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Fri06052020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Director James Gray and star Brad Pitt came up with a decent-looking, meditative, unsettling and messy attempt at meaningful science fiction with Ad Astra.

Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut following in the footsteps of his father (Tommy Lee Jones) decades after his dad disappeared on a scientific expedition searching for alien life somewhere around Neptune. When major power surges start threatening Earth, it’s believed Roy’s still-possibly-alive father is the culprit, so Roy is sent on a mission to reach his father and get him to knock it the fuck off.

This leads to a journey that involves a lunar buggy shootout on the moon; an unimaginative visit to Mars; and, finally, a trip to Neptune. On top of the scientifically impossible things that happen in this film, the plot is stitched together with the ultimate crutch—the Apocalypse Now voiceover. Pitt is restricted to sad-puppy-eyes duty as his character deals with his daddy issues in a cosmic sort of way. They throw in a space-monkey attack to try to liven things up, but it doesn’t work.

The movie is a missed opportunity. Ad Astra is strung out and a little too boring and listless.

Ad Astra is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The ninth movie from Quentin Tarantino is a dreamy doozy—his most unapologetically Tarantinian film yet. History and conventionality be damned: QT is behind the camera, and he favors mayhem and artistic license over conventionality and facts.

Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood captures the 1960s film scene and culture as it is dying—and dying hard. Through the Tarantino storytelling lens, they die in mysterious and hallucinogenic ways.

We get Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as insecure, has-been actor Rick Dalton, and his trusty stuntman, Cliff Booth. Dalton’s career has devolved into playing bad guys on weekly installments of TV’s F.B.I.—past his prime and blackballed. Booth is delegated to driving him around and being his confidante.

The setup allows Tarantino to go hog wild with ’60s visuals and songs. Hollywood is a monumental achievement on art- and sound-direction fronts. Some of Tarantino’s soon-to-be most-famous shots are in this movie, including a crane shot over a drive-in screen that dropped my jaw. The soundtrack pops with the likes of Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel, Jose Feliciano, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. The looks and sounds are so authentic that you might find yourself wondering if Dalton and Booth were real people. They were not, but they are based on folks like Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood and Hal Needham.

The most notable real-person character would be Manson family murder victim Sharon Tate, played beautifully by Margot Robbie. She’s the luminous center of the movie, with Tarantino and Robbie taking the opportunity to show Tate as the beautiful, promising person and star Tate was rather than the footnote she’s become in the annals of Charles Manson’s bloody history. This is the first movie since her death that honestly pays homage to her rather than simply making her part of the Manson family rampage.

The Manson family plays a big part in Tarantino’s twisted fairy tale. The fictional Dalton happens to live next to Sharon Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski, while Booth pays a visit to the Spahn Ranch. The Spahn Ranch is where the Manson family squatted, and Booth has a sit-down with Spahn himself (played by super-craggy Bruce Dern). Unlike recent movies that depict the Manson family as having some strange level of grace (Charlie Says), Tarantino shows them as bumbling, idiotic and pathetic. It’s a solid choice.

DiCaprio, in his first role since taking home his much-deserved Oscar for The Revenant (and his second role with Tarantino after Django Unchained), will probably find himself in the running for an Oscar again. He’s a nervous, hilarious mess as Dalton, a man prone to crying in public over his career, yet still capable of blowing up a TV set with tremendous acting fireworks. He has a trailer rant and a hostage-taking-bad-guy speech that now stand as two of his finest acting moments.

In what is also his second teaming with Tarantino (after Inglourious Basterds), Pitt is fantastically funny as a man coasting through life with little care in the world. He’ll face off with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on a set he’s working just to shush his big mouth, or he’ll buy an acid-dipped cigarette for kicks. And when he smokes that cigarette, very strange things happen, and the wonderful Pitt laugh is put to its best use since he played Tyler Durden in Fight Club.

The end of the 1960s was bona fide nutty, and this is a nutty movie. It’s also quite heartfelt and moving.

Tarantino says he might only have one more movie in him after this one. I’m curious to see if he can top himself one more time, or if he just does that rumored Star Trek movie. Either way, Tarantino has left a distinctive mark on American cinema, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood adds to his perfect track record: He’s made nine movies, and all of them are at least good. This one is one of his best.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Netflix’s original film War Machine is all screwy. Brad Pitt plays Gen. Glen McMahon (clearly based on real-life General Stanley McChrystal), put in charge of the war in Afghanistan during the Obama administration.

McMahon is just Pitt’s Inglourious Basterds character without a mustache—but this time, Pitt never seems relaxed in the part. Instead, he seems lost in a movie that doesn’t really know where it’s going. It’s military satire, and then it’s a serious depiction of men at war, and then it’s a straight-up comedy, and then it’s a political intrigue movie, and so on.

Writer/director David Michod tries to wrangle this mess with the ultimate movie crutch—the voiceover, provided by a character based on the real journalist who wrote the article and later the book on which the film is based. The late Michael Hastings (depicted here as a character called Sean Cullen and played by Scoot McNairy) wrote the Rolling Stone article that eventually inspired the book, The Operators. It also brought down McChrystal, depicted here as a bit of a nut—but a lovely, friendly nut who cared about his men, but wanted to win, win, win.

While trying to win, he leaked classified info and messed with the president. The film also tries to be a condemnation of American activity overseas, with a not-so-nice depiction of Obama, played here by a mediocre Obama impersonator (Reggie Brown).

A strong cast including Anthony Michael Hall, Will Poulter, Alan Ruck and Meg Tilly can’t save this schizoid film.

War Machine is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in Reviews

Director Adam McKay, the master behind broad-comedy gems Anchorman and Step Brothers, flexes his more-serious muscles for The Big Short, a take on the housing bubble that nearly destroyed the global economy.

An ensemble cast including Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt makes this a funny yet scary look at how big banks nearly sent our economy back to the Stone Age. Carell is especially good as Mark Baum, a banker with a conscience who realizes a little too late that things are going down hill—and that his wealth is coming at the expense of many U.S. homeowners.

Bale is typically good as Michael Burry, a man who saw the storm coming and made a boatload of money by betting against the biggest monsters of modern finance. Pitt has fun as a financial guru who has taken to the hills in anticipation of the oncoming financial apocalypse, while Gosling gives the whole thing a nice Martin Scorsese vibe as a fast-talking banker/narrator.

This is a drama, but it’s often funny. (Margot Robbie in a bubble bath…brilliant!) McKay shows that his chops go well beyond directing Will Ferrell with a fireman mustache.

The Big Short is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Right in time for Halloween, writer-director David Ayer has come up with a genuine horror show in Fury, his take on a World War II tank crew trying to survive the last days of the war.

This film goes full-bore in showing the horrors of war—in fact, the very first scene depicts a brutal act of violence that proves Ayer is not playing games. His intention is to show the effects of war on a group of men who are clinging to the last threads of sanity after years of claustrophobic, blood-soaked terror inside a tank.

Brad Pitt leads the crew as Don “Wardaddy” Collier, a grizzled, scarred individual who behaves questionably as he treks across Nazi Germany. When he’s saddled with a new recruit, Norman (Logan Lerman), his behavior becomes a strange mix of paternal and completely unhinged.

Other members of the crew include Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). Ayer may have created each of these characters as odes to the John Wayne war movies of yore. However, that is where the common thread with bravado-filled old-timey war movies ends: There is nothing clichéd or old-timey about the way in which these characters are portrayed.

Much of the film takes place inside the tank, with a few breaks, most notably a scene in which Wardaddy introduces Logan to a nice German girl while he has some eggs. The carnage in the battle scenes is unrelenting. A sequence in which a group of U.S. tanks goes up against one superior German tank is as harrowing as moviemaking gets.

It all builds up to a final sequence during which the tank breaks down, and Wardaddy decides he isn’t going to run away, even though a large group of enemy soldiers is approaching. The crew decides to fight it out alongside their leader. I have to believe that many allied soldiers made similar decisions while taking the Nazis down 70 years ago. Not every battle was planned, and the odds were often stacked against them.

Ayer presents a scenario that’s crazy, yet realistic in many ways. No movie could authentically depict the real-life horrors of World War II; however, Ayer and company go to great lengths to show what happens when a nightmare becomes something hellish.

