The Aeronauts (2019)

aeronauts poster

In 1862, the idea of meteorology – the science of weather – was a laughable thing (as opposed to 2019, when it’s still largely laughable? Hmm). Scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) is determined to prove otherwise, but to do so he needs the help of a hot air balloon pilot. In real life, this was Henry Coxwell, but the movie makers have decided to sex up the story (hah!) and so we have the fictional Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones) instead.

The quest to ‘go higher than anyone before’ is portrayed, I believe, in real time – which I didn’t know at the time, but is interesting. Interspersed we have a lot of flashbacks, to Glaisher’s struggle to be taken seriously, Rennes’ tragic backstory, and the pair’s less than smooth path to their record breaking flight.

There is an interesting story here, however slight (two men float up for a couple hours – yes, scientifically important, but… hmm), but it isn’t really enough to make a whole movie out of, I think. So instead the filmmakers have crammed in fiction, and tried too hard to make drama out of very little – and as a result, rather missing the point. If they’d kept the focus, actually let the viewer ride along, it could have rivalled Gravity, perhaps?

Occasionally, the whole thing looks spectacular. The balloon adrift in a huge expanse of sky is ‘wow’. I liked the Victorian period details. I was very glad that we didn’t get some silly romance subplot. And… that’s about it, I’m afraid. I was quite frankly bored through most of it, with even the moments of high drama rather failing to lift the whole piece.

I don’t know what the point of this was, to be honest. A few pretty scenes, an impressive enough cast. But, just no, overall.

Released: 4th November 2019 (UK)
Viewed: 9th November 2019
Running time: 100 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 5/10

Ford v Ferrari (2019)

ford v ferrari poster

This is the story of two companies in bitter rivalry: the handcrafted, race-dominating Ferrari, against the mass-produced, reliable but deeply ‘unsexy’ Ford. There’s a personal rivalry, too, between Enzo Ferrari and Henry Ford II. But more than that it’s the tale of two other men: Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the first American to win the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, and volatile engineering genius, Ken Miles (Christian Bale).

Both men share an obsession with cars and racing. Shelby’s career is cut short by health problems, whereas Miles is struggling to turn his racing brilliance into a family-supporting income, mainly due to his temper and obstinacy. He’s almost always right, of course.

When Ford decides its future depends on winning races, the two stories explosively collide!

I thought this movie looked interesting from the trailers, and was thus pretty pleased when it turned out to be the chosen title for Cineworld’s most recent secret screening. And I was more than pleasantly surprised at just how thoroughly I ended up enjoying it.

The biggest draw is the acting from the two leads. Damon does his usual laid-back, likeable everyman very well, with the added torment of no longer being able to do what he most loves. The character is perhaps played a little backseat to Bale’s (character’s) volatility, genius, and humorous mannerisms (“Giddy up” to a car??), but it’s the combination that makes the whole thing work. And the humour – did not expect to laugh so much

I don’t have a huge interest in racing, or cars, but the story is excellently put together. Objectively, there are a lot of flaws and reasons this shouldn’t work, but as the story unfolds, I was just sucked in. By the halfway point, I was oohing like mad at the purr of the engine. The emotional manipulation is perhaps a bit too predictable, and yet it still works. The 2½ hour running time flew past.

So yeah, recommended! It’s not just for racing fans, I knew nothing about Ken Miles or Le Mans going in (and quite frankly: what utter madness is driving for 24 hours?!), and while the story could be said to slip into cliche of true life biopics, it’s a gripping ride along the way.

Released: 15th November 2019
Viewed: 4th November 2019 (advanced screening)
Running time: 152 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 8/10

Doctor Sleep (2019)

doctor sleep poster

In 1980, Stanley Kubrick adapted Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, into one of horror’s most famous movies. In the story, Jack Torrance (famously played by Jack Nicholson) goes slowly, murderously mad in the empty Overlook Hotel, endangering his wife and young son, Danny. When asked at a book signing, “What happened to Danny?”, Stephen King was inspired to write this sequel – so, are you ready to find out what did happen to little Danny?

Even if I hadn’t read the book, I think that this is an adaptation would seem clear from the way the story unfolds. We spend far longer than I expected with little Danny and his mum (recast to resemble the previous actors), watching Danny’s childhood and young life unfold into something of a mess – unsurprisingly. As with so many King stories, the horror is never just the monsters, it’s the reality of things like turning into a violent alcoholic like your father.

However, Danny (Ewan McGregor) eventually faces his demons – in more ways that one – and carves out a quietly satisfying kind of life for himself. Until, that is, gifted Abra Stone comes looking for him, hoping for help in tracking down the group of nasties killing young kids with ‘the Shining’.

I’ve said quite often that I’m not a fan of the horror genre, so why this one? Well, in my teens I loved Stephen King, including The Shining. The sequel manages to pick up on a classic story and add to it, expanding the concepts without spoiling the original.

This adaptation does a great job at bringing that to screen. The cast is excellent, including McGregor and Cliff Curtis on the good side, and the always excellent Rebecca Ferguson and Zahn McClarnon leading up the baddies of the sinister ‘True Knot’ group. There are layers of horror: snatched and murdered kids, monsters that eat your life, the childhood demons, and facing death. This makes for more subtlety than the silly ‘jump scares’ kind of horror that I dislike so much.

Indeed, I wasn’t too perturbed until the story takes us back to the Overlook Hotel, at which point all those memories of The Shining and the haunted hotel upped the unsettling levels dramatically. Appropriate, that: it mirrors Danny’s own childhood horrors back to haunt him once again. But it’s also deeply satisfying seeing old ghosts resurrected for the new story, including a few familiar-ish faces…!

Overall, I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed this. It’s a good story done well, rather than out and out terror, but with enough creepiness to warrant the horror tag. Worth having seen The Shining first, though, as the nods back really add to the creepiness.

Released: 31st October 2019 (UK)
Viewed: 1st November 2019
Running time: 151 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8/10

Gemini Man (2019)

gemini man poster

An aging assassin (Will Smith) runs into trouble with his government bosses when he decides to retire. The best there’s ever been, who could hope to take him down – except, perhaps, the younger version of himself. Just as well a shadowy figure cloned him 20 years before, hmm?

Actually, that time gap is one thing I approved of in this movie: I’m fed up of the sci-fi trope of ‘instant clones’, where people have a double there and then. This part of the science is closer to real, with the cloned child raised at the normal pace. Let’s not delve too deeply into the cloned personality, tastes, abilities, etc etc.

As a premise, it’s not too awful, if you’re minded to suspend disbelief for a bit. As an action movie, this works pretty well, with some cool rooftop and motorbike chases and Will Smith fighting with himself. The CGI for the de-aged duplicate is so-so: occasionally pretty darn good, sometimes so dreadful as to look unfinished (I imagine the DVD release will see improvements!).

However, the story is bland to the point of forgettable, which is a lot of a shame. It starts okay – who is chasing Will, why does he look like him (except, the audience already knows, so zero tension), etc etc. But, character motivations are murky, some change for no real reason, and the baddy ends up being totally one dimensional. I suppose there is a bit of ‘what if’ – how would you interact with your younger self, could you change their path, that sort of thing.

Overall: I think this is only about the special effects, which aren’t so impressive as to make up for the lack of interesting story. It’s well enough made, just lacks any real… anything, tbh, apart from action. Still, inoffensive popcorn fluff, the no-longer-so-fresh Prince adds a certain degree of quality – and he’s aging pretty well, I have to say!

Released: 10th October 2019
Viewed: 18th October 2019
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6/10 – forgettable, soulless popcorn fluff, but reasonably well-made

Joker (2019)

joker poster

From Cesar Romero through Jack Nicholson to Heath Ledger, Batman’s Joker has gotten darker and less comic-book-y as a character. The more recent films featuring Batman (either Christian Bale, or Ben Affleck) have been getting grittier and darker each time. And then we have Joaquin Phoenix, in director Todd Phillip’s new take on the villain’s origin story – which I can only describe as, imagine taking away all of the comic book. Imagine looking for murky reality, a believable, real-world take. Which is what makes it so damn chilling.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) struggles with mental illness(es), with society, pretty much everything. His life is grim and filled with tragic pointlessness. We see him dressing up as a clown for work, only to be brutally beaten by a group of kids. We see the hellish weight-loss the actor went through, each rib on bruised display. We see every human interaction tinged with dismissiveness, or cruelty, or just a sense that things aren’t right.

I was in two minds about seeing this movie: was it glorifying violence? Using mental illness as a scapegoat? Hmm. But those elements certainly add to the disturbing nature of the film, the thought-provoking aspects of it all. And then there’s a performance and a half from the lead actor – as excellent as Ledger was with the character, the unwavering focus here allows for so much more.

I said thought provoking, and I mean it. There is something dangerous about a film that has a person snap and get his own back on all the bullies and horrible people – a sentiment you want to cheer, but not the degree to which it quickly descends. It skirts so close to verite, the backlash against the rich as the poor suffer so much – Thomas Wayne personifying this well, even though the Batman links almost took away from the movie for me. Is it fair to use Fleck’s mental illness as a background to it all – or is it the constant failures and disappointments that break him?

I’m still not sure there aren’t more issues with the movie than good points, but as art and only art – wow. Edge of the seat stuff, even knowing (mostly) how the character turns out. You are waiting to see how far things are pushed, how awful they will get, whether that line will be crossed from ‘entertainment’, not just on screen.

And still – utterly worth seeing. Joaquin Phoenix disturbed me, which was the point – but also because I strongly remember watching him as a child (when he took the name ‘Leaf’) in Parenthood, not much older than me, wearing every line on his face. I spent long moments thinking things were ‘off’, only to realise that yes, Arthur is an unreliable narrator. To be honest, there are a lot of parts of the film – the dancing, for instance – that don’t really ‘fit’, but somehow add to the character even if it’s just a visual awkwardness to match the personality. And, those moments allow a use of music that fits so perfectly, and the oddest moments – the all-over-the-net dancing down the steps, for instance – serve in lieu of the touches of humour we might expect from other ‘superhero’ movies.

It’s so not a superhero movie (which is why the Batman stuff didn’t work for me, I suppose), but as a backlash against the decades of superhero-fluff (even the ‘we’re much darker and more series’ ones), just… wow. Couldn’t have gone much further in the opposite direction! It’s a psychological drama, more Taxi Driver than anything else (almost too much, some suggest?). It’s not an easy watch, it’s not ‘enjoyable’ – but it’s powerful and haunting and worth watching just for the performance.

Released: 4th October
Viewed: 11th October 2019
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 9/10

Ad Astra (2019)

ad astra poster

Short review: vastly over-hyped, massive disappointment.

Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the son of the most heroic, lauded astronaut (Tommy Lee Jones) that ever was. Alas, McBride senior disappeared sixteen years into a mission to the edge of the solar system, to try to track down intelligent alien life. Twenty-seven years later, the Earth is in terrible peril from energy surges that seem to come from.. yup, the edge of the solar system. Space Com, a company with worryingly large amounts of power, suspects Roy’s father is to blame – but, that would suggest they have reason to think he’s alive…

So far so good. There were many paths that the filmmakers could have taken this story, at least one of which was suggested by the trailer. But, this is not that movie. I am rather stunned by the fantastic reviews this film is receiving; based on those, I would think I was watching a different movie! Yes, it looks gorgeous, but it’s slow, mopey, full of highly irritating inaccuracies and stupid actions, the story makes no sense, and that voice over – eeep! And please don’t tell me that I just don’t ‘get it’ – the whole void of space vs void of inner life blah blah needs to be paired with something that didn’t make me want to roll my eyes, cringe, or nod off.

One comment I’ve seen in a few reviews is how ‘realistic’ the space stuff is. Urm, absolutely not! There’s not enough gravity on the moon to make dust hang in the air like that; lighter gravity on non-Earth planets isn’t shown; you CANNOT get a ‘boost’ from a shockwave in space like that, and antimatter doesn’t… oh, I give up. Each and every one of these had me cringing. The so-called ‘deep and introspective’ nature of our astronaut ‘hero’ was no excuse for pouting, stupid behaviour, and moments that clearly defied all training. The thing is, if you’re going to make a film set in space I think you either need to go big and silly (e.g. Flash Gordon) or you need to live up to the claims of being ‘realistic’ – this halfway nonsense is just a mess.

