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 Homesman

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Release: Friday, November 14, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Tommy Lee Jones; Kieran Fitzgerald; Wesley A. Oliver

Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones is once again a man whose greatness knows no bounds as he stars in, directs as well as helps to write and produce this quietly fierce tale about Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank).

Who’s that, you ask?

Isn’t that the million dollar question. An unusually strong, independent woman and fearless pioneer who takes it upon herself to transport three psychologically disturbed/physically abused women from various regions of the wild west, back to a proper care facility located somewhere out upon those sprawling Iowan plains — Cuddy is a societal enigma, an individual hardened by the hostility of 1850s midwestern American life and slowly withering in isolation. She is unwed. She’s introduced as someone somewhat desperate to shake the shackles of apparent spinsterhood. No man wants to be with her for her plain looks and, quote, bossiness, repel almost immediately.

Tommy Lee Jones’ George Briggs is a man with few scruples, and even fewer rules for trying to get along in this rough and tough world these characters perfectly inhabit in 2014. The contemporary release date can be confusing, for surely this is one gorgeously realized (and thus convincing) setting, affecting an instant nostalgia among the John Wayne faithful — or period film/western fans in general. That there’s someone of Jones’ stature (and dare I give it away now. . .okay I will. . .Meryl Streep’s) in supporting roles certainly helps. Streep may be less associated with the genre, but her ability to disappear inside her roles unsurprisingly serves her well here.

The Homesman is quite the traditional western. Except for the fact that it’s not. We have Indians who fiercely claim their territory, a harsh winter that lays spoil to many a homestead — William Fichtner’s Vester Belknap laments the disappearance of his corn crops and subsequently must deal with his rapidly ailing wife (who indeed becomes one of the three needing to be relocated) — and a script that heeds the reserved mannerisms, quaint colloquialisms and customs of the day.

But this is also a film set in the heart of America (as opposed to the literal ‘western’ territory) — Nebraska and Iowa primarily — and whose overtones, a mixture of darkly comic and comically bleak, tend to betray those of standard western romps. Slapstick violence doesn’t exist, though the heart-wrenching kind does. Death is a friend to many on these plains, while there is nothing quite like seeing TLJ in his pre-industrial jockstraps being smoked out of “his” home by a bunch of spurned settlers. He’ll soon be lynched on horseback (sounds confusing, I know) for jumping on another man’s land, so that smile won’t last. A valid argument could be made for The Homesman‘s tonal bipolarity. One minute it’s deadly serious; the next it moves the viewer to fits of giggles.

With Jones in the director’s chair, however, all is most certainly not lost. Hardly a thing is. Save for logic towards the end. The Homesman ends on a very, very strange note. And while I will maintain my promise to not ruin things here, I must comment on Jones’ decision-making at this juncture. (Like, what the hell man?!) Or, translated professionally: there are some baffling choices made at the 11th hour. Are they enough to abandon The Homesman in unfamiliar territory? Not quite. Are they apparent enough to cause a directorially-illiterate viewer (a.k.a. me) to notice? You bet your buffalo hide.

This latest effort from director TLJ finds the craftsman working respectfully — dutifully reminding us that while modern living is no breeze, we might just have it a little easier than those growing up on the frontier.

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3-5Recommendation: Packed with reliably sturdy performances and fascinating characters — I think the trio of sick women are going to be criminally overlooked here — The Homesman finds strength in being not quite like the others. Fans of the cast and steadily absorbing narratives need apply.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “Are you an angel?”

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

The Family

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Release: Thursday, September 12, 2013

[Theater]

One can only hope that Robert DeNiro does not go out with a whimper. I mean, it’s still a little early to say the man’s at that point but come on — he is now 70 years old and a few of his latest choices — New Year’s EveKilling SeasonThe Big Wedding (!!!) — have been a little more than questionable. As much as it pains me to report, The Family does not even come close to planing out this late-stage career nosedive.

Luc Besson’s latest is an unrelentingly dark “comedy” about a mob family (like, an actual family…not the term used among mob bosses) that has been placed into witness protection. They’ve most recently been relocated to Normandy, France, where they blow their cover when everyone reverts back to their gangster-ass ways of dealing with their situations. CIA Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) does everything he can to keep the family safe but inevitably the antics of one Giovanni Manzoni (DeNiro), along with the rest of his demented clan, prove too unwieldy (and public) and eventually the mob dispatches a ruthless hitman (Jon Freda) to “clean up” the town in which they’re hiding out.

After snitching on the mob, Giovanni (a.k.a. “Fred Blake”) finds it difficult to live a more low-key life. He feels that by writing out his life’s story on a typewriter, his guilt and dark past may not haunt him any longer. Confined to a greenhouse-like extension of his new home, he engages in something of a psychopathic psychotherapy session. His wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is not happy about his decision to describe their past activities and identities, and Agent Stansfield doesn’t exactly approve, either. This would eventually turn out to become his biggest downfall as wind picks up about the lies he’s been telling the locals: that he’s a writer and he’s doing some research in Normandy for a new book.

Despite the film’s admittedly playful tone, and barring one or two downright hilarious moments, it boasts a gut wrenchingly awful script that’s intended to subvert the gangster/crime film; all it really does is pervert the concept of tongue-in-cheek comedy. It stumbles, bumbles, mumbles and eventually crumbles into pieces that loosely resemble the good old days of DeNiro’s very moley-smile as a ruthless mobster. However, this was hardly a tribute to those days. . . it was more like a butchering of it. The humor ends up becoming overwhelmed by the violence, some of which would be acceptable to turn one’s head away from.

The same could be said about the jokes that were written.

Most of them do not land whatsoever. We see time and time again flashbacks of DeNiro’s character beating his targets senseless and then some. Where exactly is the funny in dunking a man into a bucket of corrosive acid? Oh yeah, right — his scream when his head plunges into it. Another scene reveals that after his mission has failed to bear any results as to why his water at home is brown and not crystal clear, he has dragged the mayor from the back of his car for some distance — enough to leave the man bloodied and quivering with cowardice. It’s pretty sick to think these could be made into jokes. It’s almost as if the surrounding context of the movie needed to be much more gruesome, more like the movie that’s actually referenced late in this one — more like Goodfellas. There may be gruesome moments to these types of earlier works as well, but at least they were put into perspective. Each time an act of violence jumps out on the screen, it’s jarring and far more shocking than the comedy is relieving. (There’s only so many times Robert DeNiro can say the word ‘F**k’ in a single line of dialogue to get some chuckles.)

If you saw someone stumble and trip down the aisle only to fall flat on their face as they exited the theater, that would be more funny than most of this film. Coincidentally, that’s the brand of humor you’ll find throughout. It’s simply not a successful experiment on Besson’s part, and there’s no denying the deepening of the blemish on DeNiro’s career as of late. That being said, reasons are in short supply as to why Tommy Lee Jones comes off as such a drag here, as well. His CIA Agent, though clearly not a vehicle for comedic relief, is a blunt, boring old fart that is more reminiscent of Agent Kay after getting his memory wiped by the neuralizer.

The film has some semblance of redemption in young actors John D’Leo, who plays the son, Warren, and the beautiful Dianna Agron who is Belle Manzoni (how this girl is meant to be from an Italian upbringing is beyond me, but I won’t complain). The two share some strong moments — arguably some of the best in the entire film — and their experiences as they spend their time trying to fit in at school serves as a mildly amusing subplot.

As for the rest, though, its an embarrassing mess for everyone involved. The film cannot decide what to do with itself in terms of the tone; often its simply too dark to even be considered an action-comedy. When it lightens up, the story gets rather boring and was enough to put one of the viewers to sleep, apparently. Maybe that guy just needed some rest, because he told me he tuned out about twenty minutes in. Or perhaps that’s all you need to know about The Family — it’s one you won’t want to really visit. Not even for the holidays.

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1-5Recommendation: The DeNiro faithful may still find a few things to like about this, however this is a film these folks will likely be seeking out long after they’ve cycled through the rest of his catalogue, probably twice or three times at least. Also, anyone who is a believer in a movie having a strong conclusion should definitely stay away.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

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

TBT: Men in Black (1997)

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I can’t really expect to cover Will Smith for a month and get away without including the one thing he did with Tommy Lee Jones that had aliens in it. So we turn again away from Smith’s more serious side and return to a role where he gets to be a “little” bit more at ease. The very first time I saw this film was amazing. After that, the movie really retains its wonders and is a real nice flashback to being the age I was when first seeing it. Watching it now I get more of a kick out of the interplay between Smith and Jones; it’s such a well-cast movie that it’s hard to pick another with Smith that is this much fun (because of the cast, let alone great set pieces). 

Today’s food for thought: Men in Black

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Release: July 2, 1997

[VHS]

Here come the men in black, galaxy defenders. I actually don’t know which became a bigger hit — the movie, or the song. Every time I so much as think about this flick the song/melody is right behind that thought and I begin humming (or worse, singing) it and pretty much get to those lyrics used above before I realize what I’m doing and stop. But whatever the cause may be, we know that the chicken (in this case, this sci-fi smash hit) came before the egg (one particularly catchy song on Big Willie Style).

In 1997 Barry Sonnenfeld delivered this intergalactic cinematic wonder to the masses, and to say he received a positive response would be the understatement of the century. Men in Black was a phenomenal success (an estimated budget of $90,000,000 yielded a gross of $250,000,000 by January ’98). At the center of this very popular sci-fi comedy is an effective meshing of concept and costume, which is mainly what I’d like to discuss with this movie.

The Concept: Aliens have inhabited our planet — some are good, some are not (like the roaches) — and it is up to this secretive agency (M.I.B.) to protect the human race from any danger caused by their presence. The agency’s overseen by Rip Torn’s “Zed,” and whose main agent, at least for the purpose of this movie, is Agent “Kay” (Jones) is one with several doubts on his mind, the forefront of which being should he have chosen this life over a life with his wife. With technology that supersedes even today’s weaponry (the Neuralizer is one of my all-time favorite movie weapons, right behind the light saber), agents go out into the field and eliminate pests at the same time as clearing the slates of any person who has had contact with aliens. As Will Smith’s Agent “Jay” comes to understand, protecting the public from alien interference is a lifelong servitude. Quitting this job means getting your memory wiped clean so your knowledge of such classified information is no longer a threat to anyone else. It’s not a high-brow concept by any means, but it’s certainly strong enough to make for a thoroughly entertaining flick.

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The Costumes: First of all, the good guys dress in black — remember that. (Another lyric.) The agents themselves are certainly quite stylish — a simple black suit with white collared shirts here truly make a statement. But beyond that, it’s really the aliens and the designs of the many types/classifications of the alien race. Starting with the main “villain” here, a massive and angry roach that invades the body of a redneck farmer  (Vincent D’Onofrio), given the computer graphics of the late 90s, the creature doesn’t look all that bad. In fact, it’s rather creepy and disturbing — and D’Onofrio gives a spectacular performance considering what he had to do to sell the fact he’s a 9-something-foot alien in a 6-foot human body. This undoubtedly is the centerpiece and best asset of the original Men In Black; as the movie progresses, the hostile extraterrestrial bug becomes more a part of the storyline. Too, it becomes increasingly nasty-looking, as the film finally culminates in a crazy, if not slimy, climax near the New York State Pavilion viewing towers in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Aside from this temperamental guy, a host of other aliens we encounter along the way all possess interesting, fun designs that are likely burned into everyone’s brains for long after (how about “Mikey” in the introductory scene with Kay in the desert?). These designs alone may set apart the movie from all other movies involving aliens, friendly or hostile.

one of the great comedic bits of the film is that, apparently, coffee ain't a foreign concept to aliens.

one of the great comedic bits of the film is that, apparently, coffee ain’t a foreign concept to aliens.

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Mikey. Probably my favorite.

The graphics may lend a certain credence to the idea that the planet has been invaded by aliens and the fact that some of them come in peace while others do not. When we are presented all these different characters, most of them are a likable bunch of cousins of E.T., but the finishing touches come in the form of the human element. The acting in M.I.B. helps propel the film from “great” to “classic.”

At the time of M.I.B.‘s first release, we did not know where the story was going to take us — only where we were currently going. Case in point, I have not cared to see the next installments just because I feel like the first story was where the rapport between Old Veteran (which would be TLJ) and the Young Gun (Smith) is likely to be the strongest. Despite having heard positive reviews of M.I.B. 3, I realize that I need to go through 2 to get there — a movie which did not, apparently, live up to its own hype. I want to keep the movie as a gem of its own, therefore I don’t think I’ll see anything other than the first. The banter between Jones and Smith here is both hilarious and purposeful: how would a former member of the public react to gaining classified, Top Secret information? This movie is a colorful version of what it must be like entering into the CIA or Secret Service or something.

The movie does have its weaknesses, though they are easily overlooked due to the novelty of the concept. Aliens being placed among us, living in human form and subsequently evaluated by a shadowy organization of suited men to determine their purposes on Earth — that’s a pretty radical, cool concept if you ask me. And it seems well-adapted from the novel. It is a blockbuster type of film, however, and it will occasionally sink into cliches and platitudes, but again, these come about relatively infrequently and are more likely to become the observations one makes during a second or third viewing. The first time you get to see this film, I bet it’ll be hard for even the most cynical of moviegoers to say “nay” to this intergalactic keggar.

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“Your breath stinks, pal.”

4-0Recommendation: If you haven’t seen Men In Black, first of all, shame on you. Secondly, go rent it, pronto. If you enjoy having a good time with a movie, I think this one has got you covered.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

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

Hope Springs

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Release: Wednesday, August 8, 2012

[Theater]

You’d think after 30-some years of marriage that everything, right down to the very second of each day, is calculated, controlled…..in a word, routine. There’s a certain comfort in routines. Arnold Soames (Tommy Lee Jones) is a firm believer in that, and it reflects in the way he carries himself as a CPA, one with a penchant for falling asleep while watching golf tips on ESPN. That’s not the way his wife views her life, though. When the camera cuts to a shot of Kay (Maryl Streep) glancing idly at her deflated husband in the recliner, her eyes tell a whole story. They reveal this plot, actually.

What she needs is a rekindling with the man she fell in love with all those years ago. She’s fed up of the increasing distance she feels from her husband — whether or not that’s his fault or theirs collectively kind of guides the script in a general direction. Emphasis on ‘general,’ as it takes awhile for us to figure out what’s dysfunctional here. The couple sleeps in separate rooms, don’t speak much throughout the day, and have fully-grown children.

Finally, enough’s enough. One day she suggests to Arnold that they seek marriage counseling up in Great Hope Springs, Maine. There’s a well-known therapist who can help rekindle the flame. And it’s a last-ditch effort for Kay, too. These days it seems like a chore having to put food on a table for a man who won’t say a word and who barely has time to kiss her on the cheek on his way out to work. The real question hanging in the balance, though, is whether or not she ever had lived the romantic life that she had imagined years ago.

Enter matured Steve Carell. As Dr. Feld, his job is to either mend marriages or end them. From the very first moment they’re chatting with the doc, it’s clear that Kay is on Feld’s cooperative list and Arnold, quite the opposite. Though not intentionally archetypal, the character of Arnold is something of a model for men who are retreating into their latter years with most of their dignity in tact. The last thing he needs is for some random guy with a degree in sex counseling to diminish it. As can be predicted from the male’s perspective, he walls off most of the questions and keeps to himself.

As the therapy continues, that approach is hardly sufficient, and actually incites Kay to react poorly to her husband, in a variety of situations. Dr. Feld makes it clear that intimacy has to be obtained by working together, and by starting slowly. When applied to the pace of the movie, that is great therapy. The film slips further into comedy and away from the serious examination of mature relationships. But that’s alright — all we want is to see Meryl Streep happy! It takes us awhile to get to that but it’s well worth the fight and hey, even MIB would be happy to hear that Mr. Jones got in touch with his sensitive side.

As slight a cast as Hope Springs requires, it is an extremely stacked one. Jones and Streep need no introduction or qualification, but Carell has definitely stepped up his game. Or put on his Poker face. Whichever metaphor suits — it’s good for him, because we listen intently to what he has to offer, and leaving the theater we hope that, should that time come, we have a therapist as open and caring as Dr. Feld.

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3-5Recommendation: This one’s targeted at a slightly older demographic, to be sure. In that way, it possesses great wisdom and experience. It reveals some of the more troubling secrets about marriage; some things that I give credit to Streep and Jones for demonstrating together. It’s sweet, earnest and above all it’s a refreshing dramedy that finds its appeal in unexpected places.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 100 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