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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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

Lost in London (2017)

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Hollywood is almost like Royalty Without Borders. Woody Harrelson comes offstage from a dour drama in London to see he’s made headlines on a tabloid following an orgy with three women. He tries to persuade his wife Laura (Eleanor Matsuura) to leave a restaurant where she’s been dining with their small daughters before she sees the news but she returns to their hotel without him and he goes off drinking with an Arab prince, landing at a nightclub where he’s initially refused entry. Inside he meets his buddy Owen Wilson who berates him for his stupidity at not paying 30K to keep the story out of the papers and then they argue about their respective careers and get into a fistfight. The police are called and Woody gets assistance from a singer (Zrinka Cvitesic) who gives his last £50 to a wheelchair-bound beggar who Woody knocks over to retrieve the money before running off in a taxi where he breaks an ashtray. He flees the scene, only to be arrested in a playground and Irish cop Paddy (Martin McCann) seems bribable with a call to Bono of U2. Except when he talks to him he tells him he hasn’t made a good album since October … In the real world Wes Anderson is a Woody Allen wannabe. He hasn’t made a good film since Bottle Rocket. And come to that, neither have you. Presumably inspired by Birdman, this behind the scenes look at an actor’s wild night out in London was based on something that happened to debut writer/director movie star Harrelson 15 years previously  – and it’s shot in one take – and was livestreamed to a presumably gobsmacked audience in London’s Picturehouse Cinema at Piccadilly Circus and 500 cinemas around the US as it was being made! So far, so unprecedented, and it’s a little ropy to begin with, understandably, mostly due to the movement and some tricky performances from a cast of 30 actors: in reality just before they hit the streets they got the news (which we get from the top ‘n’ tail filmed segments added in post) that one of their locations, Waterloo Bridge, was closed off due to the discovery of an unexploded bomb. You have to admire the chutzpah of a crew who did it anyway! More than that, it’s witty, self-lacerating, and abounds with good energy, philosophical insights and jokes into fandom and celebrity (it might even be a mockumentary such is the extent of the mistaken identity and snide remarks about the last time Harrelson was in a good movie or even sexy). It even has a dream sequence with Willie Nelson playing to Harrelson. Except for the last part which fast forwards to morning (in name only as it’s night for day!) and the imminent trip to Neasden Studios to go to the Harry Potter set to prove Woody’s not a completely deadbeat dad, this is what it is: a live movie shot in a single (admittedly rather murky) take (by Jon Hembrough and Nigel Willoughby). And that’s pretty remarkable. What you are about to do is beyond crazy. Don’t do it!

Lucky (2017)

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The one thing worse than awkward silence is small talk. Every day in the desert town of Piru, California, 90-year old Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) does 21 reps of his 5 yoga exercises, drinks some milk, shouts Cunts! at the botanic garden that barred him for smoking and enters a diner owned by Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley) where he has a large milky coffee and does the crossword. Then he buys some smokes in Bibi’s (Bertila Damas) shop on his way back home, where he settles down to his TV quiz shows before heading to Elaine’s (Beth Grant), the local bar, where he chews the fat with a group of friends:  Howard (David Lynch) gets depressed about President Roosevelt, who, it transpires, is his tortoise,who outlasted Howard’s two wives and who’s disappeared; Paulie (James Darren) misses his late wife and Lucky reckons he is fortunate never to have married. Lucky falls over when he’s home alone (he’s always home alone) and winds up in hospital where the doctor Christian Kneedley (Ed Begley Jr) tells him he’s a medical wonder. The diner waitress Loretta (Yvonne Huff) calls to his house and they watch Liberace on TV and smoke grass and Lucky insinuates that he is homosexual and asks Loretta not to talk about it. At Elaine’s Howard is treated ingratiatingly by a lawyer Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston) he hired for end of life bequests who Lucky thinks is gaming his friend. Back at the diner he chats with Fred (Tom Skerritt) a tourist and fellow WW2 veteran and they share stories about the Philippines. At the birthday party of Bibi’s son, Lucky sings in Spanish and that evening finds his friends once again … All I can think is it’s a combination of genetic good luck and you’re one tough son of a bitch. Harry Dean Stanton was always old, or so it seemed. The first time we see Lucky outside it’s a conscious re-staging of that famous low angle medium close up from Paris, Texas. But now he’s thirty-five years older and it’s a different hat and he’s not on the move any longer, save for those few exercises on the floor of his house, and the furthest he walks is shuffling down the street of his small town for his unvarying daily routine. He’s an atheist looking at death and trying to figure out what matters. Every scene is detailed and deals with an aspect of philosophy, a preparedness for the next phase, set in motion by the definition of realism which Lucky finds in a dictionary when doing the crossword. It’s funny and humane and brought to life by effervescent performances from a range of actors you never dreamed of putting together, but here they are. Written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, this feels very elegiac but never depressing, more of a coming to terms with the inevitable, featuring some comic interludes which never intrude on the tone of the deep felt emotionality. Lynch has an extraordinary monologue about his tortoise that ends with the line: There are some thing in this universe that are bigger than all of us and that tortoise is one of them.  It’s a wonderfully humble moment and it crystallises the film’s central idea as well as reminding us what a lucky charm Stanton was for Lynch’s career. Those sunlit desert scenes are beautifully shot by Tim Suhrstedt while the songs are mostly by Elvis Kuehn but you’ll get a lump in your throat when you hear Johnny Cash singing Will Oldham’s I See a Darkness. Directed by veteran actor John Carroll Lynch, it ends on a shot of Lucky walking into the desert, sort of like President Roosevelt (the tortoise). A perfect conclusion to an incomparable career, this was the cherishable Stanton’s final film and he’s the leading man at last. I always thought that what we all agreed was what we were looking at

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.

Bande a Part (1964)

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Aka Band of OutsidersA Who-Dunit, Who’s Got-It, Where-Is-It-Now Wild One From That “Breathless” director Jean-Luc Godard!  Smalltime crooks and cinéphile slackers Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) spend their days mimicking the antiheroes of Hollywood noirs and Westerns while pursuing the lovely Odile (Anna Karina) whom they meet at English class. The misfit trio upends convention at every turn, through choreographed dances in cafés or frolicsome romps through the Louvre trying to set a record for fastest circumnavigation. Eventually, their romantic view of outlaws pushes them to plan their own heist, but their inexperience may send them out in a blaze of glory – just like their B-movie heroes … Isn’t it strange how people never form a whole?Ostensibly an adaptation of a novel called Fool’s Gold by Dorothy Hitchens, that’s just a skeleton on which the mischievous Jean-Luc Godard drapes his love and admiration of Hollywood genres (and Karina) over a series of apparently improvised riffs in this lightly constructed charmer. A few clues for latecomers: Several weeks ago… A pile of money… An English class… A house by the river… A romantic young girl... It’s a splendidly rackety affair, with several standout scenes providing the postmodern matrix for much of pop culture (and a name for Quentin Tarantino’s production company). It’s Godard at his most playful, joyous and audience-pleasing, exploring what it’s like to not want to grow up and how it’s always possible to have fun with like-minded people. Then, you go a little too far and someone goes and spoils it all for everyone. Maybe. Sheer pleasure. Godard said of the dance scene: “Alice in Wonderland as re-choreographed by Kafka”. A minute of silence can last a long time… a whole eternity

Le Bonheur (1965)

Le Bonheur

Aka Happiness. Happiness is perhaps submission to the natural order. In suburban Paris, young joiner François (Jean-Claude Drouot) lives a very contented life with his dressmaker wife Thérèse (Claire Drouot) and their two small children. Despite his apparent satisfaction, François takes a mistress named Emilie (Marie-France Boyer) who works at the post office and he doesn’t feel the least bit of remorse for his philandering. He tells his wife and is astonished that she’s upset. While he is able to justify loving both women, the infidelity results in tragic real-life consequences I have enough joy for both of you. There is so much joy in this film with the flowers and food and babies and general air of happiness, intimate displays of sex (the central couple were married in real life) and sensuality abounding in this working class family. The juxtaposition of the romantic with the daily grind amid the bucolic – even idyllic – setting (ravishingly shot by Jean Rabier and Claude Beausoleil) and the crummy reality of a marriage betrayed, the ease with which one wife can be replaced with another, these are the stuff of life, the nasty realities with which Agnès Varda engaged and discoursed upon so supply and clearly. A cunning exploration of the callousness of men, designed to appear observational and non-judgmental in a blaze of beautiful colours and Mozart. A wolf in sheep’s clothing with an ending that made me gasp the first time I saw it. I am happy and free and you’re not my first man

The Karate Kid (1984)

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Go find your balance. Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) moves West to Southern California with his embarrassing mother, Lucille (Randee Heller) and quickly finds himself the target of a group of school bullies led by Johnny (William Zabka) who study karate at the Cobra Kai dojo led by psycho Nam vet John Kreese (Martin Kove). Fortunately, Daniel befriends Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita), an unassuming Okinawan repairman at his apartment complex who just happens to be a martial arts master himself. He  winds up doing a lot of chores in exchange for karate lessons and starts putting together his own ideas about life from Mr. Miyagi’s aphorisms. Unfortunately, Daniel likes a lovely upper class girl at school Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) who also happens to be dating Johnny, who simply continues his campaign of bullying. Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing, training him in a more compassionate form of karate (Goju) and preparing him to compete against the brutal tactics of Cobra Kai … Come from inside you, always right picture. This fusion of Carrie with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Rocky (which shares director John Avildsen) is equal parts feel-good morality tale and teen fantasy, with a transformation story and a nice boy at its heart. Daniel is played beautifully by Macchio – goofy and cute, irritating and charming, all at once – while the bullies are clichés (maybe they all are) and the girl is just super nice. A little more heft is given the story with Daniel’s resentment at not having been given a choice at the house move, putting him into the path of these violent classmates whose actions are worthy of adult vigilantes (and numbering Chad McQueen in their midst); and Mr. Miyagi’s life isn’t a bed of roses either as Daniel discovers when he finds him drunk and reads a letter.  If you’re not up and cheering at the pleasing, rabble-rousing ending then you should probably check your pulse. It’s too long, but it’s pretty wonderful. And the soundtrack is fantastic.  Written by Robert Mark Kamen. Wax on, wax off

I Got Life! (2017)

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Aka Aurore. Fifty-year old Aurore (Agnès Jaoui) is newly divorced from her husband Nanar (Philippe Rebot), has lost her job and finds out that she is going to be a grandmother. She is slowly being pushed to the outskirts of society then accidentally runs into the great love of her youth Christophe whom she nicknamed Totoche (Thibault de Montalembert).  Her daughters’ lives run amok with pregnancy and lovers moving abroad. Her best friend Mano (Pascale Arbillot) is a realtor who hires her to make her properties sound more attractive but she now starts to realise how much she lost twenty-five years earlier when she betrayed Totoche and married his best friend Nanar but she has to find some way to make a living when she loses work at the dreadful cafe where her employer insists on calling her Samantha… A mid-life crisis from the woman’s perspective, rooted in the maternal and the reality of difficult working conditions isn’t normal multiplex fare. Blandine Lenoir’s film is funny and irritating all at once, mainly because it hits so many recognisable notes, even if they’re not especially revelatory. The always watchable Jaoui (yes! in two languages!) is rearing two daughters seemingly intent on making all the mistakes despite her wise counsel that have led her to this very spot – broke and alone, forced to take even more menial work as an industrial cleaner. where she meets a foreign woman who’s a qualified engineer:  This is the only way you white women understand the oppression of blacks, she tells her. Ageism is rife in white society! And she then proceeds to introduce Aurore to the notion of intersectionality. Aurore finds her mojo when a French philosopher’s interview on TV stops her in her tracks as she’s cleaning for a community of elderly women who have pooled their pensions and resources to live together – Françoise Héritier explains about the hierarchy of age in which men are supported throughout their lives and approach middle age with power, while women are only alone at 10 and 20, looking after everyone else until they drop. The women are aghast at self-recognition at this logical history of servitude. Aurore is mopping a floor when she hears this. This is her turning point and it galvanises her to alter her circumstances. At a university reunion an old classmate simply cannot accept she rejected Totoche for Nanar. It’s funny. And she realises that the mistake she made as a young woman can indeed be repaired if she’s prepared to take that step towards making up.  A film that says, Divorce is no picnic; turning fifty without a husband and any visible means of financial support is degrading and demeaning; and a life untethered takes a village to mend while you’re falling apart. The fourth stage of life is not for the fainthearted and sometimes only music gets you through the day. Not your conventional romcom, then. But it is very French. This is a great tribute to the power of mix tapes. And I just love Mano’s coat! Co-written by Lenoir with Jean Gaget and O-Shen, with collaboration from Anne-Françoise Brillot and Benjamin Dupas.

Before the Revolution (1964)

Before the Revolution

What do you think you’re up to ?  Revolution?  Parma, 1962. Student Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) struggles to reconcile his communist beliefs with his lifestyle. After his best friend Agostino (Allen Midgette) drowns, he breaks up with the nice middle class girl Clelia (Cristina Pariset) he’s been dating. When his parents invite his mother’s younger sister Gina (Adriana Asti) to stay they have a passionate affair … What David Thomson describes as a film characterised by romantic disenchantment was Bernardo Bertolucci’s audacious sophomore outing. Shot when he was just 22 and directly after his apprenticeship to Pasolini, it’s a striking piece of work, conjoining sex and politics directly and unapologetically. Bertolucci’s screenplay confronts the difficulties of post-war life in Italy in a loose adaptation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma and examines the legacy of fascism while Fabrizio considers the merits and issues within the Italian Communist Party.  Distinguished by Vittorio Storaro’s black and white cinematography and a score by Ennio Morricone, this is an astonishingly assured piece of work, announcing the director’s philosophical intent with a quote from Talleyrand as the narration begins in a film which has its roots in the Nouvelle Vague style, bristling with ideas and a signature that’s already fully formed.