And still, y’know, I could have forgiven a lot if the film wasn’t full of randomness that didn’t really fit. The attack by ‘space pirates’ – what was the point of that? Killer baboons! And, why was that research being carried out so far out into space? Other characters flit in and out, and it sort of fits the theme that they are largely meaningless (poor Liv Tyler should have learned from Armageddon), but still. Grrr.

I sat through the mess, thinking this was the kind of film that pulls everything together in the third act, suddenly enlightening the audience and making the slog worth it. No. As seen throughout the movie, there’s a lot of build up to… nothing. And oy, don’t get me started on the total lack of repercussions for anything!!!

Okay. Deep breath. Mostly I am just stunningly disappointed in this film. There are small things that are really well done: the opening disaster; the use of silence (if only Gravity hadn’t gotten there first); the brand names on the moon, the $125 for a pillow and blanket – little nods to the future state of mankind were intriguing. But overall, I think this was just a damp squib, trying to be ‘intellectual’ and failing miserably, and quite frankly too much of an irritating mess to be worth seeing even for the possibility that you’re going to be one of those raving about it.

Released: 18th September 2019
Viewed: 23rd September 2019
Running time: 123 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 4/10 – it looked great, but… everything else o.O

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019)

once upon a time in hollywood poster

In 1969, the murder of the young, pregnant actress, Sharon Tate, by the followers of Charlie Manson, shook the world and started the crumble of the era of love, peace and hippies. This movie is sort of Quentin Tarantino’s retelling of that period and set of events.

Except, it’s not really. Tate (Margot Robbie) is pretty much a side character, as we instead follow the fortunes of her (fictitious) next door neighbour, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Rick was famous for a while, playing a cowboy in a TV show, but now he’s taking bit parts as villain of the week in new pilots. He’s accompanied everywhere by his stunt double, friend, and lackey, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who’s struggling even more for work, not least because of some dark rumours about his past.

In one way, the film is about the different approaches these two men have to slowly fading careers and inevitable aging. Both actors are outstanding, DiCaprio as the whiny, self-obsessed actor throwing tantrums and sobbing, compared to Pitt’s laid-back, shrug it off, que sera acceptance of his lot. I’d have to say the latter is far more appealing, lighting up the screen with charisma, self-assurance, and a rather impressive not-dad bod for a man in his mid-50s. Sorry, got distracted there… 😉

Mostly, though, the movie is just a homage to a period in time, and Hollywood of the late 60s – in the same kind of way that Singin’ in the Rain looked back three decades to another ‘golden era’ of Hollywood.

The plot sort of meanders, doesn’t really go anywhere much, but through it all everything just looks amazing. The real win here is how the viewer is entirely taken to a different era. It’s not just the visuals, but a slow pace quite at odds with today’s modern life, and a soundtrack that isn’t full of recognisable hits as much as just music of the time – and not just music, often the backing track is an advert playing on the radio, or the TV, and all the more ‘real’ for it.

I was a little baffled coming out as to how I was going to review this. On the one hand, I kept waiting for something to happen, and mostly it did not. There are a few ‘meh’ moments, such as Tarantino’s less than flattering portrayal of Bruce Lee. There were a lot of nods and ‘homages’ that went entirely over my head – many of the characters were real people, that I just didn’t know about, and the TV shows were also generally real. There was a huge level there that would have added more to the experience – I’m just glad I knew who ‘Charlie’ was, or I’m not sure how the film would have played at all.

And yet. It didn’t feel almost three hours long – I could have watched another hour, easily. I will happily see it again, and perhaps enjoy the atmosphere even more, without waiting for the ‘plot’ to happen. So. Yes. Worth the viewing, definitely.

Released: 14th August 2019 (UK)
Viewed: 16th August 2019
Running time: 161 minutes
Rated: 18

My rating: 8/10