Ad Astra (2019)

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Most of us spend our entire lives in hiding. Sometime in the future. Following a mysterious global power surge, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a cool guy with a blissfully low pulse rate, travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his father, heroic scientist Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who’s been missing for 29 years following the disappearance of the Lima Project.  Now apparently there are signs that he’s alive, out on Neptune. The purpose of the trip is to unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of humans on Earth and to uncover whether Clifford is somehow responsible for the weird imbalances that are killing tens of thousands back on Earth. Roy travels to the Moon in the company of Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) and they are set upon by violent assailants in a buggy chase across craters that endangers them both and kills a crew member. He suspects from his psychiatric evaluations that he’s being used as a stooge and hears from a woman called Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) whose parents travelled with Clifford all those years ago that his father probably murdered them and others in the team. He determines to carry on with the trip to Neptune to locate his father and has to deceive Space Comm in order to do so … I don’t know whether to find him or to finally be free of him. What are the chances of Brad Pitt giving his finest two performances in back to back films? If the first, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, ponders the very contemporary question of whether movie stars serve a function in the new cinematic universe, this film, the second, is the proof that they do. And how. To the stars is a wonderfully ironic title in these circumstances. And what about the usually moribund director James Gray finally breaking out of the chains of realism (with his excursion to the jungle in The Lost City of Z he came close to greatness) and unsympathetic characters by shooting out of the earth’s atmosphere to infinity and beyond? It has set him free as a filmmaker. This has a lyricism and a beauty arising from the script by Gray and Ethan Gross, yet the resolutely familiar shooting style (by Hoyte van Hoytema and Caleb Deschanel (credited with ‘additional photography’) maintains a sober palette that permits the performances and the intrinsic ideas to shine, rather like when Godard did sci fi in Alphaville. We know this world.  We even believe that the Moon (‘the Earth’s Moon’, as one character puts it) could look like a shopping mall once humans colonise it. The brief sequence between Pitt and Lee Jones has more humanity in it than the entirety of the auteur’s preceding body of work: Roy’s lack of emotionality turns into something else when the reality of his father’s existence hits him. We’re all we’ve got. In between we have a fabulously Freudian take on fathers and sons and space with some mileage gained from the diadic homonym son/sun and the movie’s existential philosophising pondering the father’s quest for alien intelligence; while the son’s ruminations take a decidedly more paternalistic twist despite his own lack of family, visions of an ignored wife Eve (Liv Tyler) chiefly accessible through old videophone messages notwithstanding. There are cute and clever references to other films but so intelligently do they unfold you won’t remotely care. It’s tremendous. It’s just what the cinema needs: a thrilling exploration of metaphor that oozes humanity, awe, wonder and acceptance as space becomes the past and the future, all at once. In the end the son suffers the sins of the father

 

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Welcome to Marwen (2018)

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Sorry, I don’t speak Nazi. No one expects Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) to recover from a devastating assault by Neo-Nazis that has wiped away all of his memories. In his free time from the diner where he works he creates art installations using photographs of dolls enacting a story. Putting together pieces from the past and present, Mark meticulously creates a Belgian town called Marwen and becomes Captain Hogie, a heroic World War II fighter pilot. His installation soon comes to life with breathtakingly realistic dolls – a testament to the most powerful women he knows including Nicol (Leslie Mann) the woman who moved in across the street to get away from abusive ex Kurt (Neil Jackson) who becomes his fantasy nemesis, Major Meyer. Through this fantasy world, which becomes a kind of therapy, Hogancamp finds the strength to face his attackers who are due to be sentenced …   Like the wise man said, “Our pain is our rocket fuel.” It reminds us of our strength. Written by Caroline Thompson and director Robert Zemeckis, this man-child fantasy drama treads schmaltzy territory to rather indifferent effect despite its roots in the attack perpetrated on the real-life subject and Catskills resident in 2000 who admitted to his penchant for wearing women’s shoes and was almost killed by his assailants. The strength he obtains here derives not just from the fantasy but from his real-world friendships with the women who surround him (played by Janelle Monae, Merritt Weaver, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Stefanie von Pfetten, Leslie Zemeckis and Diane Kruger). Part of its lax storytelling arises from the lack of engagement with the five violent hoodlums who brutally assaulted Mark in the first place and how he has displaced his fears onto this animated iteration making his Neo-Nazis into the ‘real’ thing seventy years earlier enacting retribution in his own back garden. Perhaps less fantasy and more reality could have balanced this difficult narrative ploy. A flawed but interesting work about healing from devastation, high heels intact. I was beaten up because I was different, so I’ve built a place where I can heal

