AD ASTRA – A VERY DIFFERENT KIND OF SCI FI

SHORT TAKE:

Journey by a son in search of his father, set in space.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens minimum for some language but mostly scenes of violence and the resulting dangers one might expect in tackling hard space. There is no sexual content.

LONG TAKE:

Ad Astra (meaning “to the stars”) directed by James Gray, one of the writers, is a very interesting movie but not about what you might think. Ad Astra could have taken place as a western, underwater, in a haunted abandoned funhouse, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, in any normal day of a big city, or climbing a mountain. The writers James Gray and Ethan Gross chose to place this well told story in space and it is as good a backdrop as any of the others would have been. Combining allegory with pragmatic and brutal realism, Ad Astra plays out more like the Greek epic of discovery, The Odyssey or the Christian parable Pilgrim’s Progress, than a conventional science fiction story. Gray, writer/director, himself has compared his story to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

SPOILERS – BUT MINOR AND OBLIQUELY AS I CAN

The story is about Roy McBride, a top-flight astronaut, played by Brad Pitt (most recently in the wonderful role of a protective stuntman in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), whose father, Clifford, disappeared 16 years before. Roy’s father played by Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black, The Fugitive, Captain America) is a brilliant scientist who went in search of evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, then fell off the radar after leaving Saturn.

A series of catastrophic electronic storms have recently begun to devastate Earth. The Surges, as they are referred to, seem to be emanating from Neptune, and are suspected to be linked to Clifford’s disappearance. Roy is sent out to investigate with his father’s old partner, Thomas Pruitt, played by acting veteran Donald Sutherland.

As an aside, I am a big fan of Donald Sutherland. Sutherland’s career dates back almost six decades. Playing opposite the likes of Robert Duvall, Helen Mirren, Orson Welles, Gene Wilder, and Julie Christie, his career includes an incredibly eclectic collection of almost two hundred entries, ranging from comic to horror to personal drama. His resume includes everything from classics like Hamlet and Pride and Prejudice, to monster movies like the bad  Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and the brilliant Invasion of the Body Snatchers, military black comedies like M.A.S.H. and Kelly’s Heroes, deeply emotional personal dramas like Ordinary People, the modern dystopian franchise The Hunger Games, screwball comedies like Start The Revolution Without Me, straight war movies like The Dirty Dozen and Eye of The Needle, and avant garde suspense like Don’t Look Now – the list goes on and on, and it was a pleasure to see him again even in a small character part.

Rounding out the cast is Ruth Negga (the prickly – in more ways than one – antagonist in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Helen Santos, an ally who appears, like a messenger from a Greek myth, to provide Roy information he needs to urge him along his quest. Another character who hands Roy along like a baton is Colonel Levant played by Sean Blakemore. Liv Tyler (Lord of the Rings, Armageddon – so not Tyler’s first rodeo as a character enamored of a space cowboy) is Eve (to Roy’s Adam? – perhaps representing all mankind and their errors) the girl Roy leaves behind as Roy seems compelled as a lemming, without his father’s guidance, to repeat his father’s mistakes.

However, Ad Astra is not really about the search for Roy’s father, but ultimately an insightful, honest and frank inner journey undertaken by Roy to conquer the demons left behind by Clifford’s abandonment of Roy’s family.

Modern culture tries to expunge the need for a father in the home. Ad Astra highlights, at least in part, the fallacy of this destructive philosophy.

The tone of the film reminds me of, and owes a lot to, Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking but ethereally distant 2001: A Space Odyssey, which created a mythology about mankind’s leaps of progress. In contrast, Ad Astra is relatable, in that it is told from the intimate point of view of one man’s personal evolution. The pace of Ad Astra is very slow and deliberate, arguably even sometimes dull. But such adagio of movement is necessary for the contemplatively atmosphere necessary for this pensive tale.

The events that transpire during the course of the film are anything but boring. The theme of obstacles structure the story and manifest in every way you can imagine: verbal, bureaucratic, intentionally hostile, the indifference of nature, clandestine, emotional, instinctive brutality, and the simple fact of the mind-numbingly immense distances required to complete Roy’s journey.

The cinematography is magnificent. The depiction of the outer planets is stunning and awe-inspiring and brilliantly conveys the overwhelming majestic size of space itself, underscoring the enormity of the pilgrimage that Roy undertakes.

And pilgrimage Roy’s trip truly is. A pilgrimage of discovery. The pilgrim nature of Roy’s quest is underscored by the occasional but respectful and deliberate references to traditional Christian theology and belief. The spiritual nature of Roy’s expedition is also demonstrated by the way the writers strip Roy, piece by piece, of his armor plating – literally and figuratively, physically and emotionally – until he must confront his destiny as any questing knight must – face to face and alone. Roy’s progress is cleverly documented by way of periodic psychological tests he must take and pass in order to continue his journey. This serves as both a practical plot device as well as a metaphysical manifestation of Roy’s inner progress.

