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.

 

 

 

 

Yesterday

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Sweet, cute and funny. That’s a quick description of Yesterday, the new film from director Danny Boyle.

You’ve seen people like Jack Malik (Himesh Patel). Strumming a guitar and singing in the corner of a bar or restaurant. Not awful but also not great. Being ignored by most patrons except a handful of friends.

Jack has a day gig in a warehouse in the UK and is ready to give up on his musical ambitions. Encouragement keeps coming from his manager and biggest fan Ellie (Lily James). But then something outrageous happens that causes the entire world to erase all memory of the Beatles and their music.

Except Jack. He remembers. And his handling of this exclusive knowledge drives Yesterday’s narrative. I advise you to buy into the fantasy and not question certain plot points. You’ll like (and maybe even love) Yesterday more if you play along.

When Jack performs Beatles songs as his own compositions, people are impressed by these classic tunes. Because they are new to them. He’s stunned when Ed Sheeran (as himself) knocks on his door to draft Jack into his musical realm.

Jack enjoys the fruits of worldwide success but knows that he is a fraud. He likes the acclaim but is conflicted with guilt feelings. Meanwhile, Ellie, who is left behind when Jack goes abroad, keeps appearing on the edges of Jack’s orbit.

Will Jack’s fake songwriting ability be uncovered? Will Jack and Ellie become a couple? Will music biz manager Debra (Kate McKinnon in a hilarious role) ever let up the gas on her hard-nosed attitude?

Director Boyle, whose resumé includes Trainspotting, The Beach and 127 Hours along with Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire, delivers a movie that is consistently visually interesting—at times to advance the story and at other times to keep his audience involved. Musical performances in film can sometimes be tedious; in Yesterday they all look good.

The script is by Richard Curtis who has also has an impressive curriculum vitae. Films he’s written include Notting Hill, Bridget Jone’s Diary, War Horse and Love, Actually. Yesterday is a movie that’s funny but not annoyingly so. The romcom angle may be subtle to some viewers but will be plainly obvious to those looking for it.

A must-see? Maybe not. But this fun, light story—featuring some of the best pop music of our lifetimes—will make you happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome To Marwen

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Welcome To Marwen is weird. The film’s first trailers hinted at an Oscar push for Steve Carell who portrays a man damaged in many ways by a savage gang beating. The trailers also showed a tiny village the character has created where he depicts scenarios using dolls, including one that looks like him.

The story of the challenges Mark Hogancamp (Carell) faces after the attack dials up audience pity as he flashes back to the encounter with local rednecks. His mental state is fragile but Carell never goes “full retard,” to use the non-PC term coined by character Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) in the 2008 film Tropic Thunder.

The weirdness comes in those scenarios with the dolls and their depictions in the film as animated narrative episodes in which his attackers become Nazi soldiers. In many of the episodes, several of the women in his life become a gang of voluptuous babes who come to his defense.

On one hand, the dolls provide subject matter for Hogancamp’s artistic photos, which he manages to get booked for a show at an art gallery. On the other hand, they fuel his nightmarish replays of the attack as well as other fantasies. One imagined scenario involves new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann) who spurns his romantic intentions.

It’s an ambitious attempt to bring to the screen the mental goings on of this troubled man whose recovery appears doubtful. But it is too much. The doll scenarios occupy huge chunks of screen time and many are redundant. The fantasy world becomes tiresome.

The women, seen as dolls as well as real people, include Gwendoline Christie, Meritt Wever, upcoming R & B singer Janelle Monae, Eiza Gonzalez and Leslie Zemeckis, wife of the film’s director Robert Zemeckis. (Diane Kruger appears only as a doll.)

But… does Carell stand a chance at getting awards love? His performance is good in a flawed film. Carryover from his work in the film Vice and the general good will he seems to convey in real life may go along with Welcome To Marwen to get his name in the mix. Playing a damaged individual is often the path to an acting nomination. As long as one does not go “full retard.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody

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The musical performances in Bohemian Rhapsody are brilliant. Exciting. Thrilling. The biopic that surrounds the music is okay but not as special as trailers might have suggested.

Freddie Mercury’s (Rami Malek) story follows that familiar showbiz path: obscurity, success, excess, debauchery, downfall and, finally, redemption. Whether it’s vital that an actor resemble the real-life person he/she is portraying can be debated, but Malek does look like Mercury, especially with the moustache.

