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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The Medusa Touch (1978)

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Talk about beating somebody’s brains out. French detective Brunel (Lino Ventura) working temporarily on assignment to Scotland Yard in London reconstructs the life of author John Morlar (Richard Burton) who is lying in hospital with severe head injuries following a brutal assault that has nearly killed him.  With the help of the man’s journals and psychiatrist Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick) he realises that Morlar had powerful telekinetic abilities. His books make the link between evil and power and a pattern starts to emerge:  Brunel starts making uncanny connections with a series of disasters occurring in the outside world triggered initially perhaps by Morlar’s childhood brush with a terrible fire-breathing nanny (Frances Tomelty) whom he believes he willed to death …  If he believed himself involved in disasters he may have convinced someone else too. And they may have sought revenge. This oddly satisfying genre-splicing of psychological thriller/supernatural horror/disaster film/policier is aided immensely by Burton’s brilliant performance and Ventura’s charismatic presence, a real fish out of water navigating both a bizarre case and the politics of London policing. There are a number of significant alterations from the novel but the texture is enhanced by plugging into contemporary fears and layering them with cod-Freudianism to effectively channel several horror tropes and a heady dose of misanthropy. John Briley adapted Peter Van Greenaway’s source book and it was produced by the brilliant editor Anne V. Coates and shot by reliable veteran Arthur Ibbetson. Directed by Jack Gold.  I am the man with the power to create catastrophe

The Senator (2017)

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Aka Chappaquiddick. To Ted. And the White House in ’72. On July 18, 1969, following a party with RFK’s secretaries (the Boiler Room Girls), his cousin Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms) and the attorney general for Massachusetts Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drives his car off of a bridge into Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island. The accident results in the death of his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), a 28-year-old campaign strategist who worked for Kennedy and who had quit as Bobby’s secretary in the wake of his death and whom Ted is attempting to woo into a relationship. He rushes back to the beach house they’ve rented and asks Gargan and Markham to help him see if Mary Jo is alive and when they can’t retrieve her from the upended car he persuades them to say nothing while he claims he will report the accident. The following morning word is out that the car has been found while he enjoys breakfast at a local diner and Gargan and Markham discover he didn’t report the incident and his bedbound father mutters the word alibi in a phonecall … I want you to know that every effort possible was made to save her. The patina long having slid off the Kennedy family’s halo, this is far from a hagiography yet it still leaves many unanswered questions. The long shadow of his brothers –  Joe was the favourite one, Jack was charming, Bobby was brilliant and I’m stupid – hung over Ted Kennedy, the boy who cheated at school, on his wife and then finally did something so horrifically spineless a year after RFK’s murder it destroyed the hope that this papa’s boy would become the second President in the family. I can be charming. I can be brilliant. I’m the only one left! There is nothing new here but what is interesting structurally is how this is bookended by a TV interview which Ted departs when the reporter introduces the subject of JFK’s legacy;  and concludes in his onscreen admission of guilt in Kopechne’s death while Joe watches from his sick bed and the public in Massachusetts are asked in a live vox pop how they feel about him potentially becoming President:  television’s role in politics was ingeniously utilised by the photogenic JFK and its influence seized upon by his wife when she decided to do some home decorating. The shadow not just of JFK but of TV news haunts Ted a week later when he and his kids sit around watching the moon landing and his young son reminds him all this space exploration is down to his dead uncle. No wonder Ted didn’t have a decent bone in his body:  imagine being the least promising son of a philandering billionaire bootlegger bully with political power who dallied with the Mafia (allegedly). The tragedy that this recounts of course is not that of the Kennedys but of the Kopechnes, whose daughter was made of such stern stuff that she quit politics when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and on 18 July 1969 she fought valiantly for her life, probably for hours, eventually succumbing to underwater suffocation evidenced by the post mortem foaming from her nostrils dramatised in some very distressing but necessary crosscutting – while Ted and his friends began the misguided cover up, subsequently engineered at the behest of a mostly mute stroke-afflicted Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) by the henchmen led by Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) and Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) who had been at JFK’s side when he took the 1960 election.  However the Kopechnes didn’t utter a squeak of protest. Nobody cared about Mary Jo or who killed her. There is little insight beyond the usual cod Freudian clichés of what made Ted tick.  Perhaps the post hoc paradox is that he went on to become just about the best legislator the United States Senate ever had, leaving a far more tangible legacy in his wake than that bequeathed by his charismatic but corruptible murdered brothers. A sobering portrait of the power wielded by the Kennedys on those in their immediate circle and those who should have resisted their supposed charm, this incomplete work was written by Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen and directed by John Curran.  I could have got her out of the car in 25 minutes if I got the call but no one called

