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

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.