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

The Wandering Earth

Release: Monday, May 6, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Gong Ge’er; Junce Ye; Yan Dongxu; Yang Zhixue; Frant Gwo

Directed by: Frant Gwo

Describing The Wandering Earth as an ambitious movie is an understatement. That’s like saying Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad had cult followings. The sheer scale and spectacle on display make the likes of Michael Bay and Peter Jackson look like film school students operating on shoestring budgets.

The movie presents a doomsday scenario to end all doomsday scenarios. In the year 2061 we face annihilation as our Sun is dying and will within a century swell to encompass Earth’s orbit and within 300 years the entire solar system. In order for us — or what’s left of us — to survive we need to find a new galactic home. We’ve targeted the Alpha Centauri system as our destination. Building a bunch of space-worthy life rafts is neither practical nor egalitarian — who knows whether the darned things would survive the 2,500-year odyssey, and at $30 million a ticket that basically ensures only the Jeff Bezos of the world would be able to go.

So get this: We’re going to push the entire rock out of harm’s way using thousands of fusion-powered thrusters clamped on to the Earth’s surface. Each one the size of a city, they require an incredible amount of human ingenuity (and cooperation) to work properly. (There’s the operative phrase in movies like this — you just know something will go wrong with them at just the worst time.) We’ll use Jupiter as a slingshot to get us out of the solar system and a leading space station manned by a few brave scientists/engineers who defer to a computer that’s cribbed right from a certain Stanley Kubrick film to guide us through the cosmic dark. If all goes according to plan we should avoid getting sucked in by the giant planet’s strong gravitational field and dying a very gaseous death.

Yikes.

When it comes to the human side of the equation, The Wandering Earth is much less ambitious. Admittedly, human drama isn’t the reason this Chinese blockbuster has become a global sensation. But it would be nice if there were compelling characters to further bolster this awesome visual spectacle. I suppose therein lies the difference between American and Chinese filmmaking — The Wandering Earth certainly emphasizes collective over individual triumph. That’s compelling in its own way. But then half of the running time is devoted to the rebellious — downright reckless and seriously contrived — actions of a resentful Liu Qi (Chuxiao Qu) and his less-resentful but just-as-thrill-seeking adopted sister Han Duoduo (Jin Mai Jaho) as they become thrust into a last-ditch attempt to restart the planetary thrusters after sustaining heavy damage due to an unforeseen gravitational spike near Jupiter. A promise made and then broken by their father (played by famed martial arts actor/director Jing Wu) sets the stage for an attempt at intimacy but that simply gets lost in all the catastrophic disaster set pieces.

Just as the story finds humanity in a major transitional period, The Wandering Earth finds director Frant Gwo undergoing a major one himself. Prior to filming China’s first “full-scale interstellar spectacular” he had only two feature film credits to his name — neither of which hinted towards his next project being anything like this. In an industry largely built upon plush historical/martial arts epics there was understandably some reticence toward forging a new frontier. There was such little faith in Gwo’s ability to deliver that actors not only sacrificed paychecks but personally invested in the film to ensure the show would go on and became real-life saviors for the film. Wu, for example, was never intended to be a lead; he initially agreed to be in only one scene but the film needed star power and so Gwo rewrote the script, tailoring it to a father-son dynamic that, at least in theory, forms the emotional core of the movie.

The Wandering Earth, since its release back in February, has gone on to become the second-highest grossing non-English film ever made, earning $700 million in China alone. Netflix picked up the rights to distribute and well, here we are, navigating perilously between episodes of cataclysmic destruction, each one of them enough to wipe us all out on their own. The challenges that face Liu Qi and co. alone make 2012 look like a quaint little indie movie.

It’s a lot to process — or, you know, not process. State-sponsored messaging aside, it’s totally down to the individual as to whether you can take this puree of nonsensical, approximated science and unearned sentimentality at face value — “hey, it’s all in the name of good old-fashioned, goofy fun” — or whether the absurd physics required to save us again (and once again) are just a bridge too far.

Asking me? I appreciated the lack of Aerosmith, at the very least. The Wandering Earth presents a dire situation in a way that’s easy to watch with your jaw slacked and brain on autopilot. At points it becomes surprisingly dark. And boy does the thing look gorgeous. Despite the computer rendering essentially subbing as Characters they help you invest in the visual spectacle. Yet The Wandering Earth, just for the simple fact someone conceived of this, earns a spot on my shelf of guilty-pleasure, geek-tastic sci fi blow-outs. It slides in well above the likes of Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow while never coming close to competing with more intellectually-stimulating adventures like Interstellar and Sunshine.

Catching a red-eye.

Recommendation: A classic example of popcorn-destroying, mindless entertainment that feels like a Hollywood production but one without an American hero in sight. Filled with as many impressive visual effects as plot holes, The Wandering Earth should entertain sci fi fans in search of their next epic space adventure — one they can consume right in their laps (or via their cushy little home theater set-ups). Spoken mostly in Mandarin with English subtitles. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 125 mins.

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

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

The Marvelous Brie Larson — #3

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. If you are a newcomer to this series, the idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skill sets and to see how they contribute to a story.

I have been looking forward to March, not so much because of my undying allegiance to the Marvel brand but rather to Brie Larson. This is the month where she takes the next step, going from an indie darling to a mainstream commodity. Because superhero movies are the only movies that seem to matter anymore, getting the lead in a new Marvel movie seems to this armchair critic a kind of validation of one’s hard work and talent: You’ve officially arrived. You ARE Marvel-worthy.

But with great publicity comes great controversy, and by now we are all aware of the furor surrounding Captain Marvel and its star. Reading/listening to all the ways in which her comments have been misconstrued has been infuriating to say the least, and while the push for greater diversity in the movies and in the press covering them is certainly a discussion worth having (it was a sobering moment learning that 78% of the current critical landscape skews white male) I fear going in that direction is invariably going to turn into a rant. Besides, to focus on the negatives would be to completely lose sight of what this feature is about — celebrating the strengths and unique qualities of the performer in question.

And there is no denying that there is much to celebrate here. Captain Marvel, flying defiantly in the face of all those who were adamant a female-led superhero film just won’t sell, has racked up an impressive $900 million in global box office receipts. Bigger numbers geeks than I will tell you with greater confidence how the film probably won’t crack the billion-dollar mark, but let’s not turn a nose up at 900 mill.

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Action/adventure/sci-fi

Premise: Carol Danvers becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes when Earth is caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races.

Character Background: Carol Susan Jane Danvers hails from a distant world known as Hala, the galactic capital of an alien race called the Kree. In comics lore, Carol isn’t actually the original incarnation of Captain Marvel. That distinction belongs to her super-powered colleague (and at one point love interest) Mar-Vell, who was originally conceived as a Kree Imperial Officer sent to spy on Earth and, under the guise of Dr. Walter Lawson, took note of our technological developments as we readied ourselves for space exploration and in the process of sympathizing with the humans, met and fell in love with a certain American Air Force Pilot, one Carol Danvers. Famously the Captain Marvel brand has endured a long and convoluted history and Marvel Studios takes advantage, dispensing with the romance and macho heroics. As the story used to go, it was Mar-Vell who saved Carol both from an envious Yon-Rogg in pursuit and from a powerful blast from some crazy Kree machine but due to their physical proximity to each other at the time of the explosion Carol’s DNA got infused with that of Mar-Vell, rendering her half-human, half-Kree, and 100% badass. The film, however, gives the character more agency, depicting her “transformation” as a direct result of her own actions, when she shoots the energy core that powers her light-speed-capable jet to keep the tech out of the hands of Yon-Rogg. Because she essentially inhales the Space Stone she becomes super-powerful, but in the exchange also loses her memory. The film then becomes about her working backward to discover where she’s really from and what side she’s on in this overarching Kree/Skrull war.

Brie Larson, a refreshing new face in this familiar superheroic collage, trained for nine months to prepare for the physical aspects of the role, learning judo, boxing and wrestling . . . and throwing in the occasional push-a-5,000-pound vehicle for 60 seconds for good measure. She said of the lengthy preparation: “I got super-strong. It wasn’t enough to just put the costume on and play pretend strength, I wanted to be actually strong.”

Of course, the physical abilities are just one aspect of the character — and they are significant, suggesting she may well be the key in defeating the terrible Thanos in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. But her film arc is just as much about her emotional growth and her psychological state. In flashbacks we see how a parade of men have routinely discounted her as being some kind of “Not Enough” — she’s not strong enough, fast enough, doesn’t smile enough. And damn it anyway, she endures, standing back up and pushing on, turning a deaf ear to the jeers. Brie Larson describes Carol as “probably the most dynamic character I’ve ever played. I’ve had to go through every possible emotion with her. That’s what I want: I want to see complicated female characters.”

Marvel at this Scene:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dqeEZJvFuiE

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):


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

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

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Release: Friday, February 8, 2019

→Theater

Written by: the Lord Philip; Christopher, a distinguished member of the Miller clan

Directed by: someone of indeterminate skill (Mike Mitchell)

Cough. It’snotasgoodasthefirst. Cough.

Excuse me. The weather lately, I’m definitely under it — while also being totally over it. It was in the 60s last Friday, mere days after a cold snap introduced single digit temps, and now here we are again dealing with snow’s annoying cousins, hail and sleet. This streak of wild weather might explain the modest crowd that I experienced The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part with on opening night. Or have audiences just moved on? Remember the first one came out five years ago, and while there was more to come it took three years before those obligatory spin-offs came about (The Lego Batman Movie, another hit, and The Lego Ninjago Movie, not so much — both released in 2017). Is Lego Movie fatigue a real thing? Are we spoilt for choice? Whatever the reason, the release of Lego 2 feels much less of an event, the kind of Big Deal I would have anticipated given the success of that first film.

The classic crew return in Mike Mitchell’s space opera adventure, with Chris Pratt earnest and naive as ever as hero Emmet Brickowski, Elizabeth Banks more dark and brooding as Wyldstyle/Lucy, Will Arnett even more baritone-voiced as “The Man of Bats,” Alison Brie reliably Unikitty, Charlie Day as Spaceman Benny and Nick Offerman full-metal-bearded as the . . . pirate . . . guy. Away from them we are introduced to a handful of new personalities, some of them as memorable as any of the preexisting ones. And while the specifics of the plot are entirely different the basic shape of the story is retained, the animated characters and action foregrounded against a live-action environment where those plot developments emulate what is happening in a child’s imagination. No, the set-up isn’t as fresh a second time around but I still find it to be one of the great strengths of this franchise, and even as Lego 2 returns to the surface more often it does it to great effect.

After standing up to the all-powerful Lord Business/The Man Upstairs (Will Ferrell) in the first movie, Emmet feels quite optimistic about the future, despite present-day Bricksburg (now called Apocalypseburg) looking like a Mad Max/Blade Runner wasteland where everything is far from awesome. An inter-racial war between Legos and Duplos have ravaged the land and turned the good Bricksburgians into hardened plastic cynics. Yet amidst this abyss of humanity Emmet has gone ahead and built a little house for him and Lucy to carry out their lives in, and it has everything, including a double-decker porch swing and a Toaster Room.

When General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), the leader of the Duplo invaders and hench-woman of the “not evil” Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), pays a visit to the people of Bricksburg, now confined to a fall-out shelter á la Star Wars: The Last Jedi, she abducts Lucy and a few other unfortunates, coercing them to take part in a wedding ceremony in the far-away Systar System. Emmet, with little support from his peers — not even Lucy, who is yearning for a more mature, less naive Emmet given the times in which they live — determines it is his duty to save them. Along the way he meets a badass named Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Chris Pratt), who will help Emmett not only become “more badass” but as well prevent the impending plastic nuptials that will bring about “Our-Mom-Ageddon.”

Plot and themes suffice, but that’s really all they do. They fail to wow. We deal with familiar notions of dealing with change and staying true to one’s identity in the face of societal/peer pressure. What is new, however, is the deconstruction of action hero tropes. Is being “The Badass” all that it’s cracked up to be? Emmet, ever the underdog, is challenged both by his past actions and his present conflict. It is suggested he took a disproportionate amount of credit as “The Special,” when Lucy did as much if not more of the ass-kicking. In the present the essence of who he is becomes tested — can he become this more serious, more assertive, less frequently pushed-over Lego piece Lucy wants him to be? What happens when he succeeds at that?

The answers to those questions and a few more may well lie in the egotistic Rex Dangervest, a fun new character who showcases everything that is inherently silly about icons of machismo like Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis. In fact his very existence is a parody of Chris Pratt’s own career, whether taking aim at that stupid thing he did with the raptors in Jurassic World or poking fun of his potential casting as Indiana Jones — all of which being material more geared towards the adult chaperones in attendance.  It seems unlikely kids are going to get many of those references, never mind comprehend the time traveling twist that is rather convoluted to say the least.

Beyond that, Lego 2 makes a conscientious effort to balance the perspective, making the female characters just as integral to the emotional core of the narrative, whether that be on the macro — the real-world drama depicted as a sibling squabble, with Finn (Jadon Sand) not wanting to play nice with his younger sister Bianca (Brooklynn Prince), who’s gotten into Legos herself and wants to do her own thing with them — or the micro level, Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi presenting a shape-shifting femme fatale who turns out to be more than what meets the eye — her “Not Evil” song suggesting she may well be an aspiring Masked Singer contestant. And let us not forget who it is that has inspired Emmet to change.

