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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Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

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Quentin Tarantino delivers one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen in a long time with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Speaking of long times, the film runs 2:45 but is worth almost every minute of it.

SPOILER ALERT! There are NO SPOILERS in this review. But beware of social media content, word-of-mouth and even unscrupulous reviewers who might tell too much about this buzzworthy movie.

Los Angeles, 1969. Or, as iconic radio station 93/KHJ calls it, Boss Angeles. The city looks great as classic cars tuned to AM radios playing classic pop tunes drive down boulevards with theater marquees touting late-60s movies.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a TV/movie star whose career is at a turning point. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his stuntman and buddy. Leo is terrific. Brad is also at his charming best. Both actors benefit from being gifted with great roles and story lines from QT.

Dalton has a gorgeous home in the hills above Benedict Canyon. Booth lives in a trailer in the valley. The home just above Dalton’s is rented by Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).

In February 1969, Hollywood dealmaker Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) suggests to Dalton that he go to Italy and make movies there that could reignite his fading star. He does. The film then skips ahead to August 1969 when Dalton returns to LA for the film’s climax.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood contains scene after scene that bring true movie fan pleasure. Cliff’s fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Rick’s conversation with child actor Trudi (Julia Butters). Sharon’s watching herself on screen with a movie house audience. The clips from Rick’s TV show Bounty Law and his movies. A party at the Playboy Mansion where Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) explains the relationship between Tate, Polanski and Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).

Other performances in the film that merit mention: Kurt Russell as stuntman Randy (he’s also the film’s narrator), Margaret Qualley as hippie chick and Manson family member Pussycat, Nicholas Hammond as Sam Wanamaker and Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme.

Gotta love the soundtrack! Treat Her Right by Roy Head, Good Thing by Paul Revere and the Raiders, Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show by Neil Diamond, Snoopy Versus The Red Baron by the Royal Guardsmen, Hush by Deep Purple, Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man by Bob Seger, among many others.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is an absolute treat that should not be missed. Thank you, QT. Thank you, Leo.

The Lion King

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Cute cubs and cool tech. That’s what’s most impressive about the new version of The Lion King. And the voice work, particularly Seth Rogen and John Oliver.

The Lion King has been a gold mine for Disney. The original film in 1994 was that year’s 2nd biggest film behind Forrest Gump and the stage productions on Broadway and elsewhere have run for decades will still be performed when you and I are long gone.

So don’t ask why this new version was made. It was made because computer animators are ridiculously adept with natural-looking renderings. It was made because director Jon Favreau and crew did such a good job with 2016’s The Jungle Book remake. And it was made to allow a more contemporary cast of voices.

The 1994 version remains a classic. But the new telling of the same story provides a fresh take for fans of the original with new versions of The Lion King’s classic songs. For a new generation, this is their version.

The appearances and the movements of all the animals are stunningly realistic. At some points, this film resembles a Disney nature film. The baby lions Simba and Nala are cuter than your own cute kitty at her/his cutest. If they sold plush toys at the theater, you’d want to get one on your way out.

Regarding the voices: I missed Robert Guillaume’s wonderful work as Rafiki the mandrill from the original and Jeremy Irons’s menacing voice as Scar. Other than those characters, the new voice acting crew is does a nice job.

Donald Glover and Beyonce Knowles-Carter are the voices of the mature Simba and Nala. John Oliver is Zazu, a bird. (If you watch his Sunday night HBO show, it’s weird to hear him without an occasional F-bomb.) Seth Rogen is Pumba the warthog. Billy Eichner as Timon the meerkat is just a strong as Nathan Lane was in the ’94 TLK. Hakuna Matata, indeed.

The great James Earl Jones is Mufasa in both versions. Couldn’t find anybody to replace him!

If the first version hadn’t been made in 1994, would this new version have the impact in 2019 that the original had? I think probably not. But that’s a discussion you can have in the car on the way home from the movie.

Then have it again in 20 years when the hologram version is presented in your family room with a whole new cast of voice actors. The Lion King, you see, has its own Circle Of Life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toy Story 4

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“Tell me a story.” Mission accomplished again by Pixar. Toy Story 4 shows that you can go to the sequel well over and over if you keep delivering compelling stories.

Oh, and it helps to have characters who are, by now, not just familiar but also beloved. Cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) gets the main spotlight in TS4. He’s one of many toys in the closet of young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) and he is NOT one of her favorites. But he’s the one who is most concerned about Bonnie’s ability to cope with the pressures of kindergarten orientation.

A handmade toy that Bonnie assembles from a plastic spork and a pipe cleaner becomes her primary concern. “Forky” (Tony Hale) becomes a member of Bonnie’s toy menagerie but he has little self-respect. Woody steps in to help him focus.

Bonnie’s family takes an RV trip to a town with an antique store. The store and its wares provide an intriguing setting for toy adventures.

Woody reconnects with Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and meets new characters Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reaves). The latter two are inspired by Mattel’s Chatty Cathy and the Evel Knievel motorcycle toy that never performed quite as well in real life as on the TV spot.

Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) keeps showing up and continues to push a button on his chest that generates a recorded soundbite. He considers this his “inner voice” and takes guidance from those brief gems.

Among the film’s most entertaining voice actors are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as a pair of stuffed animals who escape from a carnival game prize wall.

Toy Story 4 is filled with delight and fun surprises from beginning to end. There are a couple of scary situations but the peril is less intense than that seen in Toy Story 3.

Pixar’s animation and tech skills have been a given for a quarter century. Other studios have also turned out impressive images and effects. But it is Pixar’s storytelling ability makes most of their films special.

Toy Story 4 is yet another Pixar winner.

(Note: In a change from the usual Pixar format, there is no animated short running before TS4.)

 

The Dead Don’t Die

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What a disappointment! What a waste of talent!

It is true that The Dead Don’t Die actually was the opening film of the 2019 Cannes Festival last month. It still stinks.

Who’s to blame? Jim Jarmusch. He wrote the script. He directed. He’s the guy responsible of the slow pace of the film’s feeble story. He’s the guy who is stingy with the funny stuff. For a “zombie comedy,” the laughs are scarce.

The cast includes people you know and like. Bill Murray is a police chief in the typical American small town of Centerville. Adam Driver is his partner. Chloe Sevigny is also on the force. Tilda Swinton is the new undertaker in town. Tom Waits is a local hermit. Also in the cast: Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, among other familiar faces.

The set-up: The world is in a minor panic after fracking messes with the earth’s rotation. This triggers, among other events, a return to the above ground world by the previously dead at the Centerville cemetery. It’s a decent framework for comedy storytelling but it never gets traction.

Sturgill Simpson’s theme song is played several times in the film. His song is okay but the running gag is weak.

Look, I’m sure people worked hard to make this movie. I respect their efforts. But The Dead Don’t Die is one you should wait for and watch via streaming or cable. Not worth the price of a ticket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penguins

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Penguins are my favorite non-human animal. I never get tired of watching penguins. So, yes, I love this movie. I would love Penguins even if it sucked but, happily, it does not suck.

Disney has, for decades, told animal stories by constructing narratives around the filmed actions of nature’s creatures. This storytelling involves giving certain animals names and relating some of their actions to human behavior. This format was a staple of the old Disney TV shows and now is reprised in Disneynature films.

In Penguins, the central figure is a penguin named Steve. He migrates across Antarctica to breeding grounds where he builds a nest out of rocks and finds a female partner named Adeline. They incubate eggs, birth chicks, feed the youngsters and introduce them to the world and its dangers.

Penguins is filled with glorious shots of penguins on land, on ice and in the water. The way they pop up out of water always tickles me whether I see it at Sea World, the St. Louis Zoo or in this film. Their almost circular leaps as they move through water (similar to those of dolphins) are also fascinating and something not observed when they are in captivity.

Ed Helms of The Office and The Hangover movies is the film’s narrator. Along with his straight reading of the script he provides several ad-libbed reaction sounds to on-screen events.

How did the filmmakers get so close to obtain this footage? Action shots of the crew run alongside the movie’s closing credits, showing the men and women and their equipment as they record the activities of the penguins and their predators.

Like many of the best movies for young kids, Penguins has a short run time: just under 80 minutes. It is a film that makes me happy.

Now if Disneynature would just make a film about my second favorite non-human animal, manatees, I would be even happier.

 

 

Pet Sematary

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That delicious discomfort that drives us to watch scary movies! Hey, it’s a Stephen King story. Which means Pet Sematary has plenty of creepy elements to make an audience tingle with uneasiness.

Weird noises. Flickering lights. Doors that shouldn’t be opened but are opened anyway. Haunting flashbacks. A gory injury. A mysterious neighbor. And the discovery that a new home is nearby to a pet cemetery with a misspelled sign.

As with the recent film Us, a family unit of mom, dad, daughter and son pulls into a new house where all seems idyllic. Also, as in Us, the mom has dark memories of a frightening episode of her life.

Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) are parents to Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Louie Lavoie). The crusty neighbor is Jud (John Lithgow).

The new home is on the edge of the woods, on the edge of a small town in Maine. In short order, Ellie takes a walk into the woods to check out the pet cemetery and the strange wall of tree branches where she has her first encounter with Jud.

When the family’s cat dies, Jud leads Louis to a burial ground beyond that wall. The cat’s interment sets off the events that lead to some grisly outcomes.

Does Pet Sematary break new ground in filmmaking? No. But co-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer have constructed an entertaining 100 or so minutes of scary, suspenseful storytelling. And it’s always fun to see John Lithgow onscreen.

Don’t expect a revelation. Or a classic. But the newest version of this Pet Sematary, sourced from Stephen King’s book, is good, creepy fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Us

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Weird things can happen on vacation. Many of us have stories we could tell.

None as weird though as the tale of the Wilsons, a typical American family on a typical getaway to a cabin in the woods. Their vacation is interrupted by an odd quartet of dead ringers for each of them, in red jumpsuits. These menacing dopplegangers unleash a night of terror and violence.

Writer/director Jordan Peele has crafted another winning film. Us is a suspense thriller with plot elements that will have you thinking and rethinking about the story well after you leave the theater.

Us has laughs as well. Nothing as gutbustingly funny as the best Key and Peele bits on Comedy Central, but enough to take a bit of the edge off at timely intervals.

The mom, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), has a backstory which is told in the film’s opening segment. Her memory of a scary time in a funhouse from childhood causes her to have qualms about going to Santa Cruz beach with the family. But her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) cajoles her and the kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) into a day at the shore.

At the beach, they hang with family friends the Tylers (Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker and Cali and Noelle Sheldon). The dads have a cordial visit, but Adelaide’s nervousness inhibits any meaningful mom talk with Mrs. Tyler. When Jason briefly disappears, Adelaide freaks out until he is found. Then when the Wilsons get home that the real horror begins.

Nyong’o is the key player among the talented cast. As Adelaide’s doppleganger, she is the only one among that crew who can speak coherently, although in an unpleasant, distorted voice.

The Us soundtrack features the haunting opening song “Anthem” from composer Michael Abels as well as several tunes by pop artists ranging from Janelle Monae to the Beach Boys.

Yes, the film’s title is the name of our country: U.S. And when asked “who are you” Adelaide’s doppelganger replies, “We’re Americans!” So you may impose whatever political message you wish. Or you can just choose to be entertained by a well-made film!

Interestingly, among those receiving special on-screen thanks at the end of the movie is Steven Spielberg. In a way, Us recalls stories Spielberg told in films like E.T. (director) and Poltergeist (story/script) of normal families facing extraordinary occurrences.

A recommendation: see this film sooner rather than later when spoilers are more likely to be freely shared online and in conversations with friends and family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They Shall Not Grow Old

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World War I is not exactly a forgotten war. But it has been eclipsed by WWII, Korea, Vietnam and recent Mideast action in popular U.S. memory. Even the long ago Civil War is more familiar to most Americans than WWI, thanks to Gone With The Wind, Ken Burns and recent statue controversies

They Shall Not Grow Old may elevate WWI’s profile just a bit. The film focuses on British troops from their enlistment through their return home from battle with the German enemy.

The technical achievements used to make archival film footage from a century ago appear realistic are impressive. But it is the faces and the voices of the young men who endure the horror of war that make this documentary a must-see.

Director Peter Jackson of Lord Of The Rings fame and his team have added color, speed correction and ambient sound to take the viewer into the trenches and onto the battlefield. The actual hand-to-hand combat is presented via illustrations, but the damages of battle—dead and injured soldiers—are impossible to miss.

Over a hundred men who fought in the war narrate the film. Their recollections, recorded in mid-century, are edited into brief soundbites to tell the story. Some of the British accents are harder to decipher than others. A captioned version of the film would be welcome.

They Shall Not Grow Old reveals the stereotype of bad teeth among Brits to have been a particularly acute problem back then. The few men shown wearing kilts and knee socks to the frontline seems odd. The pleasantries between British troops and some of the Germans they have captured are surprising.

“Man’s Inhumanity To Man” is timeless and unending. To see it up close and personal with real people, not actors, arouses multiple emotions. Among them, empathy for the young men in this film, as well as every other soldier who has seen combat action in every war.

Because of its graphic depictions, They Shall Not Grow Old is rated R.

 

 

 

 

Vice

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Bale. Christian Bale. He’s the reason to see Vice.

The chameleon/actor portrays former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, although Bale doesn’t really resemble the ex-veep, his transformation is pretty amazing. Not just Bale’s weight gain but also his accurate mimicry of Cheney’s speech patterns and Cheney’s penchant for talking out of the side of his mouth.

Cheney’s story as told in Vice is not a flattering one. Though not quite “gonzo journalism” a la Hunter S. Thompson, this “sort of” biopic has a lot of what David Letterman used to call “writer’s embellishment.” Yes, there is a framework of true facts here but parts of this narrative are bent to poke holes in Cheney’s legacy and deliver laughs. And, yes, Vice is funny!

Writer/director Adam McKay presents Cheney as a guy with little direction until his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) sets him straight. He’s a bit of a bumbling conniver when he gets to Washington and soon goes to work to establish his own sphere of influence.

(Cheney’s career included tenures as a White House Chief of Staff, a U.S. Representative, Secretary of Defense and Vice-President, so he must have demonstrated at least a modicum of competence.)

As with The Big Short, his previous comedy rooted in fact, McKay tries to simplify a complicated story that has many nooks and crannies. Should America blame Cheney for everything that has gone wrong with our nation’s involvement in Middle Eastern politics this century? McKay would have you believe that Cheney should shoulder much of the blame.

Admirably, Cheney is shown to be sympathetic and loving when his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out to her parents as gay. (Lynne is not so understanding.)

Other key players in the film include Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). They are sources of some of the funnier moments.

I called The Big Short a failure in my review of the film in 2015. Click HERE to read it. Like Vice it was wickedly funny but as an explainer for what happened to cause the financial crisis, it fell short. Vice, on the other hand, is focused and proceeds in a linear manner with few course changes. It tells its tale well, however with a liberal bent (which McKay acknowledges in a hilarious coda).

See it. Enjoy it. Don’t take it as gospel.