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 

Month in Review: July ’19

Well unfortunately I never did manage to come up with some kind of “celebration” post for my blog’s eighth birthday — that opportunity came and went without so much as a kazoo being tooted. Actually — that can still happen. In fact, here’s literally an entire kazoo band to make up for that:

Now, without further kazoodling, here’s what went down on Thomas J during the month of July.


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Streaming: Point Blank; Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Alternative Content: The Marvelous Brie Larson #4


Good Movie, Bad Movie

Apollo 11 · March 1, 2019 · Directed by Todd Douglas Miller · A truly mesmerizing experience that’s more visual poetry than pure documentary, Apollo 11‘s “direct cinema” approach gives viewers a unique behind-the-scenes look at how the Americans successfully put men on the Moon half a century ago. Relying entirely on its breathtaking, digitally restored archived footage — some of which has never been released to the public until now — and audio recordings to deliver both information and emotion, Apollo 11 isn’t just a celebration of one of man’s greatest achievements, it’s an unbelievably effective time capsule that rockets us back to the 60s as much as it propels us into the star-strewn night sky. This is hands down one of the most insightful, hair-raising looks at any Apollo mission that I have come across. And it only goes to reaffirm Damien Chazelle’s First Man as perhaps one of the most accurate renderings we will ever get in a dramatization. (5/5) 

The Red Sea Diving Resort · July 31, 2019 · Gideon Raff · Inspired by the real-life rescue mission, code-name Operation Brothers, in which a group of Mossad agents helped smuggle tens of thousands of Ethiopian-Jewish refugees out of Sudan and back to Israel in the 1980s, using a dilapidated tourist outpost as a cover. The story it tells is absolutely inspiring, but unfortunately the execution and the performances make it all seem like a vacation. A game cast turns up but is monumentally wasted, none more than Michael Kenneth Williams who disappears for nearly half the movie. Gideon Raff plays it fast and loose with the tone, creating a Baywatch-meets-Blood Diamond-meets-Ocean’s Eleven that makes for an oft unseemly watch. Even worse, it’s pretty boring. (1.5/5)


Beer of the Month

A dangerously drinkable, unfiltered IPA from Stone. Their Fourth of July release is, I think, only the second time I’ve managed to secure one of their limited-release ‘Enjoy By’ drinks. Better late than never, because this one, at 9.4% ABV, is a Stone cold classic!


If you could only see one, which would it be — The Irishman or Ad Astra

First Man

Release: Friday, October 12, 2018

→IMAX

Written by: Josh Singer

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

While First Man is only a small step into a different genre for director Damien Chazelle, the way he tells the story of the Moon landing may well represent a giant leap for fans of his previous, more emotionally-driven work. The historical reenactment is uncharted territory for the maker of dream-chasing dramas Whiplash and La La Land, yet the obsessive, single-minded pursuit of a goal makes it feel thematically akin. Told from the point of view of Neil Alden Armstrong, First Man offers an almost purely physical, visceral adventure. Strap in and hold on for dear life.

For the first time since Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk I left a movie exhilarated and fulfilled but also a little jelly-legged . . . and A LOT concerned about the state of my ears and the quality of service they would henceforth be able to provide. I guess what I am saying is that the movie gets loud, but that’s underselling it. In intermittent yet unforgettable bursts First Man comes close to overwhelming the unsuspecting moviegoer with its sonic power. All that style isn’t just for show, though Oscar surely will come a-knockin’ on Chazelle’s door next February. By way of audial and visual disorientation he creates an immersive experience that makes us feel our vulnerability, our loneliness and limitations on the final frontier.

It’s apparent from the stunning opening scene that Chazelle intends for us to feel this one in our bones rather than our hearts. A brutal tussle between Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his X-15 rocket plane which keeps bouncing off Earth’s atmosphere sets the stage for the challenges to be faced later. This early chaos provides a formal introduction to the physicality of First Man, while reaffirming the mythology around the actual man. How he survives this ordeal is a feat in and of itself. Once back on terra firma the deconstruction of that mythology begins. Guided through seven tumultuous years leading up to the mission itself, we gain privileged access to Armstrong’s domestic life — that which became all but sealed off completely to the public after the Moon landing — as well as a better understanding of events that paved the way for an American victory in the space race.

In First Man there isn’t a lot of love being thrown around, whether it’s Armstrong’s awkwardness around his family when it comes to saying goodbye, or the way the public has come to view NASA and its affinity for spending money and costing lives. Working through the troubleshooting days of the Gemini program (1964 – ’66) before moving on to the more technologically advanced but still flawed Apollo missions, First Man has less time for romanticizing and fantasizing. The stakes couldn’t have been higher, and America needed to know: how many astronauts are expendable in the interest of getting one over the Russians? All the while Gosling’s traditionally Gosling-y performance doesn’t allow us to get particularly attached to his character. All of these factors contribute to a rather disconcerting experience as we never get very comfortable on Earth, never mind in a coffin built out of aluminum and traveling at 17,000 miles an hour.

