"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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Ad Astra: A Review

****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!! THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!****

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE. IT. NOW. A profound meditation on masculinity that boasts an Oscar worthy Brad Pitt performance in one of the very best films of the year. But be forewarned…this film is more art house than blockbuster.

Ad Astra, directed by James Gray and written by Gray and Ethan Gross, is the story of Roy McBride, an astronaut who goes to space in search of his father. The film stars Brad Pitt as Roy, with supporting turns from Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland and Liv Tyler.

I have not been to the movies in quite a while, the reason being that there has been nothing playing that I considered worthy of paying $15 to see. Ad Astra was one film that I was aware of and which intrigued me so I thought I’d take the plunge. I did not have particularly high hopes for the movie because the director, James Gray, has consistently turned out beautiful misfires of movies. I have seen all of Gray’s movies, which include The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant, The Yards, Little Odessa, We Own the Night and Two Lovers, and he is certainly gifted at making moody, cinematically gorgeous films with solid performances that should be good but just never are. Gray’s films have consistently failed to resonate with me because the narratives are always so unfocused and his film’s structures so fundamentally unsound.

Ad Astra, which for some reason I keep inadvertently calling Ed Asner, actually means “through hardships to the stars” in Latin, and that is an apt description not only of the film’s story, but of Gray’s cinematic ambition and Pitt’s performance. The bottom line is this, Ad Astra is an intimately profound and profoundly intimate film that is absolutely stunning.

While Ad Astra is, like all of Gray’s films, deliberately paced, it is very well put together and flows seamlessly and effortlessly along its journey. The film never lags and has a forceful emotional and narrative momentum to it that makes it thoroughly compelling.

The film is set in the near future and the plot is about an astronaut going into space to track down his highly revered space exploring father. Ad Astra is similar to two other recent “space” films, First Man and High Life, that use space as a narrative device for the compartmentalization, isolation and emotional frigidity of manhood. I loved both First Man and High Life, and Ad Astra is a quality finale to this makeshift thematic trilogy.

At its core Ad Astra is a mediation on masculinity, its accompanying rage and the afflictions passed down from fathers to sons. I was deeply moved by this film because these themes have been the existential epicenter of my entire life. As a father, I am trying not to pass on the afflictions that were passed onto me by my father, down to my son. The tragedy of the masculine life though, and of my own life, is that men are often consumed by the flames of their afflictions, and no matter how hard they try, they fail in stopping the transmission of their wounds onto their male offspring. As Ad Astra tells us, “the son suffers the sins of the father”, and I know in my case I fail in the endeavor of sparing my son from my own affliction the overwhelming majority of the time. My only feint hope in redemption would seem to be my son being strong enough and resilient enough to eventually forgive me for my failings. I only hope I live long enough to see that happen…but there are no guarantees.

As I watched Ad Astra I couldn’t help but think of the 1997 Paul Schrader film Affliction, as that movie, which was set in the forbidding cold of New Hampshire which seems as isolating as the cold of space, was also about the madness of wounded masculinity being passed down from father to son like a genetic disease. Seeing Affliction for the first time rattled me to my bones, whereas Ad Astra moved me to my soul.

Ad Astra is also reminiscent of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now (there are a bunch of small clues paying homage to Apocalypse Now in this film…from Brad Pitt’s voice over to his answering a question by saying “that’s classified”, to a detour with a brief but distinctly surreal musical number…among many others), as the demanding evolutionary journey of the main character is not only outward but inward. McBride’s journey deeper into space is like Willard’s journey down the river in Apocalypse Now. The compulsion, bordering on madness, to make that journey, is akin to Hamlet’s musings on the “undiscovered country, from whose bourn, no traveller returns”. Put another way, you never go back up the river (if indeed you are even able to go back up the river), the same man you went down, and the same is true of space.

2019 is turning into the year of Brad Pitt. This past July, Pitt garnered raves and Oscar buzz for star turn in Quentin Tarantino’s blockbuster Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. That movie, and Pitt’s charismatic performance in it, put Brad Pitt squarely back in the center of the cultural zeitgeist, with women swooning over his shirtless antenna repairs (a weird connection between Ad Astra and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Brad Pitt repairing antennas! What does it mean?!?!?!) and men wanting to be cool like him.

Pitt has always been more a pretty face than an actor of any heft, but as he enters his late middle-age, he seems to have settled into himself and found a more grounded place from which to build his characters and to be genuine on screen, and that has never been more evident than in his powerful performance in Ad Astra.

Pitt’s work in Ad Astra is a thing of subtle beauty and genius, and is easily the greatest work of his long career. Pitt’s Roy McBride is a layered creature, wrapped tight enough to control the volcanic, primal rage that courses through his veins, and to regulate his own heart beat, but that control is a tenuous thing when McBride’s inner wound pulsates. Pitt’s once flawless face is now weathered, and his every wrinkle and every slight movement of his facial muscles in Ad Astra, tell epic stories of the emotional pain suffered and psychological crosses borne deep within McBride.

Pitt, the charismatic, eye-candy movie star, was on full display in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and his star power carries Ad Astra from start to finish too, the difference here though is that Pitt also gives an exquisitely precise and detailed acting performance that gives his character, and the movie, depth and profound meaning.

The rest of Ad Astra’s cast all do splendid work, with Ruth Negga, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland making the utmost of the rather small roles they inhabit.

The cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema is simply gorgeous. Hoytema’s use of shadow and light is stunning as he creates a precise, austere yet visually vibrant background upon which the emotional journey of the film takes place. Hoytema, who won the prestigious Mickey©® award for his spectacular work in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk, is among the best cinematographers working today, and Ad Astra is among his greatest work.

The entire aesthetic of the film is superb as the visual effects of the film look fantastic, as the near futuristic world in which the story takes place is entirely believable, and the script also enhances the authenticity of the film, as the minute details of the future world seem mundanely accurate, as does the science. The soundtrack, made by Max Richter, is brilliant as well, and helps to create an unnerving and ominous mood that flows through the film like a river, inevitable and occasionally swelling.

In conclusion, Ad Astra is the film where James Gray’s peculiar talents, aesthetic and style finally come together in a supernova of cinematic brilliance, and the result is a psychologically insightful and poignant film that speaks profound truths about the affliction and isolation of masculinity as it struggles to find its place in our cold, forbidding modern world.

As to whether I can recommend this film to people or not, I find myself in a conundrum. Ad Astra, which is definitely more art house than blockbuster, resonated so deeply and personally with me that I do not know if it will do the same with other people. I think women in particular might have a hard time connecting with the film, which has a paucity of female roles and minimal female dialogue, only because it is exclusively focused on the masculinity. That said…maybe women, who often bear the burden of the wounded masculinity of the men in their lives, will find solace and understanding in the film. I honestly do not know…all I know is that Ad Astra was one of the very best films I have seen this year, and spoke eloquently and astutely to the seemingly endless war that forever rages within me. If a war rages within you or within someone you love, maybe you should go see this movie, it might be a salve for wounds unseen, or better yet, an impetus for a much needed cease fire.

©2019

First Reformed: A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A serious art house meditation on religion and politics and the politics of religion. A flawed but worthwhile film for the religiously, spiritually and cinematically inclined.

First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader, is the story of Toller, a protestant pastor and former military chaplain, struggling with his faith amidst environmental and personal concerns. The film stars Ethan Hawke as Toller, with supporting turns from Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles. 

First Reformed is a fascinating film that, like Jacob with the angel, wrestles with complex issues of faith and politics (and a fusing of the two), with a deft and insightful passion. I can't tell you what a joy it is for me to see a film that takes seriously matters of faith and genuinely grapples with religious issues without falling into either a display of saccharine christianity or reflexive anti-religiosity. 

When Ethan Hawke's character Toller mentions iconic 20th century Catholic monk Thomas Merton, and later has a small debate with a fellow pastor over Merton's work, I knew this was no ordinary movie about religion, but rather a serious contemplation of complex spiritual issues. Spiritual questions, such as whether in the search for a vibrant religious life should one engage with the world (and its politics) or retreat from it into a monk-like existence, and the perils of both approaches, are at the forefront of First Reformed

Writer/director Paul Schrader is best known for being the screenwriter of Martin Scorsese's masterpieces Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. While Schrader is an infinitely more talented writer than director, he did on one occasion make an exquisite film, his 1997 examination of familial rage, Affliction. That film resonated so deeply with me that I frequently contemplate it even twenty years later. Affliction aside, Schrader's films usually suffer from his less polished direction. 

I think, in keeping with Schrader's history, First Reformed is infinitely better written than it is directed, but Schrader's direction is strong enough to put it in second place in his directorial cannon behind Affliction. There are certainly some pacing problems with the narrative, not that it goes too slow, but rather it makes dramatic leaps that the story hasn't quite yet earned, which left me feeling that the final third of the film was a bit dramatically rushed. In addition, the transition from the realism of the first two thirds of the film to the final third's deep dive into symbolism and the metaphorical, might be jarring to some, but I encourage you to make the leap as it is worth the effort to suspend your disbelief (which may very well be the brilliant sub-text of the entire film). 

Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan do paint an intriguing picture with First Reformed, particularly with their framing. There are some shots that are absolutely delicious, such as when Dynan turns a rather mundane shot of Toller's entrance into a church into a visual masterpiece by simply shooting from above (God's perspective) down onto a rug with the church's logo on it turned upside down. It is a dizzyingly glorious shot that, like all great pictures, speaks a thousand words. 

The religious and spiritual dimensions of the film are surprisingly nuanced and complex. Toller is representative of a traditionalist (old world) faith, his church is one of the oldest in America, but that faith is dying. His church is nicknamed "the souvenir shop" because people don't go to actually worship there, only to stop by for historical tours and to buy trinkets. 

Toller's "old religion" is contrasted with the new wave mega-church of Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyle). Toller deems Pastor Jeffers house of worship more akin to a corporation than a church but he still tries to off-load his counseling duties to its abundant staff. This religious clash between Toller and Jeffers in First Reformed is playing out in real time here in the U.S. as evangelical mega churches sell a corporatized, flag waving, prosperity gospel under the veneer of Christianity while more traditional churches get more and more marginalized in the culture and their pews are more and more empty. 

The Toller character is not only representative of the old church, but of God's green earth. Not only is Toller's faith and church dying, but so is the planet, and Toller's body comes to symbolize the earth. Toller fills his body with toxic trash and refuses to change his behavior even when doctors tell him he must in order to save himself. First Reformed makes the case that the same is true of corporate America (and the world), who constantly ignore existential environmental concerns in favor of myopic capitalist ones. 

As the film plays out, Toller turns into a Christ-like figure, battling demons within and without and trying to save his soul in the process. Like Christ, Toller must choose between a dizzying array of archetypes…is he a warrior, a martyr, a savior, a devil or all of the above? Is Toller an activist or a terrorist? An evangelist or a monk? As Toller goes deeper and deeper into the rabbit's hole in search for the meaning and purpose of his life (and maybe all life), spiritual vertigo sets in, at which point viewers are asked to take some leaps that may be a bridge too far for some, but which I found to be challenging yet deeply rewarding. 

Ethan Hawke does some of his best work as Toller. Hawke's Toller has a world weary gravitas about him that fills the character with a troubled present, past and future. Hawke gives Toller a palpable cross to bear, and his skillful performance lures the viewer in to help him carry it. Toller's metamorphosis and awakening in the film is compelling and is a testament to Hawke's talent and mastery of craft. 

Amanda Seyfried plays Mary and is meant to be symbolic of hope and potential. While at times Seyfried performance feels a bit out of rhythm with the film, and feels unconscionably lightweight next to Hawke's burdened Toller, she does do enough to fulfill the character's dramatic purpose. Treating Seyfried's Mary as less a real-life character and more a totem of spiritual hope and redemption makes her performance much more digestible. 

Cedric Kyle, who is better known as Cedric the Entertainer, is unrecognizable from his comedic persona as Pastor Jeffers. I had no idea that is who the actor really was as Kyle looks the same but is energetically unrecognizable to Cedric the Entertainer. Kyle gives a seamless performance that is shocking because it is entirely without any artifice. 

In conclusion, First Reformed is a very interesting, if somewhat flawed film, that I found well worth worth my time and money. If you have minimal or no interest in matters of faith and religion, this film will be too much for you. And if you are allergic to the art house, then stay well clear of First Reformed. But if you are a cinephile, a religiously minded or faithful person, and can make the leap from taking the film literally to taking it figuratively, First Reformed is the film for you. It certainly won't give you any easy answers, but it will definitely ask you some very difficult and profound questions. 

©2018