Head Space

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.

The Glitter and the Gold

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.

We Didn’t Start the Fire


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.

Pace that Kills

Running with the Devil

by Hope Madden

A tale told in bathrooms, Running with the Devil travels with The Cook (Nicolas Cage), a high ranking jefe in an international cocaine cartel.

He’s a jefe, but he’s not El Jefe. That’s Barry Pepper, as The Boss, and he has other pressing concerns. El Jefe needs The Cook to travel with his product from the farm where it’s produced through the forests, mountains, backstreets, highways and checkpoints to the hands of the dealers who sell it, so he can determine just where the other problem lies.

So while The Agent in Charge (Leslie Bibb) and Number One (Peter Facinelli) investigate suspicious OD’s stateside, The Cook heads south for his own form of investigation.

A word about character names. Writer/director Jason Cabell offers labels as opposed to your traditional Paul or Paulas. That would be interesting if the labels were fun or even on-the-nose, but The Cook? This isn’t meth. He actually just owns a restaurant on the side, which has nothing to do with anything, but I guess Cartel Middle Manager didn’t have the right zing.

Another word about Number One (Facinelli). This guy. He’s the trusted back up to The Agent in Charge. He’s the guy who gets stuck heading to the border to wait for the shipment. And he is the single most conspicuous person on earth. He’s like a Tom of Finland illustration come to life and dressed in JC Penney’s best.

Anyway, Cabell structures his film to draw tension and excitement from the inevitable collision between The Cook (Cage) and The Man (Lawrence Fishburne).


They may be borderline-geriatric badasses, but both have certainly cut interesting cinematic figures. What can they do together?

Well, in this case, they can disappoint. You can’t lay this on Fishburne’s portrayal. His commitment to the pursuit of cocaine and prostitutes impresses.

Unfortunately, this is one of those Nic Cage movies where he doesn’t cut loose—doesn’t go all Nic Cage on you. This means he has to act, but he more or less chooses not to. You get a flash here, a flutter there, but the naked truth is that Nicolas Cage has no idea how to behave like a regular person. The Cook is too ordinary a man for Nicolas Cage to properly portray.

And without the needed distraction of a Full On Cage, it’s tough not to notice the narrative inconsistencies, trite dialog, stupid character names.

I mean, Facinelli does what he can with that mustache to keep your attention, but when it comes to the school of Glorious Explosive Train Wreck Acting, he’s no Nic Cage.

Hell to Pay

Hell House LLC 3: Lake of Fire

by Brandon Thomas

I’m an easy mark for found footage movies.

When done well, their use of unseen horror gets under my skin like no other kind of scary movie. There’s a heart-pounding anticipation prevalent in these movies that tends to hit everything I find terrifying.

Of course, this reaction comes with good found footage movies. Does Hell House LLC 3: Lake of Fire rank up there with the greats? 

Yeah… not so much.

Right before its demolition, Russell Wynn (Gabriel Chytry) swoops in to buy the infamous Abaddon Hotel. He’s young, showy, rich… and full of potentially bad ideas, such as using the hotel as the venue for his popular interactive show, “Insomniac.” Along for the ride is a journalist and her camera crew, a handful of actors for the show, and Russell’s dedicated, but ultimately naive, staff.

The original Hell House LLC delivered a budget-friendly, but fun, offering into the found footage canon. The filmmakers weren’t reinventing the wheel, but they understood what they could produce with the premise and money available to them. Director Stephen Cognetti’s knowledge of how to make basic scares work lifted the film to a higher level. 

The slow-building of dread is a staple in this genre. It’s what gets the audience to squirm well before the proverbial shit hits the fan. Hell House LLC 3 peaks early with its scares and doesn’t quite finds its footing again. The climax ends up being more chaotic than scary with conveniently placed camerawork being substituted for well-placed frights. 

The film truly stumbles by relying too heavily on the installments that came before. There’s far too much time spent building a mythology that brings in characters from the other two movies. As a result, Hell House LLC 3 never gets to work as a singular piece of filmmaking.  

Outside of a few clever scares, this third installment in the Hell House LLC series never manages to rise above being a middling effort.

Fright Club: Amusements in Horror

A perversion of childhood innocence in an attempt to create anxiety and fear—that, basically, is the definition of carnivals, circuses, theme parks. Maybe that’s why the amusement park and its inhabitants make for such excellent horror movie fodder. Let’s discuss.

5. Zombieland (2009)

Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool) take the tried-and-true zombiepocalypse premise and sprint with it in totally new and awesome directions. An insane cast helps: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Bill Murray. That’s eight Oscar nominations and one win, that’s what that is. Plus, I cannot imagine a better cameo in a film than Murray’s in this one.

I give you, a trip to a loud and well-lit amusement park is not a recommendation Max Brooks would make during the zombiepocalypse. Still, you’ve got to admit it’s a gloriously filmed piece of action horror cinema.

Between the sisters trapped on a ride slowly lowering them toward hungry mouths (good thinking on those boots, ladies!), Columbus’s rule breaking heroism with that effing clown, and the all-time great Tallahassee shoot out, director Ruben Fleischer directs the hell out of the amusement park portion of this movie.

4. It (2017)

Clowns are fun, aren’t they?

The basic premise of It is this: Little kids are afraid of everything, and that’s just good thinking.

Bill Skarsgård has the unenviable task of following a letter-perfect Tim Curry in the role of Pennywise. Those are some big clown shoes to fill, but Skarsgård is up to the challenge. His Pennywise is more theatrical, more of an exploitation of all that’s inherently macabre and grotesque about clowns.

Is he better than the original? Let’s not get nutty here, but he is great.

Director Andy Muschietti shows great instinct for taking advantage of foreground, background and sound. Yes, It relies heavily on jump scares, but Muschietti’s approach to plumbing your fear has more depth than that and he manages your rising terror expertly.

3. The Last Circus (2010)

Who’s in the mood for something weird?

Unhinged Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia returns to form with The Last Circus, a breathtakingly bizarre look at a Big Top love triangle set in Franco’s Spain.

Describing the story in much detail would risk giving away too many of the astonishing images. A boy loses his performer father to conscription in Spain’s civil war, and decades later, with Franco’s reign’s end in sight, he follows in pop’s clown-sized footsteps and joins the circus. There he falls for another clown’s woman, and stuff gets nutty.

Like Tarantino, Igelsia pulls together ideas and images from across cinema and blends them into something uniquely his own, crafting a film that’s somewhat familiar, but never, ever predictable.

The Last Circus boasts more than brilliantly wrong-minded direction and stunningly macabre imagery – though of these things it certainly boasts. Within that bloody and perverse chaos are some of the more touching performances to be found onscreen.

2. Us (2019)

From a Santa Cruz carnival to a hall of mirrors to a wall of rabbits in cages, writer/director Jordan Peele draws on moods and images from horror’s collective unconscious and blends them into something hypnotic and almost primal.

But Us is far more than a riff on some old favorites. It’s as if Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland turned into a plague on humanity.

And it all starts innocently enough with a family outing to the carnival—an environment that has always been a perversion of innocence, a macabre funhouse mirror of the playthings and past times of children. Peele takes advantage, using this stage to create an even wilder and more bewildering look at who we are.

1. Freaks (1932)

Short and sweet, like most of its performers, Tod Browning’s controversial film Freaks is one of those movies you will never forget. Populated almost entirely by unusual actors – midgets, amputees, the physically deformed, and an honest to god set of conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) – Freaks makes you wonder whether you should be watching it at all.

This, of course, is an underlying tension in most horror films, but with Freaks, it’s right up front. Is what Browning does with the film empathetic or exploitative, or both? And, of course, am I a bad person for watching this film?

Well, that’s not for us to say. We suspect you may be a bad person, perhaps even a serial killer. Or maybe that’s us. What we can tell you for sure is that the film is unsettling, and the final, rainy act of vengeance is truly creepy to watch.

Screening Room: Hustlers, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Tigers Are Not Afraid, Haunt, Depraved

A Series of Infuriating Events

Official Secrets

by Christie Robb

Director Gavin Hood grounds the shitshow that was the 2003 Iraq invasion in the intimate true story of the British Intelligence whistleblower, Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley).

Gun comes across an NSA email directing the British government to spy on smaller nations in the UN Security Council in order to blackmail them into voting for war. Attempting to avert an unjust war and save lives, Gun leaks the document to the press. But in doing so, she’s in violation of the Official Secrets Act.

The Observer’s front-page story, based on the email, makes international headlines. Unfortunately, it’s almost immediately delegitimized when an office drone tragically runs the article through spell check, changing the Americanized spelling of “favorite” to the British “favourite”—causing speculation that the entire email was a fake planted by the then-popular antiwar movement.

Gun confesses to the leak and is arrested, throwing her life into chaos. Knightley spends most of the film believably portraying a woman constantly on the edge of throwing up as she is bullied relentlessly by the state.

The film is praiseworthy in the way it covers a civilian taking a moral stand against a corrupt state.

Unfortunately, it’s also a bit unfocused, splitting attention between Gun,
her lawyer (Ralph Fiennes), and reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith). Director Hood (Eye in the Sky, Ender’s Game) never manages to create a single narrative out of his multiple threads, making it tough to remain invested with any one particular storyline.

She-Wolves of Wall Street


by George Wolf

“You don’t have to believe me. I’m used to people not believing me.”

“Destiny” (Constance Wu) is telling her tale to Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), a writer in the midst of a story on a gang of high-end strippers who were busted for drugging clients and fleecing them for thousands.

The disclaimer is a clear yet-not-overbearing sign that our window into the world of Hustlers may not necessarily be the most clear and reliable. It’s one of many wise choices made by writer/director Lorene Scafaria in her adaptation of Jessica Pressler’s article on “The Hustlers at Scores.”

Wu is terrific as the naive newbie, overshadowed only by a completely magnetic Jennifer Lopez as Ramona, the stripping legend who teaches Destiny (and by extension, us) the ropes of spotting the highest-rolling Wall St. d-bags to milk for all they can.

But when the crash hits in ’08, times get tough for everybody, and it isn’t hard to justify hatching a plan to swindle the swindlers.

Scafaria ((Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Meddler) is not shy about the Scorsese influences, and seeing Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as executive producers makes The Big Short-syled humor all the more understandable.

No matter. This is still a supremely assured vision from Scafaria, cleverly constructed with visual flair, solid laughs, a sizzling pace and some truly memorable sequences.

One of the many great soundtrack choices comes right out of the gate, as Scafaria sets the stakes with Janet Jackson’s spoken-word opening to “Control.”

Who’s got it? Who doesn’t? And who’s badass enough to go get it?

It’s a wild, intoxicating high of girl power. And when it all comes crashing down, the moral ambiguities are scattered like dollar bills under the pole. As Ramona is quick to remind us, if there’s money being thrown, there will always be people ready to dance.