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Thread: AD ASTRA (James Gray 2019)

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    Jul 2002
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    AD ASTRA (James Gray 2019)


    Out to beyond and back

    AlloCiné says seeing Apocalypse Now at age ten was a major inspiration for James Gray to become a filmmaker so here, for one thing, is his Heart of Darkness - with the remote reaches of the solar system taking the place of the jungle of Conrad's. Gray also, while doing something completely different, is revisiting here the theme of his last movie, The Lost City of Z,, which depicts a deep far off search into dangerous worlds (there, the Amazon) for things lost. There's a big difference, though, between Brad Pitt's buttoned-down "near future" Astronaut hunting for a lost father who has (or may have) gone rogue and Charlie Hunnam's true-to-life, early 20th-century idealist, Col. Percival Fawcett, in search of a fabled lost civilization.

    It's peculiar to me how long it has taken American critics to admire James Gray, Ad Astra being the first to get a good number of raves. Earlier, the former Village Voice critic J. Hoberman trashed Gray for what he considered his unconvincing locations, far-fetched plots, and "tone-deaf" dialogue, giving the booby prize to Gray's Two Lovers , and mocking his admired status in France.

    I have admired James Gray and felt him to be a special treasure since I first discovered Little Odessa in a video rental shop. In fact Ad Astra is one of his harder-to-like films. It's austere, beautiful, and spectacular. It's also strange, off-putting, and implausible. I'm put off by an idea set forth by Jessica Kiang in her astute BFI review: "Ad Astra works hard to convince us it is narratively worthwhile to imperil all life in the universe in order for one guy to work through his daddy issues, but doesn’t let us join even the closest of dots for ourselves. . ." (It tells too much, lacks the resonant mystery of Kubrick's 2001.) Dargis of the Times sees the film, which she makes a Critic's Pick, much more positively: "a lovely, sincere and sometimes dopey confessional about fathers and sons, love and loss that takes the shape of a far out if deeply inward trip." That's nicer - except for the "dopey" part. Obviously though, this is a complicated, arguably very peculiar package - unless, of course, you choose to take the whole thing simply as an outer space western, and disregard its canny and interesting projections of what human-colonized space will be like in the next fifty years.

    I'm not saying I don't know what Ad Astra is. I'm saying it can be all these things others have found in it, and more. And one may say as Tara McNamara of Common Sense Media does that "'daddy issues' in all their forms may be humanity's greatest common experience, " and hence the theme is universal, the "search for the father," the search for identity - the classic search of Fielding's early novel masterpiece, Tom Jones. (See Tony Richardson's great 1963 movie, the adaptation written by John Osborne and realized with great wit and panache.)

    It seems Ad Astra's release was held back to work further on its look. That's paid off in the shimmering clarity and golden glow. It's terrific looking. It cost a lot more that Gray's ever had to spend ($87 million), and Fox-Disney sponsored it. Is that what is being rewarded? Like a typical cinephile with a New York bent, I was more personally captured by Gray's modest, very local debut set in Brighten Beach, Brooklyn's Russian Jewish quarter, the title, Little Odessa, directly alluding to that, but already with a gangster angle. (It won the Silver Lion at Venice: James Gray was only 25.) The two films that followed, The Yards and We Own the Night, moved up several notches to warring clan sagas, featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, and other stars - which makes you wonder why he's being asked if he's "gone mainstream" now. He was always unclassifiabe, in a good way, but plugged into movie tradition.

    Maybe the clan dramas of 2000 and 2007 were overambitious. The intimate 2008 Two Lovers (still set in the old neighborhood) corrected that. The period The Immigrant (NYFF 2013) also close, warm and intimate too, and benefiting by Gray's relatively high stock among the French, with a top French star, Marion Cotillard, but still with his loyal cohort, Joaquin Phoenix. Actually the French granted this one their least enthusiasm.

    Has Gray been moving further and further out of his comfort zone? Isn't Brad Pitt way out of his? Except – he is doing a soft voice-over right out of his performance in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. Those musings slip too much into Malickian territory.

    Ad Astra - "Per ardua ad astra, "through adversity to the stars" may mean little more than reference an air force motto and this narrative's focus on military duty in space. The space part of this space opera is cleverly conceived and laced with irony - the trivializing of space travel on Moon or Mars trips - and isn't the imagining of such developments as only "near future" intentionally preposterous? It's also terrifying, with the cosmic electrical storms, the marauders on the lunar surface, the space ship gone terrifyingly haywire, and so on. This movie has spectacular set pieces. Some of them are obviously not essential to the central story line. Even a seeming main character, the venerable Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), an old colleague of Roy's missing father, thought dead, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), after a big buildup, is suddenly cast aside. Finally Ad Astras may seem like a vast buildup to emptiness. As if Roy breathed too much artificial air and lost his head, imagining something. For me Ad Astra seems like at once James Gray's most admired film and greatest flop. But if that, a magnificent flop indeed.

    The Guardian's Guy Lodge recently described Gray's odd situation. He is "A director who has been unassumingly carving out a very distinct oeuvre of burnished, throwback crime films and elegantly broken character portraits for 25 years now," and therefore "used to being sidelined." That may be no longer true. The "near future" will tell.

    Meanwhile, come and decide for yourself. This is one of our finest filmmakers, and I recommend readers catch up on all James Gray's films, though how this new one will ultimately relate to the others is hard to guess, except for the mentioned thematic link with City of Z. I am looking forward to rewatching Ad Astra, to appreciate further its spectacular beauty and excellent sound track and score. Another purpose is to delve further into Brad Pitt's studied inexpressiveness. Is it ironic, neurotic, noble? Or just a good-old-boy doing a damned good job of sounding serious and troubled? Anthony Lane of The New Yorker (who recommends seeing this in iMax - good idea) sees Roy as a hollow man. Maybe to understand this film, we need to get out T.S, Eliot. The Waste Land may be what we are heading toward now.

    Ad Astra, 122 mins., debuted in Aug. at Venice, where Gray's first film won the Silver Lion. Opened in the UK and France Sept. 18 (with two raves in the Guardian; critical raves but more reserved public response in France (AlloCiné press rating 4.4; public 3.2). US release Sept. 20, 2019. Metascore 80%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-22-2019 at 12:46 AM.


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