Ad Astra review

For F*** Magazine

AD ASTRA

Director: James Gray
Cast : Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Kennedy, Kimberly Elise
Genre : Sci-fi/Adventure
Run Time : 123 mins
Opens : 19 September 2019
Rating : PG13

Director James Gray, known mainly for his contemplative dramas, launches into big-budget adventure movie territory with Ad Astra, while still retaining a more sombre, introspective tone than the typical movie of this type. ‘Ad Astra’ is Latin for “to the stars”. Brad Pitt was originally attached to star in Gray’s previous film, the historical adventure drama The Lost City of Z, and while he was eventually replaced with Charlie Hunnam, Pitt stayed on as a producer. Pitt and Gray collaborate again on Ad Astra, which puts the established movie star front and centre.

In the near future, space exploration has advanced considerably, with humanity travelling to the outer reaches of our solar system. Extensive colonies and bases have been established on the moon and on Mars. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the son of decorated astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who vanished years ago on a mission to Neptune. Space Command has received indications that against all odds, Clifford might still be alive. The experiments that were begun on the mission that Clifford led now have a ripple effect in the form of crippling power surges, endangering life on earth. Roy resolves to track his father down and solve a mystery that has haunted him for decades.

We don’t get many big-budget sci-fi films that are very serious, in part because spectacle sells. There is a scale of sci-fi “soft” to “hard”, with Guardians of the Galaxy on the “soft” end and something like The Martian towards the “harder” end. Director Gray takes a very serious approach, and one can tell that a lot of research has gone into envisioning what the future of space travel might look like.

Some of the themes from The Lost City of Z, especially those of singular obsession, delusion and a desperation for a greater purpose, carry over into this film. This is a good showcase for Pitt too, who plays a heroic character burdened by sorrow and on the brink of collapse, trundling towards his goal, however futile it might be. There is little room for supporting characters, but Pitt ably carries this.

Unfortunately, Ad Astra is caught between trying to be extremely self-serious and providing the action and spectacle audiences expect. As such, the action sequences feel disjointed from the rest of the movie and do not serve the plot. We get lots of contemplative voiceover from Pitt’s character, much of it bordering on pretentious. The film’s emotional core, the father-son story, is also hard to engage with and be moved by.

As is typical for these films, the protagonist’s wife does a lot of waiting around back home and not much else. Liv Tyler plays an astronaut’s significant other again, 21 years after Armageddon, and has even less to do here than she did in the Michael Bay extravaganza. Also, while Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones are both in this film, they do not meet, denying us a Space Cowboys semi-reunion (but this is more for this reviewer’s amusement than an actual point against the movie).

Ad Astra conveys the solitude and beautiful desolation of drifting through the cosmos, wondering about one’s place in the universe. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who lensed Interstellar and Dunkirk for Christopher Nolan and Spectre for Sam Mendes, makes this look grand and expansive. It can a bit navel gaze-y, but we saw this in IMAX and the breath-taking outer space vistas do make watching this on a huge screen somewhat worthwhile.

Two sequences seem to stick out from this otherwise sombre affair: a chase on moon buggies that pit(t)s our heroes against a band of space pirates, and an unexpected attack by bloodthirsty baboons that have gone feral after being left alone in a space station. While these two sequences provide superficial excitement, they occur relatively early in the film, such that the bulk of the latter half of the movie consists of Pitt staring into the middle distance as we occasionally cut to the exterior of the spaceship floating past Saturn’s rings.

Ad Astra may not necessarily find a big audience in theatres, but there are moviegoers who hunger for science fiction that’s more “search for our place in the universe” and less “lasers and giant spiders”.

