REVIEW: “Ad Astra”

AdPOSTER

What a time to be Brad Pitt. Not only has he delivered some of the year’s best supporting work in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, but now he headlines James Gray’s fascinating space adventure “Ad Astra”. Both performances could (and should) give the 55-year-old Pitt plenty to look forward to come Oscar night.

“Ad Astra” (which is a Latin phrase meaning ‘to the stars’) is Gray’s followup to his brilliant yet under-appreciated “The Lost City of Z”. It’s a cerebral slice of science fiction in the vein of modern space-related think pieces like “Interstellar”, “Gravity” and “Arrival”. Interestingly, each of those three films ended up being my favorite movies from their respected years. So clearly I’m a sucker for these types of stories when they are done well.

Ad1

Set in the near future, Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, a steely and intensely dedicated astronaut who lives by the mantra ‘The Mission Always Comes First‘. We learn early that his devotion to his work has earned him the respect of his peers but it has cost him his marriage (Liv Tyler portrays his wife in a handful of brief yet effective flashbacks). As a result Roy finds himself in a self-inflicted state of isolation and emotionally detachment.

Roy is the son of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a highly decorated astronaut famous for leading the first ever manned mission to the outskirts of our solar system. The expedition was called the Lima Project and Clifford’s objective was to answer the big question: Is there intelligent life outside of earth? But it has been sixteen years since the last communication with the Lima Project leading most to believe Clifford and his team are dead.

AD2

The film begins with a jaw-dropping introduction. Roy is working on a communication array high in our upper atmosphere when a massive pulse from deep space triggers a deadly electrical surge. On earth tens of thousands are killed and Space Command scrambles to find the source of the pulse. They trace it to Neptune, which happens to be the last known location of the Lima Project. Command calls in Roy informing him his father may be alive and causing the life-threatening surges. Roy agrees to a top secret mission to Mars where he will try to establish communications with his father. Externally its a matter of saving our solar system. Internally it’s a chance for Roy to reckon with the personal void left by his estranged father.

“Ad Astra” certainly isn’t the first movie to use space as an allegory for a variety of meditative themes. Here James Gray digs into the psyche of a fractured man wrestling with deeply compartmentalized emotions and space is the perfect setting for his expressions of emptiness and solitude. He’s a man full of mixed feelings. One minute he proudly states “I do what I do because of my dad.” But later, in one of his many internal monologues, we hear Roy lament the thought of becoming the very man who left him years ago. And as his ship ventures through the vast darkness of space, the troubling similarities between father and son shine bright.

AD3

There is a striking similarity between Roy’s mission and the hunt for Colonel Kurtz in Frances Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. Instead of snaking down a Vietnamese river in a patrol boat, Roy ventures through space in hopes of answering the film’s central mystery – What happened to his father? Is he alive? Did he go insane? Is he responsible for what is called “a crisis of unknown magnitude“? Of course with “Ad Astra” there is significantly more going on under the surface. The heart of Gray’s film is profoundly human. Its interests lie in exploring our most intimate human connections and showing what happens when those connections are broken. It’s a soulful meditation on the lasting effects of parental abandonment and the ache of loneliness can be felt in every frame.

Gray’s tightly focused, minimalist approach is sure to surprise (or disappoint) those looking for more traditional science fiction. He tells his story with an indie film intimacy but that doesn’t mean we aren’t given bursts of deep space tension and plenty of exquisite images. We’ve witnessed cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s brilliance in movies like “Dunkirk” and “Interstellar”. Here he dazzles through his audacious uses of light, color and physics. His penetrating close-ups are just as compelling, never losing sight of the human element.

AD4

Without question Pitt’s performance is the heart and soul of “Ad Astra”. It’s brilliantly understated; quiet and restrained with the perfect amount of pathos. Pitt imbues Roy with a delicate stoicism and it’s amazing how much he can say through his weary, melancholic eyes. And despite his character’s confident and controlled facade, Pitt’s haunting portrayal captures a fragility that’s essential to Roy’s journey.

In such a franchise-soaked landscape it’s no surprise “Ad Astra” didn’t blow up the box office (It debuted alongside a Downton Abby film and the fifth Rambo installment). Plus it’s a James Gray movie which means it doesn’t pander to common conventions or popular expectations. And that’s what I love about this film. It’s uniquely its own thing and Gray isn’t afraid to challenge us to think and feel. It’s a technical marvel that’s rich with evocative visuals. It’s a tender rumination on the immeasurable value of our closest human relationships. It’s an inspirational call to introspection, forgiveness, and individuality. And that just scratches the thematic surface of this magnificent and unforgettable sci-fi experience.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5star

REVIEW: “Angel Has Fallen”

ANGELposter

Ever heard of the phrase ‘a glutton for punishment’? Of course you have. But just in case, Oxford defines it as “a person who is always eager to undertake hard or unpleasant tasks“. Tasks like, I don’t know, watching Gerard Butler movies? By that definition I’m a walking example of ‘a glutton for punishment’.

I really can’t blame anyone but myself. It’s not like Butler doesn’t have a pretty telling track record. But I have this twisted fascination with his movie career which is marked by a bevy of stinkers and the extremely rare gem. And in case you’re wondering if his latest “Angel Has Fallen” is one of the gems…I wouldn’t go that far.

ANGEL1

This is the third film in Butler’s Has Fallen series (for lack of a better title). It sees him reprising his role of Secret Service Superman Mike Banning. To be honest I had fun with the first film “Olympus Has Fallen”. It was a silly, fun throwback to the meat-headed action movies of the early 90’s. “London Has Fallen” failed miserably at capturing what made the first film entertaining. “Angel” falls somewhere in the middle.

Stuntman turned director Ric Roman Waugh helms this sequel that essentially follows the same blueprint as the previous films. Mike Banning is recommended by President Alan Trumball (Morgan Freeman) to replace the retiring Secret Service Director (played by the always fun Lance Reddick). But as the series has shown us, the job can take a pretty big toll and Banning’s body and psyche is letting him know it. Hilariously this seemingly important story-thread vanishes once the action kicks in.

While out on a country fishing trip, an assassination attempt is carried out with a swarm of high-tech drones. Banning barely saves the President’s life but everyone else including his Secret Service team are killed. The two lone survivors are taken back to Washington where the President is comatose and Banning finds himself framed for the attack. It doesn’t take much investigating before a tunnel-visioned FBI Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith) puts Banning under arrest. So much for all of that ‘service to his country’ bull.

Of course like any good Gerry Butler movie, Mike doesn’t take it sitting down. He breaks out of custody and sets out to find who framed him and who wants the President dead. He has to seek the help of the last person he wants to see – his father Clay (Nick Nolte), a wooly, off-the-grid mountain hermit who (as you can probably guess) ran out on his family when Mike was a child. That is clearly the go-to offense for scorned fathers in movies. Nolte’s character adds a little levity but there is little new or fresh about him beyond that.

ANGEL2

As you should expect, “Angel Has Fallen” leans heavily on its action. Some of it is fairly exciting and well shot. Other times it can be pretty generic, even frustrating especially when the scene-killing shaky-cam kicks in. And it’s all built around a paper-thin plot full of logic-defying silliness and ridiculous conveniences that are just there to get the story from Point A to Point B. By the way, am I the only one who wants to scream when a character won’t say the most obvious and necessary thing simply because a storyline hinges on their silence?

So basically this is another film worthy of being in Gerry Butler’s filmography. But feeling like a silver-lining kind of guy, I will say this is a step up from most of Butler’s recent efforts. Nolte earns a few chuckles, I really liked Danny Huston as one of Banning’s old military buddies, and the action can sometimes muster up some thrills. But that’s about all. Silly plot contrivances and head-scratching character decisions end up standing out more than the action. And for a movie like this, that’s not a good thing.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Always Be My Maybe”

ALWAYSPOSTER

“Crazy Rich Asians” opened up a much-needed window into the Asian-American experience. It was also charming and surprisingly funnier that I expected. I was anxious to see what films would follow in its footsteps to broaden the field and offer up new perspectives.

One such film is “Always Be My Maybe”, a Netflix romantic comedy and directorial debut of Nahnatchka Khan. The film follows Sasha (Ali Wong) and Marcus (Randall Park) who as children grew up as best friends and next-door neighbors in San Francisco. An argument during their late teen years pushed them apart and (As many kids do) they went their separate ways.

ALWAYS1

Sixteen years later Sasha is a celebrity chef and rising star in the culinary world. She’s engaged to hunky but narcissistic Brandon (Daniel Dae Kim) and is about to open her new restaurant in the Bay Area. Marcus is still in San Francisco, content living with and working for his widowed father and spending his spare time smoking weed and playing with his neighborhood band.

Their lives have went in dramatically different directions, but when they unexpectedly cross paths again it’s clear that deep down they are still the same people who once had such a tight-knit bond. Now they will have to navigate through sixteen years of baggage and their own stubbornness to see if things can finally work out between them.

“Always Be My Maybe” stands or falls or the chemistry of its two leads. The entire story is dependent on it which is both good and bad. It’s good simply because Wong and Park are great together. Their conversations and needling banter flows naturally and (much like with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in The Before trilogy) you can sense their contributions to the writing process. But it’s bad in that many of the film’s weaker scenes are when they are apart.

