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

Basmati Blues movie review

For inSing

BASMATI BLUES

Director : Danny Barron
Cast : Brie Larson, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Scott Bakula, Saahil Sehgal, Donald Sutherland, Tyne Daly, Lakshmi Manchu
Genre : Musical/Comedy/Romance
Run Time : 1h 47mins
Opens : 8 Feb 2018
Rating : PG

Many famous actors have done movies they’d rather the filmgoing public forget about: Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger have Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Jennifer Aniston has Leprechaun, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire have Don’s Plum, and George Clooney has Batman and Robin.

Brie Larson has Basmati Blues.

In this musical romantic comedy, Larson plays Dr. Linda Watt, a scientist who, with her father Ben (Scott Bakula), has invented the genetically-engineered Rice 9. Linda is sent by her boss Gurgon (Donald Sutherland) to Bilari, India to sell the new strain of rice to local farmers.

In India, Linda meets Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an agriculture student who has returned to his village because he cannot afford his tuition. Linda is wooed by William Patel (Saahil Sehgal), the crooked agriculture ministry liaison. It turns out that Gurgon plans to exploit the farmers and is counting on them not reading the fine print in the contract. Linda must save the people she has befriended from the schemes of her boss.

Basmati Blues was made in 2013, before Larson hit the big time with her Best Actress Oscar win for Room. Larson is now an A-lister, set to play Captain Marvel in the MCU. This means it’s an opportune moment to release Basmati Blues, which really should’ve sat on a shelf forever.

Despite the producers’ protestations to the contrary, Basmati Blues is a white saviour movie. It trades in outmoded exoticism and retrograde stereotypes and is a fish-out-of-water love story in which a sheltered white woman learns to embrace life as she falls in love with a man in a foreign land. Basmati Blues attempts to address the western exploitation of India by way of having its villains be unscrupulous corporate overlords, but it takes a step forward and about ten back. The film was shot in the South Indian state of Kerala, but takes place in Uttar Pradesh in the North, with no effort made to ensure the authenticity of details like the languages used on signage.

Nearly every decision seems like the wrong one, and this is amateur hour in the extreme. Director Dan Baron makes his feature film debut with this film, which is ostensibly a love letter to Bollywood musicals. There are ways to do tasteful homages to the cinema of other countries – this is not the way. The production values seem cheap, the choreography is inept, and many of the songs are downright awful. We will admit to kind of enjoying the romantic duet “Foolish Heart”.

One of the primary tasks of any musical is to convince audiences that it’s perfectly normal for the characters to burst into song. Basmati Blues does not achieve this. Brie Larson dances around a lab, singing about how great it is to be a scientist, and things don’t get any less awkward from there.

None of this is Brie Larson’s fault, apart from that she should’ve known after reading the script not to have said yes to this. Her performance is sufficiently amiable, and she has a fine singing voice, but it’s hard not to feel waves of second-hand embarrassment washing over the audience whenever the Oscar winner is onscreen.

Utkarsh Ambudkar, best known for his role in The Mindy Project, is charming and earnest and, like Larson, trying to make the most out of terrible material. Saahil Sehgal is extremely handsome and believably slick, but the love triangle is tiresome. There are more misunderstandings between the main couple than in five rom-coms put together.

Respectable actors Sutherland and Daly are absolutely slumming it, but Daly does have the best voice in the whole cast. Bakula is barely in the film, but even so, he hasn’t lost his ‘aw shucks’ charm.

The Hanlon’s Razor principle states “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The filmmakers behind Basmati Blues likely never intended malice, and some might probably even be genuine fans of Bollywood cinema. However, stupidity is enough to do damage. This misbegotten travesty is a blight on Larson’s filmography, and is destined to become a so-bad-it’s-good cult classic. Prepare to cringe like you never have before.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

