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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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

There Was a Little Boy (1993) (TVM)

There Was a Little Boy

Hey! She doesn’t want me! Fifteen years after their baby boy was stolen from their apartment, English teacher Julie (Cybill Shepherd) is expecting her second child with wealthy husband Gregg (John Heard). He has never given up on finding Robbie, she accepts his guilt despite it happening on her watch while she was taking a bath. She is teaching in a downtown high school and finds herself forced to deal with a difficult transfer student Jesse (Scott Bairstow) who appears functionally illiterate but is actually gifted and they form an uneasy connection. His own mother Esperanza (Elaine Kagan) is on welfare and ill with a lung condition and they get by with his thieving from the store. When Julie tries to sell off  Robbie’s baby cot, Gregg objects and finds in the base a necklace with a religious medal attached which doesn’t belong to either of them and which they trace to a local Catholic priest who is now gaga and cannot positively identify the owner. However Jesse’s own actions lead Julie in the right direction to find her long-lost son …  I am your worst nightmare:  a politically incorrect teacher who dares to flunk your ass. Adapted by Wesley Bishop from the novel by Claire R. Jacobs, this operates somewhere between Teacher in the Hood and Maternal Melo, The action scenes are well handled, the irony of Jesse’s identity well flagged (it’s not really the point), the trade-off in guilt between husband and wife completely believable, the acting good, and it’s directed by the admirable Mimi Leder who of course proceeded to make those terrific actioners Deep Impact and The Peacemaker before the wheels came off her cinema career for a long time after Pay It Forward. She returned to the fray late last year with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex. Hurray for that. And if that doesn’t suffice, how about all those early 90s chintzy couches. I lost a son and a husband. I won’t let that happen again

The Hate U Give (2018)

The Hate U Give

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

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

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This house – it knows we’re here. Elderly millionaire Rudolf Deutsch (Roland Culver) is obsessed with the afterlife and hires sceptical scientist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) and his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) to lead a team into the infamous Belasco House, supposedly haunted by the victims of its late owner, a notorious six-foot five serial killer. Though the rational Barrett does not believe in ghosts, the other members of his group ding, including devout spiritualist Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and psychic medium Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who has been in Belasco House before and is the only survivor of a previous visit and has therefore seen what horrors can befall those who enter it...  The house tried to kill me – it almost succeeded. Fabled novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson adapted his own Hell House and transposed it from New England to the old country for financial reasons where it was directed by John Hough (who would also direct the cult Disney horror Watcher in the Woods there a half-dozen years later). This pits science and the rational against the paranormal, with fascinating excursions into the psychosexual – it ain’t too often you see a ghost having its way with a young lady. And Franklin’s presence, a dozen years after that spectacular classic of a haunting, The Innocents, is a guarantee of this film’s integrity and she rewards us with a dazzling performance. Hunnicutt is no less effective although her eroticism is literally in another kind of dimension. Frankly any film that commences with the following statement has me at hello:  Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true (Tom Corbett, Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty). The building’s negative energy has amazing repercussions for these investigators and McDowall has one of his best roles as an unlikely hero, with an unbilled cameo by one of Brit horror/exploitation’s key actors rounding things out as things end rather explosively but paradoxically, giving this a very human affect in a story of things unseen and the detritus of perversion. One of the very best horror films of the Seventies, probably inspired by Aleister Crowley. Shot at Bolney, West Sussex, Blenheim Palace and Elstree Studios. If you’re that clever why are you still a prisoner in this house?

A Bad Moms Christmas (2017)

