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.
The Lost City of Z (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Lost City of Z,” written for the screen and directed by James Gray, would fit right in had it been released in the 1970s when movies of this type were still being made and seen by adventurous audiences or viewers who may temporarily crave for adventure. It is no surprise then that some, or many, modern audiences may be numb to its appeal. They are likely to cite pacing issues, a lack of a defined script, a standard dramatic parabola expected from more recent biographical works. I admired and enjoyed the film exactly for these reasons.
Here is a portrait of a man with an obsession that evolves over decades. Initially, his obsession is social mobility, his need to be regarded by other men wearing medals as an equal. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) wishes to be respected. But travel changes a person. We observe how this man is changed every time he returns home from the jungles of South America as his family and peers function as mirrors, reflecting the image of the man he once was. There as interesting discussion to be had whether Percy is more or less of a person each time an expedition ends. I argue he becomes more than what he thought he could ever be; I related to his thirst for knowledge and the need to illuminate those unable to look past themselves.
The picture commands beauty through its use of calculated lighting. Never too bright nor dark, its grayish appearance gives the impression of looking into a memory. Images may be awash with dull colors but it is fascinating how emotions are consistently at the forefront, sharp, and confronting—whether it be a disagreement amongst fellow explorers on how to proceed with their travails or subtle expressions of deep regrets for having missed out on lost time with one’s wife and children. There is a point to every scene which may not always progress the plot but just about each one tells an interesting detail about the man whose body is never found after his journey in 1925.
Scenes that take place in the jungle reminded me of Werner Herzog’s excellent “Fitzcarraldo” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” Although not as epic in scope as Herzog’s masterworks, this film captures the dangers and unpredictabilities of exploration. It takes its time to show us the river, how difficult it is to navigate through when everything is going right and how nearly impossible it is when every element is going wrong. Even humor can be found in the most dire and desperate situations. I enjoyed how we get a chance to meet different tribes, to infer what they value based on what can be found in their environment, the jewelries they wear, their treatment of strangers who dare set foot on their territories. Clearly, this is a picture for a patient audience. Those willing to look closely will be rewarded.
“The Lost City of Z” may not be for the general audience of today, but it is for me. Its elliptical storytelling technique communicates courage, its willingness to slow down so we have enough time to appreciate beauty and to dig inside ourselves suggests it values that we have a spiritual experience, its ability to present its subject as virtuous and flawed creates complexity worth a conversation. Here is a film that actively works to engage the viewer, possibly in ways that a viewer doesn’t expect from having decided to jump into a story about a man hoping to find proof of a mythical lost civilization.
Two Lovers (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
“Two Lovers” was about a man with bipolar disorder (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with two women (Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw)–one was emotionally unstable with an edge of coolness about her, while the other was more ordinary but was ready to settle down. I’m not sure if I was supposed to believe that Phoenix’ character really did fall in love with either woman because, throughout the film, I felt like he just a little boy with a crush: either he really liked one of the women or both of them one minute but he was as easily able to detach from them. His indecision made him look like a jerk because of the way he juggled his time between the two. I thought the first part of the movie was consistently strong (even though Phoenix’ character was a bit creepy) because I was interested in the dynamics among the characters, especially Phoenix and Paltrow. Unfortunately, somewhere in the middle it got lost within itself due to its languid tone, dark material, heavy-handedness and self-indulgence. I ran out of patience with it instead of actually wanting to watch the story unravel. There were not enough pay-offs dispersed every fifteen minutes or so. In fact, it just started repeating itself when it came to the lead characters’ constant disappointment by Paltrow’s self-hating character. The whole idea of a woman not feeling like she deserved to be loved was played out and I’ve seen the idea explored in better films. I thought she was essentially a user and ultimately did not know what she wanted so I ended up disliking her greatly. She was so selfish and I felt like her apologies were more for her–so she could feel better for the pain she caused other people. I just couldn’t sympathize with her. Directed by James Gray, “Two Lovers” is a small picture but its main problem was just that: it settled with being small. Instead, it should have acknowledged itself for being small but still delivered the big and insightful ideas. I chose to watch this movie because I thought I would get witty and smart conversations between two mature adults. I was very disappointed because I felt like I was watching a romance between fifteen-year-olds stuck in thirtysomething bodies. Don’t even get me started with the eye-rolling typicality of two lovers chatting over the phone as they looked at each other from across the building. It may work on a Taylor Swift music video but not on a full feature film. The film needed more depth, consistency and a stable sense of identity.