Ad Astra

Ad Astra

By: Kevin Jordan

Latin for “Dad is a dick.”

Every year, I have the same three movie wishes. One, that there is one really good movie that comes out of nowhere. Two, that there is one good science fiction film. Not fluffy sci-fi like Star Wars (though I do want more Star Wars), but good sci-fi like Moon or The Martian. Three, that Warner Brothers figures out how to make a DCEU movie that isn’t a complete embarrassment. Yes, Wonder Woman was a decent film, but that is only because someone from the MCU snuck onto the film set and reshot the second act while Zach Snyder was passed out after shooting a slo-mo scene seventy-four times.

So far, Us is the front runner for number one, though it is a little harder to credit it as coming from nowhere since, after Get Out, Jordan Peele is no longer just that guy from MadTV or Keegan-Michael Key’s pal. There is still plenty of time left this year for a surprise hit, so I am not giving it to Us yet. We are in no danger of wish number three happening, as evidenced by the disgrace that was Aquaman last year and whatever the fuck Shazaam! was. That leaves number two, which has not been met since Arrival in 2016. Is Ad Astra that movie I’ve been waiting three years for? The previews sure make it seem like it. But, then, why is it being released in the bedpan of the movie calendar that is mid-September? I repeat, why is a Brad Pitt-helmed, $80 million, sci-fi, action film debuting when every NFL team is still mathematically in the playoff hunt (even Cleveland)?

Sci-Fi!

(SPOILER ALERT. In order to figure out this strange release date, we need to talk about details and the ending.)

According to the opening credits, it is the near future and humanity is looking to the stars (ad astra means “to the stars”) to escape the problems that humanity has created on Earth. Cut to Roy McBride (Pitt), an astronaut whose father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), led a mission to the edge of the solar system to search for signs of extra-terrestrial life. How that solves any of humanity’s ingrained selfishness, greed, and self-destructiveness is a question you will just have to live with no answer to. Somewhere around Neptune, Clifford’s mission lost communications and all crew were presumed dead. Eight years later, Roy is better known as the son of the great Clifford, working in low-Earth orbit on the International Space Antenna as an antenna maintenance man. That is not a joke. That is Roy’s literal job.

One day, a bunch of power surges occur across the globe, causing explosions, death, and destruction, including on Roy’s orbiting worksite. Roy survives the ensuing fall from space and is approached by the military to help stop the surges. As it turns out, Roy is a Major in space command. As it also turns out, Roy appears to have no emotions whatsoever, a heartrate that never increases (as noted by the Generals who need his help), and that the surges are being cause by cosmic rays emanating from the last known location of Clifford’s ship. Whoa, whoa, whoa – that was a lot of information. Neptune? Space command? International Space Antenna? Cosmic rays? As far as being real sci-fi, the geek inside me just had an orgasm.

Want to see my scared face? Or surprised face? Or…

After being told that the cosmic rays are eventually going to destroy the Earth, or at least destroy everything on Earth while killing everyone, Roy agrees to join the mission to stop the surges. Now, their plan is going to sound really complicated, so bear with me – Roy has to call his dad and ask him to stop. No really; that is the plan. It sounds easy, but did you already forget that the International Space Antenna was destroyed? The movie never explains what the antenna is for, but what else if not for really long distance calls? Then again, maybe the future requires a one-hundred-mile-high antenna to handle everyone on Earth streaming 1,024K movies over their 17G LTEEE network.

This being the near future, there are other calling options. The moon is well-colonized and there are outposts on Mars. Roy has to travel undercover on a commercial rocket to the moon, travel by moon-buggy to a secret military base on the dark side of the moon, hop another rocket to a secret military base on Mars, where humanity’s most expensive phone booth is waiting for him to dial-up dad. At this point, the geek inside me is wondering if he hit his head really hard during his orgasm.

This seems unnecessarily complex.

For the sake of argument, let’s just accept the premise that, in the near future, Mars is the only place that can call Neptune. Much of the film’s running time is spent on Roy’s journey to Mars, which includes moon pirates and space monkeys. You read that right. He and his liaison (Donald Sutherland) are chased and nearly killed by moon pirates on their way to the secret base. Then, en route to Mars, his ship stops to check out an SOS coming from a research lab in the middle of space (in the middle of SPACE?!), where insane, starving monkeys have killed everyone on the station and attack Roy and his ship’s captain when they investigate. Do these side plots have anything to do with the main plot of the film? Nope. Are they random plot devices thrown in because a test audience fell asleep in the original version of the film? Almost certainly.

After finally making it to Mars, Roy makes the call – over and over and over. At some indeterminate time later, they get a response (another thing that the movie doesn’t bother to explain or let us hear), and Roy is told he can longer participate in the mission because he is emotionally compromised (the call that finally elicits a response was due to Roy diverging from the scripted message he was sending to dad). Roy isn’t having it, so he secretly boards the rocket that is destined to Neptune to destroy Clifford’s ship, because, again, cosmic rays.

E.T. phone home. Just kidding, guys.

Skip ahead to the confrontation with dad, who has been alone on the ship for thirty years and I have completely lost track of any semblance of a timeline in tis film. Clifford informs Roy that he never cared about Roy or Roy’s mother, Clifford’s wife. All Clifford cared about was proving there was life outside of Earth, which kind of makes you wonder why Clifford would have a wife and a kid at all? Despite that, Roy tries to save dad, telling Clifford that he loves him anyway and that they should stop looking for what isn’t there and enjoy what is there. At this point, the geek inside me set his Boba Fet action figure on fire.

As I sat there while the end credits rolled, I tried to understand what the message or point was the movie was trying to make. Don’t be like your parents because they are assholes? Appreciate the things that are right in front of you? Work isn’t everything? That a civilization that invented anti-matter propulsion drives, colonized the moon and mars, and built a one-hundred-mile-high antenna still has trouble getting five bars on a phone call? Beats me. The only thing I did understand was that a film with psychotic space monkeys, lunar laser-gun shootouts, lunar car chases, and nuclear explosions was still boring enough for me to nod off a couple times because all of that peripheral stuff was more interesting than the main story. At this point, the geek in me understands a September 20th release.

Rating: Ask for seven dollars back. This is not the sci-fi movie you are looking for.

Allied

By: Kevin Jordan

Two movies in one.

allied_poster

Sometimes, the toughest question to answer about a movie is “what’s it about?”  Trailers almost always lie or mislead you if the movie is more complicated than transforming robots fight with each other.  That’s why when people try to guess what a movie is about based on trailers, they always start with “It looks like…”  Allied is a great example of this.  Prior to seeing the movie, if you had asked me what it was about I would have said it looks like a World War II spy movie with Brad Pitt.  That doesn’t really tell you what the movie is about, just its premise.  Google “allied movie synopsis” and this is the first thing you get:

“During World War II, intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is stationed in North Africa where he encounters French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) on a deadly mission behind enemy lines.  Reunited in London, their relationship is threatened by the extreme pressures of the war.”

Right away, you can see that the trailers are leaving out a ton of information, including that this movie is really two small movies lashed together.  And, of course the trailers are made this way – they don’t want men to know that the second half of this movie is about relationships.  It’s a war movie – keep your Nicholas Sparks out of it, thank you very much.

This is what you came for men.

This is what you came for men.

However, that synopsis is misleading as well.  They don’t tell you what the actual plot of the second half of the movie is about because they wrongly think that would be a spoiler.  I’ll get to that in a minute, but the important thing you need to know about this movie is that you’re getting two movies for the price of one.

(I will have some SPOILERS that are actual SPOILERS, but nothing major.)

Allied is about two spies and their time together.  The first half of the movie covers how they meet and the mission they undertake together – an assassination attempt of a high ranking Nazi official in Casablanca.  Right away, you should be thinking about the movie Casablanca and that there are probably all kinds of parallels and homages to it by Allied.  If you spot them, let me know, because I barely remember Casablanca.

A lot of time is spent getting to know Max and Marianne and this first hour has to sell you on their chemistry together in order to set up the second half.  Unfortunately, it’s less than convincing, basically boiling down to them having sex in a car during a haboob (I know I could have said sandstorm, but come on…Sex scene.  Haboob.  Heh.  I’m basically a man-sized child).  Once the mission is over, he proposes marriage to her and the movie just cuts to “London.  Three weeks later.”  Because of what I knew from the trailers, my first thought was “wait – what’s this movie about then?”  It’s also very jarring because when the mission is over, the mission becomes a plot device for the second half.  If you wanted to leave the theater at this point because you thought the movie was done, I wouldn’t blame you.  But, then you’d miss out on a rather good second-half matinee.

Wanna see my haboob?

Wanna see my haboob?

The second part of the movie stays a spy movie, but Max gets a new mission.  A year after Casablanca, Max’s boss, Frank Heslop (Jared Harris), summons him to the base and he’s informed by V-section (think CIA) that they suspect Marianne of being a German spy.  They set up a trap for her to prove it and order Max to do nothing different.  Naturally, Max ignores this order and investigates on his own to discover the truth before the trap is sprung.  This half of the movie is much more dramatic than the first half.  It also tells you that the last sentence of the synopsis I quoted you is a flat out lie.  Their relationship isn’t threated by the extreme pressures of war, it’s threatened by her possibly being a German spy married to an Allied spy.  Don’t worry – I liked this movie so I won’t tell you if she is or isn’t.

I guess this is one way to do it.

I guess this is one way to do it.

What I will tell you is that Cotillard makes this movie worth watching.  For starters, she is a Frenchwoman in real life, but looks like she was lifted straight from the 1940s era.  The make-up person responsible for her in this film had the easiest job in Hollywood during Allied’s filming.  She also does duplicitous better than anyone.  Think about her biggest roles.  Mal in Inception and Miranda Tate/the-other-villain in The Dark Knight Rises.  Again, I’m not saying she is a German spy in Allied, but you won’t be able to guess.  She’s that good.  At this point, she probably has the same reaction as Ron Perlman does when they get a script.  He knows who he is when the script says “deranged freak walks in” and she knows that she’s getting the character “who isn’t who she seems.”  When Robert Zemeckis was casting for her role, do you think he even bothered auditioning anyone else?

I mean, look at her.

I mean, look at her.

While I did like this film and recommend people give it a view, I think it would have been much better if they’d woven the two stories together.  That would have allowed them to do a better job building the chemistry and relationship between the two and also would have allowed them to stage the reveals better rather than just having a mysterious V-section guy just tell us everything in an interrogation room.  The flow of the movie would have been much better instead of the intermission we ended up with.  But we at least got a decent movie and a good movie without having to pay twice.  That’s far better than one dull Nicholas Sparks flick.  Am I right, men?

Rating: Ask for two dollars back for the first half and fifty cents back for the second half.

Fury

By: Kevin Jordan

What war really looks like.

FURY - Final Poster Art

A couple of weeks ago, thousands of high school students in Jefferson County, Colorado (part of the Denver metro area) walked out of school in protest of a proposed change in the curriculum of the AP History course.  If you haven’t heard about this event, here is a direct quote from a Washington Post article published on October 5th covering the issue:

The school board plans to set up a new committee to review the curriculum with the goal of assuring that courses — in the words of board member Julie Williams — “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” and “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.”  Williams also wrote that “materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder [or] social strife.”

Hopefully, you had the same reaction after reading that proposition that I did – rage and disbelief followed by wanting to mail those ignorant school board members copies of George Orwell’s 1984 followed by a flaming bag of dog poop.  I don’t bring this up to turn this into a political diatribe, but because the movie Fury is a perfect example of what those kids are protesting for.

