DIR: Chris Morris • WRI: Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong • DOP: Marcel Zyskind • ED: Billy Sneddon • DES: Lucio Seixas • PRO: Iain Canning, Anne Carey, Christopher Morris, Emile Sherman • MUS: Christopher Morris, Sebastian Rochford, Jonathan Whitehead • CAST: Anna Kendrick, Danielle Brooks, Denis O’Hare
Chris Morris’ second feature The Day Shall Come continues in a similar vein to Four Lions. It features a hodgepodge of eccentrics that would take on the world-order in the name of Allah. In this case our potential jihadists are quite harmless. Led by the person with mental illness and well meaning Moses Al Shabazz, they have a non-violent jihad policy, preferring notional bow and arrows and dinosaurs to guns, when the day shall come.
Moses and his impoverished little band eke out a frugal existence on the margins of society in Florida. Unfortunately, the FBI are looking for a patsy after a failed attempt to get a case against a stoned ‘terrorist’ they had already baited in order to target a spring break extravaganza with a large bomb. In one of the film’s funniest moments, we learn that the potential terrorist has a religious inspired phobia for the number five and is unwilling to press all the numbers required to detonate the device. Moses’ eccentricities turn out to be even harder to manipulate than expected and it is only when he is facing eviction does he become a possible successful target for the FBI’s machinations.
There is no doubting Morris’ talent as a comedy writer and satirist, nor his huge influence on so many talents for good and bad. Brass Eye is still one of British television’s great achievements. When someone mentions cake to me Brass Eye is the first thing that comes to mind, not actual cake. Unfortunately, Morris latest film is not one of his great achievements. Playing with an uneasy mix of drama and farce it feels at times like an overly complex South Park episode but lacking the topicality South Park has as part of its armoury. There is no doubting the righteousness of his agenda and it is never less than amusing, but unfortunately as satire it all feels rather toothless. The farcical elements outweigh the drama that is required for it to have an impact and in the final denouement it goes where a Chris Morris venture would be expected to go but without any resonance. We understand the implication of the film’s point of view but its manipulations along the way to get us there feel too contrived to have real emotional weight.
At the beginning of the film a title tells us it is inspired by “One hundred true stories”, if some of these stories had been relayed to us in some way rather than alluded to, the film might have had a stronger impact instead of being just a cold, clever farce that tells us the FBI are bad guys.
DIR: Andrea Berloff • WRI: Andrea Berloff • DOP: Maryse Alberti • ED: Christopher Tellefsen • DES: Shane Valentino • PRO: Michael De Luca, Marcus Viscidi • MUS: Bryce Dessner • CAST: Elisabeth Moss, Melissa McCarthy, Domhnall Gleeson
(Contains minimal spoilers)
Adapted from a DC Comic of the same name, The Kitchen tells the story of three women in 1970s New York who take over the Irish Mafia while their husbands are in prison. Before the husbands are locked up, we see Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) helping her kids do homework, Claire (Elisabeth Moss) getting punched by her husband, and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) being yelled at for buying the wrong beer. When they start to run out of money, they have to earn the respect of the neighbourhood in a system that only views women as wives and mothers. With all the elements of a gangster flick, The Kitchen is about creating a space for yourself in a man’s world.
A film you think will be about strong women running the Irish Mafia is undermined by one character’s need to be rescued. When Claire’s abusive husband is sentenced to prison, she smiles knowing she won’t be attacked for at least two years. With no employable skills “besides getting hit” Claire starts volunteering at a soup kitchen where she gets attacked and ends up in hospital. A short time later, she is sexually assaulted while taking out the bins, only to be saved by a new love interest, Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson).
After this, Claire exacts revenge on her attacker and gains confidence in herself. It’s hard to know whether she has finally found her voice or has adapted to what her new boyfriend expects from her. Writer/director Andrea Berloff leans on the damsel in distress trope, where Claire is saved from the evils of New York City by a man, and not by her female friends. I left the film asking myself if Moss’ character really needed to be broken down in order for her to be built back up again?
Berloff’s work highlights undervalued members of society (Straight Outta Compton) and their fight for respect as they try to achieve their goals. The domesticated leads are tired of being treated as wives and mothers, and not as fully-fledged human beings with dreams and aspirations. The characters create an indispensable role for themselves in the Irish Mafia, giving them a purpose outside the home.
McCarthy, Haddish and Moss deliver great performances in a forgettable film. A rough reworking of the gangster film, The Kitchen shines a light on the characters who usually only exist in the background.
DIR: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett • WRI: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy • DOP: Brett Jutkiewicz • ED: Terel Gibson • DES: Andrew M. Stearn • PRO: Bradley J. Fischer, William Sherak, James Vanderbilt, Chad Villella, Tripp Vinson • MUS: Brian Tyler • CAST: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien
Weddings are supposed to be the happiest day of your life. The day when you get to become one with your life partner. Surrounded by your friends and family you make a promise to love and protect one another until the day you die. Words can’t comprehend how beautiful of a moment it is. There’s only one problem. Weddings don’t end with the newlyweds riding into the sunset. This is a wedding day after all. What occurs after the ceremony is the stuff of nightmares. People who have never spoken in their life are sitting beside each other while eating a meal which they have limited say in. The in-laws each want their family to be in the limelight. The groom must pray that his best man doesn’t deliver a speech that sends the couple on a honeymoon to the divorce office. Your weird uncle Jim is busting moves that belong on no dancefloor in the world. Your wedding day no matter how much planning you do will feel like a wedding lifetime.
Ready or Not tells the story of wedding day unlike any other. Yes, all the awkwardness above still takes place. Yet, this wedding ends on a note that no wedding has ever ended on. A game of hide and seek where if you lose, you die.
Grace (Samara Weaving) and Alex (Mark O’Brien) tie the knot in the garden of the groom’s family estate. The Le Domas family, who built quite the fortune in the boardgame business, don’t feel that a “lower-class” woman belongs in the family. Grace is similar in every way to the Le Domas family. Grace is funny, like best man/brother-in-law Daniel (Adam). She’s sympathetic, like her mother-in-law Becky (Andie MacDowell). She’s determined, like her father-in-law tony. She’s impulsive, to a much lesser degree than her new sister-in-law Emily.
The one thing that separates Grace from the Le Domas family is wealth. If she had an endless amount of money she would be as irrational as them. After all, the Le Domas family are so irrational they stick to their strict tradition of having whoever is entering the family play a game with them on their wedding night. When Grace draws the hide and seek card it quickly becomes clear that she would have been safer with a game of Monopoly. What follows is the blood thirstiest round of hide and seek you’ll ever witness.
Every second of the game is glorious. This is a film that blends the horror elements of You’re Next with the comedy of Shaun of the Dead. Two films which belong in any horror fans top ten list. Ready or Not is destined to become a cult classic. Samara Weaving leads the screen with a performance that her uncle Hugo would be proud of. Weaving is charming, funny and electric in every scene that she’s in. Following up her scene-stealing performance in Three Billboards… and her ’80s feel performance in The Babysitter with acting that cements her as a star. Horror has been lacking in female stars for most of the decade. Samara Weaving joins Happy Death Day’s Jessica Roth in showing film fans that comedy-horror can be as thrilling as regular horror. The image of Weaving in her blood-drenched wedding dress is instantly iconic. In a way Grace is to wedding nights what Carrie is to Prom nights.
Often in cat-and-mouse horror films, the villains are one-dimensional killing machines. Ready or Not excells thanks to its vibrant supporting cast. Every single member of the Le Domas family is ridiculous. Adam Brody as Daniel spends the entire film without a filter. Watching Brody call out his family members for the garbage they are is delightful; he’s the only member of the family who knows how awful they are.
Henry Czerny has a blast as a father who is in over his head. No spoilers to what the family’s motives are but it’s amazing to see how Czerny tries to justify their murderous behaviour. Melanie Scrofano is outstanding as the drug-fuelled Emilie. Scrofano’s character is the most unbelievably ludicrous, yet she makes it work by committing to her character’s wild range of emotions. In the space of ten seconds she can go from hysterical laughter to hysterical sobbing. Emilie’s husband Fitch, played by Kristian Bruun, deserves a mention for being a comic relief who never grows infuriating.
The star of the Le Domas family is the mother played by Andie MacDowell. MacDowell has struggled to land memorable roles following her insanely successful nineties. In Ready or Not she reminds the world how talented she is. MacDowell manipulating everyone around her would feel fake if the actress didn’t commit to the role. The Le Domas family is horror’s version of the Bluth family. They even have their own Lucille Bluth in the form of Aunt Helene played by Nicky Guadagni with just the right amount of bitterness.
When looking at the previous work from directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, it’s a miracle that Ready or Not is as good as it is. The directing duo’s previously worked on segments from the underwhelming anthologies V/H/S and Southbound. The only feature they had made in full before Ready or Not was the atrocious Devil’s Due. Yet, with Ready or Not the duo commit to making the most of their brilliant premise. While no one is going to come out of this film thinking about the direction, Olpin and Gillett deserve praise for making a film that they can both be proud of.
The film was written by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy. Murphy is known for making content that is in your face. From Glee to American Horror Story, everything that Murphy has created has never been afraid to be exactly how he imagined. Ready or Not is at the higher end of insane ideas that Murphy has had, yet it never goes off the rails. Busick may have been there to stop Murphy from going too crazy with his ideas. While always out there, Ready or Not doesn’t jump the shark. Keep in mind that Ryan Murphy is the man who managed to put aliens, the pope and an evil therapist into a single episode of American Horror Story.
Ready or Not puts the fun back into horror. Midsommar, The Witch and AGhost Story have all recently terrorised audiences by taking them on a mental trip. It’s wonderful to see an ’80s-esque horror back on our screens. A key element of horror is to entertain your audience as much as you try to scare them. You’ll struggle to find a film as entertaining as Ready or Not this year. From Samara Weaving’s star-making performance to the brilliant final 10 minutes, this is pure insanity. You just need to ask yourself. Are you ready or not?
DIR/WRI: Jacob Estes • DOP: Sharone Meir • ED: Billy Fox, Scott D. Hanson• DES: Celine Diano • PRO: Jason Blum, David Oyelowo • MUS: Ethan Gold • CAST: Alfred Molina, David Oyelowo, Storm Reid, Byron Mann
From the people who brought you Get Out, comes Don’t Let Go, a time-travel murder mystery. Detective Jack Radcliffe (David Oyelowo) receives a disturbing call from his teenage niece, Ashley (Storm Reid). By the time he reaches her house, she has been murdered along with her parents, Jack’s brother Garret (Brian Tyree Henry) and his wife Susan (Shinelle Azoroh). In the following weeks, Jack starts getting phone calls from Ashley, four days before her death. They must work together to solve Ashley’s murder – before it can happen. Written and directed by Jacob Aaron Estes (Mean Creek, Rings), this time-travel mystery gets lost along the way.
Although the premise piqued my interest, the time-travel elements left much to be desired. The only hint of a sci-fi element is a flashing red light that appears when timelines crossover. The time-travel effect doesn’t work because the characters talk to each other in the same location, shot separately. What you would expect to be the attraction of the film, becomes its downfall, leaving the impression of a film made for much less than $5 million.
Blumhouse’s philosophy is to make low-budget films, usually 3-5 million dollars, give the director creative control and release them to audiences around the world. Notably, this is the second Blumhouse production this year with a majority black cast, after Thriller, directed by Dallas Jackson. It’s refreshing to see a script brought to life by black actors when there are no explicit racial references and could easily have been cast with white actors.
But there are frustrating holes in the script that are hard to ignore. For example, having two characters use their smartphones to actually call each other feels out of place in 2018 (when the story takes place). Calling someone is the last thing a teenager does with their phone. At one point in the film, Ashley sees a suspicious car in her driveway and tries to describe it to her uncle over the phone rather than taking photos. It’s a large oversight considering Jack uses Ashley’s camera roll to prove to her he’s in the future.
Ultimately, the story is about how the bad choices we make influence our lives forever, and if we can save ourselves from the past. How Jack decides to be a father figure to his niece when his brother’s drug-dealing past comes back to haunt him. There’s a poignancy in the relationship between Jack and Ashley, and I wish they had more scenes together in the same timeline.
Overall, Don’t Let Go is a middle-of-the-road movie. It’s a shame the plot didn’t live up to the premise, with the story co-written by Drew Daywalt – author of the successful picture book The Day the Crayons Quit. The greatest potential in the film comes from the original music by Ethan Gold that sounds like a mixture of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” (Shutter Island, Arrival) and Cliff Martinez’s ethereal “He Had a Good Time” from Drive (2011).
The film’s mantra is ‘you save me, I save you’ with Detective Jack investigating the murders in the present and Ashley gathering clues in the past. The actors save each other with their stellar performances but are let down by the script. Maybe if Estes had dedicated more of the story to the supernatural elements as opposed to the detective narrative, the film would be worth a second watch.
DIR: Rupert Goold • WRI: Tom Edge • DOP: Ole Bratt Birkeland • ED: Melanie Oliver • DES: Kave Quinn • PRO: David Livingstone • MUS: Gabriel Yared • CAST: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell
When watching The Wizard of Oz for the first or hundredth time you’ll be blown away by the magic of it all. A yellow brick road that will lead you to where you are meant to be. A tinman, lion, and scarecrow who despite having nothing physically in common with you’ll relate to their emotional complexity. A witch who is among the dastardliest villains to ever grace the screen. A wizard who hides behind an illusion to mask his deepest insecurities. A score that will remain immortalised until the end of time. Everything about the film is perfect. Yet, it would all fall apart without Judy Garland. Garland at the age of 16 delivers a beautifully innocent performance that no other actor in the world could ever come close to performing. The innocence in Garland’s eyes adds layers of depth to the story. When she begs to go home there is never a dry eye in the house. The world has never had a talent quite like her. Without Judy Garland the magic of Oz would never be the same.
Judy tells the story of the final chapter in Judy Garland’s (Renée Zellweger) legendary career. Struggling to make ends meet and fearing the prospect of losing her children to her ex-husband (Sydney Lufet), Garland agrees to perform in a series of concerts in London. From the prologue, it’s clear that Judy is going to break your heart into a million little pieces. The scene which sees a young Judy (Darci Shaw) being pushed into taking the role of Doherty by Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) is nothing short of devastating. Seeing a mogul full of power essentially threaten a young girl into taking a role hits harder considering all the awful things that have come out from the industry in the last few years. A horrible event that takes place on the set of Oz shows us from the start that Judy’s life was all but magic.
As the film continues and we spend time with adult Judy, it’s clear that this is the role that Renée Zellweger was born to play. Zellweger is spectacular as Judy Garland. She possesses the charm that wowed audiences for decades in bucketloads. It’s the side of Garland that many may be unaware of where Zellweger makes this her career-best performance. Considering the turbulent rise that Garland had, she was never going to have a normal life. Seeing her Garland cope with such an abnormal life is painful. Turning to booze and drugs as a comfort, Garland is wearing a mask to the public. It’s almost as if the actress regressed into a childlike state in her later years, which is understandable considering that she was robbed from ever having one.
Judy is isolated in the world, with no real friends to love and care for her. Everyone wants her to perform and put on a smile, but no one wants to be there when she needs them the most. Zellweger’s performance is one of an actor whose worst fear is to have the same fate as Garland. In a heart-wrenching rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” Zellweger pours her soul into every single word of the song. There won’t be a dry eye in any cinema once the credits of Judy begin to roll. In an age where biopics are being released at a rapid pace, Renée Zellweger may have delivered the most beautiful performance of them all.
