Saturday, September 28, 2019

"Ad Astra"


Ponderous and pretentious, Ad Astra throws in murderous space monkeys and moon pirates yet still moves at a glacial pace with a a journey to the stars that is really a journey deep into the heart of one man.

Yes, like Interstellar and First Man before it, two equally overblown movies that seek philosophy in outer space, Ad Astra subordinates its most compelling story for its least compelling one, then, as if it realizes how dull and lugubrious its is, throws in those space monkeys and moon pirates. Yet it's still utterly lifeless.

I couldn't tell you why the space monkeys are there, except to inject a note of suspense where there otherwise is none. The moon pirates are part of this plodding film's attempt at social observation, I guess. It's set in "the near future," when Virgin operates daily trips to the moon, whose spaceport has been taken over by Subway and Applebee's. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut whose father (Tommy Lee Jones) was a pioneer in interstellar exploration. When a series of catastrophic bursts of cosmic energy hit Earth, Roy is recruited to investigate because they might have come from a long-missing spaceship on which his father could still be alive.

Writing that summary, it seems Ad Astra couldn't go wrong, but it does, badly. Its dismal and pessimistic vision of the future is anchored by the non-revelation is that sometimes we have go to outside to look within. Or some such psychobabble nonsense. Ad nauseum.

Viewed Sept. 28, 2019 -- AMC Universal (IMAX)


Friday, September 27, 2019



A full 40 minutes elapses before Renée Zellweger gets to sing as Judy Garland in Judy, and why the filmmakers wait that long is a little puzzling. Until then, Judy has been unexpectedly straightforward, like an old "movie of the week" that promised to pull back the curtain and show us "the love, the loss, the life of a legend," or something like that.

Its opening flashbacks to The Wizard of Oz and Judy's early humiliations, are predictable, though Judy really begins in her middle age;  addicted to booze and pills, she's unemployable yet a doting (if irresponsible) mother. Zellweger is immediately convincing as Garland, the movie less so -- it's paint-by-numbers until a persnickety, flighty Judy barely makes it on stage for a series of shows in London.

Anxious, frightened Judy has to be pushed on stage by her handler (Jessie Buckley); then, the magic happens. Zellweger begins to sing By Myself, and it's stunning. She may lack Garland's vocal majesty, but she captures the star's essence with astonishing clarity. Zelweger is exquisite when singing, and just as good when acting -- it's a shame the movie isn't up to her.

Much of it is predictable, even a whitewashing. A drug-addicted, washed-up superstar should be painful to witness, but this Judy is a gentle soul, mistreated and unappreciated. Judy is reverential and polite, lacking the emotional fragility of the performer herself. Yet Zellweger finds exactly that, somehow, and singlehandedly makes Judy more than worthwhile despite itself.

Viewed Sept. 27, 2019 -- AMC Burbank 16


Sunday, September 15, 2019

"The Peanut Butter Falcon"


The desire of lonely, troubled people to be a little less of each propels The Peanut Butter Falcon, whose awkward title recalls a 1970s Afterschool Special, though it turns out to be a quiet, soulful rewarding adventure.

Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down Syndrome, has been forced to live in a retirement home because no one else will care for him. For his repeated efforts to escape, Zak has been deemed a "flight risk" by social worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). When Zak finally does break free, he hides in a shrimp boat owned by troubled, turbulent Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), whose feud with other shrimpers gets out of hand. When Tyler tries to flee, he discovers Zak, and instead of trying to dump him they form a fast friendship as they both head south toward Zak's dream of finding and meeting a pro wrestler he's long idolized.

There's a lot of Mark Twain and a little Wizard of Oz at work here as Zak and Tyler assemble a raft and set sail along a wide and relaxed river, pursued both by Tyler's enemies and by Eleanor, who's searching for Zak. It unfolds with the leisurely charm of a summer afternoon in the Deep South, but there's a strain of melancholy throughout. It's a movie that understands the hard-to-die dream of running away and starting anew. They're floating on calm waters that belie an undercurrent of grief in this lyrical, affecting drama that's immensely better than its clumsy title.

Viewed Sept. 15, 2019 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks




The thing about Hustlers is how it presents itself as one thing when it's something so totally different. It's smart, cunning, slightly devious and spectacularly confident, just like the women at its core, with a final scene that pulls all of its threads together for a nifty, brilliant coda.

Based on a true story, Hustlers begins in late 2007 with strippers at a "gentleman's club" frequented by Wall Street investment bankers and hedge fund CEOs — the very ones who got away with it. Destiny (Constance Wu) is the new girl, befriended by the club's star, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Booze, drugs, sex and cash flow with ferocity until one day in September 2008 when it all comes crashing to an end. That's when Hustlers switches from risqué backstage drama into a daring criminal heist.

Dependent on the economic largesse of the men they strip for, the ladies of the club fall onto hard times until Ramona comes up with a plan. She is, Destiny relates to a journalist (Julia Stiles) investigating the story years later, the mastermind. And what a plan: The less you know about it before seeing Hustlers the better, but it's by turns funny, moving, achingly real, bracingly blunt, and frequently downright thrilling. Director Lorraine Scafaria (whose Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is criminally underrated) has a surefire hand at balancing the highs and lows of a story that is as wild, surprising and consistently engaging as the masterminds who came up with it in the first place.

Viewed Sept. 14, 2019 -- AMC Sunset 5


Sunday, September 8, 2019

"Brittany Runs a Marathon"


Brittany Runs a Marathon is about a woman named Brittany who decides, because a doctor tells her she's going nowhere fast, to start running, and eventually decides to run a marathon. It is, on one level, as straightforward as it seems.

Yet there is something much more going on in this movie by writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo.  It watches Brittany (a gloriously committed Jillian Bell) trying to do the hardest thing of all: change. It's a movie about how our identities are often tied not to the best vision of ourselves but to the wrong-headed, unhappy ideas we have about ourselves in our moments of doubt. The joy and inspiration of Brittany Runs a Marathon comes from the kind and gentle ways it gets us to realize that we are all prisoners of those ideas, and if you think you aren't, you just aren't thinking hard enough. 

As she learns about herself, Brittany finds friendship (played by Michaela Watkins and Micah Stock, who are both excellent) and  an unexpected romance with a man seemingly as shiftless as she (Utkarsh Ambudkar), even while she rather viciously sabotages her own success by insisting she couldn't possible deserve any of it. 

Brittany Runs a Marathon is about Brittany's marathon, yes. But this simple and sweet film is really about the marathon we're all running, every single day, and how we've gotten so obsessed with thinking we need to win that we forget the real victory is just making it to the finish line.

Viewed Sept. 7, 2019 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks