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

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Let’s Have a Chat Upon Arrival

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The arrival of Arrival in American theaters couldn’t have come at a more poignant time just after the most contentious and draining of elections. In cinema there has always been a fine line between entertainment and art, and the greatest of films are often rendered great through the cultural lens through which they are viewed.  I (and I’m sure many others) might read too much into the fact that the alien’s arrival on Earth occurs on an otherwise calm, fine Tuesday in Autumn. Fear and rioting ensues.

In steps a linguist (Amy Adams) and a scientist (Jeremy Renner) to help the US Government figure out why the aliens are here…and most importantly, do they mean us any harm? One of the central themes of the film is the importance of communication…cutting through language barriers to find common ground and how we have to work together to avoid disaster. One of the other central themes of the film is that the most common of grounds might be grief. It’s all at once timely, hopeful and a little bit sad.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s melancholic and seemingly always tracking camera (the opening shot scans under a dark ceiling stretching out toward the dull light coming through a window overlooking a beautifully serene lake) sucks you in from the get-go while Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” plays on the soundtrack before Amy Adams’ philosophical and heartbreaking voice-over begins. I breathed a deep sigh (of relief), as I knew instantly we were in the hands of a master at the height of his craft. Richter’s music has been used in many films before this, but here it sounded new. When not employing the Richter theme, master of minimalist tension Johan Johannsson seeps under the celluloid skin with nerve-shattering precision. Meanwhile, cinematographer Bradford Young’s use of light and color compliment Villeneuve’s probing eye. And all three – artist, musician, and cameraman – work cinematic wonders in those slow-burn scenes of our wondering wanderers wandering down that dark tunnel to the light…and the otherworldly conversation at the end. Continue reading

Sympathy for the Devil’s Children in Lore

Saskia Rosendahl has a bright future ahead after her expert depiction of Germany's dark past in LORE.

Saskia Rosendahl has a bright future ahead after her expert depiction of Germany’s dark past in LORE.

At a posh German estate, a gaggle of beautiful blond-haired blue-eyed children have been ignorant of the horrors of war but are now suddenly brooding when news of their Führer’s death hits home and their once stalwart and dependable parents suddenly lose it. Nazi officer dad and crumbling mom dash off on different paths headed for prison or death at the hands of the invading Allied forces. As is so classic in German folklore (notice the double meaning behind the film’s title – both our young protagonist’s short-hand name and representing a bit of modern volk-lore) the abandoned children led by Lore (a devastatingly natural Saskia Rosendahl – running hot and cold, confident and scared, petulant and innocent at the flip of a switch) disappear into the Black Forest headed for Grandmother’s house.

Adapted from a novel by Rachel Seiffert, Australian director Cate Shortland delivers in a realist way what The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (for all its power) fumbled heavy-handedly with in its attempt to declare Germany’s actions in WWII as a form of nationalist murder-suicide. Much like the children in Haneke’s The White Ribbon who grew up to become the people who joined the Nazi party, the children in Lore represent Germany as a whole…complacent, seduced and all too willing to follow a madman promising decorum and riches. When that madman dies, the cause is revealed as a vicious hoax, and the children are left to literally wander in the woods scrounging to survive.

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Shutter Island Part Two: The Film

Ashes to ashes...dust to dust.

In 1950’s Boston, two U.S. Federal Marshals (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) get trapped on an island that is home to a hospital for the criminally insane during a hurricane while investigating the disappearance of a psychotic patient (Emily Mortimer) in Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited screen adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel. 

How long was the wait?  Well, it was long enough for me to read Lehane’s book between the original and actual release dates.  And was it worth it?  Oh, you betcha!  And let’s get another thing straight, boss.  Shutter Island is a “lesser” Scorsese…as in Full Metal Jacket is a “lesser” Kubrick.  It also means this is the Scorsese I fell in love with as a kid.  Yup, my first exposure to the greatest living American director was Cape Fear, another “lesser” film.  Continue reading