Ad Astra

Ad Astra (2019)

Directed by James Gray, screenplay by James Gray and Ethan Gross.

I’m in the midst of the madness that is my final undergraduate unit, a special screen studies research project that is quietly driving me to distraction at the moment. So, what better way to distract myself from writing about films than go to the movies!

Ad Astra was just the tonic I needed. Gorgeously shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Director of Photography for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Interstellar and Dunkirk among his many credits), this is a stunningly beautiful film that, in terms of framing and colourisation, owes a tremendous debt to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and narratively to Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’. From the opening, gut turning sequence, this is a visual feast.

In essence, this is a story of men told from an extreme male perspective and women are ethereal and clearly seen through the male gaze (Liv Tyler’s Eve) or pointedly asexual (Ruth Negga’s quietly understated Helen Lantos). The essential conflict here is between fathers and sons, and within Roy. The idea of buttoned up masculinity he inherited from his father is on clear display, and Roy’s ability to compartmentalise his feelings does nothing to help him (or any man) engage with or process the inner demons of his emotional life. The story is narrated throughout by Roy and while it helps at times having that inner voice, I found it strayed into some very on the nose musings, particularly in the last act. This wasn’t helped by some pacing issues in the second act that drew me out of the film in a fairly abrupt way.

Brad Pitt has never been high on my list of preferred actors but I really liked him in this. The sulky restraint he shows here as Roy McBride is reminiscent of his taciturn Jesse James in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford (2007), still far and away my favourite Pitt vehicle (if you haven’t seen it, just do it – you can thank me later!) But there is no room for Brad to be the grump when there’s the godfather of grouchiness, Tommy Lee Jones to contend with! As Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride, he just has to glower at the camera and I’m sold.

Despite its fairly obvious flaws this is still an enjoyable watch, and overall, I found it to be a surprisingly immersive film, helped tremendously by the Max Richter score. However, for those of you with a passion for science and particularly physics, try and put your knowledge on hold – a lot of the science doesn’t hold up to scrutiny – but it’s a fun and at times, quite thrilling ride!

Suspiria (1977) & Suspiria (2018)

I have to confess, the original Suspiria (1977) has always been one of my favourite horror films and Dario Argento a director I generally enjoy, despite the unevenness of his oeuvre. So when the remake was announced, I was a little concerned that anyone should mess with one of the movies that ushered me into adulthood.

On the plus side, Luca Guadagnino has made some good films, such as The Protagonists (1999) and Call Me by Your Name (2017). He’s a regular collaborator with Tilda Swinton and I’d read enough to know that he wasn’t going to try to do a shot-for-shot remake. I decided finally to watch both in the same day, starting with the original.

I can’t remember where I saw Suspiria when it finally arrived in Australia – it might have been at a film festival – but I know it was in a cinema. I do remember being awed by both its astonishingly bright colour palette and the really wonderful score by prog-rock band, Goblin. Jessica Harper stars as the virginal Suzy Bannion, who arrives as the new American student at a dance academy in Freiburg, all to the background of the Munich hostage crisis. There was also an absence of men, which was unusual for most horror films of the era, let alone giallo – a traditional domain of the leering, usually psychotic, sex-crazed maniac! Instead, male characters are sidelined and the screen is dominated by women of all ages, body types and dispositions ranging from the ridiculously innocent to the truly evil. Harper is sublime as the ingénue whose dewy eyed innocence is so lovingly captured in Argento’s frame.

While many aspects of this film haven’t aged particularly well (even back in the day it could be read as camp) it has an undeniable atmosphere, a creepiness that builds throughout to a climax that is ridiculous, gory and oddly satisfying all at once. Every time I’ve watched this over the years, I always think of it as a drug-fuelled, psychedelic Alice in Wonderland horror for the late 1970s.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria is unsurprisingly, a completely different beast. To start with, the academy has been transferred to Berlin, though in the same time period. Interiors are muted and drab and exteriors are predominantly in rain or snow, which gives a bleak coldness to the film. There are sub-plots involving Baader-Meinhof terrorism and Germany coming to terms with its Nazi history which I found muddied the central theme of the dance academy as a home for an ancient coven.

