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…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

If this is not a place for a priest, Miles, then this is exactly where the Lord wants me.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes a movie comes along where you instantly know you’re safe in the hands of a master of the craft, someone who knows exactly the story they want to tell and precisely how to achieve it. All you have to do is sit back and exult in the joyful dexterity on display. Bad Times at the El Royale is such a movie, and Drew Goddard has outdone himself. From the first scene, set ten years prior to the main action, he has constructed a dizzyingly deft piece of work, stuffed with indelible characters portrayed by perfectly chosen performers, delirious twists and game-changing flashbacks, the package sealed by an accompanying frequently diegetic soundtrack, playing in as it does to the essential plot beats of the whole. If there's a better movie this year, it will be a pretty damn good one.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

What about the panties?

Sliver (1993)
(SPOILERS) It must have seemed like a no-brainer. Sharon Stone, fresh from flashing her way to one of the biggest hits of 1992, starring in a movie nourished with a screenplay from the writer of one of the biggest hits of 1992. That Sliver is one Stone’s better performing movies says more about how no one took her to their bosom rather than her ability to appeal outside of working with Paul Verhoeven. Attempting to replicate the erotic lure of Basic Instinct, but without the Dutch director’s shameless revelry and unrepentant glee (and divested of Michael Douglas’ sweaters), it flounders, a stupid movie with vague pretensions to depth made even more stupid by reshoots that changed the killer’s identity and exposed the cluelessness of the studio behind it.

Philip Noyce isn’t a stupid filmmaker, of course. He’s a more-than-competent journeyman when it comes to Hollywood blockbuster fare (Clear and Present Danger, Salt) also adept at “smart” smaller pictures (Rabbit Proof Fence