The Underworld star takes a major left turn with her role in Farming, model, lawyer, singer, actor and now first time feature film director, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s incredible true story of being ‘farmed out’ by his birth parents to a British family and becoming the leader of a skinhead gang.
Strangely, despite the late hour, the Sun still hasn’t set, as small town cops Chief Cliff Robertson (a deadpan Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (an equally poker-faced Adam Driver) return to the storefront police station in the small community of Centerville.
They’ve been in the woods trying to talk to Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) about a missing-presumed-stolen chicken. Wearing a red cap, sporting the logo ‘Keep America White Again’, farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi) drinks coffee in the local diner where hardware store manager Hank (Danny Glover) keeps a wary eye on him. In the Centerville Juvenile Detention Center, three teenagers (Taliyah Whitaker, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Maya Delmont) ponder the rumours that polar fracking has shifted the Earth off its axis. Strange “foreigner” Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton) has taken over the local funeral home and practices with her katana. Meanwhile three hipsters from out of town arrive at the local motel…
This is small town USA, where everyone knows everyone else, and life crawls by slowly. But – as Hermit Bob observes – in the natural world things appear to be changing; the ants seem frantic, and weird mushrooms are sprouting from the soil. On television, newscasters talk of changes to animal behaviour, while overheard snippets from broadcasts feature pundits talking about the benefits of polar fracking. The Sun sets later than usual, and the Moon has a strange magenta luminescence. As Ronnie repeatedly observes: “this is going to end badly.”
The zombie film has slouched along a well-worn path for fifty years, the ‘modern’ genre’s political subtext established from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead onwards, and in The Dead Don’t Die the political and environmental subtext is clear, and it is emphasised early on that we are living in strange times.
Like the best of Jarmusch’s films, The Dead Don’t Die allows protagonists and events to slowly unfold before the camera, emphasising the strange, stilted quirks of people and the worlds they inhabit. The Dead Don’t Die places the kind of minimal, quasi-outsider figures familiar from much of Jarmusch’s work (Mystery Train, Broken Flowers, Paterson), within the zombie genre with entertaining and sometimes surprising results. While the film slips between comedy and horror, it maintains an even tone throughout, with the director’s familiar ensemble cast delivering perfect performances – Murray, Driver and Swinton are all a joy to watch – as their world slowly collapses.
[Minor spoilers] Steeped not just in zombie movies but in the processes and experiences of watching cinema, when, in true Brechtian style, the fourth wall is broken early in the film, it makes sense, because our own environmental apocalypse is always mediated through the media. Who among us hasn’t watched daily news of extinctions, climate change and environmental collapse and thought “this is going to end badly”? Similarly, some may argue, references to the genre and to cinema itself makes the film too knowing, but both the zombie genre and news reports of catastrophe are so familiar to audiences that they should be familiar to people living through the apocalypse too. Meanwhile, Hermit Bob’s occasional, insightful commentary counters the dry humour drawn from Cliff and Ronnie with a darker strand of apocalyptic thought which places the film outside the familiar realm of the classic zom-com – this is not the world of Fleischer’s Zombieland, we are not laughing at gross-out splatter or witty quips – it’s a Jim Jarmusch zombie movie.
While there is violence and gore, the real horror is on the seeming inevitability of the end times and the oblique knowledge that there appears to be nothing that can be done. If there’s any hope to be taken from the film, it lays in the observations of Waits’ hermit and the three teenage delinquents who (like the trio of prisoners in Jarmusch’s own Down By Law) somehow appear to escape the fate that no doubt awaits many around them.
Abominable starts with our hero, Everest, the folkloric Yeti, escaping from a scientific facility and finding itself hiding out in downtown Shanghai. Everest soon bumps into Yi (Bennet), a grief stricken girl who dreams of travelling through China, and she gets her wish when along with two other kids they head across the vast and beautiful Chinese countryside to help Everest return home, all the while being pursued by an eccentric millionaire, scientists and commandos.
If you took a cynical reading of this latest Dreamworks animated feature, you could deduce that with the rapidly growing Chinese market for movies (it has the most cinemas of any nation, and growing, and is predicted to end 2019 as the biggest market in the world for theatrical releases, eclipsing the long-held US), that a Hollywood studio begins with an idea that will allow them to not only appeal to that market, but better still, engage their industry in working on the project for a fraction of the price that you would pay a Western crew.
Additionally, and most crucially, China limits the number of Western cinema releases seen on the big screen, so this co-production between Dreamworks and Pearl Studio guarantees that Abominable will be released to much fanfare.
But why be cynical, when this is showbusiness after all, and better still, some of the most creative and accomplished artworks throughout history have worked on a restricted canvas, be it censorship, budget or otherwise.
The computer animation in Abominable is what we’ve come to expect from Dreamworks (Croods, Trolls, Boss Baby, How to Train Your Dragon, etc), however, what is new here is the setting, with the streets of modern Shanghai and regional China, along with The Everest, offering something that we have not seen before in such a mainstream animated film, making the story in turns engrossing and wondrous. The same applies to the wholly Asian cast of characters, portrayed just like any Western character would have been, with little cultural stereotyping or clichés. The magical aspects in the film don’t quite match the transcendence of classics such as Kubo and the Two Strings – perhaps they should have considered less Coldplay and more class, but you can’t have everything.
Ultimately, the core message about leaving nature alone more than makes up for any shortcoming, and what you get is a film that reaches close to peak entertainment for kids and adults alike.
The Rambo franchise has always been a mercurial series, seemingly changing tone and quality levels based on market forces and social whims. For evidence of this, just check out where it all began, 1982’s First Blood, the first Rambo movie. First Blood is a taut, surprisingly lowkey thriller about a Vietnam vet, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), suffering from severe PTSD and being driven to acts of violence by smalltown prejudice and a lack of human empathy.
Compare that to Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), when John is brought back into active service and much of the nuance and subtext abandoned in favour of explosions, or Rambo III (1988) which is essentially a grit-free, propaganda reel for American military might set in the Soviet-Afghan war that takes time to praise the brave Afghani fighters, prior to the US bombing the shit out of them in recent years.
The series took a two decade hiatus before returning with 2008’s grim, gory Rambo which was both effectively staged and surprisingly sombre. Now, we reach the (possible?) conclusion with Rambo: Last Blood and… it’s a strange one.
Last Blood sees John Rambo living the quiet life, helping tend to his dad’s farm with older sister figure Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) and helping care for Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), his “niece” who really feels like a daughter surrogate.
Being the type of flick this is, Gabrielle soon ends up kidnapped by a Mexican cartel and it’s up to John to unleash the violence he has held at bay for so long.
Last Blood is a strangely paced beast, with the first two thirds ranging from the effectively ponderous to the vaguely mawkish, followed by a final third that is so imbued with splattery catharsis it scarcely feels like the same film. More confusing is Rambo’s bone-headed rescue plan, which initially fails so spectacularly, it’s hard to imagine what the hell the character was even going for.
Performance-wise Stallone once again digs deep into the mumbly hangdog charms for the character, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before and certainly not the equal of his stellar work in 2015’s Creed.
Adrian Grunberg does a serviceable job of directing the piece, and really comes alive in the climax, but otherwise doesn’t make much of a mark. In fact, that’s probably the most accurate and damning statement about Last Blood, it’s… fine.
It’s a perfectly enjoyable, if oddly put-together, action flick with a decent kill count but it doesn’t feel like the conclusive end of an established character’s arc. Still, fans of the series will likely have a decent time, and anyone curious as to what an R-rated reboot of Home Alone might look like will enjoy the prolifically spilled blood in Rambo: Last Blood.
Protagonists, in stories of humans voyaging through space, are never simply individuals. They may carry their own unique personalities and traits, but more than anything else, they are presented as paragons of humanity, embodiments of the NASA ideal to send our best and brightest to traverse the unknown. Star Trek had its adventurous diversity, Alien had its utilitarian coldness, and the latest from Lost City of Z director James Grey has Brad Pitt’s Major McBride, a man running just as fast away from his angst, as he is bolting head-first directly into it.
The latest in the more recent crop of psychologically-charged space operas, such as Interstellar, Gravity and The Martian, this feature makes for the most explicitly psychiatric of that bundle. Its frequent interjections of McBride doing automated psychological tests – an upfront admission of the running motif of the mental strain of space travel that has been at the heart of the sub-genre for decades – show near-future mankind as being just as screwed-up as the present.
How little humanity has changed since beginning its quest for new worlds, and potentially new species, is stitched into every fibre of the film’s narrative and aesthetic. From its humdrum, almost domestic, depiction of commercial space flight, to the lunar space port that features ads for ‘Moon’s Got Talent’, the interstellar future presented here is one where mankind still hasn’t resolved its problems with itself, instead riding shotgun on their way beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Even outside of the blue marble, we are still as territorial, narcissistic and misguided as ever.
When put into context with McBride’s personal journey, taking him from the aquatic blue of Earth to the almost-Kleinian blue of Neptune in a bid to save his home from destruction, it presents a quietly frightening spin on the space opera that hasn’t gotten this scale of a mainstream boost this side of the new millennium.
Ad Astra contrasts the leap into new territory and possibilities with the underlying defiance of the earthbound past, aided by Tommy Lee Jones’ haunting and nigh-on spectral visage as McBride’s father, the film almost makes a mockery of the idea that man is trying to find life beyond the confines of Earth. If we can’t even treat the species on our own planet properly, chances are the same will be for any extra-terrestrials we may encounter.
While there are occasional moments of genre-weirdness between the lines – the rover-driving moon bandits or a memorable sequence involving a berserker monkey in zero-gravity – the framing, performances and pragmatic handling of the story let the true drama of the events sink in steadily. It’s a more classical brand of space opera, one that uses the trappings and visuals of science fiction to explore ideas that are unshakeably human and terrestrial. As scribed by Gray and Fringe writer Ethan Gross, and as captured by Hoyte van Hoytema’s stunning cinematography, Ad Astra healthily sets itself apart from its competitors to make for a sombre and enriching hurtle through the stars.
Sly returns with the fifth installment in the Rambo franchise, Rambo: Last Blood, and gets candid about everything from his diet to how the first film nearly didn’t happen, and what makes John Rambo tick.