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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Emperor

Emperor gives Matthew Fox of TV’s Lost fame a lead movie role alongside heavyweight actor Tommy Lee Jones. Happily, Fox is up to the task in a movie that examines Japanese culture and American attitudes toward postwar Japan.

Emperor is a dramatization of real life events following the Japanese surrender. The title character is Hirohito and the story revolves around whether the victorious US should hang him for war crimes.

General Douglas MacArthur (played by Jones) orders General Bonner Fellers (played by Fox) to investigate and determine whether the emperor sanctioned the attack at Pearl Harbor or was not involved in decisions made by the country’s political leaders.

Adding an element of interest to the story is Fellers’ old flame, a Japanese woman named Aya (played by Eriko Hatsune) who was an exchange student as his college. When he was stationed in the Philippines in the months before the war, Fellers visited the woman in Japan and fell more deeply in love with her and the country. She is introduced via flashbacks. Fellers has hopes of finding her alive, despite the devastation brought on by US bombing attacks.

Emperor demonstrates a strong respect for Japanese people and shows the devotion the nation’s citizens had for the emperor in 1945. Some of the Japanese characters also acknowledge that they committed barbaric acts during the war. The film presents occupying American military personnel, led by MacArthur, as people intent on helping Japan climb out of the rubble. But first, there are wrongs to be righted.

Upon setting up in Tokyo, the Americans quickly make simultaneous surprise raids on the homes of 29 suspected war criminals. 26 are detained; the others commit suicide. Then after some intense detective work comes Fellers’ report of Hirohito, which leads to a surprising action by MacArthur.

Director Peter Webber does an efficient job of retelling a little-remembered chapter from 20th century history. The characters and the story are interesting and compelling. Emperor is an entertaining, well-made, occasionally emotional, movie for grownups.

My Top Ten Movies for 2012

  1. The Dark Knight Rises—The story, the soundtrack, the villains, the heroes, the emotion. TDKR is satisfyingly stunning on so many levels.
  2. Argo—An amazing true story (with Hollywood embellishment) that fires up our American pride, from a period when our country was humbled. Efficient storytelling at its best.
  3. Silver Linings Playbook—An adult son with a mental illness moves back in with his sixty-something parents, following his court-ordered hospitalization. It’s funny and heartbreaking, often within the same scene.
  4. Moonrise Kingdom—From the wild imagination of Wes Anderson comes a story of very young love. Luckily for him (and for us), the two rookie actors who star in the key roles are fantastic.
  5. Django Unchained—Quentin Tarantino rewrites history again with a visit to the antebellum South where he fearlessly takes on the topic of slavery. Inspired performances from an impressive cast take this over-the-top story to spectacular heights.
  6. The Hobbit—This fantasy has a perfect mix of humor and peril. Martin Freeman brings a proper bemusement to Bilbo. The 48 frames per second technology takes cinema to a new level.
  7. The Hunger Games—The novelist’s compelling story is brought to life by a talented filmmaker and an excellent cast. Much of our modern culture is reflected in the film’s characters and events.
  8. Skyfall—The best and most memorable Bond movie in years, if not decades. To breathe this much new life into a 50-year-old franchise is an impressive feat. A toast (martini, of course) to all involved.
  9. Life of Pi—One of the most gorgeous films ever made. The story is good, but the images will endure. To borrow a cliché, this movie truly is “a feast for the eyes.”
  10. Hope Springs—One of the many good movies for older audiences in 2012.  A couple played by two of our best actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, visit a counselor who helps them communicate again. After a four-year sex drought, their clumsy efforts to reconnect are funny and poignant.

My Top Ten Movies for 2012 list does not include those that will not be released in St. Louis before year’s end, such as Zero Dark Thirty or Amour. And, while Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln was one of the year’s best acting performances, the movie itself was flawed: too long, too ponderous and too theatrical.

Lincoln

The problems with “Lincoln” include a bad script, a slow pace and a dark, almost monochromatic look. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe, though, is terrific!

Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, is known primarily as a writer of stage plays. This script is like those written for certain 1930’s movies, which were little more than filmed plays. Too many long, ponderous speeches give “Lincoln” a stale formality that belies the urgency of the situation. Sadly, Kushner’s script sets the film medium back a few decades.

This film moves very slowly. Do not attempt to watch “Lincoln” after having dinner and a couple of drinks. I’m serious. You’ll nod off.

The lack of color is almost distracting. Yes, the story is set in the winter of 1865 and indoor lighting was primitive then, but please, Steven Spielberg, don’t make it so drab.

The reason to see “Lincoln” is to witness another killer performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. He inhabits the role with a surprisingly gentle touch. Unlike the big, boisterous characters DDL played in “There Will Be Blood” and “Gangs of New York,” his Lincoln is subdued. We see him pounding a table in the movie’s trailer, but that’s not the Lincoln we see during the vast majority of the movie.

The film’s story centers on Lincoln’s efforts to get the 13th amendment passed and put an end to slavery. He knows that the war is likely to end soon. He plays politics and cuts deals to persuade members of Congress to pass it before hostilities end.

Supporting cast includes Sally Field as wife Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as son Robert, Hal Holbrook as a liaison between warring parties, Tommy Lee Jones as congressman Thaddeus Stevens and a chubby James Spader as political operative.

Director Steven Spielberg has made a flawed movie, which, nonetheless, will be shown in high school history classes for decades to come. Despite the shortcomings of “Lincoln,” the movie, we get a good impression of Lincoln, the man. Instead of thinking of him as the stoic figure on our money and in portraits and statues, we can now think of him as a living, breathing man. That is “Lincoln’s” saving grace.

 

 

Hope Springs

This is a movie for older grownups. The advance screening was sponsored by AARP. Stars Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are on the cover of the August AARP magazine.

Can someone under 50 relate to a married couple that hasn’t had sex in over four years? I’m not sure whether many married couples OVER 50 can relate to such celibacy. But that issue is part of the problem that sets the plot of “Hope Springs” in motion.

Meryl is Kay. Tommy Lee is Arnold. They are a middle-class couple from Omaha who have been married 31 years. She picks up a self-help book by a marriage counselor and drags Arnold along to a small town in Maine called “Great Hope Springs” for a week-long session with the author. The counselor is Steve Carrell in a (mostly) non-comedic role.

“Hope Springs” is funny and poignant. The highlights of the film are Tommy Lee Jones’ hilarious facial expressions and a classic scene in a movie house, which I will not spoil by revealing details.

Of course, Meryl Streep’s acting skill is a given. Since she is playing an ordinary housewife, it may seem that she’s not working as hard as, say, when she’s playing Maggie Thatcher or Julia Child. No matter how hard she may or may not be working, her screen presence shows why she’s one of the giants of acting.

The TV spots make “Hope Springs” look like a laugh fest and, while there are some good yuks, this is a movie that reveals the problems many couples (of all ages) have communicating. While the four-year whoopie drought may seem extreme to many of us, there are issues in Kay and Arnold’s marriage that all long-married couples can identify with.

“Hope Springs” is rated PG-13 but addresses sexual issues that may make certain audience members squirm, just like they make Kay and Arnold squirm.

“Hope Springs” is not just for the over 50 crowd, but if you are beyond that milestone—especially if you’ve been married a few decades—this one’s for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Men in Black 3

If you were to be flashed with a neuralizer and made to forget the first two MIB movies, you’d love MIB 3. But compared to the other two, this action comedy lacks just a bit of the magic.

Have we missed you, Will Smith? Yes. After being MIA for over three years, he is back on the big screen, bringing all the charisma that has made him a star. He’s funny and has attitude.

The movie’s plot involves time travel back to 1969 and gives us Josh Brolin as the younger, less jaded, version of Tommy Lee Jones’ character, K. (Did Jones loop some of Brolin’s dialogue? Because the vocal timbre and inflections are dead on.)

The 60’s flashback is fun and, interestingly, addresses racial behaviors that were quite different from those of today. Will Smith’s character J is pulled over by NYC cops who wonder why a black man would be wearing such a nice suit and driving a luxury convertible.

Also, interestingly, MIB 3 reprises the shot in the first MIB that had St. Louis native Bernard Gilkey, then a Met, getting hit in the head with a fly ball. In MIB 3, the shot of an outfielder getting plunked signals the mid-season ’69 Mets ineptitude that somehow transitioned to a World Series title in October.

J and K face off against evil alien Boris the Animal (who always reminds them that his name is now “just Boris”) at Cape Kennedy where Apollo astronauts are about to be launched for the moon. The battle atop the missile support beams is an impressive sequence—within a notch of two of Cruise’s Dubai scenes in MI 4.

As in the two previous MIB’s, the aliens are the result of some clever imaginations, creative costumers and hard-working special effects crews.

Is MIB 3 satisfying? Yes. Will it blow you away? No. Following the first two MIB’s and, especially in the wake of the effects-laden “The Avengers,” MIB 3 may need good WOM to become a major hit. (That’s word of mouth.) The popularity of Will Smith and the two earlier MIB’s will fill theaters this first weekend. Stay tuned to see what happens beyond May.