Saturday, October 19, 2019

Maleficent, Disney's 2014 reimagining of their own animated Sleeping Beauty; recasting the villain, Maleficent, as the hero of the story - a misunderstood fairy who had once been in love with Aurora's father, King Stefan, but fell victim to his relentless ambition. The film grossed over $700,000,000 worldwide, so a sequel seemed all but inevitable, even if there was no more story left to tell from the original Sleeping Beauty.

That leaves Maleficent: Mistress of Evil to forge its own creative path, and the results are somewhat mixed. The film picks up a few years after the original - Aurora (Elle Fanning) is now Queen of the Moors, having been adopted by Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) as her own daughter. When Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson, replacing Brenton Thwaites without anyone really noticing) proposes to Aurora despite Maleficent's objections, it seems as if a new era of peace and unity is at hand for the magic folk of the Moors and the adjacent kingdom of Ulstead. But Phillip's mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) has other plans, cursing her husband, King John (Robert Lindsay), and framing Maleficent in order to start a war between the two kingdoms and eradicate the fairies once and for all.

While Ingrith's motivations remain muddled (outside just being evil), seeing Pfeiffer ham it up with Jolie as two warring queens is great fun, even if the two share precious little screen time. Their initial meeting is a a deliciously acidic verbal tete-a-tete that lets the two great actresses trade barbs with relish. But the film drags in the middle as Maleficent is separated from the main plot for much of the film, off on a journey of self discovery in the land of her people - the dark fae.

Just as the original Maleficent built in themes of rape and trauma, Mistress of Evil also reaches for real-world relevance by exploring the ways in which those in power distort the truth and weaponize the prejudices of the people in order to exert absolute control. This leads to an attempted genocide whose imagery eerily recalls the gas chambers of the Holocaust. The appropriateness of appropriating such images for a children's film is somewhat suspect, but one can't help but admire the way in which director Joachim Rønning (Kon-Tiki, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) attempts to imbue what could have been just another fantasy sequel with a sense of real weight.

Unfortunately much of that weight is undercut by flat staging and unimaginative cinematography, an issue present in many modern Disney films that all seem to be striving for a homogenous "Disney look." The daytime battle sequences are far too brightly lit, the harsh lighting and daylight setting seemingly undercutting the seriousness of its thematic elements. There are some elements to enjoy here, but one can't help but feel that we've seen this film before - more specifically in Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda 2, which handled its themes of genocide and finding one's place in the world with much more dignity and emotional power. You have to give them credit for taking on relevant themes, and Mistress of Evil does reach some dark places, but in the context of a bright and sunny family-friendly Disney film, it never really has the chance to dig down as deep as its ideas require.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL | Directed by Joachim Rønning | Stars Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Sam Riley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ed Skrein | Rated PG for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and brief scary images | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Charlie Chaplin's The Circus (1928) was the last film the legendary filmmaker made during the silent era, although it would be well into the sound era before he would abandon silence altogether. The production was famously fraught with difficulties, with Chaplin being forced to reshoot much of the film due to a processing error, and a series of personal setbacks that left Chaplin noticeably tired and gaunt.

Yet it is a testament to Chaplin's consummate talent and creative genius that The Circus not only exists, but is a great film. Chaplin had long desired to make a film about the circus as a way of honoring the clowns and acrobats who inspired his onscreen persona. The resulting film, about a tramp who ends up as the unwitting star of a circus after being mistaken for a pickpocket, is one of Chaplin's most personal works, a wistful and ultimately bittersweet ode to circus performers that also reveals some of Chaplin's own insecurities as an artist. Here, his Tramp becomes an unwitting star, an affable nobody who stumbles into stardom. He doesn't even know he's funny - and as such gets employed a  stagehand because the ringmaster knows he'll mess up something in glorious fashion, much to the delight of the audience. Once he realizes that the crowds are flocking to see him, he has to fight to be given the credit he deserves. Even then, he is alone, and the film ends with him watching the woman he loves go off with the more handsome acrobat, while he shuffles off into the sunset alone, yet strangely fulfilled.

In fact the final shot of The Circus is almost the exact mirror of the iconic final image of his next film, City Lights (1931), which ends on a more upbeat note. It's a deeply funny film, and the climactic tightrope walk featuring a troop full of monkeys is one of Chaplin's most impressive set pieces. But there's something undeniably sad about the whole affair. The Circus came at a time of transition not only for Chaplin, but for cinema as whole, as the silent comedian faced a landscape shifting to sound and potentially leaving his ilk in the dust. As it turned out, Chaplin was one of the few silent comedians to survive the transition to sound, enjoying some of his greatest silent successes well into the sound era. But one can imagine The Circus as a film about an existential crisis - a work of deep soul searching by a performer grappling with the deep-seated insecurity of "am I funny?"

The answer is "of course," and that is why audiences are still watching Chaplin's films today. The Circus is the last of Chaplin's silent comedies to receive the Blu-Ray treatment from Criterion, following The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times, and while it may not be as famous as some of those masterworks, it remains a fascinating window into who Chaplin was an artist - representing some of his greatest innovation and his most personal artistic predilections. Criterion's Blu-Ray presentation is typically excellent, featuring in-depth explorations of the film's visual effects and interviews with Chaplin himself from the film's 1969 re-release, by then mostly a recluse. It's an interview tinged with sadness and regret, much like the film itself, a sad clown masterwork that masks its tears with a smile.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


Special Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration of Charlie Chaplin’s 1969 rerelease version of the film, featuring an original score by Chaplin, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New audio commentary featuring Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance 
  • Interview with Chaplin from 1969 New interview with Chaplin’s son Eugene Chaplin 
  • In the Service of the Story, a new program on the film’s visual effects and production design by film scholar Craig Barron 
  • Chaplin Today: “The Circus,” a 2003 documentary on the film featuring filmmaker Emir Kusturica 
  • Excerpted audio interview from 1998 with Chaplin musical associate Eric James 
  • Unused café sequence with new score by composer Timothy Brock, and related outtakes with narration by comedy choreographer Dan Kamin 
  • Newly discovered outtakes featuring the Tramp and the circus rider 
  • Excerpts from the original recording session for the film’s opening song, “Swing Little Girl” 
  • Footage of the film’s 1928 Hollywood premiere 
  • Rerelease trailers 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Benedict Wong and Will Smith in Gemini Man from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

Cinema history is full of gimmicks designed to lure audiences away from their television sets and into theaters. Some, like Cinemascope, stood the test of time. Others, like Cinerama, did not, while 3D has enjoyed a few short-lived revivals over the decades, it's never proven particularly enduring. In the age of streaming, filmmakers and studios continue to try to find ways to keep the theatrical experience relevant, setting it apart from what audiences can experience in their own living rooms.

Ang Lee has been on the cutting edge of the quest for ever more impressive cinematic technologies for several years now. He, along with Peter Jackson, seem to have cast their lot with High Frame Rate photography. In the case of Lee's latest film, Gemini Man, that means the film is running at 120 frames per second, a huge jump from the usual 24 frames per second of the typical feature film. The effect is one of hyperrealism and stunning clarity - some have compared it to watching a soap opera because the typical "flickering" effect our eyes are accustomed to while watching a film is missing, making the action smoother and more fluid. This can take some time for the eyes to adjust to, things tend to look like they're moving too fast because our eyes aren't having to work as hard. 

The effect is certainly realistic, but one can't help but wonder - what's the point? There are parts of Gemini Man that look so tangible and real that it's as if we could reach out and touch Will Smith - but this fidelity to absolute realism seems to erase the cinematic artistry. Sure it looks real, but where's the style, the visual wizardry, the panache? Gemini Man looks real but lifeless, even flat, a disappointing turn of events from a filmmaker like Lee who is an accomplished visual stylist. It's a feat of technical competence rather than cinematic artistry - and therein lies the problem at the heart of the HFR technology - in order to make it look real one must erase everything about a film that makes it cinematic, and if they story is weak then there's really nothing to go on. It's nothing but empty calories.

The story of Gemini Man isn't strong enough to step up and carry the film. Will Smith stars as assassin Henry Brogen who is targeted by his own government after one of his targets turned out to be an ally that rogue elements within the organization had framed for liquidation. The agent they send to kill him, under the auspices of the clandestine Project Gemini, is an exact clone of Henry; younger, blessed with all his skills but without his worldweary pain. As Henry fights to stay alive and clear his name, he must also confront himself, both literally and figuratively, and come to terms with his life of death and destruction, leading to a final showdown with the man who taught him everything.

Will Smith as "Junior" in Gemini Man from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

There's an interesting idea here, in which a man-vs-self conflict gets played out quite literally as a man confronts himself, his past, and eventually his "father," in order to come to terms with the man that he has become. Yet the film is hampered by a generic script and an overall sense of blandness. Lee knows how to direct an action sequence, and the centerpiece motorcycle chase is indeed spectacular, but the film becomes more and more insular, leading to a climax in the aisles of a hardware store that feels oddly small scale. Smith's doppelgänger, a wholly digital creation rather than a product of de-aging technology, looks stunningly real when he's not moving, but his facial movements betray his digital nature. There's just something off about him that never quite feels reel, and it becomes a distraction from Smith's performance as the real Henry. Clearly computer generated visual effects have improved at an impressive rate, but they still can't quite create a fully believable human character, no matter how real he looks when he's standing still. 

Lee has always been a strong filmmaker, which makes it all the more surprising that Gemini Man is as weak as it is. It feels like a showcase for emerging cinematic technologies rather than a film in its own right. It never fully grapples with the psychological conflicts at its center in its quest to impress the audience with its technical prowess, and the effect cold and anonymous, lacking any semblance of personality or any real sense of creative passion. It's proof-positive that impressive technology can only carry a film so far.

GRADE - ★★  (out of four)


GEMINI MAN | Directed by Ang Lee | Stars Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen Benedict Wong | Rated PG-13 for violence and action throughout, and brief strong language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, October 11, 2019

There are few filmmakers that can so deftly juggle wildly disparate tones and genres as South Korea's Bong Joon Ho. Bong's films work on so many layers, peeling back genre trappings to reveal piercing social critiques embedded within their deft blending of cinematic styles. Whether it's a monster movie with a soul (The Host), a story of a girl and her giant pig who take on the meat industry (Okja), or an eerily prescient thriller about a train turned refugee concentration camp (Snowpiercer), Bong's sensibilities have always rested with the marginalized and forgotten people of the world.

In his latest film, Parasite, which won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Bong builds his narrative around a lower class family whose employment prospects look increasingly dim. Having just lost their job putting together pizza boxes for a local pizza company, and their dingy basement apartment becoming little more than a prison with bad wi-fi, they begin looking for alternative forms of employment. Opportunity knocks when son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) finds a job working as a tutor for Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the daughter of the wealthy Park family, he jumps at the chance. It isn't long before he's found a way to slyly recommend the rest of his family members for positions in the household. First his sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam) as the art therapist for spoiled son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), who in turn conspires to get the family chauffeur fired in favor of her father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho). They at last secure family matriarch, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), a position as the maid after convincing the wealthy mistress of the house (Cho Yeo-jeong) that her old house keeper (Lee Jung-eun) is hiding a nasty case of tuberculosis.

Safely having infiltrated the Park family's sumptuously appointed home, their family connections safely hidden, Ki-taek's family is seemingly on top of the world, all gainfully employed and funneling as much of the Park's money toward their own. But when the family's old maid returns to the house one rainy night while the Parks are on vacation, she reveals a dark secret that will upend all their lives, and change the dynamic between the two families forever.

On the surface, the title Parasite seems to refer to Ki-taek's family, whose simple act of subterfuge helps them trick their way into the Park family's lives. But as the film goes on, it forces the audience to re-contextualize and re-analyze everything it has seen before. Is Ki-taek's family the parasite, or is it perhaps the Park family, whose wealth is totally built on the backs of the poor, completely dependent on working class stiffs to do their bidding. Bong never exalts Ki-taek's family as some sort of paragon of working class martyrdom, nor does he portray the Parks as mustache-twirling corporate villains. Instead, they form a kind of symbiotic relationship, completely dependent on one another for survival, and yet only one side is truly being exploited, have-nots kept underground in squalor in order to prop up the haves who quite literally live above.

