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.

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It’s been nine years since the last Bourne movie that mattered. (The Bourne Legacy, with Jeremy Renner, back in 2012 was a joke.) After saying he wouldn’t play the part again, Matt Damon is back as Jason Bourne, with director-buddy Paul Greengrass in tow.

The result: Jason Bourne, a tedious, desperate and sad extension of the Bourne storyline.

At the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon’s Bourne woke up after a bridge dive and swam off into an unknown and unpredictable future. It seemed to be a fitting and perfect end to the character, or perhaps that particular story arc. Bourne found out his real name, learned why he was an assassin with amnesia, and got himself a little revenge. Case closed, right?

Wrong. Money matters, and Universal wanted to keep the Bourne locomotive on track. An attempt to keep the franchise going with a new star (Renner’s awful Legacy) was stale. Then Universal saw an opportunity with Damon, who hadn’t had a major hit in many years. (Damon decided to go back to Bourne before the release of The Martian last year, a movie that garnered him an Oscar nomination and showed he was still bankable.)

Greengrass and his writers have come up with a way to further confuse Bourne about his identity. As it all turns out, there’s more to his amnesia: HE DOESN’T KNOW EVERTHING AFTER ALL! He’s also got some daddy issues.

The film starts with Bourne pulling a Rambo III, subjecting himself to public fights as a means of fueling his unquenched inner violent side. Former work associate Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) meets up with Bourne in Greece to tell him that she discovered some more stuff about his identity while doing some computer hacking. For Jason Bourne … it’s not over yet.

It’s embarrassing to watch Damon and Greengrass go through the motions of the tired scenario they have put into play. One year after perhaps his most enjoyable and fully dimensional performance in The Martian, Damon is forced to put the now-boring Bourne pants on again. His performance lacks dimension, emotion and humor. It’s not entirely his fault: The part is written that way. Ten years ago, Bourne was a cool role for Damon, one that allowed him to strip down and do something different. He’s grown as an actor since then, and has essentially outgrown Bourne. It feels like a step backward for him.

Greengrass tries to beef things up on the villainous end by employing Tommy Lee Jones as a CIA jerkface, which is a move as predictable and clichéd as casting Tommy Lee Jones as Tommy Lee Jones. Jones invests nothing new into his character, a type he has played many times before.

Oscar winner Alicia Vikander shows up as an ambitious CIA employee looking to make her mark. Her performance here is more robotic than her actual work as a robot in Ex Machina. Vincent Cassel is also onboard as a hired assassin called “The Asset.” Man, somebody had to work overtime to come up with that name.

There had to have been a better way to do this. How about giving Bourne a new career, one that he’s happy with—and then having him find out something is still wrong in his past? Or could they have simply made him a paid assassin who is truly screwed up thanks to his past? The new gimmick Greengrass and friends come up with to further extend Bourne’s identity crisis is not shocking, surprising or inventive. It feels drawn out.

Attempts to modernize Bourne with mumbo jumbo involving a tech mogul (Riz Ahmed) and a new social-media platform make parts of this movie feel like a jettisoned episode of Silicon Valley.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens stands as the best recent attempt to continue a franchise without making it feel forced, desperate and like a blatant attempt to cash some checks. Jason Bourne does nothing to better the franchise. This storyline needs to end here.

Jason Bourne is playing at theaters across the valley.

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I’ve often complained that, because I have seen so many movies, I can guess big twists or mysteries in films long before they happen. So I have to give a lot of credit to the Old West drama The Homesman, directed by Tommy Lee Jones—because it has a twist I did not see coming.

Jones directs and co-stars as George Briggs, narrowly saved from hanging by one Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). Mary Bee has won the not-so-prestigious honor of taking three mentally ill women from the Nebraska territories back east via covered wagon. There, they will be handed over to a minister’s wife (Meryl Streep), who will take care of them and surely smack them over the heads with Bibles.

Mary Bee saves George on one condition: He must guide and protect her and the women on their trip. Upon reaching their destination, he will be set free with $300 in his pocket. George, who really has no choice, accepts the offer and joins forces with the strong-willed Mary Bee.

There are a few scenes establishing Mary Bee’s character before she meets up with George, including a very awkward dinner date and marriage proposal. It’s made clear early on that Mary Bee is “plain” and too bossy. While it’s hard to imagine that Swank could ever be “plain,” the bossy part is right on: She is not to be messed with.

Jones establishes the three troubled women with early scenes that are a little confusing. I was eventually able to assess that one woman killed her child; another lost her children to illness; and the other was just a little too into religion. The women are played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter. They aren’t given very much to say, but each makes a memorably tragic impression.

The trip involves the usual Western road-trip mainstays, like a run-in with Indians and bad weather. Through it all, Jones and Swank have a great rapport, playing off each other well. Mary Bee is a complicated character in that she is very strong-willed and independent on one hand, while being guilt ridden, vulnerable and lonely on the other. In her day, to be unmarried at her age meant there was something drastically wrong with her in the public eye, resulting in shame and embarrassment. (The same happens today to a certain extent, but we have TV and iPods to take the edge off.)

Some of her behavior could be construed as erratic and uncharacteristic, but one has to keep in mind that her character occupies a different, cruel stage in American history. Mary Bee’s growing obsession with her social standing makes perfect sense, even if it seems a bit extreme. She wants to conduct sound business and form sensible unions at a time when women weren’t generally allowed to make such suggestions or demands.

Two-time Oscar winner Swank brings a rich coarseness to Mary Bee, a woman perhaps ahead of her time. There’s a sweetness to what Swank does with the role, and a sad element as well, as we see the cross-country trek taking a toll on her.

Jones is pretty much his usual self here—rough and tough on the outside, but definitely in possession of a soft side. As a director, he makes a good-looking movie. However, there are parts of the film that confound a bit, in part because some of the actors look similar. It personally took me a little while to sort some of the action out.

The Homesman isn’t a great Western, but it’s worthy entry to the genre—and it marks a nice return to form for Swank, who downright humiliated herself in some of her more recent roles. Jones has given her a role to remind us that she’s an actress of great power.

The Homesman is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

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The Family tries to be many movies at once—and none of them are any good. The result is an overcooked mafia comedy laced with jarringly inappropriate violence and jokes that only its writers would enjoy.

The Family wants to be a comedy, but it isn’t funny. At times, it wants to be a scary and realistic take on mafia life, but it lacks tension. It also wants to be a family drama, but none of its characters can be taken seriously. It also boasts an over-stylized, fairy-tale quality that makes the undertaking a weird, unbalanced experience.

Robert De Niro plays Giovanni, a mafia hit-man who has ratted out his co-workers and has been relocated with his family to Normandy, France, where he receives a new name, Fred Blake. His wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter, Belle (Dianna Agron of Glee), and son, Warren (John D’Leo), all seem rather forgiving of Fred’s past evil ways, and take to their new town with varying degrees of acceptance and criminal behavior.

De Niro has mined this sort of material before with Analyze This, and its sorry sequel, Analyze … Oh Stop It, Already! While he went with parody in those movies, he plays it straight and mellow in this one—except for when the plumber tries to screw him over; then he goes into Travis Bickle mode, with the sort of violence that doesn’t feel appropriate in a stylish comedy.

Perhaps the biggest film in the early portion of Pfeiffer’s career was Married to the Mob, and her Maggie character is essentially a replay. The thick New York accent and eye-rolling here reminds of her past glory, but they do little to make this movie original or intriguing. It’s a shame, because Pfeiffer is an interesting actress who isn’t getting very many good roles these days.

Agron’s portion of the movie is the most annoying and discordant. Her character is a high school virgin who is looking to lose it to a young man studying to be a teacher. She’s capable of breaking your ass with a tennis racket if you try to take advantage of her, and she’s a hopeless romantic who thinks suicide is the answer when a man rejects her. She’s also a crack shot with a handgun when mobsters show up. She’s a whole lot of things—and none of them make a lick of sense.

As for D’Leo, his story involves dealing with bullies at school. He hatches some sort of plan involving sports trading cards that never gets spelled out, and finds himself in trouble for stuff that is never made clear. Like Agron’s character, his story arc feels incomplete, misguided, unfulfilling and far from funny.

There’s a dopey subplot involving Giovanni and his yearning to be an author. He’s writing some hackneyed novel/memoir that raises the ire of the agent assigned to watch him (Tommy Lee Jones, who acts as if he’s in a movie that is supposed to be serious).

At one point, the people in their small town invite Giovanni to some sort of film-society screening to give commentary on a movie. That movie winds up being Goodfellas—which should’ve provided a chance for De Niro to perform some good self-parody. Instead, Besson blows this opportunity: The moment winds up feeling desperate and muted.

There are some other little nods to American mobster movies and TV shows that also don’t work. Vincent Pastore shows up as a character named Fat Willy. Pastore, of course, played Big Pussy on The Sopranos. So instead of being a large vagina, he is now a big dick.

Besson has done good (Léon: The Professional and The Fifth Element) and bad (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and this) as a director. I’ve come to the conclusion that he is a better visual artist than a complete storyteller. When he puts words to his visuals, they don’t match—and his formula really doesn’t work when applied to a giggly mafia story.

The Family has an identity crisis. The performances aren’t half bad. In fact, you could argue that De Niro and Pfeiffer are actually quite good in the thing. Unfortunately, they are slaves to a script that doesn’t know what it is trying to say—and a director more interested in a film that’s pretty rather than coherent.

The Family is playing at theaters across the valley.

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