Ad Astra vs. Heart of Darkness – Movie review (spoiler free!)

On Saturday, my brother and I went to see Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt.  This is a film that’s been compared – by its director James Gray, no less – to Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (one of my axes).  Being in the middle of a Conrad “renaissance” if you will, I felt it was perfect timing.  A couple of my coworkers had seen it already and liked it, so that was another reason I was interested in watching it.

Pitt plays Roy McBride, a young astronaut whose impeccable career is overshadowed by memories of his absent father Clifford and the much-nearer loss of Eve, the devoted wife he sidelined for his career and who’s recently left him.  After a series of devastating electrical surges sweep across the solar system, Roy is tasked by U.S. Space Command to investigate the situation, which they believe could be linked to his dad’s scientific research on Neptune.  Roy sets out to confront Clifford, embarking on a journey through space that is every bit as perilous as his final destination.

While I would not call this a retelling of Heart of Darkness, there are indeed several similarities between this film and that novella.  Roy’s story takes him further and further into isolation, both geographically and psychologically.  Like Conrad’s narrator Marlowe, Roy has an immense amount of time before he meets Clifford, and this waiting fills his mind with doubts, fears, and an overwhelming curiosity.  The hand of empire is as present here as in Conrad’s book – Roy remarks cynically on the presence of governments and corporations on the Moon as he passes through it on his way to Mars.  Throughout the film, Pitt voices Roy’s dark and lonely monologue, which is dissimilar from Marlowe’s in that Roy’s depression has elbowed out any sense of humor he once had.

The most fascinating – and perhaps the most Conradian – element of the film was its dystopian portrayal of space exploration.  This came to me as a complete surprise, since I am used to it being portrayed in Western media as noble and heroic.  The film makes significant references to imperialism and even a passing reference to Manifest Destiny as it describes the exploits of the human race in space.  It doesn’t outright dismiss it, but there are very few positives mentioned or portrayed.  It can be debated whether this is just Roy’s bleak outlook or also the filmmakers’.

I do have to mention a couple of weak points in the plot.  There is one scene where the character makes a stupid decision which doesn’t seem to fit his otherwise cerebral persona.  Another scene involving monkeys seemed extremely random, though effective as commentary on humans’ behavior.  Thirdly, the ending was not at all what I expected – not in a bad way, just unexpected.

Comparisons aside, Ad Astra is a compelling standalone film with plenty of questions and commentary.  It focuses heavily on psychological suspense, and I think even those who aren’t sci-fi fans can appreciate the realism and near-futuristic setting.  There are some gruesome scenes and brief bad language, so it’s not a movie for young kids.  As a squeamish person, I thought it stayed within PG-13, though, and was mostly non-gratuitous.

Arctic, Roman Holiday, Titanic, and Nostromo – Four short reviews

Time for some more bite-sized movie reviews…two 1953 classics, one costume drama, and one survival drama!

Arctic (2019)

Plot

Mads Mikkelsen plays Overgård, the lone survivor of a plane wreck in the Arctic.  He spends his days in tedium, catching fish (which he eats raw) and sending out hand-cranked radio signals in hopes they’ll get picked up. When the rescue team he has been waiting for finally arrives, their helicopter crashes, and he is left suddenly tending to another survivor, a young woman with terrible injuries.  Overgård resolves to set out on foot for the nearest outpost, to try to save both their lives.

Thoughts

The trailer pulled me in many months ago…later I discovered it on Prime, and I’m glad I finally saw it.  Polar exploration nerds will soak in the stunning cinematography, filmed in Iceland (no CGI snowcapes here!), plus the human drama surrounding Mikkelsen’s character.  In spite of the plot’s simplicity, there is plenty of suspense, all the more unsettling in its realism.  It’s not all action-adventure, either – the psychology of loneliness and survival instincts play a central part, leaving you questioning what you would do in the same situation.

If I could think of one criticism, I would have liked to see more dialogue, even if it’s just Overgård talking to himself.  There was such an absence of verbal thought process, my mom and I started giving him advice as the movie went on, much to my brother’s exasperation…  Other than that, this is a pretty solid movie and good for older families (one instance of the f-bomb and some medical gore; otherwise family friendly).

Roman Holiday (1953)

Plot

Born into a life of duty, Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) has become fed up with her rigid schedule of royal visits, boring dinners, and meaningless speeches.  She suffers a near-mental breakdown in Rome and, to everyone’s horror, goes missing.  Journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) finds her sleeping on the sidewalk incognito and the next day promises to give her the best holiday of her life, seeing the sights in Rome like any ordinary person.  Ann jumps at the chance, not realizing that Bradley has recognized her and is scheming to profit from the great story it will make.

Thoughts

It’s easy to see why Roman Holiday is a classic – it’s a kind of reverse-Cinderella story, with a wonderful 50s aesthetic and innocence, and even more anguish. I was going through some emotional stuff before I started it, so by halfway I was bawling.  The plot doesn’t end well, at least from my perspective, although it could be argued it is a “good” ending. Overall, I thought it was a good movie, and I was happy to see my actor crush Gregory Peck in another fascinating role, even if his character was a bit of a jerk. 

