Ad Astra

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Is Ad Astra more than just another entertaining space drama? Not really. But if you want to layer some special meaning onto the story, that’s your privilege as a moviegoer.

Many males have complex relationships with their dads. This has been addressed in movies ranging from The Empire Strikes Back to Field Of Dreams to the under appreciated 2014 film The Judge. In this sci-fi tale set in the not-that-distant future, a son’s feelings about his father are a key element in the son’s psyche.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut whose dad Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), also an astronaut, led a mission to the outer rim of our solar system and has not been heard from in decades. Power surges that threaten human survival have been linked to this distant outpost just off Neptune.

Roy is directed by leaders here on Earth to go there and fix the situation. He is directed to “fly commercial” to the moon before heading to a station on Mars. Along the way, he gets intel about his dad from a crusty Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland).

Throughout the movie, Roy’s psychological fitness is periodically checked by AI devices. Many of Roy’s inner thoughts are shared via Pitt voiceovers.

On Mars, an evaluation of Roy’s mental state and his emotional attempt to communicate with his dad cause officials to scrub his further participation in the effort to mitigate the Neptune crisis. But he goes rogue and flies off to check on dad.

Ad Astra is filled with amazing effects and images but writer/director James Gray incorporates them in a way that’s not as flashy as those in some space flicks. His futuristic visions seem more matter-of-fact than included for jaw-dropping spectacle. (Or maybe I’ve just seen several space movies in recent years and my personal “wow” level has been recalibrated.)

Brad Pitt brings his usual A game to the screen and shows his range via a character who is wildly different from the one that will likely net him an Oscar nomination. (The expected nod would be for his Cliff Booth in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. But sometimes awards voters cast a vote for cumulative efforts so his work here can only add to his chances of a win.)

Also in the film are Ruth Negga as a Mars base staffer and Liv Tyler as Roy’s wife Eve.

Ad Astra is a film to be enjoyed for what it is. If you want to read more into it than is made clear in the narrative, go right ahead.

 

 

 

 

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Dumbo

Dumbo poster

Where’s the magic? Where’s the delight? Where’s the fun? It’s not here.

Tim Burton’s live action remake of Disney’s 1941 animated film Dumbo is lacking in the qualities that have made Disney films special. Burton’s Dumbo is just okay, not special.

Yes, the CGI version of the baby elephant with big ears looks real. When he flies, the depiction looks good. The technical aspects of Dumbo are solid.

Yes, the cast is star-studded. Max Medici (Danny Devito) is the owner of a struggling circus that plays small towns a century ago. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is the circus performer returning from WWI minus a left arm. V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) is the Barnum-like showman who brings Medici’s circus to New York. Colette (Eva Green) is Vandevere’s girlfriend and star acrobat.

Yes, there are cute kids. Nico Parker is a charmer as Millie Farrier, Holt’s daughter. Son Joe Farrier is played by Finley Hobbins. (Mrs. Farrier is deceased—yet another Disney dead mom!)

Yes, there is a message about turning a perceived handicap into an advantage: Dumbo’s deformity gives him the ability to fly.

Yes, there is spectacle. The Medici circus, with its variegated cast of performers (animal and human), works hard to entertain in its tent and on the midway. When Dumbo’s extraordinary talent is revealed, the circus goes big time to Dreamland, a giant amusement area like Coney Island.

Yes, all the pieces are there. And yet, something’s missing. As one who grew up with Disney films and TV shows, I recall being emotionally invested in so many of their stories and characters. It didn’t happen for me with this newest version of Dumbo.

Interestingly, in the film’s production notes there is a quote from director Tim Burton in which he admits that as a kid he did not like the circus. To his credit, Burton’s Dumbo is not as gratuitously weird as his films sometimes are.

With live action versions of Aladdin (May 24) and The Lion King (July 19) in the pipeline, one can only wonder if they will recapture the Disney magic that the animated versions from the early 90s had.

 

 

 

 

Captain Marvel

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Can Marvel make a successful comic book fantasy movie with a female lead? The answer is yes. Captain Marvel is a solid effort by all concerned. (Including the dozen or so digital effects companies I counted in the closing credits.)

Captain Marvel may not be the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie ever. And Captain Marvel may not be the greatest MCU superhero ever. But the new film starring Brie Larson accomplishes much in just over two hours.

It introduces and establishes a new movie franchise player and sets up future Captain Marvel stories. It delivers a cool backstory for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The movie is set in the 1990s and dishes a bunch of fun nostalgia for that decade. And it features a cool cat (an actual feline) named Goose.

Action/fantasy films sometimes have pacing issues and often have effects overkills but co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck keep things moving ahead at a consistent clip, with occasional respites. And the many confrontations among characters tend to resolve within reasonable periods.

