Talking Movies

September 22, 2019

Notes on Ad Astra

Brad Pitt’s sci-fi Ad Astra was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

Pitt is Roy McBridge, son of legendary lost astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy is renowned for having a preternaturally low pulse rate, never above 80, even in a crisis; such as at the start where he falls to earth off an atmosphere-scraping antennae following ‘The Surge’. He simply waits to stop spinning, thendeploys his parachute; no point getting het up about it. The Surge killed 43,000 people but, it transpires, is only the beginning. It was caused by a wave of anti-matter attacking the planet as it courses across the solar system, growing in power as it travels from its origin off Neptune. Which as John Finn and John Ortiz’s brass inform Roy is where Project Lima is, and where they believe Clifford is alive and well and liable to end all life unless dissuaded by Roy.

It’s a minor miracle that neither Finn nor Ortiz instructs Roy to terminate Clifford’s command, with extreme prejudice. Because this is a film in thrall to Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad; Clifford’s out there operating without any decent restraint, and the journey to save or end him will be psychological as much as physical. Donald Sutherland’s mentor Colonel Pruitt and Ruth Negga’s enigmatic Martian pop up for an allotted span of time much like characters in Apocalypse Now, as Roy travels from vignette to vignette on his quest. There’s an unlikely action sequence on the surface of the Moon as this dystopian future paints the orb wracked by conflict between competing miners and pirates preying on their divisions. A tense sequence responding to an SOS while en route to Mars might as well proclaim “Never get out of the boat”.

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September 16, 2019

Ad Astra

Brad Pitt follows his comeback turn in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood with another stoic and very capable character housed in a curate’s egg.

Pitt is Roy McBridge, son of legendary lost astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy is renowned for having a preternaturally low pulse rate, never above 80, even in a crisis; such as at the start where he falls to earth off an atmosphere-scraping antennae following ‘The Surge’. He simply waits to stop spinning, then deploys his parachute; no point getting het up about it. The Surge killed 43,000 people but, it transpires, is only the beginning. It was caused by a wave of anti-matter attacking the planet as it courses across the solar system, growing in power as it travels from its origin off Neptune. Which as John Finn and John Ortiz’s brass inform Roy is where Project Lima is, and where they believe Clifford is alive and well and liable to end all life unless dissuaded by Roy.

It’s a minor miracle that neither Finn nor Ortiz instructs Roy to terminate Clifford’s command, with extreme prejudice. Because this is a film in thrall to Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad; Clifford’s out there operating without any decent restraint, and the journey to save or end him will be psychological as much as physical. Donald Sutherland’s mentor Colonel Pruitt and Ruth Negga’s enigmatic Martian pop up for an allotted span of time much like characters in Apocalypse Now, as Roy travels from vignette to vignette on his quest. There’s an unlikely action sequence on the surface of the Moon as this dystopian future paints the orb wracked by conflict between competing miners and pirates preying on their divisions. A tense sequence responding to an SOS while en route to Mars might as well proclaim “Never get out of the boat”.

But as Roy suffers thru regret for his failed marriage to Liv Tyler and resentment at his father, the Conradian nature of things unravels. Director and co-writer James Gray splices in flashback imagery to show Roy hallucinating, but Ad Astra never gets hallucinatory. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema may be onboard but there is nothing as trippy as Interstellar’s closing chapter even as we orbit Neptune, while Max Richter’s music makes less of an impact here than a sampling of his work on Arrival. Tyler and Jones are unsatisfactorily used, and the pay-off for everything in character terms is as unsatisfying as the emotionally false moment with the medallion at the end of Super 8. Pitt is on good form, but Gray has delivered a film whose excellent special effects belie a preponderance of pomposity over actual insight or a point.

Ad Astra is engaging, but not nearly as intelligent as it so clearly believes itself to be and, as Hunter S Thompson would lament, it never gets weird enough.

3/5

March 7, 2013

Robot and Frank

Frank Langella and the voice of Peter Sarsgaard as his personal robot make  for a most unlikely criminal duo in this compact caper movie set in the quite  near future.

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Frank Langella plays Frank (how that naming decision must have taxed the  makers), a retired cat-burglar shambling forgetfully around a small town in  upstate New York. Concerned that Frank’s visits to a long closed restaurant for  his meals are getting too frequent his son Hunter (James Marsden) foists upon  him a personal robot (Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to attend to his healthcare  needs. Robot will cook Frank proper meals at regular intervals, harass him into  taking his medicines when he should, and force him to start gardening to sharpen  his memory skills. Frank pleads with his technophobic daughter Madison (Liv  Tyler) to get rid of the android, until he realises that Robot can be cajoled  into breaking locks. And his beloved local library just happens to have  something worth stealing for librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) before the  books are shipped out…

Robot and Frank is a deeply odd  movie. It is at heart a caper flick. And like all capers there’s a lot of fun to  be had in preparing for the heist, plotting it out, dealing with the unforeseen  disasters that occur, and playing bluff with the long arm of the law. Jeremy  Strong is sensationally obnoxious as the patronising yuppie Jake, intent on  replacing the library with a hipster hangout because printed material is  obsolete. Jeremy Sisto is also good value as the sheriff who half suspects Frank  is up to his old tricks, but mostly is just harassing him to placate the rich  Jake. Peter Sarsgaard is obviously enjoying himself as the robot given to  ineffectually shouting “Warning –do not molest me!” at strangers who poke at  him, but this movie is really all about Langella’s disquieting lead.

Can you address a topic as serious as dementia in the middle of an amusing  crime caper? I don’t think so. Frank’s memory noticeably improves as he plots  his heist with Robot, but that feels a bit off. This is a future with technology  not too far advanced from ours, bar the (child in a space-suit) titular robot,  but the sci-fi leaves little trace on your memory compared to how a casual line  of dialogue turns out to have a devastating relevance later. As the children  dealing with their ailing father Marsden is thoroughly underused and made  needlessly unsympathetic, while Tyler is given more screen-time but her  character’s motivations are not probed as searchingly they cried out to be.  Sarandon brings far more charm to this role than last week’s Arbitrage, but this part is even more of a  cipher.

Robot and Frank is amusing, but it  feels like a film about dementia had a sci-fi heist written around it to secure  it financing.

3/5

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