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Non-Review Review: Ad Astra

“I am attempting to communicate,” astronaut Roy McBride offers into a microphone, his voice translated into a signal to be broadcast via laser signal out to Neptune, where his long-absent father is lurking in the darkness.

Although the film is nominally set in the “near future”, director James Gray pitches Ad Astra as a nostalgia piece. It is Heart of Darkness (really Apocalypse Now) by way of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it also has faint shades of Star Wars in its portrayal of a father-son schism elevated to cosmic drama. Ad Astra presents the universe as a stark-yet-beautiful place, and the film itself fits that aesthetic. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has experience making space look stunning from Interstellar, and that carries over to the rich-yet-sterile look of Ad Astra.

Spaced out.

There are times when Ad Astra feels a little too arch and a little too dry in its meditative space odyssey. Roy’s constant internal monologue walks a fine line between profundity and self-parody. The film locks itself so firmly to Roy’s perspective, and nestles itself so snugly inside his head, that the world around him occasionally feels illusory. Of course, all of this is intentional. Gray clearly intends to contrast Ad Astra with the obvious epic space adventures to which it is indebted, and his stylistic sensibility certainly allows it to stand apart.

Ad Astra is a vivid story of extraterrestrial alienation, just one that doesn’t happen to feature any aliens.

Shack and launch.

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“I’m Ready to Communicate With You Now”: The Millennial Anxieties of “The Sixth Sense”, and Feeling Alone in the City of Brotherly Love…

This Saturday, I’ll be discussing The Sixth Sense on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first.

What do you think these ghosts want when they talk to you? I want you to think about it, Cole. I want you to think about it really carefully. What do you think they want?

Just help.

That’s right. That’s what I think too. They just want help, even the scary ones. I think I might know a way to make them go away.

How?

Listen to them.

The Sixth Sense is a remarkable film, for many reasons.

These days, The Sixth Sense is perhaps best known for its central twist. The film’s powerhouse emotional ending has become a pop cultural touchstone, anchoring jokes in everything from Fifty First Dates to the viral video sensation Jizz in my Pants. Of course, this also complicates the legacy of The Sixth Sense by serving as ground zero for director M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent dependence upon these sorts of twists in movies like The Village or The Happening. Nevertheless, The Sixth Sense has endured in the popular memory as one of the rare twist-driven films that stands up to repeat viewings.

A Cole’d open.

However, it is much more than that. Even beyond that, The Sixth Sense is a lavish production that looks beautiful. Of course, Shyamalan’s ego has done his reputations few favours, from his own cameo as a writer-messiah in The Lady in the Water to his role in a Sci-Fi Channel documentary The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan to the famous Newsweek cover crowning him “the next Spielberg.” Still, The Sixth Sense is visually stunning. Although it is tempting to think of The Sixth Sense as a “small” movie by modern standards, it was actually produced on a budget of $40m.

Rewatching The Sixth Sense twenty years later, it is amazing how much of the film’s visual storytelling lingers. Shyamalan might not have been the next Spielberg, but he had a wonderful eye for composition; that shot of a red balloon drifting up the inside of a spiral staircase, those eerie sequences of Malcolm and Cole wandering through a surprisingly quiet Philadelphia, even the conversations at that church with Cole towering over Malcolm from the balcony as he plays with his toy soldiers.

Pew pew!

However, even more than all of that, The Sixth Sense remains the rare film that is both specifically rooted in its cultural moment and profoundly universal. The story that drives The Sixth Sense is surprisingly straightforward – helpfully encapsulated in Cole’s trailer-friendly assertion that he sees “dead people.” However, Shyamalan understands that ghost stories are about more than just the recently deceased. Ghost stories translate a sense of longing and regret, of disconnect and isolation. The Sixth Sense is fundamentally a story about how difficult it is to meaningfully communicate in the modern world, with or without a pulse.

The Sixth Sense is a story of existential ennui, wrapped up in a set of late nineties anxieties.

M. Night Shyamalan had to eat Crowe on his next few films.

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147. The Matrix – Summer of ’99 (#18)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Grace Duffy and Alex Towers, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, continuing our Summer of ’99 season, Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s The Matrix.

1999 was a great year for movies, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that would define cinema for a next generation: 10 Things I Hate About You, The Virgin Suicides, Run Lola RunElection, Cruel Intentions, Fight Club. The Summer of ’99 season offers a trip through the year in film on the IMDb‘s 250.

Thomas Anderson lives a fairly ordinary life; an office drone by day, a computer hacker by night. However, Anderson’s life quickly begins to fall apart when he finds himself drawn to a mysterious hacker named Trinity. It soon becomes clear that Anderson’s life (and his very reality) is not at all what it appears to be.

At time of recording, it was ranked 18th on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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Non-Review Review: Downton Abbey – The Movie

Like the television series from which it is derived, Downton Abbey: The Movie certainly has its charms.

Most of these charms are plain and self-evident, examples of why the British period drama has endured as a high-end guilty pleasure for so long. There is something inherently appealing about assembling a crowd of talented actors, dressing them in beautiful clothes, and asking them to have polite-but-wry conversations in luxuriant surroundings. Downton Abbey benefited from a combination of elements, but largely lavish production design, an idyllic setting and a winning cast. Naturally, all of those elements carry over to the feature film adaptation – give or take Dan Stevens and Lily James.

