Mystery

Ad Astra

First Hit: Although Brad Pitt is excellent in this role, the expanse of the story, lack of substantive depth, and slow pacing left me unengaged.

The opening scene has Roy McBride (Pitt) is servicing an antenna that reaches from Earth deep into space. Then there’s a discussion about outposts on the moon and mars.  These two items alone tell the audience that we’re way into the future.

Roy’s job outside on the spacecraft type antennae tower gets interrupted by a power surge from space, they believe near the planet Neptune, causing part of the antenna to collapse, killing someone, and sending Roy falling from space back to Earth. Entering the more massive atmosphere his parachute finally opens. However, the chute gets punctured from pieces of the collapsing antenna and McBride cashes to the ground.

A theme throughout the film is McBride’s mental and physical state. His heart rate never goes above 80 bpm, even during the fall, and his responses to the questions about his psychological state are monitored by a machine. Approval by the machine voice is required for him to continue his missions. We see him sit down with the computer multiple times. Because he’s the only one we see take these tests, I wondered if others had to take these tests as well.

After the antennae accident which proves his mental, physical, and mettle to solve problems and that he has real guts, he’s called into a meeting with senior NASA and government officials.

In this meeting, we learn that the government believes that the Lima Project, which was headed to Neptune and led by Roy’s father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), may be causing the power surges and destroying Earth. They also believe that the senior McBride is still alive although, in Roy’s mind, his father is dead.

They want Roy to help them locate his father or the ship they were using so that they can send another ship, near Neptune, and destroy what is sending the power surges back towards Earth. In other words they want to use Roy as bait to coax his father out of hiding, if he’s alive. Once that is done, they don’t want Roy to actually go out and retrieve his father.

This is the premise of the story: Will Roy find his father alive? Is Clifford creating the power surges? Will Roy and his father make amends for all of the senior McBride’s absence in Roy’s life? Will the team be able to stop the power surges that are threatening Earth’s existence?

Roy wants to be an integral part of the final mission to Neptune, but he’s not given a chance. He’s only used to create messages that are sent to the Neptune area and see if his father respondes. After finding that his father is alive, because he cannot join the final mission to Neptune, he steals aboard the ship to Neptune and to confront his ever-absent father.

The film has multiple events and circumstances that do not make sense. One such set of facts is while on the moon and being transported from one base to a rocket launch base, Roy and Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) are attacked by pirates in other moon rovers. My question is where did these pirates come from? Where did they live? And, why was this scene needed? It seemed like they needed some action in the middle of the film so this is what the story used.

Pitt was great. There’s an integrated quality he brings to the character that made me believe, he loved what he did and was able to do it expertly and dispassionately. Ruth Negga (as Helen Lantos) was excellent as someone who supports Pitt on his journey. Sutherland as Thomas Pruitt, a friend of Clifford McBride and Roy’s guardian during part of the trip, was okay, but I’m not sure the role was needed. Jones was engaging and entertaining in this role as someone who only cared about his mission and learning if there is life beyond our solar system. James Gray and Ethan Gross wrote, and script that languished while hoping the philosophical concepts the story proposes will make the story engaging. Unfortunately, it doesn’t entirely fill the bill. Gray also directed this film, and although it seems he borrowed heavily from some of the pictures presented in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it fell short of being as engaging.

Overall: This movie was entertaining enough to keep me present, but lacked enough depth to make me really want more.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

First Hit: Not everyone will appreciate and engage with this film, and I did.

This film runs and works on many different levels, and it only works because of the fantastic performance of Kate Blanchett as Bernadette Fox.

I laughed out loud numerous times and in a theater with only thirty people, often I was the only one. However, as the film went on, others seemed to join me as the amazing Blanchett showed us the complexity and depth of this character. One such scene is when she walks into a store, comments to the sales staff that they have a wonderful Chihuly, and the salesgirl is stupidly stunned because she has no idea what Bernadette is referring to. Because I’m aware of Chihuly’s work, I saw it right away and therefore was fully prepared, got her reference, and felt that I was in on the joke as it evolved.

