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Film round-up: September 19, 2019

MARIA DUARTE and ALAN FRANK review The Kitchen and Ad Astra

The Kitchen (15)
Directed by Andrea Berloff
★★

MADE in 1906, the first gangster film was probably The Black Hand and later the introduction of sound established the genre as a cinema staple, adorned by classics like Scarface and Little Caesar.

Unsurprisingly, given that profit is Hollywood’s principal motive, hoodlum cinema has continued to flourish, delivering such cinematic milestones as The Godfather, Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America and Quentin Tarantino’s strikingly overcooked Pulp Fiction.

Now, appropriately from Warner Bros — the Hollywood studio that created legendary genre stars like Edward G Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney — comes The Kitchen, an ultra-violent crime thriller set in New York in 1978.

There, the Irish mafia own and exploit Hell’s Kitchen, 20 blocks of pawnshops, porn theatres and dive bars situated between 8th Avenue and the Hudson River.

Crime briefly ceases to pay when the FBI jails three mob bosses but, in the true tradition of US business, the mobsters’ profitable industry cannot be left to rot.

So the hoodlums’ wives Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) successfully take over their husbands’ rackets, bloodily disposing of anyone opposed to them.

It could be argued that The Kitchen, like Hustle, is a milestone in promoting female empowerment in a previously male-driven film genre.

Unfortunately, screenwriter Andrea Berloff, who once lived in Hell’s Kitchen, makes an embarrassingly maladroit directorial debut, serving up her aspirant feminist melodrama with rather less subtlety than an elephant in a phone booth.

Her cast is lumbered with lumpy dialogue, most memorable for its massive tsunami of four-letter words. That’s somewhat amazing, given that Berloff has boiled up — and ludicrously overcooked — her expletive-ridden screenplay from a DC comic book series.

The cast deserve praise for their sterling efforts but despite that they are cruelly defeated by a screenplay whose paper-thin characterisation and less than compelling storytelling more often than not fails to create a gripping narrative.

Instead, it takes refuge in verbal filth and gaudy on-screen violence.

Alan Frank

Ad Astra (12A)
Directed by James Gray

THE poster blurb to Ad Astra reads: “The answers we seek are just outside our reach,” which embodies the pretentiousness of this sci-fi space thriller exploring an existential crisis between an estranged father and son.

It stars Brad Pitt as elite astronaut Roy McBride, who travels to the outskirts of the solar system to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) who left him when he was 16.

His mission is to learn the truth about him and his doomed expedition which, some three decades later, is now threatening the universe.

The film’s narrative tosh masquerades as a deeply philosophical fact-finding personal journey, with endless soporific voice-overs by Pitt — who does a sterling job to helm this car crash and imbue some form of life into the turgid dialogue — as he spends an inordinate amount of time navel-gazing in space.

Even an enraged baboon — I shared his anger and pain — running amok on an animal research ship and a random attack by lunar pirates to break the monotonous long shots in space where little happens is not enough to distract us momentarily from this interminable snoozefest.

There is nothing ground-breaking about this space odyssey, directed and co-written by James Gray (The Lost City of Z) with his long-time associate Ethan Gross, either visually or in subject matter that has not been done to mind-blowing effect by the likes of Gravity, Interstellar and the more recent Aniara.

It felt like watching another unfathomable Terrence Malick film featuring a stellar cast — Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga — who seem completely wasted in their overly brief cameos. And I would have liked to have seen more interaction between Pitt and Lee Jones.

So do not be sucked in by the impressive A-listers in a film which disappears into its own black hole.

Maria Duarte

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