Ad Astra 2019 *****

ad astra

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.

Kelly’s Heroes 1970 ****

best-kelly-heroes-1970Clint Eastwood has made some solemn films about war, from Heartbridge Ridge to Letters From Iwo Jima, so it’s refreshing to see him in a rather more irreverent stab at the genre in Kelly’s Heroes. Written by The Italian Job’s Troy Kennedy Martin and re-uniting Eastwood with his Where Eagles Dare director Brian G Hutton, this slapdash, funny and deeply anachronistic war-comedy sees Kelly and his merry band of soldiers looting Nazi gold behind enemy lines during WWII. The musical choices are decidedly 1970, and Donald Sutherland’s pot-smoking tank commander Oddball steals the show, but there’s also some tense action, notably a scene in which two of Kelly’s men are pinned down in a minefield. War may be hell, but in Kelly’s Heroes, it’s a lot of fun too.

Murder By Decree 1979 ***


The concept of Sherlock Holmes solving the Jack the Ripper murders is an enticing one, fully developed in Bob Clark’s unfairly forgotten 1979 film. Perhaps the shooting of Alien on the stage next door heralded the different kind of thrills audiences were looking for; Murder By Decree’s pleasures may seem stuffy in comparison, but they’re genuine. Christopher Plummer plays Holmes straight as a die, with James Mason an argumentative Watson. Approached by a group of local businessmen whose trade has been decimated by the prostitute murders, Holmes and Watson uncover a conspiracy with the help of Donald Sutherland as a psychic, Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade, and a few other well-placed stars. While the model-work is poor, the acting is first class, and the conspiracy notion later featured in From Hell; whatever liberties Clark’s film takes with history are secondary to a ripping yarn, told with deadly seriousness.

Bear Island 1979 ***


Don Sharp’s 1979 thriller marked the closing of the cycle of films based on Alistair Maclean novels; Bear Island sold over eight million copies, and Sharp’s film is a big-budget Canadian production. Donald Sutherland, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and Christopher Lee are amongst the party stationed on Bear Island, which was a base for Nazi U-boats during the war. Various espionage elements are engaged in a search for Nazi gold, and there’s a notable snowmobile chase in the style of a James Bond movie. Public tastes had drifted away from this kind of stoic action by this point, but Bear Island is a decent who-dunnit that keeps the audience in doubt as to the motivations of the well-wrapped-up characters. A coda, noting that Goodbye California by Maclean was in the pipeline, proved to be misguided.


The Eye of The Needle 1981 ***


A pre Return of the Jedi Richard Marquand directs this atmospheric little WWII thriller, adapted from a book by ken Follett. Donald Sutherland plays Henry Faber aka The Needle, a German spy in a remote Scottish island who develops a romance with local girl (Kate Nelligan). Faber is pretending to be English while he waits to be picked up by the Nazis, and he’s quite prepared to use a vicious stiletto blade to protect himself. Marquand does well with the Isle of Mull locations, and gets decent performances from Sutherland and Nelligan; the small scale of the drama is surprising for a war film, and there’s early roles for Bill Nighy and Rik Mayall.

The Day of the Locust 1975 ***


One of those big Hollywood films that deal candidly with how awful making big Hollywood film was, John Schlesinger’s 1975 drama was a considerable box-office failure, it’s downbeat tone at odds with the mid-seventies period nostalgia. Waldo Salt adapts Nathanael West’s novel about the backstabbing that went on offstage, unglamorously presented. William Atherton plays Todd Hackett, who comes to Hollywood seeking fame sand fortune, but finds only drugs, booze and Karen Black as a fading ingénue. Donald Sutherland portrays social outcast Homer Simpson, and the concluding scenes, in which he’s physically ripped apart by an angry mob, are disturbing. Well acted and serious minded, Day of the Locust is a quality drama with lots to say, albeit much of it damning about 1930’s America.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 ****


Phillip Kaufman’s remake of the celebrated Don Siegel film turns away from the any-communist hysteria that provided the original subtext, and instead focuses on the impact of psycho-therapy on the San Francisco community of 1978. Donald Sutherland plays the health inspector who begins to notice that the people around him are changing, with Leonard Nimoy as renowned doctor David Kibner and a literate script from WD Richter from Jack Finney’s novel. Kaufman makes good use of city locations, and doesn’t shy away from some memorable shock scenes, namely the dog with the human head, gruesome pod destructions and the final twist, the kind of downbeat clincher that only the seventies were allowed to make. Don Siegel and original star Kevin McCarthy both have cameos, as does Robert Duvall.