Dakota Johnson takes the central role of Susie and while I like her as an actress, I found it difficult to connect with her in the role of the innocent ingénue (Mia Goth as Sara seemed to fit this role with far more ease and believability). Nevertheless, there is a sincerity that Johnson brings to Susie, applying herself to the bizarre tasks required for the sake of the dance. And dance is a major theme in this version.

Where Argento used it only as a mechanism to provide a house full of women, Guadagnino milks it relentlessly, particularly as a means of controlling and manipulating the bodies and minds of the young dancers. Head of the academy, Madame Blanc is played with equal parts relish and menace by the always wonderful Tilda Swinton. It also made me realise she is undoubtedly one of the most graceful women on the planet and it’s worth watching just for her. She also plays a prominent male role (albeit under a lot of make-up) which works up to a point.

Thom Yorke provides a good musical score as expected and Jessica Harper makes a welcome appearance in a small role, but where this film fell down for me was in attempting to make something much deeper than the material allowed.

Throughout, I felt Guadagnino was trying to dig down deep into the psychological underpinnings of horror but in an altogether far too knowing manner. The result was for me, a ham-fisted and overly long mess – and turning what should have been an emotional and (literally) gut-wrenching ending into a pastiche of 21st Century nihilist cinema with added red.

Worth watching if only for Swinton and it has some good moments – but for me, ultimately a disappointment.

Suspiria (1977) is available to watch in Australia on Tubi and Suspiria (2018) is currently on Amazon Prime

Spider-Man: Far From Home *NO SPOILERS*

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Directed by Jon Watts

A quick review tonight. We’re in the midst of flu season here in Tasmania and this is the first chance I’ve had to get to a cinema to see this movie.

This was always going to be a difficult film, coming after the high drama of Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019) but for the most part this is a fun, surprisingly frothy romp around Europe with Peter Parker and his school friends. While I’m definitely not in the target demographic for this, I really related to the awkward teen moments of Peter, MJ and co.

As one would expect this far into the franchise, Marvel’s visual effects are up to their usual high standard and the production values generally are what I’ve come to really appreciate. But I felt there were issues with how the narrative works and particularly the motivations of the villain not being plausible. In Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) Vulture was a fully realised bad guy, with very believable reasons for his actions, but here I couldn’t find the same rationale.

There’s an old maxim in writing that says you can never have a really satisfying protagonist without a fully formed antagonist. Without heading into spoiler territory, our main villain and his happy band of hench-people just didn’t ring true to me. That amount of maniacal, mad scientist level vitriol and egotism was something I’d expect to see in the 70s cartoons, not the urbane, hip, 21st century MCU.

Nevertheless, this is still a solid entry, with a great central performance from Tom Holland who balances the awkward teen who just wants to be a normal kid and the smart, heroic action hero. He is undoubtedly now my favourite Spider-Man. The rest of the cast are just as strong, and it was lovely to see Jon Favreau and Marissa Tomei having a ton of fun as Happy Hogan and Aunt May. The final set piece is really very satisfying and though this isn’t my favourite film in the franchise, it’s still a rollicking good ride.

Do stay for the very end, the two cut scenes are not only very funny but also nod to future directions for the MCU Phase 4.

Apollo 11

Apollo 11 (2019)

Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

Like so many kids of my generation I was obsessed with space and space travel, something that has persisted in my love of pure science as well as science fiction literature and film. One of my earliest preschool memories was running around our yard in rural Australia with an empty cereal box as a helmet, telling anyone who would listen I was going to be the first singing astronaut.

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and my local, the State Cinema in Hobart has joined with a few other independent cinemas to run a Moon Festival. This short season of moon-related features opened tonight with the documentary Apollo 11.

As a child of the 60s (I was 10 when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon) this film bought back many memories, such as having the day off school in the middle of winter, sitting with my friends on our couch, all with our legs raised trying to put our foot on the ground the same time as Neil Armstrong. And long conversations with my beloved father about physics, space travel, what we might find there and the hope the Apollo missions represented for humanity.

So, as soon as the pre-mission countdown began at Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) and the luscious sound design started to work its magic, I knew I was being emotionally manipulated by a very cleverly made documentary – and I welcomed it with open arms! Rather than filling screen with facts and figures, this film explores more the feeling of the time and the profound nature of the mission. Even though I know how the story goes, I felt the tension build in me as the astronauts and their ground crews approached crisis points.

Everything about this film is big – the opening scenes of the Saturn 5 rocket sitting on the launch pad, the crowds who came to Florida to watch the launch, the sound of take-off and the beautiful, insistent score by Matt Morton that doesn’t intrude but blends beautifully with the overall sound design by Eric Milano and the superb film editing by Todd Douglas Miller.

Unsurprisingly, this movie won the editing award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize (documentary) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and I have no doubt it will go on to earn further industry accolades. If you have an interest in the moon landing, space exploration, lived through the event or just an interest in modern history, this is a great film. See it on the largest screen you possibly can, (there is an IMAX version) preferably one with a very good sound system.

This superb film has taken archival footage and made it meaningful for new audiences half a century later, no mean feat! I found it stirring and incredibly uplifting but I left the cinema with a profound sense of sadness that my generation never followed through on the promise of truly going to the stars.

The Meg

The Meg (2018)

Directed by Jon Turteltaub

I first recall seeing Jason Statham all the back in 1998, in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and he’s proved to be an enduring and (mostly) perfectly serviceable screen presence. Like Dwayne Johnson, he seems to be aware of his limitations as an actor and plays to his strengths – he wears a suit very well and is certainly one of the best screen action men – but he is wasted in this dreadfully sad excuse of a film. It seems they were aiming to generate the tension of Jaws (1975) but lacked the ammunition to do so.

Sadly, this even missed multiple opportunities to be “so bad it’s good”, with awful dialogue, a pedestrian and predictable plot, standard ho-hum character tropes, at times very dodgy CG and not even a single helicopter getting eaten by a monster shark. I was very disappointed.

On the upside, I’ve seen the trailer for Hobbs and Shaw, which is due for release in August and that looks an infinitely better vehicle for Statham. I’m really glad I didn’t go and see The Meg in the cinema, waiting until it came out on Amazon Prime. Nevertheless, it’s almost two hours of my life I won’t get back.

 

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers (2018)

Directed by Jacques Audiard

As many of you know, I watch a lot of movies. Wherever possible, I go to a real, live, honest-to-goodness cinema but, living in Hobart, I’m often reduced to relying on streaming services, Vimeo and even YouTube for some classics. My average when studying is a film per day, though now I’m having a break and winter has arrived, that number will possibly rise. If you’re interested, I’ve recently joined Letterboxd the social media site for film nerds, and you can follow my profile to see what I’m currently watching.

Naturally, I don’t write a review for everything I see (many are re-watches) though I often take notes – even in the dark! Over the coming weeks, I hope to catch up with reviews of the movies I’ve seen in recent months. But there are some films that just stay with me and refuse to be shaken off. This is one of them.

I saw The Sisters Brothers back in March at a one-off screening for the French Film Festival at the State Cinema and I’ve only just found time to write a review. To say I enjoyed it is a gross oversimplification. This revisionist western is a complex, often humorous and sometimes ponderous examination of masculinity. Based on the novel by Canadian writer Patrick deWitt, this is French director Jacques Audiard’s first English language feature. I haven’t read the book, so I’m basing this solely on what I’ve seen on screen and the notes I made that night. Shot in Romania, Spain and France with a predominantly European crew, the film has a distinctly different feel to the greater majority of contemporary westerns, which I found very appealing.

The story is basically a four-handed tale and concerns brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters, (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) who are two assassins in pursuit of Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) a chemist who befriends the detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The characters are all unique, human, flawed and about as far from standard western male stereotypes as one could get. Phoenix is on point with his self-destructive Charlie, Gyllenhaal and Ahmed are excellent as the precise detective and idealistic chemist – but the beating heart of the movie is John C. Reilly as the contemplative and essentially tender-hearted Eli, living in a world of brutality and casual violence.

I found the humour at times a little wearing and that didn’t do the narrative pacing any favours, dragging it down in my opinion. It has occurred to me that this is such a male-centric film, that the jokes aren’t aimed at me but I need to re-watch it to see if my initial reactions hold up.

Nevertheless, this a sumptuously shot film that is gritty, dark and at times, quite disturbing. For me, a middle aged woman, I found it a fascinating essay on masculinity and what it means to be a man, beyond all the standard cinematic tropes. I have mixed feelings about so many aspects of this film, but I appreciate the incredibly high quality film making at its core and will always champion an attempt to do something different and subvert expectations. It really looks like a big blockbuster Hollywood western – but has a script that is more suited to an indie, film festival audience. I understand it got a very limited release in Australia (one night only in Hobart) but it’s scheduled for a DVD release in Australia in mid-June 2019. I will certainly be getting a copy for my home library.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Directed by Chad Stahelski

I love a good action film, and have been a fan of this franchise since the beginning. John Wick (2014) was a wonderful first entry into the dark underworld of assassins, crime and shady deals. It also cemented once and for all that Keanu Reeves is a great action hero, with his tremendous talent for pulling off some beautifully choreographed set pieces. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) capitalised on that, expanding on the world Wick exists in and taking us deeper into the story of a man grieving for his wife and, in the end, for a life he cannot go back to.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) begins within minutes of the conclusion of Chapter 2. Wick is on the run, with less than an hour before a $14M contract comes into force. It is open season on John Wick and every assassin in the world wants a shot (literally) at the prize. I wondered how this film could possibly better the first two and I have to say my expectations were most definitely met in every way.

In my opinion, there’s a lot of things to consider as to why this film is so very satisfying. Firstly, the story and the world it exists in has expanded slowly over three films, each bringing a little more to the audience. There is never a major exposition dump, so prevalent in too many lesser films when the action slows, and even between set pieces there’s tension that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. This is deftly spliced with some wry humour that really worked for me.

The framing and shooting of action is superb and solid through all three films. This is highlighted by long takes of set pieces, often cutting to different cameras but never resorting to hand held shaky-cam. I noticed the shooting angles for hand-to-hand fighting in Chapter 3 were often from waist height or just below, making the actors look bigger and giving the action a weight that many films neglect. The stunts themselves are beautifully choreographed and executed. From the start of this franchise, I’ve felt the series owes a lot to films like Gareth Evan’s The Raid: Redemption (2011) but especially here in Chapter 3.

And this brings me to Reeves. Having a leading man who is so dedicated to doing as much of his own stunt work as he possibly can must be a huge attraction for stunt coordinator/choreographer Jonathan Eusebio and director Chad Stahelski (who worked as a stunt coordinator and Reeves’ double on The Matrix films). This means they can do those wonderful long scenes, jam-packed with action and pull in to see faces and expressions. The rest of the cast are excellent, particularly Halle Berry and her beautiful dogs, Asia Kate Dillon, Laurence Fishburne, Anjelica Huston and Ian McShane. Mark Dacascos is excellent as the assassin Zero and it was great to see Jerome Flynn on the big screen.

Tonally, this is the darkest of the series so far – John Wick: Chapter 4 has been announced for 2021 – despite the beautiful desert scenes shot in Morocco. As we learn more about Wick’s backstory and the world he inhabits, the darker everything becomes – including the characters. This is punctuated beautifully by another great soundtrack from Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard, who have scored the two previous films as well.

All in all, this is an incredibly satisfying thrill ride. If you like good quality action films go and see it on the biggest screen possible, though this is definitely on my DVD/BluRay wish list later in the year for home viewing.

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