The film isn’t without its moments of raw emotion. An early scene depicts the tragic loss of two-year-old daughter Karen to cancer, and for a brief moment Neil Armstrong is in shambles. Logic and reason have completely failed him. Claire Foy is excellent as wife Janet, who becomes the closest thing we get to an audience surrogate while her husband grieves in his own way by burying himself in math and physics homework. But even her tough exterior sustains serious damage as time goes on and both NASA and Neil’s lack of openness with her as well as their two sons becomes ever more a source of frustration. Our feelings more often than not align with hers.

Elsewhere, Armstrong’s aloofness is noticed by fellow Apollo hopefuls Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) who each befriend him to a certain extent but are never quite able to crack the code of really getting to know him. His fears, his doubts. His favorite men’s magazine. His aspirations beyond walking on Earth’s lonely satellite. (As an aside, several of the astronauts from the Apollo missions went on to pursue political careers, but Armstrong went the other way, withdrawing from public life and even refusing to autograph items when he learned his signatures were being forged and that those forgeries were being sold all over the globe.) Stoll is a bit more fun as the extroverted Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon — the inventor of the Moon bounce, if you will — though he hardly inhabits the man in the way Gosling does.

Adapted from the book by James R. Hansen, First Man is a story of ambition delivered in blunt fashion. It isn’t a sexy, glamorous tale of fame or even nobility. This isn’t a story about a nation claiming its stake on a distant, lifeless rock. Nor is it about mankind advancing itself, despite what was said when boot met Lunar soil. This is an account of what it cost one man, one civilian, to get to the Moon. And the physical stresses, while pronounced in the film, are only a part of the deal. Often Linus Sandgren’s camera harries the subject rather than deifying or celebrating him. Certain angles rob the guy of personal space while tracking shots of him heading towards some vehicle or other give the impression of the paparazzi in constant pursuit. Neil’s always on the move, busy with something, and inquiring cameras need to know.

First Man is certainly not the film a lot of people will be expecting, be it the distance put between the audience and the astronaut or the scenes Chazelle chooses to depict (or not depict). Flag planting or no flag planting, this feels like the story that should have been told. It feels like a privilege to have experienced it.

I’ll see you on the dark side of the Moon

Recommendation: First Man uses a typically enigmatic Ryan Gosling performance to create an altogether lonelier feeling historical drama. In retrospect, the release comes at an odd time. Next summer will be the 50th anniversary of the Lunar landing, so I’m not sure why First Man is coming out right now. Not that a few months makes that much of a difference, when you have a dishearteningly large percentage of the public believing A) we never went or B) the whole thing was a colossal waste of time. Fair enough, I guess. Those with a more open-mind, however, are strongly encouraged to experience First Man in IMAX. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “What are the chances you’re not coming back? Those kids, they don’t have a father anymore! So you’re gonna sit the boys down, and prepare them for the fact that you might never come home!”

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

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Release: Friday, May 25, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan

Directed by: Ron Howard

Though Ron Howard is among my favorite directors I wouldn’t have pegged him as a candidate to helm a Star Wars movie, even a spinoff. But this is good news people — no longer do you have to suffer through The Dilemma to find Howard trying something new. While he has been into space before, sacrificing full autonomy in the franchise setting is unfamiliar territory for this director. His entry into the Star Wars universe may not bear any essential canon material and it isn’t his best work but his reliable craftsmanship ensures this new chapter is both entertaining and worthwhile.

In a plot twist no one saw coming the stand-alone Solo film details the coming-of-age of Han Solo. Specifically, this is the part where you get to see your favorite space smuggler learning how to space smuggle in under 12 parsecs, coming into contact for the first time with some of the iconic personalities and essential gadgetry that have helped identify franchise creator George Lucas as someone doing financially better than you. And yes, much of Solo is unabashedly just for you, the fan. Or at least it was supposed to be. The experience is less contingent upon the strength of its narrative than its sister spinoff Rogue Onewhich detailed the Rebels’ desperate last-bid attempt to recover the Death Star schematic. Of course, that 2016 film also had great timing and was every bit the beneficiary of resurgent new energy created in the big bang that was Episode VII, the long-awaited return of Star Wars to the big screen the year prior.

By comparison, the major developments in Solo feel less urgent and aren’t as concept-driven. Don’t mistake a lack of originality for a lack of excitement or intrigue however. Solo is technically a heist film, the great tilting train robbery and later the harrowing Kessel Run arguably its most distinguished features — with the latter sequence in particular acting as a crucial test of character (or is that of ego?). The narrative develops episodically, stitched together as a series of not-so-chance encounters and mischievous escapes that never feel universe-shaking but are plenty entertaining on the virtue of the surprisingly solid performances and undeniable team chemistry.

