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AD ASTRA: ONE MAN’S DESTINY IN OUTER SPACE

Writer-director James Gray is nothing if not bold. He dared to tackle a non-cynical romantic triangle in Two Lovers and a return to “high adventure” in The Lost City of Z. Neither film found the audience it deserved. With Ad Astra he has ventured into outer space, fully aware of the pitfalls: being compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or, more recently, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. He needn’t have worried. In fashioning an intelligent space drama for grownups he found inspiration and a through-line in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its modern-day equivalent, Apocalypse Now. He also found the perfect actor to serve as his space traveler. The part fits Brad Pitt like a glove, and he delivers one of his finest, most nuanced performances. The time is the near future and Pitt is an astronaut…

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THE GOLDFINCH: A DIFFERING OPINION

I don’t know why critics in Toronto attacked this film the way they did. It’s not perfect, to be sure, but it’s not a bad movie by any means. Not having read Donna Tartt’s best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel may have put me at an advantage, as I had no knowledge of the story and therefore no demands or expectations. Screenwriter Peter Straughan and director John Crowley apparently took Tartt’s linear narrative and broke it in two, so the film periodically jumps from the past to the present. My problem is that Theo Decker, as written (and played by Ansel Elgort) as an adult is difficult to care about, whereas your heart goes out to Theo as a boy (played by Oakes Fegley). Here is a…

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TWO HOLLYWOOD GEMS WITH CHARLES BOYER ON BLU-RAY

It seems to me that Charles Boyer is underrated; I don’t see him being praised or even discussed very often. Having revisited several of his films I am more convinced than ever that he is one of the finest actors of Hollywood’s golden age. Two recent Blu-ray releases prove my point: Hold Back the Dawn (1941) from Arrow Academy and Cluny Brown (1946) from Criterion. The films couldn’t be more different, but Boyer is superb in both of them.     All you really need to know about Cluny Brown is that it was directed and produced by Ernst Lubtisch; in fact, it was the last film he completed before his death in 1948. Everything about it is fresh, original, and delightful to behold. The setting is England in 1938, before…

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BACK ON THE SCREEN: SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY

I was fortunate enough to see George T. Nierenberg’s exceptional documentary when it debuted in 1982, and I’m delighted that it is back on theater screens, with its picture and sound lovingly restored. It is just as I remembered it: a deeply-felt, enriching experience. Say Amen, Somebody tells the story of gospel music by focusing on a handful of key figures in its birth and development. Thomas A. Dorsey is hailed as the father of gospel music, and rightly so. He not only composed some of its enduring songs but endured many years of ostracism from churches and priests who thought it had no place in their services. Captured on camera in old age it is clear why and how he survived: his strength of will is…

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FORTY YEARS OF TELLURIDE

You may have read about the headline-making films that played this past weekend at the Telluride Film Festival. Many of them are certain to be contenders in the upcoming Oscar race; that’s why their studios and distributors jockeyed for position at this annual event. You’ll be hearing more about such terrific movies as Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes, and the performances of actors like Adam Driver, Renée Zellweger, Laura Dern, Jonathan Pryce, and Anthony Hopkins, to name a few.     But for my wife and me the festival has greater significance. It was forty years ago, in 1979, that we made the difficult decision to skip Cinecon—an event that I’d attended since I was 14 years old every Labor Day…

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MILES DAVIS: THE BIRTH OF THE COOL

Watching Stanley Nelson’s new documentary, I felt both exhilarated and frustrated—just as I did while following Miles Davis’s career. I can’t imagine a more vivid or thorough portrait of this seminal figure in the world of jazz. Everyone you would want to hear from appears on-camera, including family members, wives, girlfriends, and musicians from all phases of Miles’s musical journey (Gil Evans, Jimmy Cobb, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, and Ron Carter, to name just a few.) “The Birth of the Cool” is the name of a groundbreaking album that remains as fresh and satisfying as it was when it was recorded in 1949 and 1950. I still love listening to it, but for Miles the achievement was ephemeral. He was already…

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PATREON: THIS TIME IT’S PERSONAL

Last week we sat at our kitchen table and did something I haven’t done in years: stuffed envelopes and licked stamps. Goodness knows I did all that and more in the nine years I published Film Fan Monthly, beginning at the age of 15. This time around it’s part of our new Patreon initiative. If you’re unfamiliar with the service, click HERE and you’ll see how it works.  It’s a way of connecting me and you, my audience, on a personal basis. Depending on the level you choose, you might get a postcard from my family and me, or at the Executive Producer level we actually send you a piece of movie memorabilia from my collection via old-fashioned snail mail. What a concept! Mind you,…

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