Review: Ad Astra (2019)

A Rocketship
Ad Astra, (To the Stars), is a space epic that often features Brad Pitt’s face. Unfortunately, he isn’t asked to smile much.

Two ongoing motifs are remarks about the exceptionally low heart rate of Pitt’s character and agency-required monologue psychological evaluations. Roy McBride’s remarks are used as a cue to the audience into his mental state. After all, there is little dialog to allow his character to be built up more naturally. No other character is important enough for that.

Central to the story is a classified “Lima” project. Despite the secrecy surrounding it, many people that McBride meets have more information for him. The project was led by Roy McBride’s missing father, the hero H. Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones. This connection provides an evolving emotional impetus for the story.

Ad Astra has a dystopian projection of how terrestrial nations deal with the resources of space. On the moon, each nation has staked out a claim that leaves a dangerous no-mans-land between their territories. Space travel has become a commercial venture, but SpaceCom seems to consider it secondary to their secret intrigues.

Since it’s a Hollywood movie, I didn’t expect the science to be very hard or precise, so I was willing to suspend disbelief for a lot. Yet, one horribly weak plot point struck me. Landing on the near side of the moon and driving to a base on the far side is hard to defend. However, the situation gave some action to a story that is heavy on cerebral pursuits. (See the psychological evaluations.)

The story is straightforward to describe. It’s hard to say much about the story without dropping spoilers. With a few nodes of action with slower stretches between them, the story would need expansion to make a novel.

I’m glad I saw the film on IMAX so that I could feast my eyes on the beautiful set development. I really appreciated the sonic environment that the movie possesses as well.

Review: Blinded by the Light (2019)

A reel of movie film
In Blinded by the Light, the first advice of dad for his son’s entry to a new school is “Stay away from the girls.” Javed, played by Viveik Karla, is a teenager in Luton, Great Britain whose parents emigrated from Pakistan. He longs to escape the nowhere town and hopes college will lead to a career as a writer. He has been an avid writer with years of journals lined up in his room. School can become his road to escape.

Javed’s longtime friend, Matt, played by Dean-Charles Chapman, is a musician whom Javed helps by writing lyrics. Matt’s frustrated with the political stock of Javed’s songs: they’re not performable. He still holds out hope for Javed’s lyrics getting better.

Javed’s father, played by Kulvinder Ghir, is an immigrant from Pakistan. He is the center of the household and manages the household’s money. The traditional role of the father is a struggle for Javed’s father when circumstances change. Unlike in Fiddler on the Roof, the family is not torn apart by events beyond their control. However, events beyond their control such as the recession under Margaret Thatcher still make them stretch and evolve.

Javed meets Roops at school. Roops, played by Aaron Phagura, gives Javed some Bruce Springsteen cassettes. The songs revolutionize Javed’s attitude and fill him with power. He feels that the music speaks directly to him. Springsteen puts words to his feelings and cinematically, the words are visually swirling around Javed as he listens.

Central to the progression of Javed as a writer is his teacher Ms. Clay, played by Hayley Atwell. She scolds him for not sharing with the world the raw emotion in his writing when he discards his poems. He follows her inspiration and writes in the school paper and then a local newspaper. Javed’s cultural background and knowledge of Urdu allow him to write a powerful story about the community’s mosque.

While the movie isn’t exactly a musical, music has a central place to the story. The movie is full of the angst and joy of youth. Javed and Roops go to New Jersey after he wins a writing contest. During the trip, the friends make a pilgrimage to visit Bruce Springsteen’s hometown sites.

One of the struggles that Javed’s family faces is the hostility of some people in their community toward Pakistani immigrants. Javed’s family faces those indignities with grace and do not become bitter when life becomes more difficult.

Blinded by the Light is an melange of conflicting cultures. The Pakistani community, the people hostile to them, students at the high school, and Javed’s friends all mix together into a scene of hope that is inspired by Bruce.

Impression: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Thought bubble
The local AMC theater has been playing old movies for a few weekend showings. They have a couple different classics each week. That’s how I saw the original How to Train Your Dragon.

This afternoon I went to see the 1991 Disney Beauty and the Beast. They had it on twice today and the 2PM showing fit my schedule. I was the only one in the theater.

I don’t understand the economics of a movie theater. Much of their cash flow comes from concessions. They probably get money for the trailers that the show. They also have revenue from advertisers. Tickets haven’t been a substantial source of income for the movies I go to. Usually there are four or fewer in the audience. Is the fee for advertising prorated for the size of the audience?

In first run movies, the tickets are a big deal. Perhaps they just need to keep the doors open. It lets them make a net profit with the help of big movies while keeping the venue relevant by having a big selection that only few people watch. I usually go in the afternoon. That might give me a distorted perspective on how many are in an evening audience.

Perhaps the older movies are playing on behalf of Disney. It could be market research for their streaming service? Is there a corporate connection between AMC and Disney?

So, Beauty and the Beast was an ok movie. There were several songs. None of them stuck with me after the show. All of the characters were really rough caricatures and I couldn’t really identify with any of them. Of course, here’s not a lot of character development you can do in 84 minutes. I didn’t notice “adult” content that was meant to go over the heads of kids but be meaningful to adults (unless it went over my head too).

With 1991 being the release year, they could use technology to do some of the animation. I don’t think they did much. In the intro, you could see layers move as the perspective shifted on the trees; a good hint that it is cel animation. The characters were drawn primarily with cel techniques. A group of four or five animators were responsible for each character.

There was one place where you could see that they had help from computers. During the dance scene with Belle and the Beast, the stars, windows and chandelier were too complex to do as traditional cel animation. It was most obvious with the changing perspective as the camera went past the chandelier. I think the computer give the animators a starting point.

I noticed that this had a similar structure to the Aladdin that starred Robin Williams. The villain has a sidekick who is loud and obnoxious and is only played for comic relief. The sidekicks are throw away (and annoying) characters. There’s probably other tropesthat both films use.

It was a nice film for the AMCs A-List membership so that my only expense was the travel.

Review: Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019)

Globe
Dora Explorer Márquez is a precocious girl who loves the jungle. Madelyn Miranda plays young Dora. She and her professor parents, Cole (Michael Peña) and Elena (Eva Longoria) are explorers. They encourage her inquisitiveness and enthusiasm. When Dora is six, her older cousin Diego (Malachi Barton) moves to the city with his parents which saddens Dora.

Dora’s parents have been trying to find Parapata, The Lost City of Gold. Once the parents find enough clues to locate the mysterious city, they emphasize that they are not treasure hunters. They are only in pursuit of knowledge to find the city. Despite Dora’s protests, her parents do not bring her with them in their search. They send her (now older and played by Isabela Moner) to the big city to live with her high school age cousin Diego (now played by Jeff Wahlberg).

At the high school, Dora’s unlimited positivity is scorned by stereotypical high school students. She knows more than the other students. She especially annoys the stuffy Sammy (played by Madeleine Madden). On her first day, Dora also meets the awkward Randy (played by Nicholas Coombe).

On a school field trip to the natural history museum, those four teenagers reluctantly form a team for the class treasure hunt at the museum. A staff member lets the team into a restricted basement to see ancient Egyptian relics. That was not the best move because treasure hunters who are on the trail of Parapata kidnap the four. They hope the kids will find Dora’s parents and unwittingly help them find their bounty.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark-style, they must escape dangerous traps beforeo they find the treasure. Randy names these challenges “Jungle Puzzles” that he is familiar with from computer games. The obstacles require the four to develop bonds of friendship and trust to succeed in the quest.

The film is filled with lots of lighthearted humor. Even the villains are more humorous and bumbling than scary. Dora’s pet monkey Boots adds more humor to the film with his playful resourcefulness. The film has its moments of suspense but Dora and her friends handle them with grace.

Dora is a really enthusiastic and positive person. The hidden gold is the attraction for villains while Dora, her friends and parents do not want the wealth. After returning from their adventure, Dora and her companions have a new freedom. Their negative classmates can’t reduce their enthusiasm. Dora has the opportunity to do more exploration with her parents. However, Dora decides to leave the rain forest so that she may study the “indigenous people” of her new high school.

Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019)

A red race car
Just one more lap. The racer and his Golden Retriever, Enzo, are best friends in The Art of Racing in the Rain. Kevin Costner voices Enzo, who is philosophical and narrates the film. Milo Ventimiglia plays Denny Swift, the racer who has a rough ride. He is a bold and talented driver hoping to join a winning Formula One racing team.

Denny has some steadfast friends who stay with him as he moves through life. They are looking forward to more and more success. Denny has many maxims shared by Enzo such as “a race is never won in the first corner.” Enzo regrets his floppy tongue that prevents him from speaking his wisdom. Despite his silence, he speaks loudly at a crucial moment in the story’s development, eating Denny’s “homework.”

Enzo helps Denny meet Eve when Enzo approaches her enthusiastically. Despite the couple’s love, Eve’s wealthy parents fear for their daughter. They are worried about the danger, travel and unavailability that come with the racing profession.

As I planned to go to the movie, I was apprehensive because I imagined a story with suspense and long race scenes. It turns out that I didn’t see Denny racing as much as I expected. Some racing footage was taken from within Denny’s car and he watched those films to help improve his racing performance. Denny seemed to teach younger drivers as much as he was racing himself. There were many emotional beats through the movie, but not the ones I expected.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is constructed with Denny facing life’s emotional challenges with grace. There’s an undercurrent of conflict between Eve’s parents and Denny. Eve’s parents selfishly think they know what’s best for their granddaughter Zoe. In the middle of the film, there is some plodding storytelling. I realize that after Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel, I need to recalibrate my expectations of action to a more earthly plane.

Enzo has tried to learn as much as he can about the art of being human. He is confident that he will return as a human in his next life. Denny’s career is not as glorious as he had hoped, but he keeps showing that he can excel when faced with challenges.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is not a high-speed race. It doesn’t apologize for making the audience to feel sad, but it is not depressing nor a lofty fantasy. The movie doesn’t need to take another lap because it shows what can happen in life after the first corner.

Review: How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

a film reelAs the animated How to Train Your Dragon opens, you enter the colorful world of the Vikings living in their seaside village for generations. Surprisingly, all of the buildings are new. As the story unfolds, you learn why. The Vikings, their village and livestock often get attacked by dragon hordes that carry away the animals. Dragons, being known for breathing fire, set the village alight during their attacks.

Everyone in the village is devoted to their life by the sea and hunting dragons. However, it’s not long before you meet a youth who doesn’t fit in. Hiccup wants to help in the battles, but his temperament and physique aren’t tailored to the rough Viking life. Although he is an assistant to a blacksmith, he’s barely able to pick up the swords and axes they make. He is notorious for misguided inventions. Despite his reputation, in the opening battle, his catapult throws a net that catches a Night Fury.

Night Furies are rare and terrible dragons so mysterious that the books of dragon lore don’t describe them. When Hiccup finds the Night Fury that his net caught, he wields a knife to kill it. Then Hiccup berates himself when he dropped the knife and couldn’t kill the dragon—it was just as frightened as himself. He became even more demoralized and lost hope that he could ever become a real Viking. He was also confident that he couldn’t handle the shame if other villagers knew he couldn’t kill a dragon, so he kept his charge secret.

Soon, Hiccup was pushed to join the other teenagers in dragon hunter training. At first, he struggles to avoid getting burned during the challenges. He also gets in the way of the his classmates. However, the Night Fury teaches Hiccup many things that no Viking ever knew about dragons.

Hiccup’s life changed. With his inventiveness, he gets to experience the freedom of flying through the sky riding the dragon he befriended. The movie shows exhilarating flights through the clouds and exotic cliffs. During one of their flights, Hiccup and the Night Fury find a truly terrifying dragon. That dragon is destined to be the target of the Vikings’ biggest hunt.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) is a humorous fantasy that offers a story that will be appreciated by an older audience. The Viking that is different and ostracized by the others finds that he can be useful and valued for his differences.

Review: The Dark Tower (2017)

A movie reel
In the center of the universe stands a dark tower that protects the universe from chaos and destruction. Although we see the tower only briefly, the film The Dark Tower from 2017 shows repeated attacks that threaten the worlds that it protects. Earthquakes and mysterious lights in the sky are becoming more frequent in New York and other cities.

The Man in Black is orchestrating these attacks, trying to use the minds of children which he believes could destroy the tower and unleash devastation and death. The movie begins with a horror sequence showing an attack. We see the tower assaulted by an energy beam, but the tower is sturdy. Jake is woken from a troubled dream by the ensuing earthquake.

The characters of the movie, the Man in Black, played by Matthew McConaughey, the Gunslinger, played by Idris Elba, and Jake, played by Tom Taylor, battle over the tower. To connect the different sites of the story, door-like portals allow travel between worlds.

When the movie opens, children are in a playground until a klaxon sounds and alarms on a few children’s wrists activate. The kids walk robot-like into a dark building with a conical roof. Soon, the reason for their alarm becomes clear.

As the movie progresses, the Gunslinger’s prowess with a six-shooter becomes more and more amazing. For his part, the Man in Black can control other people with a whisper. For example, he can tell someone to stop breathing or probe their memories to help find Jake. Early in the film, Jake escapes from the Man in Black’s agents who are identified by a seam in the fake skin covering their face.

The movie struggles to balance the horror genre, westerns and fantasy. The three aspects dance around each other, starting the movie in horror and ending with a fantasy western style. As the story unfolds, we see more and more of the Man in Black’s powerful skills. The Gunslinger is empowered by the Gunslinger’s Creed that forms the foundation of his talents. As the film progresses, Jake discovers his own power, his shine.

At his mother and stepfather’s home, Jake is tormented by vivid dreams. He has been compulsively drawing scenes from the dreams because they are too real to be a dream. His family blames the visions and psychological distress from the death of Jake’s father. However, when Jake meets the Gunslinger, he learns that his dreams have been real.

Sometimes when I see a movie trailer, I’m not interested in learning more. This movie is an exception to that pattern. In the trailer, I saw a scene of an attack on the tower. I was hoping for more appearances of the tower, but those scenes are precious and kept brief and infrequent. Perhaps the attacks on the tower would seem repetitive and lose their horror if they were over-done.

As a film, The Dark Tower is successful and meeting its promise of a battle between good and evil. Evil seems to have the upper hand throughout the movie because of the Man in Black’s extraordinary skills. He can catch bullets and kill people with a phrase. The Gunslinger is tentative in his abilities, but Jake inspires him to continue fighting.