Ad Astra Review

Ad Astra joins the ranks of a rash of hard-ish science fiction movies. They present plausibly realistic futures and show people dealing with the harsh realities of the unforgiving nature of space. Movies like The Martian, Gravity, and Interstellar. I don’t know if this is the best of those, but does it really matter when the end result is another thoughtful, interesting space movie to enjoy.

Brad Pitt stars as astronaut Major Roy McBride. The movie introduces him as the coolest man in the US Space Command. His heart rate never cracks 80 bpm, not even when he is falling off a space antenna back to earth after a strange energy surge causes disasters all over the world.

The accident that send McBride plummeting back to earth is what sets up the plot of the movie. That energy surge came from the Lima Project, a research mission to the outer edge of the solar system that was captained by Clifford McBride, Roy’s father and one of the most decorated astronauts ever. They were reported lost years ago, but this surge is the first communication with them in 16 years. So mission command wants to send Roy to Mars to get a message to his father to stop whatever is happening, and to get a precise location for the Lima Project.

So Roy goes to space. The movie presents an interesting dichotomy between the physical journey and the emotional one. Roy’s trip is a Heart of Darkness-esque trek into the unknown, getting further and further from anything he recognizes. There is a lot of pulpy action, with a car chase and zero-g fights. This is presented with austerity and solemnity, but it is really stuff that verges on silly. The combination works, the presentation really sells the wilder stuff happening.

It dovetails nicely with the emotional journey that Roy goes on. At the start, he seems to idolize his father, but also resent his absence. As long as he is on, or near, earth he can maintain his balance. As he travels further from his home, and closer to the father he didn’t really know, the more unbalanced he becomes. This is doubly true as he begins to learn more about his father and The Lima Project. He has to deal with finding out that his father may not be the hero he has been portrayed as as he journeys further and further out into space.

What makes the movie work is Pitt. He is at first somewhat inscrutable; his is cool and cut off from his emotions. He keeps his cool by essentially cutting off his emotions, not actually dealing with his emotional problems. Pitt plays the coldness perfectly, as he does the slow unraveling of Roy’s emotional state as he gets closer to a reunion with his father and as that eventual reunion becomes more conflicted. When the big moment finally happens, you’ve been on this emotional journey with Roy and know where he is.

The movie is a bit too somber and spare at times; it feels like it could be a much more fun movie and still accomplish its central journey. But in my experience that looseness and fun is anathema to James Gray’s filmmaking. But that is a criticism of what this movie is not, not what this movie is. I found it to be one of the most moving film watching experiences I’ve had this year. Ad Astra is a must see.

****1/2

Magnum PI

Magnum, pi went off the air more than 30 years ago. I mean, I guess it came back on the air with a remake that started airing on CBS last fall, but the original Magnum, PI’s last episode was in May 1988. I was only two years old at that time, but through reruns, the show made a big impression on a very young me. Still, my memories of it were vague. I remembered the sun and beaches, the car and the helicopter, the music and the mustache. I started watching it on Amazon Prime expecting another piece of 1980’s camp that has little to offer now other than nostalgia. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Magnum, PI is that stuff, but it is also much more. There are some things that are very much of the 1980’s, but in many ways this show could come out today and fit right in in the upper echelon of television, especially broadcast television. (I know there is a remake show happening right now; no, I haven’t seen it.) It is sometimes silly, sometimes thoughtful, but nearly always entertaining. One of Magnum’s strengths is something that likely gets it dismissed from any serious conversation these days: Magnum, PI is almost completely episodic. With a few exceptions, this is not a serialized show. That works with Magnum’s job. He is a private investigator and each episode is a new case. That allows the show to be a lot of things, and only rarely do those things feel like they clash. It allows the show to bring all the elements of its setting to their fullest strength, depending on the episode. They don’t all work, but more work that don’t. The set up allows for one episode to pit Magnum against a dirty magazine publisher in softball game with the estate as the stakes and for another to feature a Soviet plot with ties to Magnum’s time in Vietnam, with each feeling like a part of the same show.

There is beauty in the shows simplicity. It is set in sun drenched Hawaii. Thomas Sullivan Magnum is a private investigator. He is also a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam. He lives in the guest house of a rich author, the unseen Robin Masters, and nominally works as the head of security on Masters’s compound. In that capacity, he clashes with Higgins, the estate’s majordomo. On the side, he takes private cases. Magnum is aided by two old Navy buddies, helicopter pilot TC and club operator Rick. Magnum is a kind of a blue collar guy stuck in a white collar living situation. This set up works for all kinds of stories. The connections with the rich and famous through Mr. Masters allows Magnum to get involved in some of the sillier and more ridiculous cases. Meanwhile, his military past allows for more serious stories. His job as a private investigator works is malleable enough for all kinds of mysteries, thrillers and adventures.

Like any long running show, Magnum evolves as it goes along. As it nears the end of its run, it really pushed the boundaries of its malleability. Unlike the usual arc with long running shows where they grow more ridiculous as they get older, Magnum gets darker and more violent. With Amazon Prime being short the sixth season, the jump from the fifth to the seventh is the jarring. The show just keeps pushing farther to the extremes of violence and darkness that it shows. It is hard to quantify; the show was always a violent show. Magnum and his friends are all Vietnam veterans, and there are numerous references and flashbacks to their time in the military. One episode is essentially a TV version of Rambo II. The show never loses the lighter episodes, but even those seem more likely to involve shoots outs with machine guns.

With season 7 it is part of an arc, or at least something close to an arc, ending with Magnum’s apparent death at the end of the season. I knew of that episode before watching it. Before season 7 that ending would be completely out of sync with the rest of the show; the brightness always seemed greater than the darkness. But season 7 flips that, you feel the danger of Magnum’s world.

Magnum, PI remains a very watchable, entertaining show. Plus, I can see its DNA in some of my more modern favorites like Psych, another sun-drenched crime/mystery show. I still have the last season to get through, and season 6 which is not on Amazon Prime with the rest of the series, but the hundred plus episodes I’ve seen are mostly excellent. This is one memory from childhood that is at least as good as I remember it being.

Hustlers Review

Another review I read of Hustlers described it as “Goodfellas in a g-string,” and I cannot think of a better description than that. Hustlers is a crime movie that puts the focus on women. A group of dancers pull a scam on their odious clients, at least until a few of them can overcome the shame and tell the police what happened. It is one of the better movies to come out in the last few months and a good kick off for fall movies.

This is a true crime story of a group of strippers who stole tons of money from their clients. They did this by drugging them and stealing their credit cards. Constance Wu stars as Destiny, who comes under the wing of experienced dancer Ramona, played by Jennifer Lopez. Ramona teaches Destiny how to dance. Eventually, they split up, but after Destiny’s relationship fails and she tries to go back to dancing, they meet back up. The early part of the movie takes place before the financial collapse, the latter half after. The money just doesn’t flow like it did before. So Ramona assembles a crew for a new venture. They go to bars and find men and entice them to go to the strip club. But eventually that well runs dry. So then they hatch a new plan; drugging the men, bringing them to the club and robbing them blind.

Hustlers does a great job of playing with the audience’s sympathies. The first hour is all about getting you to sympathize with its main characters. You see the women’s struggles and their dreams. Those dreams might be somewhat ridiculous–I am not sure about Ramona’s clothing line of denim swimwear–but the movie never asks you to laugh at them. It also goes out of its way to portray the men who are coming into the club as absolute creeps. They are mostly wall street traders just before the stock market collapse. The movie gets you on board with them, and when their efforts turn criminal the movie makes it easy to follow their justifications. Then the movie pushes further and further. The marks become less odious, the women less justified. Then the movie pulls it back once it closes in on the ending.

The movie lives by the performances and relationships of its crew. Lopez is the standout as Ramona, a force of nature in the club, whose drive leads to the plan and whose foibles lead to their inevitable capture. Wu doesn’t appear quite as comfortable as Destiny; at first because that is the character, but later because her attitude is inconsistent. Other characters move in and out, with Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart rounding out the primary crew of scammers. Palmer in particular steals every scene she is in. The chemistry between Wu and Lopez drives the movie. At first it seems almost romantic, but the real nature of the connection becomes clear later. Destiny was abandoned by her mother at a young age and was raised by her grandmother. Ramona becomes like her surrogate mother. That fits with Ramona’s mother hen tendencies. But Destiny is not the only young dancer she has formed such a relationship with. Ramona’s refusal to cut any of them loose, no matter how untrustworthy they prove to be. Even at the end, Destiny still craves that connection with Ramona.

The other thread, that one that doesn’t quite work, is how this story is being told as a story to a reporter played by Julia Stiles. She is fine, but the storyline only seems to deflate the tension of the main story.

Hustlers is a delight. It is a crime story with a fresh perspective. It is a movie that takes characters that are usually treated as disposable and showing that they are people. It doesn’t quite land every note, but the whole package is a lot of fun.

****

The Goldfinch

The best thing I can say about The Goldfinch is that it made me want to read the book. That sounds like, and is intended to be, damning with faint praise, but I think I liked it more than most people. It doesn’t seem to be entirely deserving of the critical drubbing it has taken. It also not completely undeserving of its reception, either. The Goldfinch feels like a well crafted failure; it has all the ingredients and make up of something great, but the end result is significantly less than the sum of its parts.

The Goldfinch takes place in time periods; in the past with 13-year-old Theo and in the present with adult Theo. The parts with young Theo get a lot more time, and therefore work a whole lot better, even if many of its characters get no development. The inciting incident of the movie is the bombing of a museum that kills, among others, Theo’s mother. During the aftermath, Theo makes off with a painting of a Goldfinch. The movie follows his journey as he lives with the Barbour family, headed by the kind yet distant matriarch played by Nicole Kidman. Eventually he ends up with his father out in the Nevada desert. Along the way, he struggles to process his grief. When overcome, he clutches the Goldfinch, a connection to his mother. As an adult, Theo sells antiques and tries to fit in with the social set he left as a child. There are numerous plots and subplots, eventually building to a conflict around the stolen Goldfinch.

The adult stuff feels like a full movie squashed into less than an hour. There is not enough to get a feel for any of the characters or their relationships. Especially with the time jump, it makes it hard to get a read on the world the characters live in. You see young Theo attempt to process his grief, with him finding some solace living with the Barbours, and less living with his father. He makes some friends that help him cope, if not always in healthy ways. Then it jumps to his time as an adult, and the movie never really establishes who he is. Revelations are fast and frequent, but without knowing what the situation was, it is hard to tell how this new information changes anything. Ansel Elgort tries to do what he can, but adult Theo is a cypher. You see him meet a character for the first time in years. The next thing you know, they are engaged. Then the relationship is on the rocks. The movie never really gives a reason to care.

The movie goes through all the motions, but never gets to the emotions. There is a big scene near the end, when Theo comes into conflict with his mentor and business partner. The movie makes it feel like it should be a big moment, but it doesn’t have the impact because the reasons things matter so much to that character aren’t mentioned until that scene. The movie spends so much time with everything else, it could have spent more time on The Goldfinch. You know, the one from the title.

In the end The Goldfinch feels a bit like the early Harry Potter adaptations. There are a lot they do well, but in the end those movies feel a little like they are marking boxes on an adaptation checklist. All of these scenes need to get in, even if that doesn’t leave the time to actually develop any of the characters or the plot. The Goldfinch gives a look into a story that feels like a modern day Dickens (again, I haven’t read the book) but sapped of most of its humanity. It is a movie about grief, but it shows the effects without really letting the viewer into the minds of the characters to see how it affects them.

**1/2