But his prosthetic teeth eventually become distracting, almost like the ones Mike Myers wore in the Austin Powers movies.

Speaking of Myers, he plays a record exec who snubs the song Bohemian Rhapsody because of its length. Interestingly, the song is not performed in its entirety in the movie. Too long, maybe? (Snippets are heard.) The depiction of the recording of the song is one of the film’s highlights.

Myers’ casting appears to be payback for his giving the song new life in the 90s by using it in Wayne’s World.

I like Queen. I played their music on radio. I appreciated that they delivered a variety of sounds and styles in their tunes. The song Bohemian Rhapsody stands tall among the mostly tired and overplayed music genre known as “classic rock.”

Hardcore Queen fans will find much to like here. Boomers and Gen-Xers who thrived on Queen’s music will enjoy the nostalgia and may pick up unknown or unremembered tidbits about the band’s time in the sun. Millenials and Gen-Zers who adore Malek in Mr. Robot will want to check him out in this role.

With all those constituencies already titillated by the preview trailers, Bohemian Rhapsody should be a gorilla at the box office. Enjoy the music!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Man

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Old Man And The Gun

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The Old Man And The Gun has all those classic indy film elements: quirky characters, quirky plot, a few slow periods where little happens, a mediocre song and a general low budget look.

But this one also has Robert Redford! He may have lost some speed on his fastball, but he still cuts an impressive figure on a movie screen. And he is fun to watch in this one. (Redford just turned 82 in August, FYI.)

Forrest Tucker (Redford) was a real life bank robber. (Not to be confused with the “F Troop” actor.) For Tucker, robbing banks is a bit of a sport. He’s polite to bank staff (and to the authorities who arrest him), not like the fearsome trigger-happy criminals often seen in films and on TV.

As he flees the film’s opening heist, Tucker stops to help a woman whose truck is broken down on the side of the road. He invites her to join him for a bite. So begins his relationship with Jewel (Sissy Spacek). She is charmed and they begin to get together often for apparently non-carnal reasons.

Casey Affleck mumbles his way through his role as Dallas police detective John Hunt. After the feds take over the pursuit of Tucker, Hunt sniffs out Tucker’s backstory, which features a life of crime and incarceration. Also in the cast are Tucker’s sometime accomplices played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits.

For a movie about a bank robber, with car chases and other tense situations, The Old Man And The Gun is relatively light entertainment. Redford’s smiles and chuckles play a big part in softening the feel of the film.

David Lowery is the movie’s writer/director. He did an interesting crime drama I enjoyed (also featuring Affleck’s mumbles) in 2013 with the puzzling title Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Supposedly this is to be Redford’s last movie. But, as with many music acts who’ve had farewell tours and then later reappeared on stage, there’s a Bond title that applies here: Never Say Never Again. Whether he returns to the screen again or doesn’t, it’s good to have one of one of filmdom’s greats back in a starring role right now.

 

Battle Of The Sexes

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In 1973, Billie Jean King faced off against Bobby Riggs in a tennis match in Houston’s Astrodome. King was near the top of her game. Riggs was over the hill but still playing. The film story of their match (and events leading up to it) is a drama/comedy with a huge splash of 70’s nostalgia.

The main reason to see Battle of the Sexes is Steve Carell’s performance as Bobby Riggs. He’s hilarious but also a bit pitiful and tragic.

Emma Stone is strong as King, fighting hard to get attention for women’s tennis while resetting her sexual identity.

Battle of the Sexes is being sold as a movie about the tennis match and the boost the contest gave to women’s sports. Which it is.

But it is also King’s coming out story, which is not a prominent part of the film’s trailers and other marketing. Is Hollywood afraid to promote that aspect of the film? Brokeback Mountain was twelve years ago.

Husband/wife director duo Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris neatly weave audio and video from the actual ABC broadcast of the event with the hyperbolic commentary of Howard Cosell. The clothing and hairstyles of the era—and the presence of cigarettes—are accurately recreated by the movie’s design crews.

The film’s supporting cast includes: Andrea Riseborough as BJK’s partner Marilyn Barnett. Jessica McNamee as nasty King rival Margaret Court. Fred Armisen as Riggs’s supplier of vitamins and supplements. Sarah Silverman as a chainsmoking womens tennis promoter. Elizabeth Shue as Riggs wife. And Bill Pullman as former tennis great Jack Kramer.

Battle of the Sexes is not a typical melodramatic sports movie a la Rocky, Rudy, etc. There’s melodrama, yes, but also a good dose of fun, mainly from Carell.

Could any of today’s top female tennis players beat one of today’s top men’s players? Hard to say, but it’s doubtful. Maybe one could score a win against an old guy. Would America tune in to watch Serena versus McEnroe? Would you? Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Logan Lucky

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If you could stand a bit of fun escapism right about now, here’s Steven Soderbergh to the rescue!

Logan Lucky is like his films Ocean’s Eleven (and Twelve and Thirteen), but different. Danny Ocean’s caper crews were slick and smart. The Logan brothers and their co-conspirators are West Virginia rednecks who do not appear to be all that bright.

The Logans are definitely not lucky. Jimmy (Channing Tatum) suffered a football injury back in the day and his resulting limp gets him fired from a construction job at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (“Liability” issues he’s told.) His brother Clyde (Adam Driver) lost half his left arm in Mideast fighting and tends bar.

Together they devise a scheme to steal a huge amount of money from the NASCAR track during the Memorial Day weekend race.

The caper is crafty, but the characters and cast members who populate those roles are the real charm here. Like Max Chilblain (Sean MacFarlane), a wealthy, obnoxious, egomaniacal NASCAR sponsor. Prison warden Burns (Dwight Yoakam) is the type of administrator who doesn’t like to acknowledge problems. There’s Jimmy’s ex (Katie Holmes) who has remarried rich and shares custody of their daughter. Also in the cast are Hillary Swank, Katherine Waterston and Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough.

But the big casting story is Daniel Craig with bleached hair as explosives expert Joe Bang. When recruited for the job, he points out to the Logans that he is “in-car-cer-ated.” But the Logans have a workaround for that small problem. The usually taciturn Craig appears to enjoy letting loose in the role.

Logan Lucky is full of fun and funny surprises, which I won’t ruin here. As with his Ocean’s flicks, director Soderbergh keeps the action moving fast which lets certain less plausible plot elements zip quickly by. The end result is a satisfying two-hour break from real life, something many of us are in great need of.

 

 

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

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A pleasant mix of whimsy and peril, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them takes elements from the Harry Potter saga and places them in a new setting with new characters. This latest movie from the mind of J.K. Rowling—she wrote and co-produced the film—has a mostly adult cast and is set on our side of the Atlantic in the mid 1920s.

You don’t have to be familiar with the Potter universe to enjoy FBAWTFT, although it has numerous references to Potter people and things. The film introduces a new character, briefly glimpsed in a Johnny Depp cameo, who will surely provide darkness and evil in Beasts’ sequels. (Four more movies are planned.)

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a British wizard who arrives by ship in New York. In a classic switcheroo, his magical suitcase full of beasts gets mixed up with that of aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Newt also meets fellow wizards Tina (Katherine Waterston) and her roommate Queenie (Alison Sudol). A hat tip to Dan Fogler as Jacob—It’s a role that could’ve seen him go full Oliver Hardy but he keeps it in check.

Tina is not highly regarded by the U.S. wizards organization, led by Seraphina (Carmen Ejogo) and enforcer Graves (Colin Ferrell). The wizarding group keeps a close eye on Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) who has a group of adopted children and preaches against witches and wizards. One of her flock is Credence (Ezra Miller), a troubled young man with dark secret and an awful haircut.

FBAWTFT has a bit of sexual tension bubbling under between Newt and Tina and especially between Jacob and Queenie, given Queenie’s mindreading ability. But everything is squeaky PG-13 clean.

The beasts? Yes, they are fantastic. Many are derivative, possessing the look of certain prehistoric bird/reptile creatures, as well as other beings witnessed previously in sci-fi movies. My favorite wizard world freaks are those seen in the speakeasy scene where a diminuitive bartender serves Jacob a drink called giggle water. He drinks it and he giggles.

Will Fantastic Beasts satisfy Potter fans now that that tale has concluded? Most likely yes, but it’s a different flavor of wizardry and magic. Like the Potter films, Beasts’ pace is breakneck, heavy with plot and characters. But Newt and crew lack the pure charm Harry and his gang possessed. A different flavor, to be sure, but tasty enough to succeed.