You could also argue that the comedy itself is too uneven. Most of the time it’s simply amusing relying heavily on the playful back-and-forths between Sasha and Marcus. But when a certain red-hot entertainment phenomenon appears, the comedy takes a different form, moving from amusing to laugh-out-loud hilarious. Yes, Keanu Reeves pops up for a short time and unquestionably steals the show. And once he’s gone we downshift from hilarious back to amusing. Hardly a huge issue, but it sure leaves you itching for the Keanu-level humor to come back.

ALWAYS2

Several other nagging issues hold the film back. As most of these films tend to be, “ABMM” is utterly predictable almost from the start and you can see it checking off numerous socially hip boxes. We also get the outspoken best friend character which must be a modern rom-com necessity. Michelle Buteau gives a good performance and she has a handful of good lines, but it’s the same old character we’ve seen a billion times and who is only there to fill a role.

But back to Wong and Park. They may not be able to fully cover all of the movie’s issues, but they make “ABMM” worth your time. Their easy-going chemistry works great with the film’s relaxed rhythms. But that’s about all the movie has to offer. If you’re hungry for anything deeper or more original you’re probably not going to leave satisfied.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

 

 

 

REVIEW: “Ash is Purest White”

ASHposter

In Jia Zhangke’s three-chapter drama “Ash is Purest White” our focus is placed on a woman named Qiao (Tao Zhao). We observe as she navigates three very different phases of her life, all to a shifting Chinese landscape. It’s a cynical yet strikingly realistic portrayal of love, devotion, and the consequences that can come with them.

It’s hard not to be drawn in by Jia Zhangke’s intoxicating visual technique. Just as much story is told through the poetic gaze of his camera as through the film’s dialogue. This approach demands a capable, multifaceted central performance and we certainly get it from Tao Zhao. The sheer range of emotion and experience she brings is truly impressive. She crafts a character full of grit and determination, but also sensitive and mournful.

ASH2

The film begins in 2001 where Qiao lives a life of plenty with her boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan). He has considerable clout as a crime boss in Datong where local industry is succumbing to China’s sweeping economic change. Bin runs his crew by a strict code of ethics which demands respect and honor among thieves. But his rule hits a wall when he is beaten by a gang of young thugs. In a quick moment of sacrifice, Qiao saves Bin’s life but ends up in prison for her efforts.

From there Qiao’s journey makes two significant stops on Zhangke’s timeline. First in 2006 where she is released from prison and setting out to find Bin who she hasn’t heard from since being incarcerated. The final stop is present day where we find Qiao and Bin’s relationship taking on yet another drastically different form. Throughout her journey Qiao shows a quiet ferocity and unshakable ability to take care of herself. At the same time you see a growing melancholy as certain truths become clearer to her.

Again, you can’t help but notice the parallels between the film’s central relationship and the dramatic evolution of the country itself. China’s cultural and economic transitions play out mostly in the background but Zhangke’s camera has a way of making them a part of the story. They are broad changes with seemingly no regard for the people they leave behind. And there is an unmistakable harmony between them and what we see between Qiao and Bin.

ASH1

Whether his focus is on a love story or the criminal underworld, Zhangke’s storytelling has a hypnotic quality to it. With a few rare exceptions, his film features no dramatic highs or lows. It gets in no hurry and moves to its own slow and steady rhythm, perhaps too slow at times. But even as it wanders there is no shortage of captivating visuals or thoughtful character work to take in.

“Ash is Purest White” is full of empathy, longing, and a surprising amount of restraint considering the film’s gangster element and the eruptive metaphor within its title. It’s an auteur’s epic spotlighting a personal journey through a land of intense modernization. And the feeling it conveys through the camera and Tao Zhao’s performance is cinema in its purest form.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Art of Self-Defense”

DEFENSEposterBIG

Few things in our current social conversation are as en vogue as the term toxic masculinity. It’s everywhere with its broad meaning and even broader application. It’s something the new film “The Art of Self-Defense” seems obsessed with and you’ll have a hard time finding a review where it isn’t mentioned (I’m already guilty myself).

The trailers for writer-director Riley Stearns’ sophomore feature left me excited and completely onboard with its quirky, off-beat dark humor. We get glimpses of that but overall it’s hardly the absurdly funny comedy the trailer frames it as. It starts that way, but slowly (and I do mean slowly) spirals into some kind of weird Fight Club/Karate Kid hybrid.

DEFENSE1

Riley penned his script well before toxic masculinity dread became such a popular thing. Still it seems he is tapping into some of those anxieties which certain audiences are sure to be drawn to. But how serious can you take such intentionally over-the-top characterizations? And can you fully embrace it as effective satire when it’s all over the map narratively, tonally, you name it?

