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.

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

The Martian

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Drew Goddard 

Directed by: Ridley Scott

The Martian is made of the same cosmic stuff that turned Ridley Scott into a household name. His latest is an instant classic sci fi epic about mankind’s place in the bigger galactic picture. If Interstellar was a humbling experience insofar as it confirmed that yes, the universe is . . . big, The Martian makes it far more personal, stressing just how fragile we are in a place we don’t really belong.

While the scale of this journey doesn’t encompass quite as vast a distance — Mars is a mere 34 million miles away as opposed to the untold thousands of light years Matthew McConaughey et al covered in search of another Earth-like planet — The Martian mounts a fascinating and thoroughly convincing case arguing what could happen if we ever choose to visit our nearest planetary neighbor. Credit where credit is due, of course: Scott adapted his film from the 2011 Andy Weir novel of the same name, relying on strong, contemporary source material to tell a profoundly human story rather than resorting to centuries-old documents that threaten plagues and the end of civilization, or stories that are better left on paper.

I don’t know if it’s just the thrill of seeing a once-great director returning to form after a few unsuccessful (to say the least) outings, or whether The Martian is just this good, but October has all of a sudden become exciting. I’d like to think it’s a bit of both, the buzz intensifying in the looming shadow of this season’s scheduled releases. I know it’s fall, but love (for cinema) is in the air.

The Martian tells the inspiring story — one so polished it actually takes more effort to dismiss as entirely fictional — of American astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon, third in line behind Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and Russell Crowe’s Maximus in terms of greatest characters Scott’s had to work with) who becomes marooned on the Red Planet after a severe storm forces the crew of the Ares III to abandon their mission. Not realizing he is still alive after being struck violently with some debris and tossed from the launch site, the remaining crew — comprised of Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and cadets Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) — escape the planet’s wind-swept surface and prepare for the four-year journey back to Earth.

It’s Cast Away in space, only this island is capable of producing greater anxiety than any spit of land on Earth ever could. To make matters worse there’s no Wilson, but Damon’s Watney, despite an affinity for talking to himself via web cam, doesn’t strike you as the sort who always needs someone around to talk to, even in the face of protracted isolation. Instead of striking up a relationship with an inanimate object Watney sets about working his problem logically and with a sense of humor that’s almost unfathomable considering the circumstances. As a result, we get one of the year’s most uplifting movies, with Scott opting to take the detour around dourness by stranding his not-so-helpless protagonist in an endless sea of despair and self-pity, though no one would blame Scott if he had.

I’m sure conspiracy theorists have been having a field day with this film, suggesting the fact that there was some sort of clause in Scott’s contract stipulating the distinct tonal change; a precautionary measure taken to distinguish the plight of Mark Watney from that of Ellen Ripley and to ensure that no wormhole-traveling between films would result. In all likelihood, Scott’s adaptation is nothing more than a faithful adaptation of the source material, and if that’s the case then The Martian has jumped high up on my list of books I must soon read (a list that is embarrassingly short, I have to say). Even if this film will never actually tie into the Alien universe, it suggests that perhaps Scott feels most at home when he leaves ours behind.

The Martian focuses more heavily on the work of our fearless astronaut as he sets about trying to establish his food rations, quickly deducing that it will be impossible to make his supplies last for over 400 days. Putting his botanist background to good use, Watney begins growing a crop of potatoes in the confines of the protective HAB, MacGyvering a water filtration system out of literally thin air. Indeed, he’ll be getting more than his daily fiber intake over the next few years. (Hopefully he’ll have enough ketchup to last.) Periodically we cut back to Houston, where Jeff Daniels’ Teddy Sanders, the head honcho of NASA, Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), a NASA spokesperson, have little else to do besides look on and wonder firstly how the hell Watney has survived and secondly whether retrieving him is a viable option.

Sean Bean is also in as Mitch Henderson, whose supervision of the crew serves as a stark contrast to Sanders’ colder, more stern and conservative methods. And then of course there’s the brainiest of them all in astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), who lends valuable insight into how best to safely retrieve Watney. These earthbound characters don’t fair quite as well in terms of allotted screen time but given what they have to work with, all deliver impressive work and each help lend gravity to the developments, if you’ll pardon the pun. (If you don’t, then . . . well, fine . . . I guess it’s over between us.) Long faces and variations on looking exasperated constitute the bulk of these performances, but that doesn’t mean Scott’s misjudged their talents by saddling them with less showy roles.

