Tag Archives: James Gray

Ad Astra

19 Sep

 

Image result for ad astra

The title of James Gray’s latest epic odyssey as translated from Latin simply means, “to the stars.” It’s a pretty highfalutin term for a film that’s fairly slack on the sci side of this sci-fi quest that takes us to the moon, the red planet and beyond. Its biggest boost is its star, Brad Pitt, coming in reentry-hot after an Oscar-worthy turn as a bum-around stuntman in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” He’s solid here as Major Roy McBride, a man with a low resting heartbeat and few emotional attachments. He’s distant from his wife (Liv Tyler) and has no kids, so he’s cool, calm and able to MacGyver his way out of any hairy situation no matter how impossible or far out in space.

The film begins with a bravura sequence (worthy of “First Man” comparisons) where, in the not too distant future, Roy is working on an antenna projecting up and out of earth’s atmosphere that gets struck by a rogue energy wave. The massive spire implodes, collapsing back to earth in a long, slow chain of events that call eerily to mind the 9/11 attacks. Roy, with some cool thinking, survives, but more than 40,000 people are killed by the surge from somewhere out in the galaxy.

The purpose of the tower, we’re told, is to communicate with other intelligent life, because humans cannot survive much longer on their own – the implications being that we’ve messed up the planet and are looking for someone to bail us out, though that’s never really articulated. If you’re thinking the Tower of Babel or “Contact” (1997) you’d be correct, but with the death toll from the wave and more on the way, phoning ET gets dropped as the surge and its source become job numero uno. Naturally the brass at Space Command (a branch of the military) pick Roy (can anyone ever pass over Brad Pitt?) for the need-to-know mission, and also, what’s that? Those in the know think the shockwaves are coming from Neptune, where some years earlier Roy’s father (Tommy Lee Jones) led a mission and may still be alive.

Yup, daddy issues run deep, but not with much emotional effect. The journey to Neptune is a damn fine amusement ride, beginning with the running of a gantlet of pirates on the dark side of the moon to the abandoned spaceship where a lab experiment has gone wildly amok and the penultimate stop, Mars, run by an effete with a mini-man bun and myriad agendas. But it’s there on Heinlein’s precious planet and beyond that the film begins to drift. The mission and the stunts lose their importance, the sense of urgency and peril get nipped, and all we’re left with is something of a stripped-down existential quest, a diet lite posturing of “Apocalypse Now” (1979) or “Interstellar” (2014) without a credible force (or fully baked cause) to reckon with (i.e., Brando’s Kurtz or Matt Damon’s rogue astronaut). All of a sudden, the slog to the outer limits feels all for naught. Also challenging to logic and scientific principal, these guys hop planets like catching the noon Greyhound to Penn Station. There’s no warp speed, wormhole or stasis sleep – in short, the sense of time and space feels distorted, if not ignored.

Gray, who cut his teeth with gritty crime thrillers such as “Little Odessa” (1994) and “We Own the Night” (2007), last turned in “The Lost City of Z” (2017), an account of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s quest to find signs of early civilization in the Amazon. That film, another journey into the vast unknown, feels like boilerplate for “Ad Astra.” It’d be fair to call it a Z-peat, but in the real-life account, Fawcett always seemed one fateful decision away from ruin. Here, Pitt’s Roy, while steeped in palpable, reflective soulfulness, is so can-do capable that Kryptonite has no shot of buckling a knee. Pitt, for better or for worse, has become something of an icon and a brand, like Tom Cruise (impossible to separate the celebrity from the performer) – and while that worked to everyone’s advantage (shirtless scene and all) in Tarantino’s Tinseltown fable, Gray never imbues his hero with enough vulnerability, or even a hint of it. “Ad Astra” is like a 5 Hour Energy drink: a sharp, pure blast of wow, until you come down and it leaves you empty and wanting.

The Lost City of Z

26 Apr

James Gray, who started out directing gritty New York-rooted crime dramas (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards” and “We Own the Night”) before branching out into matters of the heart (“Two Lovers”) and a “Godfather”-esque epic of sorts (“The Immigrant”), heads up river and into uncharted water with “The Lost City of Z,” a rewind of real-life adventurer Percy Fawcett’s trips to the Amazon in the early 1900s, when he claimed to have found the seeds of an advanced culture that may have predated western civilization.

As Gray’s account (based on David Grann’s factually disputed novel) has it, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam from “Sons of Anarchy”), a British military officer with a calm demeanor but a chip on his shoulder because he felt passed over for assignments, reluctantly accepts a fluff mission from the Royal Geographical Society to map Amazonia as part of a larger effort to protect Britain’s rubber tree interests. His first mission, fraught with cannibals, piranhas and tropical ailments such as a face-eating flesh disease and gangrene, set off in 1906. Years later, upon return to Britannia, Fawcett is greeted by jeers of blasphemy for claiming traces of intelligent civilization in a jungle full of “savages.”

The trip obviously set something off in Fawcett, who becomes inexhaustibly determined to find “Z” – which many believe to be a fragment of the similarly elusive ancient kingdom, El Dorado. All in all, according to Grann, Fawcett would make eight trips to the Amazon, the last being in 1925 when he and his son (played by Tom Holland, who has newly taken over the webs of Spider-Man in the Marvel movie franchises) would disappear. Gray wisely pares down the octet of sojourns to three and in between stages some impressive World War I trench warfare, reenacting Fawcett’s short tenure as an artillery commander in Flanders. Waiting at home through all these ordeals is Fawcett’s loyal wife Nina (the lovely Sienna Miller), who tends to an ever-growing family without much protest. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more supportive life partner on screen.

The strength of “Z” lies in the bond Fawcett forges with his loyal aide, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) as they head repeatedly into the unknown with the promise of discovery and self revelation ever ripe. Such was the driving force behind “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979), but here, that current gets lost in the muddy roils of posture and pretense. The film, full of intent and admirable in so many ways, never delves into the darkness of Fawcett’s soul; equally as unsatisfactory, it fails to conjecture about his fate.  Cray and Crann have painted a handsome, humane portrait of Fawcett,  who by other accounts something of a controversial figure, accused of being a showman to garner funding and attention with claims of spotting strange beasts never before sighted and accomplishing improbable feats – including alleging that he shot a 62-foot anaconda. In the end “Z” becomes an entertaining travelogue of minor character in history that unfortunately turns back just as the water gets choppy.