Ad Astra 2019 *****

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The title means ‘to the stars’; James Gray’s Ad Astra is the director’s best film to date, a sprawling road movie in space that’s huge in scope yet offers tight personal focus. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) recovers quickly from a substantial fall caused by a cosmic blast, and is recruited to travel from the earth to the moon, from the moon to Mars, and then to one further destination, some 21 billion miles from home.

Via space monkeys and lazer-gun toting pirates, McBride arrives the remnants of previous mission the Lima project, which seems to be the source of the potentially world-ending energy. This is a familiar Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now up the river scenario, simplified but not minimalized by having the Lima under the control of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who is also Roy’s father. Roy’s emotional reaction to universe-changing yet private events is closely monitored, and there’s a specific moral about the nature of emotion; Ad Astra is a thoughtful film in the vein of Interstellar or Solaris, but has the visual pizazz and appeal of Gravity.

As in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Pitt excels as a man out of time, and out of step with the world around him. But he also exudes a noble professionalism that makes Roy McBride a classic cinematic hero, and the set pieces, particularly an assault on a departing spacecraft, are intense to watch. A technical marvel, Ad Astra is a brooding sc-fi drama that’s substantially more than it’s beautifully wrought parts.

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Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood 2019 *****

Few films have had as little similarity to expectations as Inglorious Bastards; what was touted as a ‘men on a mission’ movie along the lines of The Dirty Dozen turned out to have a remarkably meandering narrative including one lengthy scene in which characters, never seen before or again, play charades in the cellar of a bar for quite a chunk of time. Quentin Tarantino’s latest film takes a similarly picaresque approach; with two big stars, we assume a buddy comedy/bromance with the Manson family killings lurking somewhere in the background or foreground. That’s not at all what gets delivered, and that’s a good thing; alarm bells rang when Tarantino announced the setting (year, place) or this film, but Charles Manson is only fleetingly depicted and the actual killings are thankfully not within the film’s scope. That’s not to say that Once Upon doesn’t examine in granular detail exactly what Tarantino imagines was going-down between hippies, cults and conservatives in 1969, the film just doesn’t examine them in the way we expect. Instead, we have a rollercoaster ride, one that takes so long to get started that most thrill-seekers will be ready to demand their money back, then accelerates to a surprising climax so vigorous and satisfying the customers are left begging for another go round. As Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio look older and rather less cool than in previous ventures, but the coolness they embody is earned rather than cosmetic. They knock around a sun-kissed Hollywood, but their lives are less than glamorous; Dalton struggles to remember his lines on set while Booth dutifully repairs his tv antennae. The action slows to a crawl to cover non-events such as Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) going to the cinema, Dalton reading a book while chatting to a child actor, or Booth feeding his dog. But each of these scenes, long, protracted and seemingly meaningless, turn out to imbue the tale with significant value by the final scene, which like Pulp Fiction, carves out a happy ending in the face of an known tragedy. Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood has got the impacted layers of a great film; there’s a thousand minor details to be patiently unpacked, and a unique picture once the jigsaw is finally assembled. Sociologically-aware moments like Booth’s gradual realisation of the manner in which a familiar ranch as been co-opted by hippies have a haunting, original angle on history that’s completely out of tune with the shallow, derivative approach that most film-makers take to their material. If True Romance was a Greatest Hits package, Once Upon a Time…sees a lauded, popular artist finally finding their own unique voice.

True Romance 1992 *****

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The late Tony Scott was something of a cinematic powerhouse, whose work was consistently underrated; a note on his Wikipedia page says that after The Hunger, he stopped reading the vitriolic reviews his film inspired. Most of these critics are long gone now, but Scott’s canon endures; hits like Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State are all better than average blockbusters, but his other works are remarkable in their consistency; Revenge, The Last Boy Scout, Man on Fire or Unstoppable would be highlights in any director’s resume, whether they appeased the public or not. His best film was a flop; 1992’s True Romance gave Scott a super-hot script, and he did it proud; Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are ideal as Clarence and Alabama, young newly-weds who scram from snowy Detroit to sunny LA after he romantically murders her pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman under dreadlocks and prosthetics). All kinds of talent are shown to their best advantage here, from Bronson Pinochet’s coke-addled flunky to Brad Pitt’s avuncular stoner Floyd via James Gandolfini’s memorable thug. Scott creates the requisite tension, but also creates two vibrant, dynamic worlds for his characters to inhabit. And at the centre is one of cinema’s greatest scenes; a confrontation between Clarence’s cop father Clifford (Dennis Hopper) and mobster Cocotti (Christopher Walken). Two experienced actors with some great dialogue; Scott gets the best out of them as Cocotti’s threats raise Clifford’s awareness of his predicament. From the moment Clifford accepts his last cigarette, the dynamics of the scene change and it becomes a meditation on defiance in the face of death. Ridley Scott has given interviews regarding the family history of cancer which throw some light on his brother’s suicide; Scott’s elegiac handling of True Romance’s highpoint throws further illumination. Unfairly derided as a man who placed style over content, Tony Scott was in the deep end while most directors were just splashing in the shallows.

True Story 2015 ***

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Perhaps it’s the banal title, but Rupert Goold’ s adaptation of Mike Finkel’s account of the murder trial of Christian Longo didn’t make many waves when initially released. Popping up on streaming years, later, it’s not immediately apparent what attracted such top talent; Brad Pitt produced, Jonah Hill and James Franco star, and Felicity Jones makes the best of a few scenes in support. But there are hidden strengths and weaknesses that a home-viewing audience might find worth their while; Finkel (Hill) is a New York Times reporter sacked for fabricating details of a story. When Christian Longo is accused or murdering his wife and children, Finkel is taken aback to discover than Longo used Finkel’s name and identity while on the run. Longo says it’s because he admires Finkel’s writing, but is the reporter being manipulated by a criminal, or is Longo hiding something else? The pay-off is something of an anti-climax, but until then, True Story plays engagingly with notions of identity and the weight of uncovering and expressing truth. Both Hill and Franco have what it takes, with Hill channelling some of his trademark exasperation and Franco artfully suggesting a darkness within. Jones has the best, most confrontational scene here, and one which gives True Story a late jump-start. Despite a few improbabilities in the way that Goold heightens the narrative, this is a slow-burn courtroom thriller that’s worth catching.

Allied 2016 ***

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Despite the star-power on offer, Robert Zemeckis’ WWII thriller seems to be destined to be a flop. That’s a shame, because it’s a reasonable shot at reviving some old-school melodrama, garnished with the director’s typical visual tricks. Brad Pitt is Max Vatan, a Canadian paratrooper who falls for Marianne (Marion Cotillard) while on an assassination mission in Casablanca. Back in Blighty, the two agents set up a chicken-coop in Hampstead, but suspicions are raised that Marianne might be a Nazi agent and Pitt is charged with setting a trap for her. The look of Allied recalls late 70’s WWII dramas like Eye of the Needle or Yanks, and Pitt and Cotillard certainly look the part. But unlike Pitt’s war-comic Fury, Allied seems determined to play the war-is-hell card in a revisionist way, with cocaine-snorting officers, openly lesbian couples and all kinds of odd details along the way to the startling if hardly pleasing conclusion.

Fury 2014 ***

furyBrad Pitt’s visceral war film is something of a patchy and contradictory affair. With careful attention to the detail of period warfare, and no expense spared in the evocation of life in and around a US tank caught up in WWII action. Annoyingly, the long and bloody finale seems somewhat out of character with the careful build-up. Logan Lerman is the rookie who falls under the tutelage of Pitt’s gruff Wardaddy, and David Ayer exacts full tension from an extended scene in which Wardaddy commandeers a local house. The suggestion that atrocities are committed by both sides in war is only briefly wrestled with; the death and glory denouement is exciting to watch, but leaves Fury something of a game of two halves; a thoughtful war movie that goes way over the top by the closing scenes.