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Josh Reviews Ad Astra

At the start of James Gray’s film Ad Astra, we see astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) working on a space platform in low Earth orbit, when a mysterious “surge” destroys the platform and nearly kills him.  As the mysterious power surges continue to range across the planet, threatening to destroy all human civilization, the U.S. Space Command tells Roy that they believe the surges are connected to the Lima Project, an expedition beyond our solar system to search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  The Lima Project was commanded by Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride.  Roy believed that the mission had gone wrong and that Clifford had died, years ago.  Roy is sent on a mission to track down what remains of the Lima Project, and perhaps his father, in order to stop the surges and save the planet.

There’s a lot that I like about Ad Astra, through the film doesn’t quite come together the way I’d hoped.

The film is very quiet and somber.  There is an elegiac tone that hangs over the entire story.  It’s an interesting choice, one that separates the film out from your average sci-fi adventure.  There is an adventure aspect to Roy’s mission, but the film doesn’t treat it as such.  There are a couple of outer-space action sequences — like a fight between moon-rovers speeding across the lunar surface, and an investigation into a derelict spacecraft that turns tragic.  But the film doesn’t lean into the fun or excitement of those sequences.  This film is closer in tone to 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris than it is to, say, Apollo 13.  Although I know some people have found the film to be boring, I didn’t see it that way.  I am all for a sci-fi film that is treated more like an adult drama or character-study than an action-adventure shoot-em-up.

Brad Pitt is terrific as Roy, and what works in the film can mostly be said to rest squarely on his shoulders.  Mr. Pitt’s Roy is really the only character that is at all developed in the film.  We follow this story exclusively through Roy, and the film is so internal to Roy’s character that the absence of other developed characters feels like a conscious choice rather than a mistake (though it does nevertheless feel to me like a mistake; more on this in a moment).  But Mr. Pitt is terrific at bringing us into the story, and allowing us to slowly access what’s going on inside this quiet, stoic military man.  A lot of the film is played in close-up, and his face and eyes do a lot of the heavy-lifting.  It’s a powerful performance and a great use … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time in the theater back in 1994 made me a Quentin Tarantino fan for life, and so I have been eagerly anticipating the release of his ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  A new Tarantino film as always a cause for excitement!  I was not disappointed.  I loved Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  The film is longer than it needs to be, but I so enjoy Mr. Tarantino’s unique style of dialogue and direction that I would have happily spent many more hours living in the world he (re)created for the film.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in Hollywood in 1969, in the months and weeks before the murders of Sharon Tate and others by members of the Manson Family.  Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, is a character in the film, but the film’s focus is on two fictional characters: aging cowboy actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his friend and stunt-man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Rick became a star as the lead of a Western TV series called Bounty Law, but in the years since the show has ended he’s fallen on hard times, finding it harder and harder to get work.  Cliff has had similar trouble finding work as a stuntman; now he mostly earns his living by driving Rick around and helping him with various errands and chores.

There’s not too much actual plot to the film.  I’m OK with that!  For me, the joy is in luxuriating in the world that Mr. Tarantino has created.  I love spending time with these characters.  Both Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Pitt are fantastic.  Their movie-star wattage is a perfect match for the terrific roles that Mr. Tarantino has written for them.  Like many of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is filled with digressions and asides, and I love all of those little rivulets of story so much.  (One of my favorite sequences in the film is a lengthy flashback, while Brad Pitt’s Cliff fixes Rick’s antennae on the roof of his house, about how he got fired from his last stuntman job.)  As I noted above, one could say that the film is longer than it needs to be.  For a movie that’s around two hours and 45 minutes, there’s not a heck of a lot of actual plot/story to be found.  But I don’t care a whit.

The film is very funny.  Mr. Tarantino’s dialogue is, as always, a joy to unravel… and Mr. Tarantino sure knows exactly how to get the timing perfect on a comedic scene.  But there’s also a looming sense of dread hovering over the film, as … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Fury

I missed David Ayer’s film Fury when it came out last year, and I’ve been looking forward to catching up with it.  Set in final months of World War II, the film tells the story of a United States tank crew during the Allied invasion of Germany.  Brad Pitt plays “Wardaddy,” the commander of the Sherman tank called “Fury.”  Michael Pena plays “Gordo,” the tank’s driver.  Shia LaBeouf plays the gunner “Bible.”  Jon Bernthal plays “Coon-Ass,” the weapons-loader.  And Logan Lerman plays Norman, the new assistant driver/bow-gunner assigned to “Fury” to replace their comrade “Red,” killed in action immediately prior to the start of the film.

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There is a lot of greatness in the first two-thirds of Fury.  What I enjoyed most about the film is its exploration of WWII tank warfare, and the experiences of the men who lived and fought in the belly of those steel beasts (to borrow a phrase from Henry Jones Sr.).  This is not an area that has been well-mined by many previous films.  David Ayer’s direction is visceral and tense, putting the viewer right in the thick of some harrowing sequences.  The film is exceedingly well-made, with enormous attention to detail in the costumes, sets, props, and most of all the tanks.  Mr. Ayer succeeds in making the tank Fury a full-fledged character in the story, through the accumulation of a million tiny details captured in the film.

The cast is strong, bringing life to the loosely-sketched characters.  One feels that each one of these characters could have been the lead of the film, which is exactly right.  After the greatness of Inglorious Basterds, it’s fun seeing Brad Pitt back in a WWII film.  Though “Wardaddy” is the clear alpha dog of the group (not just because of his position as commander), Mr. Pitt allows this character to show more humanity than did Aldo Raine in Basterds, which is appropriate for the role.  I frickin’ love Michael Pena in the film, an actor who seems to me to be able to do no wrong these days.  (See: Ant Man.)  He’s able to bring humor to the film, while never ever loosing sight of the seriousness that the role calls for.  Shia LaBeouf meanwhile has become something of a joke these days, but he does solid work here.  Jon Bernthal is great as “Coon-Ass.”  He’s a viscous jerk in many ways (his nick-name is not ironic), but Mr. Bernthal also allows the audience to see the human being underneath the bluster.  Finally there is Logan Lerman, who I will love forever based on his tremendous work in The Perks of Being a Wallflower Mr. Lerman has the somewhat thankless role of … [continued]