The release of The Lego Movie back in 2014 was a hugely nostalgic ride for this former Lego enthusiast. I was reminded not just of my obsession with the building blocks but as well the genius of Pixar’s Toy Story. It may not be the most accurate comparison given that the characters technically have less autonomy in the Lego universe. Unlike in Toy Story where the movie happens in the absence of the humans, here the characters are wholly reliant upon human interaction and manipulation — which, incidentally, is what makes Lego 2‘s grand finale so incongruous; I won’t say anything more, but suffice to say it really doesn’t make sense. Still, the very concept of a child’s play things coming to life and given such personality struck me as kind of profound.

Lego 2 clearly aspires to be a Toy Story 2 but unfortunately it is not that movie. In fairness, what sequel is? It takes a similar tact in expanding the canvas, taking the action into outer space, but ultimately it’s unable to escape the shadow of its more successful older brother. That’s most obvious in its attempt to create another ear bug in the form of “The Catchy Song,” a tune that ironically turns out to be nowhere near as catchy as “Everything is Awesome.” It’s a poppy jingle more than an actual song, and its fleetingness tends to sum up the experience as a whole.

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.”

Recommendation: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part delivers more of what fans should have expected but it cannot overcome a sense of been-there-done-that. That the law of diminishing returns applies even to the brilliantly quick witted Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (and the guys at Animal Logic who provide the animation) just goes to show how difficult it is to improve upon an already strong foundation. Even if Lego 2 is a step down, it once again will reward older viewers while keeping the little ones busy with the hectic action and bright colors. Despite the flaws it is still worthy of being seen in a theater. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “I ain’t Selina Kyle. I ain’t no Vicki Vale. I was never into you even when you were Christian Bale.”

“I’m more of a Keaton guy myself.”

“Oh, I loved him in Beetlejuice!”

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

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!”

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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.”

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

In Memoriam: Stephen Hawking


It is a heavy beyond leadened heart that has moved me to create this post. One of the brightest lights in our universe has eked out its final flicker. The iconic physicist Stephen William Hawking died today at the age of 76. His family says that he passed away peacefully in his home in Cambridge, England. He leaves behind a daughter, Lucy, and two sons, Robert and Tim.

The enigmatic Mr. Hawking will be remembered for so much more than enduring over half a century with a form of Lou Gehrig’s Disease that over the course of decades slowly denied him physical movement, and for his tireless efforts in and stunningly resourceful methods for working around the many obstacles the results of a progressively devastating neurological disease threw his way.

Mr. Hawking was a man whose intellectual capacity was only matched by a boundless ability to inspire and excite. Who honestly would not get giddy whenever they came across a headline stating something about his theories about the future of mankind — or its possible origins? The prospect of going on without him, living life without Stephen Hawking guiding the way, flagging up signs of potential trouble with increased intelligence in human-engineered A.I. — that kind of loss has an impact not unlike that of the strange and (potentially terrifying) cosmic phenomenon known as the Black Hole.

supermassive blackhole Dave as ‘Gargantua’ in Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci fi epic Interstellar

It is immature of me to say, but this just isn’t fair. The inevitability of his succumbing to an ailment that he lived with far longer than any doctor might have expected is, I suppose, an easier pill to swallow than the sheer shock created by the randomness of John Forbes Nash and his wife or Princess Diana being involved in fatal car accidents. But life does and has to go on. And so does the work of the scientific community, and the millions upon millions whom he has inspired and instilled a thirst for knowledge and truth. The question is, to what corner in the cosmos do we point in our backyards at night whenever we want to have little private sounding boards with one of the great minds of our time?

Where is our fascination with artificial intelligence leading us? Will our future really look like it does in Blade Runner 2049? Or will we revert back to tribal living, and worshipping shit like the sun and the clouds and the trees? What is the actual value of life? Is it measured scientifically, or is love all we are here to find and feel comforted by? I’m quite sure I don’t have answers to any of that, but I know that whenever Stephen Hawking said something either speculative or that held scientific weight, I listened. I am going to dearly miss that soothing voice of wisdom.

I think if Mr. Hawking were still here he’d urge us all to carry on these discussions ourselves. To never stop thinking about the possibilities. As long as we keep pushing for answers, not even the sky is the limit. And when you’ve lived like this wonderful, brilliant man has lived, you’re the kind of light that actually has a chance of surviving a black hole.

R.I.P. Stephen Hawking. 1942 – 2018


Click here to read my review of The Theory of Everything, a 2014 romantic drama which detailed the personal life and career achievements of Stephen Hawking.

Science-y/otherworldly films worth talking about: Under the Skin; Interstellar; The MartianEx Machina; Arrival; Blade Runner 2049; Annihilation


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Photo credits: http://www.huffingtonpost.com; http://www.interstellarfilm.wikia.org

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.”

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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.” 

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