This is an acting challenge which Pitt meets impressively, letting emotion surface seemingly against his will – in contrast to the open weeping which was a rather overdone feature of Interstellar.
Pitt, like Tom Cruise, has retained his boyishness for so long it’s hard to accept he’s now in his mid-50s, a fact Gray uses to the film’s advantage. Taking orders from his superiors, Roy seems an eternally fresh-faced cadet; later scenes show him in a literally harsher light, as if the ageing process were sped up by his departure from earth.
In other ways too, the narrative toys with our perception of time: some plot developments occur bizarrely fast, while others seem impossibly stretched out.
It is possible that this disjointed quality is not entirely deliberate, and that the version of Ad Astra we have is not quite the one Gray set out to make.
There have been rumours of reshoots, and Pitt’s ponderous voiceover narration has the ring of something tacked on at the last minute.
As so often in films about a quest for truth, the ending is less than satisfying and as in Gray’s work generally, there’s little evidence of a sense of humour. But does any of this make Ad Astra a failure?
If so, it’s the kind that proves that failure can be more interesting than success.”
Rambo: Last Blood ★★½
Sylvester Stallone’s 1980s action hero, whose name has entered the English language as a synonym for “gung-ho purveyor of ultra-violence”, is back in a fifth ultra-violent R-rated movie. Despite being a relic, haunted by his horrific past, the survival skills John Rambo honed in the jungles of Vietnam remain very much intact. So when his teenage niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who he views almost as a daughter, decides to track down her long-lost biological father in Mexico, Rambo is forced to go after her and crank himself up into killing machine mode yet again. “All hail Rambo, who deserves some sort of medal for having endured into his 70s along with the actor who plays him,” says reviewer Jake Wilson.
“This is, to put it plainly, one nutty movie. To begin with, there is no evident reason for it to exist.
Rambo’s story was wrapped up as neatly as anyone could want in the previous chapter of the saga, titled simply Rambo, released in 2008 with Stallone as co-writer, director and star. This saw our hero cutting loose one last time in the wilds of Burma and then returning home to his family ranch in Arizona for a well-earned rest.
It’s here he remains a decade on at the start of Rambo: Last Blood (the title clumsily echoes First Blood, the initial Rambo adventure directed by Ted Kotcheff in 1982).
If the credits can be trusted, Rambo: Last Blood was directed by Adrian Grunberg, whose one previous feature – the Mel Gibson vanity project Get the Gringo – must have won him some kind of reputation as a codger whisperer.
This is not to say, however, that Stallone has given up his “total filmmaker” pretensions. He co-wrote the script (with Matthew Cirulnick) and his earnest yet zany pulp sensibility infuses every scene, reinforced by Grunberg’s taste for heavy close-ups and portentous silhouettes.
There is more than a touch of the diva in Stallone, a near-heroic refusal to acknowledge his own absurdity as if he were bent on remaining a star by willpower alone.
For all his limitations as an actor this sheer stubborn conviction still fascinates, nor has time lessened the genuine singularity of his screen presence. The bleary gaze, the disdainful frown, the voice that rarely rises above a rasp; staring into the heart of darkness will do that to you and so apparently will 40 years of global fame.
You have to wonder if he can possibly be for real, or if, perhaps, there’s a satirist lurking somewhere behind Stallone’s mask. Evidently it’s by design that the film comes closer than ever to turning Rambo into an all-out monster, in the tradition of slasher movie villains such as Freddy Krueger.
When the mayhem does kick off, the deaths are predictably brutal and gory, to the point of cartoonish overkill. There’s a hilarious moment when a couple of thugs are impaled on a bed of spikes: Rambo starts spraying them with bullets, seemingly less to guarantee their demise than from some notion of poetic justice.
Whether this is deliberate or accidental camp is perhaps beside the point — either way, there’s no denying the moment is brought off with a certain lunatic panache.”
This PG family animation by writer-director Jill Culton, who has proved her animation chops with directorial debut Open Season, is the zenith of the Yeti animations released recently, according to reviewer Sandra Hall. The story opens with the yet-unnamed Yeti escaping a laboratory where it is being experimented on by Dr Zara (voiced by Sarah Paulson) and her billionaire boss, Burnish (Eddie Izzard). The Yeti finds refuge on a Shanghai rooftop, where he’s discovered by adventurous 16-year-old Yi (Chloe Bennet), who wants to return her newfound friend “Everest” home.
“This animated feature from DreamWorks is one of the more engaging products of Hollywood’s romance with the Chinese box office. It’s another Yeti story – the third in the past 12 months – but it takes a uniquely Chinese approach. It opens in Shanghai and climaxes in the Himalayas. More important, the only Caucasian characters are the villains.
The animation style and sensibility, however, are pure Hollywood. Jill Culton, who conceived the story and co-directed the film, was trained at Pixar and her work displays the Pixar trademark, a seamless blending of farce, wit, melancholy and the kind of reflectiveness that traverses the generational divide.
DreamWorks’ courtship of the Chinese market began in 2013 with the production of the second Kung Fu Panda sequel. The studio set up a base in Shanghai as a joint venture with a Chinese investment company, but the deal did not work out and its Chinese partners eventually bought the studio outright while carrying on their artistic collaboration with DreamWorks. This is the first film they have made together since 2013.
It certainly makes the country look good. Yi and her friends – nine-year old Peng (Albert Tsai) and Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), a narcissistic 18-year-old with a phone fetish – take off with Everest, pursued by Burnish and Dr Zara. And we follow, moving through a series of glorious landscapes animated with a painterly eye. Everest turns out to be a magician, which gives Culton and her team licence to embellish and invent, which they do with wit and flair.”
Good Boys ★★½
Make no mistake Good Boys is no kids show despite it starring pre-teen sixth graders on a mission to get to a “kissing party” hosted by the cool kids. Produced by Seth Rogen it draws a number of parallels to Rogen’s 2007 hit Superbad, with a trio of friends caught in misadventures that include sex toys, swearing and stolen drugs. It is Gene Stupnitsky’s directorial debut and his desperation to create a surprising comedy shows, according to reviewer Jake Wilson. While “some of the jokes are fun and inventive, some of it is repetitive and feeble” and the film “retains a streak of genuine irresponsibility”.
“Contrary to expectations, the title is not ironic: like the heroines of the recent Booksmart, which Good Boys recalls on many levels, these really are ‘good’ kids rather than rebels aiming to stir up trouble.
The same can be said of Stupnitsky and co-writer Lee Eisenberg: the strategy of following teen movie formula while lowering the characters’ ages is a way of courting edginess while playing it safe. Ben and company can talk about sex but can’t have it, can steal drugs but can’t take them and can swear their heads off while barely knowing what the words mean.
It’s not surprising the leads seem a little constrained – accomplished young actors rather than actual children given the freedom to horse around. Some of the best moments belong to supporting cast members such as Francis, who shows a knack for deadpan insolence in the manner of Aubrey Plaza.
Best of all is 11-year-old Izaac Wang as Soren, the tiny but totally self-assured social arbiter of the sixth grade, a character Stupnitsky and Eisenberg might have conceived as a villain, except they can’t bring themselves to give him his comeuppance.
The standard, explicit messages about accepting change and being yourself are not very convincing, especially in the mouths of characters who can’t be thought to have ‘come of age’ quite yet. The real project of the film seems to be happening on a more submerged level: perhaps it’s not really about childhood at all, but a response to the intuition that traditional models of masculinity have passed their use-by date and must be rebuilt from the ground up.
The irony is that as desperate as the heroes are to seem adult, their genuinely mature qualities are the ones they’ve had all along: compassion, a sense of responsibility, the frank affection they express towards each other.”
Dora And The Lost City Of Gold ★★★½
Gone is the six-year-old Latina animation star, Dora the Explorer, and in her stead is Isabela Moner playing a teenage Dora who has to leave her jungle home to face the perils of life at an American high school. The film has been shot on the Gold Coast, with the Queensland rainforest successfully standing in for the Amazon. And when the action adventure kicks off with Dora and Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) being kidnapped from school by treaure hunters, local actors Madeleine Madden and Nicholas Coombe join the central stars on the big screen. “Those who have grown up with Dora should enjoy the reunion and a new generation will probably be just as entranced,” says reviewer Sandra Hall.
“Nickelodeon has followed the Disney example and created a live action version of its much-loved TV animation series while carefully retaining the essential Dora. She still keeps company with a monkey called Boots and a talking purple backpack, and she still enlists the help of her audience in solving the puzzles and riddles that punctuate each stage of her adventures.
When the series made its television debut almost 20 years ago, Nickelodeon was encouraged to design its diminutive heroine as an emissary subliminally spreading the word about the richness of Hispanic culture and the advantages of growing up bilingual. This tactic worked so well that the series has travelled all over the world.
And with this film, she’s embarking on a new adventure in ethnography. Dora and the Lost City of Gold introduces her to the tribes to be found in the Hollywood teen movie. Her parents, Elena and Cole (Eva Longoria and Michael Pena), decide she should meet children of her own age while they carry on their own work in the Peruvian jungle. She’s to go to school in Los Angeles with her cousin, Diego, who was once her closest friend.
But Dora quickly discovers that Diego the adolescent is a very different character from the one she knew as a child. He’s decidedly standoffish, cringing with embarrassment at her complete lack of interest in trying to be cool.
Fortunately, they don’t have to grapple with these tensions for long. A gang of kidnappers scoop them, together with two of their school friends, and whisk them off to Peru. Led by New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison, these desperadoes are in the pay of a treasure hunter convinced Dora and her parents can lead him to Parapata, the lost city of gold. But the kids escape and the chase is on, with quicksand, poisonous frogs and gaseous plants cropping up to test the intelligence of Dora and the audience, whom she occasionally addresses.”
French-born filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng, who has already made films on Diana Vreeland and the house of Dior, has turned his lens on 1960s fashion designer Roy Frowick, better known as Halston. Tcheng is fascinated by the American-ness of Halston’s story – from the corn belt in Des Moines, Iowa to New York, where he became the head milliner at Bergdorf Goodman’s. Once he puts a pillbox hat on Jacqueline Kennedy’s well-coiffed head for the presidential inauguration, two stars get born. Reviewer Paul Byrnes says, “Tcheng does a good job convincing us Halston’s life and work were remarkable and his demise complicated.”
“Tcheng’s engaging if fussily put-together film is as much about business as fashion – and it is a compelling story. Halston was first to do many things – the first to use major stars like Liza Minnelli as his ambassadors, the first to use lots of models of colour, the first home-grown American designer to compete with the French fashion hegemony, the first to partner his high-priced label with a major low-cost retailer (JC Penney), and the first to recognise the marketing benefits of his own highly-constructed image.
He surrounded himself with a bevy of beautiful models and actresses who became known as the Halstonettes. He partied hard at Studio 54 with Mick and Bianca (Jagger) and Liz (Taylor) and Liza. Behind the scenes he screamed at his people, became a heavy user of cocaine and behaved like a martinet, even with his friends. His image was as the suave, elegant man-about-town; the reality was a little darker.
He made superbly tailored clothes for the most beautiful women in the world, turned his hat business into a fashion empire worth $US100 million, then lost control of it by selling himself and his label to big business. The tycoons loved the glamour, but the bean-counters wondered why meals prepared by his chef in New York had to be flown to him at his house in Montauk at company expense.
Tcheng treats the film like a film noir, with a fictional narrator looking through the archives of Halston’s life. It’s a homage to the narrators in Citizen Kane and Sunset Blvd but it’s unnecessary. The historical footage is good enough to sustain the story, which builds to a tragic finale in the 1980s when Halston become one of the first fashion kings to succumb to HIV/AIDS.”
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.