Summary: Ad Astra is a rare movie in that it’s a star vehicle in an age when star vehicles are less common than big franchise movies, and in that it’s a serious science fiction movie with a big budget. However, Pitt’s central performance and the film’s visual splendour cannot compensate for its coldness as it trips over itself trying to be as deep and contemplative as possible.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Generally Speaking: War Machine press conference/red carpet

For F*** Magazine

GENERALLY SPEAKING

Brad Pitt dons the fatigues for Netflix’s comedy-drama War Machine

[Tokyo Exclusive]

By Jedd Jong

The meteoric rise of online streaming giant Netflix has made several major cinema chains quake in their boots, and for this particular battle, Netflix has come armed with one of the biggest movie stars of the last 20 years: Brad Pitt, who stars in and produces War Machine. F*** was at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Tokyo for a press conference attended by Pitt, writer-director David Michôd and co-producers Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner.

War Machine is based on the non-fiction book The Operators by the late Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings. Pitt plays General Glen McMahon, a thinly-veiled fictionalisation of real-life general Stanley McChrystal. A decorated soldier credited with the death of an Al Qaeda leader, McChrystal’s military career came to an end when disparaging comments he made about Vice President Joe Biden appeared in a Rolling Stone article.

Glen McMahon is characterised in the film as a blustering buffoon; Pitt visibly enjoying playing the over-the-top role. Pitt said that he and the filmmakers settled on certain traits, including the character’s awkward posture while running, by deciding what “just made [them] laugh the most.” Pitt observed that McMahon “portrays and sees himself as an emblem of greatness when actually he looks quite silly,” and that the “absurdity of the general” embodied the ultimate pointlessness of the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan.

Pitt was clad in a black jacket over a grey shirt and white trousers, seeming relaxed as he attempted to keep things light by cracking jokes. “I take full credit for the shorts,” Pitt quipped, referring to the shorts that McMahon wears while jogging. He dared all the men present to “start a new trend together” by mimicking the none-too-flattering look. The humorous comment didn’t draw much of a reaction from the Japanese press, and because of the need for questions and answers to be interpreted back and forth from English to Japanese and vice versa, there wasn’t much spontaneity or momentum to the proceedings.

Michôd said it was “terrifying” that the war in Afghanistan has been going on for 16 years. “I couldn’t work out why it has been going on for so long and how it is possible that people- who I would assume are quite smart and capable-are still pretending as though there is some kind of victory waiting for them just around the corner,” Michôd mused. After reading The Operators, it all clicked. “What I saw at the
centre of it was a character, a general who was kind of delusional because he was so removed,” Michôd revealed. In the book, Michôd saw how McChrystal’s ambition “removed him from the experiences of the troops on the ground, and from the civilian world that he was there to serve.” From Michôd’s point of view, the root of the protracted involvement of American and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan was “plain human delusion”.

“Quite honestly, without a delivery system like Netflix, this movie wouldn’t have been made,” Pitt said, praising Netflix for taking risks on challenging material. He praised Netflix and online delivery systems like it, saying that thanks to these platforms “there’s more content getting made, there’s more risk out there, there’s more films, there’s more stories being told, there’s more filmmakers getting shots.” All involved took a “big leap” for War Machine, which Pitt called a “big, bold move for Netflix, quite frankly.”

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Gardner echoed Pitt’s sentiments on Netflix, saying “I think everyone has similar intentions, but not everyone has the courage.” Gardner said she “could not have dreamed of a better partner” than Netflix, and that Plan B also had a positive experience working with Netflix for Bong Joon-ho’s upcoming film Okja. Gardner called the Netflix personnel “rock stars”, saying “we try and push boundaries in the stories we tell, and when you meet a company like Netflix who says ‘okay, we want to do that too,’ and they say ‘We have the money for it and we’ve got the manpower to support you’, it’s like a gift from on high.”

War Machine is available on Netflix from 26 May 2017

Read the full article in the upcoming issue of F*** Magazine

 

 

Allied

For F*** Magazine

ALLIED

Director : Robert Zemeckis
Cast : Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, Matthew Goode, Simon McBurney
Genre : Romance/Drama/Historical
Run Time : 2 h 4 min
Opens : 5 January 2017
Rating : M18

allied-posterBrad Pitt is playing spy games again, and this time his partner is the slightest bit more fetching than Robert Redford. It is 1942 at the height of the Second World War, and Max Vatan (Pitt), a Royal Canadian Air Force intelligence officer, is dispatched to French Morocco. He is partnered with Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard), a beguiling French Resistance fighter who is the lone survivor after the members of her resistance group were compromised and killed. Their mission is to assassinate the German ambassador Hobar (August Diehl) at a party in Casablanca. Against their better judgement, Max and Marianne fall in love with each other, eventually marrying and having a daughter. Just as he is growing accustomed to their new idyllic existence, Max winds up facing the possibility that there might be more to Marianne than meets the eye.

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Director Robert Zemeckis, whose credits include such influential films as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump, has assembled a resolutely old-fashioned film with Allied. This is a throwback to the wartime romantic thrillers of days gone by, but with considerably more swearing, sex and violence (in that order) than the Hays Code would’ve allowed. In invoking classics like Casablanca by setting its first half in, well, Casablanca itself, Allied has its charms. However, despite the afore-mentioned adult content, Allied comes off feeling sanitized. Zemeckis and screenwriter Steven Knight seem to be going for the romanticised movie ideal of World War II over an authentic portrayal of the setting. The inadvertently makes Allied reminiscent of the Indiana Jones films, even though the tone here is markedly more serious.

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Zemeckis stages several suspenseful scenes with a master’s touch, and the moments in which Max and Marianne practice their spycraft are fun to watch. In hewing so close to established tropes and styles, Allied often teeters on the edge of cheesiness. For example, Max and Marianne share a steamy moment in the front seat of their car as a sandstorm rages outside, the camera lovingly swirling around them. It’s beautiful in its own way, yet ridiculous and snicker-inducing at the same time. Much of the film is like that, though it’s most obvious during the tryst-in-a-car-in-a-sandstorm.

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It’s a safe estimate that Pitt and/or Cotillard are in around 95% of the shots in Allied, with the supporting cast dwarfed by the leading stars. There was some salacious, sensationalist gossip that emerged at the time of the Brangelina divorce announcement, that Angelina Jolie had suspected Cotillard of coming on to Pitt while making this film. As such, it’s a bit of a shame that the pair share altogether too little chemistry. The earlier scenes in which the pair shares playful banter, which Marianne coaching Max on his Parisian accent, promise an explosive, passionate romance to remember. Alas, that is not the case.

Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan in Allied from Paramount Pictures.

Pitt spends most of the film looking morose, and Max Vatan emerges as a largely uninteresting character. Max is sometimes too credulous to be an elite spy, even with romance clouding his judgement factored in. Pitt is by no means a terrible performer, but Cotillard acts rings around him and is significantly more magnetic a presence. She’s sultry and slinky, but always more than a mere caricature of a femme fatale.

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The stars and the costumes they wear are pretty to look at, but Allied provides little more than that. Thanks to Zemeckis’ years of experience, it is competently assembled and there are no egregious missteps along the way, but neither the thrills nor the romance have the visceral impact the story needs to be truly affecting.

Summary: Allied’s megawatt star pairing should have yielded more excitement than this, but Robert Zemeckis’ direction saves this old-timey wartime romance from being a completely staid experience.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

By the Sea

For F*** Magazine

BY THE SEA

Director : Angelina Jolie Pitt
Cast : Angelina Jolie Pitt, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 132 mins
Opens : 31 December 2015
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes and Nudity)
Brangelina are back together on the big screen for the first time in ten years, after continuously teasing – or threatening, depending on your point of view – the possibility of doing a movie as a couple again. Alas, it’s not Mr. & Mrs. Smith 2: Little Smiths, but this romantic drama instead. It is the mid-1970s, and Roland (Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Jolie) are holidaying in a French seaside town. Roland is a struggling writer and Vanessa is a former dancer, and after 14 years of marriage, the couple have grown apart. In the hotel room next to theirs, newlyweds Francois (Poupaud) and Lea (Laurent) are having their honeymoon. Vanessa becomes envious of their wedded bliss as both she and Roland become increasingly frustrated with each other, unable to work things out. The fairy-tale setting’s there, now all they need is that happily ever after.

            Jolie is By the Sea’s writer and director and, alongside her husband, its star. There’s no point denying this isn’t a vanity project; it’s pretty much the dictionary definition of one. The foremost task any vanity project has to accomplish is that of convincing the audience that there’s a point or at least some semblance of value to the enterprise beyond a vigorous ego massage. There’s not even the faintest attempt at such justification here. The film has already been roundly savaged by critics, so excuse us for picking at its carcass. Jolie and Pitt are movie stars and where movie stars go, their egos are wont to follow. An ego is not necessarily a bad thing; some might say it’s an integral ingredient in the “star quality” cocktail. What Jolie and Pitt have done here is assume that the very notion of the two of them on the screen is enough to send audiences into a tizzy, and that there doesn’t need to be anything more than that. It’s ShamWow levels of self-absorption.

            Yes, By the Sea is pretty to look at. Then again, most people would like to have Christian Berger or a cinematographer of his calibre film their honeymoon in Malta as a keepsake if given a chance. Then again, most people wouldn’t foist it upon the movie-going public under the assumption that anyone other than themselves would want to watch it. There’s a good deal of style, with Jolie going for a 70s-type laid-back romance vibe. The climate may be Mediterranean, but the pace is glacial, with very little actually happening over the course of the film’s 132 minute duration. There is meant to be a sense of mystery as to why exactly Roland and Vanessa are so unhappy, with fleeting, initially indiscernible flashes serving as clues to what that is. When the root of the couple’s discontent is finally revealed, it comes across as little more than contrived and clichéd.

            Both Jolie and Pitt are talented and have delivered entertaining performances before, but their delusions to arthouse-ness do them no favours. When we first meet these characters, they’re charmless, and they pretty much stay that way right up until just before the very end, maybe. In her third film as director, Jolie has yet to find a distinct voice. That wild child streak, the fiery unpredictability and the brazen sexuality, qualities that made her such a magnet for fascination in the beginning of her career, are all but absent here. We have to make do with traces of it. The frank nudity in the film, including from Jolie, appears to be an attempt at honesty and intimacy, embracing a more European sensibility instead of mass-market Hollywood prudishness, but it is largely superficial. With the sun hats and the sunglasses, Jolie does pull off the classic Sophia Loren thing. There’s the feeling that this would work a lot better as a photo spread in a magazine than with any attempt at a plot tacked onto it.

            Jolie and Pitt leave little room for the supporting players, but they aren’t bad. Poupaud and Laurent are the frisky younger couple, whom Vanessa and Roland voyeuristically observe through a peep hole in the wall of their room. It’s a decent idea, one of a yearning for blissful days past, but because there’s so little to Roland and Vanessa and even less to Francois and Lea, it’s difficult to be affected by the sentiment. There are traits of an erotic thriller creeping into the film at times, but in Jolie’s attempt to be as tastefully arty as possible in the film’s depiction of sex, the film avoids straight-up appealing to any base instincts. Veteran French actor Niels Arestrup is wholly believable as Michel, the aging restaurant proprietor who is mourning the recent death of his wife, but his dialogue contains little more than vague aphorisms about marriage.

            By the Sea may boast the wattage of a Hollywood megastar couple and it might have an air of class about it, but when it comes down to it, this film is a great deal like those Adam Sandler movies that he’s admitted are basically paid vacations. Believe it or not, Jolie and Pitt were not the only things that made Mr. & Mrs. Smith enjoyable. It was a tongue-in-cheek action comedy that was buoyed by their undeniable chemistry and boosted by the swirling rumours of romance on the set, rumours that were soon confirmed. Ten years on, now that the pair are officially married, it’s not scandalous or even particularly romantic, just moderately aggravating. It’s odd, but seeing Jolie and Pitt in a relationship that has lost most of its spark is even more cloying and cringe-inducing than seeing them all lovey-dovey.



Summary:Spectacularly self-indulgent and utterly pointless, By the Sea is ample proof that a real-life relationship alone is a very flimsy foundation on which to build a romantic movie.

