Movie Review ~ Ad Astra

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.

Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler

Director: James Gray

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s well-documented (on this site) that I’m a sucker for any film set in space so it was probably always a given that Ad Astra was going to rank high with me.  Unless it was just a film where Brad Pitt watched Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy on the International Space Station for two hours, chances are I’d find something to like about it.  Thankfully, this features no McCarthy stinker but is instead a James Gray directed thinker and it is a wonder to see and feel.  With an excellent production design and stellar technical features across the board, Ad Astra might not be exactly the pulse-pounding action film advertised in trailers but it’s a worthwhile excursion into deep space with an A-list movie star continuing a 2019 winning streak.

Years into the future we’ve made advancements in our space exploration.  We have colonized the moon and have ventured further into our solar system, establishing an outpost on Mars and sending manned expeditions to look for intelligent life in distant galaxies.  It was on one of these expeditions that H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman) went missing on his way to Neptune.  Sixteen years later, a series of solar flares are threatening Earth and grow more dangerous with each passing day.  Scientists have pinned the source of these anomalies emanating several light years away.  From an insolvent spaceship long thought lost.  Near Neptune.

That’s when Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, The Big Short) is brought in.  A decorated astronaut known for his calm demeanor even in the most stressful of circumstances (his heart rate never goes above 80, even when involved in a catastrophic event), he’s the only son of Clifford McBride and hasn’t quite gotten over the absence of his father during his formative years.  Though he’s followed in his father’s footsteps, he can’t get out of his shaow. Now, with new intelligence gathered, the military has evidence that Roy’s father might not be as missing in the line of duty as they once thought. Hoping to stave off the global event on the horizon, the military asks Roy to venture to the ends of the galaxy to locate his father and stop him from plunging the Earth into ruin.  Along with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games), an old friend of his father’s, Roy first travels to the Moon, then Mars, and then…well, you’ll see.

Director James Gray has had an interesting career up until this point.  Starting out with five very New York-centric films that feel, to me, very similar, he hit upon something truly wonderful in 2016 when he adapted the bestselling novel The Lost City of Z.  The trouble is, Amazon Studios who did not quite know how to release it correctly, distributed it and it unfortunately was lost in the rubble.  Three years later Ad Astra almost suffered a similar fate when it was caught in the crossfire after Disney bought 20th Century Fox and moved around its release date.  Thankfully, the studio heads at Disney stuck with their plans to release it and even if they’ve still slightly bungled the marketing of the film they have given it a decent sized push.

It’s not exactly a spoiler to say Ad Astra is more heady drama than sci-fi action film like Gravity or The Martian.  It’s more cerebral than anything else and at 122 minutes doesn’t mind taking its time to get to the point.  Taking a cue from Kubrick, Gray isn’t above letting the audience make up their own minds about plot developments and meanings behind what goes on the further Pitt’s character travels toward his long-delayed reunion with his dad.  I’m sure they’ll be a lot of analysis as to the psyche behind Roy, the distance he travels, and the outcome of it all but it’s best to go in knowing the film isn’t all action.

Not that Gray doesn’t feature several impressive sequences of thrill along the way because he sure does.  From a cat-and-mouse chase played in fraught silence on a lunar surface to a recon mission that takes a freakish turn, Gray surprised me at the lengths he was willing to go to keep Roy and the audience off balance.  On the other hand, there are a few moments that could be tightened up a bit; shoring up some of the more protracted passages would help us arrive at the final act a hair more alert.  Though it may be traveling further into slightly more spoiler-y territory, I was disappointed to see Ruth Negga (World War Z) and Liv Tyler (Robot & Frank) not utilized more in their tangential roles.  Negga’s character, especially, seems like there was something left on the cutting room floor.

Like the aforementioned Gravity and The Martian, the movie fires on all cylinders when its just the audience and the star and Pitt is more than enough to hold our interest.  Coming off the rousing success of July’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (which will most likely garner him another Oscar nomination and likely win), Pitt has come back this year in a big way.  I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing him a double nominee at the end of the year, being recognized for his work here would be rewarding another side to his acting that we don’t get to see that often.  While Pitt has played drama before, he’s never been as focused or introspective as he is here.  There’s a lot going on and Pitt handles it all with a master’s touch.

Looking back now, it likely was a wise move by Disney to reposition Ad Astra out of the summer movie season and get it into theaters after the heat died down.  Now, it doesn’t have the weight of “summer blockbuster” to live up to or, looked at another way, live down.  Now, the movie can be looked at for the drama it really is at its core.  The visual effects and production design could get some awards love and, while the movie may alienate some, I found a lot to take away from Gray’s familial space drama and Pitt’s, ahem, stellar performance.

Movie Review ~ Hustlers


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A group of exotic dancers get their revenge on wealthy, drunk and abusive clients by maxing out their credit cards after they’ve passed out.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Julia Stiles, Madeline Brewer, Keke Palmer, Mercedes Ruehl, Lizzo, Cardi B

Director: Lorene Scafaria

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: A few years back, a different side to the world of male strippers was shown in Magic Mike and its superior sequel Magic Mike XXL.  Both films went beyond the flesh flash to give insight into a different walk (lapdance?) of life, with the results trending more toward the comedic than the dramatic.  Solidifying the rising star of Channing Tatum and partly based on his own life, the movie opened the door for A-list talent to approach parallel roles with confidence.  The first film was also notable for being one of the first stops of the infamous McConaissance, highlighting Matthew McConaughey’s return to fine form that wound up with him just narrowly missing being nominated for an Oscar for his work.  There’s similar Oscar buzz surrounding Hustlers, another true-life tale of strippers behaving badly, but this time I think the performance in question has the goods to go all the way.

Based on the 2015 New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler and adapted by director Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers charts the rise and fall of a group of exotic dancers that started bilking their customers for thousands of dollars through an elaborate scheme involving unscrupulous measures.  Sticking close to the source material, Scafaria changes the names and softens a few of the situations but manages to remain remarkably in step with Pressler’s original story.  The article is a good read and the movie is a decent watch, though neither linger substantially in the memory long after you’ve completed them.

In 2007, Dorothy (Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians) is working at a popular NYC strip club under the name Destiny but not seeing much of a future in the work.  Pulling in pennies compared to the wads of cash her colleagues take home, she’s barely scraping by in the New Jersey house she shares with her grandmother.  One night, she catches an onstage performance from Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, Second Act) and witnesses the way men literally throw mountains of bills at her feet.  Going beyond mere stage presence, Ramona possesses an immeasurable “it” factor that can’t be taught…but she takes Destiny under her wing anyway.  Together, the two women become a dynamic duo…until the financial crisis throws everything into a tailspin.

Though she leaves the club life for a while, eventually Destiny returns to a much different climate and without her partner.  When she crosses paths with Ramona again, she finds her old pal has a different way of earning money and, while it might not be on the up and up, it’s a lot easier than what they’d been required to do before.  Looping in two former dancers (Keke Palmer, Joyful Noise and Lili Reinhart, The Kings of Summer), the ladies begin targeting wealthy men and drugging them, bringing them back to the club, running their credit cards up, and pocketing the cash.  The men don’t report it because they can’t remember what exactly happened, for all they know they had a great time and just passed out.   For a while, this system works but, as with most organized crime set-ups, the good times don’t last and soon things start to fall apart.

What keeps the film interesting at every turn is Lopez doing some of her all-time best work as Ramona, the ringleader of the operation.  While the brains of the business eventually fall to Destiny when Ramona’s focus strays elsewhere, the original orchestration of the scam was Ramona’s and Lopez makes the character’s motivations understandable if not downright likable.  Lopez is in killer shape and has several meme-worthy moments – it’s totally likely an Oscar nomination is in her future for her performance, though I wouldn’t exactly engrave the statute quite yet.  As good as she is, I’m not completely convinced it’s an Oscar-winning role.

Less successful is Wu, struggling in vain to hold our attention anytime Lopez is off-screen (and anytime she is onscreen, actually) and the movie is weakened substantially for it.  Giving rather blandly blank line readings that are missing key emotive shifts, Wu doesn’t build on the promise she showed so well in Crazy Rich Asians.  You’re tempted to blame Lopez on shining too brightly but there’s a generosity of spirit in what Lopez is doing, gamely sharing the screen with anyone/everyone and Wu should have taken better advantage of this.  In all fairness, Reinhart and Palmer are kinda duds as well so Wu gets little help from them either.  Boo to the marketing materials flaunting Lizzo and Cardi B on the poster for the film, both appear briefly in glorified cameos.

Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) keeps the movie going at a good clip, bouncing between Destiny in 2007 and again in 2014 when Elizabeth (Julia Stiles, Closed Circuit) is interviewing her for a magazine article about her crimes.  The narrative device works well, though I missed the article’s slight assertation that Destiny might not be the most reliable of narrators.  In Scafaria’s eyes, Destiny is playing straight with Elizabeth and it colors too inside the lines to make the character truly come to life with any added dimension.  While it’s a smart move to have a woman in the director’s chair to tell this story, there are some elements that feel too restrained or, dare I say it, respectful.  Taking place in a hard-edged NYC strip club, this one happens to be the one in which no one is naked 98% of the time.  I don’t need nudity, don’t get me wrong, but a little more authenticity would have helped.

While the movie is fun, it’s rarely more than your standard caper film with the ultimate expected dénouement lurking around the corner at the 90 minute mark.  I kept wanting things to get taken up a notch or pivot in a different direction but found the material and some of the performances didn’t measure up, especially when Lopez seems to be so polished.