REVIEW: “Ad Astra”


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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.




In the movies gas stations offer much more than just a place to use the bathroom and top your tank. There have been all sorts of cool and funny movie scenes involving gas stations. So this is one of those weird Phenomenal 5 lists that looks at great movie gas station scenes. Now there were several scenes I really love that were left out just for the sake of variety. That being said, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these five movie gas station scenes are absolutely phenomenal.


This wacky 1963 comedy is known for possibly having the biggest ensemble cast of great actors in movie history. It also has one of the greatest gas station scenes you’ll find. In this wild race to get to a load of stolen money first, a furniture mover named Lennie (Jonathan Winters) gets double-crossed by the greedy Otto (Phil Silvers). Lennie finally runs Otto down at gas station and chases him all over the property causing all sorts of damage. Otto escapes and the attendants tie Lennie up while waiting for the men in white coats to come get him. Lennie gets loose and ends up leveling (quite literally) the entire station. It’s a hilarious scene.

#4 – “ROBOCOP”

There’s a great and pivotal gas station scene in the 1987 sci-fi action romp “Robocop”. Emil, a member of the brutal gang that killed Alex Murphy which in turn caused him to become Robocop, stops at an all-night gas station. He robs the place and fills up with gas while terrorizing the attendant. Robocop notices a crime in progress and pulls up. After triggering Robocop’s memory, Emil sprays gas everywhere, throws down his cigarette, and tears off on his motorcycle. The gas station explodes with Robocop walking out of the flames. He thwarts Emil’s getaway but this scene is mostly important for putting Murphy on track to remembering who he was.


There are actually two great gas station scenes in the 1993 gritty thriller “Kalifornia”. Pre-mega star Brad Pitt gives what I believe is his best performance as Early Grayce, a psycho who, along with his wife, hitches a cross-country ride to California with David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes. In the first unnerving scene, they stop for gas and a man with a wad of cash catches Early’s eye. Early follows him into the restroom, stabs him to death, and takes his money. But in an even more frightening scene, later they arrive at a different gas station as a huge electrical storm brews. It’s in this key scene that the rest of the group discovers the brutally unbalanced man that Early really is. Both scenes are intense and disturbing but also incredibly well done.

#2 – “THE BIRDS”

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic killer birds movie has several great moments but few are better than the gas station scene. As an attendant gasses up a customer’s car, two birds attack him knocking him down. As people rush to check on him, no one notices the nozzle continuing to spew gasoline. The flow of gas crosses the street into a parking area where a man steps out of his car and lights a cigar. Before he can be warned the match burns his finger then falls into the gas. BOOM! The man and several cars are gone and the flame blazes up the gas stream and the gas pumps explode. Hitchcock ends the scene with an amazing overhead shot of the horrible event. Classic!


Hands down my favorite gas station movie scene has to be from Joel and Ethan Coen’s fabulous “No Country for Old Men”. Hired killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) stops by a small isolated gas station to fill his tank and grab a package of peanuts. The elderly attendant makes the mistake of making small talk with Chirgurh which leads to one of most tense yet hilarious conversations I’ve ever scene. It ends with a coin toss with the attendant’s life on the line. I swear, I can watch this scene over and over and never get tired of it.

So there they are. What have we learned from this week’s Phenomenal 5? For one thing, it doesn’t pay to be a gas station attendant in the movies. So many good ones could have been mentioned. So what’s your favorite?


With the baseball season not even a week old, I decided to celebrate the sport I love by changing plans and doing a Phenomenal 5 on baseball movies. At first I thought this was an easy, easy assignment. But before long I had more movies on my short list than I expected. So needless to say this was tougher than I thought it would be. There are some really good baseball movies that aren’t just for fans of the game. Many of these are just good quality movies that any film lover can enjoy. So here’s my list. As always, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no doubt that these five baseball movies are absolutely phenomenal.


Major League” came out back in 1989 and was a big success. It was followed by two sequels but neither could match the original. “Major League” was a genuinely funny movie that mixed straight comedy with baseball satire. After a self-absorbed heiress inherits the Cleveland Indians from her deceased husband, she decides she wants to move the team to Miami. To do this she would have to show a worthwhile reason to take the city’s team away. So she fields the worst possible team in hopes of losing games and losing interest from the local fans. The team of misfits features pre-nutcase Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Wesley Snipes, Corbin Bernsen, and more.  Add the hilarious Bob Uecker as the voice of the Indians and you’ve got a baseball comedy that truly delivers the laughs.


Gary Cooper’s performance as “The Iron Horse” Lou Gehrig in 1942’s “The Pride of the Yankees” is still one of my favorite roles of his. This is a film that was nominated for 11 Oscars including a Best Actor nomination for Cooper. In it you’ll see several real baseball players including Babe Ruth and Bill Dickey as well as a great story about an amazing player and individual. This movie really doesn’t pay close attention to the baseball part of Gehrig’s life. Instead it’s a biography of the highly accomplished yet tragically short life of a man many came to know through the game they loved. “Pride of the Yankees” has a few flaws but it also has a lot of heart and I  just have to include it on any list of phenomenal baseball movies.


I know that “Moneyball” just came out last year but it really impressed me. Bennett Miller’s baseball movie about Billy Bean and the 2002 Oakland A’s actually made sabermetrics and salary caps engaging cinema. Brad Pitt does a nice job fleshing out Bean and even the usually annoying Jonah Hill manages to keep his performance under control. It’s the story of a miracle team built around a system that should have never worked. Against the wishes of his scouts, coaches, and owners, Bean created a team that made a miraculous run that eventually put them in the playoffs. Again, this isn’t a traditional baseball picture. It looks at a different side of the game that I haven’t seen much of before. But it’s still very much a baseball movie and I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Obviously this movie was going to show up on a list about baseball movies, right? “The Natural” is one of those movies that I can stop and watch anytime I come across it on TV. How can you not like Robert Redord as Roy Hobbs and his bat simply called “Wonderboy”? Roy learns about baseball and life the hard way but finally gets his shot with the New York Knights. Sure, a lot of convenient things fall into place that allow him his opportunity but when he gets it, he makes the most of it. Redford is helped by a nice supporting cast and a story that’s sure to leave you with a smile on your face. And I can still hear that music as Roy clobbers a home run that shatters the lights and send sparks raining down on the field. A classic moment.


This is a baseball movie that lifts the game up as an almost mystical force. “Field of Dreams” celebrates the game of baseball as the true American pastime. I paints baseball as something beyond just a sporting event that we enjoy watching. But even while it has the most reverent perspective on the game of all the films on my list, it’s really about family and baseball is that link that brings a father and son together. There are so many memorable things about “Field of Dreams’. Who can forget the whispers in the cornfields? “If you build it, he will come”. Who can forget “Shoeless” Joe Jackson first stepping onto the baseball field that was built on a leap of faith? Who can forget James Earl Jones’ speech on baseball? I could go on and on. For me, “Field of Dreams” is the quintessential baseball movie. It’s unique but it still brings out my love for the game.

Like my list? Do you have a baseball movie that you think should be on here? Did I include a film that you disagree with? Take time to add your comments and don’t forget to share your top 5 baseball movies.

Oscar – The morning after…

Well it has come and gone. The 2012 Oscars seemed to get here in a hurry and be done just as quick. As usual for the more recent Oscars, there were few surprises. Most of the “Big 6” went as I predicted and the only real surprises were with the technical awards. But overall it was a fun night. Here’s a few thoughts…

Billy Crystal hosted the 2012 show after the Eddie Murphy debacle (or should I say the Brett Ratner debacle) and he did a solid job. Unlike last year’s odd and sometimes uncomfortable hosting from James Franco and Anne Hathaway, this was more grounded but still quite funny. Crystal used several tried-and-true antics such as the song detailing the Best Picture Nominees and the “What they’re thinking” segment. I found them and several of Crystal’s adaptive one-liners to be very funny. Several of the presenters provided some good laughs including Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Chris Rock (I was surprised, too), and of course Robert Downey, Jr. Oh, and c’mon Academy! Am I the only one who thinks that Downey, Jr. would be the funniest Oscars host of all time? Sign him up.

“Hugo” ended the night with five Oscars. It was awarded for its technical achievements and it’s hard for me to argue with that. “A Seperation” won for Best Foreign Language film which was followed by a rather unusual acceptance speech from director Asghar Farhadi. “The Descendants” won Best Adapted Screenplay and I was thrilled that “Midnight in Paris” won for Best Original Screenplay. Of course Woody Allen wasn’t there but did we ever expect him to be?

The supporting categories went exactly as expected. Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Christopher Plummer (Beginners) had already been christened the winners well before the ceremony began and that’s exactly how things played out. Spencer gave one of the most genuine and emotional acceptance speeches of the night and Plummer became the oldest Oscar winner ever. It was good seeing Nick Nolte recognized with a nomination even though I’m not sure he knew where he was last night.

Meryl Streep won Best Actress for her performance in “The Iron Lady”. That category had turned into a two person race and I really felt that Viola Davis had a good chance to win. But Streep was awarded for a performance that certainly outweighed the rather mundane and mixed reviewed movie. The Oscar media had tried their best to sell the whole Clooney (“The Descendants”) versus Pitt (“Moneyball”) Best Actor race. But as I expected (and hoped), Jean Dujardin won the Oscar for his wonderful performance in “The Artist”. Working with several more handicaps than the other nominees, Dujardin nailed his performance and deserved the award. His acceptance speech and subsequent dance showed his enthusiasm and I found myself applauding from my recliner.

The night only got better for “The Artist”. Michael Hazanavicius won the Best Director Oscar which is almost always a sign of which film will win Best Picture. Last night was no different. Hazanavicius’ gutsy project won Best Picture and I have no problem with it. While I was personally rooting for “The Tree of Life”, this was a case where the Academy got it right. “The Artist” was a nostalgic but touching film that felt plucked right out of the silent movie era. I loved seeing it win.

So while it was a fairly predictable night, it was a good night. The stars played dress-up and movie fans witnessed new films and new performances added to that Valhalla of motion picture history. I went 5 for 6 in the “Big 6” categories so that speaks to the shows lack of suspense. But there were some genuinely funny moments and some good movies received their due.


Top 5 Best Male Supporting Performances of 2011

As I’ve mentioned, I didn’t see 2011 as the best year for movies but we did end up with several fantastic films and some truly memorable and wonderful lead and supporting performances. I’ve presented my personal Top 10 Films of 2011 and now it’s time to look at the performers. Here are my top 5 supporting male performances. I’m sure there are some you will agree with and others you won’t. Take time to comment and share your own personal top 5.

#5 – Tom Hiddleston (Midnight in Paris)

One of the reasons “Midnight in Paris” works so well is because of the incredible supporting work from its marvelous cast. Hiddleston instantly catches your attention from his first moments on screen and although he has a small role, it’s nonetheless brilliant. His line delivery, mannerisms, and period charm nail the character he portrays and he helped make a pretty unbelievable concept believable.

#4 – Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class)

Fassbender has garnered a lot of attention for his performances in 2011 but one that seems to go unnoticed is his amazing work in “X-Men: First Class”. He owns and commands every scene he’s in and I couldn’t get enough of him. He truly sells the Magneto character by showing the hard and calloused side while maintaining a sad and emotional perspective as well. It’s a seasoned and polished performance that deserves to be recognized.

#3 – Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris)

Remember when I said that a key reason “Midnight in Paris” works is because of it’s fantastic supporting cast? Here’s another example. Stoll’s Hemmingway is brash and crude but he’s also suave and at times hilarious. Stoll’s performance is a perfect match for the material and he steals several scenes. In a movie that requires a belief in the spectacular, it’s performances like Stoll’s that made be buy into it.

#2 – Brad Pitt (The Tree of Life)

Some may consider Pitt’s performance as a lead role but I see him more as strong supporting backbone to an incredibly moving story. Pitt has been known for his more exaggerated performances but this is totally different. Here he plays a believable and relatable father let down by life and facing the pressure of raising his family. It’s a near perfect performance that’s measured and grounded. It was a good year for Pitt and his work in “Moneyball” is getting all the praise. But I found his work in “The Tree of Life” to be the best of his career.

#1 Nick Nolte (Warrior)

One the most pleasant surprises of the year was Nick Nolte’s performance in “Warrior”. Some of the most gripping scenes of 2011 featured Nolte’s portrayal of a broken father who is rebuilding his life but still facing the consequences of his failures. Nolte helps get to the core of what makes “Warrior” such a powerful picture. It’s much more than the MMA backdrop might suggest, and it’s Nolte who drives this moving drama.