Whatever Stearns’ intent, one thing he does nail is the casting of Jesse Eisenberg. He’s the right guy to play Casey Davies, an ever-squeamish milquetoast trying to navigate through the rough and tough world of hyper-masculinity. He’s bullied by the real men at work, pushed around in the grocery store parking lot, and worst of all severely beaten by a group of motorcycle riding thugs.

While walking home Casey passes by a karate dojo and is drawn to the manly grunts coming from inside. The dojo is ran by the film’s central avatar for toxic masculinity who demands that everyone call him Sensei (he’s played by Alessandro Nivola). Casey explains “I want to be what intimidates me” so he signs up for classes. He’s quickly seduced by Sensei’s machismo and his wacky brand of manhood.

Eisenberg and Nivola fit great with the movie’s deadpan deliveries and bone-dry emotional center. Eisenberg can do these types of roles in his sleep yet he still always brings personality and humanity to his characters. Imogen Poots doesn’t fare as well. She’s given the thankless job of being the film’s lone female punching bag. Basically her role is to make sure we know how bad masculinity can be (in case we missed the message as it constantly blared through the film’s bullhorn).

DEFENSE2

The comparisons to Fincher’s “Fight Club” comes into full focus during the film’s second half. It’s here that Stearns ditches most of the humor for a darker and more twisted angle. Mr. Miyagi becomes Tyler Durden and for the rest of the way we’re trapped in this not-so-interesting world of embracing violence and reckoning with the consequences. I had me yearning for the first half to come back.

It’s tempting to call “The Art of Self-Defense” an obvious and on-the-nose satirical treatise of its subject. But what exactly is it spoofing? Is it taking shots at hyper-masculinity and the men who prescribe to it? Is it poking fun at how the toxic masculinity consortium views manliness? I guess it depends on how you look at it. Personally, I just wish it wasn’t so wildly uneven and was more committed to its comedy. I guess I’m still wanting the movie from the trailer.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Annabelle Comes Home”

Annabelle

The very idea that a Conjuring universe exists makes me smile. Not because it’s some groundbreaking cinematic accomplishment. But because it’s a tightly focused, modestly budgeted, interconnected horror franchise built around two fantastic central movies. The spin-off films have been hit-or-miss but at least they have offered some interesting layers to the franchise as a whole.

“Annabelle Comes Home” is the third film in the Conjuring prequel series about the ugliest, creepiest porcelain doll ever put on screen. This installment begins on a high note with the franchise’s greatest assets, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprising their roles as paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. They don’t have big roles in the film but I absolutely love the chemistry between them.

ANNABELLE3

It’s 1971 and the Warrens have taken possession of the Annabelle doll after identifying it as a conduit for malevolent spirits. Following a blessing ritual Annabelle is put in a glass case within their eerie room of evil artifacts. And surely a door with five locks and a big sign reading “DANGER!” is enough to keep the evil contained, right? Well, in a word…no.

Jump ahead one year as the Warrens prepare to head out for an overnight investigation into a new case. They leave their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) and the keys to their split-level home with their dependable babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) who is keenly aware of the house rules.

The same can’t be said for Mary Ellen’s pushy best friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) who shows up to the Warren’s house uninvited and instantly begins snooping around where she shouldn’t. This provides the movie with its opening to introduce its horror elements. Horror movies have a track record of having really bad things happen thanks to really stupid actions. There is a bit of that with Daniela. But writer-director Gary Dauberman tosses in a story thread to give a meatier reason for what she is doing. It kinda works.

Motivations aside, Daniela finds a way into the Warrens’ no-no room and unleashes all sorts of terrifying apparitions. Most of the story unfolds over the course of that one night as the young ladies try to survive the usual stuff – convenient power outages, appliances mysteriously turning on, ghoulish spirits suddenly standing in the background, and an overactive fog machine.

ANNABELLE2

Dauberman does a good job creating a spooky atmosphere which he leans on a bit too heavily. Most of the movie features all of the above mentioned horror gadgetry on repeat with practically nothing in the form of story progression. In many ways it reminds me of “The Nun” (which Dauberman also wrote). It was a movie rich with atmosphere but shallow when it comes to storytelling.

Much like “The Nun” this ends up being a spin-off film that never reaches the fullness of its potential. “Annabelle Comes Home” is a slight step up thanks to its better realized place within the franchise and closer connection to the two main Conjuring films. There is also some really good chemistry between the three young actresses which gives us good reasons to care for their characters. Unfortunately, despite offering moments of fun, the film doesn’t do much to push the franchise forward which leaves it feeling like a missed opportunity.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars