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GRAY MATTERS - My Review of AD ASTRA ( 3 1/2 Stars)
Over the past twenty-plus years, James Gray has established himself has a world class filmmaker with such titles as Little Odessa, Two Lovers, The Immigrant, and The Lost City of Z in which he has mastered what I like to call the calm, dreamy epic. His latest, Ad Astra, blends the slow, quiet pacing of 2001: A Space Odyssey with certain themes and plot points from Apocalypse Now and Contact, and a little Terrence Malick abstractness, yet remains a unique science fiction experience of its own.
Starring Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride, the film, which was co-written by Ethan Gross, follows Roy on a journey through space to locate the source of a series of power surges which have threatened our planet in the not too distant future. It has been suspected that Roy's father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who has been presumed dead, is actually alive and has gone rogue, sending these surges to destroy the Earth so he can continue to search for signs of intelligent life in the universe.
The film uses a clever voiceover device in which Roy takes daily psychological oral exams to prove his worthiness for the mission. He can remain calm under the most dire of circumstances, such as in the thrilling, vertiginous opening sequence, keeping his heart rate low. He's the perfect person to find his father, since he's so disaffected. Damien Chazelle's First Man explored similar themes but left me cold, whereas Ad Astra, as lumbering and internal as it is, moved me.
We learn in flashbacks that Roy has a strained relationship with his wife, played by Liv Tyler. He can't connect or engage. His trip to the far reaches of Neptune includes stopovers on the Moon, which has been commercialized, and Mars, long stretches in which we experience Roy's isolation or watch him go through a series of tests to see if he can handle the ultimate showdown ahead. Were it not the for eerily evocative score by Max Richter, the clear beauty of Hoyte Van Hoytema's (Dunkirk, Let The Right One In) cinematography, or Brad Pitt's soulful stillness, I would have found the second act to be a huge bore. Sure it has its share of set pieces such as an exciting lunar chase sequence, a scary baboon attack, and a brief yet amusing cameo by Natasha Lyonne as a sort of Mars Walmart Greeter/harried bureaucrat, but it's mostly contemplative. The real story gets told on Pitt's face, a wellspring of emotions as he, like Willard, goes up a river of sorts to confront his own Colonel Kurtz. Basically, plotwise, you could jettison the entire second act and still have a coherent story, but then you'd miss out on a seductive, woozy film experience.
As the film moves along, it peels back the noise of its build-up to bring us a long-awaited confrontation with a Dad he hasn't seen in decades. I won't spoil what happens, but the film brings up issues of "Deadbeat Dads", the need to connect with others, or the narcissism which prevents that from ever happening. It takes a while, like space travel, but it arrives at something profound and human in the end.
Those expecting another Gravity will want a refund. It's definitely right on the edge of boring, but the craftsmanship and level of performance keeps it aloft. James Gray makes films about humans who want to push themselves to their limits to discover who they really are, and as such, he's a rarity. I'll follow his career to the moon and back…or even further. In this era of popcorn, slam bang overkill, it's refreshing to see a filmmaker and star take their time and give us something different.
Biopics have evolved in recent years favoring a specifically selected moment in their subjects' lives instead of going for the sprawling epic treatment. Consider the differences between The Last Emperor and Stan & Ollie as one example. What you lose in a comprehensive overview, you gain with more honed dramatic storytelling. The latest example, Judy, based on a play by Peter Quilter, written by Tom Edge and directed by Rupert Goold (True Story), concentrates mainly on a couple of months in 1968 as the legendary Judy Garland traveled to London for a series of sold out stage performances. Broke, addicted to drugs and alcohol, lonely and battered by a tough life, she would die six months later. Flashbacks to one of her biggest triumphs, The Wizard Of Oz, only serve to demonstrate the beginnings of her troubles.
I'm reminded of My Week With Marilyn and Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool, where the lead performance outshone everything else, and Judy certainly features an astounding turn by Renée Zellweger in what amounts to a small but heartbreaking character study. While she has the mannerisms down pat and sings well enough to bare her soul, Zellweger's achievement along with Goold's is to hone in on every minute emotion which flashes across her face. An early scene in which Judy fails to secure a hotel room for herself and her children because she has no money, proves devastating due to Zellweger's microexpressions. While unflappable with the desk clerk and putting on a brave face for her kids, she also conveys a deep-seated heartbreak, and it's an astonishing piece of acting. It's easy to see how he daughter Liza inherited her mother's smile-through-tears approach to life.
Gorgeously filmed, with a special mention to cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland (American Animals), Judy really excels during the musical numbers, where the camera work feels completely in sync with its subject. While tonally middle of the road and sometimes maudlin, the film, nonetheless, resonates for anyone who has ever felt abandoned or put out to pasture and just trying to tough it out. While Rufus Sewall and Finn Wittrock have their stern and delightful moments respectively as Judy's last two husbands, it's Jessie Buckley as Garland's London assistant and Andy Nyman as a gay fan who make true impressions in the shadow of Zellweger. Buckley, who in her young career has excelled at playing the wild child, tamps down her instincts for a much more still approach, and she succeeds in finding the empathetic core to a character in a tough situation. Nyman, as one half of a gay couple who befriend Garland for an evening, beautifully stands in for her legions of fans. In fact, their scenes together stand our more than anything else in the film, culminating in a tear-inducing climax you won't soon forget. No longer portrayed as the tragic diva, Garland gets her due as a funny, sweet, fun hangout kinda gal. Would she have been revered as much had she not lived such a troubled life? Would she have inspired the Stonewall Riots had she not died right before they occurred? We'll never know, but Judy, and Zellweger's monumental achievement, assures we'll continue to treasure this smart, talented woman.
As Maya Angelou famously said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Hustlers, the new film from writer/director Lorene Scafaria comes riddled with imperfections. It has too many montages, a few wafer-thin characterizations, plot strands which go nowhere, and some fairly low stakes drama, but man does it make you feel good. It also glamorizes fur and smoking, but it's the world of this story, so what are you gonna do? The whole is greater than the sum of its parts but this joyous ride has a couple killer performances, memorable lines, and a gorgeous pop candy look. Simply put, it's unforgettable and made me feel so, so good.
Up until now, Scafaria hasn't impressed me with Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World and The Meddler underwhelming me. With Hustlers, however, she has mastered the art of finding that sweet spot where lurid meets depth. Wildly entertaining yet with something to say about female power, it reminded me of such sensationalistic 90s films as Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Only this time out, the feminist female gaze stakes its claim on what's always been a boy's club movie.
Based on a true story, Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) stars as Destiny, a newbie exotic dancer at a Scores-like Manhattan club who gets mentored by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), an experienced Mother Hen shortly before the 2008 financial crisis. Lopez, whose National Treasure status gets amped up to eleven here, stuns in her first big scene as she pole dances onstage. She follows this with an indelible rooftop pose in which she lies back like Faye Dunaway the day after her Oscar win (Google it. You're welcome!), takes a drag from her cigarette and invites Destiny to "Climb in my fur". Thus begins a fascinatingly complex relationship between these two women who try to make a living as the world around them crumbles.
When the market crashes and business dies at the club, Ramona can't stand the fact that these men will get away with stealing from everyone, so her revenge/survival scheme, however illegal, has a sound motive. In this pretty clever get-rich-quick scheme, one of her cohorts will befriend their mark, get him drunk, introduce him to her other friends, get a party going, drug him, and max out his credit cards. The day after, the mostly married men won't want to admit to their wives what they did, so our heroines have constructed a seemingly perfect crime. Framed by a reporter played by Julia Stiles, a retrospective interview she conducts with a hardened Destiny tells us things didn't quite go as planned.
Ramona and Destiny set this standard-issue plot apart by nature of their dynamic personalities and their touching back stories. Ramona has a daughter she adores whereas Destiny lovingly takes care of her grandmother. You really get to know these characters as layered humans and not just as sexual objects. I haven't seen this much loving detail put into a populist film since Saturday Night Fever. Wu surprises with her intense gaze and forthright line readings, revealing much more than her prior romantic comedy image. She's incredibly engaging, but Lopez dominates this film and gives the performance of her career. It's not that we're realizing Lopez is a star for the first time, but this film puts together everything we love about her - the glamour, the moves, the flawless makeup, the combination of delightful and steely, the strut, the Kardashian of it all - and delivers it with blazing power and heart. It's a great star performance.
Supporting characters, albeit fun, suffer by default. Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer, while both vibrant, get assigned one character trait apiece, the dancer who vomits and the dancer who has a husband in prison respectively. Mercedes Reuhl gets introduced as the club's Den Mother, but never develops beyond a few brush strokes. I would have loved a lot more of Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid's Tale) whose wildcard character kept me laughing and on my toes. Cardi B and Lizzo have cameos so small, they can barely pull focus away from Lopez and Wu, yet they bring a wild energy to the story. Cardi B especially makes good use of her limited screen time and gets the line of the movie when her lap dance tutorial contains instructions for Destiny to "work the clock, not the cock." Luckily, Scafaria's energetic script has tons more hilarious zingers where that came from and an epic, Scorsese feel. She's helped immeasurably by her talented cinematographer Todd Banhazl and editor Kayla Emter. Hustlers does not have the feel of your typical indie. It feels lush, generous, and despite a few too many montages, however bouncy and hilarious, it's a full meal.
Yes, the stakes could have been higher, but the soul of this film lies in the sisterhood and this powerful love between Ramona and Destiny. You root for these women even though they're doing some very bad things. The film culminates in a stunner of a line from Ramona, framing this somewhat slight but beautiful story as something more global, real and current. In the end, it's a depressing indictment of America, but when you have Jennifer Lopez giving us that message, somehow, it doesn't feel so bad.
Watch a movie closely enough and you'll notice the best filmmakers share a dialogue with the audience. Expectations get subverted. Winking nods are exchanged. A filmmaker needles, prods, pokes and manipulates. When done effectively, you may feel you've gained a new BFF. Although we've never met, I feel that way about Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich (who delivers a funny cameo here), and Billy Wilder. They speak to me.
With It Chapter 2, Andy Muschietti clearly wants to have a chat with us. He knows how to creep us out, how to get inside your head, but it feels like he's that party guest who overshares until you need to excuse yourself to refresh your drink. Get too much of him and you're bound to say, "Hey, Andy, could you dial it back a notch? You don't have to say it all now." Still, he has enough in the plus column to keep him around for a while.
I enjoyed his first It, and although I had never read the book, had a general idea of what to expect with the sequel. Twenty-seven years later, our members of the Losers Club have grown up and mostly forgotten about their childhood traumas, but Pennywise, the Dancing Clown, has returned to Derry to once again feed off of the vulnerable. Can these friends join together once more to defeat this monster or will this horror haunt them forever?
From this description and the fantastic trailer, I had high expectations for a popcorn thriller filled with scary images. Each character will once again confront their worst fears, but with the difficulty of adulthood added to the mix. On that front, it delivers handily. What I didn't expect was a graphic early sequence of a brutal gay bashing. I understand it's in the book, but reading about it and watching it onscreen may just turn out to be two very different experiences. I don't have an issue with the depiction, but the execution took me by surprise for a big studio film. It doesn't help that the scene ends with the terrifying return of Pennywise, which takes the hopelessness to a whole new level. Muschietti truly understands film as a dreamscape with the unforgettable images of Pennywise reaching towards the water, slightly out of focus, and ready to strike. Needless to say, I put my popcorn down and dreaded the next two-plus hours.
Luckily, Muschietti has the ability to keep things zipping along as Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only one of the gang to remain in Derry, gathers everyone back to fight Pennywise. All of the adults, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, and Andy Bean, prove great matches for their younger counterparts. Hader in particular has the most dynamic role as the adult Richie, all grown up and working as a popular standup comedian. When the group meets in a fun Chinese restaurant scene, we get a great vivid sense of their bond with the added bonus of terrifying creatures giving John Carpenter's The Thing a run for its money.
At best, this film succeeds in fits and starts, much like the first one. It seems to lurch from one character's fear sequence to the next, forcing me to count down how many scenes like this we have left. Fortunately, many of these scenes have great impact, especially and under-the-bleachers scene in which a young girl meets our highly manipulative villain. Muschietti and his cinematographer Checco Varese have created a treasure trove of memorable images, such as hundreds of those dreaded red balloons descending upon Derry in the gay bashing scene, a sewer pipe overflowing with water in a clever homage to The Shining, or Pennywise holding a bunch of balloons as he floats over a giant Paul Bunyan statue. He knows how to get you to wince, such as when one character tries to pull a balloon stuck under a bed, and seconds later, you'll scream. It's delicious trickery which carries over throughout the film. It doesn't
hurt to have Bill Skarsgård back with his one-of-a-kind, viscerally detailed Pennywise. His body language and creepy vocal nuances provide an endless series of delights.
With so many characters, however, the film struggles with forward momentum. We check in with each individual and ping-pong around to accommodate this large, unwieldy cast. Everyone does a pretty good job, but Hader walks away with the film as exactly the kind of person into which the swearing, motor-mouthed Finn Wolfhard would grow. Ransone also has a field day with his tightly wound Eddie. Pay close attention and you'll also notice a gay storyline, which, in light of the in-your-face opener, didn't really need to play things as coy as it does. Perhaps it's a misguided carryover from the source material, which set the adult portion in the 80s instead of the film's modern day portrayal, but after literally hitting us over the head at the start, the latter subtleties seem a little off.
In the final act, the filmmakers choose to go big with a gigantic, apocalyptic CGI sequence which proved exhausting. Skarsgård saves the day, however, with some highly memorable facial contortions. Again, Muschietti may not have the most streamlined story or script to work with, but he does know how to etch certain moments into your brain. Even when things turn into a mushy "Hallmark Card meets Nike Commercial" type of sentimentality in its final moments, I give this film credit for some fine horror moments. Next time, I hope Muschietti gets to talk to us on a much smaller scale. I'd love to know what a quiet conversation with him would look like.
ICE QUEEN - My Review of WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE (3 1/2 Stars)
Richard Linklater, one of the most humanistic filmmakers working today, has often explored such themes as time, aging, or the benchmarks in ones lives, such as the last day of High School (Dazed And Confused), a first date (Before Sunrise), or the entire breadth of a child's life (Boyhood). His films often feel unstructured, laid back and unforced. It's strange then to see him play in the James L. Brooks/Cameron Crowe sandbox with his adaptation of Maria Semple's epistolary novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, but that's not automatically a bad thing. Co-written with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr., Linklater seems out of his element with this part-sitcom, part psycho-drama about a stifled genius. Still, he manages to deliver a moving experience helped immeasurably by Cate Blanchett's fantastic title performance.
Bernadette lives in a dilapidated Seattle mansion with her Microsoft tech genius husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and their adorable teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson). As a reward to Bee for a successful report card, they agree to take her on a family trip to Antarctica. Trouble is, over the years, Bernadette, a once famous architect, has transformed into a shut-in who hates people, especially taking it out on her next door neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Deeply troubled, Bernadette spends most of her time barking orders at Manjula, her virtual assistant in India, who arranges for everything to come to her door in package after package. Getting her out of the house and to the most remote place on earth seems unlikely.
It takes quite a while for the themes to coalesce, with the first act focusing on her feud with Audrey. Wiig excels with her tightly wound Mean Girl character and works well with Blanchett. I wondered, however, what this had to do with Antarctica and why we were spending so much time on this wayward plot strand. The story, however, slowly reveals itself to be about what becomes of an artist who no longer creates. She acts out, makes bad decisions, and directs her anger at everyone.
For a while, you laugh along with Bernadette as she takes out some easy targets. It culminates in a great scene in which Bernadette and Bee gang up on Audrey to take her down a peg. A lesser film would have left it at that, leaving a bad taste in my mouth to see women hurting each other. It wisely chooses to move beyond that scene and give these three women more dimensions than presented at first. Crudup also impressed me with his long-suffering husband character. He could have easily played Elgie as an entitled husband who wants his wife to "behave", but instead he offers a soulful person who loves his wife yet can't figure out how to navigate her towards happiness. Emma Nelson also excels as the kind of incredibly cool daughter you'd want to hang with as friends, but who also clearly needs a more solid foundation in which to grow.
Unlike the somewhat goofy trailer, the film has a much more somber tone in keeping with its rainy, Pacific Northwest setting. Disappointingly, it's Linklater's least flashy directing job of his career. The closest film this resembles is Ben Stiller's The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, another story about a character drowning in self-loathing. Whereas Stiller went for intense visual flourishes, Linklater merely delivers coverage. Still, I felt something here, despite a certain flatness and a ridiculous series of events involving such disparate things as penguins, FBI investigations, mudslides, kayaks, online scams, and potential office affairs. It's a LOT to take in, but Blanchett anchors it with someone cold, nihilistic, yet relatable. It may all come off as champagne problems, ("Oh darn, should we go to Antarctica?" "Did I order too many vests from the catalogue?" "That flood ruined my expensive oak floors!") but Blanchett makes you care just the same.