier González (Sergio Peris-Mencheta)’s Spain – where all the dialogue, naturally, is in Spanish – and back again to New York, where we meet Will and Abby’s daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke). All this I like. The characters are captivating, and the seemingly unrelated strands are pulled together expertly. Segmenting movies into ‘chapters’ seems to be a bit of a recent phenomenon, and it works well here. Antonio Banderas is wonderfully understated as the emotionally needy Mr Saccione, and Laia Costa, as Javier’s wife, Isabel, really lights up the screen.

So why doesn’t it work? Because that premise, of life being the ultimate unreliable narrator, is overworked. It’s not left to be played out; we’re not trusted to understand without an actual lecture, delivered in the final chapter by Elena (Lorenza Izzo), Dylan’s teenage daughter, who, we discover, has been narrating throughout. There’s not enough substance to the idea to merit this much talk; it’s a simple – dare I say banal? – concept, enough to carry a story but not to bear such scrutiny. It takes itself too seriously, accords itself too much weight. And that’s a real shame.

There’s a filmed Q and A at the end of our screening, but it reinforces rather than alleviates our concerns. The interviewer, Jenny Falconer, talks of weeping copiously as she watched, but we both feel curiously unmoved. It’s clearly a movie that wants to tap into our emotions, but the narration distances us from events, and makes that level of engagement difficult. I don’t mind this – the film is at its best when it’s witty and stylised, which it is, a lot of the time – but it feels muddled, as if the ‘message’ is getting in the way of all the good stuff that’s on offer here.

3.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Annihilation

16/03/18

Another day, and another movie goes straight to Netflix. After Mute and The Cloverfield Paradox, this is starting to feel like a trend, though in the case of Annihilation, writer/director Alex Garland has been very vocal about his displeasure in learning that his brainchild would not be receiving a theatrical release. The reason he was given by Paramount? The film was ‘too intellectual.’ More likely, perhaps, is the fact that too many big-budget science fiction movies have failed to put bums on seats over the past year.  Whatever the explanation, the film’s expensive credentials are evident and it must be said that some of the more eye-popping effects sequences really would have looked a lot more impressive on a big screen.

Soldier-turned-college-biology-lecturer, Lena (Natalie Portman), is in a bad place in the film’s early stretches. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), is a soldier, missing in action for over a year after being sent away on a secret mission – but she hasn’t quite given up hope that he will return. Then, quite unexpectedly, he does come back, acting very strangely, shortly before collapsing into a coma. On the way to the nearest hospital, the ambulance is intercepted by soldiers and Lena and Kane are rushed to a secret facility in Florida, where Kane is put on life support. Lena meets scientist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who tells her about ‘The Shimmer’ – a strange, shifting dimension that has established itself in the Everglades after a mysterious meteor strike. The Shimmer appears to be constantly expanding and Ventress tells Lena that Kane was part of a team sent in there to investigate. The other members have all disappeared without trace. Ventress explains that she is planning to lead an all-female team in there in a few days’ time and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Lena elects to go with them.

Once inside this unknown dimension, things begin to go very weird, very quickly. The team soon establish that here, species are getting their individual DNA all mixed up with others. This can be as enchanting as flowers sprouting multi coloured petals from the same stem, or growing into the shape of humans – but it can also be as sinister as a huge alligator which seems to have merged with a shark, creating a creature you most definitely do not want to spend any time with. As the team make their way closer and closer to the site of the meteor impact it begins to look as though their chances of surviving this mission are growing perilously slim…

Annihilation is a decent sci-fi movie, if not an exceptional one – and it’s nowhere near as effective as Garland’s previous effort, the criminally underrated Ex Machina. It’s refreshing though to see an action film that is predominately led by female actors, even if I really didn’t learn an awful lot about their respective characters – and there’s one particular sequence in here, featuring a mutated bear, that really did push the throttle headlong in the direction of terror. There’s an interesting conclusion too, which will doubtless prompt some discussion after the credits have rolled.

In the end, it’s hard to say whether this film would have done much business at the cinema. I actually doubt it. And, judging by what I’ve seen on social media, it’s getting plenty of  viewings on Netflix, even if most of the resulting comments are far from complimentary.

One thing’s for sure. It’s an easy matter to tune in and judge for yourselves.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Ex Machina

06/03/17

There’s always the one that got away, isn’t there? I somehow managed to miss Ex Machina’s all-too-brief appearance on the big screen and I’ve been trying to catch up with it ever since, largely because I’d heard such good things about it. Discovering that it’s now available on Netflix was therefore great news.

Alex Garland’s 2014 movie, is a deceptively simple affair, pretty much a four-hander, laid out with cool clear linearity. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers he has won the opportunity of a lifetime – to travel to the remote hi-tech hideaway of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) the CEO of the world’s biggest internet company and to spend a week with him, getting a sneak preview of his latest creation. This turns out to be Ava (Alicia Vikander) an AI, and one so convincing that Nathan challenges Caleb to apply the Turing Test to her – designed to examine a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Is she good enough to pass?

Caleb goes to work and soon establishes a powerful rapport with Ava – but, as he constantly asks himself, is she genuinely interested in him, or simply using him as a way of staying alive? Because, as Nathan makes all too clear, if she fails the test then she is destined to be replaced by a newer, better model. Nathan, meanwhile, is prone to drinking himself half to death and dancing around the apartment with his live-in housekeeper, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). As the story develops it becomes apparent that nothing in this  state-of-the-art home is quite what it appears to be… and soon even Caleb is questioning his own existence.

The beauty of Ex Machina is the way in which it expertly unfolds its intriguing story, constantly pulling the rug out from under the viewer, until you don’t really know what to expect next. Vikander offers a fascinating performance in the central role, and Gleeson, Isaac and Mizono are all totally believable. If like me, you missed this film first time around, here’s your chance to catch up. It’s really rather good.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney