Get Duked!

boyz_in_the_wood_xlg.jpg On a given Saturday evening I was searching to watch something, when I came across this little entry on Amazon prime. The poster and the trailer looked fun enough, and since it is a fresh 2020 release, I was more than curious to check it out. The trailer had an Attack The Block feeling with a bit of Hard Target sprinkled in. Should be fun, I said. To make things more legit, a critic that I follow on Letterboxd gave this movie a rather positive review, so I was expecting to discover a hidden gem. You know, the movie that  is really good, but it is too small for anybody to discover it since it went straight to VOD or streaming and has 0 big names in it or attached. The kind of movie one can be snobbish about that they know it and others do not. I was expecting that. What I got was probably a worthy candidate for the top 10 worst movies I saw in this decade.

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Tenet

 

Tenet is the only major theatrical movie release of the 2020 summer season. Since march, every title that was scheduled to be released has moved either to 2021 or to VOD due to the Covid19 restrictions. Yet Warner brothers and Christopher Nolan stood defiantly against this tide and made good on their word to have this movie released this year and as God (Nolan) had planned. Ok, there was a minor hick-up of 6 weeks, but still. Christopher Nolan is probably the only director today who’s name holds enough sway to put butts in seats in a theater, regardless who is starring in his movie and what that movie is about, so naturally the studio had some high expectation in terms of box office, especially since they bet over 200 million dollars on an entirely original, non IP/franchise, script and on Nolans name. In an age when even the legend Scorsese has to bite his tongue and team up with streaming services to get funding to his projects, this is no small feat. The plan was that by the time that US theaters would open back up, Tenet would be the only major welcoming title on display. Alas, things did not go as well as it was hoped, and theaters in the US are mostly closed than opened, and given the huge bill this movie has worked up, Warner had to scrap any conventional release strategy and went ahead with releasing the movie anywhere it could to start making back its investment as soon as possible. As such, Tenet is no longer the movie that saved theaters after Covid. But could it have been?

 

Short answer: no, not really. In an age when studios and directors are afraid to challenge their audience and are treating them as small children by explaining everything in the movie, Nolan does the complete opposite and sets the bars so high for the viewer that I am afraid most people will just quit instead of putting in the effort. And should one rise to the occasion, the payoff is somewhat subpar. This is not me saying that the movie is bad, because its not, but it definitely comes across as, shall we say, overpriced. 

 

The story is as follows: the protagonist (thats his name, even in the credits – played by John David Washington) is a CIA agent that is tasked to a very clandestine mission after an assignment went quite wrong. He learns that he has to prevent the third world war, something that will be worse than a nuclear holocaust, but he is flying blind, as nobody that guides him knows the entire picture of what is going on, and this is by design, apparently. Eventually he is targeting a Russian arms dealer, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) through his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a distant member of the British aristocracy. Also, he gets a small team to help out, composed by Neil (Robert Pattinson), Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mahir (Himesh Patel). Michael Caine is also credited in the movie, but he only appears in one scene. 

 

If we subtract the sci-fi elements, the basic plot is something out of a standard James Bond movie. Secret society member Russian arms dealer plans something horrid for the world, rival secret society member secret agent has to save the world and the damsel in distress wife of bad guy is caught in the crossfire. Seems pretty straight forward, doesn’t it? Problem is, once you add back the sci-fi aspect of the story a number of things begin to happen. First, you will struggle to keep up with the movie for the initial two thirds, because its structure is everything but straight forward. You will get hit by information and questions in an alarming rate and thins will just keep piling up with no break in sight for you to be able to process everything until like the beginning of the third act. Also here, on many occasions, you will not be able to understand what the people on screen are saying. Either a sound mixing was done very poorly or it was done in such high quality that 99% of theaters just don’t have the capacity for anything else than to butcher it. The second thing that will happen is that due to the afford mentioned cascade of information to digest, you will have no capacity to register anything else you would with a normal movie, such as chemistry between characters, humor, the musical score, etc. Honestly, during my first screening of this movie, I could not help to think that I am watching a specked up Quantum of Solace, as despite the quality of the acting, action and everything else that was on screen, nothing seemed to mix with each other. It was only during my second screening that I started to notice how actually there is a vibe between the characters, that the musical score is doing certain things during certain moments, that I have discovered that there is an actual movie here and not just noise. But I had to learn the lay of the land first, so to speak. Just as certain foods needs to be reheated for a second time for the tastes to really mix, so is Tenet in need for at least 2 viewings to be somewhat understood, as the overall story is just too much for anything else to be perceived during the first viewing. Unfortunately, while the movie is good, it is not great. The baseline Bond story is nowhere near to match the sci-fi shtick it is being applied to, or the masterful execution of it. The Russian bad guy is painfully standard issue and not even Kenneth Branagh’s performance could have saved it from being a complete cliché. In a same manner, Elizabeth Debicki’s character is also a cookie cutter abused wife, with nothing original going on. Even worse, in every other movie that she is in, Debicki is playing some sort of abused wife/girlfriend, that she is on the verge of being typecast. Given her talent and the she looks like Galadriel incarnate, this is very unfortunate. The protagonist is in a marginally better situation, as he is written in a more lively manner and John David Washington’s screen presence does channel a much needed freshness. That being said, the protagonist doesn’t even have a name or backstory. All that we know about him is what he does, namely taking out bad guys and saving as many innocents as possible. I guess characterization through action does have it merits. The only figures with any “meat on their bones” are Neil, Ives and Mahir, the protagonist’s small team members, which even with a much less screen time feel more 3D than everybody else combined. 

The major selling point of the movie is the action. Which is just mind boggling. It looks great, it is innovative and more importantly, it is real. Nolan did not use any green screens, the actors are actually doing what you see they are doing, the plane you see exploding in the trailer is an actual, full size plane, not a model or computer animation. The number of VFX shots in this movie is under 300, while Batman Begins has over 600, and thats a movie that hasn’t got any of the wonders you will see in Tenet. There are 4 major action set pieces and all of them are impressive, to say the least. If there is anything that will encourage a second viewing fo Tenet, it will be the action. 

The cinematography was done by Hoyte Van Hoytema, and it is crisp and brilliant, as expected. This is the third Nolan movie in a row where Hoytema helms the photography, as this honor belonged to Wally Pfinster ever since Nolan did Memento back in 2000. In any ways, Hoytema’s name is a guarantee for visual excellence, even if the movies he is involved with might not turn out to be the expected success (see Ad Astra).

The score is done by Ludwig Göransson, which is another departure from Nolan’s regular crew, as usually he employs Hans Zimmer to do the music. Unfortunately, Zimmer  was unavailable for the job, so it went to his protégé, Göransson. If you are unfamiliar with his name, he did the score for both Creed movies, Black Panther – for which he received the Oscar, and more recently, the score for the Mandalorian series. That being said, the score is a typical Nolan score, loud and grandiose. However, due to the nature of the movie, there are moments where  Göransson has room to show creativity, which work extremely well, but again, it is unlikely that these will be discovered during the first viewing of the movie. That being said, they will be a rewarding find in later screenings.

All things considered, from a technical point of view, Tenet will age gracefully and will be able to hold its own ground even 20-30 years from now, just as Jurassic Park still can do it today.

 

As for Nolan as a writer/director, well… As I mentioned in the opening, he is the only one director in the business today that can will an ambitious and original project into existence with full funding and virtually zero studio interference. The only one that can deliver originality, prestige and box office at the same time. However, this is the second movie in a row, where the concept of the movie was more important to him than the story he put on the screen. With Dunkirk, this wasn’t that much of an issue, as given that stories nature, it lended itself quite well to become that conceptual experience ride that Nolan has envisioned. In Tenet however, this is not the case. The base concept is just too demanding of a story that is underdeveloped, despite the movies 2 and a half hour long runtime. Christopher Nolan the director has finally grasped beyond the reach of Christopher  Nolan the writer. Now, in any given year, this would result in a box office disaster that would ruin Nolan’s stellar record. But we are in 2020, so the box office disaster is a default regardless of the quality of the movie, and maybe, given the circumstances, more people would return to see Tenet in theaters than otherwise in a packed summer season, when every week there are 2-3 new major releases to compete for peoples attention and money. So I would say that Nolan got a “get out of jail free” card this time. Hopefully, he will use it wisely. None the less, this is by far the most ambitious undertaking Nolan has ever produced, and this needs to be praised. Also here, many were theorizing that Tenet is somehow linked to Inception, as if they were in the same universe, a theory strengthen by the 10 years anniversary rerelease of Inception back in theaters. There is absolutely zero connection between the two movies besides Christopher Nolan being in the directors chair and Michael Caine briefly on the screen.  

 

Overall, Tenet is a challenging piece of cinema, that, despite its shortcomings, must be cherished and nurtured. Although, as original as Nolan is – and he is original – it would help him to stop trying to be our days version of Kubrick.

 

Sátántangó

 

My initial plan for this weeks review was to write about Terminator: Dark Fate. It has opened this week and I had some pretty good ideas for it. But then I saw Sátántangó, and I had to change my mind. Now, despite being a self-appointed movie connoisseur, I have to admit that I have some serious gaps in my repertoire as far as movie classics go and even more so when it comes to Hungarian cinema. I am Hungarian, but somehow my native country’s movies never really managed to grab my interest, as most of them felt like they are following the same cook book: grab a handful of the countries biggest acting names and use them to sell the movie, no need for scripts. So I think I can be excused for not showing enthusiasm for Hungarian films. Nevertheless, the opportunity has presented itself for me to take part of the screening of one of the most critically acclaimed Hungarian movie of all time, Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, so I went for it. The event marked the 25th anniversary of the original release of the movie and also celebrated the fact that the movie has been transferred to 4K and will be rereleased on Blu-ray and digital VOD in the following months.

Now, lets start with the obvious. This is a long movie. To be more precise, it is 7 hours and 30 minutes long. That is almost as long as the entire last season of Game Of Thrones back to back, give or take about 10 minutes. That is a lot of movie. Thankfully, there were 2 intermissions during the screening, and as far as I can tell, their placement were designed by the filmmakers, so there is no unrealistic expectation on their behalf that you should be able to sit trough a workday amount of time with no bathroom break. Also, given the length, I was expecting a really eventful story. I mean, you can unpack a lot in almost 8 hours of screen time. But to my surprise, the overall story is not that big or complicated. It could have been boiled down to an easy 2 hours long cut, maybe even shorter. The length of the movie is in fact not dictated by the story but by the length of each individual shot. Something that in other movies would have been only 5-10 seconds long, here can linger on a good 5 minutes on the screen. During the first intermission I was searching the cast and crew list on my phone just to see if there is an editor listed among them, as I was fairly convinced (still am) that everything that Tarr Béla has shot for the movie has ended up in the movie. That being said, the other surprising thing that I found with this movie was that its length had not taken nearly as big of a toll on me as I feared it would. It is incredibly well paced. In fact, there are a lot of regular length movies that have drained me a great deal more than Sátántangó did. However, if it were not for a theatrical screening, I don’t think I would have had the patience to watch it all the way through. And for many, it did prove to be too much, as we started the screening with a sold out, full room and by the end about half the people were no longer in their seats.
 

The story is as follows: a small group of people are living in a run down, middle of nowhere, isolated little agricole commune. It is late autumn, it is constantly raining and everybody is awaiting their big payday for their year long toil. Some have more ambitious plans for the money, than others. However, all their plans are blown out of the water when they learn that Irimiás and Petrina, 2 long gone colleagues that everybody thought to be dead, are on their way back to the commune. Everybody is afraid that Irimiás will take away their one chance of getting out of the shithole they are living in. As such, they began scheming.
While the story is simple and could have been easily covered in just 2 hours, you will have questions. Some things are never fully explained. And while I would really like to know the answers to my questions, in the grand scheme of things, these answers are not necessary. That being said, we do get to know well our protagonists. We get to walk a mile in their shoes, to feel their feelings, fear their fears, live their misery. We are getting intimate with them. Thank God that we cannot smell what they smell because that would be a most foul of experience. There are some scenes though that are very though to go through, like one with animal cruelty. One cat might have bought the short end of the stick in this movie. I still hope that it was only movie magic what I have seen. There was one more scene where one of the characters was repeating the same stuff, over and over again, like a broke record. Sure, he was supposed to be drunk and the behavior was very consistent with this, but having to listen for 10 minutes non-stop the same awful story on full volume, is a bit too much.
 
As for the characters, this is an ensemble type of movie, with no clear lead, although one might argue that Irimiás is definitely the lead. I wouldn’t agree with that, but I can understand the viewpoint. Some characters prove to be more important than others, as in as much that they have some individual plot lines as well within the movie, such as Futaki, the Schimdts, Irimiás, the doctor and the little girl Estike. The remaining characters are just coming along for the ride. The actors are all excellent, giving powerhouse level performances. Remember, this is a movie of extremely long shots, so getting them just right is much more difficult. Also, there are a lot of close up shots, where there is no speech, just the actors staring at things, yet they manage to transmit the exact message that the story requires: fear, hope, misery, disbelief and so on.
The music in this movie is just haunting. Mostly piano and accordion music, but never a warm sounding instrument in the mix. Even when the scene tries to be a hopeful one, the music smuggles in a note of sorrow. It’s a perfect blend of hopefulness and sadness. Perfect to get drunk to.
 
One aspect that I have not mentioned is that the entire movie is shot in black in white. This, combined with the fact that it is always raining, one could say that this is a perfect example of a Hungarian noir film. And yes, same as other noir movies, this too has its mysteries and tragical nature. If fact, the entire story behind Irimiás has a David Lynch sort of vibe to it, one that is not meant to be understood, one that is meant to cause wonder.
 
This movie has surprised me. I have went in the theater with no expectations other than to be able to put the check mark next to another name on the “movie classics that I have seen in the cinema” list and to have the bragging rights that yes, I have sat trough a 7 hours plus movie. I did not expect to be moved as much as this movie has moved me. Often I was annoyed, often I was disgusted, often I was checking my watch. I truly believe that this film needs and editor that can cut it down to just 2 hours. Yet, after all this, I would not change a thing. This movie just works as is. And it could only work as is. It is a slow burn roller coaster. A cinematic pilgrimage that you need to do at least once in your life. it’s a hard watch. It’s a must watch. Go out and see it.

The Lighthouse

“Nothing good can happen when two men are trapped alone in a giant phallus.”said the director of this film, Robert Eggers. And he wasn’t wrong. Two men, tending a lighthouse on a small rock in the middle of the ocean… what could go wrong? Well, plenty.

The lighthouse is the newest release from A24, the small powerhouse of a movie studio that cranks out nothing but critically acclaimed movies. And in true fashion, this outing will too be praised by the connoisseurs. It’s like a film made in the golden age of Hollywood, but with today’s standards of boundaries and sensibilities. But make no mistake, this is a pure blood horror movie, as if taken from the pages of a Lovecraft novel, dark, cold, wet and mad.
As already stated, the movie is about two men that are on a 4 weeklong assignment to tend to a lighthouse on a small rock, in the middle of the ocean. One is an old, sea battled sailor, played by Willem Dafoe, who is rather a dick. By the virtue of age and experience, not to mention post, he acts like a tyrant, but under that layer of confidence and authority there is a tremendous dose of madness and insecurity. The other occupant of the island is a young man, played by Robert Pattinson, that is visibly inexperienced and not keen of being where he is at the moment. But he views his post as a quick fix for his predicament, as in to get back on his own feet and becoming its own master. Now, if only his boss would not be such a major asshole… Now, I don’t have to emphasis that this whole movie rests on the shoulders of these two actors. And they deliver, in spades. Dafoe is just poster perfect for an old, battered sailor. His looks, his accents, his everything. We have all grown accustomed to his level of work quality and he does not disappoint. As for Pattinson, long gone are the days of Twilight. While everybody was sleeping on him, the man has quietly built up an impressive resume with roles in small, but universally acclaimed movies. He might have gotten a foothold in Hollywood due to a worthless cash grab of a franchise, but he sure as hell has the chops to prove himself worthy of his movie star status.

The movie is shot in black in white, with an unusual aspect ratio, that makes the frame into a square, basically. These choices just amplify the already lingering sensation of claustrophobia. Everything is just in your face and you have nowhere to go and get away. The film was shot on location in Nova Scotia, meaning that all the waves, winds, storms, every weather feature displayed on screen was shot for real, with no help of any machinery that would have been deployed normally to aid the film makers. No, everything was for real, which made the filming process as much of a horror show as the movie is. To be fair, this is not the first horror for the director, Robert Eggers. He is also the one responsible for another hit movie from a couple of years ago, The Witch.

