Ad Astra

Release: Friday, September 20, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Ethan Gross; James Gray

Directed by: James Gray

Ad Astra is not the increasingly familiar, inspiring saga of human achievement the marketing has been pitching it as. It’s something much more honest and intriguing — a terrifyingly lonely quest for truth that dares put us in our place and puts potential limits on our endeavors to “conquer” the Final Frontier.

Hauntingly beautiful and just plain haunting in many respects, Ad Astra (the title an abbreviation of the Latin phrase per aspera ad astra — “through hardships to the stars”) plots its moves deliberately and yet boldly, focusing not on the stars but rather the ultimate in strained relationships. It’s a grand star-strewn metaphor about a son’s physical and emotional search for the father who may or may not have abandoned him in the noble pursuit of his own, fatally unshakable beliefs — intelligent life exists somewhere in this vast chasm, I just know it dammit — one that traverses billions of miles, straddles a number of celestial bodies and asks some big, heady questions about our place in space along the way.

Co-written by director James Gray and Ethan Gross the film is very moody, swelling with so much melancholy and inner turmoil you just want to give it a hug, but this isn’t a pure mood piece. Ad Astra also has a comet of pure entertainment value streaking through it, this deliberately paced, profoundly ponderous sojourn constantly aware of its more plodding tendencies and therefore joltingly — and yet wonderfully fluidly — breaking itself up into episodic, exciting conflicts both man-made and space-provided: from incompetent leaders, raging baboons and pirates on the Moon, to Martian bureaucracy and the blue dusty rings of Neptune, everything and the floating kitchen sink is thrown in the direction of Brad Pitt, playing an emotionally compartmentalized Major on the hunt for his ultra absentee father, long thought to have perished as part of the ill-fated Lima Project, but new evidence suggests he’s not only alive but potentially the source of the devastating energy surges that have been throttling Earth for years.

The ruggedly handsome Pitt, one of the last of a dying breed of bonafide movie stars, becomes Roy McBride, a military man of Neil Armstrong-like unflappability and Rockefellerian royalty. The latter makes him uniquely qualified for a top-secret mission in an attempt to make contact with the Lima crew — namely his father, the revered H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) — while his inhuman ability to stay calm no matter the circumstances is proven in a white-knuckle spectacle of an opening, wherein a routine service job on Earth’s mighty space antenna is interrupted by one of those powerful energy surges, flinging bodies to their deaths and/or into low Earth orbit. (For the acrophobic and the vertigo-susceptible, it’s advised you look away during this scene.)

Ad Astra pairs its desperate, outward-bounding voyage with an intensely personal journey inward, a familiar dichotomy somewhat alleviated of cliché thanks to the committed and understated performances. As an exploration of masculine pride and guilt the movie proves toughness, strength and conviction are tragically finite resources in the vast reaches of the Universe’s foyer. Pitt and Jones, consummate actors ever, here are committed to going cold so much you’d think their body temperatures dropped as a result. They create a tension between parent and child that truly matches their inhospitable environment. There’s a tussle near Neptune — and damn it if it’s not one of the most pathetic things you’ll ever watch. That’s a compliment to the movie, to the direction.

The performances are just outstanding. Pitt’s in particular is a major factor in Ad Astra‘s sobering vision of not just our fragility but our arrogance in space. Behind Pitt’s eyes is a frightened boy shook well before he ever took flight. Jones as Clifford, a shell of his former self and yet somehow more statuesque and brutally resolute in his objective. These two impact the movie like the energy waves battering our Solar System and our planet.

It’s just unfortunate that comes at the expense of others, such as Liv Tyler, playing the earthbound Eve, who can only get a word in edgewise in dream-sequences and flashbacks. Meanwhile Ruth Negga‘s Helen Lantos, a 100% Martian-born native who has only been to Earth once as a child, plays an integral role in the emotional maturation (or deterioration, take your pick) of Roy’s mission. And Donald Sutherland is an actor I enjoy so much five minutes with him is both welcomed and nowhere near enough. He plays Clifford’s former colleague, an aging Colonel who helps Roy get from Earth to the Moon, where the pair will confront the true cynicism of our species head on, where Mad Max-inspired chaos reigns.

The specifics of this all-time dysfunctional relationship must, almost unfairly, compete for your attention with the unforgettable imagery provided by DoP Hoyt van Hoytema, who, in searing both dreamscapes and nightmarish visions into your consciousness, may have just eclipsed his own already ridiculous benchmark set in the 2014 galaxy-spanning Interstellar (an obvious visual and to some degree thematic forebear of Ad Astra, along with the likes of Apocalypse Now and 2001). If there is any reason to see this movie, it’s the opportunity to watch a certifiable genius — a modern Bonestell — work his magic.

