Novelty: Ad Astra (2019)

by Banned Library in


Ad Astra reaches for the stars and, man, I guess it's pretty at least

You ever date someone so into their image that they have nothing else to fill their time? Every thought and action is how others perceive them while they lack any substance? Ad Astra is the story of a man sent to find his father because the old man abandoned everyone and may pose imminent danger to the earth. It's full of daddy issues and overdone themes that are square on the surface with little going on underneath. Despite deep story problems, however, the look, sound, and acting are all top notch. I saw this movie on one of those faux IMAX screens with decent speakers, and it's gorgeous. Director James Gray and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema create an empty atmosphere of space that's both giant and all encompassing, yet intimate with closeups that detail every motion of the actors's faces. The sound design amazed me as it skipped between score and effects, blending the silence with tonal melodies that almost did the work of sound in the emptiness of space. Everyone moving through the story does their best, with Brad Pitt standing out for the minimalism required of his character. While I want to tell people to see this movie, in the end I can't. It's beautiful but fleeting with little to think over but the myriad of plot holes and science inaccuracies careening through a tired B-movie level story.

Here are my notes with some thoughts, beware spoilers.

Near future

We start with text saying it's the near future, which is fine if a little lazy and condescending to the audience. Show us some crazy clear tablets and then I don't have to wonder how near into the future when people start talking about being born on Mars.

Good IMAX

I can't go on enough how gorgeous this movie is. Confession time: I have a problem with heights. Gravity and the Man on Wire remake trailer for The Walk almost made me vomit as they gave slow spins atop dizzying heights. Here, though, I get enough to marvel at the space elevator thing while also seeing its relationship to the earth. I don't feel like I'm going to fall with Brad Pitt when the shit from the trailer starts happening, but I do feel that I'm afraid when he does for him. That's great visual storytelling.

Pitt's getting older

It's tough to see your heroes edging along the timeline, getting lines that your parents have and then seeing in the mirror the beginnings of those lines. Pitt is going forward gracefully and using all those crows feet and laugh lines to accentuate nuanced performances like this.

Space Cowboys 2

I kinda wanted Donald Sutherland to make it to Tommy Lee Jones. I've never seen Space Cowboys, but I wanted to see what happened to that aged Sutherland face in zero gravity. I'm a monster.

Virgin Flight

Here comes the speculation without any introspection. Flights to the moon are handled by our current airlines, but the moon is an outlaw wasteland. There's places on this earth Delta won't fly because they are lawless craters, but sure, the moon is on the tourist list.

Stage rocket as good as it gets

So we have been traveling to the moon regularly enough to set up airlines and airports, but the technology to fly up there is still the same three stage rocket and landing pod? Seems super wasteful. Even Superman Returns speculated an alternate space flight idea. I'm nitpicking, but there's some crazy hand wavy fantasy science coming that begs how much the writer thought about this.

Moon - Space Gatlinburg

For all the silliness of space pirates on the moon, I kinda like the idea that there's safe parts and then parts maybe you should not go. It's like going to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. You can eat at a Dukes of Hazard themed restaurant, go to Ripley's Believe It or Not, and take pictures with stuffed bears. But you get out of the Smoky Mountains park and happen upon the wrong house after making a wrong turn in those hills, I speak from experience when I say they don't like strangers. They shotgun don't like strangers.

Music as SFX

As the fight across the moon happens, I was struck by two things: 1) why aren't these moon rovers armored? and 2) OMG the music is amazing. Sticking to the lack of sound in space, the score punctuates perfectly the sound effects we would be hearing as the rovers crash and people shoot. It's simple and hidden and beautifully done, if generally silly if any thought goes into the overall scenario.

Must take mood stabilizers

Pitt's making his way to Mars from the moon, so they give the crew mood stabilizers to pass their psych evaluations on the long journey. Pitt's character Roy is a stoic, so he pockets his. In any other movie, this would be a buried gun so that later, when he freaks out, he can pull out this little pill. Does he? No. The pill never comes back. Why include the scene if it's meaningless later on or redundant showing he has a cooler head than them? If this wasn't the only buried gun that never comes back, I could overlook it, but this film doesn't so much as subvert my storytelling expectations as shake a stick at them, chanting "Oh, does baby think he knows what's gonna happen?" It feels almost as condescending as the early text on screen.