Horrible Histories: Rotten Romans (2019)

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I’m sending you to Britain./Where’s that?/Exactly. It’s 60AD. Brainy Roman teenager Atti (Sebastian Croft) is always coming up with schemes, but one of these upsets Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts), who is constantly at odds with his mother Agrippina the Younger (Kim Cattrall) for control of the Empire. For his punishment, Atti is sent to the stain of the Empire known as Britain where it’s always cold and wet and he is captured by kick-ass young Celt Orla (Emilia Jones) but they eventually come to an understanding.  She is feeling her way towards warriordom much to the frustration of her father Arghus (Nick Frost) and is encouraged by the rise of Queen Boudicca (Kate Nash) who is quickly raising an army to fight the Romans being led by Governor Suetonius Paulinus (Rupert Graves). Atti helps Orla rescue her grandmother from a rival Celtic tribe. They’re always squabbling among themselves, these Celts. To Atti’s horror, when he is back with his regiment, he finds himself pitted against Orla and her tribe at the Battle of Watling Street a bottleneck which inadvertently gives the Romans an advantage because he told them about it and it provides the setting for a mammoth showdown between the natives and their invaders … I am Fartacus!  Adapted from Terry Deary’s books and TV series, this is a funny, quick-witted, mostly innuendo-free Carry On for kids, an inventive and occasionally anachronistic take on the Roman invasion – with songs! Hilarious sequences, lots of broad and actual toilet humour, family values (good and bad) and some very contemporary touches to hit home. Familiar faces abound with Derek Jacobi’s appearance as Claudius making a lot of adults smile. Written by Caroline Norris & Giles Pilbrow with additional material by Kevin Cecil, Andy Riley, Dave Cohen and Jessica Swale. Directed by Dominic Brigstocke. We’ll put an end to bad Romans and make them all go gaga! MM#2450

In Fabric (2018)

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You who wear this dress will know me.  Lonely divorcee Shelia  Woodchapel (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) visits a bewitching London department store boasting a strange saleswoman Jill (Sidse Babett Knudsen) to find a dress to transform her life. She finds a perfect, artery-red gown that unleashes a malevolent, unstoppable curse that gives her a rash, destroys her washing machine and eventually kills her. Then it’s bought in a charity shop by a bunch of lads who force washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) to wear it on his stag do. His fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires) likes the look of it for herself and the dress continues to wreak havoc … What I’d give to know what goes on in a man’s mind. Ever been in a shop where you thought there was a very weird atmosphere and the staff were obnoxious (Armani on the Via Condotti, if you must know) and were persuaded to buy something by sheer sales power and a particularly attractive retro catalogue circa 1974 that made you look smaller? That’s the territory explored here in a spliced-genre effort that blends Ballardian dystopic suburban ‘mares with freakoid Eastern European women out of Argento land who have got something much more sinister going on than those white stockings that lead to something unspeakable.  The doors you passed through are doors in perpetual revolve is just one of the doomy ungrammatical clichés uttered by the ghastly blood-lusting Jill with her Transylvanian shtick. With a soundtrack by the Cavern of Anti-Matter (Tim Gane), musician Barry Adamson as Sheila’s decent boyfriend and Gwendoline Christie as the shagtastic muse of Sheila’s teenage son (that’s one way to swot for your A Levels), auteur Peter Strickland is in even firmer cult territory than before:  sex and shopping abound in this satire on consumerism, with a most peculiar mutual masturbation scene which involves a mannequin and there’s some deliriously banal repairman speak that gives Julian Barratt an orgasm. Even more bananas fetishism than usual from one of the most fascinating of British auteurs with not so much a twist, rather a twisted, ending. As ever, Strickland reveals the utterly weird and disturbing in the mundane. Executive produced by Ben Wheatley.  One of your neighbours reported you

The Front Runner (2018)

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Now they know who we are.  It’s 1987. Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) former senator of Colorado and one-time campaign manager for McGovern, becomes the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hart’s intelligence, alleged charisma and idealism make him popular with young voters, leaving a seemingly clear path to the White House with a strong team led by Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons). All that comes crashing down when allegations of an extramarital affair with a woman called Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) surface in the media after he’s goaded journalists to follow him in an interview with Washington Post reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), forcing the candidate to address a scandal that threatens to derail his campaign and personal life: his guarded wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) has stood by him but when the TV cameras fetch up at their house and their daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) is followed there’s some hard talking in public and in private ... I did all the things I was supposed to do to make that men wouldn’t look at me the way you’re looking at me right now. It was a great story and it ran for three weeks way back then. The good looking Democrat with great hair taunted journos to come looking for trouble and they did and they found it and the philandering politico was found on a boat called Monkey Business with a young woman who was then hung out to dry by the very people who said they’d protect her. Sound familiar? The coarsening of politics began right there, in the pages of the tabloids who found the idea of a Presidential contender openly carrying on an adulterous affair irresistible:  these are the kind of guys who sniggered about JFK’s women and let him away with everything – until he was murdered and it was open season on his legacy. Jason Reitman’s film is a serious look at an issue that has just got worse over the years (with rather paradoxical outcomes, considering the state of state surveillance and paparazzi and the interweb as we know) but it’s loud and busy for the first 45 minutes and hard to hear and hard to follow.  Only then does it settle, away from the hubbub of campaign offices and the rustle of burger lunches to focus on the man at the centre of the story who disproves his team’s views about what he should be doing – turns out he’s darn good at ax throwing. Trouble is, he’s not that interesting. Why on earth would he be a good President? He could win it – he’s got the hair. The superficial elements of campaigning are all over this (one advisor suggests that if Dukakis added a K to his name he’d take the South). The philosophical argument here which Hart is given in dialogue is that the public don’t care and he should have his privacy – and the public wouldn’t care if the journalists didn’t and Hart had never thrown down the gauntlet to them. That’s the point. So the story isn’t about a man carrying on behind the back of his wife or how Democrats are always found out in the same tedious way, it’s about grubby low journalistic standards and the free press and the dangers that poses to true political expression:  this in itself is a very conflicted narrative stance (not to Vladimir Putin, of course). Jackman does a very low-key characteristation and that compounds the narrative problems. He is a charm vacuum. We are left asking at the end of this, as Walter Mondale asked Hart (and the clip is included), Where’s the beef? Adapted from Matt Bai’s book All the Truth is Out:  The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Bai, (former Hilary Clinton press secretary) Jay Carson and Reitman, who has left his satirical knives in the drawer on this occasion. Pity.

Chasing Bullitt (2019)

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Without my career there’s nothing else. Movie star Steve McQueen (Andre Brooks) is at a crossroads in his career after he’s had his pet project European racing film Le Mans taken from him by the studio. He owes money, his marriage is in trouble, he doesn’t know if he will hit big with the public again. He appeals to Freddie (Dennis W. Hall) his agent to help him locate the iconic Ford Mustang GT 390 he drove in Bullitt after the studio gifted him with a fake and goes on a road trip where he reflects on his life and the mistakes and relationships that have led him to this point … You’re a movie star. Surely that comes with its own set of burdens. It’s not just a road trip. It never is. It’s a psychological journey. And in the case of McQueen that means traversing the rocky road of his marriage to Neile (Augie), an encounter with Batista (Anthony Dilio) in Cuba back in 1956 and in sessions with his therapist (Ed Zajac) ponders his good fortune at not being slaughtered on Cielo Drive August 8, 1969. (And in this cultural echo chamber of movies we of course think of Damian Lewis’ McQueen unrequited longing for Sharon Tate in Tarantino’s recent Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood). Brooks has occasionally eerie moments embodying the star such is their resemblance, his chats with hitch hiker Sula (Alysha Young) clearly designed to trigger emotional insights; there’s a very amusing exchange with Dustin Hoffman (Jason Slavkin) about the prospects of working together on Papillon; and it all concludes with a final ironic gesture regarding the car he wants to find so badly. It’s not a perfect biopic but it’s better structured than most with an incredible look courtesy of cinematographer Daniel Stilling that harks back to precisely the era it’s set – 1971. It’s a mood piece about a yearning for control. And it’s about the filmmaker’s own nostalgia. I know just how he feels. Is it the truth? Hardly. It takes dramatic licence and still skims the surface. But I’ll take McQueen however I can get him. Written and directed by Joe Eddy. They took the film away from me

Deadline USA (1952)

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A journalist makes himself the hero of the story. A reporter is only a witness. New York City newspaper The Day is in money trouble. Even though editor Ed Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart) has worked hard running the paper, its circulation has been steadily declining. Now the widow (Ethel Barrymore) of the paper’s publisher wants to sell the paper to a commercial rival, which will most likely mean its end. Hutcheson also worries that his estranged ex-wife Nora (Kim Hunter) is about to remarry. His only hope of saving the paper is to increase the numbers by finishing his exposé on a dangerous racketeer Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel) before the sale is made final after a reporter is badly beaten up investigating the murder of a girl called Bessie Schmidt who may have been Rienzi’s mistress while her brother Herman (Joe De Santis) had dealings with him... Stupidity isn’t hereditary, you acquire it by yourself. Twentieth Century-Fox and writer/director Richard Brooks were a good fit:  a studio that liked pacy stories paired with a filmmaker whose toughness had a literary quality and a fast-moving narrative style.  Both parties wanted message movies and the message here is A free press, like a free life, sir, is always in danger. The newspaper is broadly based on New York Sun which closed in 1950 (and it was edited by Benjamin Day) although according to Brooks’ biography it was more or less based on New York World which closed in 1931. The casting is great with Bogart excellent as the relentlessly crusading editor who acts on his principles while all about him tumble to influence and threats, trying to peddle the truth rather than the expeditious. Barrymore towers in her supporting role as the publisher and their conflict with her daughters is the ballast to the crime story, with the marital scenario giving it emotional heft. Jim Backus does some nice work as reporter Jim Cleary:  For this a fellow could catch a hole in the head. A cool piece of work, in every sense of the term. Watch for an uncredited James Dean as a copyboy in a busy montage. That’s the press, baby. The press! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

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Everything you ever hoped for, everything you ever dreamed of being a part of, is a fabrication. Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a disenchanted 33-year-old who discovers a mysterious woman, Sarah (Riley Keough) frolicking in his apartment’s swimming pool.  He befriends her little bichon frisé dog Coca Cola. She has a drink with him and they watch How to Marry a Millionaire in the apartment she shares with two other women.  Her disappearance coincides with that of billionaire Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann) whose body is eventually found with Sarah’s. Sam embarks on a surreal quest across Los Angeles to decode the secret behind her disappearance, leading him into the murkiest depths of mystery, scandal, and conspiracy as he descends to a labyrinth beneath the City of Angels while engaging with Comic Fan (Patrick Fischler) author of Under the Silver Lake a comic book about urban legends who he believes knows what’s behind a series of dog killings and other conspiracy theories who himself is murdered …Something really big is going on. I know it. Written, produced and directed by David Robert Mitchell who made the modern horror masterpiece It Follows, this is another metatext in which strange portents and signs abound. Revelling in Hollywoodiana – Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Gaynor – and noir and death and the afterlife and the songs that dominate your life and who may or may not have written them, this seems to be an exploration of the obsessions of Gen X. It’s an interesting film to have come out in the same year as Tarantino’s Hollywood mythic valentine Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and it covers some of the same tropes that have decorated that auteur’s past narratives with a postmodern approach that is summed up in one line: An entire generation of men obsessed with codes and video games and space aliens. The messages in the fetishised songs and cereal box toys and movies are all pointing to a massive conspiracy in communication diverting people from their own meaninglessness, symbolised in the disappearance of the billionaire which has to do with a different idea of the afterlife available only to the very rich. Sam’s quest (and it is a quest – he’s literally led by an Arthurian type of homeless guy – David Yow from the band The Jesus Lizard – straight out of The Fisher King) is a choose your own adventure affair where he gets led down some blind alleys including prostitution and chess games and even gets sprayed by a skunk which lends his character a very special aroma. The postmodern approach even extends to the sex he has – with Millicent Sevence’s (Callie Hernandez) death being a grotesque parody of the magazine cover that initiated him to masturbation. Sigh. Garfield holds the unfolding cartography together but that’s what actors do – they fill in the missing scenes:  it may not be everyone’s idea of fun to watch Spider Man having graphic sex scenes and doing things to himself but the audience is also being played.  If the objects are diffuse and the message too broad, well, you can make of it what you will. It means whatever you want it to mean (it’s not about burial, it’s about ascension), a spectral fever dream that at the end of the day is a highly sexual story about a guy who wants to make it with the woman across the court yard in his apartment building, no matter how many secret messages or subliminal warnings are in your breakfast or how many Monroe scenes are re-enacted, filmed, photographed or otherwise stored in the minutiae of our obsessive compulsive Nineties brains. So what do you think it all means?

 

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

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I have an eye for new and refreshing talent. In 1977 world-famous pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) takes much-younger animal trainer Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) as a lover, but the relationship deteriorates when Liberace gets Scott cosmetic surgery to remake him as his younger self and eventually takes other bedmates and a disillusioned Thorson becomes addicted to drugs… What a story. It’s got everything but a fire at the orphanage. This premiered on HBO which disqualified it from all the awards it was surely due. Adapted from Scott Thorson’s memoir Behind the Candelabra:  My Life with Liberace, this is a corrosively funny account of the mega-famous flamboyant bachelor pianist’s last ten years, four of which he spent with the younger bisexual who would of course betray him in a palimony lawsuit. Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay hits all the right notes and boy does Douglas totally get the tone. Damon is no less good, sparking life into a rather passive role – this really is all about performance, on and offstage and screen. Rob Lowe as the wonderfully enhanced plastic surgeon is a role for the ages and he relishes the part:  he’s totally hilarious.  And it could only be Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. The whole shebang is over the top, crazy, deadly serious and more or less true. The film is dedicated to composer Marvin Hamlisch who died a year before it was released. Directed by Steven Soderbergh with admirable verve.  I love you not only for what you are, But for what I am when I’m with you 

Death Goes to School (1953)

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The children must always come first. The body of Miss Cooper a teacher is discovered by a pupil behind the sports ground at Abbotsham all-girls school with another teacher’s scarf cinched around her throat. Scotland Yard dispatches detective Campbell (Gordon Jackson) to lead the investigation along with his assistant Sergeant Harvey (Sam Kydd). Campbell interviews the teachers and pupils, but encounters one major issue: Everybody hated this teacher. This makes narrowing down the suspects rather difficult. But music teacher Miss Shepherd (Barbara Murray) has a very strong suspicion that the killer is a member of the staff and carries out her own investigation in parallel, bringing her to the home of the dead woman’s brother-in-law Mr Lawley (Robert Long) … You’re not like a woman at all. You have a mind like a man. This minor British murder mystery is lent an air of Gothic tension by the protagonist’s voiceover narration, a handsome dark-haired love interest and the use of fetish objects (scarves, shoes, matchbooks). But it’s hardly Shadow of a Doubt. Instead it’s a story of woman crushes, jealousy, suspicion and decidedly unsportsmanlike murder. The mini-drama comes from the grudging admiration between Jackson and Murray, who attributes the Scotsman’s language issues to his not being English. She’s a really good amateur sleuth and the clash is nicely done. She’s always streets ahead, of course. The girls’ school setting with its seething resentments in the staff room (where everyone calls each other Miss) is well established. A fine little suspenser with good performances and great hairdos, shot at Merton Park. Adapted by Maisie Sharman (aka Stratford Davis) from her novel Death in Seven Hours (Miss Shepherd’s alibi!) with director Stephen Clarkson.