Titanic (1953)

(Yeah, not that Titanic. :))

Plot

Like the more famous 90s film, Titanic (1953) focuses on human relationships playing out on the last days of the vessel.  Young love takes back burner here, however, as the main focus is a breakup between a married couple and its effects on their children. A host of supporting characters portray the diversity of the passengers on board, from a Basque mother to a drunken ex-priest, all unknowingly about to share one terrible experience in common.

Thoughts

This was the first serious attempt at a Titanic film, told through a personal drama and following main points of accuracy.  I thought it was a mostly well-crafted film.  I don’t personally care for Downton Abbey-esque drama, which this is, but if you like that, then you will appreciate the story.  I can’t compare it with the Jack and Rose romance, because I’ve never seen that one; if I were to guess, I’d say a shipwrecked marriage is a better analogy to fit the events.  On a side note, I was happy to see Richard Basehart, AKA Ishmael from Moby-Dick, as the priest, whose character was very compelling and ought to have had more development.

Nostromo (1996)

To my great amazement, it turns out BBC and Masterpiece Theatre released a 3-part series of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo back in the glorious 90s.  It’s not available on DVD, and only second-hand on VHS.  Somebody very kindly uploaded it onto YouTube, which is how I watched it.  (It reminded me, too, how much I miss Russell Baker’s intros.)

The plot follows the book very closely.  It starts out with a flashback to the death of Charles’s father, then covers all three parts of the book. Colin Firth and Albert Finney look nothing like I pictured Charles Gould and the doctor (respectively), but they are both excellent in their roles. Some reviewers felt the casting of Antonia and Martin was poor; personally, I thought Martin was well cast – his downward spiral was very convincing. There were some grim and violent scenes, but even as a squeamish viewer I thought it stayed within the realm of PG-13. I loved the music, costumes, and landscapes/sets; no CGI here!

My parents and brother were unfamiliar with the story but they also enjoyed it.  My dad thought it was a bit hard to follow in places and the script could have been stronger, and I think the main weakness of the adaptation is its length – it was too short.  For more organic dialogue, and without cutting scenes, you need more time.  The last episode was probably the strongest and led to some discussion among us afterwards.

Overall, a surprisingly good adaptation of a Conrad novel – true to plot, setting, and spirit.  I would watch it again!

Vertigo and How to Steal a Million – Two short reviews (spoiler-free)

Recently I saw these two classic films for the first time: Vertigo (1958) and How to Steal a Million (1966).  On the surface, they have really nothing in common, so I thought it would be a fun challenge to compare and contrast them.

Vertigo


Vertigo is an Alfred Hitchcock film, considered by many reviewers to be his masterpiece.  James Stewart plays a retired detective, Scottie Ferguson, who is commissioned by his friend to follow said friend’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) around San Francisco, to determine if she’s become possessed with the spirit of her great-grandmother.  Matters become weirder when Scottie finds himself falling head over heels for the chilling but attractive Madeleine, who also seems to have a thing for him.  Scottie, unfortunately, suffers from vertigo and a fear of heights, which threaten to jeopardize his task and Madeleine’s life.

Let me just say I have mixed feelings about Hitchcock films.  This is how I’d rank the ones I’ve seen so far (best to worst):

  1. Rebecca
  2. Strangers on a Train
  3. The Wrong Man
  4. The Man Who Knew Too Much
  5. Vertigo
  6. North by Northwest
  7. The Birds
As you can see, the popular ones I don’t care for very much.
Vertigo actually started out very promising, but somewhere around the halfway mark, it got very slow and tedious.  The plot is predictable and, at times, unduly macabre.  As usual with Hitchcock, I did find the cinematography to be stunning – with shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco as they looked in the 50s – but it wasn’t enough to carry the film through.  There’s only so much disbelief you can suspend, with an unlikely romance and one or two gaping plot holes.

How to Steal a Million

Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn?  That was all I needed to know.

How to Steal a Million follows an art forger and his loyal daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) who will do what it takes to keep her scoundrelly dad out of jail.  That includes staging a faux burglary to prevent a particular sculpture from being tested for authenticity. Enter Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole), who claims to be an expert burglar.  With great reluctance, he agrees to take on Nicole’s challenge and break into a high-security museum to “steal” her father’s own statue and save the family honor.
This was the dumbest, cutest, cringiest movie I’ve seen in a long time. (I guess that’s what rom-coms are?  I don’t usually watch that genre.)  O’Toole manages to make a creepy role extremely charming, and Hepburn’s cute innocence outshines even her chic wardrobe (designed by Givenchy and made rather a big deal of).  I’m pretty sure nobody except these two could play such lovable dorks.
As it is, what starts out as a cute comedy turns into a long-winded, tedious ordeal, during the greater part of which the two are trapped in a broom closet and exchanging risque jokes.  Again, rom-coms aren’t exactly my thing, so I was disappointed when the plot kind of fizzled out in the second half.

