Videophiled: Hard science and soft-headed people in ‘Interstellar’


Interstellar (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD) – Christopher Nolan used his clout as the director of the hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy and cerebral caper film Inception to get this big-budget science fiction epic made on a scale that otherwise would be out of reach. It’s set in a near future where overpopulation and global climate change has been catastrophic for the food supply and the culture has become hostile to science, as if it’s the cause of the problems rather than the only hope to solve them.

Matthew McConaughey is a widower father and former astronaut turned Midwest farmer who is essentially drafted into a covert project to send a ship across the galaxy to find a planet suitable for human habitation. That means abandoning his children, one of whom grows up into a physics genius (played by Jessica Chastain) who holds onto her grudge for decades. This is a film where complex concepts of quantum physics and powerful human emotions are inextricably intertwined and ghost the haunts the farmhouse has both a scientific explanation and a sense of supernatural power.

The family drama at the center is contrived and often unconvincing but Nolan’s visualization of amazing alien worlds, black holes, quantum physics, and the echoes of time and relativity in regards to travel through deep space and gravity distortions is engaging and thrilling. He imagines what a water planet near a black hole might be like and it’s like nothing you’ve ever imagined. The design of the robot helpers is something else. Neil deGrasse Tyson gave the film top marks for its science, which is pretty impressive. Yes, love conquers physics and the smartest people in the world do stupid, thoughtless things to give the plot its complications, but there simply aren’t many science fiction films that dare to be this brainy and visionary. Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, Michael Caine, John Lithgow, and Topher Grace co-star.

Christopher Nolan shot Interstellar on film rather than digital cameras with a mix of CinemaScope widescreen (about 2.4:1) and IMAX full frame (the 1.78:1 of widescreen TV) aspect ratios. The Blu-ray preserves the shifting ratios and presents a strong, warm image. Paramount goes all out on the disc to make it something special and Nolan, a creator with a great track record for documenting his productions every step of the way, participates in the supplements, which are limited to the Blu-ray release, all collected on a separate Blu-ray disc. The 50-minute “The Science of Interstellar,” an expanded version of a program originally shown in TV, is the centerpiece of the bonus disc, which includes fourteen “Inside Interstellar” featurettes. The shorter pieces, which take on various aspects of the film, the story, production and special effects details (like the use of miniatures, which has become a rarity in the CGI age), range from under two minutes to just over twelve minutes. The Blu-ray set also includes bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.

It’s also on digital VOD and Cable On Demand, but those formats won’t look as good as Blu-ray and do not include the Blu-ray supplements, if that’s something that’s important you.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled Classic: ‘Zulu’ and ‘Khartoum’

The sun sets on the British Empire and the historical epic in a pair of 1960s productions built around legendary colonial battles of the late 19th century. Legendary to British history, that is. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa and the Siege of Khartoum in Sudan would be all but unknown in the U.S outside of historical societies were it not for Zulu (1964) and Khartoum (1966), both of which debut stateside on Blu-ray from Twilight Time this week.

These films were produced in the wake of Lawrence of Arabia and El Cid and while they revel in the spectacle of battle (that whole cast of thousands thing), they take a more ambivalent view toward colonial adventure. The glory of the British Empire isn’t quite so glorious in these stories of English military might in the name of conquest.

Zulu (Twilight Time, Blu-Ray) is far and away the superior film. Shot mostly on location in South Africa (with some interiors back in the British studio), directed by American Cy Enfield (who moved to England in the shadow of the Hollywood blacklist) and co-produced by Enfield and Stanley Baker, who takes the leading role, it turns a piece of once-obscure history into a riveting drama. A British station with a contingent of about 150 men (including the sick and wounded in the hospital) are ordered to hold their ground when 4000 Zulu warriors, charged up after massacring a force of over 1,000 British soldiers, surround them. The image is chilling: the station—not even a full fort, just a few buildings and a corral—is nestled in a ring of hills and the Zulu soldiers announce themselves by lining up along the rise around them. Psychological warfare at its best.

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Blu-ray Debut: “The Man Who Would Be King”

Peachy and Danny: friends forever

The Man Who Would Be King” (Warner)

John Huston originally wanted to make this film in the late 1950s with Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. It would’ve made a hell of a picture. And, as a matter of fact, it did, only with Sean Connery and Michael Caine as Danny and Peachy, the ambitious British soldiers/con-artists​/Freemasons turned adventurers in India. Huston’s adaptation of Kipling’s story manages to be both intimate and gloriously sweeping, a larger than life tale on a magnificent canvass (Morocco’s mountains – standing in for Afghanistan – create the breathtaking backdrop) grounded in the strength of friendship and camaraderie, and elevated by a magnificent score from Maurice Jarre, who works a classic hymn into a rousing theme.

It’s pure Huston: an impossible quest, an out-of-reach grail and an ironic twist leading to a supremely glorious failure. More than any other of his seventies films, Huston is able to turn their story into a strange sort of triumph by remaining true to his characters, right down to the riveting conclusion and the haunting coda narrated by Caine. He offers wonderfully old-fashioned storytelling—muscular​, dramatic, grounded in character and driven by magnificent twists of luck and fate that arise like poetic justice dished out by a wry god—for the modern age. The colonialist perspective on the Indian and tribal populations as childish, foolish and backwards peoples is sometimes offensive to modern eyes but it certainly captures the attitude of a 19th century British soldier of fortune in India, relating his tall tale of a true story to his Mason brother (Christopher Plummer as Rudyard Kipling). It is, in short, one of the most rousing adventures of the 1970s.

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DVDs for 08/31/10 – Lost in Yorkshire, Afghanistan and Rio with Red Riding and Harry Brown

The three films that make up the Red Riding Trilogy (IFC), adapted by a quartet of novels by David Peace, are individually among the best films I’ve seen in 2010. Together, they are a remarkable work. They make up a saga of sorts, a fictional journey through a culture of corruption and collusion, where the reach for power leaves the innocent unprotected from the wolves, set against the very real history of terror in Yorkshire when the serial killer dubbed “The Yorkshire Ripper” was at large.

Andrew Garfield investigates in "Red Riding 1974"

A different director takes each film and gives it a quality and style and atmosphere unique to that story: Julian Jarrold (shooting on 16mm film) evoking American cinema of the seventies like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon with 1974, James Marsh using 35mm widescreen to create an intimate procedural with an almost suffocating atmosphere in 1980 and Anand Tucker using HD digital video for a different quality of clarity that he purposely obscures with a camera that seems to be either looking from behind or obscured by the glare in 1983. They were produced for British television with such a cinematic richness and density of detail that they played in theaters in both Britain and the United States.

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New review: Is Anybody There?

Is Anybody There? (dir: John Crowley)

Michael Caine plays a crotchety old magician, the one-time “The Amazing Clarence,” as his rickety caravan and home-on-wheels advertises. After his latest caravan wreck, he’s pressured into moving to a home for the elderly. “It’s only temporary,” he insists as he’s literally pushed through the door.

Bill Milner’s (Son of Rambow) Edward is a young boy suffering the indignities of having the family home turned into a home for the elderly run by his parents (mostly his mum). The closest thing to an upside in this equation: the opportunity to indulge in his obsession with ghosts and spirits. He hides tape recorders under the beds of the ill and dying, hoping to capture some evidence of the spirits passing on.

Michael Caine and Bill Milner
Michael Caine and Bill Milner

“Why are you so bloody morbid?” asks an exasperated Clarence. “Because I live here!” he answers. The boy has a point. The place takes its toll on Clarence, too. Seeing his dignity slip away rapidly, he tries to speed his own demise. No coincidence that Eddie takes a personal interest in the curmudgeonly old man, whose growling insults slowly give way to tolerance and finally affection.

The friendship between eccentric boy and bitter elder is the film, of course, and while Caine settles into a grandfatherly concern without quite losing that edge of anger and restlessness, it’s an awfully familiar story with little new to say.

This is classic British working-class culture, circa 1987, in which a dry sense of whimsy overlays a general feeling of malaise and disappointment. And it’s not just limited to the regret that hangs over Clarence or the helplessness and hopelessness of his fellow boarders, all resigned to waiting out their final days sitting around the TV and mumbling through childish singsongs. While Eddie’s mum (Anne-Marie Duff) puts everything into the home, his dad (David Morrissey) spends more trying to impress teenage girl they’ve hired than offering his wife any support. Living in such a glum patina of dreary skies and gloomy interiors, it’s no surprise they’re all so disenchanted.

The film doesn’t sugarcoat the senility that creeps up on Clarence, which Caine plays with a state of confusion and helplessness that can be terrifying, but by the end of the film it becomes a healing kind of mourning and a new start for our fractured family. As if we expected anything different from it all.

This is also my debut film review for the new online newspaper the Seattle PostGlobe here.

Directed by John Crowley; screenplay by Peter Harness; featuring Michael Caine, Bill Milner, Anne-Marie Duff, David Morrissey, Rosemary Harris, Leslie Phillips, Sylvia Syms, Peter Vaughan