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Ad Astra (2019) elevates ‘Take Your Kids To Work Day’ to a cosmic scale.

We all remember how exciting it was when you got to visit your mum and dad at work, right? James Gray’s thoughtful, introspective and quietly engrossing sci-fi meditation “Ad Astra” sets out to explore the bond between father and son when stretched onto an inhumanly cosmic scale.

When a mysterious pulse from the edge of the solar system causes widespread disruption on Earth, the authorities fear it may be the harbinger of even worse effects which could extinguish all known life in the solar system. Believing the energy pulses are connected to the long-lost Lima Project which vanished sixteen years earlier, US Space Command turns to astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), son of legendary H Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) and leader of the Lima Project, to try to discover the source of the power surges.

In many ways, “Ad Astra” is a virtual remake of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, except with Tommy Lee Jones’ Clifford McBride as HAL and a yearning for parental love and acceptance as its monolith and along the way, writer/ director James Gray borrows liberally from “Solaris”, “Gravity“, “Interstellar” and even “Mission To Mars”. Like Kubrick’s sci-fi opus, “Ad Astra” is rich in casual details of the imagined near future practicalities of spaceflight and, superficially at least, seems to share the 1969 classic’s distinct lack of emotion. However, therein lies the rub because it does a gross disservice to the phenomenally understated performance delivered by Pitt as the son searching across the unfathomable distances of the solar system for a father long thought lost to him. Pitt brings an achingly authentic, internalised intensity to McBride, contained in the subtlest of expressions and a nuanced physicality that holds the entire film together.

James Gray certainly delivers on the visuals required for this kind of prestige space opera and while the character work is top-notch, the film does often let the surrounding details of the world-building blur to frustrating indistinctness at times. There are also a couple of action beats which feel awkwardly tacked on and you have to wonder if they were part of the original vision or the manifestation of some C-suite jitters over the prospects of a sober and cerebral sci-fi film in the current box office climate.

In the end, though, Pitt and Gray conspire to deliver an absorbingly introspective look at what it means to be human on a scale both familial and cosmic and finds a curious optimism and hopeful message in its bluntness about the vast, cold indifference of space by suggesting that the incomprehensible distances between the distant points of light in the sky are the very reason why its important to form meaningful connections with those your closest to – your fellow humans.


Mechanic: Resurrection (2016) Review

Rivalling “Suicide Squad” for the worst editing of 2016, “Mechanic: Resurrection” is a confused and underwhelming mix of lush location footage and studio-bound cut scenes that feel more “That Riviera Touch” than a modern action thriller. The pseudo-Bond exotic location hopping feels arbitrary and slapped together in service of a plot that promises much more than it can deliver.

When Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) finds his idyllic exile threatened by his past, he is lured into a globe-spanning series of tasks in order to save the life of hostage.

The film starts brightly enough with a Rio-set kinetic action frenzy that almost promises to be the closest we’ll apparently ever get to another “Crank” but then immediately slams the brakes on for a Thailand-set interlude which brings Michelle Yeoh and Jessica Alba into the mix. While Yeoh plays an old friend of Bishop’s, Alba’s role is that of a plot device to push the turgid plot along and set up the disjointed ‘labours of Hercules’ style challenge.

The action – Brazil and the swimming pool scene from the trailer aside – is lazy and uninspired and despite the efforts of Statham (far from his best efforts, though) the film never really bursts into life. It just gets weirder when Tommy Lee ‘Anything And Everything For a Paycheque’ Jones turns up in a third act twist that’s barely a corner.

Boring, silly and occasionally unintentionally hilarious, “Mechanic: Resurrection” is a poor sequel to the 2011 actioner and one of the sloppiest films of the year.


Jason Bourne (2016) Review

“Jason Bourne” sees the reluctant super-spy facing his deadliest foe yet: the irrefutable sense of unnecessariness.

When Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) reaches out to an isolated and off-grid David Webb Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), it kicks off a chain of events that leads the CIA to try once again to capture or kill the errant spy. Meanwhile, a secret collaboration between the state and private sector nears its fruition.

In its desperation to find something topical to justify its existence, “Jason Bourne” ends up rehashing the exact same plot McGuffin which propelled “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and – in a  slightly more bloated and boring way – “SPECTRE”, but it does so in a lazy and unfocussed way, failing to land any of its flailing punches on its thematic target.

The whole film reeks of obligation which is hardly a surprise given Damon and director Paul Greengrass’ longstanding reluctance to return to the franchise. Universal’s relentless pursuit of the pair fails to pay dividends though as they both phone it in for this flat and lethargic sequel.

The shakycam gets old really fast, which is the only fast thing about this tedious movie that manages to take the stripped down kinetic action which is Bourne’s trademark and make it feel dull and repetitive. Even the set piece car chase through the streets of Vegas feels monotonous and pointless as the truck ploughs through traffic which is clearly made of flimsy shells. Nothing has weight, from the plot to the props.

Even the usually effervescent Alicia Vikander fails to enliven proceedings and Tommy Lee Jones – who has clearly entered the anything for a payday phase of his career – picks up another cheque for a few days of weary hangdog mumbling.

The Bourne series’ continued reliance on the idea that there are secret black ops projects within projects within projects has become a millstone around its neck, as the idea that the US Government’s intelligence services are constructed like a set of bureaucratic Matryoshka dolls strains credibility at this point. Jason Bourne’s story is done. It was over at the end of “Ultimatum” and the constant grasping for a reason for Bourne to be involved gives this movie a chore identity.


Criminal (2016) Review

Between this and last year’s “Self/Less”, you have to hope Ryan Reynolds has learned to never a borrower or a lender be, at least when it comes to his brain.

When a CIA operative is killed in London, the agency brings in an experimental neuroscientist to try and recover their dead agent’s memories in the hope it will lead them to the location of a hacker who has his digital finger on the button of America’s arsenal. When the procedure seemingly fails, the agency moves to dispose of the test subject, death row inmate Jericho Stewart. But Jericho has plans of his own and, on the loose, finds himself being hunted by not only the CIA but also a ruthless terrorist who wants control of the weaponry for himself.

There’s the bones of a half decent James Bond movie in “Criminal” but the execution is a hot mess of bad ideas and bemused actors. There’s nothing  new in the idea of creating an anti-hero, a no-nonsense, takes-no-shit-off-nobody anti-establishment outsider who does what they think is right but in Jericho Stewart, “Criminal” takes the bold step of making their anti-hero anti-likeable. It’s never really explained adequately in the film why it’s a good idea to give a brain-damaged sociopath a whole life’s worth of CIA secrets and skillsets and even in the scene where’s he’s introduced through the clichéd reading of his file, the result sounds more like the CV of a would be Bond villain henchman. Ultimately your hero can get away with a great deal and still keep the audience onside but if one of his first acts is to murder an innocent bystander in cold blood then…well, good luck with that.

The film proceeds to waste a stellar cast on a dull run-around ‘adventure’ in the grubbier parts of the nation’s capital. London has rarely looked shittier on film, especially in recent years; “Criminal” does for London what “Bastille Day” did for Paris. Ryan Reynolds is actually pretty good in this but has the good luck to die early on, escaping the rubbish that follows. Gary Oldman phones in a performance comprised entirely of deleted Jim Gordon scenes from the Dark Knight trilogy (apparently its not just Paris’ CIA office that’s staffed by Brits), Tommy Lee Jones just looks lost and Kevin Costner grunts and mumbles his way through the film in a way he hasn’t since “Waterworld” – and those are just the good guys. Jordi Mollà’s villainous mastermind Xavier Heimdahl is so anemic and ineffective he makes every Marvel bad guy to date look robustly developed and invested with emoitional heft and motivation. The threat remains nebulous and distant because – like much else in this film – things aren’t explained well.

In a year where “London Has Fallen” and “Bastille Day” have already set the bar so very, very low, it takes something special to sink even further. “Criminal” is that special.