Parasite begins as a seemingly light-hearted family comedy, Ki-taek's brood spending their time desperately searching for the one spot in the house with a wi-fi signal, and chasing off drunks who constantly piss in front of their window. Even their ingratiation with the Park family plays a bit like a farce. But Bong slowly turns the film into something else, a dark thriller built around an outlandish premise that finally comes to a head in a shocking eruption of violence, before switching gears yet again into a kind of reflective socially conscious tragedy. It's a film very much rooted in class consciousness and income inequality, an issue that continues to rise to the forefront not only of our own politics here in the United States, but in countries around the world. Bong masterfully blends these divergent genre elements into one wildly original whole, crafting an incisive indictment of income inequality and the wide gulf between the classes that is as bitterly funny as it is achingly sad. It's a tale of two families living side by side who couldn't be further apart, with one family propping up and enabling obscene wealth they could never hope to accumulate in a thousand lifetimes. That's the real tragedy at the heart of Parasite, it may be about tensions between the haves and the have-nots, but it's a stark reminder that the have-nots need the haves just as much as the haves need the have-nots, and that such extreme inequality can only ever lead to simmering resentment that will inevitably boil over. And that leaves us all to question just who the real parasites are.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


PARASITE | Directed by Bong Joon-ho | Stars Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Jung-eun, Chang Hyae-jin | Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content | In Korean w/English subtitles | Opens today, 10/11, in select cities.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Leo Penn and Sally Forrest in Ida Lupino's NOT WANTED.

While perhaps best known to general audiences as an actress in films like High Sierra and They Drive by Night, Ida Lupino also had a successful career as a director at time when the profession was very much seen as a man's job. Lupino became the only woman to helm a classic film noir (1953's The Hitch-Hiker), and even founded her own independent production company, The Filmmakers, along with her husband, Collier Young, with whom she co-wrote many of her film's screenplays. 

It was with The Filmmakers that Lupino flourished as a director, cranking out low-budget "issue dramas" that took sensational material and embed with with a heart and soul. Lupino wasn't unlike Val Lewton in that regard, although her pared down, steely style more closely resembles the work of Raoul Walsh, who directed her in several films. Yet Lupino's lurid subject matter wasn't imposed on her by some studio head out to make a quick buck - she was the studio head, and she had a knack for taking juicy, ripped from the headlines subjects - teen pregnancy, hitchhiking murders, bigamy - and turning them into cinematic gold.

Yet unlike many similar films of the late 40s and 50s, which took a "there but for the grace of god go I" point of view toward societal issues, Lupino's films replaced pity with empathy, and she treated her characters with compassion rather than judgement.  Her first film, Not Wanted (1949), is the perfect example of the sense of compassion Lupino brought to her work. The story of Sally Kelton (Sally Forrest), an unwed mother who falls for the wrong man, a smooth-talking piano player (Leo Penn, father of Sean) with no intention of sticking around, Not Wanted deftly avoids the exploitation aesthetic of many similarly themed films of the period like She Shoulda Said No! (1949). Fearful that she will be viewed as "damaged goods" and ruin her reputation, Sally gives her baby up for adoption, a decision she regrets so much that it begins to tear her life apart, leading to a rash decision that lands her in hot water with the law.

It's a remarkably sensitive handling of the subject matter for 1949. Naturally, marriage is seen as the ideal for Sally, so a romantic subplot involving a young man (Keefe Brasselle) who loves her no matter what provides a backbone for the film. Yet it never feels as though Lupino is looking down on Sally for her decision. It's as if she understands and sympathizes with her plight and refuses to judge her for her actions. It's a remarkably sensitive film, one that seemingly runs against the grain of the social mores of 1949. Neither celebrating or condemning Sally's actions, it simply asks for compassion and understanding, and Lupino displays it in spades.

Keefe Brasselle and Sally Forrest in Ida Lupino's NEVER FEAR.

Later that same year Lupino tackled another social problem, and this time it was one she was intimately familiar with. Never Fear (1949) tells the story of an energetic young dancer named Carol Williams (Sally Forrest), who is diagnosed with polio at the height of her career. Faced with losing her ability to walk and never dancing again, she withdraws from the world, including her fiancé and dance partner, Guy Richards (Keefe Brasselle). Once she arrives at the Kabat-Kaiser Institute for treatment, she meets Len Randall (Hugh O'Brien), who is likewise stricken with polio. There she is faced with a choice, leave her abled fiancé for someone who better understands her plight, or leave Len and try to re-integrate into the world she once knew.

Never Fear is an often tough-minded film that has the gloss of a "human resilience" drama, but in Lupino's steady hands it reaches much deeper. Carol spends much of the film not wanting to be a burden on anyone, and finds a kindred spirit in Len, a man who has accepted his disability and refuses to let it hold him back. But he can't give her the life she once dreamed of, which makes Never Fear a much thornier film than it seems at first glance. But like Not Wanted before it, the film refuses to simply pity its polio stricken protagonists, and allows Carol to reclaim agency over her own life - even if she (and the audience) are ultimately unsure about the decision she finally makes.

Frank Lovejoy, William Talman, and Edmond O'Brien in Ida Lupino's THE HITCH-HIKER.

When asked to make a favorite among her own works, Lupino often pointed to The Hitch-Hiker, and indeed, it is a feverish noir thriller that helped perpetuate a fear of hitchhikers that has lasted to this day. Its protagonists, Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), have the misfortune of picking up murderous hitchhiker Emmet Myers (William Talman) while on a fishing trip in the mountains. Myers forces them to drive him into the Mexican desert so he can make his final escape, but threatens to kill the two men if he catches wind on the radio that the police have connected their disappearance with his string of kidnappings and murders.

It's a white-knuckle, edge-of-your seat high wire act that showcases Lupino's unique ability to take inspiration from real-life events (in this case, hysteria over hitchhikers) and turn them into cinematic gold. It is here that her direction most resembles Walsh's, straightforward, assured, and gritty, awash in seedy crime genre suspense but almost uncannily focused on the plot and hand. Lupino's direction is economical but always empathetic, placing her focus on the slowly unravelling victims and their mounting realization that their lives are on the line, rather than the terrifying villain (who's always watching even when he's sleeping thanks to a bum eye that never closes). It's as grim and efficient as anything Walsh ever directed, and firmly puts Lupino in the realm of some of the best noir directors.

