Movie Review ~ Ad Astra

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The Facts
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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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ad Astra



Synopsis
: An astronaut travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his father and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. He uncovers secrets which challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos.

Release Date: September 20, 2019

Thoughts: There’s nothing I love seeing on the big screen more than a giant space spectacular and the long delayed Ad Astra (meaning ‘to the stars’ in Latin) looks like a grand achievement. Feeling on par with the likes of large scale epics such as Gravity, The Martian, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) teams with Brad Pitt (World War Z) on this project which was originally set to be released in May 2019 but was moved back after 20th Century Fox was bought by Disney.  A fall release positions the movie more in the awards competition (and conveniently far away from Disney’s summer blockbuster Avengers: Endgame) so I’m not too nervous about Ad Astra losing its original release date.  Gray’s films tend to be quite contemplative and I’m curious to see how he can marry that dramatic tension with the space chase elements shown in the preview.  Considering the caliber of the people involved and how good this first trailer is, I’m totally onboard for this one.

Movie Review ~ The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As the war of Panem escalates to the destruction of other districts by the Capitol, Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant leader of the rebellion, must bring together an army against President Snow, while all she holds dear hangs in the balance.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Michelle Forbes

Director: Francis Lawrence

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Unlike many readers of Suzanne Collins trilogy of novels, I wasn’t as disappointed in the final entry as most.  For me, all three books had their high and low points but Mockingjay was the one that felt like it had the most consequences within its pages.  It wasn’t an easy read with the fates of several characters being painfully revealed so it was with great trepidation that I approached The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 because I knew what lay ahead.

I still feel deep down inside that Mockingjay should have been released as one long movie.  Audiences are willing to sit through a three hour (cinema) tour if the characters are appealing and the story engaging and I spent the first hour of Part 2 thinking that it came across as the middle part of a longer film, opening with the part where the action dips and audiences are given a breather before the final act begins.  It was a mistake on my part to not re-watch Part 1 before because the film isn’t concerned with bringing anyone up to speed.  Needless to say, I can’t write a review of Part 2 without including some spoilers from the previous films so…you’ve been warned.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook, as usual investing herself 130%) is still reeling after being violently reunited with a brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), her former ally and would-be love interest.  That pushes her back into the arms of brawny Gale (Liam Hemsworth, The Expendables 2) and she still can’t seem to make-up her mind as to who she believes she should be with.  There’s no time for dewy eyed romance though with the final drive underway by the rebel army to seize the Capitol and destroy President Snow (Donald Sutherland, Ordinary People) before he can deploy more troops to wipe them off the map.

With the rebels being led by President Coin (Julianne Moore, Still Alice, looking fierce with a short haircut, cat-like contacts, and a wardrobe that feels Jetsons-esque) under the advisement of Plutarch (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master, in his last film role), Katinss finds a way back to the front line after being remanded to merely being the figurehead mascot of a force of people fighting for their freedom.  Katniss has her sights set on Snow and will do anything to be the one to end his reign, if she (along with a small band of allies and officers) can avoid the booby trapped city blocks that lie ahead.

I never noticed it until my partner pointed it out to me but with its prominent golden eagles and red color schemes, the leaders in the Capitol have a distinct Nazi vibe going on.  Themes of oppression and barbarism plague our real-life news feed and Collins’ novels tapped into some of that.  While her world has definite fantastical elements, the underlying message of independence hard won is prescient.

The film is light on softness, deciding instead to keep its edges razor sharp and unforgiving.  It’s not, I repeat not, a movie parents should remotely consider bringing their young children to.  I’d ask parents to heed the PG-13 rating and know that it probably should have carried an R due to the amount of violence and frightening sequences of death.  The carnage here is a far cry from the good old days of the first movie where young prospects picked each other off to become the victor of The Hunger Games.  Here, the losses are devastating and uncompromising…making for emotional and exhaustive viewing.

After taking over for original director Gary Ross, Francis Lawrence (no relation to our star) has helmed the remaining films and done so without making concessions.  From the production elements to the costume design and make-up, there’s a fully realized world on display, one that resembles ours but feels distant.  Is it futuristic?  Other-worldly? Yes and yes…but it also feels like it could be happening mere years from now.  That’s a scary thought and one not to dwell too much on.

Since the first film was released, Jennifer Lawrence has become a true movie star with an Oscar under her belt yet she doesn’t show any signs of boredom with her involvement here.  Other actresses may have started phoning these in once the first checks had cleared but Lawrence takes her job seriously…maybe a bit too seriously at times.  No matter, the film has become the success it has largely due to her and the emotional depth she’s brought to a complicated character.  Hutcherson too has evolved nicely over the course of the films, not just as his character but as an actor.

The main players involved are all given their due (even if Hoffman’s final speech is relegated to being read by Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me) and the good-byes have a sting to them.  Watch the final shot of the exquisitely styled Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge) as Effie Trinket and you’ll see how so much can be sadness can be conveyed with a single expression.  I wish there were more for Jena Malone to do as Johanna Mason, a tough as nails former victor that both reviles and envies Katniss.  Malone made a grand entrance in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and has been a value add to the series ever since.  The final moments of the film may come off as maudlin and treacly to the more jaded among us but it feels like a fitting tying off of a well taken care of commodity.

There’s talk of the studio working on a new sequel or a prequel and I would beg of them to drop it.  There’s plenty more YA literature waiting for their moment in the cinematic sunshine and the four films that have comprised The Hunger Games franchise have earned their chance to be distinguished.  Don’t muck it up.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

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Synopsis: After being symbolized as the “Mockingjay”, Katniss Everdeen and District 13 engage in an all-out revolution against the autocratic Capitol.

Release Date: November 25, 2015

Thoughts: This is going to be a tough one. The final chapter of The Hunger Games film series arrives this November and brings with it the highest of anticipations on going out with a bang. Though fans were divided over the third book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, I found it be the most satisfying because it’s when the consequences of action became a reality. It’s a somber finale, to be sure, but the franchise has earned the right to get as dark as it wants. I felt that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 was downright scary and I know the worst is yet to come…so hold on tight. Starring Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Jena Malone (Inherent Vice), Sam Claflin (Snow White and the Huntsman), Josh Hutcherson (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), Stanley Tucci (Transformers: Age of Extinction), Liam Hemsworth (The Expendables 2), Woody Harrelson (Out of the Furnace), and Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master).

 

Reviews of
The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

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Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen reluctantly becomes the symbol of a mass rebellion against the autocratic Capitol.

Release Date: November 21, 2014

Thoughts: We aren’t that far off now from the beginning of the end for the tale of Katniss Everdeen. Though I’m no fan at all of the recent popular trend of splitting every film franchise written as a trilogy into four movies, in the case of this second sequel to The Hunger Games it may turn out to be a good thing. I’ve yet to read the book the film is based on (choosing instead to read it closer to the release date) but fans of the series have always been divided as to where Mockingjay stands against its printed predecessors with some loving it and some condemning it. So there’s room in two movies for the makers to right some potential wrongs devotees of Katniss and her quest may still be smarting over. It’s going to be a mega-watt blockbuster no matter what…but will Part 1 be more than a device to set the stage for the final hurrah? 

Check out my review of The Hunger Games here

Check out my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire here

Check out my review of the teaser trailer for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 here

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

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Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen reluctantly becomes the symbol of a mass rebellion against the autocratic Capitol.

Release Date: November 21, 2014

Thoughts: Though I’m still not crazy about the last book of The Hunger Games trilogy being split into two parts being released this year and next, I have to admit being fairly excited for November to roll around so I can get a look at the first chapter in the epic finale. I’ve held off on reading the book until the release is closer but based on how well The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire made their way to the big screen, I have high hopes that these next two installments will maintain the gold standard of its predecessors. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Julianne Moore (Carrie), Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master), Woody Harrelson (Out of the Furnace), and Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge) should be sitting pretty this Thanksgiving.

Movie Review ~ The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amanda Plummer, Lynn Cohen, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright

Director:

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 146 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I honestly expected there to be a slip-up in bringing the second part of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy to the big screen.  After the whopper success of The Hunger Games in early 2012 (compounded by the fact that the film was quite good), tongues were wagging in anticipation of when the next film would arrive and a worldwide true love affair with down-to-earth star Jennifer Lawrence began.

Starting off 2012 with a huge box office hit and ending with another praise-worthy film (Silver Linings Playbook) along with a Best Actress Oscar for her efforts, Lawrence couldn’t have asked for a better year.  Then 2013 rolls around and the starlet saw the release of another film which has critics crying Oscar (American Hustle) as well as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a sequel that’s in many ways superior to its predecessor.

Though I keep my reviews fairly spoiler-free, there’s no real way to discuss Catching Fire without giving away some aspects of the original so if you’ve yet to see it…you’ve been warned.

OK…are we ready to move forward?  Good.

It’s a year after Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) defied the odds (and the authorities) and became the first joint victors of the gladiator-esque Hunger Games.  Though they may have new housing and comforts that have kept their families nourished, both are still haunted by what they saw in the arena.  The Hunger Games are presented as entertainment but really serve as a reminder of oppression by the wealthy and how inconsequential the poor are.  Katniss and Peeta came from the lowliest district and survived together…giving hope to those that had none.

This causes great fear in the upper crust, mostly from villainous President Snow (a smirky Donald Sutherland, Backdraft) who plots with new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master, using his greasy ginger puffiness to his advantage) to teach the two young winners a lesson…by making sure that the next Hunger Games is an all-star battle with players culled from past victors.  Back into the area they all go and this time there can truly be only one winner.

Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and an Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire) brings out the best in Suzanne Collins novel, always reminding the audience of the stakes at play and the very real price for any kind of mistake.  Characters feel more fleshed out with very little favorite faces getting short shrift of screen time.  That  leads to the film running nearly two and a half hours but the time seemed to fly by for me thanks to director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) keeping things at a good clip and the continued strong performances of the cast.

It would have been easy for Lawrence to simply show up and recreate the strong work from the original but instead she goes deeper than before, uncovering new layers of Katinss that even Collins wasn’t able to scratch.  It’s a full-bodied performance that proves Lawrence is a formidable force that’s just getting started.

Maybe it’s because Lawrence flaunted her Oscar around the set (highly doubtful) but everyone else in the film seems to have stepped up their game as well.  Hutcherson has less of a moon-pie face in this one, letting the actor not seem so ruled by his character’s obvious infatuation with Katniss.  Woody Harrelson (Out of the Furnace), Stanley Tucci (The Company You Keep), and brief turns from Amanda Plummer (Joe Versus the Volcano) and Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale) are rich with the kind of character shading that gives the film its subtle dexterity.

Special mention must be made yet again to Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) in the beefed up role of chaperone/advisor Effie Trinkett. The actress could quickly have been lost within her colorful make-up, zany wigs, and Gaga-edgy costume design but she’s smart enough to show the beating heart of the person underneath it all.  And former child star Jenna Malone may have one of the best entrances of the last few years as the plausibly sinister former victor Johanna Mason.  Malone is so good that she often steals Lawrence’s thunder later in the film.

With a year to wait until Part 1 of the final chapter of the series, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is that rare sequel that builds upon the solid foundation of the impressive original.  There’s more to love here and a greater sense of risk kept alive by Beaufoy’s detailed script, Lawrence’s skilled handling of the material, and a bevy of creative performances led by undeniable star Lawrence.

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The Silver Bullet ~ The Best Offer (La migliore offerta)

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Synopsis: A master auctioneer becomes obsessed with an extremely reclusive heiress who collects fine art.

Release Date:  January 1, 2014

Thoughts: So close…we were so close to having a trailer for a nice little mystery from the director of Cinema Paradiso but then some marketing genius had to go and reveal a plot development I would have much rather waited until I saw the film to find out.  I can’t imagine withholding this bit of info would have seriously changed the mind of the audience this import would have attracted.  Oh well…The Best Offer still has my interest thanks to The Book Thief‘s Geoffrey Rush’s mysterious art dealer that meets up with an even more mysterious heiress and attempts to unravel her secrets.  I just wish, yet again, that previews weren’t always so long and spoiler heavy – but who knows, perhaps the biggest secrets are yet to come?  Here’s hoping.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Backdraft

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two Chicago firefighter brothers who don’t get along have to work together while a dangerous arsonist is on the loose.

Stars: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scott Glenn, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

ReviewBackdraft was one of those films that I responded to fairly well when I first saw it at a second-run theater in the summer of 1991.  Already familiar with the work of director Ron Howard (Parenthood) and as the proud grandson of a firefighter, I remember liking the drama created between two firefighting brothers and enjoying a secondary storyline involving an arsonist that seems to know a thing or two about setting buildings ablaze. 

Viewed nearly 22 years later (!),this film which once seemed epic to me now feels a little too soap opera-y, a feeling aided by the fact that it’s filled with some off-the-mark performances.  Don’t get me wrong, Howard stages some still impressive eye-popping sequences involving fire up close and personal but seen now there’s a curious lack of restraint that made the movie feel longer than it was.

Russell and Baldwin aren’t totally believable as brothers but they find some cohesion in their macho roughness that helps color the film  We’re told that Baldwin has flitted around a lot, much to the disapproval of his older brother who has followed their father’s career path and has become a respected fireman.  When the younger brother gets into the family business and is assigned to the same station as his elder sibling there’s some old wounds that re-open…especially when deadly fires start being set that Russell’s character may be involved with.

This being a Ron Howard movie, there’s a lot going on at all times and the large supporting cast of familiar character actors pop up here and there and are generally put to good use.  Sutherland (Ordinary People) has two short scenes as a jailed arsonist but makes the most of his onscreen time.  De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) and De Mornay (Mother’s Day) make the most impressive impact in their roles…the most fleshed out in Gregory Widen’s slight script.  While I appreciate Leigh for some of her more out of the box performances her work here is embarrassingly poor…

If the film has lost some heat over the last two decades, it’s only the fault of some changes in taste.  There was a time when these type of emotion-driven, large-scale films played quite well and there’s still value to be found in the film thanks to some strong performances (I forgot to mention that Russell is particularly good here) and Howard’s trademark immersive production design.  If the script could have been elevated a bit and some recasting done we may have had a film that weathered the furnace of time.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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Synopsis: Katniss and Peeta are dethroned from their respective victory riches and are put back into the arena for the most climatic and menacing of the Hunger Games, known as the Quarter Quell.

Release Date: November 22, 2013

Thoughts:  Arriving less than two years after the blazingly entertaining original, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has a lot to live up to when it’s released in November 2013. Not only has the profile of its leading lady risen astronomically (thanks to her Oscar winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook) but the second book is considered by fans of the series to be the best. What I like about this trailer is that it leaves out a few critical details that may sell more tickets but isn’t really the heart of what the movie is about. With a new director at the helm (Francis Lawrence, who delivered another dark future world in I Am Legend) and most of the players reassembled (I live for Elizabeth Banks and her take on Effie) this is easily of the more highly anticipated films of the latter part of 2013.