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…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

I can't explain now, but I've just been murdered.

The Avengers
5.21: You Have Just Been Murdered
Slender in concept – if you're holding out for a second act twist, you'll be sorely disappointed – You Have Just Been Murdered nevertheless sustains itself far past the point one might expect thanks to shock value that doesn't wear out through repetition, a suitably sinister performance from Simon Oates (Steed in the 1971 stage adaptation of the show) and a cartoonish one from George Murcell (1.3: Square Root of Evil) as Needle, of the sort you might expect Matt Berry to spoof.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

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.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…