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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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

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

The Hate U Give (2018)

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Reasons to live give reasons to die.  Teenager Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is constantly switching between two worlds – the poor, mostly black neighborhood of Garden Heights where she lives with her parents and brothers and the wealthy, mostly white private school Williamson Prep that she attends with her half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson). They are in an extreme minority and she has a white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa) and a white best friend, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter). The uneasy balance between these worlds is soon shattered when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil (Algee Smith) at the hands of a police officer despite his having done nothing except driving while black. Facing pressure from all sides of the community, Starr must find her own voice and decide to stand up for what’s right while her father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) fears that speaking out will bring down the wrath of local drug dealer King (Anthony Mackie) his former gang leader; and mom Lisa (Regina Hall) tries to keep everyone on the right path ... If you don’t see my blackness you don’t see me. Sadly that terrific screenwriter Audrey Wells succumbed to cancer on the eve of this film’s release, an adaptation of a Young Adult novel (by Angie Thomas) which despite some structural flaws and a somewhat aphoristic and preachy line in virtue-signalling dialogue is a triumph of performance and to a lesser extent, presentation. Stenberg is very good as the protagonist, a girl who struggles with her identity living between two communities but who cannot leave her past behind because she can’t forget that’s her family, her race, her true self. You can see in this the traces of Boyz in the Hood and the legacy of that film lies in a story twist here: a father who actually sticks with his family following a spell in jail for the drug lord but who tries to change the course of his children’s experience by quoting from the Black Power handbook while the kids relate to Tupac (hence the title, from THUG LIFE).  It’s also about hypocrisy, peer pressure, racism and (dread the term) cultural appropriation. More than anything, it’s about doing the right thing. There are some very good narrative bumps – when Starr’s policeman uncle Carlos (Common) tells her precisely what goes through a cop’s head when he is alone on a traffic stop;  when Starr shows Hailey what happens when a hairbrush is mistaken for a gun; and when Tupac’s lyrical prediction comes true. The location is not specified but it’s stunningly shot by Mihai Mâlaimare Jr and well directed by George Tillman Jr.  Violence. Brutality. It’s the same story, just a different name

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

 

Eyewitness (1956)

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Did you see her buried?  After an argument with her husband Jay (Michael Craig) about his spending habits when he brings home a TV set on hire purchase, Lucy Church (Muriel Pavlow) storms out of her house and goes to see a film at the local cinema. While coming back from making a phone call, she stumbles across the office where she witnesses the murder of the cinema manager by two criminals Wade (Donald Sinden) and his soft-minded associate Barney (Nigel Stock) who are in the process of robbing the cinema’s safe. When they pursue her, she is hit by a bus and is taken to hospital. Unable to leave the town until they know what has happened to her, the two robbers head to the hospital to observe her. Meanwhile, her husband has grown concerned and scours the town searching for her. An older woman patient’s cries for help each time she sees two men skulking in the hospital garden are ignored while Wade and Barney enter the hospital to make sure Lucy is never able to bear witness … She’s a pretty little thing. Wouldn’t mind claiming her myself.  Low on both suspense and thrills, this Sydney Box production is based on the premise that Donald Sinden is a dangerous criminal – surely an in-joke at the expense of the audience and the story. What’s of infinitely more interest is the performance of tragic starlet and socialite Lee as the sexy bleached blonde nurse Penny Marston who has (inevitably) an American airman fiancé (David Knight).  The screenplay is by Janet Green, a playwright (including the work that would provide the basis for Doris Day’s Midnight Lace) and screenwriter who had many good films on her resumé like Sapphire and Victim and John Ford’s final film, 7 Women. This is mild stuff indeed, with the opening scene of domestic dissatisfaction soon sliding into an under-dramatised crime outing, enlivened only by the constant put-downs of the eagle-eyed patients by the bitchy nursing staff while Pavlow enjoys a very long beauty sleep.  Keen viewers will enjoy appearances  by Richard Wattis as an anaesthetist and Nicholas Parsons as a surgeon. Directed by Muriel Box.

The Wrecking Crew (1968)

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Faster! You’re an awful driver! Matt Helm (Dean Martin) is assigned by his secret agency, ICE, to bring down an evil count named Contini (Guy Green) who is trying to collapse the world economy by stealing a billion dollars in gold. Helm travels to Denmark, where he is given a guide, Freya Carlson (Sharon Tate)  a beautiful but bumbling woman from a Danish tourism bureau. Two of Contini’s accomplices, the seductive Linka Karensky (Elke Sommer) and Yu-Rang (Nancy Kwan) each attempt to foil Helm’s plans. The former is killed in an ambush intended for Helm, the latter in an explosion. On each occasion, Freya’s clumsy attempts to assist Matt are helpful, but not particularly appreciated…  My hat’s not broken! Dean Martin returns in the fourth (and final big-screen) outing for Donald Hamilton’s spy, taken out of retirement. It’s all day-glo, great locations and slapstick with Tate an utter joy as the klutz, a Stella Stevens role in the original The Silencers, with her girlfight opposite Nancy Kwan a particular highlight (and as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood acknowledges, Bruce Lee was her martial arts trainer). Dino makes out to his own songs – asking Elke when she wants her dress zipped, Which way – up or down?  – there’s a runaway train with the bullion, combat scenes galore and lots of bombs. Go-go boots ahoy for groovy girls and boys! Directed by Phil Karlson, making a welcome return to the series. Screenplay by William P. McGivern. If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her bed, you’d do better sleepin’ with your uncle Fred

The Driver (1978)