What makes Judy riveting is the decision not to stray away from the actor’s struggles. Biopics often stray away from the truth as they try to sanitize their subject matter in order not to cause offense. A major issue that plagued Bohemian Rhapsody. Judy does not shy away from showing the hardships that Garland endured. From being forced to take pills at a young age to attaching herself to men who don’t deserve her in an attempt to feel loved, there isn’t much happiness to be found in the film.
Director Rupert Gold was never going to lie to his audience. The final few months of Garland’s career were emotionally exhausting. Gould’s honesty behind the camera would have made Garland proud. His direction is low key, which is exactly what the film required. The only major moment of direction is when Garland is on stage. Instead of filling her numbers with background dancers and vivid images, Gould chooses to have only Judy and her band on stage. A decision which makes the viewer feel as if they are at one of her shows. At times the script from Tom Edge can feel like it came straight from a soap opera, there are a few moments involving her love interest Mickey (Finn Wittrock) that you’d see down in the Queen Vic. Edge makes up for these moments with an all-timer final line. No spoilers here but it will break you as a human being.
Judy more than does justice to the legacy of Judy Garland. Aided by rising star Jesse Buckley as her tour assistant, Rosalyn, Zellweger gives the performance of a lifetime. At the very least she’ll be waiting to hear an Oscar result in the Dolby Theatre come February. Darci Shaw as the younger Judy is as convincing as the legendary child actor. Shaw has a bright future ahead of her and will have all the support systems around her to make sure she’s comfortable every step of the way. It’s important for younger audiences to know what the world used to be like for rising stars. It’s up to us to ensure that Hollywood never regresses back to its former state. Even though she is no longer with us we can get justice for Judy Garland. Somewhere over the rainbow she’ll be watching down on us with a smile.
DIR: Todd Phillips • WRI: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver • DOP: Lawrence Sher • ED: Jeff Groth • DES: Mark Friedberg • PRO: Bradley Cooper, Todd Phillips, Emma Tillinger Koskoff • MUS: Hildur Guðnadóttir • CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro
Why do the lonely quiet American boys find themselves drawn to violence? Beneath the mask of a film about one of the most iconic comic book villains, writer-director Todd Phillips has crafted a stark character study that deals with just that. Joker is a powerhouse cinematic odyssey, that descends into the inner psyche of failing comedian, Arthur Fleck. This is the kind of visceral, unfettered filmmaking, that induces states of near-paralysis, as it pushes forward, in a bold, desperate search for catharsis.
The year is 1980, or maybe 81. Arthur(Joaquin Phoenix) brushes white clown makeup on in careful strokes. His face is gaunt and sickly white, his hair, long and disheveled. He studies his face in the mirror and brandishes a smile. His lonely eyes radiate nothing but unsettling anxiety, none of which disappears after he’s viciously mugged on the streets of Gotham. Naturally, none of this helps Arthur’s mental health, which is in dire straits, but he can’t seem to stop laughing, “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” he says to his psychologist, but what can she even say.
Arthur lives in a derelict block in a cramped apartment with his mother ( Frances Conroy). She’s frail, withered, and her words are a tangle of hopeless delusions. She’s convinced would-be Mayor, Thomas Wayne, is going to help her and Arthur rise out of destitution. But when a colleague at work gives him a gun for protection, Arthur’s life quickly descends into hellish depths of tragedy. Threatened by a trio of businessmen on the subway he snaps, murdering them with a rain of gunfire. This act is hailed by some as justice for Gotham’s disenfranchised citizens, and riotous mobs gather in the streets, hailing the Clown killer a hero. This growing social unrest and newfound celebrity, only seem to propel Arthur’s prophetic transformation into Joker.
This is a career-defining performance, by one of the best character actors of his generation. Joaquin Phoenix never flinches, as he boldly risks everything to bring Arthur to life. His performance is a nuanced dance, that hovers through a netherworld, between humanity and psychosis to a state of virtuoso insanity. Phoenix brings a sincerity and empathy to a man who goes over the cliff edge of his own sanity. The cast is rounded out with stellar supporting performances from Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Robert DeNiro, and Marc Maron.
Director Todd Phillips’ cinematic vision has a clear foundation in the language and style of ’70s cinema, owing a clear debt to Taxi Driver in particular. The harsh bleak realism of Joker is balanced with bursts of the surreal. The grit of the streets and back alleys is met with the fluorescent color of Jokers’ transcendent dances. Joker’s Gotham is a darkened landscape of oppressive shadows and tiering skyscrapers. The tightknit lighting and camera work comes courtesy of cinematographer Lawrence Sher. But all this is elevated by Hildur Guonadottir’s menacing score, which seemingly ignites the embers raging within Arthur’s heart. And none of this would have been possible, without the Trojan work of production designer Mark Friedberg, and Oscar-winning costume designer Mark Bridges, who both bring the world to life.
Ultimately, Joker is near Shakespearean in its tragic scope. It’s Macbeth for the comic book movie generation, and easily the most morally complex comic book film since The Dark Knight. This isn’t a black and white portrayal of a villain, the moral boundaries here are far more ambiguous. When you strip away all justice, fairness, and equality, and push a mentally sick person to the absolute limit, the result is never going to be a pretty picture. Ultimately, any discomfort or objections to the film will derive from the uncomfortable realization, that most people, given the right circumstances, are capable of some pretty terrible things. But at the end of the day, this is a film about how a monster is made, and what’s terrifying is his humanity, expecting anything less would just be a mistake. And when Joker finally hits his punchline, he gets the last laugh; and it’s electric to watch.
DIR: Michael Engler • WRI: Julian Fellowes • DOP: Ben Smithard • ED: Mark Day • DES: Donal Woods • PRO: Julian Fellowes, Gareth Neame, Liz Trubridge • MUS: John Lunn • CAST: Michelle Dockery, Tuppence Middleton, Maggie Smith
After fifty-two episodes, over six seasons, Downton Abbey left our television screens on Christmas Day 2015; while ending on a joyous high, the loss of such a beloved series was felt by fans. Not long after, rumours of Downton Abbey heading for the big screen were spreading; but that is all I viewed them as: rumours, and empty promises. Four years later creator Julian Fellowes made good on that promise, delivering a sumptuous adaptation that pays service to the fans who followed Downton and its residents for so long. Being a fan of the television series, I was very excited to see Downton Abbey one last time, but slightly apprehensive about how it would translate on film, and whether the story would be interesting enough to hold audiences attention for two hours. I clearly needn’t have worried. While Downton worked really well as a television series, there are details that can only be truly appreciated when seeing it in the cinema; such as the first shot of the house. This first look at the manor, after four years, along with the recognisable Downton theme tune playing, felt like coming home. The lavish interiors, and the costumes are even more beautiful on the cinema screen.
The movie is set in 1927, and King George V and Queen Mary are visiting Downton. A fuss ensues as the servants prepare the house for the visit, while the Lord’s and Lady’s worry about what to wear for the occasion. All the usual suspects are involved in the film: Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Tom Branson (Allen Leech), Mr. and Mrs. Bates (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt), Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) and, of course, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), who, as always, steals any scene she’s in. The wit and sharp tongue that fans have loved from Smith’s character has remained, and her scheming ways continue; the film acknowledges the importance of her character in a poignant, but appropriate way.
What Downton has always been good at, is the equal attention to the stories and lives of those from different classes, audiences know just as much about a Lady’s maid as they do about the Lady, and the film picks up from where the series left off: we get to see Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) happy in her married life with husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), something which seemed unlikely for most of the series after she eventually became resigned to the fact that she would never find love; we see Anna and John Bates with their son; Lady Mary, who was pregnant at the series end, had a daughter with second husband Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode); romance brews for the widowed Branson; and Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) are the quintessential old married couple.