On the shipbuilding world of Corellia, orphans like Han (Alden Ehrenreich) are kept in line by the very wormlike Lady Proxima (voice of Linda Hunt). In exchange for shelter, food and protection the various inhabitants of this miserable planet are forced into a life of crime. Han has a plan to escape once and for all, but when his beloved Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) gets captured he is forced into a Plan B that finds him joining the Imperial Army, anxious to become a pilot and for the next opportunity to return for what he has left behind.

Yes, I forgot to mention this is also a grand romantic drama, one made all the more romantic by the various inconveniences Han must endure en route to fulfilling what he believes to be his destiny. He gets expelled from the Academy for insubordination, finds himself temporarily on the wrong side of a raging Wookie — thank goodness for Han being bilingual — to eventually link up with a group of criminals posing as soldiers in a war zone led by Woody Harrelson‘s Tobias Beckett. He hopes to curry favor by offering to help on a mission transporting some precious cargo to the ruthless crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bethany). Oh, the things we do in the name of love (or, perhaps, out of misplaced faith).

This brings us to another set of revelations — and yeah, okay, maybe ‘revelations’ is too strong a word to throw around here given that we not only have experienced these things before (and if not these exact elements/characters then variations thereof) but we anticipate the pieces fitting into this puzzle. Because coaxium — a rare kind of fuel that enables ships to jump to hyper speed — makes driving down the galactic interstate rather complicated, the crew, which includes Tobias’ wife Val (Thandie Newton) and the alien Rio Durant (Jon Favreau), need a ship that can get them from Point A (Kessel) to Point B (Savareen) very quickly, not to mention the pilot that can navigate cosmic storms the size of the Milky Way. The Millennium Falcon would do nicely, but Han must negotiate with one Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) for the keys first.

Howard, who was brought in to replace original directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord who were let go over “creative differences,” has always considered himself a fan of history with successes behind him like the survival drama Apollo 13 and the American political scandal detailed in Frost/Nixon. His inclusion in the Star Wars fraternity has given him the opportunity to play a role in the history of one of the most famous cinematic franchises. Solo isn’t exactly cutting-edge stuff, and he didn’t write the script. That job was wisely left to Lawrence Kasdan, a Star Wars veteran (joined by his son Jonathan). Despite all that and more besides, this proves an accessible film for viewers like me. Viewers who find it best to enjoy it as a product of Ron Howard rather than the soulless cash grab many are no doubt viewing it as.

Going for a Kessel Jog

Recommendation: As a Ron Howard apologist, I took flight with Solo in a way that was exciting and unexpected. Disregarding all the fan service, I found Alden Ehrenreich a solid and stoic revelation and even if he doesn’t have the gravitas of a Harrison Ford, he proves he has certainly more range than a heartbroken cowboy. And when it comes to the romance, if you’re looking for a typical damsel-in-distress story you’re better off looking elsewhere. This is Emilia Clarke we’re talking about after all. She’s better than that. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “If you come with us, you’re in this life for good.”

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

The Cloverfield Paradox

Release: Sunday, February 4, 2018 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Oren Uziel

Directed by: Julius Onah

The Cloverfield Paradox, a surprise addition to the Cloverfield collection which debuted on the heels of Super Bowl LII, is itself an experiential paradox. How did I just sacrifice an hour and forty-five minutes of my time and yet feel like I watched nothing at all? I certainly didn’t just watch a Cloverfield movie. Yet they’re telling me I did.

This third chapter revolves around a group of earthlings orbiting our planet in the space station Cloverfield. The year is 2028. For two years, while basking in the ultimate bird’s eye view of home, the crew, a united front of international experts, have been unsuccessful in using a particle accelerator to stem the tide of a global energy crisis. Of course, operating such a scary and complicated device carries with it all sorts of disastrous consequences. Like, you could rip apart the fabric of space time and inadvertently introduce xenomorphs into our reality. Or worse, Jar Jar Binks from a galaxy even further away.

After what seems to be a major breakthrough the crew find themselves not celebrating by dousing themselves in the champagne of the heavens, but instead wildly off-course, distanced from Earth and in ways that are kinda-sorta hard to explain. With a lack of signposts pointing them down the right galactic avenue and with bizarre occurrences on board the ship becoming more frequent, how will our fearless heroes ever make it back home? And if they do, to what degree will their space madness and the anarchy down below have advanced?

The Cloverfield Paradox is populated by quality actors who play their parts well enough. But the script has no idea what to do with any of them so it just caps off their trajectories with a fancy, thoughtful death to make them seem unique. It’s good to see that Chris O’Dowd‘s sense of humor is not lost in space, and he also wins the Most Interesting Character Award by way of possessing one of the most interesting arms arcs. Someone loses their mind then has worms explode out of their body Alien-style, only to have their corpse violated post-mortem. There are other bizarro occurrences, but I’m compiling a Best Of list here and those (A) don’t make the cut and (B) are more spoiler-rich.

