MOVIE BUFF-ET: Ad Astra is a slow-burning, but supremely well-made movie that’s introspective and thought-provoking

Brad Pitt in Ad Astra / 20th Century Fox

This might be the year of Brad Pitt. It’s still awfully early, but it’s not inconceivable that Pitt could earn Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor for his turn as stuntman Clint Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and for Best Actor for his role as the stoic astronaut Maj. Roy McBride in director James Gray’s “Ad Astra.”

Ad astra is a Latin term that means to the stars, and it’s an apt title for this for this film that’s set in outer space but more importantly is a strong statement about the onscreen power a movie star can display when he’s given the chance to truly emote.

Pitt is the heart, soul, and mind of the stunningly shot, hard sci-fi film set believably in the near future. He is in every shot, and serves as a first-person narrator for the film that delves as deeply into his character’s soul as it does space.

Gray, who also directed “The Lost City of Z,” and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema give him the star treatment with mid-shots and close-ups of a character whose blood pressure has never risen about 80, as we learn from a series of medical and psychological evaluations Pitt’s character receives before and after each segment of his mission.

New In Local Movie Theaters

  • Ad Astra(PG-13) 2 hr. 3 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle Hills
  • Downton Abbey(PG) 2 hr. 1 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Rogers Towne, Bentonville Skylight
  • Rambo: Last Blood(R) 1 hr. 29 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Rogers Towne, Bentonville Skylight

Roy’s everyday life is one that would leave most persons’ hearts pounding. The riveting first segment of the film literally depicts him falling to Earth from a gigantic space antenna after he is jolted off his perch while conducting exterior repairs. While free-falling to Earth, Roy makes moves that would leave other men desperate to save himself as easily as we might negotiate a bump in the road. He’s clearly an uncommon man.

Which makes sense because he comes from great stock. His father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is regarded as the greatest astronaut of all time. Clifford has been missing in space for 16 years after embarking with his crew on a mission to find other intelligent life in the outer realms of our solar system. He was last heard from while orbiting Neptune.

Roy’s fall was caused by a series of cosmic-wave surges that disrupted all electrical devices on Earth. U.S. Space Command believes those surges were caused by Clifford’s experiments, and they ask Roy to accept a mission to travel to an outpost on Mars where he can attempt to establish communication with his estranged father.

Roy accepts the mission, but he is conflicted about his relationship with his father, and his fears of becoming too much like Clifford, a man whom he both loves and despises.

The movie’s aesthetics and pacing will remind film buffs of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but Roy’s journey and the film’s basic plot is much more in tune with Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” with Roy’s dad serving in the Col. Kurtz role.

Liv Tyler in Ad Astra / 20th Century Fox

In a sense, the movie is action-packed. There’s a fantastic scene where Roy’s moon rover transport is attacked by space pirates as he’s traveling to make his connection to Mars. However, all the action is filtered through Roy, who is depicted as man devoid of physical fears, so the impact of all the action is muted. Roy executes daring feats like you or I would make a pot if coffee.

The movie is a very slow burn. It’s certainly not a Star Wars or even a Star Trek adventure movie despite all its physical and psychological conflicts. Kids of all ages could find it boring.

For me it’s a supremely well made movie that’s introspective, thought-provoking, and evocative of the struggles fathers and sons have battled over since the beginning. That said it’s not exactly a film I want to rush out and see again.

Pitt’s great in a subtle, closed-off but very human performance. He is undeniably the star, but all the charm and swagger that just oozes from his performance in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is dialed back to one in this film.

Jones is serviceable and subdued as Clifford. Like Pitt, his charisma is ratcheted down, too. Liv Tyler and Donald Sutherland among others lend capable support, but the focus is clearly on Pitt.

(PG-13) 2 hr. 3 min.
Grade: A

Classic Corner – The Shawshank Redemption (Malco Razorback)

Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption

In the short term, Oscar voters deemed “Forrest Gump” as the best movie of 1994 when it won 1995’s Academy Award for Best Picture.

Twenty-five years later that opinion probably wouldn’t hold. Not that “Forrest Gump” was a bad movie or that it no long resonates. It still does. However, in the intervening years, many movie buffs and film critics alike have cooled to the charms of Gump and warmed up to Quinton Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption.”

I’ve heard both films hailed as not only the best of 1994, but also the best films of the 1990s. I know more than a few who name “The Shawshank Redemption” as their favorite film of all time.

Who am I to argue with someone’s opinion?

“The Shawshank Redemption” remains an excellent movie that is somehow both sweetly sentimental and jarringly horrifying.

You wouldn’t expect anything less from an idea first developed by horror master Stephen King for a novella published in 1982, and neither he nor Darabont skirts the darkness of the subject matter. However, the movie is about maintaining hope in the midst of dire circumstances, rather than just the awful things that happen to men in prison, and that’s what makes the film special to me.

The heart of the movie is the friendship between inmates Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman). Red’s inside for smuggling, while Andy’s doing two life sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover. Andy says he’s innocent, and at first Red is doubtful, but there is something different about Andy.

While the movie details the stark reality of prison life, Freeman’s narration imbues the movie with an undeniable warmth that to me is the movie’s not so secret key ingredient. The grandfatherly tone of Freeman’s voice is just perfect for telling Andy and Red’s story. It’s like slathering butter on pancakes or cornbread. It takes something that’s already tasty and makes it that much more delicious.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the twists and turns that follow Andy’s use of his financial banking knowledge, and if you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to spoil that aspect of the film.

Freeman and Robbins display the chops and charisma that would have allowed them to be key players if not stars in any era of Hollywood. To me, its Robbins’ best lead performance of his career, and it’s one of the two or three best of Freeman’s.

The Malco Razorback Cinema is holding two showings of the film this week at 4 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Wednesday in celebration of its 25th anniversary. The film underperformed in its initial box-office release, although it did earn seven Oscar nominations.

Many of those who love the film discovered it on television and haven’t had the opportunity to see it as it was intended on the big screen. This week might be the time to rectify that. Who knows when that opportunity will present itself again?

(R) 2 hr. 30 min.