The story? Well, there’s a lot going on here. Of course, it’s always about good versus evil. But it is not always clear who is a good guy (or woman) and who is a bad egg. Captain Marvel works to solve a mystery about her own background (including her life as Air Force pilot Carol Danvers) and about a scientific discovery that Wendy Larson (Annette Bening) is developing. Carol/Captain Marvel’s time among the Kree aliens on the planet Hala is a key plot point.

Brie Larson handles all the physical tasks of playing a superhero well. She has a good head of hair, which is only reined in near the end of the movie. (Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman at least had a band across the front of her hairline when she was in action.)

The cast also includes Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn and (as Carol’s Air Force friend Maria) Lashana Lynch.

Captain Marvel should garner strong ticket sales and whet appetites for Avengers: Endgame whose release is just seven weeks away. As Black Panther showed last year, a superhero movie can be released in late winter and still attract a huge audience.

Of course, you should stay until the very end of the credits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Man

Firstman

Can the landing of the first man on the moon be… anticlimactic? In First Man, it almost is.

For a couple of reasons. We know how it turns out. The video is iconic. The “small step/giant leap” quote is ingrained into our beings.

But mainly, First Man delivers tension, suspense and the threat of peril in the life and career of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) well before the moon landing. By the time Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are ready to moonwalk, the film has already presented the stoic Armstrong in situations that put him through intense physical and emotional challenges.

Yes, the moon landing is First Man’s money shot. And, yes, there’s a tingle that comes when the lunar vehicle is looking for a landing spot. But what precedes that event is what makes the movie another winner from director Damien Chazelle of La La Land and Whiplash fame.

The real life Armstrong was not as outgoing as other U.S. astronauts. Shepard, Glenn, Aldrin, Cooper and others were more visible via media. Armstrong, though not a recluse, did not seem to savor the limelight.

Gosling is excellent in his portrayal of a man who generally keeps his emotions in check. I’d argue that it’s harder to portray this kind of individual convincingly than to play more flamboyant types.

First Man shows Armstrong as a family man dealing with crises at home as well as a space pioneer applying his knowledge and talents to his job. His wife Janet (Claire Foy) provides needed support but also confronts him just before the moon mission, demanding he talk to his sons about the danger and risk ahead.

As other space films have shown, there is friendly competition among astronauts but a special camaraderie also exists. Armstrong’s grief when fellow spacemen-to-be suffer bad fates is deeply felt.

The soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz complements the visuals and the action beautifully.

The story of the Neil Armstrong you never knew (unless you read the book that First Man is based on) adds meaningful context to recollections of the space race and that singular accomplishment America achieved one Sunday evening in July 1969.

 

 

 

 

 

Everest

Everest is big. Appropriately so. It’s a big story with a big cast of characters and, of course, a big mountain. The biggest mountain, actually. The film is best viewed on a big screen.

In 1996, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) led expeditions to Mount Everest. Other groups were also at base camp, all set to make a final ascent on May 10. Everest shows Hall to be a conscientious, detail-oriented leader, a “hand holder” as Fischer calls him. Fischer is a more casual leader with his climbers.

Among those in Hall’s group are Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a big, boisterous Texan; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman of more modest means than most climbers; Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a quiet Japanese woman; and Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a journalist who plans to do a cover story on the trek for Outside magazine.

Emily Watson and Elizabeth Debicki are Hall’s base camp support team. Hall’s pregnant wife Jan (Kiera Knightley), who had climbed Everest with him in ‘93, is at home in New Zealand where she communicates with him by phone. Robin Wright plays Weathers’ wife, back home in Texas.

If you are unfamiliar with the story you may want to avoid plot synopses and remain unaware of the challenges the climbers encountered on May 10, 1996.

Though the story of the May 1996 expedition to Everest has been told before, most notably in Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, this new movie provides thrilling visuals and recreates the real-life peril of an Everest climb. Director Baltasar Kormakur brings the tale to life with realistic location shots in hazardous weather conditions. The cast and crew are to be congratulated for what one would presume to have been a tough shoot.

For those who have read Krakauer’s book (which I, incidentally, consider to be the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read), there are slight differences in the story told in the film. Most significantly, the logjam that occurs at the Hillary Step just below the summit plays a bigger role in the book than in the movie.

Last year’s Wild has led to more traffic on the Pacific Crest Trail this year and the recent A Walk In The Woods is expected to send more hikers to the Appalachian Trail in 2016. Will Everest result in even more climbers attempting to ascend to the top of the world? Probably, even though the danger of an Everest climb far outweighs than that of a trail hike. The difficulties chronicled in Everest will, for many, likely be outweighed by the lust for adventure and the glory of reaching the summit.

If you prefer to experience an Everest climb vicariously (as do I) and enjoy a good story about people who climb, the best way is to see Everest. And remember, this is one to see on a big movie screen.

Ant-Man

Another Marvel Comics character comes to life in Ant-Man and has apparently birthed a new movie franchise.

Paul Rudd is a pretty boy actor from rom-coms and buddy movies—not your typical action hero. Rudd plays Scott Lang, just sprung from San Quentin where he did time for burglary.

When he can’t keep a job at Baskin-Robbins because of his felon past, his friend Luis (Michael Pena) guides him to a break-in gig. It turns out to have been a setup, arranged by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). When Pym sees that Scott is crafty enough to have busted into his safe, he drafts Scott to put the technology he developed into play and become Ant-Man.

With a press of one button he becomes ant size, with the press of another, he returns to full size. Ant-Man has a mission: to derail the work being done by Pym’s successor, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Pym developed the tech that made Ant-Man work. Now Cross is working to perfect his version of that tech to deliver a similar shrinking man he calls Yellowjacket, which he promises would allow its owner to control the world.

Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) is Pym’s daughter who continues to work with Cross. As the film begins, it’s not exactly clear whose side she’s on, but it soon becomes clear that she’s daddy’s girl. Her sparring with Scott creates some low boil sexual tension.

Ant-Man takes its time getting to the real action while Scott’s family situation is examined. He’s a divorced dad who wants to see his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). His ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her boyfriend Jim (Bobby Cannavale) want him to stay away until he becomes solvent.

When Scott begins training as Ant-Man, the fun begins. He learns to run and leap through keyholes, timing his shrink/expand buttons to allow smooth passage. The film’s climax takes place in and around the lab that produced the technology and at the home where daughter Cassie lives.

Ant-Man is a fun film, thanks to script revisions by Adam McKay and Rudd. Ant-Man is notably lighter, less serious than your typical Marvel film. A highlight is a brief encounter with another character from the Marvel universe. Ant-Man is directed by Peyton Reed.

(FYI, Should a shot or two in Ant-Man trigger a memory of the 1989 film Honey I Shrunk The Kids, take note that Ant-Man first appeared in Marvel comic books in 1962.)

Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland should be a slam dunk. It’s Disney. It’s George Clooney. It’s Brad Bird (director). It’s nostalgia. It’s the future. But, like an errant jet pack, it goes off course.

Not to say that Tomorrowland isn’t entertaining. It is. But it could’ve been great. And, sadly, it’s just okay.

The concept has merit, but there’s just too much “business” going on and not quite enough real meat on the bones of this message movie. And, in case you don’t get the message, it is pounded into you: Yes, we have big problems in our world. But rather than complain about them, you should get busy solving those problems.

Frank Walker (George Clooney, with stubble) opens the film by talking about the future and how attitudes toward the future have changed since he was a kid.

A young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) is shown attending the 1964 New York World’s Fair and showing off the jet pack he’s invented. Nix (Hugh Laurie) nixes the device but young Athena (Raffey Cassidy) helps deliver him (and the jetpack) into Oz, um, I mean, Tomorrowland.

Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is busted while trying to sneak onto the grounds at Cape Canaveral. She finds a cool pin among her personal effects when her rocket scientist dad (Tim McGraw) bails her out. The pin takes her to Tomorrowland.

Upon her return, she visits a collectables store and asks the clerks (Keegan-Michael Key and Katherine Hahn) about the pin, thereby setting in motion a sequence that echoes Men In Black.

With guidance from Athena, Casey meets up with Frank Walker and they begin their mission to get back to where they once belonged.

Tomorrowland bogs down on more than one occasion in preachy dialogue. And for a PG-rated movie, there are a couple of things that might freak out a small fry—such as when a little girl is hit by a speeding truck. Oh, she bounces right up, but the shock resonates.

For those of us who’ve made a few journeys around the sun, Tomorrowland comes off as idealistic pap. We’ve rolled our eyes at futuristic visions for decades.

For the younger, bright-eyed optimists of the world, this great big beautiful Tomorrowland is manna from Disney heaven. If your cynicism level is zero, you’ll eat Tomorrowland up like warm gooey butter cake.

Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is a loud, violent, angry film that assaults the senses with adrenaline-fueled vehicle chases, fiery crashes and painful death. It is a masterful piece of filmmaking.

In a future wasteland, the scenario is ripe for revolt. A tyrannical leader King Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) rules a population that receives water only sparingly. Within the mountainside lair called the Citadel, where women produce breast milk to sustain the ruler and his minions, Max (Tom Hardy) is imprisoned.

Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is selected to pilot a tanker to Gastown along the straight and narrow Fury Road. When she heads off course into unpaved desert, King Joe and his convoy pursue, with Max secured to a lead truck like a human hood ornament. On one vehicle, a guitar player provides a rockin’ accompaniment to the mission (with a guitar that is a flame throwing weapon).

