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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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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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Non-Review Review: The Counsellor

There are two ways of looking at The Counsellor, both handily articulated by the movie itself.

At one point, two characters engage in an abstract conversation about grief. They speak on the phone about what it means to lose something that is irreplaceable, and what that does to a person. They speak in metaphors and lyrical turns of phrase, dancing around the issue at hand. One participant in the conversation recounts the story of Spanish poet Machido, who managed to channel his grief into beautiful and moving poetry. Poetry woven from misery and suffering, beautiful and yet torturous. Much like The Counsellor itself, a story about corruption and consequences and greed and wraith, articulated with thoughtful elegance.

There's a lot going on under the hood...

There’s a lot going on under the hood…

At another point, one character regales another with a tale of his strange sexual misadventures. Awkward metaphors are used to describe exactly what went down, as the other character (and the audience) watch on in a state of awkward disbelief. Using surprisingly elegant language – never at a loss for words to describe a truly surreal turn of events – the storyteller crafts a stunning portrait of a bizarre encounter. Trying to make sense of it all, the listener articulates the thought running through the mind of most of the audience. “Why did you feel the need to tell me that?”

The Counsellor straddles both extremes almost recklessly, veering from a sophisticated and thoughtful moral tale into something grotesquely indulgent and almost distractingly oblique. During one conversation, the seductive Malkina asks her lover Renier how he sees things playing out. He can’t help but imagine two contrasting extremes. With just a hint of self-awareness, Malkina point out that there’s a middle that Renier just isn’t seeing.

Deal or no deal?

Deal or no deal?

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Watch! First Twelve Years a Slave Trailer!

Shame was one of the best movies of 2012. So it stands to reason that I’m looking forward to the next collaboration between Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender. Twelve Years a Slave looks to be a decidedly larger-scale affair than either of the duo’s past collaborations, based on the epic and heart-wretching true story of Solomon Northup, a man born free and then sold into slavery. The cast is also a lot more impressive, with well-respected character actors (like Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor) standing alongside Brad Pitt. It’ll be interesting to see how this turns out, even if it does look a bit more like conventional Oscar-bait than Shame or Hunger.

Of course, that could simply be a stylistic decision made when cutting up the trailer, given the success of other slavery-themed epics (Lincoln and Django Unchained) at this year’s Oscars. Either way, UK and Irish audiences won’t know until 24th January 2013.

Check out the trailer below.