Not that I would necessarily feel evil for divulging more secrets. After all, it is amazing how much damage a film title can do. At least one writer has interpreted Oren Uziel’s Event Horizon-esque plot as an origins story. After double-checking, the internet seems to be in this writer’s corner. If this is true, if Paradox is intended to lay the groundwork for the past (Cloverfield (2008) and 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)), it manifests as one of the weakest, most poop-throwingly dumb origins stories I have ever seen. I’m left wondering whether there would have been fewer issues had the film retained its working title God Particle. Bye-bye, burden of expectation. What we would be left with is just another generic tale of how highly qualified astronauts lose their cool at all the wrong moments yet make just enough right calls to SURVIVE SPACE!!

Recommendation: A generic sci-fi thriller set in space masquerading under the banner of a Cloverfield sequel/prequel. The one advantage of this particular release is you won’t have to travel far for the disappointment. +10 Bonus Points for convenience, but then deduct 100 for the bait-and-switch. This isn’t Cloverfield; this is a much less violent, less Sam Neill-eye-gouging Event Horizon

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “Logic doesn’t apply to any of this.”

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 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Release: Friday, May 5, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: James Gunn

Directed by: James Gunn

One of the things that struck me about the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy is how obviously the returning cast carry their swagger around. It’s as if they just got done saving the entire galaxy. But has this level of cockiness really been earned? All they needed to do was stop a villain with the personality of a toaster. Forgive me for sounding arrogant here — I haven’t saved any galaxies myself (yet) — but they made it look pretty damn easy.

I have been so on the fence about this movie since it came out. It’s both everything fans wanted from a sequel and not quite enough ironically for the same reason: it’s Volume 1 all over again; yet the law of diminishing returns already seem to be kicking in. You argue there’s a new villain, with new circumstances, but really what we’re talking about here is a parts exchange. The formula is very much the same. Everyone jokes around a lot — too much at times — bickers a lot, procrastinates a lot, and then, just in the nick of time, do some firing of some lasers and engage in some exciting fisticuffs just before end credits usher them off the screen like an acceptance speech on Oscar night.

Vol. 2 backtracks to the source of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)’s heartache — his mysterious family history. Kurt Russell is in as the powerful Celestial PlanetmanbeardMacReady, a creation that dates back to the early Bronze Age of Marvel Comics. He’s got a proposition for his estranged son, whom he suddenly finds — after millions of years of scouring the Greater Universe — on a cast-off planet to which the Guardians have narrowly escaped after doing a very Guardians-y thing (well, Rocket does a very Rocket-y thing, stealing an important battery thingy from a race of people called the Sovereign, who all look like Shirley Eaton circa Goldfinger).

Russell’s Ego (but really, that’s his actual name and yes he’s also a planet — that part I wasn’t being silly about) tells Peter about his higher calling. But this attempt to rip him away from his custodial services as a Guardian of the freaking Galaxy is poorly conceived. Granted, not by Ego himself, but rather the script, which once again lay at the feet of the one-man wrecking crew James Gunn.

Guardians 3 would have been a much tougher sell should Star Lord have gone to the dark side. (And someone remind me, how did that work out for Tobey Maguire?) We’re well aware of the acrimony that has arisen amongst the crew before, but this isn’t like pondering whether or not we should be concerned about Anakin Skywalker’s hot temper. Gunn doesn’t necessarily force us to draw that exact comparison, but that’s the nature of the father-son dynamic here. It’s old-hat, the suggestion of breaking bad feels awkwardly episodic, and Russell’s utterly forgettable within it.

Elsewhere, the others are sorting through relationship issues of their own. It’s like a soapy space opera. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is confronted with her own guilt when she’s forced to spend more time with her psycho sister Nebula (Karen Gillan, wooden as she’s ever been). Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is still the least subtle thing since Donald Trump, yet he’s actually endearing with his sledgehammer, awkward commentary. He cuts through the crap we humanoids generally like to call social etiquette like a combine harvester, especially when he strikes up a friendly rapport with Ego’s bug-eyed personal assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff).

Where Vol. 2 does manage to find separation, however, is in the exploration and comparison of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Rooker)’s criminal pasts. As the film expands and fractures the foursome into their own little thematic camps, it’s the insight we get into the lonely life of a space-bound raccoon and Yondu’s fall from grace that really hits a nerve. There’s legitimate gravitas attached to their character arcs, something a film as outwardly flamboyant and noisy as a Guardians of the Galaxy installment kinda-sorta needs more of.

The production design remains as elaborate as anything Marvel has created before. In fact, it’s dazzling to the point of eyeball overload. But of all the problems this new and underwhelming iteration has, that’s at least a good one. The cosmic wonders of the universe work overtime to compensate for another lacking story. Overcompensatory is a fairly accurate way to describe the characters this time around as well. Baby Groot is cute, we get it. Drax doesn’t get the art of subtlety. We understood as much within the first ten minutes of his first appearance. Amusing, but one-note. Also, Gamora and Quill continue to act like magnets when you try to put the wrong ends together.

Vol. 2 is of course not a bad film. That’s ridiculous. In fact it inherits many of the qualities that made its predecessor an enjoyable and endearing farcical adventure. The characters are well-established and unique, only they’ve lost some of that novelty and a few limitations might already be on display. The cast-director chemistry is as palpable as ever. Listen, they’re all good vibes, but let’s hope the next mixtape is more inspired and has more memorable hits.

Recommendation: More of the same, for better as well as for worse, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 I believe has done just fine without my recommendation. Hasn’t it made a trillion dollars at the box office by now? 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “He may have been your father, Quill, but he wasn’t your daddy.” 

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 

Life

Release: Friday, March 24, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Rhett Reese; Paul Wernick

Directed by: Daniel Espinosa

I love how nihilistic Life turns out to be and the irony of it being so totally NOT life-affirming. While the characters in Daniel Espinosa’s zero-gravity-set thriller often demonstrate a lack of tact and intelligence, their incompetency only serves to underscore the arrogance of man and is, probably contrary to the opinion of everyone who said ‘meh’ to the movie, quite intentional. The goal here is to inspire caution rather than awe and in that the movie succeeds.

Life is an original science fiction feature that finds a team of six Noble Astronauts aboard the International Space Station anticipating the results of soil samples they’ve recently retrieved from Mars. American engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) is the man tasked with capturing the returning craft, while British biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) finds himself poking around in the Martian soil in hopes of stimulating the single-celled organism apparently contained within. He’s at the center of a groundbreaking discovery: life does indeed exist beyond our planet.

Along for the ride also are Japanese engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), the Russian commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), quarantine officer Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson, also British), and Jake Gyllenhaal‘s familiarly nonchalant Dr. David Jordan. Each actor is believable in their roles even without having much in the way of personality. They’re just human enough to create a sense of camaraderie before chaos is inevitably unleashed.

I put emphasis on ‘astronauts’ up above because I get the feeling Espinosa doesn’t much care for their little field trips to the very edge of deep space. At the very least he is disturbed by the obstinacy seemingly required for such pursuits. In science fiction new precedents seem to be established with each new entry, so why can’t this many brainiacs screw up so epically? After all, to err is human and in a film like Life, where coexistence sadly doesn’t seem possible, where it’s our survival instinct pitted against that of a rogue alien life form, it’s essential we recognize our imperfections.

In this context, Derry is patient zero. His series of screw-ups, while defying conventional wisdom that tells us these people simply don’t make these mistakes, are intended to illustrate a concept rather than fulfill some quota calling for realism. Life, penned by Deadpool writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, cautions that our curiosity for what’s out there could well be one of our downfalls. And it won’t just be the cat that gets killed. To further destroy the proverb, cats will be no more should the team fail to contain and isolate the threat. In Life, the “we have no protocol for this” line proves a perfect alibi for much of what goes down.

Life paints a pretty bleak picture and I found that refreshing. This space disaster doesn’t necessarily champion the ambitions of NASA or the collective optimism we hold for there being other forms of life elsewhere in the universe. This dark and dangerous passage feels totally divorced from the likes of The Martian and Interstellar. Those movies suggest the vastness of space isn’t something to outright fear. Life actually shares more in Ridley Scott’s pessimism when it comes to displaying the ignorance as well as the arrogance of man’s desire to make more of the unknown, known. And the kills were giving me flashbacks of a certain John Carpenter horror classic fueled by paranoia.

Espinosa’s film may not be as sophisticated as Alien in showing us what terrifying possibilities lurk out there in the black — and it’s light-years away from being as morbidly gross as The Thing — but it gets its point across and fairly compellingly. It helps that brand-name actors sell the fear of not just dying but dying in some very miserable ways, and while there’s a valid argument to be made against the concentration of foul-ups made in the middle third, the central conceit is both entertaining and disturbing. If anything, the queasy feeling Espinosa’s final frames leave you with confirms the notion that life really is precious and is something worth clinging on to.

Recommendation: Life effectively plays into the viewer’s fear of what lurks beyond our atmosphere and does so with more than a little panache. Well-acted and hauntingly beautiful, another film benefitting from the perpetual evolution of filmmaking technology, it operates both as a popcorn-friendly thrill ride and a thoughtful reflection on the preciousness of life, though it’s more effective as the former rather than the latter. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “You’re finally a daddy. There’s gonna be a big custody battle over this one.”

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

Hidden Figures

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Release: Friday, January 6, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Theodore Melfi; Allison Shroeder 

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

‘We go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’

Former President John F. Kennedy’s speech became a staple of American history the moment those words were uttered. The pep talk was designed to reshape public perception of where the country was headed in terms of its relationship with the Soviets, who in October of 1957 became the first to successfully launch an un-manned satellite into orbit. The above excerpt, taken by itself, has accumulated such weight over the years we recall the event more for the ethos and sense of national pride his words evoked rather than the place in which they were uttered (Rice University football stadium in Houston, Texas, incidentally).