Lessons Learned

Here’s my takeaways from these two films:
  • If you’re going to make a movie – or write a book, for that matter – that is really unbelievable, your best outlet is comedy.  Tragedies have to be plausible for me to care.
  • Great actors/actresses can make bad films watchable.
  • A story should never start out more exciting and engaging than it finishes up.
  • Sometimes Amazon reviewers and I don’t see eye-to-eye.
  • I should probably stop watching Alfred Hitchcock films (but I know I won’t).
Thoughts…recommendations?  I’d be curious to hear if any of you like Vertigo.  It’s the kind of film where I at least understand its popularity.  I just didn’t care for it personally.  How to Steal a Million is pure fluff and I’ll probably watch it again, to my great chagrin.  

Aladdin 2019 – Reaction (No Spoilers!)

A couple of months ago I mentioned I was looking forward to two Disney remakes this year, Aladdin and The Lion King.

Well, my siblings and I just got back from Aladdin, and I was not disappointed!   It’s funny, beautiful, moving, and action-packed.  Dare I say it??  I like it better than the cartoon original.

It is also my favorite Disney remake so far, even more than Beauty and Beast, my previous favorite.   Aladdin stays true to its origin – a story of adventure, humor, and romance – and doesn’t try to be more than a good, old-fashioned kid’s movie.  (Yes, Jasmine has her own song and subplot, but it fits her character arc and doesn’t seem incongruous.)

So if you have any reservations, I say give it try, you may be pleasantly surprised!

Valkyrie (2008) and My Thoughts on Historical Dramas

This past weekend, I rewatched the WWII movie Valkyrie (2008) with my brother.  (He, like me, is a history nerd and was the one who talked me into watching Lawrence of Arabia, for which I’m perpetually grateful.)  I don’t believe I reviewed Valkyrie last time, so it seemed like a good time to talk about it and about history-themed movies in general.

Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a Nazi officer, family man, and Catholic, who is tormented by his conscience and the events of the war.  In 1943, he joins a number of collaborators planning a political-military coup, which ultimately involves a plan to assassinate Hitler.  The genius of the plot is that it uses Hitler’s own backup plan, “Operation Valkyrie,” against him by feigning an emergency.  The movie zooms in on July 20, 1944, when Stauffenberg and his fellow officers attempt to carry out the assassination and coup.

The first thing to get out of the way is the casting.  Now, don’t get me wrong: Cruise is ok, and I love British actors – here we’ve got names like Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, David Bamber.  But why, why, why are American and British actors playing Germans, especially when they don’t even try for a fake accent?  It’s just a bizarre thing to watch and bothered me deeply the first time I saw it.  (At least Christopher Plummer pulled it off!

Now, watching it a second time, I was able to fully enjoy the film.

  • Cinematography – The photography may be stylized, but it is stunning. Check out this trailer and you’ll see what I mean:
  • Acting – Casting aside, the acting is top-notch.  I haven’t seen Mission Impossible or any other Cruise films, but he does a great job here as the conflicted protagonist.  The supporting cast is excellent.  I was especially impressed by Thomas Kretschmann’s portrayal of Major Remer, the officer who displays chilling loyalty to Hitler.  Apparently Kretschmann was first slated to play Stauffenberg – I would’ve liked to see that.
  • Story – From a purely cinematic standpoint, the story extremely compelling.  It goes from the personal to the political and, finally, the philosophical.  Did Stauffenberg do the right thing? Is an assassination of a evil dictator a crime or a moral obligation?  The story is interactive in that sense; it gives you much to think about.

Now, history nerd that I am, I had look all of this up on Wikipedia.  As you read up on it, it seems (as to be expected) Hollywood may have simplified some aspects of the story.  There is even question whether Stauffenberg’s motives were driven more by politics than by conscience.  In real life, people are always more complicated (surprise).

So… are even the best, most accurate historical films worth watching?  Or is there a risk they will mislead viewers?

Personally, I don’t think any movie should be viewed in a vacuum, even fiction.  If a film moves, inspires, or fascinates you, then it’s worth looking into the source material.  In the case of history, it’s downright necessary.

Also, depending on the nature of the historical inaccuracies, some films may be more egregious than others.  In the case of Valkyrie (2008), the artistic liberties seem to have more to do with the angle the filmmakers took, rather than the actual facts.  I would be more bothered if the movie, say, was a completely made-up story using real figures.

As for Lawrence of Arabia, if it hadn’t been for that film, it’s not likely I would have got into reading about T. E. Lawrence and WWI.  Through my reading, I’ve discovered how inaccurate the film is, as well as O’Toole’s portrayal.  But in spite of that, I still love the movie, like I love an illustration in a book. 

Let me know what you think …. do you like and/or watch historical dramas?  And if so, what are some good ones?