AD ASTRA. Back in the dark and distant past, when the word "independent" was first buzzily attached to American cinema on a widespread basis, there was a whole cable channel dedicated to it. IFC still exists, or so I am told, but in that creaky, bygone era, such upstarts had little to no budget for original programming or the re-airing of syndicated series, and so the channel primarily showed what one might expect: independent movies. "Independent" is something of a misnomer as applied to a great number of commercial art projects but that's an epistemological argument for another day. For our purposes, it means/meant movies that likely wouldn't have reached beyond a few small theaters in a couple of major cities, or would have been quietly released on DVD (VHS, even) without the benefit of a marketing budget or any fanfare. If they didn't become festival darlings, they languished until cult status could buoy them up and give them new, or at least extended life. They seemed to exist outside the conventions of the industry and, to those of a certain age, temperament and impressionability, offered a glimpse into a sub-world of disparate perspectives, of entertainment and art that didn't cater to the whims of sensibilities of the culture at large. They were exciting, sometimes dismal, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes transcendent explorations of the form that spoke to possibility rather than restriction.
It was around this time, thanks (I think) to IFC's limited catalog and thus seemingly limitless re-airing of what it had, I came across writer/director James Gray. I was aware of his first feature Little Odessa (1994) but, if memory serves (it increasingly does not), it was The Yards (2000) that really got my attention. An unpretentious New York crime story told with exacting attention to detail and a unique eye for blocking and shooting action, the latter movie stuck with me as the work of an artist with a distinct and refined perspective. His follow-up, We Own the Night (2007) elevated the style and the violence, a masterly mediation on loyalty and rage that has in it one of the most inventively staged shootouts of the last 20 years. After We Own the Night, I lost touch with Gray's work as he transitioned into relationship drama and then period pieces. I'm certain the intervening work merits attention, if only because I've now seen Ad Astra (co-written with Ethan Gross) and believe it to be something of a masterpiece.
In the near future — the fact that humanity has managed to explore the solar system, rather than simply sifting through rubble suggests this future is an imaginative one — Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut of some distinction, survives a catastrophic fall from a dizzying space antenna. After his recovery, he is brought into a highly classified briefing and informed that the power surge that caused the fall may or may not have resulted from the actions of Roy's father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the most celebrated astronaut in history, lost and presumed dead on a mission to Neptune for some 30 years. Space Command enlists Roy to travel to Mars by way of the moon, at which destination he will transmit a message to his father in an effort to establish contact. Roy is a military man, a model of control, but he also has some unresolved daddy issues; the journey will not be a simple one.
Ad Astra perhaps most surprised me in the balance it strikes between poetical contemplation and outright pacing. This is an action movie, make no mistake, but one with the feeling and intellect to closely examine notions of loyalty, family, futility, hope and hopelessness, even while a lunar rover chase keeps us on the edge of our seats. The customarily exquisite cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema certainly adds to the overall effect, as does Pitt in perhaps the best and most restrained performance of a remarkable career. But this also feels like the sublime culmination of Gray's decades-long examination of humanity and story through the lens of cinema. PG13. 124M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
RAMBO: LAST BLOOD. So I may have transitioned into movie nerd-dom at some point in my adolescence and I may or may not still be working through it. But I, like so many, was also raised on the delightful, risible, jingoistic, gleefully violent, formative action movies of the 1980s. I won't bother with a list, but the saga of John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is prominent (though I skipped 2008's Rambo). And so I was curious what more there might be to say, what part of the Vietnam War is left for its poor scarred protagonist to fight. Having seen this, I am left still wondering.
More a tribute to the character and an exercise in laughably graphic violence than a movie with a story, Last Blood pits the icon against a crew of Mexican human traffickers with cartoonishly evil intent (and, apparently, special forces tactical training). There's some inciting business with Rambo's niece (although the actual family relationship is difficult to delineate) leading, inevitably, to a showdown on his Arizona ranch that includes a lot of razor wire, trenches filled with gasoline and a great many dismemberments.
The first installment in this franchise may actually have something to say about what we now call PTSD and the struggle of warriors returning from war, but from there on out it became an unapologetic exercise in false bravado, comic book fantasy indulgence discomfitingly overlaid with politics. I guess in that light we could call this an appropriate coda but otherwise it's completely pointless. R. 95M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— John J. Bennett
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
ABOMINABLE. A girl (Chloe Bennett) and her friends (Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor) help a yeti with magical powers find its way from Beijing back to the mountains. PG. 97M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, FORTUNA.
BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (1961). Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress and Mickey Rooney in racist bucktoothed yellowface, darling. NR. 115M. BROADWAY.
BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON. Jillian Bell plays an unhealthy, hot mess trying to get her act together, starting with running. R. 104M. BROADWAY.
DOWNTON ABBEY. Shhh. There's no Boris Johnson, only Maggie Smith throwing shade and sipping tea. PG. 122M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
GIVE ME LIBERTY. A comedy about a road trip to a funeral with a Russian boxer, some senior citizens and a young woman with ALS, whose medical transport is taken over for the ride. 110M. MINIPLEX.
GOOD BOYS. A raunchy, funny, surprisingly gentle coming-of-age movie about a trio of pre-teen besties trying to get to a party while beset by angry teen girls. Jacob Trembley, Keith L. Williams and Brady Noon. R. 89M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
HUSTLERS. Jennifer Lopez stars with Constance Wu in a reality-inspired drama about strippers who conned their wildly unsympathetic Wall Street clientele. It's entertaining and a little dangerous, but shies away from harsher aspects of the story. R. 109M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
IT CHAPTER TWO. Despite welcome flashbacks and excellent turns by Bill Hader and the terrifying Bill Skarsgård, the resolution of the Stephen King's clown horror is overloaded with exhausting jump scares and iffy subplotting. R. 169M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE LION KING. An impressive CG remake with a star-studded cast, but all the technical achievements and orchestrated moments lack a little life. Starring Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Beyoncé (please don't tell her we didn't love it). PG. 118M. BROADWAY.
OFFICIAL SECRETS. Keira Knightly and Matthew Good about a the woman who blew the whistle on the intelligence manipulation that led up to the Iraq War. R. 112M. BROADWAY, MINOR.
PEANUT BUTTER FALCON. This moving, funny story of a pro wrestling hopeful with Down Syndrome never condescends to its characters or its audience, and Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen and Dakota Johnson give deceptively natural performances. PG13. 95M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID. Issa Lopéz's supernatural horror about kids in the crossfire of a cartel war. NR. 83M. MINOR.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill