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:  this is a Conradian truth and this might be Apocalypse Now in space. 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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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

Venom (2018)

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You know for a smart guy you really are a dumbass. TV investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is trying to take down Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the notorious and brilliant founder of the Life Foundation who is constantly announcing new supposedly life-enhancing initiatives.  Eddie opens up confidential files belonging to his district attorney fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) which causes her to lose her job and leave him. He is fired by his TV station for his impropriety. While investigating one of Drake’s experiments in symbiotes (aliens merging with humans), Eddie’s body merges with the alien Venom – leaving him with superhuman strength and power. Twisted, dark and fuelled by rage, Venom tries to control the new and dangerous abilities that Eddie finds so puzzling and yet so intoxicating but Drake sends out his team to ensnare him… Do you ever feel like your life is one monumental screwup? How bad is this? Perhaps it should have been called Contempt if that misnomer wasn’t already the title of a classic of French cinema. Dreadful acting (Hardy is no movie star, just a terrific actor prone to insane levels of idiot savant mugging way too early here, tipping us off about the high comedy to come), terrible writing, stupid plotting and lazy presumptions. It takes about forty minutes or so for this film to finally find its feet as a satirical fantasy by which time I had found myself wondering how many more superhero movies can deal with silly sloppy seconds, bizarre virtue signalling in diversity casting (this year’s Elon Musk avatar is played by a Pakistani) and dumb allusive socio-cultural commentary including a leading lady dressing like Britney circa Baby One More Time. However once Eddie is hilariously taken over by The Host I was moved to think about the magnificently bad Saoirse Ronan movie of that name; the fourth level of jihad (‘feast upon the infidel as would a parasite upon a host’) which of course is all about the Islamic takeover of the white world; and the edicts of mindfulness (proto-neo-liberal zealotry extolled by Google’s Jolly Good Fellow along with all other Big Tech surveillance monsters); and it was then that I realised that this is in fact an expertly crafted warning about all sorts of contemporary ills:  mass immigration, uncontrolled technology, globalisation, narcissism, unsupervised pharmaceutical experiments and endless superhero movies. Obviously it’s set in Northern California, the boomer and millennial nightmare running the world. It’s dark and Blade Runner-y, as if we needed reminding that Philip K. Dick was telling us all about fifty shades of surveillance for at least forty years in the last millennium. This, then, is what happens to the universe when you’re busy buying Starbucks coffee and checking your iPhone and doping yourself with anti-depressants that persuade you that totalitarianism is okay while disinhibiting your urge to protest, and scarfing medical marijuana which is the real cure for your paranoia about the internet, and, you know, there’s nothing wrong with anything, it’s your attitude to it that needs to be corrected because you’re pathological and everything Mark Zuckerberg does may not be ethical but by crikey it’s legal! Be afraid, suckers. Make the new the primary focus of your life. Jeff Pinker & Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel adapted the Marvel characters created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie and it was directed by Ruben Fleischer, responsible for an outing called Gangster Squad, a production that was so hypnotically awful I forgot what it was about while I was watching it (mission accomplished) to the point that I lost the plot and practically lost the will to live. Is it me? Even Jesus Christ himself would say, Enough. Get it over withCrucify me, guys. Instead we have expertly crafted lines like, God has abandoned us… I won’t. And the voice inside Eddie’s head that tells him, Your world is not so ugly after all.  And Anne finds that power is indeed a bit of a sneaky thrill: Oh  no! I just bit that guy’s head off!  Sheesh. Maybe this works after all, Spider-Man in reverse. Like civilisation, this is poisoned.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

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Do these animals deserve the same protection given to other species? Or should they just be left to die?  Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) rescue the remaining dinosaurs on Isla Nublar off Costa Rica following the volcanic eruption that is about to destroy the Jurassic World theme park.  They and their vet pals smuggle themselves into the transport led by mercenary Ken Wheatley  (Ted Levine) bringing everything to the Lockwood mansion where Hammond’s successor Lockwood (James Cromwell) is dying and unaware of the unfolding plot (lucky him). His granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) overhears company exec Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) with mad scientist Henry Wu ( BD Wong) and their plan to auction the dinosaurs. While Owen tracks down Blue, his lead raptor, they encounter terrifying new breeds of gigantic dinosaurs and uncover a conspiracy that threatens to disrupt the ecology of the entire planet… Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur? First time you see them, it’s like… a miracle. You read about them in books, you see the bones in museums but you don’t really… believe it. They’re like myths. And then you see… the first one aliveDerek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow return as the screenwriters working from Michael Crichton’s original characters and this is the fifth Jurassic film and the second in the proposed Jurassic World trilogy which seems to be about a kind of co-species Future Shock. Howard has lost the high heels. There’s an underwritten thread about the need for a mother and the dangers of cloning. Most of it takes place in the expanding Lockwood mansion which renders it Night of the Museum-ish. The bad guys get … eaten, quite frankly. And there’s an ending out of E.T. Thankfully Jeff Goldblum returns in a cameo as the chaos theorist, appearing before a Senate Committee. There are thrills and spills in the beginning but it’s a tale of sound and fury signifying a whole lot of nothing, bar a few nice images that Spielberg spawned 25 years ago, if you ask me. Yawn. Directed by J.A. Bayona.  How many times do you have to see the evidence? How many times must the point be made? We’re causing our own extinction.  One can but hope.

Rampage (2018)

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What are you, some kind of international man of mystery? Primatologist Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson) a man who keeps people at a distance but shares an unshakable bond with George, the extraordinarily intelligent, incredibly rare albino silverback gorilla who has been in his care since he rescued the young orphan from poachers in Africa. They joke in sign language. A rogue genetic experiment gone awry in outer space with the deadly pathogen falling into wildlife parks in California and Florida and mutate this gentle ape into a raging creature of enormous size. There are other similarly altered animals – starting with a grey wolf who takes out the soldiers sent to kill him. As these newly created alpha predators tear across North America, communicating via sonar and destroying everything in their path, Okoye teams with discredited geneticist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) to secure an antidote, fighting his way through an ever-changing battlefield to halt imminent catastrophe commencing among the skyscrapers of Chicago.  Luckily his training in Special Forces gives him the ability to confront the dangers they face but he must also save the now fearsome creature that was once his friend….. Of course – a wolf that can fly!  Or, gorilla goes ape, in this interspecies mutant/hybrid cross between King Kong and Godzilla only it’s neither as serious nor as silly as those classics. The third collaboration between Johnson and director Brad Peyton (which presumably qualifies as a kind of auteurist effort) this starts in a space station with a giant rat, an explosive scene sequence which used up a lot of the FX budget and shards of an exploded rocket with this dangerous pathogen wind up all over the shop, as you do. Hence the shonky CGI mayhem. Jeffrey Dean Morgan turns up as a good ol’ boy Other Government Agent (I always knew they existed) and after their plane is wrecked by a growing George, he and the big friendly giant (The Rock) and Harris go after the brother and sister gene manipulator team (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy) responsible for this lunatic experiment. Adapted from an Eighties video game, by Ryan Engle and Carlton Cuse & Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel, this is never quite as fun as it should be but you might just shed a tear from that rheumy worldweary eye at the fight to the death. If animals hate you they eat you. You always know where you stand

Blood of the Vampire (1958)

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Three quarters of what you hear here are the ravings of imbeciles. Anaemic Dr Callistratus (Donald Wolfit) is bringing criminally insane prisoners at his remote castle asylum into the lab to take their blood because mistaken villagers put him to death after mistaking him for a vampire.  Resuscitated through a heart transplant, he needs a regular supply of blood.  Poor Dr John Pierre (Vincent Ball) fetches up there instead of a penal colony for medical malpractice following a blood transfusion that goes wrong . We are in deepest Transylvania in the 1870s and when John’s fiancee Madeleine (Barbara Shelley) follows her beloved you can imagine the consequences … You might find it hard to stifle a giggle when you see Victor Maddern turn up as Carl the one-eyed hunch-backed enforcer in the imaginatively named village of Carlstadt but otherwise this takes itself very seriously indeed, which is how it should be.  The topic of medical experiments made a lot of people squirm in the wake of finding out what the Nazis had been up to in WW2 so this had a weird kind of topicality in genre form:  exchanging one person’s entire bloodstream for another’s? Why not? Theatrical actor-manager legend Wolfit eats up the screen as the baddie and Ball and Shelley are a very attractive couple battling the madmen and the dogs. Woof! Written by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster who had just written that studio’s first two big hits (also in colour) and directed by Henry Cass.

Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

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Gentlemen you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!  U.S. Air Force General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) goes completely insane and sends his bomber wing to destroy the U.S.S.R. He thinks that the communists are conspiring to pollute the ‘precious bodily fluids’ of the American people and takes hostage RAF Commander Mandrake (Peter Sellers) before blowing his brains out when Mandrake wants the code to stop global catastrophe. Meanwhile in the War Room President Muffley (Sellers again) tries to reason with General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and has to make an embarrassed call to the Russian premier while the Russian ambassador tries to sneak photographs on the premises and the creator of the bomb (Sellers – again) reveals it simply cannot be stopped …  Peter George’s serious book about nuclear proliferation, Red Alert, got a blackly comic workout by Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern, producing one of the great films and one that seems to get better and more relevant as the years go by. Sellers’ triple-threat roles were a condition of the financing after his work on Lolita. The spectre of him as the wheelchair-bound Führer-loving kraut by any other name mad scientist failing to control his sieg-heiling arm and utilising an accent familiar to fans of The Goon Show is not quickly forgotten, nor the image of Slim Pickens astride the nuclear bomb, rodeo-style. It’s not just Sellers’ appearances that are brilliant – Hayden is weirdly convincing when talking about depriving women of his essence due to the fluoridation of water;  and Scott’s expressivity is stunning. Apparently it was Spike Milligan’s idea to use Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again over the apocalyptic closing montage in which the nuclear deterrent has deterred absolutely nothing and blown us all to Eternity. The end of the world as we know it. A staggering tour de force.

The Mummy (2017)

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People don’t realize that London is a giant graveland. A modern city built on centuries of death. Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a soldier of fortune who plunders ancient sites for timeless artifacts and sells them to the highest bidder. When Nick and his partner Chris (Jake Johnson) come under attack in the Middle East, the ensuing battle accidentally unearths Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) a betrayed Egyptian princess who was entombed under the desert for thousands of years. As her powers constantly evolve Morton has tostop the resurrected monster as she embarks on a furious rampage through the streets of London …  Hell hath no fury like an ancient princess scorned! This remake of the old Universe horror movie owes little to its origins (more’s the pity) and much to the contemporary taste for drained grayscale mindless action visuals (whose taste is the question – I want colour! Colour! Colour!) Beyond that there’s a bit of fun. Russell Crowe is the antagonist/expert Dr Henry Jekyll (get the name… this Dark Universe is crossing the protagonists and characters from film to film, literally making a monster mash) joining another heroic franchise (if it comes to pass); and Cruise is paired with another in a long line of terrifically feisty females, Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) this being a welcome staple character in his M: I series – not to mention a screeching harpie villainess who wants to get with him and rule the world. There ain’t a lot of chemistry here but it moves fairly quickly through some shonky sequences so you don’t care too much. This is not entirely the mess some reviews would have you believe but then I’m a sucker for all things archaeological and groovy destructive women!  The universe I’m concerned with is the previous remake  – the wonderful 1999 iteration starring Brendan Fraser which was tonally perfect (the other two, not so much) but like the subject matter here that’s a thing of the past. Screenplay by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman from a story by Jon Spaihts, director Alex Kurtzman & Jenny Lumet.

A Cure for Wellness (2016)

 

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Do you know what the cure for the human condition is? Disease. Because only then is there hope for a cure. An ambitious young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to retrieve his company’s CEO Pembroke (Harry Groener) from an idyllic but mysterious “wellness center” at a remote location in the Swiss Alps. He soon suspects that the spa’s miraculous treatments are not what they seem and the head doctor Volmer (Jason Isaacs) is possessed of a curiously persuasive zeal and, rather like Hotel California, nobody seems able to leave.  Lockhart’s sighting of young Hannah (Mia Goth) drives him to return. When he begins to unravel the location’s terrifying secrets, his sanity is tested, as he finds himself diagnosed with the same curious illness that keeps all the guests here longing for the cure and his company no longer wants anything to do with him because the SEC is investigating him – and is that Pembroke’s body floating in a tank? … Part bloody horror, part satire, indebted equally to Stanley Kubrick, mad scientist B movies and Vincent Price, this has cult written all over it. Co-written by director Gore Verbinski with Justin Haythe, with his proverbial visual flourishes, this is one 141-minute long movie that despite its outward contempt for any sense of likeability, actually draws you in – if you’re not too scared of water, institutions, eels or demonic dentists. Isaacs has a whale of a time as the equivalent of a maestro conducting an orchestra who dispatches irritants with a flick of a switch or insertion of an eel. DeHaan gets paler by the scene. Wouldn’t you? The one thing you do not want to do is drink the water! A man cannot unsee the truth!

The Strange World of Planet X (1957)

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Now let me get this straight – this fiercesome contraption of yours went on working even when you switched off the current?! In the deepest English countryside Dr Laird (Alex Mango) and his team are playing around with the electro-magnetic field and the insects in the surrounding fields are getting big as you like because the energy has to come from somewhere. Gaby Andre (Michele Dupont) is a computer scientist who tries to help out following an accident that injures a lab assistant. When hipster alien Smith (Martin Benson) arrives to warn them to stop playing around with things they don’t understand it’s already too late the and the monster bugs are already on the rampage and don’t even talk about the hole they’ve torn in the iononasphere and people are becoming murderous because those cosmic rays are just wild … With far more fiction than science and less money than sense this cheap Brit monster movie has its moments – mostly when Forrest Tucker as expert Gil Graham smokes while wearing a tasty tweed jacket or the penultimate scenes of insect ravaging. Fun but even at 72 minutes this wears out its welcome pretty darn quick. Watch out for Dandy Nichols and this was Wyndham Goldie’s last film. Paul Ryder and Joe Ambor adapted Rene Ray’s novel and it was directed by Gilbert Gunn while the music from Robert Sharples’ theremin fills in the missing action. MM #1500