After Max escapes and joins forces with Furiosa, he finds that she is ferrying five gorgeous babes, the mountainside leader’s sex slaves, to her intended destination, a land of vegetation where she was born. The chase continues until… they all head back to the Citadel.

Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the best action/adventure films I’ve ever seen. Because of its fantastic settings, its distinctive characters, its primal story, its savage spirit, its forceful soundtrack and its high energy level. The film starts at a sprint and doesn’t slow down until 30 minutes in.

Hardy is a brilliant choice to play a hero who saves his own skin first, then becomes part of a bigger effort to help others. Theron, in her non-glam buzz cut, is all business as her character asserts her own will and proves to be just as tough as any man.

Director Miller may be guilty of overkill, but the unrelenting intensity of Mad Max: Fury Road will satisfy audiences who are ready to have their minds blown. For action movie fans, Mad Max: Fury Road is a must-see!

Fury

 

Fury is a beautifully constructed WWII movie. The story, the script, the characters, the acting, the tanks, the effects are all top-notch. But is it special? That’s the big question about Fury. It’s a truly entertaining film, and maybe that’s enough.

Fury is a tank, commanded by “Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt). He’s fought Germans in Africa, France and, now, on the Krauts’ home turf. The film is set in spring 1945, just weeks before the war’s end. Germany is reeling, but the bloody battles continue.

When any war movie introduces its characters, you know: some will die; some will survive. Wardaddy’s group includes the religious Swan (Shia LeBoeuf), Latino “Gordo” (Michael Pena) and redneck “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal).

The most interesting character in Fury is Norman, a callow youth played by Logan Lerman. Norman is a pencil pusher, just 8 weeks into his Army career, when he’s somehow assigned to Wardaddy’s crew. He is unprepared for witnessing death and certainly not ready to kill people.

A couple of battle scenes set up the final showdown. The faceoff between Fury (and other American tanks) against a bigger, stronger German tank depicts the intense effort of those inside the tank and the constant movement of the tanks for strategic positioning. (A note at the movie’s opening notes that American tanks did not quite measure up to German tanks.)

A sequence that follows the takeover of a German town shows Wardaddy and Norman enjoying a cordial visit with 2 German women. It’s a moment of quiet humanity amidst the horror of war. Later, the other 3 tank men crash the party and behave uncouthly until Wardaddy takes control.

When Fury is assigned to go it alone and defend a key rural intersection, they sit and wait for German activity. Norman scouts from a hillside and spots hundreds of Germans on their way for the film’s climactic battle, which is loud, intense and furious.

Writer/director David Ayer frames the film with memorable opening and closing shots and his overhead shots of the tank positioning are cleverly shot. In Fury, though most of the action occurs during daytime, the days are gray and dismal—appropriate for the grim business of war.

As Fury depicts it, war is hell. WWII, particularly so.

 

 

 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

 

In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Andrew Garfield seems incredibly comfortable in the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Also, his version of Peter Parker enjoys being Spider-Man more than did Tobey McGuire’s. The Spidey angst here is more about his relationship with Gwen.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 pivots back and forth between Peter’s romance with Gwen (Emma Stone) and Spider-Man’s efforts to save the world from evil. Will the couple stay apart? Can they resist the attraction? And will Spider-Man be able to contain bad guys who bring new terror to the screen?

As usual, something catastrophic happens to turn a normal person into a creature bent on doing bad things. This time it’s nerdy Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) who, thanks to powerful electrical current, becomes Electro.

Honestly, I didn’t care for Electro as a villain. His powers seemed poorly defined though almost limitless. Jamie Foxx, as usual, is great but the character lacks qualities that would make him more memorable.

Harry Osborn (Dean DeHaan) is heir to the Oscorp organization and is about to segue into his Green Goblin identity. Like Foxx, DeHaan is a talented actor. But the evolution of the Green Goblin is less than satisfying.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 launches with Spider-Man trying to rein in a terrorist in a truck, Aleksei (Paul Giamatti), while also trying to make his way to a graduation ceremony where Gwen will be speaking. Giamatti’s character looks and acts like a refugee from The Road Warrior and the role fails to take advantage of Giamatti’s acting prowess.

Sally Field returns as Aunt May and, although she’s still pretty at age 67, in one shot her neck looks just awful. (Pardon my being catty.)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has action galore. The sequences with Spidey using his web spinning to move rapidly through a cityscape are, to me, more enjoyable than the scenes showing Spider-Man trying to neutralize the villains.

Director Mark Webb delivers one of my favorite shots of the year in this film. It shows Gwen falling, in very slow motion. The contrast from the high energy pace of the rest of the movie is stark.

This is not a must-see film unless you feel a personal need to catch all the tent-pole movies this spring-summer in order to keep tabs on the super heroes. TAS-M2 delivers all the movie stuff that goes well with popcorn, and it entertains, but it has shortcomings that cause it to fall short of greatness.