Pitt is just a few degrees removed from his Aldo Raine in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. It’s as if Aldo finished scalping Christoph Waltz, shaved his mustache and joined a tank battalion—at least it is regarding Pitt’s aesthetic and the accent he employs. However, unlike Aldo Raine, Wardaddy is totally lacking in humor. This is a truly powerful characterization from an actor who rarely missteps.

The tabloids had a field day with the weird stuff LaBeouf did while making this movie, including pulling out a tooth (Nicolas Cage-style), refusing to shower and generally acting strange. Well, whatever weirdness he put the cast and crew through resulted in his best screen work to date. As the preacher of the crew, LaBeouf is quite moving as a man who keeps his faith and finds immense joy in reciting scripture. This performance should give him a chance to get his once-promising career back on track.

Peña (who worked with Ayer on End of Watch) is terrific, as usual, as are Lerman and Bernthal. Bernthal, like Pitt, calls upon a past character (the jerk he played on The Walking Dead) for inspiration.

Stay away from Fury if you can’t handle onscreen gore. As I said before, this one is vicious right out of the gate, and it remains vicious through its 134-minute running time.

As action films go, it’s a real winner. As war films go, it’s one to be remembered. As horror films go, I doubt you’ll see anything scarier this month.

Fury is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

You would think a movie written by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road) and directed by Ridley Scott (Alien) would be amazing. That is not the case with this bore-fest.

In The Counselor, Michael Fassbender—so good in Scott’s Prometheus—plays a character simply named Counselor, a lawyer who gets involved in drug-trafficking and puts himself and others in jeopardy. Cameron Diaz plays the girlfriend of his partner in crime (a wild-haired Javier Bardem)—and her acting is terrible in this movie. She’s required to be bad, and you can feel her trying so hard at every turn. Let’s just say she’s very bad at being bad.

Scott puts together some intense, violent scenes that feel like they belong in a movie in which the actors aren’t required to deliver long, boring, unrealistic monologues. Brad Pitt is OK as some sort of drug-deal sage, but he’s starting to look a lot like Mickey Rourke. (He actually references him during one of his speeches.)

Scott almost manages a good movie out of this mess, but Diaz and the preachy script prevail.

The Counselor is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

World War Z is two-thirds of a decent movie. The movie has one helluva start, and an even better middle.

Then, in its final act, it totally craps out.

Too bad. I was looking to Brad Pitt’s zombie movie as possible relief from the mediocre, big-budget blockbusters we’ve gotten this summer (with the blessed exceptions of Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness). Unfortunately, the much-troubled production shows every one of its scars, especially in its positively ridiculous finale.

Those who frequent movie websites know that director Marc Forster oversaw the tumultuous production, which included big delays and crucial reshoots. Lost and Prometheus scribe Damon Lindelof was brought in to write an all-new ending. Unfortunately, that ending strains so hard to be clever that you can see the throbbing veins popping out of its head. This movie called for a finale that kicked mortal ass; instead, Lindelof and Forster deliver a few minutes of Brad Pitt hanging out in a refrigerator while a lone zombie chatters its teeth.

This is one of the least-scary zombie films you are likely to see. Heck, I got better creeps out of this year’s zom-rom-com Warm Bodies. At PG-13, World War Z can’t show much blood, so scenes (including one in which somebody’s hand gets chopped off) wind up rather tame. The sense of dread ratchets down, and the film relies on pure thrills and action.

The film does deliver on the action in a killer opening sequence that sees Pitt’s Gerry Lane and his family stranded in a Philadelphia traffic jam as the zombie apocalypse launches into full swing. The revved-up zombies of this film apparently have some sort of rabies, and they aren’t interested in dinner. They just want to bite and move on to spread their contagion as quickly as possible.

Pitt’s Lane, a retired United Nations employee, finds himself in a race to find a solution for the zombie plague in order to protect his family. Pitt, a renowned family man in real life, is good for the part.

The sight of zombies forming an anthill to scale a wall in Israel, and a nerve-rattling sequence above a jumbo jet, qualify as two of the coolest sequences to show up in a movie this year. Zombies clinging to a flying helicopter and bringing it down also provide a memorable sequence. It’s a shame these scenes show up in a movie that runs out of gas.

As for reliance on the original novel by Max Brooks (son of Mel), this is pretty much an adaptation in title only. Fans of the novel and fans of bloody zombies are both going to be let down.

I won’t give away the major details of Lindelof’s screenplay tinkering. I will say that when you try to apply any kind of logic to his solutions, it doesn’t work. It seems as if they had to come up with something less expensive than a huge set piece at the end, due to the skyrocketing budget—and, as a result, the movie is a disappointment.

World War Z is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Killing Them Softly, now out on Blu-ray, contains one of last year’s most-underrated performances. Brad Pitt is captivating as a hit man hired to make things right after a mob card game goes wrong. Teamed with director Andrew Dominik (his partner in crime for the excellent The AssassinSaveation of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Pitt delivers a funny, frightening and incredibly controlled performance.

The movie tanked at the box office, even with the Pitt/Dominik pedigree. That’s too bad. Perhaps it will find its due on home video, where viewers might have a little more patience with its deliberate pacing. Give it a shot, and see why Pitt remains one of our best and most-underappreciated actors.

Special Features: You only get a few deleted scenes and a short making-of doc; you’re buying this one for the movie.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

As I watched Brad Pitt's Killing Them Softly, from director Andrew Dominik, I sat in a virtually empty theater with a few friends and several other patrons. The movie is a slow, meditative and strangely beautiful examination of bad people, and I could sense it was testing people's patience.

I kept hearing the relentless "tap, tap, tap" of restless-leg syndrome coming from somebody behind us. I heard a lot (a lot) of deep sighing from the few people who were there, along with rustling as they fidgeted.

What I am trying to say is that Killing Them Softly requires great patience while viewing. This is a movie that takes its time, features more than a few wordy monologues, and has lots of poetic slow-motion shots.

Pitt plays Jackie, a smooth, shady type called upon to clean up a situation gone bad regarding an organized-crime card game. The film is set about four years ago; the country is in recession, and that recession has spread to crime. So when the card game—a big money generator—goes down, something has to be done.

The big card game is off due to a series of robberies at the games, some of them inside jobs, some of them not. People are going to die, and it's Jackie's job to make sure that it all goes off without a hitch.

The result is an interesting look inside what makes a crime syndicate tick. I enjoyed seeing Pitt's Jackie discussing his killing plans with a buttoned-up type (played by Richard Jenkins) while parked in a swank car.

I also liked seeing a hired hit man (James Gandolfini) drinking heavily and bitching about his wife—right before he's supposed to pull off an important job. Jackie, essentially his boss, acts like an antsy shift supervisor who knows the cash drawer is going to come up short when the bell tolls, because his employee is hitting the bottle.

Dominik previously made a movie in this same vein, and it even starred Pitt as another criminal type: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford had a similar, meditative vibe about it. Audiences were split over that film's beauty and its slow pacing. Killing Them Softly is producing a similar reaction.

In a way, Jackie represents the sort of criminal Jesse James was in his day, although Jackie is hampered by modern problems regarding money and technology. Dominik uses speeches by Barack Obama and other political types as background noise, constantly reminding the likes of Jackie that the landscape is changing: When the average Joe is having trouble making a buck, it results in less money for stealing and paying hit men.

Ray Liotta endures what has to be one of cinema's all-time-worst beatings, full of blood, broken bones and vomit. I've read comments about how Dominik romanticizes or glorifies violence with some of his more-poetic killing sequences. Hey, the scene involving Liotta getting his clock cleaned more than balances things out. It's brutal.

Pitt is a movie star of the highest order, and every moment he spends onscreen in this film amplifies that point. Jackie is a despicable character, and while Pitt doesn't necessarily make him all that likable, he does make Jackie funny in a sinister way; he's always engaging.

I really liked the use of Gandolfini. I pictured his Tony Soprano all washed up, relegated to taking killing assignments and drinking himself to oblivion. No, he's not Tony in this movie, but I'm sure the connection wasn't lost on him or Dominik.

Critics like Killing Them Softly, while audiences are giving it an "F" (according to Entertainment Weekly's moviegoer polling). I guess that qualifies Dominik as a "critical darling"—and somebody who is going to have a hard time procuring big budgets for movie ideas in the future.

Killing Them Softly is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews