Ad Astra(9/19/2019)

Last year when I went to see First Man and this year when I watched Apollo 11 I came to a slightly depressing revelation: the 60s space program has lost a lot of its luster, at least for me and I suspect with a lot of people of my generation.  I think that’s in large part because at the moment space exploration seems like a bit of a dead end.  Back in the 60s people just assumed that landing on the moon was a giant leap for mankind and that by the year 2001 we’d be regularly traveling to space bases and traveling through trippy alien wormholes to reach our next stage of evolution.  Instead we’ve mostly just learned that the moon and Mars are both barren wastelands and that if there is life (or even worthwhile natural resources) out there it’s so astronomically far away that it would be ridiculously hard to ever get there.  Hollywood for their part has kind of given up on space optimism; they usually just go the fantasy route and jump to distant futures of the Star Trek variety without even suggesting how we got there.  The only movie in recent years I can think of which tried to do science fiction in a way that was closer to our current technology was The Martian, but even that movie kind of marginalized the actual space travel part of getting to the red planet.  Joining that film is perhaps the new James Gray film Ad Astra (which is the Latin for “to the stars), a film which looks at a distant but not entirely distant future which seems at least a little bit plausible.

The film begins with an action scene where Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is working on a massive antenna which stands so high that its basically in space when it’s hit by some sort of power surge and he plummets to the surface before being saved by a parachute.  We soon learn that this is one of many such surges that are wreaking havoc across Earth and McBride is brought into a top secret briefing where he’s told that these surges are the result of a mission from years ago called the Lima Project.  This mission, an attempt to find intelligent life in the universe which required a voyage deep into the solar system, was led by McBride’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who the public believes died heroically when that ship was lost sixteen years ago.  In the briefing its revealed that the government believes Clifford is actually alive and that these surges are somehow being caused by the Lima’s power sources.  As such Roy is being recruited to travel to Mars, via the Moon, in order to send out a personal plea to Clifford.  Roy accepts this mission and begins what is sure to be a fateful journey both for himself and for humanity.

What is immediately striking about the future depicted in Ad Astra is that, more so than in even the most grounded of science fiction, it manages to feel legitimately futuristic while also feeling like a fairly natural evolution of the modern world.  The space ships in it can apparently go to the outer-reaches of the solar system in a matter of a few months but they still resemble shuttles and need to use rockets to exit the atmosphere and the clothing and space suits everyone’s wearing are not wildly divergent from modern clothing trends.  They’ve apparently colonized the moon and Mars, but getting to them involves all the same mundanities we need to deal with at modern airports and parts of both are apparently unstable warzones.  All over the film you can tell that a great deal of thought and research was done to build all these futuristic things, but the film doesn’t feel obliged to stop and explain all of it.  Take that antenna thing at the beginning, what is that for?  I don’t know, and unless I missed something I don’t think the movie ever stops and explains it but it’s certainly a striking image and I do have a certain confidence that they thought it through.  The scientific things that don’t make so much sense to me are things that kind of seem like plot contrivances.  I’m not exactly sure why they would need to go to Mars just to send a signal to Neptune and it’s also a bit convenient that in the third act Pitt is able to travel a pretty vast distance in a relatively short span of time, which would seem to raise some plot questions.

Having said all that, the science fiction in Ad Astra is in many ways something of a background element more than the main focus.  This isn’t a movie that’s trying to be a headtrip in the lineage of 2001: A Space Odyssey so much as a human quest modeled after Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” with Pitt as Marlow and his father as Kurtz.  It certainly isn’t a one to one parallel and the overall thematic message is quite different but the basic structure is more or less there.  This also makes the film a rather inward piece of work that focuses almost entirely on Brad Pitt’s character to the exclusion of pretty much everyone else and as a result the film has to rest pretty heavily on a voice-over narration by Pitt that is a bit of a mixed bag.  I certainly wouldn’t want the voice-over taken out entirely because there are definitely sections of it that are needed but I do think it could have been reduced a little bit.  Pitt’s narration in and of itself is a bit monotone and was made to sound like it was recorded in an echoy spaceship, which may or may not have been the best call.  There are also some plot details that bug me in the film, especially a violent turn of events that leads into the third act which seemed avoidable and kind of undermined the film’s ending.

Honestly I do having a sinking suspicion that there are a lot of plot elements here which aren’t going to hold up overly well to strict scrutiny and I don’t look forward to the “everything wrong with” videos that are eventually going to be made because looking at the movie like that sort of misses the point.  At the same time, the film’s general straightforwardness does make it a bit more susceptible to that kind of criticism.  This isn’t the kind of brainy science fiction film that really forces you to untangle some crazy mind bending idea about aliens or time travel or something, it’s ultimately a character study and the journey at its center is about as literal as it is metaphorical.  While I was watching the movie, I really liked it.  It looks great and it has some very strong scenes, but it didn’t really leave me with the same level of food for thought that we’ve come to expect from this kind of science fiction.  It’s a movie that’s fairly straightforward in its messaging and there are plot elements which I just can’t completely overlook.  This is actually the feeling I get all too often when I leave James Gray movies, he’s a guy with clear talent but his movies always end up being a bit shallower than their trappings suggest.  Still, if the movie has failings they’re failings that are set up by high expectations, looked at in the wider world of commercial cinema this is definitely worth seeing especially for fans of hard science fiction.

***1/2 out of Five

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Home Video Round-Up 9/7/2019

The Amazing Jonathan Documentary (8/24/2019)

The Amazing Jonathan was a magician/comedian who emerged around the same time as Penn and Teller and sort of deconstructed traditional magic acts in an irreverent way and made him a success.  He also apparently lived a hard life which involved severe drug addiction and all of it was brought to an end when he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition and only had a year to live.  Ten years later he’s still alive but knows he’s on borrowed time.  Enter Benjamin Berman, a documentary filmmaker who has decided to step in and film The Amazing Jonathan while he goes on a farewell tour and make a portrait of what his life is like now.  Seems to have all the makings of a compelling but ordinary profile documentary but things take a bit of a twist when Jonathan announces that an award winning documentary producer also wants to make a movie about him and that he’s going to let that competing crew film him as well.  What follows is a movie that’s about as much about Berman and his reaction to the situation as a filmmaker as it is about The Amazing Johnathan and that may frustrate people who are looking more for a straightforward account of the magician and his predicament.  Personally, as someone who’s sick to death of “profile docs” about famous people I found the whole thing to be something of a refreshing deconstruction of that genre and about how there seems to be a rush to send documentary crews to every event that’s in the news.  There is also the question of how “real” any of this is and while I have my suspicions they lead me more in the direction of viewing this as a work of meta trickery like Exit Through the Gift Shop than a genuine attempt to deceive.

**** out of Five

Alita: Battle Angel (8/29/2019)

Asking for original blockbusters is easy, actually liking them when we get them is hard.  Take Alita: Battle Angel for example, which isn’t technically a new IP given that it is an adaptation of a manga but is clearly not trying to be sold to an existing fanbase and is an original blockbuster as far as most audiences were concerned.  Everything about the film made it look like the next Valerian or the next Mortal Engines, so it was a bit of a surprise when its box office performance was merely lackluster rather than disastrous at the domestic box office and was actually a hit in international territories.  I’m not entirely sure why this one took off while other visual overload blockbusters have not (good timing perhaps) but it was a success and a surprise comeback for director Robert Rodriguez, who has never really been trusted with budgets like this before.  I will say that the film is pretty impressive on a technical level.  The protagonist’s face has some uncanny valley issues but it’s otherwise able to bring this world together pretty well and there are a couple decent-ish action scenes.  That said, this is not an easy world and IP to warm up to, it all just looks kind of silly and the film does not introduce it gradually.  Imagine if the original Star Wars trilogy did not exist and audiences were asked to just get on board with that universe from The Phantom Menace.  The film’s story is also pretty standard hero’s journey stuff and the film’s look only takes it so far. Not for me.

**1/2 out of Five

American Factory (9/6/2019)

American Factory has received a lot of press because it was distributed (via Netflix) by the Higher Ground production company, which is owned and operated by Barrack and Michelle Obama.  The film itself was actually an independent production which was picked up at Sundance and was directed by the veteran documentarians Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, a pair I’m not familiar with but from watching this I can tell they are way into the “direct cinema” movement pioneered by Robert Drew, Barbara Kopple, and D. A. Pennebaker.  The film is told primarily through fly-on-the-wall footage taken on the floor of the Fuyao auto-glass plant which opened in Ohio in 2016 with the aim of bringing the Chinese company’s work ethic to the United States, the result was a bit of a culture clash which culminated in an attempt to form a union in 2017.  If that premise sounds interesting you should definitely give this a shot because it’s a very mature and even handed documentary that goes to great pains to paint this factories troubles as a sort of honest misunderstanding between business cultures without vilifying the Chinese executives and managers or discounting the concerns of the American workers.  If I have any problems with the film it might simply be that it isn’t always great at explaining how much time has passed as the film progresses and isn’t always great at conveying the scale of things at the factory.

**** out of Five

The Beach Bum (9/7/2019)

Harmony Korine is one weird dude and I’m not really sure what to think about him.  He’s a filmmaker who isn’t terribly popular and isn’t exactly a critic’s darling but he does have a cult following and his movies are generally a bit to “out there” to completely ignore.  After the relative box office success of his slick but still intrinsically weird 2013 film Spring Breakers he finally had some clout to get a reasonably large budget for his latest film and he’s apparently used it to make a stoner comedy of sorts starring Matthew McConaughey and Snoop Dogg among others about a poet named Moondog who lives in a hedonistic stupor in the Florida Keys most of the time while living off his wife’s money.  If I were to look for meaning in it I might suggest that there’s something a bit autobiographical about all this given that Korine is himself an artist of apparent talent who some would say squanders his potential making movies about depraved weirdos.  If that what he’s doing I can sort of vibe with that, but as an upstanding citizen who’s proud to have a nine to five job there’s only so much sympathy I can really conjure for this Moondog guy and as someone who only gets high on life I wasn’t as amused by all the weed stuff as I think I was supposed to be, though there were a couple of legitimately funny bits here and there.

**1/2 out of Five

Hail Satan? (9/7/2019)

When promoting the book and film “The Exorcist” William Peter Blatty was known to say things like “If you believe in god then you also believe in the devil.” Presumably that would also mean that if you don’t believe in god than you also don’t believe in the devil, and that has been more or less my animating principal as a somewhat militant atheist.  In fact I’ve always found the basic idea of devil worship, authentic devil not the fun unserious heavy metal kind, to be about the stupidest thing imaginable.  Like, if you’re going to believe in a pretend being you might as well believe in the one who’s into good deeds rather than the one who was specifically invented to be the worst villain in the universe.  So it was with some interest that, while watching this documentary about the rise of the Satanic Temple, I learned that most of the people involved in that little movement are not really believers in a literal Satan so much as they’re activists against Christian supremacy in America and around the world.   It’s a position which I’m kind of conflicted about: on one hand I think they’re doing a great good by turning the tables on the religious right and using their rules against them (like when they stopped a state government from erecting a ten commandments monument by proposing the construction of a demon statue next to it) but I also think they’re kind of undermining their position by giving away that they don’t really believe in this shit and they could also inflame passions so much that they generate a backlash.  As for the movie, it’s a pretty good overview of the movement and its history, worth a watch if any of this sounds interesting.

*** out of Five

It: Chapter 2(9/5/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Light Spoilers

I try not to get too wrapped up with box office numbers, but sometimes when the right movie becomes a hit it can feel really good.  The success of the movie It in 2017 was one of those cases.  While not exactly what you’d call high art it was in many the kind of product that you hope for from large studio filmmaking: a solidly made adaptation of a respectable property which didn’t compromise more than it had to.  Seeing that R-rated horror adaptation make $123 million dollars in its opening weekend and later end up among the top ten highest grossing of that year right between two MCU movies was really satisfying.  This success had a lot to do with timing; Stephen King has always been relevant but the popularity of “Stranger Things” had really primed the audience for his brand of horror storytelling and the fact that this was focusing on the suburban childhood aspects of the book and that its milieu was moved from the 50s to the 80s really strengthened that connection.  That’s not to say the movie entirely has the TV show to thank for the money it made but both properties were certainly tapping in to the same nostalgia vein that people really wanted tapped in 2017.  Now, as happy as I was by the film’s success I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was one of my favorite films that year.  In fact in my original review of the film I felt a little hesitant to pass judgement at all simply because I knew this second half was coming and wanted to see if some of the elements I thought were lumpy would pay off and to know for sure if it was going to stick the landing.

