Skip to main content

Are you having any trouble with quantum entanglement?

Captain Fantastic
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Matt Ross partly based his screenplay for Captain Fantastic on his experiences being brought up in alternative communities, so it’s a shame that doesn’t feed into a more grounded, rounded viewing experience. He’s lucky he has Viggo Mortensen (as patriarch Ben) to anchor a picture constantly enmiring itself in overblown positions and entrenched conflicts, but even he, Oscar nominated as he was for his performance, can’t salvage the third act from unsustainable melodramatics.


Ross etches out Ben’s discipline with due consistency, but it’s all a bit rich. Yes, these kids could be so ridiculously capable, multi-lingual, faultlessly able to receive, process and understand everything they’re taught, but it immediately plays as a fantasy (fantastic) version of such home schooling, designed to underline the payoff you can see coming from very early on, one spelled out by oldest child Bodevan (George MacKay), that “I know nothing! I’m a freak because of you. Unless it comes out of a fucking book I don’t know anything about anything” (so much so that, despite the breadth of their education and the life they kill for food, they are apparently unfamiliar with the standard operating procedure of sheep).


You’re left with the awareness that this is actually one of those standard cosy-but-wacky, life-affirming Hollywood family dramas, complete with the deployment of supremely daft plot developments to power the third act, redressed in indie clothing, so rote is the essential message and the means by which it’s resolved. Robin Williams might have starred in Captain Fantastic in the mid-90s (as Peter Bradshaw observed in his scathing review – a little too harsh – it compares unfavourably to Peter Weir’s similarly themed The Mosquito Coast).


I suspect the point I decided Captain Fantastic was just too good to be true was when Vespyr (Annalisse Basso), having been instructed “Interesting is a non-word”, provides a singularly insightful analysis of Lolita having read only half of it. Ross is making no bones about the flaws in Ben’s system of rule, and we’re at least as onside with his being right as wrong, but he distils these dilemmas into the rather weak, inevitable compromise of the final scene, as Ben strikes the balance of a farm life, where the kids attend normal school and get to experience the joys of nature.


It would have been interesting if Ross had actually tackle Ben’s system of morality and philosophy, rather than experience it externally, as an observer, through his kids and extended family. But, because he’s portrayed as unflinching, there’s no opportunity to get an “in”, and it means the picture operates only on the levels of conflict or sentiment, failing to interrogate his viewpoint in a meaningful way. When he initiates a “free the food” campaign, encouraging his kids to steal from a supermarket, and is confronted over this by a thunderingly one-note father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella), the supremely articulate man becomes tongue-tied. The “Happy Noam Chomsky Day” can only be a piss-take, admittedly, but much as the picture invites a humorous streak (Bodevan’s changing leftist devotions; “I’m not a Trotskyist any more. I’m a Maoist”) it tends to go too far with its indie-fantasy trappings to ever take the essential idea seriously, or to view it as a “valid, but…”


Of the kids, the most time is spent on Bodevan, who has managed to gain places in all the big colleges but can’t talk to girls (and yet, it’s clear that this isn’t the first time he’s been to civilisation, and it’s frankly implausible that Ben and Leslie wouldn’t have at least considered the effect isolation would have on hormonal teenagers – that these points go unaddressed makes the picture seem half-baked). Lines like “What’s Cola?”: “Poisoned water” are cute, but more for a gag than creating a rounded movie.


The whole “amusingly eventful road trip of a colourful family amid tragedy” thing put me in mind of Little Miss Sunshine, but that picture judged its tone better, even if it had its sights much lower. Here, Ben realising the error of his ways when Vespyr falls off Jack’s roof comes across as plain false: that he’s willing to abandon his entire brood to a life of pampered luxury by (his wife’s) grandparents who share none of his values. The digging up of Leslie’s body to give her the Buddhist funeral she wanted is supposed to strike a triumphant, affirmative note, but by that point the picture has become too detached from its slender moorings. Even more so when these astonishingly accomplished kids embark on a rendition of Sweet Child O’Mine (I thought they only listened to Bach?)


There’s no faulting the performances in Ross’ film (also of note are Nicholas Hamilton as the rebellious Relian – “Our names are unique. There’s only one of us in the whole world” – Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn as Ben’s sister and brother-in-law, and Ann Dowd as his mother-in-law), only the quality of the screenplay, which hits easy culture-clash targets rather than approaching never-more pertinent subject matter – how do you escape when the world is ever-more encroaching at every turn, and how do you survive the severing of the chord if you do manage to drop out? – with clarity and insight.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Garage freak? Jesus. What kind of a crazy fucking story is this?

All the President’s Men (1976)
It’s fairly routine to find that films lavished with awards ceremony attention really aren’t all that. So many factors go into lining them up, including studio politics, publicity and fashion, that the true gems are often left out in the cold. On some occasions all the attention is thoroughly deserved, however. All the President’s Men lost out to Rocky for Best Picture Oscar; an uplifting crowd-pleaser beat an unrepentantly low key, densely plotted and talky political thriller. But Alan J. Pakula’s film had already won the major victory; it turned a literate, uncompromising account of a resolutely unsexy and over-exposed news story into a huge hit. And even more, it commanded the respect of its potentially fiercest (and if roused most venomous) critics; journalists themselves. All the President’s Men is a masterpiece and with every passing year it looks more and more like a paean to a bygone age, one where the freedom of the press was assumed rather than a…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

The head is missing... and... he's the wrong age.

Twin Peaks 3.7: There’s a body all right.
First things first: my suggestion that everyone’s favourite diminutive hitman, Ike “The Spike” Stadtler, had been hired by the Mitchum brothers was clearly erroneous in the extreme, although the logistics of how evil Coop had the contingency plan in place to off Lorraine and Dougie-Coop remains a little unclear right now. As is how he was banged up with the apparent foresight to have on hand ready blackmail tools to ensure the warden would get him out (and why did he wait so long about it, if he could do it off the bat?)


Launching right in with no preamble seems appropriate for his episode, since its chock-a-block with exposition and (linear) progression, almost an icy blast of what settles for reality in Twin Peaks after most of what has gone before this season, the odd arm-tree aside. Which might please James Dyer, who in the latest Empire “The Debate”, took the antagonistic stance to the show coming back and dismissed it as “gibbering nonsen…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You’re the Compliance Officer. It’s your call.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
(SPOILERS) The mealy-mouthed title speaks volumes about the uncertainty with which Tom Clancy’s best-known character has been rebooted. Paramount has a franchise that has made a lot of money, based on a deeply conservative, bookish CIA analyst (well, he starts out that way). How do you reconfigure him for a 21st century world (even though he already has been, back in 2003) where everything he stands for is pretty much a dirty word? The answer, it seems, is to go for an all-purpose sub-James Bond plan to bring American to its knees, with Ryan as a fresh (-ish) recruit (you know, like Casino Royale!) and surprising handiness in a fight. Yes, Jack is still a smart guy (and also now, a bit, -alec), adept at, well, analysing, but to survive in the modern franchise sewer he needs to be more than that. He needs to kick arse. And wear a hoodie. This confusion, inability to coax a series into being what it’s supposed to be, might explain the sour response to its …

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Oh look, there’s Colonel Mortimer, riding down the street on a dinosaur!

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)
(SPOILERS) There’s no getting round the dinosaur skeleton in the room here: yellow face. From the illustrious writer-director team who brought us Mary Poppins, no less. Disney’s cheerfully racist family movie belongs to a bygone era, but appreciating its merits doesn’t necessarily requires one to subscribe to the Bernard Manning school of ethnic sensitivity.

I’m not going to defend the choice, but, if you can get past that, and that may well be a big if, particularly Bernard Bresslaw’s Fan Choy (if anything’s an unwelcome reminder of the Carry Ons lesser qualities, it’s Bresslaw and Joan Sims) there’s much to enjoy. For starters, there’s two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Ustinov (as mastermind Hnup Wan), funny in whatever he does (and the only Poirot worth his salt), eternally berating his insubordinate subordinate Clive Revill (as Quon).

This is a movie where, even though its crude cultural stereotyping is writ large, the dialogue frequen…

You may not wanna wake up tomorrow, but the day after that might just be great.

Blood Father (2016)
(SPOILERS) There are points during Blood Father where it feels like Mel is publically and directly addressing his troubled personal life. Through ultra-violence. I’m not really sure if that’s a good idea or not, but the movie itself is finely-crafted slice of B-hokum, a picture that knows its particular sandpit and how to play most effectively in it.

Sometimes the more you look, the less you see.

Snowden (2016)
(SPOILERS) There are a fair few Oliver Stone movies I haven’t much cared for (Natural Born Killers, U-Turn, Alexander for starters), and only W., post millennium, stands out as even trying something, if in a largely inconspicuous and irrelevant way, but I don’t think I’ve been as bored by one as I have by Snowden. Say what you like about Citizenfour – a largely superficial puff piece heralded as a vanguard of investigative journalism that somehow managed to yield a Best Documentary Feature Oscar for its lack of pains – but it stuck to the point, and didn’t waste the viewer’s time. Stone’s movie is so vapid and cliché-ridden in its portrayal of Edward Snowden, you might almost conclude the director was purposefully fictionalising his subject in order to preserve his status as a conspiracy nut (read: everything about Snowden is a fiction).