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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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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Warcraft

I have no attachment to or even any knowledge of the game Warcraft.  I have never played the game, in any of its incarnations.  But I was interested in the film version because of the involvement of Duncan Jones at the helm.  Mr. Jones directed Moon, a fantastic tiny-budget sci-fi film from 2009 starring Sam Rockwell.  That film made me a forever fan of Mr. Jones, and I was curious to see how he’d interpret the massive game canvas of Warcraft.

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The film tells the origin of a conflict between humans and Orcs on the fantasy world of Azeroth.  As the film opens, we follow Orc clan-leader Durotan and his pregnant mate Draka as they, and other Orc warriors, flee their dying world.  Their powerful leader Gul’dan uses his magic to transport the Orc horde from their dying world to the lush Azeroth.  There they face that world’s protectors, including King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), Protector Medivh (Ben Foster), the warrior Lothar (Travis Fimmel), and the young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer).  But not all Orcs are evil and not all humans have Azeroth’s best interests at heart.

This is a tough film to unpack. I love the enormous ambition on display in every frame.  This film wants to be a spectacular fantasy epic.  It is stuffed full of characters and places and creatures, all of whom have complicated names and back-stories.  The look of the film is full-on fantasy epic, with elaborate costumes and props and sets and settings, many of which are enhanced by extensive CGI effects.  There are enormous vistas and expansive CGI fantasy cities and locations.  There are incredible creatures and and lots of magical super-powers.

It’s all, as I just commented, incredibly impressive in the scope of its ambition.  Unfortunately, I can’t say that the film works at all.  I don’t have any pre-existing knowledge of Warcraft, the characters or backstory.  I am someone who loves sci-fi and fantasy, and my eyes don’t glaze over when it comes to crazy names and fantasy settings.  But this movie overwhelmed me.  It was all “too much of a muchness” (to quite the great Ira Steven Behr, one of the main writers behind the best seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).  There were just too many characters, too many locations, too many hard-to-say and harder-to-remember long, very fantasy-sounding names.  Far too much was thrown at the audience far too fast, without giving us strong enough characters to be able to hold onto and invest in.

This film’s problems emphasize for me the successful way Peter Jackson launched his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  That film is an enormous fantasy canvas, stuffed full … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Loving

Jeff Nichols’ film Loving tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving.  In the nineteen fifties, Richard, a white man, and Mildred, a black woman, fall in love and decide to get married.  They get married in Washington, DC, but their home state of Virginia outlaws interracial marriage.  They are arrested twice in Virginia and eventually, to avoid prison, they agree to leave Virginia for twenty-five years, abandoning their families and the lives they had known.  Their case eventually winds up before the Supreme Court, and the landmark 1967 decision Loving vs Virginia would invalidate all laws preventing interracial marriage.

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This is an important story, and writer/director Jeff Nichols brings it to life with artistry and dignity.  (Mr. Nichols has unbelievably written and directed TWO 2016 films.  Earlier this year saw the release of the sci-fi story Midnight Special, a film that I have not yet seen but one to which I very much hope to catch up before finalizing my end of the year lists.)

Loving is anchored by the phenomenal performances of its two lead actors.  Ruth Negga plays Mildred.  I enjoyed her work on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and apparently she was terrific in the first season of Preacher, which I have not yet seen but hope to), but this performance is leagues beyond what I have seen her do before.  With small gestures, Ms. Negga brings Mildred’s warmth and honesty and integrity to life.  Joel Edgerton, meanwhile, plays Richard.  This is an almost silent performance, as Richard is a man of very few words.  And yet, Mr. Edgerton’s work renders dialogue almost irrelevant, as he’s able to bring the audience right into Richard’s mind and heart.  What a joy it’s been to watch Mr. Edgerton’s work develop over the past decade.  He was wasted (as were much of his fellow cast-members, let’s be honest), in a tiny role as a young Owen Lars in Star Wars Episode II and III.  He was solid in Zero Dark Thirty and terrific in leading roles in Black Mass and Exodus: Gods and Kings, two not-great films in which he, nevertheless, shined.  Comparing his work here in Loving to his role in Exodus shows Mr. Edgerton’s range, as in Exodus he is all blustery talk while here in Loving he is quiet and internal.  The chemistry between Ms. Negga and Mr. Edgerton is wonderful, carrying the film on their shoulders.

Mr. Nichols avoids any Oscar-bait speechifying or other artificial, overly-grand silliness in his film.  There are no overly-caricaturized villains and while it is tough to watch at times, the film avoids the unpleasantness that some films focusing on the Civil Rights struggle of this era dive deeply … [continued]