Edmond O'Brien and Ida Lupino in THE BIGAMIST.

The last film in the set, 1953's The Bigamist, is perhaps its most difficult. The film centers around a man named Harry Graham (Edmond O'Brien) who is trying to adopt a baby with his wife, Eve (Joan Fontaine) because she is unable to conceive children. But as the adoption agency investigates the family to determine their suitability, they uncover a dark secret - Harry is actually living a double life, with another wife (Lupino) and child in another city where he often travels for business. What seems like a pretty straightforward issue becomes disarmingly complicated under Lupino's direction, who refuses to treat this as the issue of black and white morality that it appears to be.

She actually makes us feel sympathy for Graham, as she takes what could be seen as an "aw man I'm sorry I got caught" excuse and delves deep into the roots of what caused his betrayal. In The Bigamist, he isn't seen so much as a rotten philanderer as a complicated and conflicted man who got in over his head. "I don't know whether to despise you or feel sorry for you," the inspector says at one point. And the audience is in much the same position. While viewers' reactions will likely vary greatly, Lupino refuses to take sides, and the result is a film that exists in a surprising moral gray area rarely seen in 1953. It's all made even more fascinating by the fact that Lupino and her husband/co-writer Collier were going through a divorce while the film was being made, with Collier's new girlfriend, Joan Fontaine, playing opposite Lupino as the other woman. The Bigamist displays an incredible restraint and sense of forgiveness that showcases Lupino's unique humanist talents.

Putting all four films together in one set really shines a light on one of the 20th century's most unheralded woman filmmakers. Each film has been beautifully restored for the Blu-Ray release. While Lupino was not a flashy visual stylist, her deceptively simple compositions belie a deep understanding of character psychology. This is Kino's most impressive release of 2019, and an essential set for any cinephile.

NOT WANTED - ★★★½ (out of four)
NEVER FEAR - ★★★ (out of four)
THE HITCH-HIKER - ★★★½ (out of four)
THE BIGAMIST - ★★★½ (out of four)


Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Joker in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “JOKER,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.  

No other film in recent memory has inspired quite as much passionate online discourse as Todd Phillips' Joker. The film has stirred up something of a firestorm of controversy, with supporters and detractors firmly entrenched in their positions between "masterpiece" and "trash." Yet I can think of few recent films less worthy of such debate than Joker.

Neither dumb nor brilliant, Joker is an impressive feat of smoke and mirrors, but little more than that. It borrows liberally, and sometimes thrillingly, from the filmography of Martin Scorsese (specifically The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver), but it lacks the soul that always marks a Scorsese picture. As directed by Phillips, Joker wants to be a film about Big Themes and Big Ideas, but it lacks the courage of its own convictions, dipping its toe in the water of social criticism but never fully taking the plunge. The result is a thematically muddled film that lacks a point of view and isn't nearly as profound as it clearly thinks it is.

It all centers around the origins of Batman's greatest nemesis, the Joker, represented in this version of events by one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled man whose dead-end job as a clown-for-hire constantly makes him a source of ridicule. Arthur dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, but when a video of his disastrous performance gets showcased on a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), it begins to look like the world is conspiring against him, leading Arthur to lash out in increasingly violent ways. It isn't long before his murderous tendencies spark a movement in Gotham City that spirals out of his control, turning him into a kind of folk hero for a political ideal of which he wants no part.

As a whole, Joker is a consistently unnerving,  darkly beautiful evocation of 1970s New York, built around an incredible performance by Joaquin Phoenix whose slow descent into madness is mesmerizing to watch. Ditto Hildur Guðnadóttir's haunting score, whose sickly cello laments are perhaps the film's greatest asset, burrowing under the audience's skin and emerging as a kind of eerie window into the music of the Joker's soul.

When regarded simply as a super villain origin story it's often quite compelling, but it doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny when it tries to tackle BIG THEMES. It mostly works on its own merits but falls apart when applied to our current moment. Joker tries to tackle inequality and class warfare, mental illness, and society's role in creating mass murderers, but it doesn't seem to have any actual ideas about any of those things, blithely throwing in moments that seem like broad attempts to comment on America's volatile political climate, but these are often surface-level nods to real world relevance with nothing to back them up. Phillips seems doggedly determined to have his cake and eat it too, to make a cinematic comment on our world while keeping politics at arm's length. He's playing Scorsese dress-up without bothering to capture the deep understanding and empathy that Scorsese always displays for even his most despicable characters. As a gritty comic book tale Joker mostly works on its own merits, but when it tries to match Scorsese's righteous fury, it feels like little more than a pale imitation.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


JOKER | Directed by Todd Phillips | Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Brett Cullen, Frances Conroy, Douglas Hodge | Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Our Hospitality (1923) was only Buster Keaton's second feature film (the third if you count 1920's The Saphead, which was merely an actor-for-hire job rather than a Keaton original), yet it stands out as one of his finest achievements in front of or behind the camera. 

Following Three Ages, which was released earlier the same year and featured three standalone shorts, Our Hospitality was Keaton's first attempt at sustaining a single plot over a feature length, and the result is often astonishing, the work of a filmmaker clearly ready to breakaway from short films and tackle bigger ideas. Keaton took inspiration for the film from the legendary feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families, casting himself as Willie McKay, who was whisked away as a baby (played by Keaton's own son) to New York to escape the wrath of the Canfield family. When he reaches the age of 21, he learns that he's the heir to his family's estate, and returns home to collect his inheritance, only to discover that he's inherited a rundown old shack and a blood debt that the Canfields are determined to collect at all costs. The situation is complicated by the fact that he unknowingly fell in love with a Canfield daughter (Keaton's wife, Natalie Talmadge) on the train, and soon finds himself a guest on the Canfield estate, and the target of their rather unusual hospitality.

