AD ASTRA

Cert 12A 122mins Stars 4

Brad Pitt aims for the stars in this grandiose and epic existential sci-fi drama, a breathtakingly beautiful journey to the loneliest edge of the solar system which explores humanity’s need for companionship.

As the obsessive astronaut sent on a mission to find his father and save the Earth from destruction, Pitt displays none of the humour demonstrated so recently in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Instead Pitt is required to be at his most insular and least starry, and smartly calibrates his performance to the material in order to establish and anchor the melancholy tone.

Tommy Lee Jones is cast as his father and is equally subdued even while playing god in space, and much like  poor Liv Tyler as Pitt’s wife, he isn’t overburdened by dialogue.

As a psychological examination of the inability of men to communicate with each other, this is far from boldly going where no film has gone before.

Mind you, grief, isolation and a troubled father-son relationship is the familiar stomping ground of director James Gray. And it follows a similar path as his repetitive 2016 period adventure, Lost City of Z, which saw TV star Charlie Hunnam carry on up the jungle.

Yet the craftsmanship is typically superb as Gray takes the journey into darkness of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam war masterpiece, Apocalypse Now, and takes it into space – we even have a bloody episode with space baboons.

Plus Gray ambitiously apes the visual and sound design from Stanley Kubrick sci-fi classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. But where Kubrick explained nothing, With Pitt’s voice-over fully explains his feelings of remorse and regret.

On my first viewing I found Ad Astra ponderous and pretentious, yet on the second time around I found it’s blockbuster action scenes more exciting, and far more enjoyed it’s thoughtful, elegant and graceful rhythms. On a third visit I’ll probably love it.

THE KITCHEN

Cert 15 103mins Stars 3

There’s lots of heat but not enough spice in this unevenly cooked crime drama which sees Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss muscle in on the mobster action in 1970’s New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.

When their husbands are jailed for armed robbery, the women take over the running of the local protection rackets and graduate to bribery, blackmail, and murder.

Thriving in work environment empowers the arresting anti-heroes to make drastic changes at home, but despite fate serving up a helping hand in the form of Domhnall Gleeson’s black clad hit-man, their success is unconvincingly quick.

Individually great, the female trio’s distinct acting styles are far from complementary and adds to a confused tone which veers from caper to tragedy, and fails to successfully make a palatable blend of the black comedy and domestic violence.

And though the cauldron of sexual and racial politics bubbles over to become a blood bath, the drama never really comes to boil.

THE FAREWELL

Cert PG 100mins Stars 3

Gloriously described as being based on an actual lie, this comedy drama uses quiet humour to peel away cultural facade of honesty, to expose how lies, fakery and charades are a necessary and accepted social grease which enable family relations to function.

A Chinese grandmother is unaware she has less than three months to live as her family are conspiring to withhold the truth from her and are using a wedding as an excuse for one last family gathering.

As her grand-daughter, Rap star Awkwafina plays Billie delivers a mature and subtle performance of unexpected range. She is as far away from her outrageous exuberant persona of 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, as the humdrum industrial Chinese city of Changchun of the film’s setting is from New York, where she begins the film.

This is the second feature film from upcoming director, Lulu Wang, whose Beijing born American raised background clearly filters into and informs her thoughtful, funny and well observed work.

 

KURSK: THE LAST MISSION

Cert 12 Stars 4

You’ll need to hold your breathe while watching this handsome, gripping and sombre real life story of 2000’s Kursk Russian submarine disaster.

Matthias Schoenaerts is the stern-faced Navy captain-lieutenant who is one of twenty-three sailors trapped underwater after an onboard explosion has crippled his vessel and killed many of his crew during a military exercise in the icy Barents Sea.

Bond girl Lea Seydoux worries as his onshore wife, and Colin Firth is the British Commodore trying to navigate the heavy political weather in order to launch a last minute rescue.

APOCALYPSE NOW: FINAL CUT

Cert 15 181mins Stars 5

The last great film of cinema’s last great decade, this latest and supposedly definitive cut of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Vietnam war masterpiece reveals Apocalypse Now to be not really a war film at all.

An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart Of Darkness, we follow Martin Sheen’s US Army Captain Willard, as he travels by boat up the Mekong river on a mission to assassinate Marlon Brando’s rogue American, Colonel Kurtz.

Director Coppola has overseen an exhaustive remastering of his original negative which has ever been scanned, cleaned, restored and edited into a never-before-seen version. It looks and sounds bigger and more insane than ever, a unique and complete cinema experience, breathtaking and delirious in scope, ambition and achievement.

Shorter than 2002’s Redux version, longer than 1979’s original theatrical cut, it retains all the power, bombast and horror, while adding a greater theatricality and moving the story closer to myth and legend.

The most notable omission and only real significant cut is of the controversial Playboy bunny scene where the Willard’s crew trade fuel for sex with the women.

Meanwhile two key scenes are added. The first is small addendum to the ‘Flight of the Valkyries’ helicopter attack on a village led by Robert Duvall’s myopic commander of the 9th cavalry, Colonel Kilgore.

In this we see Willard’s crew steal a surfboard from the Colonel. It’s a small slapstick scene and the only moment of outright comedy in the film. Importantly it centres on Sam Bottoms’ character, a professional surfer called Lance, now the crew’s Gunner’s Mate.

The comic aspect of the scene underlines the role of Lance the only beacon of hope and innocence in the darkness, the mascot of Willard’s crew and representative of the bland sunny optimism of California.

Structurally, Lance is now more clearly seen as Willard’s foil, and the movie’s dramatic light relief, providing necessary respite for the audience from the horror, the horror.

The second major addition is ‘French plantation’ scene, where the crew attend a dinner party at a rubber plantation. Willard is later seduced by the owner’s widowed sister, and it’s this scene where Coppola most heavily draws on his theatrical background.

Willard is slowly caged in veils by a woman presented as a Siren of greek mythology, and it’s at this point the Vietnam War becomes background to the story, it’s the Trojan War in relation to Homer’s Odyssey, there to provide colour but it isn’t the story itself.

Moving the film into mythology in this manner means when Willard confronts Kurtz, he is framed as a mortal confronting a god, questioning the nature of good and evil, and demanding freedom from our creators to live without their interference. This is as fundamental and timeless a confrontation as exists in Western culture and Coppola’s real area of interest.

The causes and consequences of the Vietnam War couldn’t be further from Coppola’s mind, in this sense he is a very typical US filmmaker, demonstrating the capacity of the US to use the Vietnam War as a proxy to explore it’s own internal divisions and conflicts, rather than focus on the effects on the Vietnamese people, their country and region.

Post script:
Apocalypse Now was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture. It won a paltry two, for Best Cinematography and Best Sound, which is one less than this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Green Book. As ever this says far more about the Academy than it does about the quality of the films themselves.

 

THE GREAT HACK

Cert 15 Stars 4

Fake news, lies, denials and illegal data sharing are the foundation of this eye-opening and scary documentary which clearly explains the shadowy world of data harvesting and its real world consequences.

With data having surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable asset, it highlights the dangers of giving up our data to social media giants who exploit it for profit.

With interviews with key players in last year’s Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal, including whistle-blowers and journalists, it’s a fascinating look at how data is used to influence voting behaviour in the UK, the US, and around the world.

DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE

Cert 18 Stars 4

Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn team up as corrupt cops who become involved in a bank heists in this engrossing and hard boiled crime thriller.

With pacing, dialogue and characterisation worthy of the late great novelist, Elmore Leonard, it’s another stand out exploration of street level America from writer and director, S. Craig Zahler, who previously made the outstanding horror western, Bone Tomahawk.

A tale of the broken dreams of desperate, disaffected and bitter middle-aged white guys, the deadpan black humour, winning chemistry and terrific performances carry the lengthy slow burn which pays off with a superbly staged shoot-out.