In our October round up, we pass ULTIMATE JUDGEMENT on Ad Astra, Yuli, Rambo: Last Blood, La familia, Pain and Glory, and Happy as Lazzaro. Join us for their sentencing.
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I feel I was sold something of a dummy by the trailer for Ad Astra, or at least by my memory of it, as it seemed to focus on the alien intelligence and planetary threat aspects of its story, making it seem more like Event Horizon and similar films. And while there’s an element of “gone mad in space” it’s definitely not Event Horizon, though it’d be inaccurate to say that it didn’t share elements. Stare into the void too long and the void will stare back, though this time it’s just you, not space demons or whatever the hell was going on in Paul WS Anderson’s film.
Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, the astronaut son of famed astronaut and extra-terrestrial intelligence pioneer, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). McBride Senior’s mission to Neptune to search for existence of alien life went dark many years ago, but now a powerful electromagnetic surge is coming from the mission’s last-known coordinates, and it threatens infrastructure, and therefore life, on Earth. Roy is enlisted to investigate what’s happening because, wouldn’t you just know it, things are not quite what the people have been told.
While Roy goes off to confront Colonel Kurtz, I mean dad, we are treated to regular monologues as the taciturn, stoic, apparently unfazeable martial machine begins to explore his psyche, his unresolved anger and childhood trauma and, not to put too fine a point on it, his daddy issues. His dad may also be an allegory for god, or the creator, if you look for it. And by look for it, I mostly mean watch the film, because it’s not really hidden, though it’s not hammering you over the head with it.
A few weeks removed from it, I’m still unsure if I actually like Ad Astra, though I know for certain that I didn’t dislike it. And there are some almost objectively excellent things, first and foremost Brad Pitt, who may never have been better, and is called upon to carry the vast bulk of the film on his own. McBride Junior is a pretty cold and distant character, and it’s quite remarkable that Pitt has managed to make him relatable. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is stunning, and there are a number of wonderful spacey (and moony) set pieces, beginning with the film’s opening scene as Roy falls from a giant space antenna. And if Robinson Crusoe on Mars taught us anything, which surely it has, for why else is it in The Criterion Collection, it’s that monkeys + space = awesome, and the unexpected space monkeys here provide for a very memorable chapter.
I change my mind regularly about the value of describing films in terms of other films, though I sometimes think it can be useful to give a flavour, and I don’t think it would be inaccurate to begin describing Ad Astra as Apocalypse Now in space, via Tarkovsky (nor would I be the first to do so). That’s not to say James Gray’s film isn’t its own thing, with its own identity. And it’s not Interstellar, so that’s good (though they do share the cinematographer, which is also good): it doesn’t waste its existential treatise by having its allegedly professional astronaut lose his shit almost immediately, then get tangled in all sorts of fifth-dimensional, only vaguely-real, knots trying to tie everything together via a bookcase. Murph! Murph! Watch Ad Astra instead.
The world of dance is not, I must confess, anything I have any knowledge of, and to be honest, any particular interest in. So, while to many the name Carlos Acosta will need no further introduction, I most certainly do, Handy, then, that Yuli is a biopic of Acosta’s life, through the interesting and achingly meta framing device of Acosta producing, I suppose you’d call it an autobiographical dance production of his life story, while also flashing back to a rather more traditionally told dramatisation of his youth.
It is, in the main more focused on the early years, indeed the very early years as Acosta, played as a nipper by Edlison Manuel Olbera Núñez, doesn’t so much embrace his raw talent for dance as have it forced onto him by his father Pedro (Santiago Alfonso), who, rightly, as it happens, sees it as his escape route from a humble life in Cuba to the household name he no doubt is in more cultured households than mine.
These segments are vibrant and charming, with excellent performances from young Núñez and Alfonso, and it’s this father-son relationship that’s the heart of the film. It’s perhaps a little less engaging when an older Acosta, played by Keyvin Martínez is on his way to conquering the world of dance, while dealing with the separation from his family and the pressures of his position. As for Acosta himself, well, he’s perhaps not a top tier acting talent, but the dance routines interspersed throughout the piece are really quite extraordinary and powerful stuff. Although I’m not convinced that one about the American General belongs in here.
Icíar Bollaín directs, not that you’d know it from her Wikipedia page, get that sorted boffins, reuniting with her Even The Rain screenwriter Paul Laverty, a long time Ken Loach collaborator, and they have done a bang up job, alongside Acosta’s exceptional dance and choreographical talent, in producing a unique and distinctive biopic that’s a joy to watch. I’ve not seen anything quite like it, and I approve of it.
Rambo: Last Blood
Before I continue, we need to talk about Rambo. Or at least, we need to talk about the name. While called Rambo by many, the first film in the series is, of course, First Blood. The second, Rambo: First Blood Part II. Then we have Rambo III, followed by the fourth instalment, Rambo, and now Rambo: Last Blood which, if you’ve been following, and I don’t blame you if you haven’t, is actually First Blood 5.
Almost as confusing is the change in tone and genre throughout the series. I’d never actually seen a Rambo film until the 2008 outing, but thanks to being a child of the eighties, and no doubt aided by things like Hot Shots, I’d always been aware of the character as a militaristic badass action hero. But that’s not how it began. Before going to see the latest instalment I watched First Blood for the first time and was rather surprised to discover it’s not even really an action film, at least not by the more typical standards of the 1980s. Even more surprisingly it had something to say, addressing a nation and public which had seemingly turned their backs on its soldiers, a counterpoint to the takes of Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma, amongst others.
That’s before, of course, the franchise became a super-macho, gory gunfest, intent on refighting Vietnam and winning it for the US this time. Then when Sylvester Stallone was throwing everything at the wall during the 2000s to resurrect his action career, to see what stuck (surprisingly, that turned out to be most stuff), the 2008 Rambo was a much more basic affair; a taciturn and reluctant hero compelled to decimate the forces of a corrupt military through the medium of .50 calibre machine gun splash damage. It was ridiculous, and an absolute hoot. (Though I really should perhaps see someone about how quite entertaining I find such over the top violence).
This latest, and last, instalment is somewhat more muddled, though, seeming in several points more like Rocky than Rambo, and with a first half where you can clearly see Stallone watched Liam Neeson in Taken and clearly thought, “yeah, that, but with Rambo and a downbeat conclusion”.
At the end of Rambo (i.e. the fourth one, keep up, do!) our erstwhile hero finally returned home to Arizona and his dad’s ranch. Last Blood finds him here, with a family, of sorts, somehow. As far as I can tell there’s no relationship between them, they’re just there. For some reason. Maybe so that one of them can die and give Rambo a reason to kill a bunch of people? But that doesn’t seem very likely, does it?
Against his wishes, Rambo’s sort of but not really but may as well be daughter goes off to Mexico to find her real father, and ask him why he abandoned her and her mother. And as she’s in Mexico, that beautiful, fascinating and varied country, with 126 million people, 56 distinct indigenous groups and even more languages, she, naturally, is immediately the victim of crime as she is betrayed by her Mexican friend, seized by a sex-trafficking cartel and forced into prostitution.
After his first attempt to Neeson it ends in him beaten and comatose, Paz Vega briefly appears as Juanita Exposition, and then Rambo returns to the prostitution den and kills a bunch of people, before the daughter dies of that most terrible of medical conditions, plot. Rambo then beheads the younger of the two cartel leaders to entice the older brother to chase Rambo back to Arizona with a veritable army, where he prepares a very adult Home Alone-worthy welcome for them in his tunnel complex that he has built.
It’s rotten. Far from the worst film in the genre, it’s still barely beyond the direct-to-video knock-offs the Rambo films inspired in their thousands, and whereas the violence in 2008 was entertainingly over the top, here it feels gratuitous and crass, and the underlying attitude towards Mexico leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
We don’t get a lot of Venezuelan films coming through our doors, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of Gustavo Rondón Córdova’s recent-ish drama. Set in the less salubrious end of Caracas, 12 year old Pedro (Reggie Reyes) is doing some very typical 12 year old things, playing with his friends, when he’s held up at gunpoint by a shockingly young kid from an even less salubrious part of Caracas. The altercation ends in blood, but not Pedro’s.
On returning home to Giovanni García’s Andrés, his father recognises the severity not just of the action but the probably disproportionate reaction it will provoke from the local thug’s family, and takes Pedro on the lam.
At the risk of being a little dismissive, there’s not a great deal more to tell you on a narrative level. The family camp out in the middle class house that Pedro has been working on renovating, and Andrés tries to make a bit of extra-legal quick cash on a side gig while father and son try to come to terms with the shifting dynamic of their relationship, which doesn’t seem all that warm to begin with, while dealing with the stress of their particular situation.
I’d be lying if I said I was entirely blown away by La familia, but I was quite engaged with it throughout despite, arguably, not all that much happening after the first act. As a character piece it’s… well, it held my interest, and the relationships between father and son seem natural and believable, in as much as there’s not a lot explicitly said, it more about the nuance of smaller actions. I’m not altogether sure that fits with the higher stakes drama of the opening, though. I almost expected it to turn into City of God, but this is centred on avoiding violence, not instigating.
So, while it held my attention well enough for its two hours, at the end I perhaps was left wanting more – either a deeper insight into the characters, or the setting, or the drama of the events, or ideally all of the above, and enough progress is made into all these paths to make this a good film, but not, I’d say, a great one.
Pedro Almodóvar’s Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory) begins with a film director reuniting with an actor whom he made famous and later fell out with, and during the film the two will reconcile and together produce some of the best work of their respective careers. That director, Salvador Mallo, is played by Antonio Banderas, an actor who found fame in Almodóvar’s films before falling out with him and later reconciling. You will then, I imagine, be unsurprised to learn that Mallo is an analogue for Almodóvar himself, and that as well as being a celebration of film, the artistic process, the channelling of one’s own pain into one’s work, and a number of other themes, it’s also pretty meta.
Not that Mallo is simply an Almodóvar cut and paste – he’s a full, rounded character in his own right, and played superbly by Banderas, who must have been given a lot of trust by the director, just as Mallo trusts Asier Etxeandia’s Alberto Crespo in the film. The chronically ill, and possibly hypochondriac Mallo, cannot work, having not fully recovered from the death of his mother and his physical pain. A retrospective screening of one of his films, the same film that drove him and Alberto apart, compels him to mend bridges with the actor, and leads to a series of reminiscences of his life.
It also eventually leads to Salvador entrusting Mallo with Addiction, a memoir of an incredibly important period of his life, and as a result of that to an act of reunion that is moving and gently heartbreaking, and among the greatest scenes in any of the director’s films. It is also not the only scene in the film in which I felt my eyes glistening, though there’s no hint of mawkishness anywhere.
If you listened to our Pedro Almodóvar episode then you’ll probably be unsurprised to hear me describing Pain and Glory as beautiful, colourful and full of light: it really looks glorious, from the colour of Salvador’s vivid clothing to the searingly crisp white of the walls of his childhood home. Banderas is simply amazing, a performance informed both by his ability and his friendship with his director, and Etxeandia and Almodóvar regulars Penélope Cruz and Julieta Serrano as the younger and older versions of Mallo’s mother, Jacinta, give excellent support.
Pain and Glory is magnificent: touching, charming, graceful, beautiful. Eschewing the mawkishness others might have fallen prey to, particularly in the more personal and emotional scenes. There’s plenty to dig into, too, with commentary on the Franco era, piousness and religious control over education, as well as a comment on a very recent, very polarising, case involving the gang rape of a woman in Pamplona in 2016, but it’s also simply a compelling character piece and a celebration of art and its power to explain and heal.
Happy as Lazzaro
According to last year’s Cannes, this was 2018’s best screenplay, and had I known that before writing these notes perhaps that would have raised by expectations for a film I’d otherwise known little about. Or, well, given the usual taste of awards panels, perhaps it would substantially lower expectations. The point I’m driving at is that I didn’t have much of an idea about what Happy as Lazzaro was going into it, and having watched it, I’m not sure I’m any the wiser.
Our titular Lazzaro, Adriano Tardiolo, is a good-natured, compliant farmhand on an Italian tobacco farm which has been, through a route not made abundantly clear, been isolated from the rest of the world since, we later find out 1977. There Nicoletta Braschi’s hated Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna, the “Queen of Cigarettes” hold the farmworks in the serfdom of a sharecropping eternal debt, living cheek to jowl in overcrowded hovels while the Marchesa and her son, Luca Chikovani ‘s Marquis Tancredi live in luxury.
This comes to a head when Tancredi, in part tired of his life and in part ashamed of their exploitation of the workers, enlists Lazzaro’s help in faking his own kidnapping as the two strike up a friendship. The eventual police investigation brings this whole scam crashing down, by which point I sort of though I had a grasp on it. The initial early doors weirdness of seeing characters in conditions from the 1670’s, with management having cars from the 1950’s, Tancredi having clothes from the 1980’s and mobile phones from the early 2000’s was just a clever ruse to put one off balance before this scam is revealed.
At which point there’s an interlude with a magic wolf that causes Lazzaro to skip forward in time, like, thirty years without ageing, who then tries to track down Tancredi and the rest of his family in a series of weird coincidences that don’t go well for anyone, and to my reading at least did not coalesce around any sort of point whatsoever.
Which is normally the cue for me to dust off the vitriol cannon, but for reasons I’m not completely clear on I quite liked Happy as Lazzaro. Adriano Tardiolo gives a likeable performance for an oddball character, that’s somewhere between Forrest Gump and Napoleon Dynamite, and plays well off both Luca Chikovani and Tommaso Ragno as the elder Tancredi incarnation.
While I can’t say I’ve grasped the point writer/director Alice Rohrwacher was trying to make, or indeed that I am particularly convinced there was a point to it all, I enjoyed watching it unfold, and that’s enough for me. I’ll take what I can get these days.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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