Even so, this is the Matt Damon show. He may have been better as something else in the past (what role hasn’t this guy tried on for size?) but right now I’m coming up short. A botanist and self-proclaimed space pirate, Watney is a breath of fresh air, his morale-boosting video diaries marking a totally unexpected departure tonally from what we might have expected out of a story about being the first man stranded on Mars. These entries not only manifest as glimpses into the science behind space exploration, but they help advance the narrative as the weeks and months go by, revealing a timeline marked by their ‘sol’ number.

Of course it’s not a complete review until I mention how exquisite the cinematography is. I feel obligated to talk about it this time because, as overwhelming as it often is — the Martian landscape looks a little like Monument Valley (it was actually filmed in Jordan and Hungary) but there’s enough free play in the digital composition to make it look entirely authentic — the visuals (brought to you by Dariusz Wolski) aren’t at the heart of the film. Bless you, Ridley, for you only recently released a film that epitomized style over substance. On that basis alone (the basis of avoiding repeating history), The Martian deserves praise. Still, given the sleek spacecrafts, high tech gizmos and Martian sunsets that bleed dark purple, this movie is as stylish as anything that’s been released this year. It’s a beautiful, sometimes haunting spectacle that reveres the alien world and offers endlessly entertaining and optimistic commentary on the future of our cosmic endeavors.

Recommendation: This isn’t the only place you’ll read the words ‘a return to form for Ridley Scott.’ Before actually knowing what this movie was like I was kind of iffy about seeing this, and I wouldn’t have expected to declare this a must-see. But that is what this has become, a must-see for fans of the director, a must-see for the ensemble cast, and a must-see for space nerds like myself who enjoy good stories set in the most atmospheric space imaginable — outer space itself. The Martian is a downright fun movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins. 

Quoted: “F**k you, Mars.”

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

Interstellar

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Release: Friday, November 7, 2014

[RPX Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Nolan; Christopher Nolan 

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Interstellar is a fascinating adventure, even if its credibility is trumped by spectacle.

And somewhere throughout this epic excursion to the far reaches of our universe I half expected Matthew McConaughey to make the pithy observation that Dorothy is not in Kansas anymore. Alas, that moment never came.

DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

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There has been a healthy dose of speculation about the latest Christopher Nolan spectacular, on both ends of the spectrum — hype surrounding the fact that Nolan’s grandiose vision would now sync up with quite literally the most grandiose thing ever, space exploration, and caution against the inevitable: against getting hopes up too high (you know, in case Mr. Nolan isn’t actually infallible), and that the science needed to truly pull a feat like this off would likely not gel with the blockbuster formula. At least, not without alienating the majority of theater attendees.

Turns out, and in the wake of the dizzying height of such hype this last week, the cautioners were more accurate than they were naysaying; the positivity has been running a little unchecked. Try as I might to remain level-headed, I got swept up in it too. I for several months felt like a child after chugging an entire box of Pixy Stix. There was no way Christopher Nolan was going to disappoint. Not with this material, not with this cast, and particularly, not when he’s this experienced.

To that end, Interstellar is poised to represent a new standard to which audiences are going to forever hold Nolan accountable. In the build-up to the release, it was all we had to just assume the best of an intergalactic voyage through a never-ending web of stardust and dark matter. I’ve always thought it’s easier (and less scary) to imagine the size of the universe rather than to sit there and calculate its dimensions. Similarly, being ignorant to what the movie actually presents seems to provide a sense of innocence. It’s only in this moment the conditions might seem perfect, that we might have a truly comprehensive look at our place in the universe.

Interstellar is a movie that works best when not questioning, at least too deeply, the very heady developments taking place in the clutches of deep space. Contrary to Nolan’s ambitious hiring of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as the film’s chief scientific consultant and executive producer, there isn’t a significant moment in the extraterrestrial portion of the narrative that passes without some level of suspension of disbelief. In fact, this happens more frequently than Thorne and any physicist are going to admit.

I don’t want to damn the science part of the fiction. I’d rather grin and go along with the logical gaps, because this film is a lot of fun for being about a very real end of a very real world. This is the most confidently something as technical as physics has been handled in a major motion picture event in some time. Possibly ever. The theory of relativity exists as a recurring theme and quantum physics crops up on more than a couple of occasions. Although reading textbooks isn’t required before sitting down to watch this, some scenes are sure to throw viewers for some exciting but head-scratching loops. Credit most assuredly needs to be given to Nolan for reaching out to field experts like Thorne who could give his film an immediate legitimacy a single filmmaker otherwise could not.

OLD AGE SHOULD BURN AND RAVE AT CLOSE OF DAY

INTERSTELLAR

Nolan once again reaches out to his brother Jonathan for the tall task of penning the script. This was a smart move. Good thing in an industry like entertainment nepotism doesn’t really count for much. He isn’t playing favorites, he just knows what he likes and knows how to get it.

It’s been proven on multiple occasions that the dramatic overtones of Christopher’s directing fall into a blissful matrimony with Jonathan’s perception of human nature. His script suggests a viable endpoint for a species that has for far too long remained ignorant to their impacts on their global environment. Culturally, we no longer exist. We are just a physical collection of individuals still surviving on the surface of this tired planet. In whatever year this is we aren’t exactly in denial but we also have not changed a great deal between present-day (in reality) and the present-day in the film, some near-future where the only food source we have left is corn. Jonathan can see how much trouble we are in today and extrapolates that, say, fifty years into the future with Nostradamian confidence.

The space epic is seated deeply in reality, which is what is most remarkable about a film that also features black holes (a relatively recent scientific discovery), rips in the space-time continuum, and a grab-bag of other assorted mind-bending phenomena. So easily the intellectual reach of Nolan’s direction could tip the proceedings into the realm of the ridiculous — and once or twice it does — but the performances he extracts from the likes of McConaughey, Jessica Chastain (who plays a fully-grown version of Murph, the daughter McConaughey’s Cooper leaves behind on Earth), and Mackenzie Foy (the younger Murph) ensure that we are distracted enough from some of the more obvious offenses.

Getting away from some of the more practical considerations, the production on a creative level is a thing of beauty. I’ll touch back on the practical for just a second: once we get into space the first thing that should be taken notice of, just like in Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant Gravity of last year, is the deafening silence outside the space vessel. In a second we realize we are in a place we don’t naturally find ourselves. Unlike Gravity, the curvature of the Earth outside the Endurance’s windows is as close to familiar ground as we will be for the remainder of the film.

Hans Zimmer once again reminds the world of why he has a job scoring films. His work here is mesmeric, haunting, truly the stuff of science fiction and space exploration. Melancholic vibes are quickly supplanted by a racing pulse of optimism, determination. Where concerns grow about the convenience of certain plot developments, Zimmer steps in and whisks us to a galaxy far, far away. The musical composition of Interstellar is fantastical as much as it is fantastic.

I suppose in some ways Nolan’s latest was going to be a predictable affair. There was almost no way this concept could work perfectly. After all, what he is attempting is something no other filmmaker has really sought out, save for perhaps Stanley Kubrick. In Nolan’s vision we are shrunken to the size of worker ants. We have an enormous task ahead of us and it’s more weight upon our backs than we ought to be carrying, but we have no choice. A lot of things happen within this nearly three-hour runtime. But to credit the film editors, the running time almost seems insufficient. Arguably this is Christopher Nolan reaching for the stars while only managing to strike a new crater on the moon.

But even if it isn’t top-shelf Christopher Nolan, it still sits up higher than most films of its ilk in the last 30 years. Interstellar is a trip worth taking for the views and some reminders of how far scientific discovery actually has come if nothing else.

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4-0Recommendation: If it were any more serious, this film could be considered the most bombastic thing Nolan has ever undertaken. Fortunately he sprinkles in some much-needed humor to provide levity to this desperate search for another Earth-like planet. I highly doubt I need to recommend this film, but in case you are having any questions regarding the hype and whether it’s too much, it is a little overblown but certainly not enough to warrant skipping it at the theaters. This is a film, much like Cuarón’s Oscar-sweeper of yesteryear, that demands the big-screen treatment. It will lose so much if you wait for a rental. I also have to recommend seeing this on the largest screen possible, though you might save a few extra bucks by not going for the 3D. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 169 mins.

Quoted: “We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”

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

TBT: Moonraker (1979)

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James Bond June continues! I’ll just come right out and say it: we are moving to a distinctly different time period, to a time where Bond’s chauvinist tendencies were left even less in check than they’ve been recently. A world where the action may not have been so beautifully rendered, but boy did it kick just as much ass as today’s often headache-inducing action sequences. This Thursday’s TBT appeals because the story is so radically over-the-top. This is, aside from a select few Brosnan outings, one of Bond’s least plausible adventures. But it’s a true classic. 

Today’s food for thought: Moonraker. 

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Status Active: June 29, 1979

[TV]

Mission Briefing: When a space shuttle is stolen mid-flight, Bond suspects the clever, conniving and enviously wealthy Hugo Drax to be behind it, and must form a plan to stop him from wiping out millions of innocent civilians. Drax’s ultimate goal is to start afresh on Earth with an entirely new populace, one the deranged man intends to begin cultivating in his own space station. There’s only one thing standing between Bond and the radical industrialist: Drax’ sizable bodyguard, Jaws.

Mission Support: 

  • Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) — considerable “technical experience”
  • Corinne Defour (Corinne Cléry) — loyalty may not be her strong suit, but being supportive of MI:6’s mission apparently is
  • Manuela (Emily Bolton) — 007’s Brazilian contact in Rio de Janeiro
  • Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) — chief target of MI:6, believed to be responsible for hijacking of the Moonraker; approach with extreme prejudice
  • Chang (Toshiro Suga) — Drax’s original bodyguard; highly expendable
  • ‘Jaws’ (Richard Kiel) — physicality outmatches speed and determination; Drax’s new right-hand man; approach with extreme prejudice
  • Dolly (Blanche Ravalec) — girlfriend of ‘Jaws;’ not proven to be particularly supportive of Her Majesty’s interests in the Moonraker

Q Branch: I don’t know what to tell you, 007. The technology is all on your enemy’s side on this one. What, between his cache of expensive little lasers, the fleet of Moonrakers (because one isn’t bloody enough!), and the cloaking device preventing any of us on Earth from seeing the orbiting space station, I have to say all the cards are in Drax’s favor here. There’s not much you can do, really, other than rely on those wits of yours. And in your ripe old age, I wouldn’t even trust those entirely too much. Best of luck out there Bond.

Performance Evaluation: While Roger Moore is unlikely to win the popular vote as to who the best/most memorable James Bond was, he certainly scores points by starring in this highly memorable and action-packed espionage film with a sci-fi twist. Moore as Bond establishes an ease of comfort in his assigned duties, a physical manifestation of cold-blooded killer perhaps no other actor has really shown. Squaring up against the likes of the 7′-2″ metal-mouthed, cable-chewing Jaws and the dastardly brain behind the entire operation in Hugo Drax, Bond must be prepared for supreme hostility in supremely hostile environments. As opinion will often vary greatly on who handles the pressure of the 007 status the best, it’s unlikely that many consider this particular performance from Moore to be among the most frequently mentioned, but Moore does enough to be memorable and amiable.

Moonraker is undeniably all about the novelty of the scenes. The adventure jettisons audiences out of the steamy outskirts of Rio de Janeiro and, later, into outer space for a fun and climactic battle, with the filming taking place in locations as varied as London, Paris, Venice, California, Florida, and of course, the second largest city in Brazil. Bond explores Drax’s shuttle launching facility, where he possesses multiple Moonraker shuttles. While we experience the requisite quips about saving the world, romantic proposals and/or whether or not martinis are best served shaken and not stirred, the world floats by the tiny windows of the villain’s space station. It’s just one extra layer of coolness applied to an already stylish and sexy franchise.

Yet the film certainly falls prey to the tropes of the late 70’s/early 80’s action films. Misogynistic themes skyrocket (Bond’s partner is named Holly Goodhead — not as bad as some in the past, but not exactly a flattering name by any means), and so too does the cheese factor. Bond’s inability to make the lamest puns at the most opportune times continues in Moonraker, yet the majority are not memorable. If you’re looking to evaluate Lewis Gilbert’s third (and final) directorial effort from a technical standpoint, the film’s age is often painfully obvious. But as it relates to the world of James Bond, this outer space exploration is somewhat difficult to top.

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3-5Recommendation: James Bond’s canon appeals to a consistent target audience, one that’s decidedly more male than female, but there’s also no use trying to deny this divide in opinion when it comes to talking “old school” James Bond versus modern versions. Moonraker may not be an awfully intelligent picture but it’s a film that stays relatively true to the novel and always remains a fun time. The last factor in determining if this film is for you is how Roger Moore appeals to your senses. Neither overly aggressive nor excessively mild-mannered, Moore strikes a safe middle-ground. While failing to be as memorable as either Connery or even Daniel Craig, he succeeds in delivering this material with plenty of tongue-in-cheek.

Rated: PG (how the. . .what the. . . really?!!)

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “My God. . .what’s Bond doing?!”

“I believe he’s attempting re-entry, sir. . .”

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