Sunshine is a son et lumière show with metaphysics. The third collaboration between director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland, unlike The Beach (tourist-brochure existentialism) and 28 Days Later (sci-fi Armageddon done cheap), exhibits a whomping joy in the medium. A style fit for purpose – a cosmic dialogue between light and dark, roar and silence, life and death – clothes a story about eight spacefolk on a mission to bomb the sun into re-ignition, travelling in a craft aptly named “Icarus II”. (Icarus I got lost seven years earlier, whereby hangs a subplot.)
Scientists believe the sun will not fade for another 5bn years. Boyle and Garland think it would be more fun to set the threat in 2057. The plot starts like Event Horizon, goes into 2001, picks up vibes from Alien. Yet the film’s look and philosophical payload are different from any of these. Even watching in a preview theatre, one spends one’s time being walloped by light – flash-floods of molten gold, tidal waves of searing silver – and cowering rapturously at the boom-channel crashes and vibrations.
It all serves a meaningful theme. How close will earthlings go to self-destruction to save the Earth? Would you throw your life into the melting pot to help create the Grail of human survival?
Few characters in Sunshine are more than photogenic sketches: the toyboy-handsome physicist (Cillian Murphy), the plucky co-pilot (Rose Byrne), the gritty psych officer (Cliff Curtis). And the dialogue is Hollywoodspeak in space: “Three out of seven, it’s a lot of short straws,” is someone’s laconic comment when three lives must be
sacrificed to conserve oxygen. But the engine remains undamaged, the bodywork mostly dazzling. You end by admiring Boyle and Garland’s powered-up determination to push through the “space” we know – that darkness where no one can hear you scream – into a space where light riots, sound cataracts, sensation spins, and each human, eyeballing the spectre of immolation, is forced into a last showdown with himself.
Cinema being cinema, the opposite can also be true. When a great filmmaker cruises in low gear, with no wish to dazzle us with speed or deafen us with high revs, it can be like poetry in motion. Slow motion.
Do we call Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki a great filmmaker? Maybe not. But a great mixture of artist, humorist, manic depressive and visionary. In Lights in the Dusk he lights another candle in the darkness of northern cinema. No other writer-director in the world, except perhaps Mike Leigh, makes miserablism so incandescent. As the life and job of a shopping-mall security guard (Janne Hyytiäinen) collapse around him by stages, two women compete to redeem him. But only a lonely man can cure his own loneliness.
From the outset, the tone and tempo are perfect. Hyytiäinen is a no-hoper captured in a series of deadpan tableaux. A barfly who cannot get the girls, a lone wolf whose needy stomach and luminous eyes can be found each night at cheap food vans, he has the world’s worst instinct for how to change his life, let alone find romance. (After 90 seconds of dour small talk in a bar he will say to a girl he has just met: “Why don’t we get married?”)
Out in the daytime world his bank manager greets his visits with: “Are you a comedian? Do you come here to cheer us up?” Later the hero goes to prison, having been framed by a bunch of crooks. The plain-featured food-van girl (Maria Heiskanen), his friend and unrequited lover, asks him on release: “What was it like?” “You couldn’t get out. They locked all the doors,” he answers.
You either love this stuff or you don’t. If you don’t, Aki Kaurismäki will understand. He withdrew the movie himself from Foreign-Language Film Oscar contention. The beauty of Lights in the Dusk is that it refuses to go into overdrive, it hugs its quaintness, smallness, forlornness. But modesty is its magnificence. The colour photography is in Kaurismäki’s peerless Sunday-painter’s palette, that glowing impasto that looks as if Chagall or Soutine had painted the frames by hand. The film is like a faux naïf miniature that keeps changing into a masterpiece whenever it is turned to the light.
In Blades of Glory Will Ferrell and Jon Heder play the Torvill and Dean, or Martin and Lewis, of figure-
skating. This is one of those back-of-the-envelope comedy ideas you wish you’d thought of yourself and sold to Paramount. Male skating partners! Odd couple on ice!
Heder is fey, golden-locked and balletic. Ferrell is a gonzo, beer-swilling jock. Rival soloists, they wouldn’t skate with each other unless hell froze over. Happily it does: metaphorically. Disgraced in a stadium brawl, they can only re-enter fame’s atmosphere by shutting down former careers and registering anew as a duo. (Don’t google this skating-laws loophole. It probably doesn’t exist.)
The ice scenes are funny. The dialogue has dapper touches. (“It’s embarrassing stalking a has-been,” a loyal fan tells Heder after his fall from grace.) And Ferrell, wearing a chestnut wig that looks as if it was not only bought but crowd-trampled in a January sale, has a farceur’s swagger. By contrast the conspiracy subplot involving a rival male-female duo is assembly-line knockabout. And it was surely craven to give Heder a belated girlfriend. But then in a Hollywood all-family Easter comedy, even characters who seem transparently gay must be saved for God, orthodoxy and potential fatherhood.
Nanni Moretti’s The Caiman clumps into town like an armoured reptile that has missed its appointment by a year. The filmmaker-comedian’s episodic satire on Sergio Berlusconi – the bits of comic agitprop are mixed into a gentler comedy about a producer (Silvio Orlando) moving from action movies into political cinema – is 12 months past its release-by date. We needed it when Italy had it, at the time of the country’s elections. But no film from the maker of Dear Diary and The Son’s Room is all bad. Moretti is tough on Berlusconi, tough on the causes of Berlusconi. Those range from Italy’s brain-damaging TV to its, and the world’s, increasing susceptibility to showmen-politicians selling snake oil in the guise of salvation.
Provoked, another truth-plucked movie, leaves truth looking like a rape victim. Indian director Jag Mundhra casts Bollywood diva Aishwarya Rai as Kuranjit Ahluwalia, a British-Indian wife who won a landmark manslaughter judgment for killing her husband after a history of cruelty. The subject is momentous. The movie is exploitative piffle.