Theodore Melfi’s Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures is nothing if not a potent reminder of the kinds of details that have been buried in the avalanche of time, how our understanding of history is often informed by supposition and omission, not necessarily what actually happened. Melfi’s historical drama tells of the accomplishments of three extraordinary African-American women who worked at Langley Research Center, a Virginia-based division of NASA, and how their gifted intellects and willingness to persevere helped galvanize a nation amidst the chaos of the Space Race.

Amazingly, their stories have never been shared — until now (okay, excluding the non-fiction book upon which this is based). Hidden Figures is set in 1961 and traces the trajectories of mathematicians Katherine Johnson (née Goble), played by Taraji P. Henson and Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer), as well as aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Each journey is an inspiration, whether it’s Johnson becoming the first African-American to work in the elite Space Task Group, Vaughan’s promotion to supervisor after taking significant strides in adapting to a rapidly changing technological environment, or Jackson’s acceptance into a traditionally all-white school to obtain her engineering degree.

What develops is a crowd-pleasing dramatization whose hagiographic tendencies are frequently pardoned because the whole thing is just so darn watchable, even when it’s hard to watch. The trio of actresses could not be more winning in their performances and hey, even that guy from The Big Bang Theory is pretty good as the archetypal petulant-child-as-immediate-superior. Kevin Costner tags along as Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group whose neck the American government is breathing down as they work to stay competitive with the Russians.

Melfi and Allison Schroeder’s writing paces the events so that the story steadily absorbs and the environments feel real and lived-in. Hidden Figures is brought to life through an exquisite combination of costuming and production design. The actors look the part even though accents aren’t very smooth and the dialogue tends to be clunky. Even still, when the film begins we find ourselves immediately transported. We are in the ’60s, marching along with these pioneers ever closer to that famed Kennedy speech, a speech that takes on new significance as the movie concludes.

Hidden Figures never amounts to the kind of confronting hyper-realism recent years have almost conditioned us to expect out of race-related historical dramas. The film’s complaisant tone doesn’t necessarily help to distinguish the product, yet Melfi’s treatment is an appropriately dignified and emotional account of three pivotal figures in the history of the space program. While a few details are left to be nitpicked, the film’s convictions shall go uncontested.

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4-0Recommendation: Tonally familiar but not offensively so. Loaded with charismatic and touching performances and bolstered by a fascinating and incredible true story, the emotional engine driving Hidden Figures to its expected conclusion ultimately makes this an easy (and strong) recommendation. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” 

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

Passengers

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Release: Wednesday, December 21, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jon Spaihts

Directed by: Morten Tyldum

Morten Tyldum is a Norwegian director who has been on the fast-track to success ever since bursting on to the world stage in 2011 with his critically acclaimed Headhunters, an action thriller based upon a novel by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø and featuring a Scandinavian cast. He’s never looked back since. From there he made a movie based upon the life and achievements of British mathematician Alan Turing, the 2014 Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game in which Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed the father of what we recognize today as artificial intelligence. Two years later Tyldum finds himself collaborating with two of the world’s most box office-friendly stars in Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence on a romantic/science fiction adventure called Passengers.

With each subsequent venture behind the camera, Tyldum has increasingly found himself surrounded by luxuries filmmakers the world over could only dream of one day having for themselves, if only just for one project. He has a knack for attracting big names and turning profits. There’s little doubt Tyldum has been privileged — so much so that it’s difficult to gauge how deserving he is of his status. His big-budget blueprints are going to endure, despite them lacking personality or any sense of novelty, unlike something produced by the likes of, say, Christopher Nolan, a household name who routinely challenges his audiences to, god forbid, use their brains while rummaging through buckets of popcorn. By comparison, Tyldum’s meteoric rise feels less justified.

Mainstream filmmaking at its most indistinguishable is the best way I know how to describe his oeuvre, and Passengers all but confirms the director has no intention of suppressing the urge to pander to the masses, especially when it is to the tune of $130 million in global receipts in less than three weeks. His new film is essentially Titanic set in space, but with a moral twist (or is that, a twisted sense of morality?) — the only element that differentiates this interstellar adventure from a plethora of other doomed-vessel melodramas. Tyldum’s latest posits that people need people, that we have not been created to exist alone. It’s a theme well worth exploring, but once again I found the same generic, unexciting direction that robbed The Imitation Game of its potential similarly blunting the cutting edges of Passengers‘ would-be high-brow narrative. What could have been thought-provoking is instead estimated as “something audiences should really go for.”

The story is about a mechanical engineer named Jim Preston (Pratt) who wakes up 30 years into a 120-year voyage between Earth and a colonial planet in a distant galaxy. He is among the 5,000 passengers board the starship Avalon, blissfully sleeping away the years until they reach Homestead II, along with another some 200 crew members. A computer glitch causes Jim to awaken from suspended animation and when he realizes what has happened he sets about trying to solve the problem rationally rather than panicking or wallowing in despair, with the faintest aroma of Ridley Scott’s The Martian arising in the opening stanza. A year passes and Jim is unsuccessful in getting back to sleep, although he strikes up a “friendship” with a cyborg bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen). Unable to share an authentic human relationship with Arthur, Jim starts to slip into the despair he has spent a long time trying to avoid.

