Ad Astra Movie Review

Roy McBride has major dad issues in James Gray’s Ad Astra, a space epic that’s more consumed with the personal. As played by Brad Pitt, McBride is a supremely subdued astronaut with a legendary father. He disappeared years ago and is assumed deceased after his mission to Neptune to find extraterrestrial life. This is all a giant metaphor for a father and son relationship that’s literally and figuratively separated by billions of miles. Tommy Lee Jones plays distant papa Clifford and Roy accepts a classified mission to retrieve him after it turns out he may be alive. Only the Earth’s fate hangs in the balance as all of human life is threatened and perhaps by dad’s activities far far away.

We are told that Ad Astra takes place in the near future, but there’s been time for moon bases, plenty of Mars exploration, and the capacity to get to Neptune in a relatively short period of time. Roy is not just estranged from Clifford, but so focused on work that his emotions leave him ambivalent about his wife (Liv Tyler) leaving him. For both him and the father who abandoned him, the mission of work trumps anything familial.

Much credit should be given to the design of Ad Astra. This is a beautiful looking picture as Roy’s travelogue takes him to stunningly desolate set pieces. Director Gray and his team pay attention to how this future world functions in a way that Minority Report did. Those details are worth exploring. It’s the rather tired dynamic between Roy and Clifford that gets in the way. The screenplay seems to think their relationship and what it represents is more profound than it is.

Astra is certainly a visual feast and a bit of a non-starter on a poignancy level. Midway through, I thought of the Dave Matthews Band track “The Space Between”. That could have been the title of this picture, which is more admirable than engrossing. There’s been efforts in this genre with parental themes (Gravity and Interstellar to name two) that landed the emotional stuff with more accurate precision. They didn’t leave me with Dave Matthews warbling gooey lyrics in my head either.

**/2 (out of four)

Serenity Movie Review

Steven Knight’s Serenity plays like a concept thought up after a long day and night of smoking weed. That concept, at least theoretically, would seem crazy and illogical in the morning. Yet somehow that realization never dawned on the writer and director and now we have Oscar winners starring in it. Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway could have easily spent the weeks filming this relaxing on an island similar to the beautiful one where this is set. They made this instead and it will forever be on their record.

The Lincoln pitchman plays Baker Dill, a hard drinking fishing boat captain. He lives in Plymouth, a tropical locale surrounded by water and an elusive tuna fish that he’s obsessed with catching. One day his ex flame Karen (Hathaway) shows up. They were high school sweethearts whose romance was cut short when he was deployed overseas. They have a teenage son who doesn’t see his dad anymore, but they seem to share an almost (ahem) interstellar connection. Karen is now married to abusive monster Frank (Jason Clarke). She offers Baker $10 million dollars to take him out – on the boat and in the murderous sense. He initially rejects the idea, but a bizarre (and I do mean bizarre) twist complicates matters.

There’s really no more plot left to ponder unless I enter spoiler territory. And if you wish to see Serenity (which you’ll likely regret), I won’t be the one to spill the beans. The film often plays like a hammy noir complete with overacting from its two Academy Award recipients. Djimon Hounsou turns up as the captain’s first mate while Diane Lane is his love interest. Her character solely exists for exposition conversations after they have sex.

Serenity succeeds or fails based on a willingness to buy the whacked out concept. For me, it certainly failed. I am almost in awe that Knight got the money to try. By its conclusion, it attempts to tug your heartstrings with more force than it takes to reel in that giant tuna fish. It succeeded more in tickling my funny bone and in an unintentional way.

*1/2 (out of four)

McConaughey: Everything’s Not Alright Alright

When this blog started in the fall of 2012, Matthew McConaughey was coming off a solid two-year period which saw him headline the surprise legal drama hit The Lincoln Lawyer and attract rave reviews for his supporting role in Magic Mike.

Yet 2013 elevated the actor to a whole new stratosphere. His work in the acclaimed indie pic Mud garnered Oscar chatter. He had a memorable cameo alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. It ironically turned out that McConaughey’s scene partner in that film was his biggest competition for an Oscar. Dallas Buyers Club would see the Texan playing Ron Woodruff, a real life AIDS patient in the 1980s. McConaughey’s work was praised and he took home the gold statue. His luck streak continued into the following year starring in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which stands as his largest grossing live-action feature.

Since then? Well, let’s just say the McConaissance has been interrupted. Or borrowing his most famous catchphrase from 1993’s Dazed and Confused – it’s not Alright Alright.

This weekend, his stoner comedy The Beach Bum tanked at the box office. Its approximate $1.8 million opening is the worst release of the actor’s career. And it follows a pattern of now seven live-action duds (he did provide voice work in the animated pics Sing and Kubo and the Two Strings). And to give a modicum of credit, he did skip the subpar sequel Magic Mike XXL.

At least Nicolas Cage had a string of action hits after his Oscar before delving into VOD territory. McConaughey hasn’t been so fortunate and he quickly needs a critical or commercial success to redeem things. His list of recent material is an unsuccessful and largely forgettable one. In three years, we’ve had:

  • Free State of Jones, his summer 2016 Civil War drama that took in $20 million domestically against a $50 million budget. Its Rotten Tomatoes score was 46%.
  • The Sea of Trees from later that summer. The drama wasn’t even released wide and didn’t make a million dollars (13% RT score).
  • True life crime drama Gold in January 2017. 42% RT. $14 million gross stateside.
  • The Dark Tower in summer 2017. The critically maligned Stephen King adaptation had a 16% RT rating and immediately ended the possibility of a franchise with earnings of $50 million.
  • Another based on actual events crime drama from last fall – White Boy Rick. 58% RT and $24 million gross.
  • Noir thriller Serenity from earlier this year. Barely promoted, it made an embarrassing $8 million total with a 23% RT score.

And now The Beach Bum, which won’t reach $10 million domestically either. It’s time for McConaughey’s people to find him some better stuff. His most memorable appearances lately have been in car commercials. If they can’t manage to do so, there’s always 2013.

Dunkirk Movie Review

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has moments and plenty of them which are simply breathtaking. We expect the director of The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar to serve up a visual treat as he enters the war genre and he does. Yet I didn’t quite anticipate occasional moments of emotional resonance and the tight running time that keeps it moving at a brisk pace. This is an often epic experience in a truncated frame. That decision by the director and his editors allow Dunkirk to capture the fierce urgency of warfare told from three perspectives.

The film recounts the Battle of Dunkirk in Northern France in 1940. The British and their French allies are on the losing side of this particular conflict with the Nazis and evacuation plans are underway. Nolan chooses not to tell the events in a traditional or linear manner. Three stories are highlighted – by land, sea, and air. I list them in that manner because the land piece develops over a week’s time. Our action on the water happens in a day. The air portion is a matter of just an hour.

On land, we meet a number of soldiers desperately searching for escape while trying to help their wounded fellow countrymen. We also listen in on the strategies of the military higher-ups, led by Kenneth Branagh’s sturdy commander.

On the water, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) answers the call to take his own boat to help pick up soldiers from the extraction area. He brings his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend (Barry Keoghan) along with him. On their way to their destination, they come upon a lone soldier (Cillian Murphy) who is experiencing shock from a U-boat attack.

In the air, Tom Hardy’s Air Force pilot and two fellow fighters must furiously try to down Nazi planes bombing those waiting in the evacuation region, while keeping an eye on their own fuel.

All of this activity unfolds in just over 100 minutes in a picture you’d expect to run closer to three hours. Character development is at a minimum but that’s not a demerit. Dunkirk captures the hectic nature, uncertainty, and chaos of war. With Nolan at the helm and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema behind the lense, it’s also filled with beautiful imagery on a beach filled with soldiers, on the expansive ocean, and in the clouds. The screenplay gives us just enough focus on its characters to make certain situations emotionally resonant. This especially holds true with the sea portion and Rylance’s determined skipper and Murphy’s battle weary soldier.

The time jumping element is one that would make Tarantino proud. That aspect adds an often fresh perspective to the well-worn WWII genre and its glorious and inglorious tales. By its conclusion, we marvel at personal acts by humans caught up in impossible situations in the fog of battle. In a week, a day, and an hour, Dunkirk expertly shows it.

***1/2 (out of four)

Dunkirk Box Office Prediction

Christopher Nolan is one of the few directors whose name can bring in audiences and his box office power will be tested next weekend when Dunkirk lands in theaters. The World War II pic looks to appeal to action fans, as well as adult moviegoers looking for something beyond sequels and reboots. Reviews are embargoed until Monday, but early word of mouth is quite solid. There could be even be Oscar buzz for categories outside of the expected technical nominations it should nab.

The cast is a mix of relative unknowns (Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden) and more familiar faces (Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance). Early forecasts for its opening weekend potential have ranged everywhere from $30 million to possibly $60 million.

My feeling is that it will basically fall between that. Five of Nolan’s last six pictures have made over $45 million out of the gate (the outlier is 2006’s The Prestige). Of course, there’s the Dark Knight trilogy, which doesn’t serve as any sort of fair comparison. The better comps in the director’s filmography are 2010’s Inception and his last effort, 2014’s Interstellar. The former made $62 million and had the benefit of being Nolan’s follow-up to the phenomenon that was 2008’s The Dark Knight. The latter earned $47 million for its start.

I believe Dunkirk will experience a very similar opening to Interstellar with a great chance that it will experience smallish drop-offs in subsequent weekends and play well throughout the month of August.

Dunkirk opening weekend prediction: $44.7 million

For my Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2017/07/12/valerian-and-the-city-of-a-thousand-planets-box-office-predictions/

For my Girls Trip prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2017/07/12/girls-trip-box-office-prediction/

 

 

Life Movie Review

Calvin Coolidge was our 30th President of the United States and he isn’t talked about too often in the general grand scheme of Presidential history. There will probably never be a biopic about President Coolidge, but he does receive the honor of having an alien named after him in Daniel Espinosa’s Life. The term mild-mannered comes up frequently in relation to the President. His extra-terrestrial namesake is nothing of the kind.

Life takes place entirely on the International Space Station (ISS) where a six-member crew is returning from a Mars mission. They’ve made quite the discovery: Matt Damon and they’re bringing him home with his disco music! Actually it’s a soil sample that turns out to be the first evidence of life outside Earth. School children are given the ability to name this historic being and the lucky winners hail from Calvin Coolidge Elementary – hence Calvin.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Dr. Jordan, who’s been stationed the longest and seems to have a slight case of space institutionalization. Ryan Reynolds is engineer Rory, who keeps the Reynolds patented wisecracks to a minimum. Dr. Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) is the chief quarantine officer. Biologist Hugh (Ariyon Barake) is tasked with bringing Calvin out of his dormant status to life.

That turns out to be a bad idea because Calvin has only survival instincts in mind. The organism shows a mean streak when he wakes up and Life becomes all about the passengers on board clinging to their own.

Audiences have been treated (or in some cases subject to) a host of outer space themed pictures in recent years, from Gravity to Interstellar to The Martian to Passengers to name a few. Some of those titles had a hopeful tone about what lies beyond our planet. Life? Not so much.

The production design and technical elements are top-notch and the acting is just fine, even though no one really has a character to work with. Espinosa’s exercise is mainly an excuse to pay both loving homage and rip-off Alien, the granddaddy of this genre. In that sense, it does provide some genuinely scary moments and plenty of others that are just familiar territory. Life is competent if not memorable, which is also what some historians say about President Coolidge. 

**1/2 (out of four)

Life Box Office Prediction

Movies with outer space/alien themes have been quite the hot commodity as of late with blockbusters such as Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival. Next weekend, Daniel Espinosa’s Life will try and join their ranks for what could be an uphill battle.

The pic pits a crew from the International Space Station against an alien creature who may have greater intelligence than they do. Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, and Rebecca Ferguson headline. This marks director Espinosa’s second collaboration with Reynolds after 2012’s Safe House.

Audiences have certainly had plenty of this type of material in recent years and I’m not sure the trailers and TV spots for Life stand out. It certainly appears unlikely to match the opening weekend grosses of the other genre titles listed above. On the other hand, the participation of Reynolds (hot off Deadpool) won’t hurt and a high teens to mid 20s lift off seems most probable. That should put it firmly in third behind the second weekend of Beauty and the Beast and premiere of Power Rangers.

Life opening weekend prediction: $19.1 million

For my Power Rangers prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2017/03/15/power-rangers-box-office-prediction/

For my CHiPs prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2017/03/16/chips-box-office-prediction/