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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 Hell or High Water

In David Mackenzie’s film Hell or High Water, Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as brothers robbing small banks across Texas, while Jeff Bridges plays the Texas Ranger determined to catch them.  The film explores the poverty rampant across Texas (and so much of the U.S. these days), and as the story develops we understand that the boys are robbing branches of Texas Midland Bank in an effort to get payback for what they see as the wrongs that bank, which is about to foreclose on their late mother’s ranch, has done to them and to others across Texas.

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I was not prepared for what a powerhouse film this would be.  The idea of Robin Hood-like bank-robbers is a familiar one, as is the structure of following both the breaking-the-law bandits and the police officer(s) chasing them.  But there is so much more to Hell and High Water than just that.

First and foremost, the film is a blisteringly angry picture of the state of so many communities these days, feeling left behind my modernity and globalization, and with the gap between the haves and the have-nots widening into a seemingly unbreachable gulf.  But like a well-mannered Southern gentleman, the film doesn’t convey this anger through hysterics or big speeches.  No, so much of the film’s message is conveyed in simple, quiet imagery of the Texas towns in which the film is set, with the “get out of debt” signs everywhere and the striking images of run-down cars and run-down homes.  This is a film with a broken heart, and by the end the audience will feel that too.

Secondly, the film is a wonderful character study.  Both Chris Pine and Ben Foster do the best work of their careers.  Chris Pine first came to my attention — and so everyone else’s — in his role of Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot.  There’s no question that Mr. Pine is a movie star, but Hell or High Water proves that he’s a great ACTOR.  I loved the quiet, understated way he played Toby.  I knew Ben Foster, meanwhile, only from his role of Warren Worthington/Angel from the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand.  I’d heard that he had developed into a great actor but I don’t think I’ve seen any of his films from the past decade.  But now I know what people meant, because he’s dynamite here as Tanner, Toby’s louder, more reckless brother.  In lesser hands these two characters could have been cliches, but Mr. Pine and Mr. Foster bring them to life with great depth and dignity.  I love their chemistry together.  These brothers are oil and water in many ways, and yet we also … [continued]

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With the simple title of Lincoln, one might expect the new film from Steven Spielberg to be an all-encompassing biopic of the life of our famous stovepot-hat-wearing former President.  However, quite cunningly, Mr. Spielberg and screenwriter (and acclaimed playwright) Tony Kushner (basing their work in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) chose instead to focus on a very short period — about two months — at the end of Lincoln’s life, in which he endeavored to bring the Civil War to a close and to pass the 13th Ammendment, abolishing slavery in the United States of America.

It’s an ingenious choice, and as a result Lincoln stays far away from many of the familiar beats of the biopic. The film is one-part character study, allowing us to spend time getting to know this most iconic of men, and one-part peek behind the curtain to see how the sausage of politics gets made — or, at least, how it did back in 1865.

The film is thrilling, and the way Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner made a two-and-a-half hour story about how an amendment gets passed into such an edge-of-your seat piece of entertainment is absolutely astonishing.  The script is terrific.  The film has a huge ensemble (I’ll get back to this in a minute), but it’s never overwhelming, never confusing.  We’re introduced to a breadth of characters each of whom has a distinct personality and point of view and each of whom helps, in a small way, to illuminate the story being told.  Through these characters we are brought into the world of the bitterly divided America of 1865, still caught in the final throes of Civil War, and we are given keen insight into the political process of the day.  We see all the different points of view on the amendment, we learn why these different individuals hold these different points of view, and we see in intricate detail the work done by Mr. Lincoln and his team (several of whom are exceedingly grudging temporary allies) to, step by tiny step, move the pieces into place in their attempt to pass this momentous piece of legislation.  This The West Wing: 1865, and I don’t mean that to belittle the film in any way but rather as a huge compliment.  Lincoln is exciting and humorous and tragic, filled with colorful figures and eager to show the audience the nuts and bolts of our political process, warts and all.

All of this, of course, is anchored and elevated (if I may mix my metaphors) by the astonishing performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.  I cannot believe this is the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Men in Black 3

It’s been ten years since the last Men in Black film.  (Men in Black 2 came out in 2o02, and the first Men in Black came out back in 1997.)  That’s a long, long time for a movie series to lie fallow.  Is there an example of a sequel to a film franchise being released after such a long dry spell in which the new sequel was any good?  I’m hard-pressed to think of one, though I can think of many examples where the opposite was true, and the long-awaited sequel disappointed fans terribly.  The Godfather Part III.  Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen either of the first two Men in Black films.  I remember quite liking the first one, and being disappointed by the second.  I was excited by the prospect of a third film being made, because I definitely feel the concept still has plenty of juice, but I was dubious as to whether they could capture lighting in a bottle after so much time.  Well, to summarize, Men in Black 3 isn’t nearly as good as I had hoped, but it’s not as bad as I had feared (or as I’d heard it was).  It’s an entertaining film, though a frustrating one.  The concept of the film is solid, and with that story idea and these performers, there is a great film in there somewhere.  Men in Black 3 isn’t it, though.

As I just wrote, the central concept of the film is strong, and I can see why this story lured all the major players (stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld) back to the table.  A vicious bad-guy who Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) had put away forty years previously breaks out of prison and uses a time machine to go back in time and kill K in the past.  Agent J (Will Smith) must travel back to 1969 to save the life of the young Agent K, played in the past by Josh Brolin.

The problem (well, there are many problems with the film, but let’s start with this one) is that the first section of the film, set in the present day, is absolutely terrible.

Let’s start with the prologue, in which Boris the Animal breaks out of the MIB’s prison on the moon, and begins his plan for vengeance against Agent K.  Director Barry Sonnenfeld doesn’t seem to have any idea how to stage this sequence.  It has a weird, goofy tone.  In my opinion, if the filmmakers wanted to set up Boris as a real threat to our … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Captain America: The First Avenger!

And so we come to it at last, the final piece in the puzzle before next summer’s unprecedented super-hero cross-over movie, The Avengers.  There was Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor, and now we have Captain America: The First Avenger.  Captain America is overly simplistic and a little corny at times, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a rollicking good time in a movie theatre.

As with all of the Marvel Studios films so far, the film sets itself up for success with its impeccable casting.  Chris Evans was the best thing about the terrible Fantastic Four movies, and he’s found an even better role here in that of Steve Rogers/Captain America.  He absolutely looks the part, and more importantly than that he’s able to sell Steve Rogers’ aw-shucks good-hearted nature without coming off as silly.  He’s an un-ironic heroic lead, and I found his honest, open-faced portrayal to be quite compelling.  This performance is assisted by some wonderful CGI effects that create the 90-pound weakling version of Steve Rogers that we see in the first act.  This isn’t The Curious Case of Benjamin Button style photo-realism, not by any stretch.  But the effects are convincing, and after a few moments I really did stop thinking about the visual effects and just accepted skinny-Steve as a fully-realized character.  It’s a terrific achievement in effects.

Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings) creates yet another iconic villain in the role of Johann Schmidt, The Red Skull.  Putting on what sounded to me like his best impersonation of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, Mr. Weaving chews a lot of scenery but never tips over the edge into camp.  The Red Skull is a big, bad, totally EVIL comic-book villain, and I thought he was just terrific.  (Possibly the best bad-guy in a Marvel Studios film so far.)  I loved the look of his make-up effects, and I was pleased that once his fleshy mask comes off, it stays off for the rest of the film.

I was surprised at how large a role Tommy Lee Jones has in the film.  I thought this would just be a cameo, but his Colonel Phillips becomes a key character throughout the film, and Jones just kills.  He gets many of the film’s best lines, and his gruff, warm presence is a delight.  Most of the rest of the film’s best lines go to Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine, the inventor of the super-soldier serum that transforms Steve Rogers into Captain America.  This was another surprise for me, and I appreciated that we really got to know Dr. Erskine in the film’s first … [continued]