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

Mechanic: Resurrection

F*** Magazine

MECHANIC: RESURRECTION

Director : Dennis Gansel
Cast : Jason Statham, Jessica Alba, Tommy Lee Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Sam Hazeldine, Rhatha Phongam
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1 hr 39 mins
Opens : 8 September 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

Mechanic Resurrection posterBrace yourselves for another Stath attack – everyone’s favourite bald, grimacing English tough guy with the limited acting range is back as Arthur Bishop. After surviving an attempt on his life by his would-be apprentice, Bishop has retired from being a hitman, or “mechanic”, and is lying low in Brazil. Riah Crain (Hazeldine), an arms dealer with a grudge on Bishop, kidnaps Bishop’s girlfriend Gina (Alba) and coerces him into completing three hits. Bishop’s three targets are African warlord Krill (Femi Elufowoju Jr.), who is holed up in a Malaysian prison that he rules from the inside, Australian mining magnate and sex trafficker Adrian Cook (Toby Eddington), and American arms dealer Max Adams (Jones). With the help of his old contact Mae (Yeoh), Bishop must pull off these nigh-impossible assassinations to ensure Gina’s survival, while also devising a way to get back at Crain.

Mechanic Resurrection Jason Statham 1

Mechanic: Resurrection is the sequel to 2011’s The Mechanic, which was a remake of the 1972 film of the same name starring Charles Bronson. The contentious relationship between Bishop and Ben Foster’s Steve McKenna in the previous film lifted it slightly above the familiar trappings of the genre, but there’s nothing as interesting here. Mechanic: Resurrection pretty much meets all the expectations of your standard-issue Statham-led action flick. Its plot is entirely predictable and the action sequences aren’t staged with lots of panache, but Statham’s physicality means he’s always a convincing action hero. There’s also a decent amount of globe-trotting going on, with Bishop making stops in Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia and Bulgaria, taking advantage of the latter’s film production tax breaks. There’s some fun to be had in seeing Statham run through the streets of Georgetown in Penang, Malaysia or dangle from a skyscraper in Sydney. However, it’s painfully obvious that no actual filming was done in Brazil, with the opening sequence featuring distractingly phony green screen work.

Mechanic Resurrection Jason Statham arrested

Statham’s virtually non-existent acting chops have never hindered his career, and he’s probably the closest thing we have to the action stars of the 80s and 90s with whom he palled around in the Expendables films. The former national diving squad member gets to reference his sporting past with a dramatic leap into the ocean, and there’s no shortage of our hero stabbing and shooting the bad guys.

Mechanic Resurrection Jason Statham next to helicopterAlba does a lot of frolicking on the beach in sundresses, and despite hints that her character might not merely be a damsel in distress, she spends the bulk of the film held captive by the villain. Gina is meant to be a combat veteran who opens up a shelter for sex trafficking victims in Cambodia, so one would think she’d be able to hold her own. While Gina does help Bishop track her down, she generally comes off as utterly helpless. In the previous film, it was established that Bishop is a ladies’ man who loves ‘em and leaves ‘em, but here, he forms a sentimental attachment to Gina with almost comical speed, and it’s difficult to buy that this woman whom he’s just met is someone he’d go to the ends of the earth for.

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As the lead villain, Hazeldine is gruff but bland, lacking the wily smugness of a master manipulator who has Bishop wrapped around his little finger. Yeoh’s character doesn’t seem to serve too much of a purpose in the plot, and quite disappointingly, Yeoh doesn’t get to take part in a single action sequence. Jones’ appearance amounts to not much more than a cameo. He’s sporting a deliberately ridiculous look comprising red-tinted shades, a soul patch, earrings and a leather jacket, but he’s phoning it in rather than hamming it up for the most part.

Mechanic Resurrection Jason Statham and Michelle Yeoh

Director Dennis Gansel delivers what is very much a production line action flick that’s barely a few notches above something that would be released straight-to-video, but which will meet the expectations of undemanding Jason Statham fans. The overarching plot is formulaic, the romance is trite and performers like Yeoh and Jones are woefully underused, but certain moments when Bishop plans and executes his elaborate assassination plots are interesting to watch. It’s barely satisfying junk food, but that’s what Statham does best.

Mechanic Resurrection Tommy Lee Jones

Summary: Silly and generic but sufficiently entertaining, Mechanic: Resurrection is as predictable as clockwork.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jason Bourne

For F*** Magazine

JASON BOURNE

Director : Paul Greengrass
Cast : Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Julia Stiles, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Riz Ahmed
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1 hr 58 mins
Opens : 28 July 2016
Rating : PG13 (Violence)

Jason Bourne posterIt’s been nine years since his last appearance onscreen, and Jason Bourne (Damon) slips out of the shadows and back into cinemas in the fifth instalment in the Bourne franchise. Nicky Parsons (Stiles), Bourne’s former contact, hacks into the CIA, discovering documents detailing a family connection that Bourne has to the Treadstone project. CIA director Robert Dewey (Jones) makes hunting Bourne down a top priority, as Heather Lee (Vikander), the head of the CIA’s cyber division, contains the damage done by the hack. Ironhand, a black ops project run by Dewey, is at risk of being exposed. Dewey assigns an assassin known only as the Asset (Cassel) to kill Bourne. In the meantime, tech billionaire Aaron Kalloor (Ahmed) is having second thoughts as Dewey demands access to the private information of the 1.5 billion users that Kalloor’s social network Deep Dream has accumulated. Bourne finds himself caught up in the shifting intelligence landscape, where even his resourcefulness and wits might not be enough for him to stay ahead of the curve.

Jason Bourne Matt Damon on bike

Jason Bourne sees Damon reprise the character he has become most closely associated with, bringing The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass back with him. Greengrass co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Rouse (also the film’s editor), with the story straining for timeliness by tackling topics including the U.S. government infringing on private digital data in the name of security. The Bourne Identity revitalised the spy movie genre with its realistic approach, but years later, Jason Bourne seems like it’s struggling to keep up. The story never becomes outright ridiculous and there is a degree of joy in seeing Damon play Bourne again, but a sense of going through the motions pervades Jason Bourne.

Jason Bourne Matt Damon and Julia Stiles

Greengrass is somewhat notorious for his use of shaky-cam, which rears its jittery head again in Jason Bourne. There’s a trade-off between coherence and visceral thrills. In several scenes, the approach yields results: a riot in Athens feels authentically chaotic, with Greengrass’ direction placing the audience in the thick of the mayhem. The big action set pieces however suffer noticeably – the climactic car chase down the Las Vegas strip would’ve looked downright spectacular if we could make head or tail of what’s going on. That said, Greengrass sustains a healthy level of tension throughout, and there’s enough for audiences to grab on to such that we want to find out where the story takes Bourne next.

Jason Bourne Riz Ahmed and Tommy Lee Jones

The first Bourne film made an unlikely action hero out of Damon, and while he doesn’t seem particularly excited to return here, he isn’t phoning it in either. One does get a kick out of seeing Bourne outwit his pursuers and devise diversions so as to slip by unnoticed. The bit of personal history that’s revealed here does seem rather convenient and clichéd, but this revelation doesn’t overwrite or undo the events of the previous instalments. Jones is a great casting choice for the head of the CIA, unscrupulous and insidious yet ill-equipped to deal with the new frontiers which crop up in the digital realm on a daily basis.

Jason Bourne Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander

Vikander is believable as an ambitious, savvy intelligence agent adept at employing technology to confound her targets, but she gets precious little to do and for the bulk of the film, stays a distance away from the action. Cassel’s ice-cold, ruthless contract killer isn’t too much of a departure from the operatives Bourne often finds himself eluding. He does come off as a credible, sinister threat to Bourne, but the Asset’s personal vendetta against Bourne is formulaic and underdeveloped. Stiles’ Nicky is the only other character from the original Bourne trilogy to return, and serves as a catalyst in drawing Bourne out. For this reviewer, the subplot involving Ahmed’s Mark Zuckerberg-esque tech darling was the most intriguing, with the connection between Silicon Valley and Langley, Virginia as depicted in the film ringing eerily true.

Jason Bourne Vincent Cassel

The events of The Bourne Legacy are not alluded to, apart from a folder titled ‘Outcome’, the black ops project central to the plot of that film, being glimpsed on a computer monitor. Oddly enough, that spinoff was more entertaining and felt like less of a cash grab than Jason Bourne does. There are plenty of talented people involved and this is far from being a mess. Greengrass and Rouse demonstrate a decent understanding of a brave new world fraught with paranoia, a sentiment echoed by Oliver Stone when he warned against “surveillance capitalism” during a panel for his upcoming film Snowden (the whistle-blower is name-dropped twice in Jason Bourne for extra zeitgeist-y effect). Jason Bourne is competent, but the character’s return to the big screen should’ve been more – it should’ve been triumphant.