Agree or disagree. Be sure to leave a comment and let me know.

REVIEW: “The Tree of Life”

It’s hard to deny that “The Tree of Life”, Terrence Malick’s first film since 2005′s “The New World”, is destined to be a polarizing movie. I’ve seen it called pretentious, self-indulgent, and a muddled exercise in tedium. But I had a much different reaction. I found it to be cinematic poetry. A profound and deeply moving picture that’s cryptic yet bold and thought-provoking. It’s a challenging meditation on life, family, and God. It’s a film that doesn’t revolve around a tight, concentrated narrative. Instead it feels more like an observation of everything from the creation of the world according to Malick to the life struggles of an ordinary family in 1950′s Texas. It moves at a stylish but deliberate pace and this is sure to drive some people crazy. But I feel it rewards the patient viewer and I found myself drawn in by the artistry and emotion of the film.

In the first few minutes of the movie we see Mrs. O’Brien, (Jessica Chastain) as she is receiving a letter stating her 19 year old son is dead. She calls Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) at work to let him know the tragic news. The film then moves to present day as we are introduced to Jack (Sean Penn) the oldest of the O’Brien’s three sons. Jack comes across as an emotional wreck and we find out that he is still devastated by the loss of his younger brother. He notices a tree being planted in a small construction area which triggers an extended flashback to his childhood.

Jack’s childhood revolves around something said at the first of the film. “There are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow”. Jack’s dad is a man of nature. He’s a short-tempered and strict father whose hypocrisies don’t go unnoticed by his children. He has a cynical and hardened view of the world and recognizes success as beating the world at it’s own game. Jack’s mom is a woman of grace. She sees the world as a beautiful place and her faith fuels her loving and trusting nature. She’s quiet and gentle and her love of life is unquestioned even through life’s struggles. The question is which path will young Jack follow?

As we watch Jack and his brothers grow up in 1950′s Waco, Texas, Malick gives us some of the most grounded and natural portrayals of early adolescence that you will find on film. Young Jack, played by the fantastic Hunter McCracken,  has a great relationship with his brothers but always finds himself falling short in his father’s eyes. There are several painfully potent scenes that convey this and over time it leads to some disturbing changes in Jack. It’s heart-wrenching enough to watch this young boy flirt with self-destruction but witnessing his inner struggles with his actions is even more despairing. We hear him in voiceover ask ”What have I done?” He painfully states ”What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate.” It’s pretty weighty material and Malick doesn’t treat it halfheartedly.

Malick takes the O’Briens through trials and tragedies but he uses them to explore forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace. He’s not afraid to ask tough questions or address things such as existence, spirituality, and the afterlife. But this gets at another thing that makes this film special. It can speak to different people in so many different ways. Whether it be the spiritual subtext or the strained family dynamic, Malick takes something that is obviously deeply personal and touches the audience in a wide variety of ways.

“The Tree of Life” is a technical masterpiece and it’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning it. Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography should garner instant Oscar consideration. In many ways ”The Tree of Life” is more lyrical than dramatic therefore many scenes find their strength in imagery and camera work other than any form of dialogue. Many of Lubezki’s gorgeous shots carry more dramatic and emotional weight than almost any acted sequence I’ve seen all year. Alexandre Desplat’s brilliant score hits at just the right times during the film, weaving itself between Malick’s signature scenes featuring nature’s ambiance.

This is a unique film which calls for a unique approach by the actors. With the absence of a more precise narrative, the performances are structured around Malick’s vision. Pitt is fantastic in a conservative and more restrained performance. Chastain is graceful and has a subtle elegance. But it’s McCracken who steals the show with his authentic and measured performance. He sells every seen he’s in and Malick uses him perfectly.

“The Tree of Life” requires the audience to accept it for what it is. It’s bold and unwavering and while it could be misconstrued as a vanity project, it’s a film that’s clearly close to Malick’s heart. It most certainly isn’t for everyone, but I found myself immediately drawn in and unable to take my eyes off the visual splendor and mesmerizing meditation. It’s easy to be put off by things such as length and the lack of a focused story. But I implore audiences to judge “The Tree of Life” for what’s it’s meant to be. It touched me in many ways and it’s a film that with stick with me for a long time.