Set twenty seven years after the events of the first movie, It: Chapter 2 opens with an attack by Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) which Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) gets word of and realizes that this evil entity has returned on schedule.  As Mike is the only member of “The Loser’s Club” who has remained in Derry all these years he takes it upon himself to call his old friends and reunite them in order to kill the monster once and for all.  The “club” members lives have gone in different directions: Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a horror novelist, Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is in an abusive marriage, Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is a standup comedian, Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) has lost a lot of weight and is a wealthy architect, and Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) has a desk job.  They all reunite out of a sort of obligation but when they arrive many of them have forgotten about their fight with Pennywise as a function of how that entity’s magic works.  Once they arrive and their memory is jogged many of them are reluctant to stay, especially after some scary encounters, but when they learn about the suicide of Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) who the one member who didn’t show up, they become resolved to finish the fight.

The big conversation leading up to the release of this film largely had to do with its running time.  The movie is about 2 hours and 50 minutes long, which is not something I inherently have any problems with because to me that isn’t very unusual; it’s about ten minutes longer than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which I loved, and ten minutes shorter than Avengers: Endgame, which the masses flocked to.  Given that the movie was half of an adaptation of a thousand page book it seemed largely reasonable and I was looking forward to seeing the film and telling all the haters that they were being silly for freaking out about that.  Then I saw the movie and… yeah, it’s too long.  Well, it’s not so much that it’s literally too long, I wouldn’t exactly say I lost interest in it over time or anything, but it has a bizarre structure and becomes repetitive in ways that eventually undermine it.

Take the opening scene, which is a disturbing depiction of a hate crime perpetuated against a gay couple which ends with one of them being thrown off a bridge and then murdered by Pennywise.  It’s a strongly rendered scene, but what is it doing in this movie?  We never see the attack’s survivor again or the human attackers and while it does serve to announce Pennywise’s return that could have been achieved just as easily by moving a later attack against a kid at a baseball game (which is shorter, fits Pennywise’s MO better, and has less baggage) to the beginning.  Then there’s the character of Henry Bowers; in my review of the first film I said “there are elements of it like the Henry Bowers sub-plot which I would criticize as being superfluous and in need of cutting if not for the fact that I suspect it will come up again in the sequel,” and while he does indeed come back his presence in the sequel ends up being as much of a time waste as he was in the first.  His three or so scenes are well made, I can see why a director would be attached to them and want to leave them in, but he ultimately has no effect at all on the plot beyond being one more obstacle and has only the slightest effect on theme, so his presence here only lengthens the movie and does very little to justify is presence in the last movie either.

Superfluous as those scenes were, they can be set aside as merely misjudged extravagances on the part of director Andy Muschietti, who seems to be going into this sequel with a lot more confidence and money than he did before after the massive success of the first film.  The bigger structural problem with the film is that it’s basically a movie with six protagonists and feels obligated to give each of them equal screen time. For instance the film has to begin by Mike making six different phone calls to each of his former friends one after another, forcing the movie to stop and give us six different vignettes about where these people are in their lives.  That might be a necessary expository tool (aside from the weird domestic violence vignette in Beverly’s introduction which is kind of left dangling), but what’s less forgivable is how the film then spends a lot of its first half sending each of the six characters out to find “artifacts from their past.”  In practice that means six episodic segments in a row of a character going somewhere in the town, having a flashback to some moment of their past too inconsequential to have been in the first movie, and then having Pennywise fuck with them in some ineffective way.

Pennywise’s habit of appearing before our main characters to creep them out rather than actually kill them was actually a problem I had with the first movie.  In my review of that movie I said “every other time we see him he seems to have taken the form of the clown specifically for the purposes of scaring the crap out of the kids he’s elected to target for unknown reasons and he spends a whole lot of time playing largely ineffective mind games with them” but I sort of let it go because you could sort of explain it away as Pennywise underestimating The Losers Club, but it’s harder to forgive here as we see six episodes in a row of him jumping out and going “boo” at our heroes and them getting away from it unscathed.  And beyond simply making the first chunk of this movie kind of tedious it also kind of hurts the rest of the film because it makes Pennywise a bit of a paper tiger who can’t actually hurt anyone, which is kind of a suspense killer.  At its heart I think the problem here is that in the original novel this half of the story with the characters as adults were meant to act as something of a framing story to the scenes with the kids rather than a standalone narrative unto itself.  That makes the film kind of awkward because instead of flashing back to the actual important parts of their childhood (which were all in the first movie) they just flash back to some random crap that belongs on the cutting room floor.

Despite these structural problems there is a lot here to like.  For one thing the casting here is really strong.  These certainly won’t go down as the best performances of James McAvoy or Jessica Chastain, not even close, but they are definitely believable as older versions of those characters from the first film and the same can be said of most of the less famous actors in the film.  Then there’s Bill Hader, who like his fellow cast mates makes perfect sense as an older version of that character and he’s been widely considered to be a standout element of the film because of the comic relief he provides.  This praise is largely deserved, he is quite funny in the film and commands the screen when he’s in it, but his role in the film is a bit of a double edged sword.  There is definitely a place for levity even in the most hardcore of horror cinema but here Hader is doing so much comedy that it does sort of hurt the tension a little, or at least it contributes to the other problems the film has with Pennywise’s general ineffectiveness.  Really the whole movie has a much different tone from the first movie in no small part because of this.  In fact it almost feels more like a summer blockbuster than a true horror film, especially considering that a lot of the film’s scares involve CGI imagery, some of which is more effective than others.

What I’d really like, is to see a supercut of the first and second film put together into an epic five hour movie that cuts between the two timelines.  Maybe in that context the characters artifact hunts would seem less like repetitive time wasting and maybe that long runtime would make Bill Hader’s comedy seem less omnipresent and more like a true relief from the rest of the horror.  As an individual movie though It: Chapter 2 is kind of a weird movie that’s hard to really call “good” or “bad.”  I can rattle off a whole checklist of ways that it’s misshapen and indulgent but it would be hard to really say I disliked it or that I didn’t appreciate having seen it.  The things that do work in it work quite well and frankly I’d rather a movie fail through over-reach than through mundanity.  So if you liked the first movie, by all means see the second but go in with the expectation that it’s meant to give a fairly different experience than you got from the first one and that it’s going to be a bit of a bumpy ride at times.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 8/24/2019

The Rolling Thunder Review (8/11/2019)

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Martin Scorsese has long had something of an association with The Rolling Stones but he’s now made two documentaries about Bob Dylan: the first being the straightforward and factual PBS documentary No Direction Home about his early 60s rise and golden period, and now the new Netflix documentary Rolling Thunder Revue about his comeback of sorts during the mid-seventies and his Rolling Thunder Revue tour specifically.  This tour was a trek through smaller markets than a rock star of his status would usually visit and featured a number of other like-minded musicians like Joni Mitchell.  The film of course features a lot of professionally shot archival footage of performances from the tour including several songs in their entirety along with some backstage footage from the tour that were meant to be used in a film at the time which never exactly materialized.  There are also a lot of modern interviews with Dylan himself and other people in various people involved with the tour in different roles, but this is where Scorsese starts to become something of a trickster because some of these interviews are fake, a fact that the average viewer would not be able to discern if they aren’t keenly familiar with the works of Robert Altman.  I’m not sure if there’s much in the way of a profound statement to this outside of a sort statement about the process of myth-making in a documentary about a self-mythologizer.  If you’re a Dylan fan this documentary is a no-brainer, the performance footage alone is worth a watch, if you aren’t then it’s a bit of a tougher call.

***1/2 out of Five

High Life (8/14/2019)

Claire Denis is a filmmaker that I want to like more than I actually do and fittingly her latest film High Life is in many ways a movie that I wish I liked more.  The film is her (to my knowledge) first foray into science fiction and focuses on an odd science experiment in which convicts are launched into space on a strange mission to a black hole.  I’m not exactly sure I buy that setup, real space missions are so meticulously set up and manned by elite crews that it seems a bit odd to expect one to be trusted to literal criminals even if they’re essentially being sent on a suicide mission and much of what happens on the ship seems rather unrelated to the actual aims of the mission.  Still there is something compelling about the film’s oddness and some of the performances, but I’m not exactly sure what the point of all of this is supposed to be.  I still think my disconnection from Denis’ work is more of a “me problem” than it is on her, but if this English language Hollywood production doesn’t really click with me I’m not sure what will.

*** out of Five

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Ask Dr. Ruth (8/17/2019)

8-17-2019AskDrRuth I really don’t know why I even review these profile documentaries.  There are just so damn many of them and they’re all pretty much the same.  This documentary about the famed sex columnist Dr. Ruth Westheimer follows this formula pretty much to the T.  It follows the subject around in her old age while she basks in her legendary status and keeps fighting the good fight and intercuts this with footage from the old days in order to tell her life story.  It’s a format we’ve seen a million times and this doesn’t re-invent the wheel.  That said the film does function passably in much the way these movies usually do.  Westheimer herself is pretty charming and there are interesting aspects to her life story, but there are limits to how much drama is to be found here.  The film was picked up at Sundance in hopes that it would draw much the same crowd that turned out for RBG (which was itself a pretty standard profile documentary but one about a more prominent figure) and that audience is probably better served by the movie Maiden.  I’m willing to give this thing a soft passing grade but it won’t be long before I get to the point where I’m not willing to do that.

*** out of Five

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (8/23/2019)

Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a film that will almost certainly always live in the shadow of its troubled production history, especially an aborted attempt to make it in the 2000s which was documented in the film Lost in La Mancha.  Of course if the movie, in its final form had been a towering success that might make the film’s previous history more of a footnote but… it’s not a towering success.  I will say that it did give me some idea of what Gilliam’s original vison was supposed to be and how it fit into his usual style.  Don Quixote as a character was a sort of eccentric visionary who created his own reality and in this movie we see a filmmaker sort of having his Quixote related vision become a reality in front of him.  The problem is that Gilliam is not as good of a filmmaker in 2019 as he was in 2001, in fact he arguable hasn’t made a good movie since the turn of the millennium.  This film in particular takes a while to get going and is also weighed down with a pretty unlikable main character (who may have been a bit more charming if he’d been played by Johnny Depp circa 2001).  I only really started to jive with the movie by the last half hour and by then it was a little too late.  I can only hope that now that Gilliam has this monkey off his back that he can reset his career because as it is I think he should consider hanging it up.

** out of Five

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Apollo 11 (8/24/2019)

8-24-2019Apollo11 Currently 2019’s most commercially successful documentary (by far) is the film Apollo 11, which brings to the table newly unearthed footage from the moon landing upon that event’s 50th anniversary.  The film draws upon 65mm footage that NASA shot during the 60s and hadn’t really been shown widely in the time since as well as some of the more well-known footage from the time to show a condensed accounting of that one mission as it occurred.  The film incorporates no talking heads, and not voiceover aside from the sound in the original footage like mission control chatter and the like.  So it’s basically a no bullshit account of one of the most famous events in human history and there’s certainly a use for such a thing and a lot of people have really enjoyed the spectacle of it all.  Personally, you know, I think I’m kind of over the space program.  I think I came to that realization while watching First Man last year and it kind of stuck with me through this.  There’s not much new to learn here; we’ve gotten a whole lot of dramatic films like the aforementioned First Man and The Right Stuff, we’ve gotten a whole lot of documentaries like For All Mankind and In the Shadow of the Moon, did we need one more that badly? Especially one that almost goes out of its way not to provide any new facts or perspective?  I’m not sure I needed it, but it’s well made for what it’s trying to do and I was able to gleam some interest out of it.

*** out of Five