Now, after all this that has been said, one would expect from me to say that I liked this movie. I really did not. It is a good movie. Great even. All the bits used in the making are top shelf and even more, they match. But this is just not my cup of tea. The whole time of the screening I felt like I am doing some nasty chore outside, while I am being rained upon. I have felt the same way as the protagonists, trapped on that island and wanting to go home. It is an uncomfortable watch and I don’t see myself revisiting it, ever again. But you should see it. If not for anything else, than just to see a truly original movie, that people say that is in short supply these days (it really isn’t)…

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Joker

Whatever you thought you knew about the Joker before, from the comics, cartoons, movies… whatever expectations you had for this movie based on the trailers, movie news and rumors, interviews, released pictures, whatever… best leave them all behind when you enter the screening room to see this movie. Seriously. This is not the movie you were expecting. Trust me on this one. I was ready to unload a barrage of hate on Joker. I thought that it was a gimmick, another empty shell of a movie to offer an excuse for an actor to go full method in front of the camera while the studios fill up their pockets on brand recognition. I was ready to declare it useless, top 10 worst of the year… and then I went and saw it. Most of what I saw, I did not like. There were many moments in this movie that I out right hated. But I have to admit it, this movie is powerful. This movie has a message. Many people will get the wrong message out of the story. Perhaps I did too. Non the less, Joker is a memorable watch and unlike other “masterpieces” it will not fade away after the end of the awards season. That being said, I still wish that this movie would not have been made…

*** possible spoilers ahead***

You could say that this is an origin story. We get to assist to the birth of the Joker. But that is irrelevant. The Joker character, Gotham city, every bit of link to the comic book universe is nothing more than a façade, a mask that allows for a powerful social critique, a satire even, to explode on the movie screen before as many eyeballs as possible with major studio backing. It’s the movie version of the trojan horse. But lets regroup… The movie begins with Arthur Fleck on the jobs, as a clown for hire, flipping a promo board for a store on the streets of Gotham. Some kids decide to have a good time on Arthurs expense. They steal his board and eventually Arthur gets beaten up badly. And things are only going to get worse for Arthur.
Arthur is a walking talking tragedy. He had a traumatic childhood, lives with his mother who is delusional, he has no money, no prospects. He also has a mental condition that manifests itself in the form of uncontrollable laughter. Most of the time, he talks and behaves as a 6 year old child. And he is trying to pursue his dream to succeed as a stand up comic, but he has zero talent for it. Basically, he is a loser. To makes things worse, he lives in Gotham, a big city situated somewhere in the 70s era, where everything is old and ruined down, nothing works, where the poor are only getting poorer and surviving is hard, and nobody cares about anything and anybody. Arthur Fleck is a snowflake in hell.
And here comes my big problem with the movie. In my interpretation, the movie is a clear critique of todays world, in every aspect of it, it takes all the social hot topics of the real world and rolls them into one. However, I cannot decide where exactly is the movie landing these issues. It could be viewed as a shrewd awareness piece about the injustice of the system, how it pushes the everyday person to breaking point. But one can also say that the movie is making fun of every social justice warrior by providing them an avatar in the for of the Joker, this movies version of it, at least. And while normally the Joker figure is a strong, powerful figure, here he is anything but. He is delusional, not particularly smart, he wants things but instead of working for them he just make-believes them and has no idea what to do when presented with the opportunity to actually realize his wishes. When he finally makes his voice heard, his outcry is about the lack of civility, kindness and compassion, all of which are good and noble things, yet he has killed many and instead of guilt and shame, he feels satisfied with his actions, which makes him a hypocrite. So indeed, having this version of the Joker as an avatar is of no favor to anybody. The border between the two possible interpretation is paper thin. Maybe its so by design. Maybe I have missed the movies point entirely. It is in the Jokers nature to be ambiguous, to leave you wondering if there is anything you have missed, that can bite you back later on. Or it can be looked at as playing it safe by not picking a side and leaving the viewer with the bill to pay for having a not so ambiguous opinion that most likely will clash with someone else’s.
From a technical point of view, this movie is up to par with what is expected by a tentpole title made by one of Hollywood’s big players, Warner Bros. Director/screenwriter Todd Philips has a clear vision of what this movie wants to be and translates it onto the screen flawlessly. It is somewhat interesting the turn he took in movie, from directing movies such as Old School, Starsky & Hutch and the Hangover trilogy, to end up delivering such a dark diamond in a rough. As for Joaquin Phoenix, you can hand out the Oscar for best lead actor right now. I might hate his played characters guts, but what he did on screen is nothing short of brilliant. Unfortunately, he seems to have a knack for twisted, fringe characters and he isn’t really interested in anything else. He did a similarly powerful performance in You Were Never Really Here, just a couple of years ago, thankfully here there is an actual story to back up the acting. The other big names in the movie, such as Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy and Brett Cullen are all great as expected, but any serviceable actor could have replaced them as they do not have much to do, this is a one man show, after all.
Like I said, this film is powerful. I don’t like it, but it most likely will be in my top 10 of the year, as it has earned its right to be there. I still wish that this movie would have not been made because I am genuinely concerned about how the Joker, the core character of it, is adored and worshipped. Thankfully, this version of Joker is not that.

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Parasite

Parasite is a hard watch. And I am not saying that because of the subtitles. Instead, the movie presents us with a story that unfold in a world, or better said, worlds, that are rather alien to ours by culture, and in which there isn’t a single element that somebody with common sense could approve of. Slowly but surely, Parasite emerges as one of this year’s film festivals darling, which speaks a lot for its quality, and surely enough, it is one of the must see films of 2019.

The story is about a family of 4: father, mother, son and daughter, that live in a small, semi-underground apartment, in one of many slums in South Korea. They are poor, but they seem to be ok with it, as long as they can make ends meet with as little work as possible, even if that means cutting corners or ripping others off. One day, the opportunity presents itself for the son of the family to score himself a good job, by pretending to be a university student. He is hired to be an English tutor for the daughter of a rather wealthy family that lives in a very exclusive, gated community. It doesn’t take long for the son to assess just how gullible the rich family is in order to play them to get more and more for his family. Everything seems to go just fine until one rainy evening…
In all honesty, this movie is a roller coaster. It takes some time for things to get going, but once they do, the twists and turns just keep on coming. It is one of the most interesting movies ever about class struggle. The poor family vs. the rich family. The cockroaches vs. the gods of Olympus. Both factions have mortal sins, but at the same time, they have virtue as well. The poor, while being shady and malevolent, are surprisingly sophisticated and resourceful. They prove again and again that just because they are poor it doesn’t means that they are any less rich people, that if they have the chance, they can easily surpass anybody else just by sheer merit. On the other hand, the rich people, while being nice and generous and always playing by the rules, they are dismissive of others, and are treating their staff as nothing more talking household appliances that are available for them any time of the day just because they are getting payed. They can literally smell the poor and they don’t like it. Add to this cat and mouse game the setting of South Korea (bill collectors, the fear from the North, the always polite mannerisms, etc.) and you get a rather surreal picture, at least from a western point of view.
In a way, Parasite is a great companion piece to Us, the movie released earlier this year by Jordan Peele. They both tackle the same subject with surprising similarities, Joon-ho Bong’s movie is much more subtle and believable than Peele’s, yet, despite not being a horror film, it is disturbing just the same.

It would be a disservice not to watch this movie in a theater. Not because its visuals or sounds are breathtaking, but because this movie demands an attention that most of us are lacking in the comforts of our home. Add to this that Parasite is a foreign language film (for most of us anyway) and the chances that you will check out early from the movie skyrockets. Which would be a real shame, since this is one of the best films of 2019. So treat it, and yourself, in an adequate manner, and go see it in the theaters. These movies need our box office support. But if you don’t, don’t ever complain to me about the total lack of original movies…

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Ad Astra

It is rare for me to watch the same movie twice in theaters and even more so to do it within 24 hours. In fact, I have not done this ever, until today, but this film demanded it. I did not know much about the story before the first viewing. I knew that it was a space opera, so I was really hoping for it to be good, as this is probably my utmost favorite genre and there aren’t that many entries in it, at least not in the last two decades. Brad Pitt was the lead actor, so I knew that the acting will be good, and the buzz from the critics seemed favorable enough, so I was hoping for this movie to become the next best thing ever, at least in my eyes. Afterwards, knowing what the movie was about, I went back to see it again, to find out if there is anything that I might have missed the first time around, some hidden subtleties, details, which would confer extra meaning or depth to the movie. But, alas, Ad Astra is not what I hope it would be. It is probably the most realistic depiction of space travel though, as it feels longer than a rainy Monday and is boring as hell…

The story goes as follows: Brad Pitt is Roy McBride, an astronaut extraordinaire. He is so dedicated, so focused on his duties, that all other aspects of his life are totally ignored. As it happens, one day he is working on this huge tower, some sort of telescope or what, that reaches from the ground all the way to the edge of space. They are searching for alien civilizations, which seems to be everybody’s past time hobby those days. Regardless, Roy is on working outside on the tower, at the edge of space when suddenly the tower gets hit by a surge of energy which wrecks the place. Turns out, the surge comes from Neptune, where Roy’s father went a long time ago to search for, you guessed it, alien civilizations. Apparently, he might have something to do with the surge. As such, Roy must travel to Mars, so that he can get in touch with his father in order to find out where exactly is he and then to be able to do something about what happening, because the surges just keep on coming and they are frying all electronics and possible they can kill all life on Earth. Needless to say, this would be bad. To prevent it, Roy ventures after his father, to the edge of space…

So, let us get trough the positives first. The movie is just beautiful to look at. Wide, crystal clear shots when it comes to scenery and action. Great, detailed close ups when it comes to dialogue. And there is an interesting play with lighting and colors trough the movie. But this is no surprise as the cinematographer is Hoyte Van Hoytema, one of best in the game right now. Also, the sets, equipment’s, the general world building looks authentic, albeit somewhat dated. I mean, I would expect that in the near future, space travel would look a bit more modern than a bunch of gauges, buttons and knobs, but then again I am no space travel expert and the movie looks really authentic in every other aspects, so maybe this too is on the level. But it is safe to say that if space exploration wouldn’t have died off after the moon landing, today we would be at the level depicted in Ad Astra. That being said, Kubrick did the whole space travel thing better.

 The acting, as mentioned in the opening, is great. Brad Pitt gives a great performance, taking a page out of Ryan Goslings book. By this I mean that his performance is really restraint, and instead of talking he lets his eyes convey his reaction/message. It is an unusual approach from Pitt, but it works wonders. Second most important role goes to Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the father of Roy. Jones too gives a great performance, although he has a fairly small screen time and a role that he could carry easily woken from a drunken stupor. Other supporting roles go to Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga, both of which are fine. Liv Tyler is also credited, but she is barely on screen, and has just one scene where she talks, and even there, she talks of a mobile device as a recorded video message. Now, revisiting the trailers after watching the movie, it is clear to me that the first act of the movie was somewhat different at one time and there is a lot of shots that ended on the editing rooms floor. So, it is possible that all the secondary actors had bigger parts in the beginning. Maybe we will find out when the movie is released on home video.

But what I really wanted to talk about this movie is James Gray, the director/screenwriter of this movie. He previously did movies such as The Lost City Of Z and We Own The Night. He himself described this movie as a mix between 2001 A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now. While the comparison with 2001 ASO is self-explanatory, I find the comparison with Apocalypse Now to be superficial at best. Yes, in both movies the hero had to travel a great distance to find a once exceptional now fallen from grace character and kill them. But everything else is different. Apocalypse is a war movie, not just because it happens with a war in the background and its characters are soldiers, but because war, and the horror it inflicts on everybody involved, is an essential, vital component of the movie. It is what moves both the hero and the antagonist. Ad Astra is a space opera, but in this case, space is nothing but a setting. Both the hero and the antagonist are astronauts, but they might as well could have been musicians in 18th century Vienna, and the essence of the story would not have changed at all. You need war for Apocalypse, you don’t need space for Ad Astra.

This is mainly due to the fact that, in essence, Ad Astra is nothing more than a 2 hour long therapy session. How the obsession of the father becomes a destructive force in his child’s life. In this regard, Ad Astra is a perfect companion to Grays previous film, The Lost City of Z, where the protagonist becomes so obsessed by the idea of finding a lost city, that he neglects his family and his son, once at age, in an attempt to win his fathers love, joins one of his expeditions, only to die in it. Here too, we have something similar, but now the viewpoint is the one of the child’s, how he tried to win his absentee fathers love all his life, by shaping his own life in his father’s image, dedicating himself to his father’s ideals, ending up to embark on the same journey to the end of the world in order to reconnect. All the big ideas that are touched upon in the movie, like “is there life out in the universe besides us?”, “where does humanity go in the future?”, “what if we are all there is?”, are nothing more than afterthoughts, something cool to wave in front our eyes, but they are never examined, never explored. These ideas should be the driving force for something like Ad Astra, instead they are barely footnotes. Granted, these concepts are far more complex to process than a screwed-up father-son relationship. To re-enforce the idea of the therapy session, the hero needs to undergo regular psychological evaluations, in order to gain permission to go further with his mission. Apparently, it is not a good thing to be emotional for astronauts.

Honestly, my immediate first choice for comparison was Interstellar, as both movies deal with the salvation of the human race trough the means of space travel and both of them involve a complicate father-child relationship. Also, both of them were shot by Hoytema.

But, at the end of the day, it is irrelevant to which other space opera movie are we comparing Ad Astra. Despite all the visuals and performances, it is a boring story. And while the hero finds catharsis, us, the audience, are underwhelmed. There is nothing for us to stay engaged with, to root for, to offer us satisfaction. It leaves us in the same state as the astronauts are desired to be in it, emotionless.
 Which is a pity, because it is rather clear the movie had more to offer, that its world has been conceived in more detail. There are armed conflicts on the moon for territory, there are pirates there as well, but besides an irrelevant buggy chase and a couple of mentions, we get nothing from this idea. There are experiments done in space, but besides a scene worthy of a horror movie, we get nothing more from this either. There is an outpost on Mars, what’s life there? Nope, not a thing. Brooding and self-reflection? Oh yes, please, you can have hours’ worth of that stuff. I could watch 2001 ASO and Interstellar back to back and it still would not feel as long as Ad Astra. Also, it would be a MUCH more satisfying watch as well.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn down the road that originally, this would have been a much different movie, with a much longer run time and that the studio has applied pressure on the filmmaker to trim it down to 2 hours. It’s definitely one of the years bigger disappointments.

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Bad Times At The El Royale

If in the coming weeks you are in a conversation where someone complains that there are no more original films being made by Hollywood, you have only 2 acceptable courses of action to choose from as a response. Option A, the fitting response would be to bash that person over the head with a shovel, as he or she has no idea what they are talking about, they just talk for love of the sound of their own voice, which is obnoxious. Option B, the socially acceptable one, is to ask them is they have seen Bat Times At The El Royale and subsequently invite them to shut the hell up. Because this movie is a 100% original story, executed flawlessly that went under the general audience’s radar. It is THE most underrated movie of this season and a poster perfect example why it is so difficult to make a solid, standalone movie nowadays. This is the first movie to come out under the hand of Drew Goddard in years, as despite a great number of projects he was attached to, the last film he directed was The Cabin In The Woods, way back in 2012. In the case of both movies, Goddard pulled double duty, as he was not only the director but the screenwriter as well.

The setup for the story is a classic. There is a remote hotel, some guests check in. Everybody is sketchy and tries to mind their own business, but inevitably, things go sideways, really quick and really bad. And there is a storm coming. As I said, a classic. But the execution of the story is masterful. After the initial meet of the characters, everybody goes on their merry way with the focus on the character portrayed by Jon Hamm. We get to see what he is up to and how his story unfolds, during which we also get some glimpses, previews in the stories of the other characters. Not enough to understand what is going on with them, but just enough to become curious about them. Once we are finished with Hamm’s character, we rewind the clock and we got to spend the same time interval with another character, witnessing things from their perspectives, seeing previews for other protagonists, and so on, like dancing the same song with different partners, one after the other. And once we are up to date with everybody, the story can move forward in time, and the dance floor gets smaller and smaller every time, until all story lines converge into one big finale. I really like this approach. For one thing, this allows the audience to really focus on the events. If all points of view would have been presented in parallel, jumping from one character to the other every 20 seconds, this movie would have been unwatchable. Many details would have been lost on the audience, no emotional bonds would have been created and would turn the entire story into one giant mess, which it actually is, at least for the characters. But as things are, you get to know every protagonist intimately. Their backstory is being told in the form of a brief flashback, inserted at the right moment for it to be relevant to present events. You get to understand how things got from A to B to Z, even if the events were not showed in that order, because you were given all the story elements in a most palatable way. There are no “blink and you miss” type of clues here. All you have to do is pay attention to what is happening on the screen and you will understand everything. After an appropriate time of tease, that is.

But beyond the great storytelling, this movie is a great vehicle for the actors to showcase their talents. Jeff Bridges and Jon Hamm are having a great time making this movie and it shows on screen. Cynthia Erivo is charming and steals nearly every scene she is in. Not to mention her singing… Lewis Pullman, son of Bill Pullman, pulls a breakout performance here (excuse the pun) that most likely will put him on the map, and Chris Hemsworth is just hypnotic. I don’t think I ever saw Hemsworth portraying a villain before, but he is one charming devil.

Overall, if you still have the chance to see Bad Times At The El Royal in theaters, do go and see it. It deserves, and needs, all the views it can get. So, go on, reward original movies when they do appear on the big screens. Otherwise we will end up in an era where the next Scorsese movie goes straight to Netflix… oh wait, that is already happening….

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A star is born

A Star Is Born is the 3rd remake of a movie released with the same title in 1937. The original had Janet Gaynor and Fredric March as headliners. The remake in 54 had Judy Garland and James Mason, and the one in 76 had Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Apparently, all 3 previous incarnations of this movie had been winners, or the very least, contenders for the Oscars. This latest version stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, and what do you know, it too seems to be a contender for the Oscar race. In fact, it seems to be one of its front runners. This is quite remarkable since Bradley Cooper pulled double duty on this one, both as lead actor and director, the latter being his debut. The story itself is rather straightforward. An established but fading star (actor in the first 2 films, singer in the latter ones) finds a promising new talent which leads also to love. This love reinvigorates the fading star, but as the proteges star is on the rise, he falls back into the shadows and things start to go rather dark from there.

To be honest, I have not seen any of the previous incarnation of this story. I knew they exist, I even skimmed trough a lengthy account about the making of the 3rd film that the director has released much to Barbra Streisand’s displeasure. But not once was I considering watching any of the other 3 movies, let alone all of them, so that I have a basis for comparison for the current version. I have too many titles that I actually want to see in my free time to do this kind of optional homework, and besides, this kind of story just doesn’t do it for me. There are far too many tropes here that I have seen elsewhere, executed with various degree of success. In fact, I was pretty sure how the story will roll out, just based on the premise alone. So why did I go to see this movie in the first place? Because it is one of the happening movies right now, so I kind of felt like I have to see it. Plus, I was curious if the Oscar buzz that it is getting is for real or not. Well, the buzz it is real. And I would gladly buy this movie for my collection and watch it again. It is that GOOD.

Don’t get me wrong. My expectations regarding the general direction of the plot was met by the movie. But the key word here is “general”. When we get to the specifics, this script gets rather original with things, or at least compared with the other tropes used by rise to/fall from stardom movies. And even though I knew the “beat” of the film and saw the turnings in the story coming, it never felt boring. Authentic, heart breaking, yes. Boring? Never.

But the story here is nothing but an excuse for the actors to unleash their powers and to glue your eyes on the screen. Bradley Cooper is phenomenal as Jack, the jaded rock star. Whenever I hear Coopers name, I cannot help myself of thinking back to the tv series Alias, where he made his breakout performance, or to most of his roles so far, where he is a pretty face with a cocky attitude. But that dude is miles away from this movie. Cooper is looks legit worn out here, tired and disappointed from all that stardom has to offer. I mean he looks old. He feels old. And it is not just the make-up or the acting… There was something in his eyes, a form of quiet sadness, that sold me everything. His nomination for best leading actor at the Oscars is pretty much a given, and if the awards were given out tomorrow, he would get it too. But since most of his real competition will only roll out in December, we will have to wait to see. Sam Elliot is also in the movie, although with way less screen time as Cooper. Non the less, he works wonders with the little that he is given, even if half the time I could not understand a word that he was mumbling under that big mustache of his. But there is a scene in the 3rd act with him, where there are no words spoken, and that scene alone should get him a best supporting actor nomination. I don’t think that a win is a realistic goal for Elliot, but I would be rather upset no to see him on the nominee list. However, let us not kid ourselves. The true breakout performance here is given by Lady Gaga. Which is, again, super weird. Just as same with Cooper, whenever I think of Gaga, I have a specific image in mind. There was a meme a long time ago with Gaga and Eminem on stage at an award show that had a text similar to “you know you are fucked up when you are on stage with Eminem and he is the normal one”. All the while Gaga was in a full body red suit with some weird full face mask on, that made her look like something out of Guillermo del Toro film. And generally that what Gaga was for a really long time, a provocateur, in lack of a better word. But not here. Here she is down to earth, she is vulnerable, she is loving. And she is goddamn gorgeous without spending half the day behind the make-up mirror. Despite whatever image she was selling 10 years ago, she is a totally different person here and I had no problems in buying it. The fact how she managed to keep her love for Coopers character, despite the hard times he put her trough, and how she constantly needs to compromise in her singing carrier but managing to stay true to herself, all of these make her just as much a tragic character as Cooper, and she pulls it off effortlessly. Now, many have made the argument that the reason she is so good here is that she basically has to play herself, but I do not agree. She already built a successful acting career in the world of television, so her talent was not something “borrowed”. Also, the director and script writer knew exactly how to get the most out of Gaga acting in front of the camera. As for her singing… well, there is a reason why she was an international hit as a singer before turning to acting. Just like Cooper, Gaga is also a sure thing for getting an Oscar nomination for lead actress, and I am confident that she will taking it for home too. But as talented as Cooper and Gaga are individually, together they are a veritable powerhouse. They have great chemistry in front of the cameras, their interaction with each other is seamless, natural. You get why they care for each other, why they are disappointed by each other, why they are still together. When they share a scene, they do so as equals, there is no preferential focus on one specific person based on who is the biggest star, who has the better selling name.

There is one more player in this movie that needs to be mentioned, which is the music. And the music is great! All the songs written for the movie have the potential to stand their grounds on their own in today’s music charts. Gaga brings her A game in terms of singing, which is to be expected, but Cooper also performs his own singing and playing, and his performance is on par. In fact, all the singing in the movie is recorded live, in front of the camera, not in the studio as one might expect. Also, the concerts scenes are extraordinary. They were shot at Coachella and Glastonbury, during actual concerts with the actual concert going audience, and it feels. The crowd’s feedback, the lights, all the sounds, everything is authentic.

There are only 2 issues with this movie. The first would be its length, which being 2 hours and a quarter is a bit too long. This is the most telling sign that Cooper has never directed a movie before and is unable to let certain scenes go or trim down to improve the overall flow of the film. Fortunately, the film is good enough for this not to become a major issue. The second issue is that this movie is a sad one, as you might expect it from a tragedy. Now, the reason why this is an issue is that you will not watch this movie for a second or third time as easily as might do with other movies. This is by no way a complaint about the quality of the movie, on the contrary, but once the initial incentives for the watch are gone (the hype, the curiosity, the recommendations) and you are fully aware what this story is about and what it can deliver, you need to be in a specific mindset to watch it again. I have not reached that mindset since, which is a shame, since I am convinced that a second viewing would be tremendously rewarding.

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First Man

First Man is Damien Chazelle’s latest directorial effort. Just like his previous works, Whiplash and La La Land, this too is marked as an academy award contender. It has all the right ingredients for it. It is a biopic; it is also a period piece. It is heavy with the drama, both on a personal and on a historical scale, and it has plenty of the right actors in the right places for the critics to eat it up. Also, the fact that the director is the newest wunderkind in Hollywood just makes things easier. I mean Chazelle is only 33 at this point, but he already has an Oscar for directing and 2 other nominations for screenplay, one for original and on for adapted. This story could not have been made more for award consideration. It is also has annoyed the fuck out of me.

This is, yet again, an instance, where I and the critics walk away with totally different appreciation of the movie that we just saw. Based on the current Rotten Tomatoes score, 9 out 10 critics have liked this movie. I am the lonely 10th schmuck that doesn’t gets it. This movie just does not compile together as it should. I understand the idea behind it and why it has looked so promising on paper. You take one of the biggest human achievements ever, you find its main protagonist and you film his journey to reach that achievement, but you focus on his private struggles and tribulations instead of the grand story, all the small sacrifices he had to make to get where he was going. It is, without a doubt a great premise. But it just doesn’t work here, and the reason for it is remarkably simple. Neil Armstrong, despite of his multiple remarkable traits and merits, is a boring person. As far as I can tell, the filmmakers went to extraordinary lengths to make everything as authentic as possible. If they succeeded, that means that Armstrong had the charisma of a dried potato, which is bad if you want to build an entire movie on his shoulders, instead on the events. Because everything that was related in this movie to the Gemini and Apollo space programs was great. Those elements were really exciting. But they only account for about 40% of the movie. Everything else is an intimate look into the Armstrong household and the relationship between Neil and Janet. They live in a small housing community, filled with the families of the people working in the space program. So most of the talk is either shop talk, or shop related talk or just plain household drama. The men are pilots/engineers and the women are housewives. You can just imagine how diversified the talking points can be in an environment like that. Also, there are a lot of kids around and all they do is run around and scream and shout. I know that this is actually an accurate depiction of how things were back then, but still, it drove me up the frickin’ walls. Thank God for the occasional funeral every now and then. Basically, to focus on the man instead of the mission was a choice the result of which did not live up to expectations. Not with this execution, at least.


Speaking of execution, I also have an ax to grind with the way this movie was shot. There was a lot of talk on how during the lunar landing the camera is focusing on Ryan Goslings face instead of the actual landing and how the movie does not show how the flag was planted on the moon. I could not care less about any of this. BUT, when we are on the ground, on earth, which is 95% of the movie, for whatever reason, the film makers decided to go with hand held cameras. The cameramen are either unable to keep the cameras steady or they were going for some 60’s documentary film style of shooting, which sounds about right given the time period the story unfolds in, but it looks like something I shoot with my camera over the weekend. Watching a close-up always moving on the big screen, while the character was clearly still in its surroundings, was horrible. I almost got sea-sick.

As far as the acting goes, I cannot have complaints there. Ryan Goslings brings another one of his stoic performances as Neil Armstrong, which I am guessing is fitting. Claire Foy, as his wife Janet, is a powerhouse. I know this because she has annoyed me the most as a character, so she, as an actress, managed to punch through the weak script. Jason Clarke and Corey Stoll are also memorable in their roles. Kyle Chandler and Ciarán Hinds are in this movie too, but just long enough to recognize their faces, otherwise they are totally underused. I saw cameos longer than their screen time here.

Overall, First Man, is an ambitious project, that had an original concept and all the right ingredients to become an incredible, epic movie, a classic. Except, it didn’t. I choose Apollo 13 over this on any given day of the week.

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