October 2019 Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

AD ASTRA (PG-13)
***
As a boy I was always watching science-fiction movies, except when I was reading sci-fi books. Now, with much of the fiction having become fact, we're lucky to get one sci-fi movie a year - but most of them are really good. This year's, Ad Astra, is one of the good ones; but it got me over my boyhood dream of going into space (which a high school classmate actually achieved). Seeing Ad Astra in Imax gives you a sense of the vastness of space; on a regular screen it's only half-vast. Much of it takes place in Brad Pitt's head, projected at about a 1000 times life-size. He plays Maj. Roy McBride, an astronaut who's unnaturally calm in the face of constant psychological evaluations. The assignment that finally gets his pulse racing involves his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a rockstar astronaut who went up on a mission 29 years ago and never came down. Now it's suspected that he's behind a series of power surges coming from Neptune that threaten Earth and the rest of the solar system. It's rumored that he killed the rest of his team when they wanted to return to Earth and he didn't. So Roy is dealing with daddy issues as well as trying to save the planet when he travels to the moon, Mars and finally Neptune. He'll find out what he has in common with his father and what he doesn't. If the film seems slow at times, consider how the 79-day trip from Mars to Neptune would feel.

DOWNTON ABBEY (PG)
***
I'm not sure how the Downton Abbey movie will work for someone who is totally unfamiliar with the characters and their backstories. I watched the show primarily for Maggie Smith's one-liners. She's got a new batch, though she loses as often as she wins against her sparring partner, Penelope Wilton. Smith is always so good you want to give her an award just for breathing; but not wanting to take a chance, they've written in a serious scene for her near the end that has "For Your Consideration: Best Supporting Actress" written all over it. Aside from that moment, the film is generally a bit lighter in tone than the TV series; and Kevin Doyle as Molesley scores the biggest laugh of all. Writer Julian Fellowes has done an amazing job of involving the entire cast in the story, most with their own subplots, as if cramming an entire season into two hours. It's 1927 and the main plot involves a visit by King George V and Queen Mary to Downton Abbey. They bring their own staff (including a French chef who should have been played by Sacha Baron Cohen), which creates animosity among the resident help and leads to a sort of uprising. There are also new flirtations and romances, an old secret revealed, petty theft, a pregnancy, a gay bar raid and an assassination attempt, among other things; yet there's still time for scenic views of the estate and some of its rooms, which certainly look grand on a large theater screen. Fans of the series don't have to be told to return to Downton Abbey. If you've never seen it, I can't predict how this will serve as an introduction.

JIM ALLISON: BREAKTHROUGH (PG-13)
**1/2
If there's anything harder than curing cancer it's making a movie about curing cancer that's interesting and understandable to a dummy like me without being dumbed down to the point where it's offensive to anyone with half a brain. If I had to choose I'd prefer to see the former achieved, and to an extent it has been. Writer-producer-director Bill Haney is transparent about how he hopes to achieve the latter, going back and forth between the stuff about Dr. James Allison's scientific efforts and the personal story of Jim Allison, a beer-drinking, harmonica-playing Texas boy and Willie Nelson fan. The average viewer is more likely to respond to one or the other than both, but there are connections, of course. Jim's mother died of lymphoma when he was 11. He was interested in science from the time he got his first chemistry set. His high school wouldn't teach evolution. T-cells were discovered when he was in college. Much later he found the T-cell receptor, the molecule that identifies diseased cells for the T-cell to attack. But cancer cells are immune to T-cells. Allison and his co-workers found a way to break through that immunity with antibodies and developed a drug called Ipilimumab. (Why? Were all the other names taken?) The hard part was finding a Big Pharma company to finance the long, expensive trials. Bristol-Myers Squibb stepped up and last year Jim received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in Immunotherapy. Haney crams in as much music and emotion as he can, but I was just glad to hear the cancer cure news that hasn't received nearly enough attention outside of scientific journals. Some loose threads are wrapped up during the credits, but not whether Jim is able to cure the cancer in his own body.