Mayday space sleep

En route to Mars, the crew have to stop at a ship calling out for mayday. More gorgeous spots of space, a slow build as they board the seemingly empty ship, and my eyes drifted. I see a lot of late night movies after work, but I rushed to make the evening showing. I was not tired. At one of the most suspenseful scenes as the tension is high, just before what I'm gonna call the most WTF moment I've had in the theater this year, I was almost asleep. That's a good overall feel of this movie. I mean, you're told this is a Norwegian research station. This is what previously woke me up, I think, hoping that this movie suddenly turned into John Carpenter's The Thing. And it kinda does for a hot second.

All authority dies

Holy shit the monkeys. Great apes. Whatever. Baboons coming out of nowhere to eat off the Captain's face. If you track this movie, all authority over Roy dies in one way or another. Shot, monkey attack, left behind, and dumped in space. There's a message that's either too subtle or just not enough for me to decide what that is.

Bits of religion

I do take some comfort that we see astronauts with some kind of faith. As an agnostic, I don't really give a shit, but it is nice to see that some humanity exists. People give last rites, they say prayer over St Christopher medals, and they act as though they are not cold and distant. It gives even more weight to Roy's lack of humanity. What's wrong with him in all this? What compels him to keep up the traditions we see his father discard? 

She's squirrelly for space

As Roy and the survivors of the monkey attack land on Mars, they are greeted by one of my favorite people acting today, Natasha Lyonne. I just love her choices and would watch her do anything. Here, she's playing the ultimate coked up, community service Wal-Mart greeter for a space station on Mars. We learn later that it's far enough in the future for her to be born here (people gotta do something and I guess everyone's mom can't get them a library job).

Space camo

More interesting choices. On the moon, the camouflage was white and grey. On Mars it's black and red and grey. It speaks volumes that it seems more thought was done for production design than actual plot mechanics.

Fake space speech

So Roy's whole reason for going to Mars is to get far enough out that a laser transmission of his voice reading a planned speech can reach his dad on Neptune. Nobody and nothing will be able to interfere, or something. But basic science tells us that it will take about four hours for that laser to go from Mars to Neptune and take four hours to come back. Roy waits around the recording booth like he just ordered an Uber and expects it to come around the corner any minute. At no point is it mentioned that they could have just lasered the same message from Earth and relayed it to Neptune or that Roy's dad is insulted by anything less than the highest fidelity in his recordings.

This all to test him?

Right around here I began to believe the movie was smarter than it was. Is all this faux science here to have us believe Roy's being tested in some simulation for a greater mission, my brain thought. It was not.

7 weeks off, does he shave?

There's lots of interplanetary distances involved, long amounts of travel time. Brad Pitt either has the slowest growing beard of all time, or they just didn't bother to care. I don't know why I do either, except as it gets colder the thought of growing a beard is on my mind. 

Dad's bad, weak twists

So Roy gets the Mars, and they tell him his dad went crazy and killed everybody. The movie treats this as a second act twist, but we saw Tommy Lee Jones in the trailer. He's not well. Also, has there ever been a space movie where "we lost all contact" lead to flowers and soothing music?

Did rocket thing so help get on the ship to Papa?

So that makes no sense, but here's the thought behind it: As they land on Mars, yet another gun is buried that never goes off. Roy has to pilot the ship down to the surface using his nerves of steel because the guy in charge after monkeys ate the captain face, that guy in charge sucks at his job. The buried gun is Roy saved them, so of course they're gonna help him when he needs to get to Neptune, right? On the mission to go kill his dad?

Just hijack

Nope. Motherfucker jumps on a rocket as its about to fly off and climbs aboard. Not gonna lie, I've never seen that before in a movie that is supposed to have real science. It's super interesting right up until...

Knife fight

Yeah, those fuckers he saved an indeterminate amount of time before pulling out knives and come at that dude like he's a plague ridden stowaway. I mean sure, he's a stowaway and they are going to kill his daddy, but that buried gun just pokes its head out and says it'll see us later.

Poisons Crew

And then the motherfuckers pretty much all kill themselves like those kids in Tucker and Dale VS Evil. Just a lot of panic flailing until they impale and poison themselves. It's kinda anticlimactic, and I can't tell if it was trying to be subversive, or they just didn't know what to do with the crew if they helped Roy out.

79 days, no beard still

This just bugged me. I don't know. Maybe because I've never been able to grow a full beard and feel less adequate for it. 

Chest scar

Does Brad Pitt have a lateral chest scar or did the character? What the fuck was that heart operation looking bullshit? I can't find anything about it online, although I swear I saw it. 

Old footage looks old

More playing with the timeline and confusing the shit out of me. Footage of Tommy Lee Jones pre-going out into space looks like it was filmed in the 1970s. I'm sure it was done with bad photography to hide the de-ageing on Jones, but once again I'm sitting here wondering when the hell this "near future" happened. Nitpicking, maybe, but I believe that anything that brings you out of the narrative, especially with a beautiful movie like this, deserves to be pointed out.

Crazy Pitt is back

OMG it's the return of Twelve Monkeys Brad Pitt for a brief moment! Look, the dude can act for sure, this movie proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt. That being said, when Roy's been out in space all alone for months and starts to go a little sideways in the brain it's amazing to watch.

Odd not intro pod

There's an escape pod that Roy uses to get down to his dad's space station as the station slowly descends to a fiery crash on Neptune because we needed that ticking clock… Wait, that's another buried gun that doesn't pay off. Goddammit.

No space burial

Proof that Space Dad Tommy Lee Jones has gone all evil: he doesn't space bury the folks he killed. Plus he admits he killed them. Plus...

Bad Dad

Oh man, this is right up there with Shazam and Rambo: Last Blood adding together to make 2019 "The Year of the Fucked Up Parent." Space Dad tells Roy straight up he never felt anything for Roy or his mother. Roy's mother. Fucker is harsh to the point that he made Brad Pitt for real cry and keep it in the movie (without going all space floaty).

Resembles Monkey

Maybe it means something, paralleling the monkey attack from before, but Tommy Lee Jones has a look about him that I don't think I've seen. People look different as they get older, but Jones has that hooded-eyed ape look about him. Or the dude just got old, and I'm reading way into things. 

Spacecicide

What's the word for suicide by space? Still suicide? Not Spacecicide or something silly? Cool. My mind might have been wandering as Roy said bye to Space Monkey Dad floating off into the great beyond.

Space shield

Roy has to get back to his ship. Between him and his ship are the rings of Neptune, all full of rocks and shit. What's the answer? Tear a door off the busted shit ship and ride that fucker back home like Superman carrying a door. Sir Issac Newton shit himself as those rocks bounced off but Roy kept right on in the same direction.

Infinite Resources

I don't know much about space travel. Hell, I just got weirded out by that video of Chris Hadfield demonstrating what crying in space is like. But look, this movie just… you know what? I don't care. There's space problems in this space movie.

What was light? Ship?

Really not clear about what the light was that Roy sees. I figure it's his ship through the rings, and I'm gonna stop right there.

Liv Tyler, Space Girlfriend

I wonder if they got her to do the movie by saying, "You get to date Brad Pitt instead of Ben Affleck and Michael Bay won't be there."




Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2 works despite being bonkers insano pants

by Banned Library in


Prom Night 2: Hello Mary Lou
Starring Michael Ironside, Wendy Lyon, Lisa Schrage

Mary Lou (Lisa Schrage) wields her youth with the insane bravado of a biker on speed. She's prom queen and she'll sleep with whomever she wants, drink whatever she wants, and play her music loud and proud. Then her boyfriend burns her to death. A few decades later, sweet virginal Vicki (Wendy Lyon) finds Mary Lou's prom crown in an old trunk and shenanigans ensue. What kind of shenanigans? Well, the ghost of Mary Lou can't seem to decide how to kill a pregnant girl, so it chokes, hangs, and then throws her out a window. Mary Lou gets tired doing poltergeist shit so she possesses Vicki, shocking everyone with a very liberal attitude about her body. As the climax freight trains its way towards prom, you bet your ass everything goes Carrie and the body count rises. Depending on your point of view, Hello Mary Lou is either the greatest horror movie or a rip off of all the better horror movies. The effects hold up pretty well with special mention to the scene where Vicki gets sucked into the chalkboard. The acting by a crew of unknowns is amazing. The one deviant in the cast is Michael Ironside playing the older firestarting boyfriend of Mary Lou and father to one of the boys. A recognizable face only adds to the substance of the movie. The combination of silly slasher and psychological ghost horror gives the movie more legs that it needs, zooming along from set piece to set price. By the time Vicki makes her turn, the movie has more than given its entertainment value.

Breaking the mold of the normal slasher, Mary Lou creates a sense of unease through a lens of crazy "let's just do this next" that will leave you guessing and/or cheering through your first viewing.

Carrie (1976)
Starring Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, John Trovolta, William Katt, Betty Buckley



Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark tells the best campfire tales without pulling punches

by Banned Library in


Four kids decide to combat evil after evil decides to kill them in this adaptation of the beloved and befeared children's book series.

When you get right down to it, the only way any of us will be remembered is by stories. Stories our families tell, stories that get written in the newspaper, stories that are whispered over campfires. In one way or another, you become the example for others to follow. When Stella, Chuck, and Auggie take their new friend Ramon to the Bellows mansion on Halloween, all they know about Sara Bellows is that she could tell a hell of a story and killed multiple children. By the time the film is over, only Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) is truly capable of telling their story along with the truth behind Sara Bellows. Director André Øvredal crushes the hell out of this adaptation of the children's classic series, using the flair he showed in Troll Hunter with the grounded simplicity of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. The stories told throughout feel as though they come from the books as told around campfires. Stephen Gammel's classic images compound the telling just as they did in the story, making a corpse looking for a toe as horrifying as any challenged unleashed in the Saw movies. Made for teens, this adaptation does not hold back showing psychological and physical consequences of tangling with a demonic entity. The most horrific section did not have a monster or creature on the prowl but a poor girl in a bathroom not wanting the boil on her face to ruin her big night on the stage. Her screams and those of her brother (played wonderfully by Austin Zajur, the awkward teen equivalent to Finn Wolfhard's tween joker in It: Chapter One) still echo off the tile of my mind. On top of all the horror, there are good messages in here of social acceptance, duty, and racial equality that are threaded with calm deliberation. That's more than I ask for my silly horror, especially when done this well.

For those of you questioning if studios are capable of making good horror for the younger set, get out there and see this movie now.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Starring Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Olwen Kelly, Michael McElhatton, Ophelia Lovibond



Crawl (2019) is a hell of a good time

by Banned Library in


Crawl
Starring Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper

A daughter goes looking for her dad in a hurricane and finds a whole mess of alligators. Who knew this might be the best horror of the year?

Director Alexandre Aja became prominent with psychological horror thrillers like High Tension and self aware monster flicks like Piranha 3D. In Crawl, he flexes both those muscles to create a great little monster movie that's better than it needs to be. Haley (Kaya Scodelario) leaves her swimming practice in a hurricane to go look for her father (Barry Pepper). She finds him trapped under the house, hunted by several alligators. As the basement begins to flood, Haley and her dad battle the gator menace while watching looters and rescue workers get taken out by the way over the top pissed off reptiles. The story bounces back and forth between a tight thriller with a countdown clock (it's a big ass hurricane coming bringing all the water) and a grisly visceral violent ballet. Bites matter when they need to, showing off blood and breaking bones. Then when Haley needs to swim or her dad needs to fight back, all injuries are put aside. Make no mistake, getting bitten by a ten foot gator in this movie means a lot until it doesn't, and that's okay. Horror movies are made on less. For the most part, I believed that these characters would fight back with everything they had. That belief carried me much farther than my actual knowledge of how alligators and hurricanes behave. As Haley fights the alligators, she elicited several "fuck yeahs" and fist pumps from the audience I saw it with. She's strong, badass, and yet vulnerable enough to think that maybe she won't make it out okay. There's enough character failures here for any semblance of triumph to be great.

A no-duh double feature with last year's Hurricane Heist, Crawl creates enough atmosphere and self awareness to make its runtime fly by.

The Hurricane Heist
Starring Toby Kebbell, Maggie Grace, Ryan Kwanten, Ralph Ineson, Melissa Bolona
Piranha 3D
Starring Elisabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Adam Scott, Richard Dreyfuss, Jerry O'Connell



Mary Poppins Returns with flash and cheek reaching for the original magic

by Banned Library in


The magical nanny Mary Poppins comes back to the Banks family after a few decades to sing songs, teach lessons about being a kid, and kick some nostalgic tires.

Thinking back on the original Mary Poppins, beyond the ear-worm songs, brings to mind a fresh faced 29 year old Julie Andrews as a kind yet stern nanny to some neglected kids. They needed a nanny, and she delivered. In the 2018 version, it seems Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) has returned to those kids who are all grown up to help them remember to be kids. Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw) have followed in their parents footsteps as an activist and a banker. Tragedy has followed them, however, as their parents seem to have gone off to a farm in the sky, and Michael's wife and mother of his children has died. Alone and about to lose the family home, the Banks family needs some help. Mary Poppins literally rides in on nostalgia, an old kite from the first film bringing her to earth. From there, the nanny and lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) jump and dance and sing to bring some joy and peace to the Banks family. For the most part the journey is delightful, as is Colin Firth as the greedy bank manager trying to steal the family home. The musical numbers are a throwback to music videos of the 1980s with lots of bright colors and smooth dancing. While watching, I hoped that they would lean in a bit more with the plot as a true musical, but for the most part they are spectacle. One in particular, a bawdy cabaret number "A Cover is Not the Book" had me thinking a creepy thought, "well, this one is for the moms and dads out there." Overall, the tone of the film scratches the nostalgic itch while, like most other sequeled properties, misses what made the original special. Mary Poppins (who I realized while writing this can only be referenced by her full name) is more cheeky and clever, not talking down to the modern audience with spoonfuls of sugar. Emily Blunt is the standout star of the film, the focus of every scene she's in with magnetizing effortlessness. For the most part, the film updates the original, yet at times does not feel like its own thing. It could be compared to rebuilding a classic car with newer materials, something about the plastic and flashy curves cannot reproduce what heavy steel and solid lines create.

A fun family film with flashy musical numbers, this film curses itself with the original's shadow.

Mary Poppins Returns
Starring Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters



Spider-Man: Far From Home Makes the Villain Matter

by Banned Library in


Halfway through Spider-Man: Far From Home I turned to the person next to me and said, "I think this movie just shifted into high gear." In response, her boyfriend leaned over and said, "Stop talking to my girlfriend during the movie." After that I kept my comments about how better the effects and villain get once the whole story is laid out.

     After the effects of Thanos's Snap and Unsnappening in the Avengers films, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) just wants to have a nice European vacation. He's gonna see some sights. Take some pictures. Tell MJ (Zendaya) how he feels about her. Too bad for them, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) need his help to beat some elemental apocalypse creatures with some leftover Tony Stark tech.

     With Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jon Watts proved he could weave a good story around kids and superheroics. Having already proved he can deal with menacing figures going against children in the not-too-talked about Cop Car, he almost cookie cut the menace from Kevin Bacon in that film onto Michael Keaton's Vulture. Here he ziggs a bit, implying the gravitas in Mysterio while undercutting it with a twist that comics readers will see coming but is thrilling anyway. When Mysterio proves himself to not be the gracious mentor but a scheming actor, Gyllenhaal gets to stretch villainous side, not pure evil like he showed in Nightcrawler but the laughing menace Tom Cruise showed in Magnolia. He's a showman with a dark side and that resonates far more than dark and cackling.

     When Mysterio shows his true colors, the movie really comes alive. Until that second act reveal, most of the action and effects seemed lackluster. Possible big budget fatigue, but the giant water monster and the backpack wearing Peter Parker in a carnival mask looked cartoonish. Then Mysterio's effects to disorient and play with Parker's senses turn the effects budget up to eleven, providing sequences that rival Doctor Strange's multiverse and Ant-Man's microverse effects for "man I wish I was in college and on drugs right now" effect. The amazing hallucination effects fall apart once you think about how we are shown dozens of people work to make the other effects possible but handwaving plots is Marvel's true superpower.

     Unfortunately, all Marvel's bad traits are on display here as well. As cool as the hallucination sequence is, it and all the other fight scenes are chopped to hell. No matter how much money the John Wick franchise makes proving good action have to be seen, Marvel still cuts too quick and too often to get a good feel about how particular fights are going. Nowhere is this more clear than the ending battle on the London Bridge with Spider-Man going against a bunch of drones. It's mostly dull with misdirection and confusing more than it is thrilling.

     Walking out of the theater dodging that guy and his girlfriend, I have to say I enjoyed the movie overall. A fun movie containing enough pathos to move us through the end of Phase 4 of this big weird money-making experiment. Mysterio himself also hints at bigger and better things, being an effective villain not in his over schemes in this film, but the secrets he lets out after his defeat. Whereas the Vulture kept Parker's secret identity, Mysterio let that secret fly and the implications are fascinating to think about.

Check it out before it leaves theaters