Jason Bourne Alicia Vikander and Matt Damon

Summary: While Jason Bourne is a serviceable spy thriller, it’s tackling of timely themes feels like a desperate bid to prove the franchise’s relevance and staying power, which is flagging here.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Criminal

For F*** Magazine

CRIMINAL 

Director : Ariel Vromen
Cast : Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot, Alice Eve, Jordi Mollà, Antje Traue, Michael Pitt
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 21 April 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)

Like most moviegoers after the release of Deadpool, this action thriller finds Kevin Costner with Ryan Reynolds on the brain. Costner plays Jericho Stewart, a hardened criminal who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child, making him the ideal candidate for a top secret experimental procedure. When CIA agent Bill Pope (Reynolds) is incapacitated in London while tracking down hacker Jan Strook (Pitt), CIA station chief Quaker Wells (Oldman) enlists the help of neurosurgeon Dr. Franks (Jones). Dr. Franks has spent 18 years developing a way to implant the memories of a dead person into a living human being. Jericho is coerced into completing Bill’s mission, but things do not go according to plan. Jill (Gadot), Bill’s widow, has to come to terms with the fact that a complete stranger now possesses her husband’s memories. Even though he wants nothing to do with the mission, Jericho must prevent a flash drive that Strook has from falling into the hands of ambitious anarchist Xavier Heimdall (Mollà).

            Criminal plays a lot like a high-concept 90s action movie repackaged in a strait-laced, post-Bourne espionage thriller style. The sci-fi tinged concept of memory implants is akin to the face-swapping plot device in Face/Off, albeit slightly more plausible. There’s no eye-catching bombast, but the slightly overwrought names like “Jericho Stewart”, “Quaker Wells” and especially “Xavier Heimdall” seem like they belong in a Bond movie. Criminal boasts a cast that is more star-studded than one would expect for a thriller with a relatively low budget, estimated at a mere $31.5 million dollars. Even though there are many moments that reminded this reviewer of any number of direct-to-DVD action flicks, the production values are sufficiently high and there’s a visual effects sequence involving a submarine that looks surprisingly good. The shootouts and car chases are far from inventive, but the action keeps things chugging along.

            Even though it’s largely generic, Criminal does possess a unique trait: it’s protagonist is, well, a criminal, with completely disregard for human life. He’s not a charming rogue, he’s not a conflicted hero; he’s a heartless, emotionless brute. Naturally, some character development occurs as the personality of his “memory donor” intrudes into Jericho’s mind. Jericho is introduced chained up in a prison cell, sporting scraggly long hair and a beard, being recruited against his will for a clandestine mission – not unlike Sean Connery’s character in The Rock. Incidentally, the screenwriting team of David Weisberg and the late Douglas S. Cook also penned The Rock. Suffice it to say that Costner is no match for Connery in the charisma department, but the character’s resourcefulness and violent unpredictably help mitigate Costner’s blandness somewhat.

            The supporting players, Oldman and Jones in particular, definitely seem above this material and not very much is asked of them. Oldman’s Quaker Wells stands about the situation room fretting and gets to throw his signature yelling fits. Jones frowns and looks worried. Perhaps some viewers might find that their presence subconsciously lends this silly action movie some prestige. Reynolds is in this for a very brief amount of time since, well, his character’s death is the catalyst for the plot. It’s a little funny to see Reynolds in another mind swap flick so shortly after Self/Less. Gadot is called upon to emote and she does sell that sense of loss, anger and confusion with the little screen time she’s given. Mollà is basically being discount Javier Bardem here, with his character’s motivation outlined via an interview with Piers Morgan. Actor/stunt performer Scott Adkins shows up as the right hand man to Quaker, but alas, he doesn’t get to bust any of his famous martial arts moves.

            This reviewer derived an extra level of enjoyment because a large portion of the cast has been a part of movies based on DC Comics. Just imagine: Jonathan Kent is implanted with Hal Jordan’s memories thanks to a procedure invented by Dr. Two-Face, Hal Jordan’s widow is Wonder Woman, his boss is Commissioner Gordon and the henchwoman on Jonathan Kent’s tail is Faora. It’s evident that the plot, even with its sci-fi elements and ticking clock, wasn’t compelling enough to hold our full attention. There are attempts at being topical – Edward Snowden is name-dropped – but these are ham-fisted rather than helping make the movie seem relevant. It’s somewhat ironic that a film with the plot device of memory implants will not remain in anyone’s mind for long, but its competently directed by Ariel Vromen, it doesn’t look cheap or messy and the central character is (or at least starts out) fairly different from run-of-the-mill action heroes.



Summary: Criminalis about as generic as its title suggests, but the action is decent if unremarkable and the A-listers in the supporting cast help to prop it up. 

RATING: 3out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong