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Space, Class and Carnage in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Space, Class and Carnage in TheatersPhoto via IMDb
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TV’s most acclaimed program (wait, is that true?!) comes to the big screen, but can it outdraw Brad Pitt in zero gravity or Stallone in a MAGA hat? We shall see.

Ad Astra

by George Wolf

In a near future world full of wondrous space travel, the presence of t-shirt vendors and war zones on the moon provides apt bookends for the struggle to balance both hope and conflict.

The continued search for intelligent alien life keeps mankind gazing “to the stars” (Ad Astra in Latin), but that search has hit a dangerous snag.

Strange electrical surges are amassing casualties all over the globe, and a top secret briefing blames the Lima Project, a deep space probe led by hero astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) that hasn’t been heard from in years.

McBride’s son Roy (Brad Pitt) is a decorated astronaut himself, so who better to task with finding out just what happened to dad and his crew?

Daddy issues in zero gravity? There’s that, but there’s plenty more, as a never-better Pitt, and bold strokes from writer/director James Gray, deliver an emotional and often breathless spectacle of sound and vision.

The film’s mainly meditative nature is punctured by bursts of suspense, excitement and even outright terror. Gray (The Lost City of Z, We Own the Night) commands a complete mastery of tone and teams with acclaimed cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Dunkirk, Interstellar, Let the Right One In) for immersive, IMAX-worthy visuals that astound with subtlety, never seeming overly showy.

And speaking of subtle, Pitt is a marvel of piercing restraint. Flashback sketches of an estranged wife (Liv Tyler, effective without dialog) and reflective voiceovers help layer Roy as a man lauded for his lack of emotion, but lost in a space devoid of true connection. Though the role is anchored in common masculine themes, Pitt’s take never succumbs to self pity. A new tux for award season would be wise.

We’ve seen plenty of these elements before, from Kubrick to Coppola and beyond, but it is precisely in the beyond that Ad Astra makes its own way. It’s a head trip, and a helluva rocket ride.

Grade: A-

Downton Abbey

by Christie Robb

Like a proper English tea, the Downton Abbey movie delivers a little bit of everything with a light, elegant—sometimes even whimsical—touch.

A royal visit to the titular estate in 1927 provides the inciting incident that reunites fans of the popular TV series with the Crawley family and their domestic staff. The film starts with a lengthy show recap (for those who haven’t anticipated the film by binge-watching all six seasons). It then squeezes at least half a season’s worth of drama into a two-hour runtime.

No spoilers here, but expect familiar Downton themes delivered in unexpected ways: violence, illness, romance, jealousy, snobbery, inheritance issues, reputation anxiety, surprise Crawley cousins, and buffoonery provided by a certain sad-sack ex-valet.   

Unlike the excellent series finale that neatly wrapped up every character’s storyline, the film does not focus equally on all the main characters. Director Michael Engler returns from the TV version, and the film reads more as a continuation of the story than an extended epilogue, much like an extra-long Christmas special without the holiday bit.

Still, the Downton movie’s production values are a tad higher, providing extended drone shots of the impressive house and grounds. There are more sets, showing us previously unseen rooms inside the Abbey, a bit more of the village, and a neighboring, even fancier abode that hosts a ball.

The ensemble cast slips effortlessly back into their former roles, highlighted by the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Merton (née Crawley, Penelope Wilton) and their delicious repartee full of sniping and droll bon mots. 

This is definitely a film made for fans of the show, as a newbie would probably be completely lost even with the recap. But for those who spent 2011-2016 devouring the show like a warm scone fresh out of the oven, the movie is a delightfully unnecessary, but very welcome, treat.

Grade: A-

Rambo: Last Blood

by Hope Madden

For those who’ve followed the Rambo franchise, Rambo: Last Blood (please, God, please say it is so) will look familiar.

Stallone is here. The deeply brutal violence is here. The one man against a depraved world is here. But in place of the broken heart of a soldier mistreated and forgotten by his government, of the prodigal son bringing U.S. Military chickens home to roost, is something far less complex.

Rambo: Last Blood is basically Taken meets Home Alone, only racist.

No, John Rambo isn’t turning his training on the rotting center of the military industrial complex at home or in Burma. He’s actually a pretty relaxed, aging cowboy on the Rambo family horse ranch in Arizona, sharing a cordial friendship with his housekeeper and raising her teenage niece as if she were his own.

John Rambo’s teenage daughter. Oh my God, can you imagine a bigger nightmare?

Stallone can. Co-writing along with Matthew Cirulnick and Dan Gordon (who’s wearing a camo vest and AK in his IMDb photo), Sly shows Gabrielle (Ybvette Monreal) exactly why adolescent girls need to squelch their own sense of agency.

Gabrielle wants to go to Mexico to find her deadbeat dad. She’ll be leaving for college soon and she just wants to clear the air. And so, against Rambo’s wishes, she secretly heads south of the border. And you know what’s in Mexico?

Well, in the undulating sea of thugs, gang bangers, drug lords, rapists and sex traffickers is a lone investigative journalist who seems like very good people. She has three scenes.

Director Adrian Grunberg crafts a film that mercifully requires little attention to dialog as Stallone mumbles indecipherably through his own pages. The 73-year-old nabbed his second Oscar nomination for acting in 2016, revisiting the old war horse Rocky in a supporting role.

Every 30 years or so, Sylvester Stallone gives a good performance.

Creed was three years ago.

But you don’t go to a Rambo movie for the acting! You go for the carnage, and hoo boy, Last Blood does not skimp.

People give horror a hard time because of all the slicing, dicing, arterial spray and virgins in peril, but in nearly every instance, we are meant to recoil at the violence. In this film, we are meant to celebrate it: every decapitation, dismemberment, gutting, castration, every head blown clean off a blood-spraying, still standing body is our own vicarious victory.

Earlier this year, after another mass shooting in the U.S., Hollywood shelved the Craig Zobel horror film The Hunt because they wanted to send a message that gun violence shouldn’t be celebrated. This weekend, they released Rambo: Last Blood.

The Hunt is the story of wealthy Americans kidnapping poor people to hunt them down, but the tables are turned and the poor people kill all the rich people.

Rambo: Last Blood, on the other hand, is a MAGA fantasy come to vivid, bloody fruition.

Weak.

Grade: D-

Promare

by Matt Weiner

As the first feature-length film from Studio Trigger (the studio behind the well-received TV series “Kill la Kill”), Promare has its work cut out for it. It’s no easy task to maintain the studio’s unique blend of over-the-top yet self-referential action for a tight, animated feature.

It’s a coup for director Hiroyuki Imaishi that Promare manages to do all that and more, while fleshing out characters who rise above their archetypes. (Well, most of them.) The film follows the members of Burning Rescue, a civil firefighting team that fights fires caused by “Burnish,” the name given to people who have mutated to spontaneously combust and must continue to start fires to survive.

The action begins 30 years after the first worldwide mutations took place, and most Burnish have been tracked down and imprisoned (or “frozen”). The plot manages to be both convoluted and contrived at various times, but the animation powers the events forward so relentlessly that I stopped caring. The style is wildly entertaining, and with enough hyperactive neon to make Into the Spider-Verse look like a Merchant Ivory film.

Art designer Shigeto Koyama is credited with the character designs. Western audiences are likely to know his work as designer of the robot Baymax from Big Hero 6, and he’s the perfect choice to make sure the futuristic mechas still allow the warmth and relationships from the characters piloting them to shine on screen.

Good thing, too, because without the laugh-out-loud characters and battles, the rest of the sci-fi plot would never make it off the ground. Even here, though, Kazuki Nakashima’s screenplay takes pains to give you permission to sit back and have a good time. He’s not above getting in a few digs at the absurdity: this is a movie, after all, with a literal Deus Ex Machina.

Promare is full of laugh-out-loud moments from the characters and the background animations—there’s a buoyancy that also makes the film a joy from start to finish. The real story behind the Burnish threat gives an unmistakable nod to global warming, but in the world of Promare what matters less is that we save the world (that’s a given, obviously), but rather how essential it is for our shared humanity that we save it by connecting more deeply with one another.

This plays out between the young firefighting hero Galo Thymos and the supposed terrorist leader, Lio Fotia. Here, too, Promare seems to delight in spurning convention: there’s no need for fans to wistfully ship the two adversaries, as the movie clearly does it for us. When the two burning souls connect and discover they must let go of what is holding them back and combust, I think we’re well beyond subtext.

Together, they offer a message of hope drenched in enough sharp, angular colors to fill out a 1990s t-shirt collection. Promare is an exciting first feature outing for Studio Trigger, and a sign that their distinctive brand of frenetic action hasn’t burnt itself out yet.

Grade: A-

Haunt

by Hope Madden

Have you ever noticed how adorable Browns fans are during pre-season every year? Every year! There is always reason for optimism.

That’s how I feel about filmmakers with the “haunted house attraction that’ll really kill you” premise. Year after year (The Houses October Built, 2014; 31, 2016; The Houses October Built 2, 2017; Hell Fest, 2018) somebody wheels out the stinky old corpse of an idea and says, “This year, we’ll get it right!”

The 2019 attempt belongs to writers/directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, who struck silent film gold last year with the screenplay for A Quiet Place. (In retrospect, maybe we didn’t give co-writer/director John Krasinski enough credit for that one.)

Haunt follows a handful of college students seeking thrills on Halloween. They stumble upon an isolated haunted house attraction—with not one single visitor. On Halloween night. Kids! Come on! Clearly it’s either the lamest thing on earth or it will kill you. This isn’t rocket science.

And yet, they give up their cell phones, sign some waivers and enter.

Katie Stevens is Harper, damaged but mainly wholesome brunette and center of gravity for the group. Will Brittain is Nathan, pre-requisite “will they or won’t they” nice fella who sees past Harper’s prickly exterior.

In truth, the actors playing the six gullible youths all perform above expectation and, mercifully, Beck and Woods choose not to subject us to the couple that just can’t keep their hands to themselves.

Made sensibly and economically, Haunt sticks to what it knows and focuses on what it came to do. Gaps in logic are few (they’re there, but they’re not distracting). One or two of the kills offer intrigue and the villains are, if not especially impressive, at least kind of fun.

It’s adequate. Unlike the Browns. The Browns are going all the way this year. No doubt. No doubt about it.

Grade: C-

Also opening in Columbus:
Before You Know It
Candy Corn (NR)
The Wedding Year (R)

Read more from Hope and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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