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

First Man (2018)

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You’re down here and you look up and you don’t think about it too much. But, space exploration changes your perception. Following the death of his daughter, pilot and engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) applies to train as an astronaut and participate in the Project Gemini space program, NASA’s project to put a man on the moon by the end of the Sixties. From 1961 through the Apollo 11 landing of July 1969,  details of the different phases of the mission and their effects are dramatised involving his co-pilots and his family … I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it, allows us to see things. That maybe we should have seen a long time ago. But, just haven’t been able to until now. Josh Singer adapted James R. Hansen’s biographical book about the man who took a step into the future and history, all at once. It reunites the LA LA Land dream team, Gosling and auteur Damien Chazelle, and the theme is announced in an early line of dialogue about gaining a different perspective on things. What’s wonderful about this – in the true sense, exhibiting wonder – is that it bridges the chasm between inner (human) and outer space:  this is a story of scale and it offers man-size thrills. Armstrong is no less an enigma here than elsewhere but the link between his tiny daughter’s death from a brain tumour and what he needs to do to come to terms with it is the unique narrative trope that humanises him and gives the filmmakers those private moments that enable us to have a sympathetic insight:  when he’s working out his engineering problems, he’s also writing up medical notes on little Karen’s progress;  after her funeral he pulls the curtains on his study and sits down to cry, alone, at the same desk where he charted her reaction to treatment. This is a portrait of a very private man whose profound sense of loss actually untethers him. The payoff and the personal clarification – and perhaps fulfillment, or even annihilation – because Armstrong’s characterisation is a masterclass in avoidance and obfuscation – is finally achieved when he goes on that moonwalk and leaves something of Karen on the surface of the mysterious object that he watches each night, from earth. In between there are missions and experiments and deaths, terrible deaths. Crashing into buildings in fog. Burning alive. As Armstrong points out, better to fail down here so that we don’t fail up there. And it all takes place against a febrile political background and rivalry with the Soviet Union. What’s radical about this is how lo-fi the technology is – and if you’ve been to Cape Canaveral you’ll know how everything seems to be made from balsa wood and tin foil, something that Janet points out to Armstrong’s platitudinising boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler):  You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!  Indeed, one on-board problem is solved with a Swiss Army knife. Foy offers heat where Gosling gives us cool; together their expressivity makes a whole person and dramatises the emotion inherent in such a dangerous pursuit. She has a new baby to care for;  when he is in crisis he is visited by memories of his daughter, his hands running through her hair. The other astronauts are a variable bunch and it’s Ed White (Jason Clarke) to whom Armstrong finally mentions his dead daughter, years after they’ve first met;  and it’s the fairly noxious Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) whom he advises to be more diplomatic who winds up accompanying him on the greatest journey of them all. This is brilliantly told, from the point of view of the only man who could have explained, but didn’t. The pictures from the space craft are small, the size he would have seen. Expressions are minimal. The risk is exceptional. The awe in the final section is everything. These men truly walked with death. But there could only ever be one man to do it first and it’s a staggering personal expression of earthbound grief, finally freed. This is a film of feeling. Watch. And wonder.

Geostorm (2017)

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I worked on this day in and day out, week after week, for years. What did they do? They turned it into a gun.  A few years after 2019 following an unprecedented series of natural disasters that threatened the planet, the world’s leaders’ intricate network of satellites to control the global climate and keep everyone safe is acting strangely.  Dutch Boy’s inventor Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) is stroppy and a Senate Committee takes him off his own project and installs his younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess) in his place. But now, something has gone wrong: the system built to protect Earth is attacking it, and it becomes a race against the clock to uncover the real threat before a worldwide geostorm wipes out everything and everyone along with it. Jake has to go to back to outer space and Dutch Boy to try and suss out what’s gone wrong and finds himself in a political web with devastating outcomes as the machine designed to protect Planet Earth has become weaponised to destroy it and Max is the only person he can trust to get the POTUS to help as there’s a traitor in the crew … I don’t know about you but I’ve spent the last three weeks baking and I don’t mean cookie dough. Three months ago I was snowbound for a week and three months before that a huge storm nearly blew my house away. So even a trashy eco-disaster thriller with shonky FX, sibling rivalry, a barely-there political conspiracy and slim father-daughter story arc, compounded by some of the worst acting on the planet (take a bow, Mr Sturgess!) is somehow comforting in an era when some seriously smart people are arguing against climate change. Is it me?! Thank goodness the great Abbie Cornish is around to help save the world. Co-written by Paul Guyot with producer/director Dean Devlin. Batten down the hatches! And get me some ice…

Planet of the Apes (1968)

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You know what they say – human see, human do.  Three astronauts (Charlton Heston, Robert Gunner and Jeff Burton) come out of hibernation to find themselves marooned on a futuristic planet following a crash landing. Apes rule and humans are slaves, two thousand and thirty-one years away from Earth. The stunned trio discovers that these highly intellectual simians can both walk upright and talk. They have even established a class system and a political structure. The astronauts suddenly find themselves part of a devalued species, trapped and imprisoned by the apes, enslaved and treated like objects of derision and work value. However they become subjects of medical interest for archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) but Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) finds out and wants Taylor (Heston) castrated. When Taylor tries to escape he doesn’t  reckon on what he finds … Landmark science fiction, this was probably the first of the genre I ever saw (on TV) as a small child and it certainly was a great introduction to a kind of storytelling that is weirdly current and prescient, good on race relations and inhumanity as well as future shock. Pierre Boulle’s novel was originally adapted by Rod Serling but got a rewrite from formerly blacklisted Michael Wilson, who had done uncredited work on the screenplay for Boulle’s Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s a wildly exciting and unexpected story that retains its powerful examination of human behaviour. The final shot is jaw-dropping:  is it the greatest movie ending of them all? The original of the species. Directed by Franklin Schaffner, who was recommended by Heston, who himself would make a couple more terrific sci fis. Get your damn paws off me, you stinking apes!

You Only Live Twice (1967)

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Place yourself entirely in their hands, my dear Bond-san. Rule number one: is never do anything yourself – when someone else can do it for you. During the Cold War, American and Russian spacecrafts go missing, leaving each superpower believing the other is to blame. As the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war, British intelligence learns that one of the crafts has landed in the Sea of Japan. After faking his own death, secret agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is sent to investigate, resurfacing (literally) in Japan where he’s aided by Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) and the beautiful Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), who help him uncover a sinister global conspiracy which appears to implicate SPECTRE and Red China but it means training as a ninja and disguising himself as a local fisherman … The Japanese volcano Mount Shinmoedake which serves as the centre of this film’s action erupted yesterday, just in time to whet my appetite for this fifth James Bond spy adventure. It’s the one that Roald Dahl wrote, jettisoning most of Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel with a storyline by Harold Jack Bloom and becoming nigh-on nonsensical in the process. Nonetheless there are certain pleasures to be had: it looks superb courtesy of Ken Adam’s design and Freddie Young’s cinematography; we finally see Blofeld in the personage of Donald Pleasence (a much-parodied performance); and there’s the spectacle of Connery and his hard-working toupée turning Japanese and watching Sumo wrestlers and getting his very own ninja on. It’s hardly surprising given the way the series was going that Connery took a hiatus (announced mid-production) but he returned four years later in Diamonds Are Forever, which has Charles Gray as Blofeld – he plays Henderson here In between of course we got what might be the greatest Bond movie of them all, OHMSS. This however is directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would go on to make The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker and he has fun with the location shoot creating some really well-paced scenes in beautiful settings. And there’s that song, with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and performed by Nancy Sinatra.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

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Out of all my spawn only you carry a connection to the light. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his fellow Guardians, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) – those charming space mercenaries from Vol. I – are hired by an alien race, the Sovereign, to protect their precious batteries from invaders. When it is discovered that Rocket has stolen the items they were sent to guard, the Sovereign dispatch their armada to search for vengeance. As the Guardians try to escape, the mystery of Peter’s parentage is revealed as he is reunited with his father, Ego (Kurt Russell) who sees in him the opportunity to take over … everything! The lesson to learn? Peter has what he needed beside him all along as Poppa reveals his true colours and an astonishing sacrifice is made following an unexpected revelation. Spectacular, diverting fun with the best use of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain outside the BBC’s F1 coverage but at least five endings too many setting up numerous storylines for the inevitable sequels. Nice cameos from David Hasselhoff and Sylvester Stallone however. Written and directed by James Gunn.

Life (2017)

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This is some Re-Animator shit. Astronauts (Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds) aboard the International Space Station are on the cutting edge of one of the most important discoveries in human history: the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars. As members of the crew conduct their research, the rapidly evolving life-form proves far more intelligent and terrifying than anyone could have imagined. For Calvin, as American schoolchildren name him, is not just a life force he’s a force of destruction! And he starts eating every living organism in sight until there are just two left and one of them has given an intractable order not to be rescued … The only pleasure possible to have in this Alien knock-off (aside from the odd witty line from the Deadpool writers behind it, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernnick) is watching some of the most unlikeable actors around getting totalled in truly horrible ways. And you’ll only be surprised by the Twist Ending if you’ve never seen a movie. Oh dear. Directed by Daniel Espinosa.