JUDY (PG-13)
***
There was only one Judy Garland. There still is, but it's a different one: Renée Zellweger, in a performance for which they should already be engraving the Oscar. It would merit the award for its dramatic range alone; but add in the singing and the impersonation aspect, and you've got what may be the performance of the decade – and I'm not one of Zellweger's biggest fans. The movie around it is good but not great, but who looks at the Mona Lisa and notices the frame? It's the mostly sad story of part of the last year of Judy's life. "Unreliable and uninsurable," and unable to pay for the hotel she's been living in, Garland accepts an engagement at London's Talk of the Town, where at least some of the ticket-buyers are hoping to see her have a meltdown on stage, which would give them more to talk about than if they saw her in peak form. There are also flashbacks to teen Judy (played by Darci Shaw) filming The Wizard of Oz at MGM, where she learned to rely on pills for sleeping, staying awake and everything in between. Viewed through a modern filter, scenes where Louis B. Mayer gets close or puts a fatherly hand on her seem borderline creepy. In 1968-69 Judy fights ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) for custody of their children, Lorna and Joey; and runs into older daughter Liza Minnelli, now 22 and on her own, at the party where she meets her final husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). Though Garland's talent shines through in most of the musical numbers (voiced by Zellweger!), the honest portrayal of how she was at the end of her life is not the way fans want to remember her; but it's a portrayal for which Zellweger will be long remembered.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD (R)
**1/2
In the current climate - not the one that's changing - it's impossible to review this new sequel without getting political. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), veteran of Vietnam and at least two private wars, lives on his peaceful Arizona ranch with Maria (Adriana Barraza) (his housekeeper?), presumably a legal immigrant, and her teenage granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who calls him "Uncle John." Gabrielle disobeys Rambo and goes to Mexico to confront the father who deserted her and her late mother a decade ago. There she's kidnapped by a sex trafficking ring headed by the two Martinez brothers, one of whom is the most despicable character ever seen on the screen - and he's the good one. Rambo goes looking for Gabrielle and, as if to show there are good people on both sides of the border, meets an investigative journalist (Paz Vega) who lost her sister to the same gang. The first three Rambo movies have been translated into Spanish so you'd think the cartel dudes would know better than to mess with this guy or anyone near him. The bad stuff happens in the first hour, giving Rambo half an hour for revenge. He booby-traps the ranch, including a network of tunnels he's built underneath and stocked with enough weapons for a well-regulated militia - you'd think he's been planning this for years - and lures the bad hombres there in a motorcade that has no trouble crossing the border. What happens next pushes the R rating to its limits and should cause the movie to be marketed in Mexico as a horror flick. It wasn't filmed there but it makes Mexico look like a s---hole country, even if the worst of their drug dealers, rapists and murderers are no match for our all-American boy. Rambo: Last Blood is slickly made and should appeal to fans of the genre who don't demand logic or credibility.

END OF THE CENTURY (NR)
**
Anyone middle-aged or above likes to think they look exactly the same as they did 20 years ago. Argentine filmmaker Lucio Castro makes it happen for the main characters in his first feature; but that's not an element of the plot – this isn't Gemini Man - so it's only confusing for the viewer when a simple cut initiates a flashback sequence from 20 years earlier, shortly before the turn of the current century, but no one looks any younger. Before that we've watched as Ocho (Juan Barberini), visiting from New York, explores Barcelona with special interest in its men. He hooks up with one of them, Javi (Ramon Pujol), who is visiting his family from Berlin. After sex they have a long talk to get acquainted. Finally Ocho says, "I feel like we've met before," and Javi replies, "We have met before." Then comes the flashback, without explanation or introduction. It leads up to the first meeting of Ocho and Javi, but first Ocho (looking the same as he did in the present) has a long talk with his friend Sonia (Mía Maestro), mostly about her ex-boyfriend and his ex-girlfriend. Once Javi enters and the men are introduced, the timeline is established; so we can return to the present and a final twist that provides more confusion. Screened in the recent Out on Film festival, End of the Century isn't a terrible movie, but it shows how foolish a filmmaker can look when they try too hard to be more clever than their audience.

FIRST LOVE (NR)
**1/2
Romantics drawn to First Love by the title will be taken aback by the bloody valentine they find. Fans of insanely prolific Japanese action director Takashi Miike, however, will get exactly what they expect. Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a promising but unenthusiastic young boxer whose attitude toward life changes when he's diagnosed with a brain tumor. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi), known as Monica when she's working, is held captive and forced to be a prostitute to pay off her father's debt to the Yakuza, who are competing with the Chinese for the local drug trade. It's an endless cycle because Yuri spends her earnings on drugs for herself, which make her hallucinate and see her father's ghost at inconvenient times. During one of those times she meets Leo, when she's on the run after a crooked cop and a young gangster scapegoat her for drugs they've stolen from one mob or another. (There are far too many individuals and alliances to keep track of, but don't worry - there won't be a quiz.) Speed taught us that "relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last"; so just enjoy this one through one wild night filled with guns, swords and fists. The first severed head appears less than three minutes into the movie, but it won't be the last severed head - or arm - you see. The driving scenes could be cut together for a public service announcement on behalf of seatbelts. Miike can make this kind of movie in his sleep but apparently he's stayed awake for this one to be sure the audience does too.

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID (NR)
***
Tigers Are Not Afraid has a fairy tale theme but it's not a fairy tale. It takes place now, not once upon a time; and not everyone lives happily ever after. Blended with Latin-American magical realism, the fairy tale elements do more to frighten than lighten. If the involvement of young teenagers with cartels in Piranhas was too much for you, it won't help that their younger siblings are fighting against a violent Mexican druglord in this one. They're orphans or virtual orphans - they don't all know whether their parents are dead or "disappeared," just that they've been on their own for some time. Tired of being alone, Estrella (Paola Lara) forces her presence on a quartet of boys led by Shine (Juan Ramón López). The boys are too young to have a sexual interest in her - one cares more about a stuffed tiger - so her primary asset is three wishes her teacher gave her during a shooting incident at school. Her world also includes ghosts, bats and an endless stream of blood, which explains her need for human companionship. The cartel is led by Chino (Tenoch Huerta), who's running for political office on a promise to bring peace. The children attract his interest by stealing a cell phone that contains damning evidence, putting them in as much danger as their parents were. Writing a fairy tale for a school assignment, Estrella mentions "the things from outside (that) come to get us." Writer-director Issa López has certainly brought those things into the modern world, but the supernatural elements that should stimulate our sense of wonder are just more obstacles for our heroine to overcome. The film is moving and beautifully made, but about as far from escapism as you can get.

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