Tag: brad pitt

Ad Astra

Ad Astra (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

During the first hour of James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” the picture has the makings of a space epic so engaging, it does not need to show a single flying car to inspire the audience to keep paying attention. Advanced technologies are simply there to be used rather than to be gawked at and so we are forced to adapt—quickly—in the story’s universe. By making futuristic images barely visible and putting the protagonist’s inner turmoil front and center, it is without question that the work will be a ruminative sci-fi film instead of action-adventure oriented. However, once the second hour crawls along, the slow, calculated, informative pacing is no longer utilized to build mystery or raise questions—about ourselves, our connections with others, our place on our planet and in the universe—scenes simply drag. The absence of a meaningful payoff is maddening.

We follow Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), son of renowned astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), when he is assigned to travel to Mars to send a communiqué to his father, once believed to have perished on assignment while leading a project in Neptune. By hearing his own son’s voice perhaps the old man would finally respond to SpaceCom’s messages: for senior McBride to put a stop to electrical surges that plague the rest of the solar system. You see, his ship contains anti-matter that works as a catalyst to these fatal surges.

The irony is that despite Roy and Clifford sharing the same bloodline, the two are not at all close. (Yes, outer space is employed as a symbol of how distant the father and son are emotionally—neither new nor fresh.) Pitt is highly watchable as a man who has not found a way to deal with his father’s brazen abandonment. I looked closely at Roy and recognized a person who built himself to be something that his father would be proud of… but he is not his own person. This lack of self permeates through his personal life, specifically when it comes his relationship with his wife (Liv Tyler—outrageously underused). It is without question that Roy’s father loved his job—finding proof of extraterrestrial life—more than his own son. And so Roy must come to terms with this reality. The story is not about a space mission. It is about finding a way to live and not simply exist based on somebody else’s expectations.

Although this universal message can appeal to most viewers, I’m afraid it will be lost in translation because the second half does not possess enough energy and vitality in order to underline its humanistic themes. Instead, the movie is plagued with prolonged takes of Roy moving from one place to other or Roy sitting at one spot looking hopelessly morose. (On occasion a well-placed and well-timed tear rolls down Roy’d right eye just in case we don’t get the picture of his struggles.) It leaves the viewers cold. Notice that even moments of thrill—shoot-outs on the moon’s surface, confronting a wild animal in an enclosed space—end up with a whimper.

These images can work. But there must be something behind them—consistently—in order for us to feel and appreciate their value. Otherwise these pretty images function merely as decoration; we might as well be staring at a screensaver for two hours.

Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross, “Ad Astra” does not hold a candle against movies from which it is inspired by, whether it be thematically or visually—Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” are most obvious. A key difference: “Odyssey” and “Solaris” consistently build—or break down—their worlds and the characters within them up until their curious, perplexing, unforgettable climaxes. Here, there is mostly hollowness and soulful staring into the void.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

There comes a point in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” when more self-aware viewers will notice that it no longer matters where the plot goes because it is so damn entertaining. Whether writer-director Quentin Tarantino is placing a magnifying glass on his characters, the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, the brand of drinks and cigarettes consumed, the soundtrack caressing our eardrums, the curious decorations on walls… the film is an enveloping experience right from the get-go—daring to be as specific as possible to create a thoroughly convincing 1969 Los Angeles. And yet, as shown during the third act, it is not afraid to take on a pint of historical revisionism. At its best I was reminded of Robert Altman’s signature works, how he manages to attain a seemingly effortless synergy between his fascinating characters and the roles they play in the city of angels.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt is a duo I never thought I needed. The former plays Rick Dalton, a fading star who must now rely on taking secondary roles in western television shows. He fears that his career is on the verge of death both due to the changing times and his own alcoholism. The latter plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s best friend and stuntman. However, these days, because of his… certain reputation surrounding his wife, he is currently, for the most part, Rick’s housekeeper, driver, and motivational speaker. Even though these men are flawed in their own ways, DiCaprio and Pitt are correct to play Rick and Cliff as people who are worthy of getting to know. For instance, just because Rick is an alcoholic does not mean that he does not work hard to ensure he is prepared on set. On the contrary, he is quite hard on himself, especially when he forgets lines and appears to look foolish in front of the crew. (There is a hilarious bit of his rage inside a trailer.)

Due to Tarantino’s well-written and keen observed characters, the screenplay works as a comic character study. There are times even when someone is on the verge of tears, we wish to laugh at him. But at the same time we do not dislike or feel repelled by him. It is a comedy that attempts to skewer personalities in Hollywood without having the need to be cruel. In other words, there is a certain joy about the film that is consistently good-hearted while still remaining razor-sharp. There is not enough movies of this type being released today, especially at this caliber. Thus, this makes the sudden shift during third act as potentially divisive: the violence changing from internal to external. The catharsis worked for me, but I imagine it may not for many. There is no doubt it is the more convenient avenue for entertainment.

Aside from Rick and Cliff, we meet other colorful personalities over the course of one February weekend. There is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who goes to the movies to see if audiences would be receptive of her role as a klutz in an action-comedy; Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) bragging around the crew in between shoots; Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), a member of the infamous Manson Family, who confronts a stranger at her door; and Randy (Kurt Russell), a stunt coordinator who gives Cliff a chance to work despite the fact that his wife (Zoë Bell), also a stunt coordinator, does not wish for Cliff to remain on set. Each person gets a chance to shine because the writer-director proves to be most patient and not at all tethered to a typical running time of ninety minutes.

The love for filmmaking can be felt in every square inch of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” Despite its running time of over one hundred fifty minutes, I could not get enough of it. Here is a movie that includes an exchange between an eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters—her character prefers to be called an actor, not an actress) and DiCaprio, he himself known for method acting, just for the laughs. In the hands of less confident filmmakers, or filmmakers granted less freedom, it is highly likely this bit would not have made it past the editing room. But sometimes so-called extraneous material adds more personality to the work. This picture is filled to the brim with memorable personalities.


Allied (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Robert Zemeckis’ “Allied” wears the spirit of a 1940s picture, so beautifully detailed in nearly every aspect. With its ability and willingness to unfold slowly, it dares us to appreciate the minutiae, from the material of clothing and how it matches with or contrasts against walls or sides of buildings to the subtle interior changes a character goes through upon learning information that might lead to a reassessment of a relationship. Here is a film that has an intriguing story to tell where no easy solution is offered. Had screenwriter Steven Knight been less ambitious, it would have turned out to be just another spy thriller and a hunt for a mole.

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard portray an intelligence officer and a French Resistance fighter in World War II, Max Vatan and Marianne Beauséjour, who are assigned in Casablanca to assassinate a Nazi ambassador. It is apparent that the two experienced dramatic performers enjoy their roles for they infuse a high level of energy behind every body language and between exchange of words. And coating their enthusiasm for the roles is a frisky elegance, so joyous to watch and think about because these are characters who at times do not say exactly what they mean. They come across as real individuals who just so happen to belong in a world of secrets and lies where differences could mean life or death.

The first half of the film comes across as an extended exposition. Although it may bother or annoy less patient viewers who crave action from the get-go, I was completely enraptured by its rhythm, long silences, and knowing glances. The material provides a realistic situation of how people may act around one another when handling a top-secret government assignment. Equally important during this hypnotic first hour, we get to a chance to ascertain who is the better tactician depending on the occasion. Max and Marianne’s respective approaches to complete a task differ greatly sometimes. And through their differences we recognize specific reasons why are attracted to one another eventually.

Although still intriguing, the second half is less strong by comparison. With the story moving away from exotic Casablanca to London, the locales are not as exciting visually. Perhaps the intention is to shift our focus from environment to increasing internal struggles, particularly of Max receiving news that his wife is possibly a German spy, but there is a way to pull off such a strategy. One way is perhaps to amplify the human drama. Instead, the dramatic core, while able to offer surprising details at times with its elegant screenplay, it remains as subtle as a flickering ember rather than a full-on blaze.

The suspense is embedded in how much we have grown to care for the characters. This is a challenge because we go in with the assumption that it is going to trick us somehow, or try to at the very least, since, after all, it is an espionage picture. But because those behind and in front of the camera choose to treat the material seriously and with respect, genuinely committing to a sub-genre that is not foreign to a spice of melodrama, it works somehow. Those who jump in with an open mind will be pleasantly surprised.

By the Sea

By the Sea (2015)
★ / ★★★★

Despite the setting of the picture being right by a body of water, its content—until just about the final act of its interminable, miserable two hours—is desert-dry in intrigue, genuine emotions, and sense of urgency. Writer-director Angelina Jolie has failed to demand and earn the viewers’ attention; there are numerous stretches here where it is essentially a waste of film, so monotonous that it becomes maddening. If one were to point to an example of how to make a marriage drama dull, “By the Sea” should instantaneously come to mind.

Part of the problem is the material’s reliance on showing beautiful people looking sad. We feel every inch of forced emotions, from the languid body language to carefully framed close-ups designed to capture a performer’s best angle. It is the antithesis of romance—not in a romantic sense but in the effortlessness of showing a relationship as is, whether it is currently strong, floundering, or somewhere in between. While it does make us wonder why the couple, Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie), is experiencing a great turmoil, the answer is revealed too late—when the picture has already exhausted the viewers into not caring.

The supporting characters are more interesting than the main players. Particularly curious is the cafe owner (Niels Arestrup) whose wife has passed away. Arestrup plays Michael in such a natural way that we believe immediately we may come across an old gentleman like him while on a tropical vacation. The way he portrays the character eclipses Pitt’s go-to of preserving masculinity in the face of great inner struggle. Other standouts include Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud, a happy couple on their honeymoon who just so happen to be staying in the room right next to the depressed wife and husband whom we are supposed to care about.

It neglects to make the most out of its environment, a small coastal town in France where the beach is within ten feet of the road that houses boutiques, hotels, and convenience stores. When the writer-director is willing to showcase the beauty and elegance of the town, the images come roaring to life; it makes us wish to jump into the screen and lay out under the sun. An argument can be made that keeping us inside the hotel like prisoners is the point: it is a way of suffocating us, making us feel sick of seeing the usual furnitures and hearing the same conversations, urging us to want to scream. We adopt the headspace of the central couple. It does not change the fact that the rewards are few and far between.

“By the Sea” is not meant to be enjoyable—and that is perfectly fine. But the material must tap into the nuances of a crumbling marriage and it is required that emotions behind the performances be throughly convincing, not just another high fashion spread in a magazine. Although supposedly a drama in its core, I found the experience it offers is cheap decoration.


Fury (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Great war films offer at least one image that makes an imprint in our minds. For instance, in Elem Klimov’s “Idi i smotri,” a boy uses a cow’s corpse to shield himself from a rain of bullets and in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” a little girl wearing a red coat stands out against a monochromatic background. In “Fury,” written and directed by David Ayer, the memorable image is that of a young, armed German soldier coming across an equally young American soldier but the former chooses not to turn in or kill the latter. It is likely that some people will ask why that Nazi soldier chose to be merciful, but what is certain is the writer-director made the right decision not to provide an explanation.

Logan Lerman plays Norman, a clerk typist who is assigned to join the crew of Sergeant Collier (Brad Pitt) when word got around that they are need of a new bow gunner/assistant tank driver. Norman is convinced his new role must have been a mistake because he was trained to type up to sixty words per minute, not to handle a gun, let alone murder another man.

The film is unlike many war pictures for several reasons. Although we know that the story takes place in April 1945 Nazi Germany, there is no big mission presented that will serve as a turning point of war. In addition, the story unfolds over only two or three days. By compressing its scope, it must employ details specific to the characters’ experiences to tell a story that is interesting and engaging. People who grow bored watching this movie are likely to have boxed themselves when it comes to what they expect from a war film: a fantasy where big, heroic action sequence happens every fifteen minutes, where good always triumphs over evil. This one, on the other hand, is courageous enough to leave a bitter aftertaste.

It allows us to get to know the characters as soldiers and as people. I found insight in Norman not wanting to kill even though he knows why he is there and the enemy will not likely think twice before killing him. I found Collier’s leadership tough but necessary and Pitt envelops the role so completely, at one point I was curious how his character must have been like before becoming a U.S. soldier. Scenes between the rookie and the veteran command power because there are two conflicting ideologies on screen.

Jon Bernthal, Shia LaBeouf, and Michael Peña also do a wonderful job making their characters memorable. Bernthal employs an animalistic, intimidating, highly unpredictable personality while Peña provides a bit of humor to an otherwise grim trek across war-savaged lands. I was most surprised by LaBeouf because he is able to turn his deeply religious character into a person I would like to know. The performer almost always has tears in his eyes—as if his character has nothing left to give, his faith, in a higher power and his fellow crew members, being the sole element that propels him forward.

I found the gray, foggy look of the picture to be beautiful. To me, the fog is like a population of ghosts from a distance, remaining on Earth because the skies have no more room for new spirits. We see violent images like people’s heads being blown off and men choosing to kill themselves because being burned alive is too painful, but the film is more than just about violence. It is about living in an apneic nightmare with little to no hope of waking up from.

“Fury” is not one of the most extreme war films I had ever come across. However, it is several levels above many mainstream American war movies because this film wallows in the muck of war and it is willing to share details of war changing people as a way to adapt to impossible situations. The scene with the two German women who make an appearance in middle of the picture creates then bottles up so many conflicting emotions that I detected a whiff of the late Alfred Hitchcock.

The Counselor

The Counselor (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Most of the time, I preface my reviews with a brief plot summary as to what one might hope to expect from a movie in question. But approximately fifty minutes into “The Counselor,” written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott, I still had no idea what was going on. There are images to be seen and dialogue to be heard but there is nothing to be processed and compiled to create a sensical narrative arc.

Still, I did not find the movie to be egregious on every level. On the contrary, there are a few scenes dispersed throughout that inspired me to look closer to the screen either due to a strong performance or the rhythm of the dialogue being effortless and magnetic.

Two scenes stand out. The first involves the meeting between a man only referred to as Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and an even more enigmatic gentleman called Westray (Brad Pitt), the latter of which has been involved in the drug business for years. The magic between their interactions lie in the performances. Fassbender and Pitt play their characters cool, calm, and collected—like reunited old buddies sharing a drink—but the unsaid—silent moments where they measure each other up—suggests that something very bad is going to happen to one or both of them. And it does.

The second involves the counselor’s visit in prison because he is appointed by the court to deal with a woman (Rosie Perez) whose son is in jail because he is unable to pay a speeding ticket. It is memorable in a different way—with respect to Westray and Counselor’s meeting—because one is playing a certain level of toughness, almost aggressive but never completely obvious and the other is more relaxed, almost taking his job lightly or as a joke. The interplay between Fassbender and Perez is executed with a whiff of playfulness but at the same time we are left wondering if there is more to it than meets the eye.

Figuring out how subplots interconnect is a challenge because the script offers very little connective tissue as the picture moves from one scene to another. It is like being given an incomplete mathematical formula and expecting us to arrive at the right answer. I wondered if the writer intended it to be this way. Is the big picture not supposed to matter? Are we only meant to understand or be entertained by individual scenes? What is the target audience? It functions as a thriller but is not accessible enough to be a good one.

The film should have been called “Westray” because I did not at all care about Counselor. Though Fassbender attempts to emote by invoking desperation, fear, or grief, I felt nothing toward his character. The problem is that the central character is not written to pass as a whole person. He has the charm, the confidence, and sexual magnetism but we never get the chance to get to know him on a personal level other than the fact that he loves a woman (Penélope Cruz). As a result, the emotions come off false. On the other hand, Westray is played straight—a smooth talker, very little emotion. And yet I cared what would happen to him. He talks big but can he back it up when it counts most?

“The Counselor” is a mess but I was never bored by it. It made me laugh when I probably was not supposed to but it is much better than just waiting for the film to be over. There is a very funny scene where Fassbender engages in a sort-of phone sex—awkward, pointless, and amusing. There is also a pair of horrifying sequences involving beheadings. It dares one to keep watching. It is really too bad that the material fails to form a coherent whole.

World War Z

World War Z (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Gruesome shots of limbs getting severed, getting shot in the head point-blank, stabbings, slashings, and beheadings are dime a dozen in horror movies, certainly in zombie flicks, but for some reason one of the images that has stuck with me since seeing Bruce McDonald’s “Pontypool” is the way a virus-infected zombie continues to smash its face and body, seemingly insensitive to pain, onto a bulletproof glass in a desperate attempt to get through it only so it can infect more people. A few early shots of “World War Z,” loosely based on a novel by Max Brooks, reminded me of that image, the sheer insanity of the crazed undead bashing their skull through solid objects just so they can take a bite out of an uninfected.

Those looking for copious blood will be disappointed. While some of it is seen–drops can be observed on the face or stains on clothing–the usage of the dependable red goo is minimized. This is a welcome divergence from the norm because the material is forced to focus on increasing the ante for thrills and suspense. But to expect Marc Forster’s “World War Z” to share the same bloodline as Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later…” simply because of the fast-running zombies is a mistake. It takes a more globe-trotting approach which almost makes it a long lost cousin of Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion.”

What works well is the staging of mass panic and the way it is directed. The first big scene takes place in the busy streets of Philadelphia as Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), formerly an investigator for the United Nations, is driving his family (Mireille Enos, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove) to school and work. It starts off with a curiosity: news about somewhere far away, a radio announcement citing a rabies outbreak in Taiwan. Just as it ends, the outbreak is seen right outside the vehicle: people sprinting against traffic, cops in motorcycles driving to the source of the problem with hopes of containing it, and then the deafening terrorized screams.

When I was a kid, anthills would form in my family’s backyard, right next to a mango tree. Observing the hardworking tiny creatures from a good distance gets boring after a while so, as entertainment, I would pour water on and around the fire ants’ homes. Their sting was hell, but the few seconds of them scattering about seemed like magic to me. The number of ants that came out of a mound amazed me. In here, the overhead shots of panicked and confused people running all over the city reminded me of the poor ants I tortured. To this day, I still think that the image of quiescence turning into complete chaos all of a sudden is neat.

For a movie with millions of expensive CGI zombies, they get old real quick. While visually impressive when seeing them move as a group, especially during the intense action sequence in sun-soaked majesty of Jerusalem, I wanted to see more of the undead up and close and personal. I wanted to marvel at the levels of putrefaction, if they are missing body parts, if some of them are children or older folks. Sometimes less in more and there are moments, mostly in the middle, when I grew tired of seeing them swarm.

This is why I enjoyed the second half. After Gerry is contacted by his former employer to find the source of the outbreak so scientists can understand how the virus works–if the disease is indeed triggered by a virus–and make a vaccine, eventually he ends up in a medical facility… and with a theory. Instead of continuing to use weapons like grenades, pistols, and rifles to get from Point A to Point B, the film changes gears. It must then function on a different level of tension. It should be recognized that it is uncommon for horror-thrillers, especially commercial ones, to undergo–or even attempt–a change of pace. It is a risk because there is a possibility that drastic changes in mood or tone can alienate viewers.

What does not work completely is the way it ends: it feels too abrupt and yet the narration tries to explain it all. I felt that there is pressure on the film to remain to have a running time of just below two hours. It is a shame because it needed at least fifteen to twenty minutes more to deliver a smoother falling action and an ending that feels right for itself. I am fairly certain that there is a great movie inside “World War Z.” However, what is up on screen is only slightly above average–entertaining but not immersive.