For F*** Magazine

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1

Director : Francis Lawrence
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Natalie Dormer, Willow Shields, Woody Harrelson, Evan Ross, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Robert Knepper, Gwendoline Christie, Donald Sutherland, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence) 
Run time: 123 mins
It’s time to raise the three-finger District 12 salute and whistle that four-note motif again because another Hunger Games movie is in theatres. Following her actions in the Quarter Quell, Katniss (Lawrence) has been whisked away to the secret stronghold of District 13. Her best friend Gale (Hemsworth), sister Prim (Shields) and mother (Paula Malcomson) are among the survivors from the Capitol’s bombing of District 12 taking refuge in 13. President Alma Coin (Moore), along with Plutarch (Hoffman), is in the midst of staging a revolution, calling on Katniss to become the face of the uprising. Despite being reluctant to after the trauma she experienced in the arena, Katniss assumes the role of the symbolic “Mockingjay”. Peeta (Hutcherson), who couldn’t be rescued, is held in the Capitol and forced by President Snow (Sutherland) to make televised appearances exhorting a ceasefire. Because of this, he is branded a traitor by the revolutionaries, but it only strengthens Katniss’ desire to rescue him and the other victors even more.

            Mockingjay – Part 1 has followed in the footsteps of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises by going the “last book adapted into two movies” route. Both Deathly Hallows – Part 1 and Breaking Dawn – Part 1 did a lot of treading water in padding things out. While Mockingjay – Part 1 fares far better than Breaking Dawn thanks to its denser plot, there’s still a degree of disappointment to be had from sitting through two hours of set-up, even if it is pretty good set-up. Introducing audiences to the subterranean District 13, there is the credible sense that this revolution is coming to a head. Moving past the Games themselves, we get to see more of the other districts, including the lumber-producing District 7, and power-generating District 5 with its massive hydroelectric dam. There is an increased sense of scale without it feeling like bloated and empty spectacle. There’s also more of the helicrafts in action, two of which Katniss shoots down with her bow and arrow.

            The film still is character-driven, Jennifer Lawrence returning to her star-making role with more of the drive, indignant determination and just the right amount of vulnerability she brought to the first and second films. Unlike a number of young adult novel adaptations, Mockingjay – Part 1 does a good job at establishing that there is much more to the story and the world than the protagonist’s personal struggles and heartache, without downplaying the importance of that. The premise of the franchise is televised bloodsport in which teenagers kill each other for the entertainment of the elite and to keep the masses in line. The role of media manipulation in shaping the perceptions of the public gets further explored here with the introduction of Natalie Dormer’s Cressida, a Capitol film director who defects to District 13. That the resulting propaganda films or “propos” end up looking like movie trailers is a sly, effective touch without having it go all Starship Troopers on us.

            The politics of The Hunger Games is one of the key components that gives it an edge over other film series aimed at a similar demographic. Julianne Moore retains her stern exterior (looking more than a little like Ysanne Isard from the Star Wars expanded universe) but plays a warmer, kinder authority figure than moviegoers are used to seeing her as. Both skilled actors, she and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman make for believable collaborating revolutionaries – this marks their fourth time co-starring in a movie. The film is dedicated to Hoffman’s memory and while he completed shooting all his scenes for Part 1, some of Plutarch’s scenes in Part 2 will have to be distributed to other characters.

            Much of the emotional content of the first two films was derived from the relationship between Katniss and Peeta and director Francis Lawrence uses the fact that the two characters are separated to generate a good amount of tension and anguish. Peeta being used as the Capitol’s new mouthpiece in his interviews with Ceasar Flickerman (Tucci) is contrasted and compared with how Katniss takes up the mantle of the Mockingjay for District 13. The role of Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is also expanded. It seems director Lawrence is all too aware that there are still detractors who dismiss this series as mopey teen romance, so scenes in which the love triangle is addressed appear sparingly.

            If Catching Fire was analogous to Empire Strikes Back, then Mockingjay – Part 1 is like if Return of the Jedi ended right after the escape from Jabba’s clutches. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but there’s no denying that the climactic sequence, which director Lawrence has said was inspired by Zero Dark Thirty, feels like in belongs in the middle of a movie. Still, fans of the first two films are most likely more than willing to wait a year for the series’ conclusion and there is enough that takes place here to enticingly set the stage for the finale.


Summary: Despite suffering from “Part 1-of-a-two-parter-adaptation-itis”, the politics of Mockingjay and the turning gears of the revolution make this an intelligent, absorbing entry in the series.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong