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.

31 Days to Scare ~ Eyes of Laura Mars

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A famous fashion photographer develops a disturbing ability to see through the eyes of a killer.

Stars: Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Dourif, Rene Auberjonois, Raul Julia

Director: Irvin Kershner

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Where to Watch: DVD

Review: Deep down inside, somewhere where most of my guilty pleasure movies are filed away, I know that Eyes of Laura Mars isn’t good. It’s a hollow thriller that misses the mark on many levels and doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do. Moreover, it has one of the dumbest endings of all times…so bad that I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if projectionists had just turned off the movie and sent everyone home five minutes before the film concludes. At least you’d leave with a bit of a zing and without your eyes tired from rolling in exasperation.

Yes, Eyes of Laura Mars is a kitschy late ‘70s thriller attempting to have some class. Yet here it is, featured early on in 31 Days to Scare. Why? It’s just so…entertaining. Whether you’re actively engaged in it or far removed, it’s never dull and not the museum piece it could have become. And it has Faye Dunaway (fresh off her Oscar win for Network) turning up her crazy knob long before her famously camp performance in Mommie Dearest.

Laura Mars is a famous fashion photographer known for glamorizing violence to sell product. Her images have galvanized the population and have attracted the ire of one demented psycho. Conveniently, when the killings begin Laura discovers a psychic link between herself and the murder, allowing her to see what the killer sees. When her closest friends and colleagues start getting their eyes plucked out and with a brutal manic gaining on her, she teams up with a cop (Tommy Lee Jones, Hope Springs) to unmask the fiend.

Originally intended as a vehicle for Barbra Streisand (her then-boyfriend produced the film and Streisand contributes an impressive song for the opening and closing credits), Dunaway is actually quite good here even when she’s ferociously overacting. Known for her frustrating method ways, if Dunaway knew the film was shaky she doesn’t show it but instead sinks her fangs in even further. Jones is surprisingly upbeat and even blasts out a few smiles. Brad Dourif (Color of Night), Rene Auberjonois, & Raul Julia (credited as R.J.!) are the various men in Laura’s life who wear their red herring T-shirts with gusto.

Rumor has it George Lucas was so impressed with a rough cut of this film he hired director Irvin Kershner to direct The Empire Strikes Back. Kershner and cinematographer Victor Kemper (National Lampoon’s Vacation) do give the film an elegant, classy sheen but there are enough close-ups of Dunaway’s eyes bugged out and wild to be featured in some sort of mascara ad. Though many of the costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge are stuck in the ‘70s, Dunaway is beautifully decked out in tartan plaids and regal attire but pity the models stuck in dreadful fad clothing, forever on celluloid wearing fancy togas.

Even though there are some interesting sequences, like Dunaway being chased through an abandoned building while seeing through the killer’s eyes as they gain on her, there’s a restraint that starts to sink the film. Low on blood and feeling watered down from a more violent version, someone (the studio, the director, etc) decided to play it safe instead of going for the jugular. The script (from a 10-page treatment by genre legend John Carpenter, Halloween) feels like a dozen people wrote it. There’s zero interest in finding why Laura and the killer have a connection and no real detective work in trying to figure out whodunnit until the third act when half the cast has been sliced and diced.

Watching it again recently (as I do every few years), I was surprised I only just realized the movie is an attempt to Americanize the Italian Giallo film. With its heightened sense of reality, its focus on celebrity and excess, and its embracing of glam-violence Eyes of Laura Mars is a noble but ultimately hopeless attempt to capitalize on the popular films successfully imported from Italy. Had someone like horror maestro Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci taken a crack at this, it may have wound up being a film with more lasting impact and imagery.

And they would have fixed the ending.

Movie Review ~ The Homesman

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Three women who have been driven mad by pioneer life are to be transported across the country by covered wagon by the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who in turn employs low-life drifter George Briggs to assist her.

Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Meryl Streep, Miranda Otto,Hilary Swank, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richte

Director: Tommy Lee Jones

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  You haven’t seen bleak onscreen quite like you’ll see it in The Homesman, a drama with Western sensibilities.  Based on Glendon Swarthout 1988 novel and adapted by Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver, and star/director Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln), the film ambles down a road to the unknown and is not for the wary.

It’s the mid-1800s in the Nebraska Territory and independent Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) has come from New York City to lay claim to a land of her own.  The opening scenes show Cuddy as a hard-working woman of the land, but one that has a recognizable hint of sadness around the corners of her dirt streaked face. Unable to find a husband, she entertains suitors with food and entertainment like a black widow without any venom.

Volunteering to transport three women from the territory part of the way back to their homes, Cuddy sets out in a covered wagon across the desolate landscape of pioneer life…but not before getting a desperate claim jumper (Jones) to accompany her in return for a fee.  All three women have seemingly lost their minds due to the harsh conditions and maybe Cuddy is just doing the honorable thing by stepping up to take on a task that the men from the community won’t…or maybe she relates to them more than she cares to admit.  Either way, the journey holds surprising turns for all involved.

Though depressing and an overall stunningly somber film, The Homesman is finely crafted and possesses enough darkly comic gumption to take narrative turns that could upend a lesser work…though a particular game changing twist is dealt with so quickly that should you go to the bathroom and miss it you may think you’ve come back to a different movie all-together.

Jones and Swank have the perfect faces for this material, his showing the crags of a life lived from problem to problem and hers displaying a plaintive wish for a dream that she sees fading each morning she wakes up.  While Swank has two well-deserved Oscars in her possession, she has about a dozen other performances of note that may make you question her strength as an actress.  She redeems herself again here and I’m sad the work isn’t getting more attention at the end of the year.

If you’re waiting to open your Twizzlers until Meryl Streep (Into the Woods) shows up on screen you’ll be waiting a long time as the actress only pops up for a brief cameo late in the film.  Actually, everyone else in the film are really just there for a scene or two before drifting off into the dusty atmosphere of the journey Jones/Swank are on.

Worthy of a look if you’re in the right mood, even with its desolate subject matter The Homesman ends with a bang…a quiet bang…but a bang all the same.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Homesman

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Synopsis: A claim jumper and a pioneer woman team up to escort three insane women from Nebraska to Iowa.

Release Date: November 14, 2014

Thoughts: Packed with so many Oscar faves that it could double as sketch on Jimmy Kimmel, The Homesman is the type of award festival bait that could be hard to resist.  Though the Western genre landscape has been largely barren for quite some time, when one does hit its mark it usually lands square in the bull’s-eye.  Once again, early buzz has Hilary Swank moving to the front of the Best Actress race in a film not many people have heard of…whether she can nab her third trophy remains to be seen.  All the elements seem to be there, though, and working alongside the likes of Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln, also taking on writing and directing duties), Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), and James Spader (Mannequin) I’m very interested in seeing if The Homesman can deliver on some rather intriguing promise.

Down From the Shelf ~ Captain America: The First Avenger

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After being deemed unfit for military service, Steve Rogers volunteers for a top secret research project that turns him into Captain America, a superhero dedicated to defending USA ideals.

Stars: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci

Director: Joe Johnston

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When Captain America: The First Avenger came out, I was feeling all together ho-hum about the Marvel franchise so far. Full disclosure, I was more of a DC Comics fan growing up and the Avengers universe was a bit of a foreign entity to me. That being said, I always had an appreciation for Captain America…even allowing myself to like (just a little!) the disastrous 1990 failed attempt to bring the character back to the big screen.

In July of 2011, audiences had already met Iron Man (twice!) and Thor and while I liked the initial Tony Stark adventure way more than I liked the muddled snoozer centered on the Norse warrior, I wasn’t totally sold that Captain America would live up to my expectations. So it was a nice surprise to find that not only was Captain America: The First Avenger a hugely entertaining film but that it achieved this by relying on an old-fashioned style of filmmaking that put the characters first and the special effects second.

Beginning in the present with the discovery of a familiar calling card, the film jumps back in time to the early 40’s when America was in the early stages of World War II. Looking for a few good soldiers, the US recruited an entire generation of men and women to serve their country overseas. Longing to be of service to Uncle Sam, scrawny Steve Rogers (a digitally wimp-ized Chris Evans) can’t make it past the medical exam after half a dozen attempts. His passion catches the eye of a German scientist (Stanley Tucci, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Rogers is soon in basic training as a candidate to create a new soldier.

Under the watchful eye of a grumpy Colonel (Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln) and pretty but tough Peggy Carter (dynamite Hayley Atwell), it isn’t long before Rogers is beefed up and buffed out thanks to a procedure concocted by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, Need for Speed, as Iron Man’s pappy) that makes him a freedom fighting machine. As much a piece of pro-America propaganda as was produced in the same time period, Captain America: The First Avenger occupies the rest of its run length with Rogers weathering the good and bad of his newfound power and a deadly battle with the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, Cloud Atlas) a nasty Nazi with a typically nasty Nazi plot for world domination.

With his all-American looks, Evans (The Iceman) is the perfect figure to play such an all-American hero…even though the effect to make him look small at the beginning of the film is kinda goofy. Though he had to be convinced more than once to take the role, he’s the right man for the job. Weaving is appropriately frightening as the red-faced terror and Jones hrumphs with the best of them. I still feel that Atwell’s plucky heroine is the best female character to date in the Marvel franchise…here’ s hoping the rumored television series based on her Agent Carter comes to life.

A worthy origin story, the film reminded me a lot of The Rocketeer, Disney’s notorious 1991 flop that coincidentally was also directed by Joe Johnston. I liked The Rocketeer, flaws and all, and Johnston seems to be trying to redeem himself in the eyes of comic book aficionados everywhere. Unlike Iron Man and Thor, I never felt like Captain America: The First Avenger existed only to bridge the gap to the film that would become The Avengers a year later in 2012. It does supply the last bit of info before that movie arrived but is still enjoyed on its own merit.

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Movie Review ~ The Family

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The Manzoni family, a notorious mafia clan, is relocated to Normandy, France under the witness protection program, where fitting in soon becomes challenging as their old habits die hard.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Domenick Lombardozzi

Director: Luc Besson

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going in to see The Family.  As a fan of Michelle Pfeiffer, I knew that my seeing this was an inevitable event but based on the trailer and seriously boring title I just didn’t know how the whole thing was going to turn out.  Would it be another in a long line of Robert De Niro films that seemed to get made only because he signed on the dotted line?  Or would it be the kind of daring European action film that director Luc Besson first rose to fame for?

Well, it turns out that the movie can’t ever really decide what genre it wants to fit into so it instead just lays down and rolls around several different themes all at the same time.  That may not work for most movie audiences and it’s not surprising that people are coming away from the film feeling a little empty, but I found the film to be an interesting potpourri of tones that worked more often than not – even if it’s more than a little odd.

Moving into a new European town after an incident necessitated their hasty retreat; a family in the witness protection program find themselves in the quaint/quiet town of Normandy in France.  Taking up residence in a money pit-esque dwelling, the Manzoni’s clearly are getting old hat at the process of moving from one town to another.  Dad (a more low-key than usual De Niro, Being Flynn, Silver Linings Playbook) just wants to settle in and write his memoirs, to the horror of the long-suffering FBI agent (Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln, Hope Springs) assigned to their case.  Michelle Pfeiffer (Dark Shadows, People Like Us) is De Niro’s wife with anger issues of her own, eventually turning to the church for help, spilling her secrets in confession that leads to a moderately nice payoff.  The kids (Diana Agron and John D’Leo) are fashioned as doppelgangers of their parents and both give off a playful vibe, even as they find themselves in hot water at school.

As the family is getting acclimated to their new town, we also follow a creepy crime henchman (Jon Freda) that continues his hunt for De Niro and his brood after De Niro became a turncoat to his Mafia family.  It’s in these scenes that wind up leading to an out of left field tension filled finale that the film may confuse some people.  The passages with the family are given a light touch that belies the darker tone brought on by Freda’s intense chase.

For me, it worked.  I enjoyed that the film feels different than what it would have been were it produced in your typical Hollywood fashion.  That it was made in Europe by a European crew and director has given the film a golden hue and the chance to take risks with its twists and turns.  By the time the film reached its finale I wasn’t sure how it was all going to work out for everyone involved.

Sure, the film has several extraneous storylines that could have been trimmed to keep the running length to 90 or so minutes but the actors play these moments so well that it’s forgivable.  It may be harder to forgive one of the most laughably contrived cases of coincidence since, well, ever, but by that point the movie had won me over enough to just brush it off.  There’s also a wonderfully weird bit where De Niro is feted by a local film society who has asked him to come and speak to the finer points of the classic film…no…no…I won’t spoil that moment for you.

Returning after several years of being absent from the director’s chair, Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element) brings his trademark cinematic flair to The Family and navigates it’s up and down and crisscrossed tones with ease.  I’ve always enjoyed Besson’s creative way of cutting from one scene to the next and he keeps the pace going, even when his screenplay based on the novel Malavita doesn’t fully support itself.

The Family isn’t a movie that you’ll need to see in the theaters but would make for an interesting watch when it finds its way into the home viewing market.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Family

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Synopsis: The Manzoni family, a notorious mafia clan, is relocated to Normandy, France under the witness protection program, where fitting in soon becomes challenging as their old habits die hard.

Release Date:  September 20, 2013

Thoughts: Despite having one of the most lackluster titles in film history (why not just call it, That One Film with Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer?) it’s hard for me to feel like I want to pass up a movie with Pfeiffer (Grease 2, Dark Shadows) because she works so rarely now and seems to choose projects that are of real interest to her.  True, they may not always be on the money (see Dark Shadows) but they are rarely boring.  DeNiro (Silver Linings Playbook, Being Flynn) is another story with the veteran actor making some ghastly films in the past decade.  Another bit of interest is that the film is directed by French auteur Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita, The Professional) who has stuck to producing action flicks (Taken 2, Lockout) so his return is welcome in my book.  Looking like a dark mix of mafia comedy, The Family (originally titled Malavita) probably won’t rank as career highs for anyone involved but it might turn out to be a decent romp.  We shall see.

The Silver Bullet ~ Lincoln

Synopsis: As the Civil War nears its end, President Abraham Lincoln clashes with members of his cabinet over the issue of abolishing slavery

Release Date:  November 16, 2012

Thoughts: Steven Spielberg is one of those directors who seem to churn out movies with the greatest of ease.  Almost under the radar, he plans and plots his productions so the actual act of filming them is nearly secondary.  The long in the works Lincoln is finally readying for its November release and it looks to be another winning notch in Spielberg’s well-worn cinematic belt.  Daniel Day-Lewis looked great in the promo shots and looks/sounds better in the trailer.  Being born on Lincoln’s birthday always made me feel a little closer to Honest Abe — after seeing him hunt vampires in the murky Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter I’m ready to experience his story told by a whole crew of master craftspeople.  The Oscar gauntlet has been thrown down by Spielberg and Lincoln…can’t wait for November.