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You know I don’t like guns. The laconic and enigmatic Driver (Ryan O’Neal) excels at manoeuvering getaway vehicles through the tightest of spots following robberies, making him quite in demand in the criminal underworld. His skill and notoriety, however, infuriate the corrupt Detective (Bruce Dern), who becomes obsessed with taking the Driver down and has issues convincing his cohorts (Matt Clark and Felice Orlandi) on the best way to entrap him. He decides to use Teeth (Joseph Walsh) and his trigger-happy gang, and offers them a deal in a set up robbery. Luckily for the speed-loving anti-hero, the Player (Isabelle Adjani), a gorgeous and resourceful woman, is around to help him elude the Detective… I’ll tell you something, I’m very good at what I do. Who says American cinema doesn’t do existential? Channeling Melville (Jean-Pierre) and Camus this boils the film noir down to essentials and provides a sustained picture of Los Angeles at night often challenged, rarely equalled. From the country and western music played on his Craig electronic notebook (I want one) to his moniker of Cowboy, the western allusions play out with an unexpected shootout involving a man who doesn’t usually carry a gun. The irony of course is in the casting:  Dern once killed John Wayne on screen, so brings that genre baggage to this tapestry of tropes. Writer Walter Hill was making his sophomore directing outing following Hard Times and you can tell he watched a lot of Raoul Walsh movies.  The generic character names are proper archetypes that take flight in this most meticulously conceived actioner, the car chases reminding us of his work as AD on Bullitt (he wrote this for Steve McQueen). There’s astonishing camerawork and shot design by Philip H. Lathrop, who did Shadow of a Doubt and Saboteur with Hitchcock and the opening tracking shot on Touch of Evil, as well as doing a great job on Blake Edwards’ astonishing LA movie Experiment in Terror and The Pink Panther. There are other titles on his resumé, but those are impressive enough credentials for one DoP. The limpid lighting and great cutting make this muscular thriller a visually haunting experience. The scene when the Driver teaches Teeth and his gang how to really drive a Merc in an underground car park is stunning and you know, when you think about it, they’re just driving around a car park.  That’s all. But it’s how they do it that matters. There is a winning simplicity and modernity that bespeaks careful construction to achieve this finessed cinematic affect. And there’s the significance of the cars in the culture and what this is about symbolically, a western scenario unfolding in a lawless town where Dern fancies his chances as omnipotent sheriff irritated by his constantly questioning sidekicks. There’s the usual hilariously inexpressive performing by Adjani, a great supporting role for Ronee Blakley as the Connection and a very satisfying ending. This is why Walter Hill is one of the geniuses of cinema and why O’Neal was a major star, perfect for the era. He looks great, he says little and he does it with surgical exactitude. He and Dern have utterly asymmetrical acting styles and make remarkably memorable complementary foes. One of the great Seventies movies.  How do we know you’re that good?

Frontier Gal (1945)

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I don’t want to be a bride – I want to be a widow! Johnny Hart(Rod Cameron)  heads for Red Gulch, looking for the mystery man who murdered his partner. He quickly meets Lorena Dumont (Yvonne De Carlo), a beautiful saloon keeper who is loved by Blackie (Sheldon Leonard), a jealous crook who doesn’t like her interest in Johnny. After he resists her seduction by saying he has another girl back home but she misunderstands his intentions, he is forced to marry her at gunpoint – an actual shotgun wedding! She turns him over to the sheriff when she learns he’s a fugitive with a price on his head. He escapes, spends a night of passion with Lorena, then is recaptured. Six years later, Johnny returns from a long spell in prison to Red Gulch seeking revenge. He now knows it was Blackie who killed his partner. Johnny’s former girlfriend is summoned to meet him, but it turns out he fathered a child with Lorena who’s now a whipsmart five year old called Mary Ann (Beverly Sue Simmons) …… Squaw easy to get. Hard to lose. This little-known western musical comedy is a lively, flavourful hoot from start to action-packed finish, with a zesty performance by De Carlo in a role intended for Maria Montez. Cameron isn’t great as her opposite number in this Taming of the Shrew knockoff, but Andy Devine is the business as Big Ben and little Simmons is just laugh out loud great as the sharp kid Johnny suddenly loves despite not knowing about her existence for five years. An underrated gem, written by Michael Fessier and Ernest Pagano and directed by Charles Lamont, this zips along to a cracking score by Frank Skinner and some entertaining songs performed by the cast although De Carlo is voiced by Doreen Tryden in one of hers. A gun so big can make a big man like me look so small

Oklahoma Crude (1973)

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Businessmen do this to each other all the time. Headstrong lone wildcatter Lena Doyle (Faye Dunaway) accepts the assistance of her ne’er do well father Cleon (John Mills) and hired gun, oilfield drifter Noble Mason (George C. Scott), in defending her oil derrick from businessman Hellman (Jack Palance) and his associates in the Pan-Oklahoma Oil Trust in 1913 …Women are even worse; they try to be like men, but they can’t cut it. I’d like to be a member of a third sex. Producer Stanley Kramer makes a broad comedy far removed from his usual solemn and socially conscious films with a vulgar, funny screenplay by Marc Norman (which he later adapted into a novel) complete with throwaway lines on sexual politics. The leads play mostly against type and Dunaway and Scott are superb bouncing off each other. They offer fascinating, stylised performances with Dunaway doing a kind of Jane Fonda impression in her dyed ‘do. A highly enjoyable frontier outing enhanced by Henry Mancini’s score and song, Send a Little Love My Way which he co-wrote with Hal David, performed by Anne Murray. Beautifully shot by Robert Surtees.  Isn’t that just like a woman? She wants to be treated like a man… and then she cries!