The music by Max Richter is both triumphal and eerily beautiful, contributing to the contemplative feel of this mystery.

Ad Astra is not for everyone. It’s not properly a science fiction story, though it is set in a pragmatic future vision of human-conquering space. But it is far more violent than the average audience for a movie which primarily deals with inner analysis.

So go see Ad Astra if you are of the right age and want to see a thoughtful, meditative but dangerous odyssey. But go without any preconceived notions, for it is not the kind of science fiction movie you might expect, but approach it as you might a friend mulling over a retreat inspired epiphany which he wants to share.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD – DEAD RINGER FOR THE REAL THING

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

A classically Tarentino revisionist history of a terrible event during the 1960’s seen through the prism of a fading TV star and his stunt double in an intricately detailed and brain shockingly familiar re-creation of the 1960’s.

WHO SHOULD GO:

ADULTS! ONLY ADULTS! And only adults who have fairly strong constitutions. While there really are no sex scenes, the language is frequently raw and occasionally vulgar topics are discussed in crude ways, but there are a few fight scenes and one long scene of extremely gory and prolonged violence.

LONG TAKE:

Allow me to begin this review by quoting GK Chesterton:

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

Reviewing this movie puts me in an awkward position for a number of reasons. For one, it is a typically Tarentino violent and sexually charged film but one I thought extremely well done and worth viewing. For another I don’t want to unduly spoil anything in the movie but need to set the stage for one of the most vile moments in American history without either scaring off prospective appropriate film goers or giving away too much.

So keeping all this in mind:

SPOILERS FOR OUATIH AS WELL AS IRON MAN, WONDER WOMAN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, AND X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE

There’s a YouTube show called How it Should Have Ended, a PG if not G-rated comedy, which points out inconsistencies, crosses universe franchise storylines, and evaluates any plot flaws in movies which rely on nonsensical stupidity to set up the premise or move the story along. They animate scenes and do very credible voice impersonations showing, for better or worse, what is likely to have really happened had common sense prevailed in a given situation.

For examples, they: point out how a man as smart as Doctor Strange would not have texted on a winding road, going super fast, in the dark, but would have hung up the phone and planned to call later; demonstrate how Iron Man’s quicker, lighter and faster suit, along with his flying experience would have easily defeated Obadiah Stane at the end of Iron Man; introduced Wolverine to assist  Wonder Woman; clearly showed in a spoof of the theme song from Beauty and the Beast that Belle was a victim of Stockholm Syndrome; and exhibit how Mr. Incredible probably would have loved Syndrome’s childhood inventions instead of shunning him with far more positive results.

Similarly, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is aptly named, for it is a fairy tale, if you consider, as Joe Harper did in Kenneth Branagh’s A Midwinter’s Tale that “most fairy tales turn out to be nightmares”, which explores the alternate possibilities in life.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the fictitious fading star Rick Dalton, a composite of every little known ’60’s TV show one trick pony and Brad Pitt is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (based loosely on Burt Reynold’s stunt double Hal Needham). Where Rick is a fragile bag of regrets and insecurities off camera, Rick exudes a tough cowboy presence 24/7.

Likely the best acting job of either DiCaprio or Pitt, and almost the only two people who do not play historically documentable figures, they avoid what easily could have been caricatures to create two very different but vulnerable men who are survivors at their core. Despite the background story, their downwardly spiraling respective careers and the omnipresent spectre of the looming profoundly malevolent event on the horizon, dreadful to anticipate for anyone familiar with this year, these two archetype examples of crank-’em-out TV show stars from the ’60’s manage to be likeable, interesting, relatable, appealing and, like yeast in a barrel of flour, lighten the mood of every scene they are in.

This is a very “META” concept outing – with actors portraying real people who portrayed characters in movies and TV shows similar to the ones being filmed withIN the confines of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Whew.

The acting of the supporting cast, most of whom do play real people, is terrific. Among a large cast: Margot Robbie is the sweet and gentle but vacuous Sharon Tate. Dakota Fanning does a gut clenching quietly evil rendition of Manson follower Squeaky Fromme. And Mike Moh has all the mannerisms down for what can only be described as a Bruce Lee caricature (for which his surviving daughter, Shannon Lee, has taken exception). But one of the most impressive was Damien Lewis’ Steve MacQueen (The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair). With just his voice and gestures he brings this cinema icon back to life for just a few wonderful movie moments.

In addition, there are some wonderful cameos from Al Pacino (1972’s The Godfather), Kurt Russell (from Disney’s 1969’s Computer Wore Tennis Shoes to Snake Plissken in Escape From New York) who has a small part as stunt coordinator Randy and provides some V.O. narration, and Bruce Dern (1972’s eco-warning sci fi Silent Running), actors whose careers were pretty much “born” during this period of time.

And then there are little Easter Eggs that you might miss unless you look closely, like Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas who greets Tate at the Playboy Mansion, and someone who can only be Twiggy talking to Steve MacQueen. NOT to mention the resurrection of the old TV show Lancer, including Wayne Maunder (portrayed by Luke Perry) and cigarette commercials which are startlingly accurate dopplegangers to the ones we watched on TV as kids.

The songs are beautifully handpicked for the right moments like bouquets placed around a professionally decorated room featuring the likes of: “Good Thing” from Paul Revere and the Raiders, Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, and “California Dreamin'” by Jose Feliciano.

And the sets, pacing of interviews, acting styles of the actors as they performed the shows within the movie, costumes, blunt and awkward dialogue all open a portal into a world I have not experienced in more than half a century. It was jarringly realistic. Tarantino even cleverly placed throughout the movie the awkward and jerky edits often experienced in watching a show from my youth, as the more humble equipment just did not produce the smoother transitions we all demand today, subtly evoking that era, as well as reminding us this is all just a fantasy, a wishful thinking creation of a cinematic mind.

If he has done nothing else, Tarantino has done a stunning job of disabusing me of any temptations to nostalgia for the era in his pinpoint accurate recreation of the world in which I grew up – the ’60’s with its emphasis on: the constant generation of cigarette smoke, plastic furniture, ridiculously high miniskirts, obnoxious self-aggrandizing hippies, sparse air conditioning, unchallenged snake oil salesmen, terrible TV shows, black and white monitors with Vietnam in the background, and condescending talking heads masquerading as newscasters (OK we still have those).

Don’t get me wrong. I loved it while I was living it but in the stark light of a Tarantino day – let’s just say that walks down Memory Lane should be taken sparingly.

And then there is the specific history of that particular “moment” in time.

In order to appreciate the pervasive sense of suspense and anxiety that hangs over the entire movie, you have to understand the backdrop in which the story plays out. The movie takes place during the year preceding the slaughter of Sharon Tate, her baby and guests on the night of August 9th 1969. On that terrible night, a cult leader name Charles Manson sent his followers out to kill everyone in the house on Cielo Drive. The people there were not just murdered they were savaged. A pregnant Sharon Tate, two weeks from delivery, was hung up and butchered like cattle. The rest were bludgeoned, shot, and stabbed dozens of times. Anyone old enough or well read enough to be familiar with this event knows it is coming — and protagonist Rick lives next door.

The next day, before their capture, Manson and his hippies did the same to a couple named LaBianca. It is hard to appreciate how this atmosphere of evil informed those days unless you lived through it…or watched this movie.

It was largely thought that the 1960’s “died” that day, (ignoring the fact that, well yes, 4-1/2months later it would be 19–SEVENTY, but I get the drift), replacing the open door “love is in the air” perception of the flower child with the reality that these people engaged in highly dysfunctional and destructive behaviors, who were predominantly a danger to themselves and those around them.

In OUATIH we get the true face of the hippie, free-love, Flower Power movement:  promiscuous, selfish, manipulative, filthy, violent, arrogant, condescending, narcissistic, slothful, parasitic, hypocritical, self-adoring, drug addicted anarchists with a sense of entitlement to other people’s property. The greatest horror to those who stylistically aligned themselves with these pet anti-establishment philosophies (while living otherwise) was that the Manson cult demonstrated to the world merely the logical extrapolation of the hippie mantras which included calling police names and advocating their destruction, extreme hostility to capitalism while living off the work of others,  and engagement in sexual debauchery without accepting consequences.

The aftermath of Woodstock alone demonstrates it takes a lot of someone else’s effort and money for one to appear to be living a life of freedom and independence from the drudgery of actually having to work for a living. (Of course, unfortunately, that is now the Democrat National Party goal – to be living off the hard work of other people, responsibility free – not surprising since many in their leadership fermented out of that intellectual cesspool —— but that’s a post for another day.)

Without any real job they lived, if you can call it that, on the largesse of family,  friends and community, that is when they weren’t begging, prostituting themselves or outright stealing.

As this is a Tarantino film one expects an extreme amount of violence and gore and OUATIH is no exception…..but not the way you might expect, or cringe fearfully. I am delighted to say that, through the magic of Tarantino pixie dust, I was inspired to clap and cheer during the last scenes.

Tarantino likes to play with “What if’s”. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained being his most telling examples. I had actually never seen an entire Tarantino movie before but only clips from the likes of Kill Bill, Hateful Eight and Pulp Fiction. Sudden and ferocious bloodshed tend to jump out like ghouls from a haunted house, but OUAPIH is quite gentle for most of the movie in comparison, as the director manifests more suspense and extreme apprehension than actual violence…until the end.

Also stick around for a funny ending credits scene with a brilliantly on point faux cigarette commercial.

So if you want a head first dive into the deep end of nostalgia, and if you have the stomach for it, this is Tarantino at his best, if for no other reason than his masterful re-invention of a time gone by and for the cathartic satisfaction of seeing justice served in a Tarantino-flavored version of How it Should Have Ended.

God bless and R.I.P. Sharon Tate, baby Paul Polanski,  Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Steven Parent, Leno LaBianca, and Rosemary LaBianca.