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I can’t do this shit sober. Under-appreciated and overburdened suburban moms Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) rebel against the challenges and expectations of the biggest day of the year: Christmas. As if creating the perfect holiday for their families isn’t hard enough, they’ll have to do it while hosting and entertaining their own respective mothers (Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines and Susan Sarandon) when they come to visit early, unwanted and uninvited, thwarting all the ladies’ plans for a laidback break from all of this as they start redecorating, competing and bitching about their useless daughters …  Please God no more pussies. The ladies are back – with a vengeance. And their moms are here too, bringing a psycho(logical) dimension to the antics which are more scatological, bittersweet and episodic this time round as the mother-daughter dynamics are explored in their varying levels of possessiveness, competitiveness and sluttiness. It’s not particularly focused and falls between the three stools of the individual dramas but the cast are excellent. Instead of a PTA election we have a carolling competition; instead of a celebrity cameo from Martha Stewart we have Kenny G the godfather of soulful jazz, as Baranski intones; and Wanda Sykes makes a welcome return as the seen-it-all therapist. Other than the innuendo and the work-related seasonal sexploitation (courtesy of the very picturesque Justin Hartley), it’s fairly anodyne entertainment but a spinoff with the Bad Grandmas seems likely courtesy of some very shrewd casting.  Written and directed again by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. You shouldn’t have to see your mom kiss your boyfriend’s nipples

 

 

From Jon Lucas and Scott Moore.

Dementia 13 (1963)

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Aka The Haunted and the HuntedI think you should spend more time with your wife to be. After John Haloran (Peter Read) dies suddenly, his wife Louise (Luana Anders) fears she will be denied his inheritance and conceals the death. She travels from the US to join the rest of the Haloran family at their Irish estate, Castle Haloran, as they hold a memorial for John’s young sister, who died in a lake eight years ago. Her brothers-in-law Billy (Bart Patton) and Richard (William Campbell) perform a strange ritual. Louise schemes to convince her mother-in-law Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne) that she can speak with the dead child. However, this plan is interrupted by an axe murderer on the loose and family members start dying off, one by one.  Local medic Dr Justin Caleb (Patrick Magee) attempts to solve the mystery  It’s a true sign of the late, great lord y’are. A neat little slasher made by producer Roger Corman with funds left over from The Young Racers (and three of the stars, Campbell, Anders and Magee), this is Francis Ford Coppola’s proper debut following two nudie pics. It’s nicely shot on location in Ireland (at Ardmore Studios, Howth Castle and Dublin Airport) by Charles Hannawalt.  It’s an effective little slasher flick made in the mould of Psycho, with some new sequences shot by Jack Hill when Coppola’s original didn’t fit Corman’s exacting requirements with a tacked-on prologue done by Monte Hellman. It’s a good role for the underrated Anders, one of my favourite actresses of that era and there’s oodles of atmosphere with the murderer appearing out of the dark in the many murder sequences, making superb use of the picturesque setting. Who could have guessed that the director of this story about family business would turn into America’s version of Luchino Visconti in less than a decade with The Godfather?! He made a wax doll to relieve his guilt

Getting Straight (1970)

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A man who can’t believe in a cause can never believe in himself.  Graduate student Harry Bailey (Elliott Gould) was once one of the most visible undergraduate activists on campus, but now that he’s back studying for his master’s for a teaching qualification after a bruising experience with the real world while serving in Vietnam he’s trying to fly right. Trouble is, the campus is exploding with various student movements, and girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen), is caught up in most of them yet betrays her deeply traditional desire to be a suburban wife. As Harry gets closer to finishing his degree, he finds his iconoclastic attitude increasingly aligned with the students rather than the faculty and believes he can be a great high school teacher dedicated to finding the next Salinger, but what of the majority of kids he’ll teach? His beliefs are challenged by his professors and he gets in deep trouble when his draft-dodging friend Nick (Robert F. Lyons) sits one of his exams Good scientist. Lousy lay. The genial performance of Gould (sporting a moustache fit for Groucho Marx) is one of the reasons that this campus revolution movie survives slightly better reputationally than the other ones released that year, The Strawberry Statement and RPM (and supporting actress Jeannie Berlin is also in the latter). It’s also because it’s fair – a smart and savvy takedown of the student politics that always remain within the safe space of the campus and not the real world of Vietnam where Harry realised that reality bites the big one. The marines want guys who are crazy about killing, they don’t want guys who are just crazy, he deadpans when Nick shows signs of insanity – the Army rejects this doofus so he volunteers for their soul brothers and becomes a gung-ho fighter. It’s also about the vocation of teaching and how to communicate effectively and kindly to the majority, as Harry must be reminded when he expresses a desire to uncover and tutor only the gifted. Both Jeff Corey and Cecil Kellaway are a steadfast presence on faculty, proving that not all the Establishment is a washout.  The goose-cooking is complete in a viva where Harry finds himself confronted by a professor determined to make him believe The Great Gatsby is the work of a closet homosexual and Harry just gets mad as hell and can’t take it any more. A sharply observed portrait of a time and place teasing out the contradictory sexual and political strands of the period’s self-justifying rationale that is oddly resonant in today’s self-satisfied sociocultural echo chamber. Bergen is a great romantic other half, a fresh-faced and naively optimistic girl who would really like the happy suburban life away from all of this, yet she still gets stuck into protests. Harrison Ford makes a terrific impression in a well written supporting role. Adapted by Robert Kaufman from the novel by Ken Kolb and sympathetically directed by Richard Rush, lensed by his favourite DoP, László Kovács (Hell’s Angels on Wheels, Psych-Out, The Savage 7, Freebie and the Bean). It’s always just great with you