RATING: 1.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Fury

For F*** Magazine

FURY

Director : David Ayer
Cast : Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña, Xavier Samuel, Jason Isaacs, Scott Eastwood
Genre : War/Action
Opens : 22 October 2014
Rating : NC-16 (Violence and Coarse Language)
Run time: 134 mins
The 2nd Armoured Division was hell on wheels to any Nazis who found themselves in their path. This film, set in April 1945 as the Second World War draws to a close, tells of the fictional five-man crew of a M4A3 Sherman tank christened “Fury”. US Army Staff Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt) leads the crew, consisting of Boyd “Bible” Swan (LaBeouf), Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Bernthal), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Peña) and rookie Norman “Cobb” Ellison (Lerman). A typist clerk who’s never been on the battlefield, Norman struggles to confront the horrors of war head-on as he repeatedly clashes with the men who occupy the Fury with him. Facing off against the better-equipped Nazis, the crew of the Fury must make a heroic last stand behind enemy lines.
            Writer-director David Ayer’s films have not been particularly pleasant, from gritty cop thrillers like Street Kings and End of Watch to the nasty Schwarzenegger-starring Sabotageearlier this year. War is never pleasant and Ayer brings a good deal of nastiness to the proceedings. Fury’s depiction of World War II is unflinching in its violence and brutality, containing many shocking moments of heads – belonging to soldiers and civilians alike – being blasted open. On one hand, this graphic approach adds to the film’s believability and makes it clear to the audience that Ayer is not interested in presenting a sanitized, romanticised view of this period of history. On the other, it often feels exploitative, that Ayer is revelling in this carnage and that the “war is hell” message is secondary to bullet hits and blood splatter.

            “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent,” Pitt’s Wardaddy says pithily. Ayer has achieved a grimy, bloody realism befitting the historical but at the same time, it can’t help but feel like a wholly cynical affair. In this day and age, Americans and others around the world have grown jaded with and tired of war. Ayer’s take on the Second World War is bereft of nostalgia or sentimentality, but this works against it. Some audiences might squirm at the film’s depiction of “the greatest generation” taking sadistic glee in slaughtering German troops; others might just cheer along. There are attempts in Fury to tackle ethical quandaries and questions of faith but these moments are presented with far less conviction than those involving flying body parts.


            Even though the soldiers manning the Fury are far from likeable, the performances are solid, with Brad Pitt leading the charge. Wardaddy, as his nickname suggests, is a father to his men, but he also has a cruel streak and isn’t about to mollycoddle anyone. Pitt is sufficiently believable, apart from his constantly perfectly-coiffed hairdo. Bernthal’s Grady is the resident jerk of the crew and he does get on the nerves, though that’s how the part was written. Shia LaBeouf is surprisingly less annoying than this reviewer expected and his scripture-quoting Boyd “Bible” Swan, dedicated to his faith while raking up the body count, is not quite the caricature he should’ve been. Logan Lerman, sometimes characterised as a handsome but boring young actor, is the standout of the cast for this reviewer. Yes, Norman is the audience surrogate character, the fresh-faced new kid yet to be tainted by the horrors of war – we’ve all seen that one before. However, Lerman’s conviction in the part, combined with how out of place he looks in that environment, gives the film its few moments of genuine heart-rending emotion amidst the barrage of gunfire and exploding grenades.


            Perhaps we’re wrong – perhaps we should be glad that a World War II film pulls no punches and isn’t naïvely jingoistic. But it is too much to ask for a film of this genre to highlight nobility and honour, bring a little of the best of humanity to the forefront, feel respectful? There have been several masterfully-made war films which are violent and bloody but also showcase the dignity and heroism of their subjects – Saving Private Ryan comes to mind. Unfortunately, David Ayer seems to have too much fun blowing bodies to bits to present a sombre, well thought-out historical portrait.


Summary: Those looking for bloody, brutal WWII violence will be satisfied; those looking for respect and dignity to balance that out will not.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong