Per Aspera

Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019)

This is a bit spoilery in some of its gestures.

You know that you are going to be in for a bumpy ride when the near future setting epigraph to a film crossfades from a line about humanity’s future lying in the stars to the title Ad Astra, in case we can’t translate the Latin. Then the film goes into voiceover, wannabe Blade Runner, but the point of a voiceover is surely to mess with the visuals not to mesh with them. There is no point in him telling us that he is looking for a door and then showing us a door — later he tells us that he feels that he in the dark, holding onto a rope, as he is in the dark, holding on to … well, you get the idea.

Trust the audience.
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The Dead Don’t Do Subtext

The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch, 2019)

Jim Jarmusch is evidently one of those low budget indie auteur who both builds an ensemble around him and persuades A-List stars in search of artistic credibility to work for him (presumably for scale). A couple of years ago he cast the divine Tilda Swinton in a misjudged vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive and now he shifts to the zombie film to pastiche.

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Peter Parker’s International Vacation

Jake Gyllenhaal has a strange look in his eyes for the first half hour — “I was nominated for a Oscar,” they say, “I used to do low budget quirky cult hits.” He’s a superhero from a parallel dimension, here to do battle with four Elementals that want to destroy this Earth as they destroy his. And it just so happens Water hits Venice when Peter Parker is on his school trip.

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Oh my baby, baby, I love you more than I can tell

Only You (Harry Wootliff, 2018)

For a good half an hour, this film feels too good to be true. I knew it was an unlikely love story, but I immediately assumed that the bear shown in the first few shots was the lover. In fact, settled status Spaniard and arts administrator Elena (Laia Costa) is pipped to a taxi in the early hours of New Year’s Day by DJ and PhD marine biologist Jake (Josh O’Connor) and after arguments over who saw the cab first and her deciding to walk home and he offering to walk her home, they end up going back to her flat to listen to Elvis Costello. The attraction is immediate, even though she’s 35 (but won’t admit it at first) and he is 26.

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Immaterial Girl

In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2018)

Remember when the 1970s was the decade that taste forgot? Thirty years of Tarantino pastiche have summoned the visuals back, and it has been embraced by a generation of British horror directors, including Peter Strickland, whose Duke of Burgundy left me indifferent. There’s a mix here of Dennis Wheatley and Spearhead from Space and Don’t Look Now and Hammer and God help us Are You Being Served?. And Dario Argento, although this film is more rosso than giallo. It can’t be present day, because blind dating is committed via newspapers rather than apps, and money is sent through airtubes in department stores, but not all the of the phones are rotary dial. And there isn’t any racism, despite the position of the Black British heroine.

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All Pile On

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, Benedikt Erlingsson, 2018)

I get the feeling that the writer-director is here channelling the work of Aki Kaurismäki: we have Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), is single, middle-aged choir leader who wants to adopt a Ukrainian child and incidentally is running a campaign of ecological terrorism against the aluminium plant owned by Rio Tinto.

Her movement around whatever Icelandic city it is and the astounding landscape is interrupted by two balanced trios — three male musicians and three female Ukrainians who shift from extra- to intra-diegetic. It is sometimes whimsical, it is sometimes threatening, it may even be Brechtian (with a dash of Mel Brooks). It gives the film a whiff of the fairy tale and one presumes that pulling down a pylon wouldn’t have the effect that is shown. There is a further shift into folktale territory as Halla is finally arrested and as the action shifts to Ukraine.

Whilst friends and foes are beautifully drawn — her sister, her alleged cousin Sveinbjörn (Jóhann Sigurðarson) and his dog (apparently called Woman) and a co-conspirator Baldvin (Jörundur Ragnarsson) — but I think a foot is put wrong with the comedy foreign tourist Juan Camillo (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada), whose role is to be cycling near the scene of each crime and be arrested. It feels a little too studiedly quirky — although I see that the same actor (and the person playing Halla’s sister with the same character name) is in the same director’s Of Horses and Men ([Hross í os], 2013) so I wonder if I’m missing something.

This was an unexpected pleasure — and I see that Jodie Foster wants to direct a remake, presumably with herself in the lead. See this before it gets buried.