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?

Just Go With It (2011)

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I’m just happy to hear that his thing-a-ding can still ring-a-ding. In 1988 with his heart recently broken and left at the altar, medical student Danny Maccabee (Adam Sandler) gets a nose job and switches to cosmetic surgery and pretends to be married so he can enjoy dates with no strings attached as he builds up his successful business in Beverly Hills. His assistant Katherine Murphy (Jennifer Aniston) a divorcee with a daughter Maggie (Bailee Madison) and son Michael (Griffin Gluck) listens to his escapades as they attend to his patients at the surgery. His lies work, but when he meets grade school math teacher Palmer (swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker) at a society party she is the girl of his dreams and following a romantic night at the beach she sees the wedding ring and resists involvement. Instead of coming clean, Danny enlists Katherine to pose as his soon-to-be-ex-wife. Instead of solving Danny’s problems, the lies create more trouble because she brings up the subject of her kids and they blackmail him into a trip to Hawaii where they all get to know each other under fake identities – plus Katherine’s alleged boyfriend ‘Dolph Lundgren’ who is actually Danny’s friend Eddie Simms (Nick Swardson).  When Katherine’s college rival Devlin (Nicole Kidman) shows up at their pricey hotel and the women are involved in a re-run of Who’s Best everything becomes much more complicated …  I gotta tell you, last night, with the ass grab of the coconut, a little bit of the red flag. Le cinéma d’Adam Sandler continues apace, blending soft-centred farce with familial sentiment as is his shtick, in an agreeably nutty broad update/adaptation of Cactus Flower. The big joke here is of course that Danny’s ideal woman has been right in front of him for years – and he only realises when she strips down to her bikini and he sees her as never before. Are all Sandler films set in Hawaii?! A plus for appearing in them, methinks. There are some very funny visual jokes in the cosmetic surgery department but even though this just gets sillier by the minute, it’s all about fatherhood in the age of paternal post-feminist melancholy. Think I’m joking?! Sandler is the poster boy for immature masculinity begetting the likes of Seth Rogen et al, arising in the eruption of the bromance, a genre all its own and a hyperhomosocial sphere of apparently irreconcilable differences operating within the perfect fantasy world of man-child comedy in which immaturity is countered or offset by ameliorative paternity (and inbuilt ideological uncertainty). Sandler’s own star is now somewhat on the wane – perhaps pushing him into the sphere of ageing masculinity. Danny teaches these kids stuff (how to eat, how to swim) and becomes a better guy:  why do so many American comedies have to be life lessons with soft endings? Ho, hum. Never mind that the edge is blunted by this overwhelming and inadvertent desire to be a good man, it’s broad fun and when the kids get the better of him it’s enjoyable. It’s all completely ridiculous of course and the plot is ultimately disposable but the antics are very easy to like. Aniston and Sandler have real chemistry, Decker is a sweetly agreeable presence while Madison knocks everyone else off the screen. For devotees of The Hills Heidi Montag has a small role and there’s a really good in-joke at the end. Adapted by Allan Loeb and Timothy Dowling from I.A.L. Diamond’s original adaptation of the Abe Burrows stage play which itself was adapted from a French play. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score coasts on songs by the likes of The Police. Directed by Denis Dugan aka TV’s Richie Brockleman, Private Eye. I can’t believe I let a six year-old blackmail me