Movie of the week: Ad Astra
Cert: 12A; Now showing
Apocalypse Now in space, or The Odyssey in orbit; Ad Astra is one of an ancient lineage of narrative shapes that involve slightly lost heroes getting even more lost on grand sprawling missions that will bring them face to face with their greatest fears.
As astronaut Roy McBride, Brad Pitt is the "Willard" character to Tommy Lee Jones's Kurtz-like father. The latter has been missing for years and presumed dead after contact was lost during a remote scientific mission near Neptune in the search for extra-terrestrial life. Roy, a cool-headed engineer with a knack for quick thinking when things go wrong, is called in by the military to travel out to the same lost science vessel to dismantle a powerful device that threatens life on Earth. Why him? Because not only has wife Eve (Liv Tyler) left him, but evidence has come to light that daddy might be alive after all.
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On the way, he encounters moon pirates (in one nifty chase scene), killer baboons (because why not), and an otherworldly Ruth Negga in charge of an outpost on Mars.
James Gray, the director and co-writer (with Ethan Gross) of this widescreen scenic route to Roy's existential awakening, is also doffing his cap to such outings as Interstellar or Solaris, where the endless abyss of space becomes a therapist's chair for all classes of hang-ups and problematic memories. It certainly looks the part, with Gray even hiring Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to nail that slick, epic tremble to every shot.
But underneath all that gloss and Pitt's mumbled, superfluous narration, Ad Astra feels strangely insubstantial and cobbled together. By the time it all wraps up, the payoff after putting Roy through the galactic wringer has not been enough, which you suspect is part of the reason why he has been sent on so many diversions to pad out the screenplay.
Pitt frowns away handsomely, his woodenness combining with the hollow premise to scupper any chance of the intended emotional register shining through, meaning you come away with nothing but two hours of nice pictures to show for it.
★★ Hilary A White
Cert Club, In selected cinemas
Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American girl living in Brooklyn and struggling to get off the ground as an writer. With news in that her beloved grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao) is facing terminal cancer, she and her parents (Diana Lin, Tzi Ma) travel out to the motherland under the guise of a family wedding but really so that they can all rally round the matriarch and savour what looks like a final get-together.
The prognosis is not, however, shared with the forthright and spirited 'Nai-Nai' - a Chinese custom apparently maintained in order to spare those close to death from unnecessary anguish. An immigrant experience is turned on its head as we see bemusement and confusion from Billi about her culture of origin, while also wrestling with pangs of guilt for going along with the grand secret being peddled around the very person dearest to her.
Few films this year will leave quite the same impression on you as Lulu Wang's sumptuous autobiographical family love letter. Crazy Rich Asians star Awkwafina is a superb lead, and shares one or two gorgeous scenes with Zhao. A lightness of touch prevails from Wang, with comedy, poignancy and beauty all finding a rare harmony. ★★★★★ Hilary A White
Cert: 16; Now showing
Big collars, bigger hair and denim flares; will Hollywood ever grow tired of the 1970s? American Hustle or BlacKkKlansman suggest we just can't get enough of the "instant party" packaged with that decade. It can't, however, breathe life into this naff saga about Irish mafia wives taking over Hell's Kitchen while their good-for-nothin' men do time.
Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) bring a seemingly new approach to the 'hood while maintaining the tough spirit of the industry, before imploding. Writer Andrea Berloff makes her directorial debut, and is at pains to milk the gender politics of today when the story could have done that more effectively with a lighter touch. Although it is based on a comic, the complex and often cheesy plot is too cartoonish to take seriously.
Domhnall Gleeson is low-wattage as a Nam vet turned handsome enforcer, and there is a terrific menace about Margo Martindale's local mob matriarch. ★★ Hilary A White
Best Before Death
Cert Club, Opens Oct 10*
So many of us choose traditional lives, so it's always interesting to see someone who lives more freely, like Scottish artist Bill Drummond (pictured).
Paul Duane's film follows Drummond over two years of a 12-year art project called The 25 Paintings in which he performs tasks in places which have personal resonance for him. It becomes a fascinating journey to it matters not particularly where.
During the doc Bill Drummond is ambivalent about it, but his most populist art was with the early 1990s band The KLF.
Duane's film however opens in Birmingham in December 2016, where, having done a large mural, Drummond changes jeans and jumps into a river. Next he is in Kolkata making cakes and building a bed, self-aware and regularly debating the documentary process about which he is clearly conflicted. The following year in Lexington, Georgia, he is easier with it and we understand, if not exactly why he is doing the art project, he says he doesn't either, but what he gets from it. More about humanity than art it's really interesting to get to see.
★★★★ Aine O'Connor
* Best Before Death screens at the IFI Documentary Festival this Friday at 8.20pm where Drummond will also perform his play, White Saviour Complex.
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