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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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

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.

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?

 

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.

Holmes & Watson (2018)

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He and I co-detectives? Not I. Not here. Not even in my rapturous moments of private fantasy! Renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) join forces to investigate a mysterious murder threat upon Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) at Buckingham Palace. It seems like an open-and-shut case as all signs point to Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), the criminal mastermind and longtime nemesis of the crime-solving duo. Both men are diverted by American women – Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her companion Millicent (Lauren Lapkus) whom she insists is her electric shock treatment subject, a woman reared by feral cats. When new twists and clues begin to emerge, the sleuth and his assistant must use their legendary wits and ingenious methods to catch the killer who may have been hiding in plain sight very close to home I have the oddest feeling. Like knowing, but the opposite. Blending the steampunk approach of the Robert Downey films and the flash-forward visual detection of Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV Sherlock, this also has anachronistic shtick (Titanic in the life of Queen Vic, anyone?) and a cheeky reference to one of the more arcane Holmes incarnations in the casting of Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – TV’s House, geddit?! (That’s a scene that doesn’t work, sadly). Some of the best sequences and laughs are with Hall and Lapkus, between the misogyny and the bits about nineteenth century medical treatments, with some genuinely amusing romantic farce and bromantic jokes.  This is beautifully shot by Oliver Wood, exquisitely designed by James Hambidge and costumed by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Naturally it’s only a matter of time until someone says No shit Sherlock and it’s from the mouths of Dickensian runts straight out of Oliver!  There’s a funny passing song that occasions a joke about musicals when the film finally lets rip à la The Muppets giving it more promise than it delivers and there are some highly contemporary visual and political references. So there’s wit and invention aplenty but it’s not quite clever enough all the time. Rather like Holmes. Minus the innuendo and lewdness this could have been a marvellous comic outing for children, agreeably silly with some easy but amusing targets but you know, these guys, they just can’t help themselves, with Ferrell doing too much of what he likes as the ultimate defective detective and Reilly as his hapless foil, a Johnson in more ways than one (until the roles get switched, which happens constantly and is confusing). The ladies are fantastic and Fiennes brings that immaculate class as is his wont and manages to be the only one who doesn’t actually twirl that comedy moustache; while Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald and Steve Coogan (as a one-armed tattooist) get their moments of infamy. Written and directed by Etan Coen. No, not that Coen, obvs. Terrible and clueless but not totally awful. Go figure.  A sniff of morning cocaine always helps the brain

The Vanishing (2018)

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Aka Keepers. In 1900, three lighthouse keepers, James (Gerard Butler), Thomas (Peter Mullan) and the newcomer Donald (Connor Swindells) depart for their six-week long sojourn at the remote Flannan Isles lighthouse. After a storm, they find a boat with an apparently dead man who’s been flung out of it. But when Donald tries to winch up a heavy trunk that’s fallen out, the man rises out of the water and tries to kill the youngster – before he defends himself. Thomas is the first one to open the trunk and finds it filled with gold ingots. Then the dead man’s friends Locke (Søren Malling) and Boor (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) turn up … Written by Joe Bone and Celyn Jones, and adapted from a true-ish story of the disappearance of three men from Eilean Mor Lighthouse, this admirably dour outing has a surprisingly effective psychological mechanism, one that was used to similar effect by John Huston decades earlier in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, itself a masterpiece of greed, guilt and amoral behaviour. It has that and old-school brutal violence going for it in a narrative stripped to the bone. The landscape may be different but the murderousness is of a highly vicious quality. Shot around the Mull of Galloway, Port Logan harbour, Killantringan Lighthouse near Portpatrick and Corsewall Lighthouse  near Stranraer.  Directed by Kristoffer Nyholm.

Attack of the Puppet People (1958)

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Aka The Fantastic Puppet People/War of the Puppet People/Six Inches Tall/ I Was a Teenage Doll. Living in the moment is the most important thing. Inexperienced secretary Sally Reynolds (June Kenney) is grateful to her seemingly kind new boss, eccentric expert doll maker, Mr. Franz (John Hoyt), when he introduces her to a dapper young St Louis salesman Bob (John Agar). Little does she know that Franz is really a mad scientist who fights off loneliness with a machine that shrinks people to one sixth of their size forcing them to serve as his living dolls. But when he shrinks Bob after her predecessor Janet (Jean Moorehead) has disappeared, Sally then becomes his victim and she and Bob refuse to be his playthings, eventually escaping into a dangerous world that towers over them... Nobody can hear little people like us! The Amazing Colossal Man is playing at the drive-in and there’s something so eerie about Mr Franz’s amazing lifelike dolls it would drive a girl crazy with suspicion. George Worthing Yates developed producer/director Bert I. Gordon’s story into a fully fleshed screenplay, inspired by The Incredible Shrinking Man, no concept being beyond the ken of AIP in those exploitation-hungry days. The aforementioned Colossal was Gordon’s own work, hence the generous clip. Kenney (Teen-Age Doll) is terrific as ever as the innocent but the film is best when Hoyt rationally explains his daft plans; and when Sally and Ben are introduced to their fellow captives – US marine Mac (Scott Peters), teenager Stan (Scott Miller), aspiring pop singer Laurie (Marlene Willis) and a broad called Georgia Lane (Laurie Queen of Outer Space Mitchell), who bathes in a pot of instant coffee granules. From the misleading title to the paucity of effects, this is cheap as chips but deadly serious. This guy takes friendship seriously so he does old puppetmaster (Michael Mack) from the old country a favour that leads to the gang’s escape attempt during a very unnerving theatrical debut. That’s the director’s daughter Susan as the irritating little girl who gives the game away to LAPD Sergeant Patterson (Jack Kosslyn). Don’t leave me! I’ll be alone

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

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Alright, yeah, I think it’s some kind of pervert hotel. It’s 1969. The El Royale is a run-down hotel that sits on Lake Tahoe on the border between California and Nevada. It soon becomes a seedy battleground when seven strangers – cleric Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Ervio), a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), the Summerspring sisters, Emily (Dakota Johnson) and Rose (Cailee Spaeny), the sole staff member on site, manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) and the mysterious Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) – all converge on the hotel one fateful night for one last shot at redemption before everything goes wrong… I can’t do it. I can’t kill no more people. Doesn’t your heart go out to actors nowadays? Either they starve themselves on chicken breasts and broccoli to appear as ludicrous superheroes looking deranged from hanger and bodybuilding steroids on the subsequent publicity tour, or they wind up in something like this (or in Hemsworth’s case, both), a kind of Tarantinoesque closed-room Agatha Christie mystery trading on well-worn tropes. It’s really not right, is it? Seven strangers. Seven secrets. All roads lead here. However this pastiche is cleverly staged (with an actual state border running through the building), impeccably designed (by Martin Whist) and shot (by Seamus McGarvey) and well performed outside that narrow generic style that such material demands.  It’s overlong but florid and rather fruity with nods to Hitchcock and Lynch and the big reveal is worth waiting for. Written, produced and directed by Drew Goddard. Well, it looks like the Lord hasn’t forsaken you yet

Circle of Danger (1951)

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It doesn’t do to go around sobbing and putting up monuments. American World War 2 veteran Clay Douglas (Ray Milland) arrives in London to find out how his little brother was the only casualty in a British commando operation in occupied France. He follows the trail to Scotland where he meets platoon officer Hamish McArran (Hugh Sinclair) who informs him that most of the men are now dead and he provides him with information to contact the few survivors. Clay encounters children’s novelist Elspeth Graham (Patricia Roc) who meets him again back in London where he starts to track down the remaining commandos and uncover what really happened while the pair begin a very uneasy romance …  If I were you I’d spank the little bastard – hard. Shot by the great British cinematographers Oswald Morris and Gilbert Taylor, this is a handsome production adapted by Philip MacDonald from his own novel. What it lacks in thrills it makes up for in a deceptive charm and there’s a good twist. Along the way we have a cold/hot/cold romance with Roc, whose motives remain a little clouded. Nonetheless it’s an interesting insight into necessary deaths in wartime, with the guy Peter Bogdanovich once called the roadshow Cary Grant acquitting himself well in the lead, working with director Jacques Tourneur to turn a vengeful character into a more understanding one. It doesn’t stand with Tourneur’s best work but there are nice supporting performances by Marius Goring, Naunton Wayne and Dora Bryan.  I think Hank was murdered by one of the other commandos in that raid