Tag Archives: Brad Pitt

Head Space

Ad Astra

by George Wolf

In a near future world full of wondrous space travel, the presence of t-shirt vendors and war zones on the moon provides apt bookends for the struggle to balance both hope and conflict.

The continued search for intelligent alien life keeps mankind gazing “to the stars” (Ad Astra in Latin), but that search has hit a dangerous snag.

Strange electrical surges are amassing casualties all over the globe, and a top secret briefing blames the Lima Project, a deep space probe led by hero astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) that hasn’t been heard from in years.

McBride’s son Roy (Brad Pitt) is a decorated astronaut himself, so who better to task with finding out just what happened to dad and his crew?

Daddy issues in zero gravity? There’s that, but there’s plenty more, as a never-better Pitt and bold strokes from writer/director James Gray deliver an emotional and often breathless spectacle of sound and vision.

The film’s mainly meditative nature is punctured by bursts of suspense, excitement and even outright terror. Gray (The Lost City of Z, We Own the Night) commands a complete mastery of tone and teams with acclaimed cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Dunkirk, Interstellar, Let the Right One In) for immersive, IMAX-worthy visuals that astound with subtlety, never seeming overly showy.

And speaking of subtle, Pitt is a marvel of piercing restraint. Flashback sketches of an estranged wife (Liv Tyler, effective without dialog) and reflective voiceovers help layer Roy as a man lauded for his lack of emotion, but lost in a space devoid of true connection. Though the role is anchored in common masculine themes, Pitt’s take never succumbs to self pity. A new tux for award season would be wise.

We’ve seen plenty of these elements before, from Kubrick to Coppola and beyond, but it is precisely in the beyond that Ad Astra makes its own way. It’s a head trip, and a helluva rocket ride.

California Dreamin’

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Happy QT Day, everyone — that rare and special holiday where moviegoers love a movie made by an unabashed lover of movies. And this time, he’s made a movie about loving the movies.

It’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s clearest love letter to cinema both great and trashy. Spilling with nostalgia and packing more sentiment than his previous 8 films combined, Hollywood is the auteur’s most heartfelt film.

Not that it isn’t bloody. Once it hits its stride the film packs Reservoir Dogs-level brutality into a climax that’s as nervy as anything Tarantino’s ever filmed. But leading up to that, as the filmmaker asks us to look with a mixture of fondness and sadness at two lives twisting toward the inevitable, he’s actually almost sweet.

One of those lives belongs to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a one-time TV Western leading man who’s made a couple of poor career choices and seems to be facing obsolescence. This would mean, domino-style, the obsolescence of his best friend and stunt double with a sketchy past, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

But that’s not the second story, which instead belongs to the real life tragedy of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Set in the LA of 1969, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood uses the Manson family crimes (marking its 50th anniversary this August) as the thematic underpinning, a violent metaphor for the end of two eras.

Tarantino being Tarantino, though, he’ll use the movies to make everything better.

From the foot fetish (more proudly on display than ever) to the familiar faces (even one who made the cutting room floor and the credits), the hiply retro soundtrack to the inky black humor, Hollywood hides no Tarantinoism. But the film establishes a timestamp more precisely than any of his other works. And on the whole, he shows unpredicted restraint.

The film moseys through the first two acts, with long, deliberate takes full enough of pop culture as to completely immerse you in time and place. Tarantino again frames sequences with alternating levels of homage, but dials back the dialogue from his usual quick-hitting crispness to measured ruminations often thick with intention.

In strokes stylish and self-indulgent, Tarantino is bidding adieu to halcyon days of both flower power innocence and the Hollywood studio machine. Here, he’s looking back on the Manson murders as a dividing line, and again wondering what might have been.

For us QT aficionados, Hollywood may feel at first like an odd, overlong duck, but its wandering nature gives you ample time to adjust. The cast shines from top to bottom, propelling an entertaining vision of humor and blood and irony and bittersweet nostalgia.

Settle in, trust the driver and enjoy the ride.

Spy Versus Spy

Allied

by Hope Madden

In turns grand and intimate, Allied blends pulp and melodrama with old Hollywood glamour.

We open on a dashing Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), landing in a North African desert where he’ll be met by a mysterious driver delivering his new identity. Vatan will join French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) in Casablanca on a mission to assassinate a Nazi official.

Director Robert Zemeckis’s vintage spy thriller begins with a bang. Stylish and gorgeous, the first act embraces an old-fashioned dazzle that suits both Pitt and Cotillard.

Problems arise – for Vatan and Beausejour, as well as the film – once the couple relocates to London. Vatan takes a desk job with the Royal Air Force while his new wife and child wait lovingly at home. But when command turns up evidence that Marianne could be a German spy, this ideal life begins to crack.

Both Cotillard and Pitt perform respectably with a script involving tensions that reach toward the ludicrous. Pitt carries himself with a weird stiffness, but his face wears joy, weariness and emotional tumult in a way that the actor has rarely managed.

Cotillard is characteristically excellent, her own demeanor turning the edge of every expression with a hint of something sour. She is effortlessly mysterious, a characteristic required for the part.

Steven Knight’s screenplay loses momentum once the couple settles into their homey London life, and for all Zemeckis’s visual wizardry, the balance of the film never recaptures the thrill of their early adventures.

Instead, we settle for several gloriously shot sequences – a love scene inside a car beset by a sandstorm, a party interrupted by an air raid. But even the tensest late-film moments feel staged, even borrowed.

Knight’s writing tends to play better with grittier, more street-savvy direction (think Eastern Promises or Dirty Pretty Things), but Zemeckis likes a big stage. The result, though often entertaining because of solid performances, is too much of a mishmash to really work.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Housing Collapse Hilarity

The Big Short

by Hope Madden

Earlier this year, Adam McKay won the Hollywood Film Awards Breakthrough Directing trophy. Adam McKay – director of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys – broke through just this year? How can that be?

If you think you know Adam McKay, you haven’t seen The Big Short.

With the help of just about every A-lister in Hollywood – including Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale – he tackles the oft addressed yet rarely entertaining topic of America’s housing collapse. What he seeks to do, in as enjoyable a way as possible, is illuminate the truth of the whole sordid mess. And as his film points out in one of its appropriate screen titles: Truth is like poetry, and most people fucking hate poetry.

McKay cross cuts the stories of four different groups of outsiders who foresaw the housing collapse, learned of the unimaginable corruption that weakened the housing market in the first place, and took advantage.

Obviously McKay is known for comedy, and though this is at its heart a drama, the director’s conspicuous outrage as well as his biting comic sensibilities fuel the film, propelling it in a way that has been lacking in any other movie on the topic.

McKay knows this is dry stuff. He addresses that fact head on, stopping periodically to help you understand key terms and ideas with cut-aways. Margot Robbie sits in a bubble bath to define a term, or Selena Gomez uses black jack as a metaphor to explain another. It’s a cheeky, clever approach, but one that rings with a healthy sense of cynicism. He’s begging: Please, you guys, this is very important stuff! Pay attention! Get pissed!

Christian Bale excels as the socially awkward Dr. Michael Burry, the hedge fund investor who first notices the weakness in the US housing market. It’s not a showy performance, but one whisper-close to comedy. Pitt’s is an understated but needed presence – the film’s conscience, more or less. Meanwhile Steve Carell and Gosling again team up nicely as a couple of driven misfits reluctantly fond of one another.

McKay makes no one a hero – including the film’s heroes – and underscores the entire effort with sympathy for the abused working class victim of the eventual, global financial collapse.

Yes, it’s tough material, and even with McKay’s bag of tricks, he can’t always keep the content both clear and lively. But he makes a valiant attempt, one that proves he is more than just a funny guy. He’s a breakthrough.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





Bourne and Chong

American Ultra

by George Wolf

Here’s the pitch: what if Brad Pitt’s Flintstones-watching stoner from True Romance was actually a highly trained government operative who can kill you with nothing but a spoon and a cup of soup?

Intrigued? Me, too.

So why can’t American Ultra fully capitalize on that promise?

Okay, its not really Floyd from True Romance – he’s baking comfortably in the stoner Hall of Fame – it’s Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) from the Cash and Carry mini-mart in Liman, West Virginia. Mike plans to propose to his live-in girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) during a romantic trip to Hawaii, but they never make it on the plane.

Mike suffers strange panic attacks anytime he’s about to leave town, but that seems like a minor problem once CIA agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) visits Mike at work and keeps repeating a strange phrase. Turns out Mike is really a sleeper agent who’s been suddenly branded a liability, and Victoria needs Mike to wake up before he’s taken out.

Writer Max Landis, much as he did with Chronicle, pieces together a winning premise from parts of differing genres. We think we know what to expect from weed-soaked characters, but breaking out the MacGyver shit to bust open some heads is not on the list. Throw in plenty of spy game skullduggery, and there’s ample opportunity for black comedy that the film only partially explores.

Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) seems equally caught in a pattern of two steps up and one back. He unleashes stylish, well-paced bursts of action, followed by slow-moving exposition and then back again, sometimes punctuated by isolated bits of sharp comedy just looking for a home.

On paper, Eisenberg seems miscast, but he’s able to make both extremes of Mike’s character blend surprisingly well. Stewart continues her recent winning streak in the film’s early going, excelling as Mike’s sweetly sympathetic love. Once Phoebe’s true motives come to light, though, it’s back to the well worn K-Stew pained expression once too often.

A little too slow to be action packed, a bit too nasty to be fun-filled, American Ultra seems held back in a familiar haze. It’s got plenty of good ideas, but just when they really start to gel, it decides to just watch some cartoons instead.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

 

 





Mr. Furyous

 

Fury

by George Wolf

“See that? That’s an entire city on fire.”

It is World War II, and grizzled combat vet Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is teaching scared rookie Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) about the horrors of battle.

Fury is hardly the first movie to use a naive soldier as an extension of the audience, and that metaphor is just one of the familiar devices the film leans on to craft a competent, if not exactly groundbreaking, drama of war.

Collier leads a 5-man Sherman Tank crew which also includes “Bible” (Shia LeBeouf),  “Gordo” (Michael Pena) and “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal). Deep inside Germany, their combat prowess earns the team a mission with mighty long odds. On their own, they must cut off an entire Nazi regiment before it reaches a defenseless Allied supply station.

Writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch) presents powerful battle scenes, frequently gripping and bursting with ugly brutality. Less successful are Ayers’s attempts at the humanity the story needs to cut deeper.

The confines of the tank are a good start, as we feel a bond with the five men simply from the claustrophobic closeups. But as the combat scenes stack up, the character development is reduced to quick sketches we’ve seen before.

The scripture-quoting marksman (Saving Private Ryan), the greenhorn not meant for the battlefield (Full Metal Jacket) and the facially scarred taskmaster (Platoon) are all here, instantly familiar and throwing roadblocks into Fury‘s attempt to reach higher ground.

Pitt is fantastic in the lead, with solid support from all his co-stars. Lerman’s effective naïveté, when thrown beside four eager members of an actual killing machine, creates a stark moral ambiguity that lingers, even if Norman’s transformation from “boy to man” is a bit lacking in subtlety.

Same goes for turning “Wardaddy” into a mythic G.I. Superjoe. Pitt has the chops that could have delivered on the chance to peek inside his character’s psyche, but it doesn’t come.

Instead, though the film’s final standoff definitely delivers the tension, Fury can’t go out in the blaze of glory it aimed for.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 





For Your Queue: Z-28-Hit-Play..Hut-Hut!

 

The zombie thriller directed by Marc Forster (who’d directed no thrillers, let alone zombies) that has almost nothing to do with Max Brooks’s fascinating novel World War Z? Surprisingly enough, yes. Yes please, even. Brad Pitt’s scarf-wearing hero traipses the mostly demolished globe in search of a cure in a movie that never lets up, consistently surprises, and delivers the goods. Check it out this week on DVD.

 

Maybe the zombie movie match-up is Danny Boyle’s not-really-zombie flick 28 Days Later. Sure, they’re not dead yet, but they are super pissed off and they want to eat you, so run! Just don’t run to that military outpost. Boyle’s empty London, brutal monsters, and epically creepy climax makes his foray into horror an especially joyous one. Two great ways to get prepped for the coming Halloween season.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eunaclr-WgU

Or, just watch Fight Club. You can’t go wrong there.





Heady Business for Your Queue

Out this week on DVD and Blu Ray is the surprisingly watchable Cloud Atlas – a challenging yet accessible sci-fi fantasy. Nesting six stories inside each other, Atlas connects human souls over generations, from a 19th Century shipwrecked notary to a clone awaiting execution in a dystopian future and onward. The large cast is anchored by solid performances from Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and Jim Sturgess, all playing multiple roles as settings quickly move across time and space.

Viewed individually, some of the segments do struggle to keep silliness at bay, making the nearly three hour running time feel a bit bloated. As a whole, though, Cloud Atlas is ambitious, often visually stunning, and constantly fascinating.

For an even stronger existential dream across time and space, check out Terrence Malick’s glorious 2011 effort, The Tree of Life. As gorgeous a film as you’ll find, Malick’s rumination on innocence lost boasts magnificent performances from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. It’s a masterpiece of a film, as big an effort as anything Malick or any other director has tackled. Talk about ambitious!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXRYA1dxP_0