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.

 

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.

HUSTLERS

Cert 15 110mins Stars 4

Be blown away by Jennifer Lopez who gives a career best turn as a stripper on the make in this glossy, muscular and funny real life comedy-drama which wears its social conscience on its sleeve.

Re-affirming her diva status with the most outrageous entrance of the year, Lopez plays the old hand teaching Constance Wu’s newbie the pole dancing ropes, before the pair turn to crime to fleece their wealthy Wall Street clients.

Lorene Scafaria unashamedly borrows Martin Scorsese’s moves as she directs with a stylish verve, and it’s produced by Adam McKay who’s made another scathing exploration of greed to stand alongside his 2015 Oscar winner, The Big Short.

In their riotous way they show how the financial crash of 2008 screwed the uneducated and low-skilled while the powerful and wealthy got away scot free.

Lopez also co-produces and you can’t take your eyes off her in an commanding performance which hoists her back to the top of Hollywood’s greasy pole.

DOWNTON ABBEY

Cert PG 122mins Stars 4

Rolling out the red carpet for it’s big screen debut, the award winning TV period drama serves up a sumptuous and satisfying banquet of intrigue, scandal, humour and heartache.

Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern return as the owners of Downton, the Earl and Countess of Grantham. Along with the rest of the cast they’re so well practiced in their roles we’re plunged straight into the story before we’re even re-introduced to their characters.

The arrival of royal guests, King George V and Queen Mary causes huge excitement upstairs and downstairs, and kickstarts events which will have repercussions for the household.

Not everyone is thrilled and Daisy the cook isn’t shy in voicing her republican views, while also handling the attentions of a local handyman and dealing with her possessive fiancé.

Carson the butler is tempted out of retirement for the occasion as it wouldn’t be the same without him, and your favourite characters are each given their moment to shine.

Newcomer Imelda Staunton plays Lady Bagshaw and provides a terrific adversary for Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, even as Smith indulges her habitual sparring with Penelope Wilton’s Baroness. As well as being given plenty of her famously withering put-downs, Smith also delivers an emotional speech which won’t leave a dry eye in the house, and screenwriter Julian Fellowes clearly delights in writing for her.

However his belt and braces approach for everyone else means we’re rarley unsure of what anyone is thinking, yet that’s probably just as well considering he crams in a series worth of subplots.

It’s set in 1927, a year after the General Strike, and insurgency is still very much in the air with the social institutions facing more than one challenge.

Plus there’s romance, a pregnancy, a disputed inheritance, a storm, sabotage, thefts, arrests, attempted murder, and an arrogant French chef.

Having previously directed some of series six and the two hour Christmas TV finale which wrapped up the TV series in 2015, Michael Engler returns with a sure hand, respect for the show and a determination to make this the most sparkling Downton yet.

Standing on the strong foundations of the series’ success, the filmmakers sensibly resist the temptation to do anything other than build on their established crowd-pleasing formula.

Crucially it’s filmed once again in the majestic Highclere Castle, which stands in for the Downton Abbey estate, where the bulk of the action sensibly takes place. So there’s no trying to spice up the formula by carting the cast off to a different location, as used to happen with movie spin-offs of British TV series, such as Are You Being Served? which saw the staff of the Grace Brothers department store packed off to Spain. Mind you, it might be fun seeing Lady Mary experience the pleasures of a popular Edwardian resort such as Blackpool. Maybe in the next film.

Of course there’s a great deal of heady nostalgia for a bygone age and is unashamedly supportive of the aristocracy. However it’s also forward looking in it’s sympathetic treatment of gay characters, its celebration of the strength of women, and its salute to the ambition of the self-employed working class.

Offering a unified, cosy and tolerant respite from the world, Downton presents an idealised vision of Britain, a green and pleasant land, which – the occasional bad apple aside – is full of fundamentally decent, kind and honest folk who do their best to rub along in the face of life’s challenges and stand steadfast in adversity.

And as such it’s a hugely reassuring slice of comfort cinema which will amuse, charm and entertain the most casual of viewers such as myself, while longtime fans will absolutely love it and should book their own state visit to Downton straight away.