Motor sensational, Paris or maybe hell.
Clutches of sad remains.

In many ways, The Movie feels like an extension of the British tradition of the Christmas Special – those seasonal themed episodes of television institutions like Doctor Who or Only Fools and Horses or Call the Midwife. The goal is something approaching celebratory nostalgia for the object in question, a light story populated by familiar characters in comfortable surroundings designed to be consumed by an audience coalescing on the couch after a hearty dinner. The budget is typically larger. There’s typically some weight emotional import, but coupled with a sense that nothing too dangerous is happening.

The Movie commits to this aesthetic, leaving it particularly inert and unengaging. Downton Abbey was always exquisite television comfort food, a light cream desert of a Sunday evening. The Movie takes that lightness and wraps it in cotton wool, creating an eerie and uncanny level of insulation. Downton Abbey was always a story of nostalgia for an idealised early-twentieth-century Britain, but The Movie plays almost as nostalgia for that nostalgia.

Millions weep a fountain, just in case of sunrise.

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Non-Review Review: Hustlers

Hustlers wears its influences on its sleeve, which no small accomplishment for a movie about a bunch of criminal strippers.

Hustlers is adapted from Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York Magazine article, covering a post-recession swindle orchestrated by a group of enterprising strippers. The film is a tale of greed and commercialism, of opulence and corruption. The premise practically writes itself. Hustler is a story that is just lurid enough and just timely enough and just charged enough that it all comes together perfectly. The film’s narrative exists at an intersection of money and sex and drugs, but is anchored in a broader cultural and social context that uses this seemingly trashy set-up to say something seemingly profound about the American condition.

Given the premise and themes, it is no surprise that Hustlers should take so many of its cues from the films of Martin Scorsese. Joker has dominated a lot of the autumnal discussion about Scorsese’s influence on contemporary cinema with its obvious debts to films like Taxi Driver or King of Comedy, but Hustlers is just as transparent in the debts that it owes to Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese’s influence is felt on every inch of the film, from the film-making to the narrative structure to the awkward articulation of the central theme in the closing scene. It is both a strength and a weakness for Hustlers.

While Hustlers occasionally feels a little too indebted to the work of Scorsese to stand on its own two feet, the film largely works. Part of this is down to the skill and playfulness with which director Lorene Scafaria acknowledges her influence. Part of this is down to the film’s engaging charm and sense of humour, belying a compelling moral sophistication befitting the films that it is so obviously evoking. A lot of it comes down to the strong casting, including a compelling central dynamic and a powerhouse performance from Jennifer Lopez.

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146. Baby Geniuses – Summer of ’99 (-#23)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Luke Dunne, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, continuing our Summer of ’99 season, Bob Clark’s Baby Geniuses.

1999 was a great year for movies, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that would define cinema for a next generation. It was also home to some of the very worst: Wild Wild West, Jakob the Liar, Bicentennial Man. However, one bad movie towers about all the others. The Summer of ’99 season would not be complete without folding in the only film from that year to make the IMDb‘s storied Bottom 100 list.

Underneath a skyscraper in Los Angeles, there is nestled a terrible secret. A sinister laboratory is running grotesque experiments on children, hoping to crack open the key to universal knowledge. Only one person can stop them. One of these so-called “baby geniuses”, the self-described “Sly Man”, embarks on a rip-roaring race against time to stop the sinister machinations of his evil great aunt.

At time of recording, it was ranked 23rd on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the worst movies of all-time.

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Non-Review Review: IT – Chapter Two

IT: Chapter Two is muddled, messy and bloated, particularly in its middle stretch.

The horror sequel opens relatively strong and delivers a satisfying emotional pay-off. Unfortunately, the film’s structure means that it meanders wildly between those two fixed narrative points. Chapter Two runs a muscular two-hours-and-fifty-minutes, a full quarter-of-an-hour longer than the original film’s already impressive run time. In fact, taken together, the two films are more than one-and-a-half times the length of the early nineties miniseries adaptation of the novel. Chapter Two spends a lot of time on repetitive storytelling beats, splitting up the cast so each of the leads has their own identically-structured adventure.

Glowing, glowing… gone.

These structural flaws feel inevitable. Part of what worked so well with IT: Chapter One was the decision to largely eschew the complicated and convoluted mythology that King wove through his beloved doorstopper of a novel. The original film was not concerned with alien invaders or local legends beyond what was strictly necessary, allowing it to offer an extended horror movie riff on Stand by Me, a coming-of-age saga about young teens on the cusp of adulthood. In Chapter Two, that bill comes due. The sequel not only has to do its own heavy lifting, but take on a lot of the world-building the original film mostly ignored.

Indeed, there is a sense that Chapter Two works much better as a companion piece to the earlier film than as a narrative in its own right. Indeed, there is something interesting in the way that, taken as a whole, the two IT films represent the first real cinematic glimpse of Stephen King as an author of the American epic. IT is the story of a group of childhood friends facing a monstrous evil, but it feels much larger than that. Perhaps the most compelling thing about Chapter Two is the manner in which it creates a sense of scale and scope that has previous eluded adaptations of King’s work.

Pennywise, pound foolish.

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