The Banality of Space Exploration and Human Folly in #AdAstra

In Ad Astra, lonely astronaut Roy McBride is married to his physically and psychologically draining job, which predicatably ends his marriage, and has followed in the footsteps of dear old dad, who decades earlier headed up the infamous Lima Mission to Neptune to search for extraterrestial life. The mission was assumed lost, until some crazy anti-matter flares make their way to Earth with disasterous results from – you guessed it – out Neptune way. Oh yeah, and old daddy may be the one who created this mess. So, of course, sonny boy has to go out there to see what the heck is going on, save the solar system, and wrestle with his deep-seeded father issues.

Despite Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stunning and sometimes vertigo inducing celestial cinematography and a few good stand alone sequences, James Gray’s emotionally drab and tired father-and-son / man-is-a-lonely-beast space opera is one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of recent memory.

Everyone in the film looks exhausted (Brad Pitt, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler…even the normaly bright-eyed Ruth Negga) and it’s no surprise given the broad strokes with which all the characters are painted and the shocking banality of space travel and colonization on display. In James Gray’s near-future universe, human beings just keep getting caught up in the same old mistakes, trite archetypes, and psychological hang-ups.

Oh, look, an Applebees and Subway on the lunar colony. And pirates fighting over mines. Mars is just one giant underground bunker that looks like it was designed with cardboard packing material from Amazon.com. Out in the middle of nowhere near some random asteroid, humans are experimenting on primates, who go maliciously bonkers in an oddly thrilling sequence that plays like a revival of an abandonded sequence from Gray’s last curiosity about human exploration, The Lost City of Z. Why were we messing with primates in space? Well, it’s just because, you know, animal torture is what humans always do. And hell, it is boring as hell out there, so why not?

One of the most irritating elements of the film is Brad Pitt’s near constant, and woefully undercooked voice-over that is strung together from routine psychological check-ups and philosophy 101 inner monologue. The Tree of Life this is not. Underscoring the voice-over and anti-action are Max Richter’s minimalist tones, pale echoes of Hans Zimmer and Justin Hurwitz’s work from the superior in every way First Man. The aformentioned cinematography of Van Hoytema is technically stunning and beautiful to look at it, but it’s not married to anything of deep substance. Interstellar this is also not.

I don’t blame Gray for tapping into classic thematic tropes. Some of the best stories of all-time deal with father-and-son drama and the loneliness of human existence, but if you are going down that well tread path you need to have either something new to say or do it in an interesting way. Sadly, in his attempt to hang these tropes inside his musings on the empitness of space, Gray shows how tired and empty these ideas can sometimes be.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Advertisements

#FallMoviePreview

With summer winding down, Hollywood is gearing up for their prestige film season. And with a one-year-old at home it has become increasingly difficult to get out to a movie theater, so this new trend started by Netflix to stream Oscar bait couldn’t have come at a better time for me. My thirty-year-old cinematic purist self would’ve screamed, “You’re tarnishing the purity of the experience!” but my almost forty-year-old self is like, “Let’s stream everything! Who’s got time to go to a theater?”

Here are my most anticipated films of the 2019 Fall Movie season:

  1. The Irishman – Oh thank heaven for Netflix! I don’t think I could find the time to escape to a theater for over three hours, and I’ll likely have to watch this one in chunks. Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci all in their element and Anna Paquin primed for a mid-career revival. I have high, high, hopes for this one.
  2. Marriage Story – the buzz on this one is strong, and the trailers have been excellent. Noah Baumbach is long overdue for a big popular breakthrough as his films have always been niche, and Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson look to be at the top of their game. This has the feel of Kramer vs. Kramer by way of Woody Allen if he had a millienial’s EQ. Again, thank heaven for Netflix, as I would otherwise not likely be able to get out to this one and its domestic drama looks well suited to emmerse yourself in at home.
  3. 1917 – Sam Mendes looks to do for WWI here what Christopher Nolan did for WWII in Dunkirk. This looks like an immaculately shot, edited and staged piece of tick-tock wartime suspense with some big emotional payoff. This has Oscars written all over it, and will probably worth the trip to the theater for the experience.
  4. A Hidden Life – Terrence Malick is back, and this three-hour biopic looks to be more like The New World in style than his more recent contemporary endeavors. The buzz on this is his best in years…but it’s still three hours long, and man, do I wish this was streaming, though arguably you’d want to see these images on the biggest screen possible.
  5. Ad Astra – Of all the film’s on the list this one I am most skeptical about. Could it be an Interstellar style masterpiece, or a boring chore? James Gray is one of the best directors yet to make a great film. Brad Pitt is the star power. It’s nice to see Ruth Negga is also onboard, but the rest of the cast all seem a bit tired: Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, and Liv Tyler. The trailers have been hit or miss, but there’s still tons of promise here.

Also of interest:

Color Out of Space

Jojo Rabbit

Joker

What films are you looking most forward to this fall season?

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Literary and Cinematic Hat Tricks

Anil's Ghost: A Novel

“Most of the time in our world, truth is opinion.” – pg 101, Anil’s Ghost

In the chaos of war-torn Sri Lanka in the 1980’s, a Sri Lankan born forensic anthropologist trained in Britain and America, returns to her homeland on behalf of a human rights group and teams up with an archaeologist to solve the mysteries of unidentified skeletons, as likely to be remains from an ancient burial site as they are to be the recently desecrated and burned corpses of victims of terrorism left in a jungle ditch.

While reading Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, a novel so rich in immutable sadness and beauty I’m not even sure what happened at the end, only that it was beautiful and sad and unforgettable like the very best and weird dreams are, I started to think about the run Ondaatje was on when he published it. Most artists are lucky if they produce one great work in their lifetime, and the masters can typically eek out three great works if they are prolific enough over many decades. It’s absolutely staggering to think that Anil’s Ghost came directly on the heels of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient. There is absolutely no doubt that this tryptic represents Ondaatje at the very height of his literary prowess, and his ability to churn out these three masterpieces one right after the other is something of a miracle. How many novelists or film auteurs have performed this hat trick, having produced their three greatest works sequentially? I scanned across my favorite authors and filmmakers to see if anyone matched Ondaatje (realizing of course this would be a highly subjective exercise based on my own opinions), and I would dare my fellow writers, readers, and film buffs to do the same and see what they come up with… Continue reading

Run to Crawl

Image result for crawl movie

When you have an almost-one-year-old, it becomes increasingly difficult to find time to go to the movies. I’ve had to be very selective this year.

When I heard there was a new “killer gators in a hurricane” flick, I knew I had to run to see Crawl (not to be mistaken for the dramatic film adaptation of my son’s latest milestone achieved).

Imagine someone had taken the Sharknado concept dead seriously, and replaced the sharks with gators and the tornado with a hurricane. As if I needed another reminder to never move to Florida…

Part of the fun (and success) of Crawl is the film’s earnestly suspenseful and humane tone. Continue reading

When in Doubt Think about Ghosts

“When in doubt, think about ghosts.”

This is what director David Lynch told actor Russ Tamblyn while shooting a key scene for the original Twin Peaks in an attempt to get the right reaction. And it worked. I vividly recalled that scene, and man, Russ Tamblyn was all kinds of spooky looking, obviously thinking about ghosts.

It’s these great little tidbits that make Room to Dream such an enjoyable, and often weird, read for fans of surrealist extraordinaire David Lynch – a man who seems like he must have had a tragic, horrible upbringing to be able to tap into such pain and darkness, yet seemingly didn’t (by any account, his or another). Here is a man who had a Norman Rockwell upbringing only to obsess over the seamy underbelly of the white picket fence world he both loved and railed against.

The semi-autobiography has alternating mirrored chapters (it is eerily its own doppelgänger) about the same events  – one from the point of view of David Lynch’s friends, family, and colleagues and then one from his point of view. It is long and rambling and very detailed. Though none of the back-stories on the productions of his films were previously unknown to me, someone who has studied and read about Lynch for decades, I especially enjoyed those walks down memory lane to Philadelphia and the Eraserhead days. The meat of the book is in those delicious little tidbits and the altered views of what happened…Lynch sometimes disagrees with (or doesn’t remember) what the others say happened. Continue reading

This is Us and We Are Terrifying

I was six years-old in 1986, and I have a vivid memory of the Hands Across America initiative. We were visiting my aunt’s house on the day it was to happen, and I thought that people were actually going to step out of their houses at the designated time and literally hold hands across the entire country. How disappointed I was when I eagerly ran out of my aunt’s house onto her front porch and saw no one holding hands. Jordan Peele must have had a similar memory, and he uses that sense of disappointment in hope as a set-up to his newest complex and fitfully terrifying horror opus, Us.

There’s a palpable sense of dread in the film’s 1986 prologue where a little girl wanders away from her parents at a Santa Cruz fun fair and has a harrowing experience in a house of mirrors. Later, as an adult, that same little girl finds herself back on that beach during a family vacation that leads to a home invasion by a red-suited, scissor-carrying family of shadows. Dopplegangers brood throughout Peele’s sophomore effort as a writer and director, and with a larger budget, he casts his net of ideas broader than he did in the succinctly satirical Get Out. There’s a lot going on here, and Peele has clearly found his groove in setting a unique mood, cutting tension with his now signature sense of humor, and then going all out in turning modern horror film tropes on their head. Bunnies and beaches, social commentary and mass killings, ballet and butchery…it’s all on the table, and it’s gripping, fascinating and sometimes confounding. Peele leaves no horror cliché unturned, including the twist ending, which I assumed during the first sand-tray therapy scene. In lesser hands, it could have become a bloody mess, but Peele shows complete control of his runaway train wreck. Continue reading

Is this Hell in Transit?

In ways complex, subtle and surreal, Christian Petzold has crafted another enthralling think-piece / thriller with Transit. When troubled opportunist Georg (Franz Rogowski) agrees to deliver papers to a writer looking to flee the fascist take-over of France and quickly finds the writer has committed suicide, a sea of events take place leading to Georg to Marseilles where he becomes entangled in the stories of a multitude of refugees, including the dead writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who knows not her husband is dead and has fallen into the arms of an altruistic doctor (Godeheard Giese) who passed up a passage to Mexico to stay with her while she still pines for her husband to join her.

While this bizarre love triangle (or is it a square?) built upon stolen identities and pining for those already passed on (both literally and metaphorically) is enthralling enough on its own, Petzold layers in side stories to enrich Georg’s tale. When he first arrives in Marseilles from Paris, he has to deliver bad news to the wife and young son of his traveling companion who died in transit, and he quickly becomes immersed in their loneliness. The woman (now widowed) is mute and deaf, and the boy (now orphaned) is just looking for someone to play soccer with, and both had been waiting in Marseilles for the boy’s father who was to help them all flee to the mountains. Meanwhile Georg gets distracted by his own conflicting drives to flee and stay. His feelings for the boy (who has an asthma attack after Georg takes him to an amusement park) are what lead him to the doctor and Marie, and when he falls for Marie, too, his feelings and anguish only become more twisted. Meanwhile other refugees come and go from his stage (a sickly conductor, an architect stuck with her client’s abandoned dogs), all longing for someone to listen to their story, just as Georg ends up telling his story to the proprietor of the restaurant where he, Marie, and the doctor frequent.

Based on a novel by Anna Seghers, whose original context for the story was Nazi-occupied France, Petzold makes a bold choice in assigning no definitive time period to the story…it could’ve been told then…it’s certainly potent now. Continue reading

Widows: What Went Wrong

Steve McQueen’s Widows opens with the tense inter-cutting sequences of a heist gone horribly wrong and shows us in a few propulsive minutes how four women became the widows of the film’s title. It’s a cracker jack set-up to what promises to be an emotionally explosive thriller…but what follows is two hours of slow-burn that goes nowhere thanks to an undercooked screenplay and woefully underdeveloped characters. While McQueen shows us in brilliant brevity how these women became widows, Gillian Flynn’s screenplay gives us no insight into how they became wives of criminals or why their husbands were criminals in the first place. And when the women bond together for a heist, there’s nothing in them (except for Viola Davis’ natural fierceness that comes more from her as a performer than anything evident in Flynn’s limp writing), we have no emotional investment in the outcome or belief that they can pull it off.

Widows is one of those crime thrillers full of endless, clichéd scenes designed to show us how a character is one of three things: tough as hell, corrupt as hell, or trapped in hell. McQueen does his best to eek something out of the story with crisp, perfectly framed shots of environs and exquisite camerawork. Chicago, in a grim visual poetry, arises from the ashes of this junk heap of a story as the best written character. One scene where a corrupt politician (Colin Farrell) is being chauffeured from the bad side of a neighborhood to the posh side in just a few blocks is a minor masterpiece of sociopolitical commentary on gentrification and wealth inequality. Sadly, nothing else in the film elaborates on this in any insightful way. Continue reading

My Favorite Film Scores

It’s been two weeks since I experienced it in the theater, and I still can’t get Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk out of my mind.  It’s the best film of 2018 and one of the best of the decade, by the way.  I encourage you to see it in a theater with someone you love and then tell everyone you love about it.

One of the big reasons it continues to haunt me is Nicholas Britell’s extraordinary score.  The themes he created (especially “Eros” and “PTSD” and “Hypertension”) ear-wormed their way into the ever-present background music of my mind, and when they work their way to the forefront…Barry Jenkins’ images, James Baldwin’s characters, the performances, and most importantly, the feelings all come rushing back.  When I first heard “Eros” in the theater in the context of a poignant love scene, I instantly thought, “This might be one of the best film scores of all time.”  Then there was “PTSD” like a hammering heart building up to a panic attack in the background of that scene where Fonny’s friend, fresh from prison, slowly reveals his thoughts on his brief stint in prison and the worst part of it…the fear.  It’s echoed later in “Hypertension” when a racist cop harasses Fonny and Tish outside an Italian market.  You feel the fear not just through the characters, but through Britell’s music.  I knew right then, indeed, Britell had composed something for the ages.

My favorite film scores often mirror (and elevate) my favorite films.  They can’t be extracted from the context of the film they help breathe deeper life into.  When I hear the music in my head, images and feelings from those beloved films rush through me.  Memories from my life at the time I first saw the film, or from ensuing years where thoughts of the film or revisits punctuated pain, joy, and transitions often mix with the memories of the film.  All of it forming a rich tapestry or sound and images and feelings. Continue reading