“I just need some space to think.”

Recommendation: Director James Gray is on record saying he aspired to create “the most realistic depiction of space travel ever put on film,” and with the help of Ad Astra‘s understated but brilliant performances and the typically mind-blowing work of Swedish cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema, he certainly seems to have achieved that. As a movie of extremes and limitations, this certainly isn’t a populist movie. Ad Astra is a colder, harsher vision of our cosmic reality. Maybe I’m just a cold person, because this is going to go down as one of my favorites all year (not to mention it features one of the best promotional tags I’ve come across in some time). 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Mad Max: Fury Road

fury-road-alt-poster

Release: Friday, May 15, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: George Miller; Brendan McCarthy; Nico Lathouris

Directed by: George Miller

For a lesser population, what a lovely day it is indeed, a day in which a franchise is reborn. To anyone else not attuned to what was once a legitimate excuse for Mel Gibson going crazy, Mad Max: Fury Road feels like what a Michael Bay action sequence wants to be when it grows up.

Before dealing with the flack I’m going to inevitably receive for that comparison, may I remind you that Bay, despite himself now, has a knack for building enthusiastic, explosive entertainment. Whereas the aforementioned splurges on expense, George Miller ingeniously . . . well, he splurges too actually. Except here a $150 million budget is appropriated toward some mind-blowingly technical stunt work that is liable to leave most breathless, begging for more.

Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is seen at the film’s deceptively quiet open recounting his days of hardship via a gruff narrative, briefly reflecting upon a troubled past before being snapped up by a passing horde of baddies, undoubtedly the inspiration for some of this year’s most popular Halloween costumes. Behold, the War Boys. He is taken to a strange and desperate civilization known as the Citadel, a relative oasis presided over by the tyrannical King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who keeps most of the communal water and greenery to himself and his minions.

Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a shaven-headed, fearless amputee with a face covered in soot, finally has had enough of living in such conditions. She goes rogue, fleeing the Citadel in Joe’s ‘War Rig’ and down an indistinct but narratively significant path of sorts, bound for a better way of life. On board the Rig are Joe’s Five Wives — a collection of beauty that recalls Bay’s casting sensibilities. But Bay doesn’t go for talent, really. He just stops at ‘good-looking.’

Perhaps that’s the only thing Joe cares for as well. Enraged by the knowledge of their escape, he sicks the War Boys on the Rig, igniting a thunderous and violent chase across remote desert landscapes and into a sand storm that makes The Perfect Storm look like a gust of wind. Valleys become death gauntlets, their outer limits patrolled by bikers who are expecting a shipment of gasoline be delivered by Furiosa in exchange for her safe passage through. As sure as a Michael Bay car chase, more disaster awaits there.

Miller and Bay are both adrenaline junkies — the former addicted to cartoonish madness; the latter to closing the gap between CGI spectacle and cinema-related migraine. One of these addictions is healthier (at the very least, artsier) than the other. But the constant raucous atmosphere can be overwhelming for newcomers to this depraved world of half-dead humans clinging to life however they can. For a good portion of this ride Max is used as a blood bag to nurse Nux (Nicholas Hoult) back to . . . uh, health. And one of the Five Wives is very pregnant. This isn’t a thinking man’s movie, but if there’s one thing Fury Road is adept at other than delivering non-stop thrills, it’s showing humanity’s will to endure some crazy shit.

With Hardy replacing Gibson in the titular role, one that strangely bears less significance when put beside an iconic Charlize Theron, Fury Road threatens to abandon its cult classic status, exploding into potential box-office behemoth territory. Despite an outrageous, gothic dress code this costume design will likely remain one of the hottest topics of the summer. Maybe all year.

Apparently The Avengers: Age of Ultron is still playing in some theaters. Well, now there’s a new kid on the block and his name is Mad Max Absolutely Ridiculous. Decorated in war paint, yelling at the top of his lungs he demands you know his name. After spending two hours with him you aren’t likely to forget it. Perhaps that’s the most significant distinction between these auteurs of the action spectacular.

When you realize you left the GPS at home . . .

When you realize you left the GPS at home . . .

4-0Recommendation: Decidedly one-note when it comes to plot, Mad Max: Fury Road is still a unique experience — brutal and relentless action combined with beautiful visuals and a gung-ho spirit that fails to dwindle. Having seen the originals isn’t a necessity but I’d imagine it would help round out Max’s character more. Action junkies and fans of George Miller’s brand of filmmaking must see this movie. It’s a curious thing, too: there are two films coming out later this year (one this summer) with as much potential to deliver the goods and both indisputably appealing to larger audiences, but I wonder if these films will be as successful in recruiting new fans as Miller’s latest has been.

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.southfloridafilmmaker.com; http://www.imdb.com