The movie deals with historical issues, such as the criminalising of homosexuality, and how this affects Barrow’s life; this had been dealt with in the series, and is continued in the film, the course which this storyline takes leaves some hope that romance might be possible for the character. Most interesting, from an Irish perspective, was the way they dealt with Branson, and his republican past, and what that meant in relation to the pending royal visit. As much as I like Branson, there was something in the way they used his character that left me somewhat miffed, as though they were demonstrating how the elite life can ‘reform’ the once radical Irish.
Most of the humour throughout was, of course, courtesy of the Dowager’s and Isobel Crawley’s (Penelope Wilton) friendly bickering, but some also came from Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), whose excitement at the opportunity to serve the King and Queen left him forgetful of the ‘proper etiquette’ of a servant. However, the power struggle between the servants of Downton, and the royal servants was rather entertaining as well.
This film is essentially fan service, allowing fans to revel in the grandeur of Downton and the lives of its characters one more time. The final shots of the characters and the last look at the manor will leave fans content with the knowledge that Downton Abbey has opened its doors to audiences for the last time.
DIR: James Gray • WRI: James Gray, Ethan Gross • DOP: Hoyte Van Hoytema • ED: John Axelrad, Lee Haugen • DES: Kevin Thompson • PRO: Dede Gardner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Arnon Milchan, Yariv Milchan, Brad Pitt, Rodrigo Teixeira • MUS: Max Richter • CAST: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland
Space is a fascinating concept. Down here on earth we look up to the stars and dream of one day touching them. If we go high enough in our attempts to reach them, we will be greeted by an endless vacuum of darkness populated by planets that no human has ever graced. It’s hard to fathom that with all the technology that’s available to us we still haven’t fully explored the known universe. Imagine what may lie past our solar system. These incomprehensible visions of space have gifted audiences with some of the best films of all time. Kubrick gave us 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan gave us Interstellar. Cuaron gave us Gravity. Chazelle gave us First Man. Scott gave us The Martian. All these auteurs have attempted to capture the awe and wonder of space. These directors have taken on board ships to help us reach the stars. Ad Astra sees James Gray tackle the genre which is perhaps the hardest to master. Yet master is exactly what Gray does as this is a film that is not only the best of 2019 so far but is the film that should catapult Gray into superstardom.
Ad Astra tells the story of Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) an astronaut whose father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) helms The Lima project, the project focuses on finding out what wonders exist in our solar system. When Clifford stops reporting to base Roy must go on a monumental mission to Neptune to save both his strained relationship with his father and the world. Going into Ad Astra its best to know as little plot details as possible. The only film that compares to Ad Astra is Apocalypse Now. Except you have to swap the jungle for space, Michael Sheen for Brad Pitt and Marlon Brando with Tommy Lee Jones. This is an exploration into the heart of darkness of space and the human mind.
Those expecting a huge blockbuster need to know that it is a drama, not an action film. That’s not to say that there is no action to be found. There are four to five enthralling sequences that are pulse-racing. Everything about the action feels real even if we can’t relate to what we are seeing on screen. The opening sequence that finds Roy hurtling to earth is astonishing. From the off, it’s clear that this film is giving the audience an experience that they have never had before. A space-buggy chase on the moon is science fiction at its best. When you think you’ve seen everything that the moon has to offer on film, Ad Astra gives you a chase sequence unlike any other. The film makes the brave decision of keeping the action to a minimum. A decision that elevates the film above 90% of science fiction. Ad Astra is an examination of the mind. Action is used as a means of testing the character’s emotional strength as much as their physicality. Every decision the characters make when dealing with a potential catastrophe matter. The world of Ad Astra is as unforgiving as the real world.
Brad Pitt has been on a roll recently. Pitt is one of the final examples of the almost extinct concept of the A-lister. It’s easy to forget that there was a stage in Pitt’s career where he was unfairly mocked. Critics tended to write off Pitt as an actor who only took safe choices. As if his roles in Snatch, Fight Club and Twelve Monkeys never happened. The past decade has seen Pitt win the respect he deserves from critics. From Inglorious Bastards onwards Pitt received the rightful reputation as one of the best actors working today.
Ad Astra may be the best work of the esteemed actor’s career to date. While not as flashy as the other characters that Pitt has played. Roy McBride is the most important. A stoic character who even though on the surface he’s a man whose heart rate has never exceeded 85 BPM, he’s suffering internally. Through a voiceover that plays Roy’s thoughts to the audience, we get an insight into a damaged mind. Pitt gives a nuanced performance that captures what it’s like to suffer mentally. As someone who suffers from severe depression, I appreciated how the film handles it. Even though on the outside we may act as if everything is okay, often on the inside we are suffering immense pain. As the film progresses Roy’s esteem sinks lower and lower. Pitt doesn’t change his performance. Outside of a single tear rolling down his cheek there is no extreme outburst of emotion. Yet, he is not emotionless. Pitt’s performance is one that must be seen by any aspiring actor. Less is often more. Thanks to his flawless subtle performance Pitt could be on the way to his first Oscar win.
Obviously saying that Roy is the main character is an understatement, nevertheless Ad Astra would not work without the side characters who, while only having a few minutes of screentime, each add layers of depth to the story. Ireland’s own Ruth Negga on the back of her first Oscar nomination appears during an interval on Mars. Negga’s Helen is a similar character to Roy except for the way she’s able to control her sadness. It’s disappointing that Negga is only in one segment of the film, but it’s clear as day that the Irish native is a genuine star.
Donald Sutherland plays Colonel McBride, a veteran astronaut who serves as a reminder of the relationship that Roy could have had with his father. Sutherland is seldom seen on screen these days. Yet even in the latter stages of his career the actor gives a performance of a man who never left his prime. Tommy Lee Jones as Roy’s father is a character who is talked about more than actually seen. Following nearly the entirety of the film building up to his arrival it easily could have fallen flat. Jones knocks his performance out of the park, giving his best performance since No Country for Old Men. The payoff to the father-son relationship will have everyone in the theatre wanting to give their dad a hug when they arrive home. After all it’s the relationship we have with our parents that impact us the most as people.
James Gray is no stranger to ambitious films. His last feature, The Lost City of Z, took audiences on a journey through the Amazon. A journey which showed that Gray is not interested in taking the easy route. With Ad Astra Gray wants the audience to feel as if they themselves are going on an intergalactic quest. The direction of the film is brilliant. Never before has a space film felt this real. It would not be surprising to learn that he and Pitt went to space for a few months to film. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema treats the world to some of the most beautiful images of space to ever grace the screen. As a large portion of the film is spent solely with Roy traveling through space, there was a high chance that the film could have felt lifeless. However, the score from Max Richter is perfection. It almost feels as if the music is a character of its own. If you have no interest in seeing the film do yourself a favour and buy the soundtrack. Gray also makes the wise decision of not filling his film with unnecessary sentimentality. Interstellar would have been a perfect film if the plot wasn’t bogged down by a forced love story. Instead Gray leaves details of the romantic past between Roy and Eve (Liv Tyler) to our imagination. In an age where studio films suggest that the only way to be a man is to fight your way through every battle, Gray gives a healthy account of what masculinity should be. Gray wants the world to know that a hero does not have to be an emotionless machine who generates random quips. It’s okay for men to feel emotion. If anything, it makes you more of a man.
Ad Astra is the film equivalent of a solar eclipse. A film of this quality may only arrive every couple of years; when it does arrive it truly is special. The performances, direction, score, cinematography, themes, and impact all fit together perfectly to make the finest film of the year. For all those times you looked up to the stars as a kid and wondered “what if I made it up there?”, Ad Astra gives you the answer. Many will write off the film for being slow, yet that is what the world needs right now. With all the horrors and monstrosities happening around us. Perhaps, it’s time to stop and reflect. Ask ourselves why are we allowing the world to be this way. It’s time for change. Ad Astra is a sign of an important change in the industry. It’s about time.