That is until he comes across a pod containing an Aurora Lane (Lawrence), whom he learns about via a digital portfolio explaining her background as a writer in New York City. He even becomes familiar with her personality from his investigations. He visits her pod frequently, reading about her and imagining what it would be like to have someone else to share in what will in all likelihood be the remainder of his life on board the Avalon. He struggles mightily with the decision to wake her up, which would necessarily and similarly doom her to a premature death.

The morality play is made fascinating because of the star power Tyldum has been afforded. The leads prove why they are paid what they’re paid as they breathe life into a robotic screenplay. The establishing first third sets the stakes high and Pratt makes it easy for us to buy that Jim really doesn’t want to use his engineering prowess to effectively murder a fellow passenger. And it’s kind of a brave new world watching Pratt embody a character who ultimately isn’t very likable. Lawrence isn’t at her best as Aurora, yet it’s something of a miracle she turns a snobby, self-aggrandizing writer who values prestige over anything else into a person we end up wanting to actually succeed. But for my money, the underrated Michael Sheen makes the most compelling argument for what makes us human, playing the part of some futuristic vision of The Overlook Hotel barkeep in whom a steadily unraveling Jack Torrence frequently confided. Arthur hasn’t been wired to keep secrets. He doesn’t know how to lie or judge. The android offers a contrast that imbues Passengers with the humanity its poorly written flesh-and-blood characters, or at least Jim’s troubling actions, do not.

Unfortunately it’s those sorts of stereotypes and broad statements that could come to define Tyldum as the most recent example of a foreign director making one too many compromises. Six films deep into a directorial career with only a third of them being English-language features, he’s already ‘gone Hollywood.’ He has no distinctive voice. No masterful, inventive way of presenting his Big Movies’ Big Themes. Nor does he frame his stories in ways we have never experienced before. Passengers only gets weaker and more familiar as it plods onward to a thoroughly disappointing action-packed finale, when the Avalon’s technical malfunctions become more frequent and more serious and as Jim and Aurora put aside their differences in order to work to find a solution together.

The destination, such as it is, is so underwhelming (and so expected) it begs the question as to whether the film needed to dive into the morality play at all. Aurora stays mad at Jim for a long time, perhaps even an appropriate amount of time, but the film seems to equate a broken tether with a broken heart. The denouement is not only lazy, it’s disingenuous. It made me long for the pure innocence and the schmaltz of Jack and Rose’s forbidden love. The melodramatics are as damaging to the intellectual constitution of the story as the asteroid is to the ship’s computers and reactors.

Debating the merits of the finale is pointless really because it’s clear Tyldum isn’t in this for the art of storytelling. The Avalon is one of the more visually pleasing spacecraft we’ve seen in some time and the thick ribbons of stars across a canvas of black has rarely looked so beautiful and yet so terrifying. I could write love letters to Passengers‘ production design. There’s a sleekness that cannot be overlooked, that only a film built on this kind of money can provide. The more cynical side of me, the part that enjoys thinking while watching, can’t help but feel Tyldum is making a bid for becoming the most Hollywood-friendly foreign-born director in history. Honestly, that’s not the worst thing in the world. There’s nothing amoral about making a lot of money doing something you love.

Recommendation: I think it says something that the most interesting ‘character’ in the film is the spaceship Avalon. The luxury space liner is a thing of beauty. Passengers is a senses-stimulating film, aggressively so when it comes to the visual elements. It’s a gorgeously rendered production, but it lacks the soul and conviction needed to carry the weight the story deserves. And while I’m not as upset about the implications of the way Jim’s actions are basically excused by film’s end as others have been, I understand where the anger is coming from. This is like Titanic set in space, with Rose suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and instead of Jack being a swell fella, he’s actually a selfish jerk. If you just read that one line and that’s all you knew about the film, then Passengers sounds pretty interesting. And maybe it will be to those who have a stronger tolerance for formulaic blockbusters.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “A drowning man will always try to drag you down with him.”

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

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Release: Friday, December 16, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Weitz; Tony Gilroy

Directed by: Gareth Edwards

Gareth Edwards (Godzilla; Monsters) has been given the none-too-enviable task of linking two of cinema’s most iconic trilogies. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story predicates the ultra-classic original space opera and follows on the heels of the considerably less classic trilogy that kicked off circa the turn of the millennium. With such weight on its shoulders it’s a small miracle the production doesn’t fully implode in on itself. Given what’s at stake and the immense hype building up to it, the “spin-off” saga still can’t help but feel like a comedown, especially when it stands in such close proximity to The Force Awakens.

This is a review from the point of view of a decided non-fanboy. Let us not get that confused with me not being a fan of the anthology at all. There are a lot of things I like about the universe George Lucas envisioned some 40 years ago — not least of which being the immense sense of scale and (cringe) epic-ness that has been established year in and year out. The mythos of Star Wars also brilliantly manifests as a thinly veiled critique of the way we earthlings perpetually endeavor to coexist on a single chunk of rock. Perhaps most critically, Lucas has established characters and character arcs that will forever live on in the annals of not only science fiction but in all of cinema. While you will never find me in a packed house fully dressed in Star Wars attire, I will always have time for Darth Vader. And if you have no interest in Luke Skywalker, Chewie, or Han Solo you basically have no soul.

Rogue One, not without a sense of urgency in its precursive structure, manifests as more a tale of two halves where one goes heavy on the exposition and the other overcompensatory with action. It is a decidedly unbalanced epic, unable to maintain momentum or genuine intrigue from start to finish. And it’s a damn long sit, clocking in at well over two hours. The film only seems to achieve greatness down the back stretch, where shit really hits the fan as a small cadre of rebels led by Felicity Jones‘ Jyn Erso finally puts into action a bold plan to recover the design schematic for the Empire’s megaweapon, the Death Star.

Erso, daughter of the reluctant architect behind said “planet killer” Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen — yay!), has lived a life of oppression and isolation. On her own since the age of 15 she’s the very definition of teenage rebel, but not like the ones you see in Nirvana’s music videos. Her journey to become a Rebel leader is built upon a sturdy foundation — the great Ben Mendelsohn gives us reason to be very, very worried as Imperial Director Orson Krennic — but it’s just not very interesting. The entire affair is dark (literally too dark in places, to the point where I couldn’t see what was going on) and sans humor (also sans Hayden Christensen-levels of schmaltz, to its credit), making that first half a slog for anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the infallibility of Star Wars.

After a brief introduction to Erso’s humble beginnings we are introduced to key role players who vary in personality from completely boring to vaguely inspiring. There’s Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his android K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) — sort of a poor-man’s C-3PO; a defecting Imperial pilot by the name of Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who has smuggled a holographic message from Galen to present to the Rebel Alliance and a Rebel extremist named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who was the first to “rescue” Jyn from Imperial forces. Also integral to the cause are blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).

These folks represent an ideological extremism festering within a faction of Good Guys who all have grown tired of being kicked around by the Bad Guys. The Rebels are the ones we should ultimately care about, except in the end we really don’t. (The perspective I’ve maintained throughout this piece has become pretty confused, I admit. Wasn’t this supposed to be from the point of view of a non-fanboy? I’m not intending to speak for all here because I assume my thoughts are not going to be shared by many. But I digress . . .) In the end, I didn’t really feel the feels. But my buttocks did; pins and needles set in circa the 90-minute mark and as I shifted around trying to get comfortable I also started to gain a greater appreciation of what had been accomplished in Episode VII. Jyn = a watered-down Rey; Rook = a not-fun Finn. James Earl Jones barely even sounds like James Earl Jones.

A large part of the problem I have with Rogue One stems from Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s conservative screenplay, one in which narrative coherence is favored over character development. I suppose that, since the arc of the story is itself auxiliary to what comes later — most pertinently the events of A New Hope — the lack of personality or the subtly romantic textures we’ve become so accustomed to over the years is almost intentional. This is a very serious saga, and when humor does meekly surface it arrives absolutely when it is needed, and it doesn’t flow so much as spurt awkwardly; much of Tudyk’s input invokes irritation rather than laughter. In other words, character “growth” here feels more defined by action or inaction, rather than what characters say or feel. Simply put, Rogue One lacks the emotional heft needed to make this a truly memorable chapter in the ongoing saga.

It’s not all underwhelming, though. The aforementioned final third is nothing short of spectacular as Erso and her motley crew successfully infiltrate the highly secured Imperial database on the planet Scarif. The plan of attack is brilliantly devised and fascinating to watch unfold. It’s like the Normandy Beach landing set in space — so convincingly rendered we forget this is all being shot on the Maldivian atoll of Laamu. The contrast between the brutality of the attack and the tropical, utopian setting is, in a word, awesome. The sacrifices made herein also emphasize the ‘war’ in Star Wars. It’s surprising there is emotional resonance behind the losses given the characters are so blandly written.

But even this sequence is not entirely satisfying, insofar as what its execution suggests about the film preceding it. The nostalgia it generates for the past future risks making entirely redundant any momentum that was supposed to be generated in the events that precipitated it. Rogue One is kind of a big tease; it titillates through sheer force of association while never managing to become something that will endure the test of time on its own.

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3-5Recommendation: Fan service to the extreme makes Rogue One a pandering but occasionally enjoyable outing for those who aren’t diehards. It’s visually spectacular and suitably grandiose, but for those wanting to latch onto classic characters it will leave something to be desired. Not even the great Felicity Jones is a true stand-out. Still, there’s something to recommend about the film — namely its reverence for the ever-expanding universe in which it takes place, and when the action is on — boy is it on. Ultimately I’m confident this will still end up breaking all sorts of box office records. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.”

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