While Three Ages poked fun at epic filmmaking, Our Hospitality feels almost effortlessly sprawling, a tale of ancient rivalry set against the back drop of the Blue Ridge Mountains circa 1830. Keaton's attention to detail lends the film a striking period authenticity, almost as if we're watching the film unfold live in the 19th century. He also employs period contraptions to great comedic effect - the train ride home on an original English steam engine is truly hilarious, with Keaton sustaining the comic momentum for nearly 20 minutes with a series of escalating gags that presages his work on The General three years later. His pedal-less bicycle, a "gentleman's hobby horse," is also a wonderfully goofy evocation of his character, a feckless dandy who's about to become the ultimate fish out of water.

It all culminates in a massive climax on a roaring river that seamlessly combines Keaton's breathtaking stunt work with a waterfall set built on a soundstage. Keaton, of course, did all his own stunts, and nearly died several times while making the film, but his lack of regard for life and limb resulting in a thrilling and wildly funny film. The iconic comedian once explained that he moved away from the wild set piece stunts that defined his short films when he transitioned to features, namely because they lacked the verisimilitude he believed necessary to telling a feature length story. But in Our Hospitality he manages to strike the perfect balance between death defying stunts and a compelling story. It's essentially a comedic twist on Romeo and Juliet, but with Keaton's unique charm and a beautifully rendered sense of time and place, it becomes a showcase for one of cinema's great comic filmmakers, whose stone-faced visage and droll sense of humor created a timeless work of art whose unique silliness continues to echo through the ages. It has all been gorgeously preserved on the new 2K restoration on the new Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber and Lobster Films, much of the extraneous grain, dirt, and debris have been removed from the negative and the print looks crystal clear. It's a top notch presentation of one of Keaton's best, and also includes two Keaton shorts and several behind the scenes documentaries. It's a must for Keaton fans and for all enthusiasts of silent cinema.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


OUR HOSPITALITY | Directed by Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone | Stars Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge, Joe Roberts, Francis X. Bushman, Jr. | Not Rated | Available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber on Oct. 15.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Babek Ahmadpour in WHERE IS THE FRIEND'S HOUSE?
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

By the late 1980s, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami had not yet reached the level of international arthouse fame he would achieve in the 1990s with films like Close-Up (1990) and A Taste of Cherry (1997). While working as the head of Iran's Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, he accepted an offer to direct a film based on his own screenplay that would become Where is the Friend's House? (1987), an unassuming drama about a young boy who sets out to return his friend's homework notebook after the friend is humiliated in front of the class by their teacher after he left his notebook at home and threatened with expulsion if it should ever happen again.

There's only one problem - young Ahmad (Babek Ahmadpour) has no idea where his friend Mohammad (Ahmed Ahmadpour) lives. He sets off from his hometown of Koker to the neighboring village of Poshteh to track down Mohammad, along the way meeting a series of unhelpful and uninterested adults, culminating with an encounter with a lonely old man who becomes Ahmad's guide into an unexpectedly magical world, a beautiful and mysterious maze on the road of life. It was this film that truly heralded the arrival of Kiarostami as a major figure in world cinema, perhaps one of the greatest films about childhood ever made. Kiarostami captures such a sense of innocence and pure love for one's friends, a love consistently unappreciated by the adults around them. Every adult Ahmad encounters seems wholly unsympathetic to his act of selflessness, determined instead to instill a kind of blind obedience to "build character" that he clearly already has. Their attempts to mold him into adults like themselves is barely disguised abuse, because the cycle they seek to perpetuate is to create more self-centered adults who'd rather mind their own business than help those around them.

Its final image is one of such profound beauty that it rivals the iconic freeze-frame ending of Truffaut's The 400 Blows, perfectly capturing the sublime, gossamer belief in basic human kindness inherent in childhood, here fully realized despite all attempts by jaded adults to snuff it out, breaking a cycle of cynicism and selfishness the oblivious adults seem determined to save in older to uphold a bleak status quo.

A still from AND LIFE GOES ON. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Kiarostami would become a major filmmaker before returning to this world in 1992's And Life Goes On (aka Life, and Nothing More). The filmmaker often resisted the moniker of "The Koker Trilogy," a title bestowed on this triptych by critics, but all three are inherently and unavoidably connected - completely able to stand on their own yet so much richer as a whole. Rather than directly follow up Where is the Friend's House?, Kiarostami based And Life Goes On on his experiences directly following the 1990 Gilan earthquake that claimed the lives of nearly 50,000 Iranians. The film centers around a filmmaker and his son traveling to a devastated Koker to check on the welfare of the young actors from Where is the Friend's House? in a kind of blending of documentary and fiction that Kiarostami does so well, leaving one to wonder where one ends and the other begins.

The script is reportedly based on interactions Kiarostami had with his on the road to Koker, and yet the film is anything but heavy or tragic. It's a kind of testament to the resilience of the Iranian people, who all seem to be carrying on with life as normal, the earthquake's devastation simply another obstacle to overcome in everyday life. While not a sequel to Where is the Friend's House?, And Life Goes On returns to one of that film's key visual motifs - a zigzag hill leading from Koker to Poshteh that Ahmad must continually cross in order to achieve his goal of finding his friend. This hill comes to represent a kind of Sisyphean task of human existence that the films' characters must overcome nevertheless. There's a kind of playfulness here that belies the seriousness of the task at hand, and yet under Kiarostami's masterful eye the film becomes a sort of wry celebration of the Iranian people's determination to keep going under even the most brutal of circumstances. It never answers its central question, leaving the meat of the story in the journey rather than the destination, a sort of discovery of the self and of the nation on the road to Koker. Life continues, even in the face of great adversity. They go on because they must.

Mohamad Ali Keshavarz as the Director in THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

The question of Ahmadpour's safety is quickly answered in Kiarostami's 1994 follow-up, Through the Olive Trees, although the revelation is almost an afterthought. Based on his experiences while filming And Life Goes On, Through the Olive Trees once again centers on a filmmaker patterned after Kiarostami (Mohamad Ali Keshavarz). While working on And Life Goes On, the director encounters a major roadblock when one of his actors is unable to perform when paired with an actress he had previously proposed to, only to be rejected because her family disapproved. As his set is disrupted and his filming schedule falls behind, the director is forced to use creative measures to coerce the actors to give him the performance he needs to complete the film.

Kiarostami uses a kind of meta-textual exploration of his own filmmaking process to explore not only the idea of creation itself, but of the gossamer intricacies of human relationships. Each subsequent film in the Koker Trilogy interrogates the film before it. They're not sequels, but they do build upon their thematic content, acknowledging the existence of the previous films while charting their own unique course, allowing Kiarostami to use his own experiences to reflect on the simple beauties of the human comedy. In Through the Olive Trees he takes a love story fraught with tradition turns it into something warm, humane, and wryly funny, a bemused reverie on love and romance in an ever-evolving Iran.

The new box set from the Criterion Collection is one of the most beautiful the company has ever produced, effortlessly intertwining the three films in the package in a way that subtly reflects their thematic connections. It's a lovely way to continue the thematic content over into their presentation, resulting in one of their finest releases of 2019. It's a must-have for fans of Kiarostami, offering a window into his filmmaking roots and a rare glimpse into the lives of the Iranian people.

WHERE IS THE FRIEND'S HOUSE? - ★★★★ (out of four)
AND LIFE GOES ON - ★★★½ (out of four)
THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES - ★★★½ (out of four)


Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Cinema Obscura is a regular feature at From the Front Row, highlighting little-known films that I believe need a second look. The mission of Cinema Obscura is to bring attention to hidden gems and forgotten masterpieces from around the world that readers may not otherwise have had a chance to discover. 

I've found myself returning to this film often in the months since I first watched it, yet I haven't been able to bring myself to sit down and write about it. There's something so disturbingly relevant about Jan Němec's A Report on the Party and Guests (1966) that echoes through the decades and seems to eerily presage the global rise of rightwing nationalism and fascism across the globe in the last years of the 2010s.

Němec's film was originally banned in its native Czechoslovakia. The censors declared it "to have nothing in common with our republic, socialism, and the ideals of Communism." Perhaps they were right, A Report on the Party and Guests is not particularly socialist in nature, although in the United States in 2019 its themes certainly seem leftwing. But the heart of the film lies not in leftwing or rightwing politics but in a repudiation of totalitarianism of all stripes, be they communist or capitalist in nature. Here, Němec brutally lampoons human nature and our penchant for unquestioning compliance before authority, an unfortunate trait that gives would-be dictators carte-blanche to establish absolute power.

The film follows a group of friends out for a carefree afternoon in the country. But their idyllic picnic is soon interrupted by a marauding wedding party that orders them into non-existent corals and begins jovially issuing nonsensical orders. The guests all willfully comply with a sense of curious bemusement. Held captive in an invisible cage, they immediately adhere to the rules set forth by their captors, who have no weapons and no obvious sense of authority over them whatsoever. The only thing holding them captive is their own compliant mentality.

Despite the smiling faces of and apologetic attitude of those in charge of the wedding party, who insist that they only have the best interests of their guests at heart, the film becomes more and more sinister as the ill intentions of the captors becomes more and more apparent. No matter what they say, this is not some benevolent invitation to eat drink and be merry, it's an egregious abuse of power, power that they were never granted in the first place. And yet all the while, the guests smile and accept every apology and explanation for their hosts' bad behavior, never thinking that they may be frogs trapped in slowly boiling water.

This blind acquiescence before power is the dark heart of the film. Němec employs a gentle sense of surrealism that recalls Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel (1962), as the demands made by the party's smiling hosts become more and more bizarre. It has the tone and the appearance of a comedy, a charming romp in the woods where the protagonists stumble across a party. And yet the film is almost unbearably unnerving, and it isn't long before it becomes profoundly uncomfortable, as we continually question why these people don't just say no - even when the consequences of doing so become clear, they still accept the apologies of the host for their bad behavior and carry on as if nothing happened. Why won't they just leave? We wonder.


But then we look at the world around us. Our leaders refuse to do anything about the dire warning of climate change. Our president is a proven racist, and criminal, and our media tries its best to normalize him, accepting his continued excuses and blatant lies as a new kind of reality. And suddenly what Němec is trying to say becomes painfully clear. We want to accept authority, be herded like sheep - it's comforting to believe the lies, to believe in the benevolence of those to whom we grant power over ourselves. Suddenly, the actions of the characters in A Report on the Party and Guests don't seem quite so bizarre. We always have the power to stop tyrants - they only have as much power as we let them have. And yet we carry on blindly, content with the status quo, unwilling to be the first one to rock the boat until we're too far in over our heads. It's a brilliant, chilling film, an incisive satire of humanity's relationship with authority that I'm sure ruffled a few feathers with the powers that be in Czechoslovakia at the time.

As a follow-up to his explosive Holocaust drama, Diamonds of the NightA Report on the Party and Guests showcases Němec at the height of his powers, a major player in world cinema on the vanguard of the Czech New Wave. Yet the film, along with Oratorio for Prague, his 1968 documentary chronicling the Prague Spring uprising, would make enough enemies for him that he wouldn't be allowed to make another film until after the fall of the Communist regime in 1990. It's hard to imagine the loss to cinema that this represents, but for a brief moment the Czech New Wave represented some of the most radical and vital cinema in the world, and nowhere is that verve and vigor more plainly apparent than in this film, a hidden gem that stands tall as one of the most razor sharp indictments of totalitarianism ever produced.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Sylvester Stallone stars as ’Rambo’ in RAMBO: LAST BLOOD. Photo by Yana Blajeva.

Despite the fact that John Rambo had already been given the nostalgic sequel treatment back in 2008 with Rambo, rumors persisted of a fifth entry in the series. Some of the more outlandish ones even featured Rambo tangling with a Bigfoot-like creature. Thankfully (or, perhaps, unfortunately) that version of Rambo V never came to pass, and it seems the success of Sylvester Stallone's Oscar nominated return to his iconic Rocky Balboa character in Creed and Creed II convinced him to pick up Rambo's serrated knife one last time.

The result is Rambo: Last Blood, which picks up about 10 years after Rambo's return home at the end of the last film. Rambo has taken to raising his niece, Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) after the death of her mother. It seems as though the old soldier is at peace at last, that is until Gabrielle sneaks off to Mexico to track down her deadbeat father who abandoned her as a child. When Rambo heads down to retrieve her, he discovers that she has been kidnapped by sex traffickers and held captive by a ruthless cartel. What follows is what Quentin Tarantino might call a "roaring rampage of revenge," a brutal, bloody descent into darkness that pushes Rambo to the very edge.

The climax of the film is essentially a gory version of Home Alone, in which Rambo booby-traps his entire farm to block the cartel's eventual siege. It's every bit as violent and over-the-top as one would expect given how graphic the last film was, but director Adrian Grunberg (Get the Gringo) rushes through each kill so that none of the deaths really have time to land. None of them have weight, and we fly through the traps so quickly that the anticipation of each one seems all for naught. We're a long way from the original First Blood (1982), in which Rambo carefully stalked those who wished to do him harm; here they go out in a last minute barrage of carnage that lacks the visceral impact they were clearly intended to have.

Revisting First Blood in 2019 is an interesting experience, because it isn't the violent symphony of blood and guts that the later sequels became. In that film Rambo is a shell-shocked Vietnam vet who returns to a country that sent him to die in the jungles of a foreign nation for no reason, only to refuse to take care of him when they bring him back. He was abandoned by the very nation he served, and his enemies are the American authorities, policemen who set out to enact their own wrong-headed brand of justice on a long-haired hippie. It's an anti-establishment film, and Rambo features almost no trace of the Reagan-era machismo for which he would become a symbol in later films.

In Last Blood there is no redemption, no atonement, no self-reflection. Just cold, hard, bloody revenge. Stallone isn't patricularly interested in examining the legacy of the character and culture that made him popular. But really we’re all just here to see him blow bad guys up, which he does with gusto. Rambo is pure caricature at this point so the fact that it doesn’t return to the more thoughtful roots of the original doesn’t feel like a great loss. It delivers on its promise to see Stallone wreak bloody carnage. It is what it is and it’s perfectly enjoyable. The script is weak, and the supporting performances are all uniformly B-movie quality (with the exception of the great Adriana Barraza and Paz Vega), but when Stallone gets out that knife and does that scowl he does so well, this thing is actually pretty great. We all know why we're here, to watch Rambo kill some bad guys and exact bloody vengeance upon his enemies, and in that regard Rambo: Last Blood delivers. It's a loud, tasteless, and bloody good time that never feels like it's as good as it could be, but manages to be just as much fun and it should be.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


RAMBO: LAST BLOOD | Directed by Adrian Grunberg | Stars Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Joaquín Cosio, Óscar Jaenada, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Yvette Monreal, Adriana Barraza | Rated R for strong graphic violence, grisly images, drug use and language | Opens Friday, Sept. 20, in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019


As someone who followed Julian Fellowes' Downton Abbey series from the very beginning, I was tepidly optimistic about the idea of a feature film. After all, most of the characters had been giving satisfactory conclusions to their arcs, what more could a film have to add other than a nostalgic return to the titular country estate and a visit with old friends?

That is, of course, the point here, but that doesn't stop Fellowes from dipping back into the well of soap opera dramatics that served the series so well over the course of six seasons. Except this time he crams an entire season's worth of drama into two hours, making the plotting seem even more contrived than usual. The story this time centers around a royal visit to Downton Abbey by King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James). As the arrival of the royals draws nigh, the aristocrats upstairs wrestle with a convoluted inheritance subplot from prim Lady-in-Waiting Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), who has named her servant as her heir rather than her closest relative, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), much to the chagrin of prickly family matriarch, Violet (Maggie Smith). Meanwhile, the servants downstairs are being trampled by the royal servants who seem determined to take over the house and leave the Downton staff with nothing to do. To counteract the chaos, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) asks retired butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) to return to Downton and right the ship, spurning new butler, Mr. Barrow (Robert James-Collier). Yet more sinister forces wait in the wings, as former Irish Republican Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is being tailed by a mysterious figure whose motives may be darker than they initially appear.

The show easily could have stretched these plots out for an entire season, but when crammed together into one film, the film feels overstuffed, never really having time to give any of the subplots adequate time to develop. The problem is such that a subplot involving a royal assassination plot is swept under the rug and barely mentioned again as if it never happened, and therein lies one of Downton Abbey s biggest issues - it's a film based on a TV series that is used to giving its stories time to develop. When reduced to the time constraints of a feature film, it feels so rushed that it doesn't even have time to give seemingly major plot points time to settle before lurching into the next one, and the inheritance subplot feels especially anemic given that the Crawleys have dealt with similar issues many times over the course of their six season run.


Downton Abbey is also a strangely conservative film. The series was clearly about a very strict social order, but it was also about how that order began to shift and change over time. The film, on the other hand, takes on an oddly monarchist tone ("God is a monarchist!" they exclaim when the weather improves just in time for the royal visit), insisting that its characters should accept their position and never hope for more than they are given by benevolent overlords in a deeply unfair system. This extends to abusive relationships, where the idea of “working it out” to protect the monarchy (something “bigger than themselves”) is treated as the highest virtue. We’re far from the biting satirical wit of Fellowes’ brilliant Gosford Park screenplay, which took the excesses of the upper classes to task while dismantling their reliance on the working classes to stay afloat. Here he posits that the highest honor the working class can achieve is to lick the boot that’s standing on their neck.

In the end, Fellowes seems more concerned with the fan service of giving each character another happy ending than continuing any of the overarching themes and ideas that permeated the series. Its nice to be back at Downton, but it really feels like more of the same with a few more glamour shots of the castle and soaring renditions of John Lunn's now iconic theme music. The characters are treated as unseemly caricatures, reducing many of our favorites to goofy comic relief and undermining any semblance of growth they may have had during the series. It's an occasionally pleasant time passer, but more often that not it feels as if Fellowes should have left well enough alone. Downton no longer feels like a window into a bygone world from which we've progressed, but a regressive longing for a simpler time when people knew their place and never asked for more.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


DOWNTON ABBEY | Directed by Michael Engler | Stars Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Jim Carter, Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern, Phyllis Logan, Penelope Wilton, Brendan Coyle, Joanne Froggatt, Robert James-Collier, Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, Raquel Cassidy, Allen Leech, Imelda Staunton, Geraldine James, Simon Jones | Rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language | Opens Friday, Sept. 20, in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Revisiting Disney's original animated Aladdin after having so recently seen their ill-conceived but undeniably popular live action remake, makes the excellence of the first film stand out and the miscalculation of the new one seem all the more egregious.

Aladdin has long felt like something of a neglected stepchild amongst the Disney Renaissance films of the 1990s, sandwiched between Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, it never seems to have claimed the same nostalgic embrace from my generation that those films have.  This despite the fact that it contains some of Disney's most memorable songs (which Disney continues to capitalize on at its theme parks) and one iconic performance by the legendary Robin Williams.

Williams is the heart and soul of Aladdin  of course, and his presence was sorely missed in the 2019 remake, although it had much larger problems than that. It's incredible just how much of his performance was improvised, with the filmmakers setting up a microphone in front of him and letting him riff. The rest of the story, about a young street rat who discovers a genie in a lamp and wishes to become a prince in order to woo the princess, is suitably filled with magic and wonder, and Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) is one of Disney's most indelible villains, a devious vizier willing to do anything to usurp power in the fictional middle eastern kingdom of Agrabah.

The film marked the final collaboration between composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, who passed away before the film was completed. And yet "A Whole New World" and "Friend Like Me" have entered the classic Disney playbook and become mainstays in the popular lexicon, cementing the film's place as one of Disney's best animated films. It is, mostly thanks to Williams (along with Gilbert Gottfried as Jafar's feathered sidekick, Iago), easily their funniest; Williams' never-ending stream of impersonations and wacky characters are so consistently hilarious that the audience barely has time to breathe between belly laughs. And yet, Menken and Ashman imbue the story with a sweeping sense of timeless romance and magic. There's a real sense of wonder in mystical conjurings of Aladdin, something the rote retelling in the remake sorely lacks. There remains a lot to like here, and the new Signature Collection Blu-Ray presentation arrives just in time to overshadow the simultaneous home-video release of its remake. Do yourself a favor - pick up the original instead. It's even better than you remember.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


ALADDIN | Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker | Stars Scott Weinger, Robin Williams, Linda Larkin, Jonathan Freeman, Frank Welker, Gilbert Gottfried | Rated G | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Walt Disney Studios.

Brad Pitt stars in AD ASTRA. Photo by Francois Duhamel.
Copyright Twentieth Century Fox

Great filmmakers have often looked to the stars for inspiration. Despite the often unfairly low-rent reputation of the science fiction genre, it has historically provided boundless ideas for some of the greatest filmmakers of all time - Georges Méliès, Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Wise, Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Alfonso Cuarón, Christopher Nolan, and Claire Denis have all made masterworks among the stars. The latest auteur to turn their eyes toward the heavens is James Gray, a filmmaker long worshipped by cinephiles but one who has never really caught on with the general public.

For him to step into such a large-scale studio film  is something of a surprise, but certainly not an unwelcome one. The resulting film, Ad Astra (To the Stars) is perhaps the finest film released by a major studio in wide release in recent memory, one of the last to be produced by 20th Century Fox before it was bought by Disney earlier this year. It's the kind of thoughtful adult drama the likes of which are rarely seen in multiplexes anymore, one that is really nothing like its action packed trailers, instead diving deep into the human psyche and the effects of generational trauma, pointing the action inward even as the camera points to the stars.

Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut tasked by United States Airforce to travel to Mars to send a top secret communique to a remote vessel in orbit around Neptune. It is there that the Air Force believes that McBride's father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary hero long thought lost during a top secret mission to search for alien life known as the "Lima Project," is actually behind a series of magnetic pulses coming from the outer reaches of the solar system that are threatening all life on Earth. Upon arrival on Mars, however, McBride starts to question the Air Force's official account of what happened to his father and to the Lima Project, and sets off on a mission of his own to track down the man who inspired him, yet abandoned him in pursuit of other life in the cosmos. Determined to learn the truth for himself, McBride may ultimately learn more than he ever bargained for.

In the most simplistic terms, Ad Astra feels like a Terrence Malick film with space pirates, a probing, philosophical film filled with lyrical musings about the nature of life, set against the epic backdrop of a world whose greed for natural resources has spilled over into outer space, as nations vie for supremacy not only on Earth, but on the moon as well. It is an adventure film but mainly in the sense that it’s about the mystery of exploration, but Gray’s aim is always much deeper than that.

A still from AD ASTRA. Photo by Francois Duhamel.
Copyright Twentieth Century Fox

Gray paints on such a grand scale but the film never loses its intimate focus. That’s perhaps its greatest irony - Gray employs breathtaking cinematography and stunning special effects to tell a story that stands in stark contrast to its sweeping appointments. It is a deeply introspective film, the juxtaposition of its inner focus against a magnificent backdrop reinforced his central theme - even in the face of the loftiest of human achievement, nothing is more powerful or more important than human connection. What is the point of it all if we don't have love?

Yet, perhaps most fascinatingly, Ad Astra seems to be in direct conversation with Gray's previous film, The Lost City of Z. Both films are about adventurers, men who sought to go beyond the reaches of what conventional wisdom deemed possible. Yet The Lost City of Z was essentially built around the old axiom of “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.” Ad Astra asks, “what if we land among the stars and there’s nothing there?” It’s a gripping rumination on passion, both artistic and scientific, as well as ambition at the expense of personal growth. In fact, Ad Astra is really like the mirror image of Lost City of Z  as if Gray is in dialogue with himself, arguing, reaching, searching, probing; wondering if perhaps the final frontier isn't in the stars, but in the depths of the human soul.

Its protagonist, like his father before him, is a man who put work above all, his singular drive to go higher, farther, and faster leading him to completely forsake his family. In the end it’s seemingly all for naught. What if we truly are alone in the universe? What if we spend our entire lives looking for something more, something greater than ourselves, and in the process miss, to paraphrase Dorothy Gale of Kansas, the beauty of what’s in our own back yard? Whether it’s over the rainbow or beyond the reaches of Neptune, Gray can’t help but remind us that nothing is so grand and mysterious and worth our time as love. Ad Astra is one of the best works of science fiction this century.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


AD ASTRA | Directed by James Gray | Stars Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland | Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language | Opens Friday, Sept. 20, in theaters nationwide.