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Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Ad Astra


Ad Astra -- a review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Writer-Director James Grey's films seem to resonate with critics better than they do with audiences.  We have a hypothesis, at least with regard to Ad Astra and Lost City of Z, his most recent previous movie: the former is science fiction adventure, the latter is a historical Indiana Jones-style adventure flick.  That's what we, as movie-goers expected.  What we got were moody, meditative dramas of existential quests that have some intense action set pieces.  We say this not to criticize Gray; we merely want to prepare our friends who intend to see the film.

We open in the indeterminate future where astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is working on a towering space antenna when an intensive power surge hits, damaging the tower and hurtling him to Earth.  After miraculously surviving, Roy is called to a secret meeting where he is told that the surge was just the beginning is a series of events that threaten life in the solar system.  More, it is emanating from Neptune, in the area where Roy's father, legendary space pioneer H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) was lost and presumed dead in an expedition aimed at contacting extra-terrestrial life.  The space agency believes Roy's father is alive and has knowledge of the surges.  Roy is tasked with going to the Moon and then Mars--where there is equipment capable of communicating with Neptune--and sending a message to his father, pleading for contact.  This dredges up a well of feelings in Roy--abandonment, isolation, the inability to connect--so his journey is not only one of discovery but also of the soul.  Along the way, we meet Roy's estranged wife (Liv Tyler); Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), Clifford's old associate who holds a key to the mystery, Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a planetary administrator on Mars whose parents died at the hands of Cliff McBride; and various others.  Roy narrates, so we learn his inner voyage as the mission moves onward to outer space to discover the secret of whether Clifford McBride is hero or villain, and if Roy can stop the life-threatening power surges.

One can be forgiven if Ad Astra invokes an aura of 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Apocalypse Now.  Comparisons are obvious.  The stunning images Hoyte Van Hoytema provides, along with the sedate but eerie soundtrack by Max Richter immediately invoke Kubrick's film, even as Pitt's meditative narration and the quest itself derive from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which begat Apocalypse Now.  Gray's and co-writer Ethan Gross's vision of the future, replete with bureaucratic machinations, invasive bio-psychological probing, and exploration that marries the efforts of capitalism and science are thought-provoking and set up much of the dramatic tension.  An excellent cast is largely wasted in roles that could have been played by any competent actor.  There has been talk of multiple Oscar nominations, especially for the film itself and Brad Pitt,  The belief here is that Ad Astra is so subdued and leisurely-paced, and that it has been released so early in the Oscar season, that it will leave no indelible marks to be remembered by the awards voters come January. 
7.5 out of 10

Echo in the Canyon -- Review


Echo in the Canyon -- Documentary review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Laurel Canyon is a peaceful wooded enclave separated from the bustle and concrete of Los Angeles by a steep hill.   In the late 1960s, an astounding collection of musical talent settled along its twisting roads.  Many became friends and collaborated on some of the most memorable music of that era.

In 2015, producer-director Andrew Slater and Jakob Dylan collected a group of contemporary artists to perform a tribute concert, and this documentary is Slater's and Dylan's way of sharing both with the world.  Dylan, as host, toggles between roundtable discussion with the concert performers (Fiona Apple, Beck, Jade Castrinos, Cat Power, Norah Jones, and others) and stars of that era (Michelle Phillips, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and record producer Lou Adler, to name a few), and he ties them together with interviews of rock legends who both influenced and were influenced by the Canyon gang (Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Jackson Browne, and, most notably, Tom Petty, who acts as a co-narrator and to whom the film is dedicated).

We learn the inner dynamics of this society--why Crosby was bounced from the Byrds; how Stills got out of a drug bust, leaving Clapton, Nash, and Neil Young holding the bag; Phillips' embracing of the free-love spirit of the era.  But these gossipy items pale in comparison to meaty observations: the profound effect Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds, had on Canyon artists.  Stills of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash adds that one group’s influences became another’s inspirations. There is agreement that it all started with The Beatles and the sounds George Harrison produced with his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar.  McGuinn, for example, used the sound to meld an “old folk song and souping it up with a Beatle beat.”  Regina Spektor provides one of the most interesting insights during a contemporary round table when she observes that the songs of that era have a more dreamlike quality than their predecessors, and she wonders if the Laurel Canyon musicians were getting in touch with their unconscious minds.  These are but a few insights among the many highlights of the film.

This is not to say it's perfect, though.  The presence of former Capitol Records CEO Slater, despite his obvious contributions and expertise, detracts from the doc.  Witness his hyperbolic (and wildly inaccurate) claim that The Byrds’ 1965 debut album was the first time “a song of poetic depth and grace had become a hit.” (We wonder what Capitol Records co-founder Johnny Mercer, who wrote Moon River and Days of Wine and Roses-- would say about that.)  There is also the head-scratching decision to use footage from Jacques Demy’s 1969 film Model Shop for historical atmosphere.  Rather we would have seen time devoted to Laurel Canyon neighbors Carole King, pictured but uncredited for her contributions and brilliance; Frank Zappa referenced not for his mad talent but only as a kind of mad street preacher.  But at least they show up, which is more that we can say for Joni Mitchell and Jim Morrison.  Oh well, Slater had his narrative--to tie his and Jakob Dylan's eponymous concert with the documentary.  We only wish Slater had absented himself and the French art film and added time to the trim 82-minute film and paid tribute to these other legends, as well.
7.5 out of 10 
 
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