As I get older and learn more things about history, I think back on my American history classes through elementary, middle, and high school and realize how truly whitewashed they really were.  My wife put it perfectly – they are a clinical version or history (my adjective was sanitized), basically just teaching us that things happened on certain dates involving certain people without including much context, if any at all.  Fury is a lesson that none of us were ever taught – unless you were lucky enough to have a teacher who actually cared about teaching history – that war is worse than you can possibly imagine, especially World War II.

If you are an American (like me), you came out of high school with the impression that World War II was a glorious struggle and victory by the Allied forces, led by the Americans who stopped the evil Nazis and Japanese, passed out candy bars and flags after liberating cities, and were on our absolute best behavior during the entire war.  It’s that last part that those school board members want emphasized even though it’s complete horseshit because they refuse to believe that war affects Americans the same as it affects everyone else.  These people will either never watch Fury or they will accuse it of being some kind of anti-American/communist propaganda even though it also depicts those positive aspects they are so desperate to convey.

Fury takes place in April 1945 and focuses on a single American tank crew fighting in Germany.  The crew is made up of Staff Sergeant Collier (Brad Pitt) – the crew commander, Technician Swan (Shia LeBeouf) – the main gunner, Corporal Garcia (Michael Pena) – the driver, PFC Travis (Jon Bernthal) – the loader and mechanic, and Private Ellison (Logan Lerman) – the assistant driver/machine gunner/new kid.  There is no lofty plot or mission or goal – for instance, like saving Private Ryan – it’s just the story of these five guys and what war does to them and everyone else.  Like the better war movies, Fury doesn’t shy away from showing the horrific things that happen during and after the fighting, but ups the ante by showing some of the things that American soldiers most likely did that we don’t like to think about or admit.  It shows what happens (mentally) to men whose whole purpose for three solid years was to kill the enemy while riding around in a giant steel cannon on treads.  To believe that our soldiers were somehow immune to the psychological toll that purpose would inflict is a fantasy deserving of the nuthouse.

While Brad Pitt is billed as the lead, the movie is just as much about Private Ellison.  As Ellison informs his new crewmates after failing to kill a German, he wasn’t trained for tank combat, he was trained to type 60 words a minute.  It was just Ellison’s bad luck that Sergeant Collier needed a replacement crewmember and Ellison was available.  As the movie goes on, Ellison initially represents that ideal of American innocence and only killing when absolutely required, but eventually becomes the killing machine his country requires him to be.  By contrast, the other crewmembers, sans Collier, are exactly the opposite – killing machines likened to animals (at one point, literally).  Collier is the balance between the two and even verbalizes the lessons of war, just in case you were still in denial about the realities of war.  Sometimes, he is the hard-nosed commander, pushing his men beyond their limits to fulfill their mission, forcing them to kill the enemy even if the enemy has surrendered.  Other times, he is the voice of reason, protecting German women from drunken soldiers looking to celebrate their victory (you don’t think millions of soldiers all contracted syphilis consensually, do you?).  He is also the guy that his men will follow anywhere and Ellison must learn why as the film marches on.

As a student of history, I highly recommend seeing this movie if you are interested in getting a peak at what really happens at the worst moments of human history.  The acting is great and the visuals are stunning (in ways both good and terrifying).  If you have a weak stomach or want to remain under the delusion that World War II (and other wars) were romantic and adventurous, you should probably steer clear of this film and keep to such films as Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  And, if you still don’t quite believe me on what this film’s message is, I’ll leave with you two quotes from Collier:

“Ideology is peaceful.  History is violent.”

“This war is going to be over soon, but a lot more people gotta die first.”

That’s the way history should be taught.

Rating: Don’t ask for any of your money back from the theater, but do ask for some of your tax dollars back for teaching you nothing.