With Netflix and Amazon Studios both premiering titles at this year’s Venice Film Festival, we head to Italy to check out the latest streaming originals and catch up with some of the other titles on offer. Keep up-to-date with our full coverage here.
Fresh from Netflix’s Alias Grace, director Mary Harron returns to her specialist subject of serial killers with the intriguing drama Charlie Says. The first out of the gates in a mini-run on Charles Manson (Netflix’s Mindhunter and Tarantino’s new film will both feature him), Harron’s movie benefits from bringing someone neither of those has: a female perspective of the horrific killings.
Based on Ed Sanders’ book The Family, the film more primarily focuses on the work of Karlene Faith, founder of the Santa Cruz Women’s Prison Project. She finds herself drawn into the aftermath of the Manson Killings, interviewing and attempting to help Leslie (Hannah Murray), Patricia (Sosie Bacon) and Susan (Marianne Rendon) through her role as behind-bars educator.
Merritt Wever is fantastic as Karlene, simultaneously gentle and sympathetic, firm and fact-driven, appalled and cautious. The film’s most compelling moments involve just seeing these women interact, as the trio exert power where they can, and manipulate the guards to be kind to them – despite the fact that they committed murder most brutal. It’s a meeting of wills and minds, but most tellingly, the strongest mind is not present: that of Charles Manson (Matt Smith), whose influence still holds sway years later, as his followers espouse his strange visions of the future and try to live by his very specific moral code.
The flashbacks to the Spahn Ranch, where Manson’s community was based, aren’t quite as compelling, but that’s more a reflection of how good the quartet of women are than anything to do with Smith. Since Doctor Who, the actor has increasingly diversified and constantly impressed, and here is no exception: he delivers perhaps a career-best performance as Manson, a brutal bully of a man who talks of love and freedom but exerts control and abuses it to suit his own childish ego.
The interplay between the two timelines is highly effective, even as the movie builds to its low-key climax. This is a quietly intriguing and gently disturbing companion piece to Alias Grace, which finds fresh, surprisingly pertinent depths to the Manson story by examining the line between consent, complicity and compassion, and asking who and who can’t be regarded as a victim of one man’s disturbed mind. A prime candidate for a day-and-date cinema release in the near future.
Charlie Says does not yet have a UK release date.
Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling team up once again for a dizzying tale of the 1969 moon landing. But while the whole world knows what happened when Neil Armstrong touched down on that milky orb, Chazelle’s remarkable achievement is that he makes you forget for two hours that humankind’s most remarkable achievement ever took place. Delving into the lesser-covered Gemini projects before the Apollo missions, we’re taken on a crushing tour of NASA’s failed attempts to beat the Russians in the Space Race – failures that cost lives time and time again.
Gosling is withdrawn and reticent as Armstrong, a man who starts off quiet following a family bereavement and, as his colleagues around him dwindle in number, becomes a boiling pot of grief with the lid kept firmly on. There’s something inherently fascinating in the notion of one man’s drive to lift off simply to get away from everything, the near-certain death only growing in appeal. It’s an impressive, committed performance from Gosling, although one that makes it hard to connect with his character. That means we end up more sympathetic towards Claire Foy as his wife, alienated from her husband and determinedly trying to raise their sons without a present dad. Foy, excellent as always, is sadly not given much screen time, with the script preferring to lean on the masculine bonds at NASA to highlight the losses sustained during these fraught years.
While that frustrates, especially after the brilliant Hidden Figures, Chazelle’s direction never wavers. Cementing himself as a masterful storyteller in seemingly any genre, he ramps up tension like it’s strapped to a rocket, steadily pacing the journey towards an increasingly impossible feat – and puncturing that ride with bursts of astonishing visuals, genuinely scary aerial sequences and a first-hand shaky depiction of launches that brings space travel to life in a way that rivals Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. The sound design alone is worth watching for, from the cries of pilots behind closed doors to the ticks and rattles of every fragile mechanical part.
The result is a gripping bit of cinema that packs an abundance of awe – even when it’s over, you still can’t quite believe humans ever pulled this off.
First Man is released in UK cinemas on 12th October.
A Star Is Born
Is there anything Bradley Cooper or Lady Gaga can’t do? Judging by A Star Is Born, probably not. This remake of the age-old musical is a soul-filling wonder, which finds emotional clout between catchy notes and sincere romance underneath stylish riffs – not bad going for an actor’s directorial debut. As well as holding the camera, Cooper plays fading county rock legend Jackson Maine, who is reinvigorated by the discovery of Ally (Gaga) in a backstreet bar. She dazzles everyone within 50 miles with a performance of La Vie En Rose, delivered with a hint of full Gaga style, but the rest of her turn is rather more understated, as Ally goes through the challenge of staying true to herself while rising through the music business.
That means we end up with more time for Cooper’s grizzled veteran, as his career nosedives into a musically fatal combination of deteriorating hearing and heaving drinking. Cooper delivers a fantastically authentic turn, complete with beard, guitar strumming and growling vocals, but the growing focus on him occasionally weighs down the narrative – you almost wish the film focused solely on either one of the two leads, or even made two companion films about him and her.
But this is a remake happy to tread a familiar path, following three previous versions of the story (and countless tropes echoed elsewhere). If that’s a slight disappointment, the movie doesn’t let you worry about it often; the chance to see Sam Elliott – part granite, part moustache – go toe to toe with Cooper as Jackson’s older brother and manager is a hard-hitting joy; Gaga’s scenes at the piano or in the recording studio are wonderfully sincere; and every time Gaga or Cooper step up to the mic, the screen crackles with electricity, as Ally belts out every feeling going without holding back. If it’s guilty of being overstuffed, that’s only because it has too much heart; this is a foot-stomping tearjerker of a musical. Prepare to have the soundtrack on repeat.
A Star Is Born is released in UK cinemas on 5th October.