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New Escapist Column! “Ad Astra” and What We Carry with Us…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine yesterday. This one has been kicking around for a little while, discussing James Gray’s Ad Astra.

In particular, it takes a look at a broader trend in modern space movies – what might be dubbed the “sad astronaut” genre. In contrast to the sixties utopian fantasies of shows like Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey, these films tend to offer a more introspective portrait of space travel. Films like Gravity or Interstellar or First Man are as much about the baggage that the protagonists bring with them on their journey as they are about what the character in question might find out there.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

151. Fight Club – Summer of ’99 (#10)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Charlene Lydon 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, David Fincher’s Fight Club.

1999 was a great year for movies, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that would define cinema for a next generation: Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, American Beauty, The Green MileThe Insider, The Matrix. The Summer of ’99 season offers a trip through the year in film on the IMDb‘s 250.

A successful young insurance claims adjuster finds himself comfortable existence literally blown to pieces after two chance encounters: first with his unlikely kindred spirit Marla Singer and then with charismatic anarchist Tyler Durden. However, what initially seems liberating quickly escalates into something that is much less comfortable.

At time of recording, it was ranked 10th on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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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.

Shock and launch.

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Non-Review Review: Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fairy tale, for better and for ill.

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Non-Review Review: Allied

There is something of the uncanny about Allied, a pervading sense of “not-quite-right-ness” that pervades the film.

In some ways, that vague feeling of uncanniness recalls director Robert Zemeckis’ work in stop-motion computer animation in the earlier years of the century. There was something deeply uncomfortable about the director’s work on films like The Polar Express or A Christmas Carol, a sense of strange lifelessness beneath meticulously and painstakingly crafted exteriors. Zemickis’ computer-generated experiments often felt like they were trying too hard to mimic something organic and spontaneous.

Casa closed.

Marryin’ Marion

There is a similar sentiment to Allied, which plays very much as a love letter to classic Hollywood cinema. Indeed, the opening forty minutes of the film are dedicated to a very stylish couple operating out of “French Morocco.” Inevitably, their clandestine dealings bring them to a version of Casablanca that seems rooted more in Hollywood history than in reality. Unfolding against the backdrop of the Second World War, dealing with themes of love and betrayal, and starring a bona fides movies star, Allied feels very much like an approximation of a classic movie.

However, it never quite gets there.

Marryin' Marion.

Casa closed.

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Non-Review Review: Fury

Fury is an apocalyptic glimpse of warfare.

Unfolding in the last days of the Second World War, as Allied forces pour into Germany from all sides, there’s a sense that this is the end. This is the abyss. As the introductory text explained, Hitler had declared a doctrine of “total war” against these invading forces. Every man woman and child was to be mobilised against the advancing armies, in the hope that it might somehow slow down the Allied war machine. If you throw enough people at it, you might do some damage – even if it is just clogging the gears.

He will strike down with Fury-ous anger...

He will strike down with Fury-ous anger…

A movie about a tank crew enduring these last few days, Fury gets considerable mileage out of that image – of human flesh falling before the unstoppable and inevitable machine. At a couple of points in the movie, characters die with their faces quite literally down in the mud. At other points, bodies are crushed beneath the tracks of the eponymous vehicle. Towards the climax, we encounter a body so thoroughly squashed beneath the weight of the Allied advanced that it seems like an empty uniform.

Fury is at its best when it captures the sheer unrelenting terror and horror of the advancing war machine – the nihilism of fighting a war that has already been decided, and the bleak inevitability of large-scale slaughter.

Fog of war...

Fog of war…

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Non-Review Review: Fight Club

Fight Club was released in 1999, and seems to perfectly capture a brief moment in the history of disemfranchised American masculinity.

Situated between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror, Fight Club is the story of disenfranchised middle-class masculinity, a cultural group gripped by sense of impotence and despair and lost amid an era of financial prosperity and material success. “We’re the middle children of history, man,” Tyler Durden informs his followers. “No purpose or place. We have no Great War… no Great Depression.” It’s a line that gets more bitterly ironic with each re-watch.

A film frequently misunderstood by a significant portion of its fans and its critics, Fight Club is perhaps the quintessential cult film of the nineties. A clever hook that encourages further viewings, a mean subversive streak and a bleak irreverence that is impossible to look away from, Fight Club manages to perfectly encapsulate a moment of shared cultural consciousness and insecurity.

Seeking a friend at the end of the world...

Seeking a friend at the end of the world…

Note: This review contains spoilers for Fight Club. Consider yourself warned.

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