Bernadette is married to Elgie (Billy Crudup), and they have got a young teen daughter named Bee Branch (Emma Nelson) who is getting ready to go to boarding school for her high school education. They are living in Seattle because Elgie created a technology product company that was purchased by Microsoft. He continues to work with Microsoft developing new high tech innovations.

Early in the film, we see that Bernadette’s quirky behavior and Elgie’s work patterns have created a deep divide in their relationship. The story also points out how close Bee Branch and her mother are. Dutifully Bernadette picks up Bee Branch from school each day, and this is where we learn how disliked Bernadette is with the other mothers when Audrey (Kristen Wiig) makes fun of her and her quirkiness to anyone who is within earshot. Audrey and Bernadette, who live next door to each other, have a relationship filled with animosity.

One of the quirky things Bernadette does is use her phone to dictate all the things she wants to be done. These commands go to a personal assistant in India. An example of the types of orders she gives the assistant include “I need a fishing vest,” and one arrives at her home via Amazon.com. There are other scenes with this assistant in which Bernadette is writing an antagonist email to someone, or requesting medication that will help her not get seasick, and making a dental appointment along with other life tasks.

Although she’s afraid of being around people and doesn’t like boats, Bernadette and Elgie agree to take Bee Branch to Antarctica as a middle school graduation reward.

One day while Bernadette is visiting the Seattle Library, a young woman comes up to her and asks to take a picture of her. Bernadette is clearly annoyed because of the intrusion, and the woman insists that Bernadette is her hero because of what she brought to the world of architecture. The woman mentions an online video of Bernadette’s career.

Arriving home, Bernadette grabs her computer and begins to watch the video, and we get the opportunity to know more about Bernadette’s artistic and creative architecture skills. For the audience, it is a moment where we begin to understand this fantastic creative person.

But it is when Bernadette meets up with one of her former associate architects (Laurence Fishburne) that Bernadette’s story spills, and I mean spills, out of her in one long rant. The power of her being able to talk to a fellow architect, who will understand her, is powerful. After a long spilling of her story, I loved it when Fishburne says something like, “is that it”? “Are you finished”?

He tells her what the audience is slowly learning, she needs to get back to work, creating. However, through her quirky life and other incidents, her husband has become increasingly concerned about her behavior. But it’s when the FBI contacts him and tells him that Bernadette’s online assistant is really a Russian operative who is going to steal all their money that he sets up an intervention.

How Bernadette resolves her struggles with her neighbor Audrey, her husband, and her internal demons is the rest of the film and story.

Blanchett is absolutely sublime as Bernadette. It is by far and away the best performance of the year by an actor (or actress). I loved how she pulled me into her madness and how I fully understood what she was going through. Wiig was outstanding as the long-time neighbor who tried to put on a superior face about her family life only to realize that there was envy about Bernadette and Bee Branch’s relationship. Nelson was outstanding as Bee Branch. I loved how her faith in her best friend, her mom, was successfully tested. Crudup was excellent as the distracted focused but loving husband and father. Holly Gent and Richard Linklater wrote an engrossing screenplay and were deeply rewarding and entertaining. Linklater also directed the film.

Overall: If you go to see this film, you’ve got to be ready to accept and dive into Bernadette from the beginning, because if you do, you’ll be rewarded in the end.

Midsommar

First Hit: Early on, I was hopeful and interested, but as the story moved along it failed to deliver intrigue and died an unhappy but amusing unintended death.

While watching the film, the approach of the story reminded me of “Get Out” in that people are brought to a place unsuspecting of the weird darkness that is ready to befall them. But more like "Us,” Jordan Peele’s follow-up film, this story fails by being too overt and complicated in its presentation.

At the beginning of the film, I thought the scenes were exciting and created a hopeful promise of a good story. Many of these scenes, were well depicted, including Dani (Florence Pugh) panicking because her bi-polar sister wasn’t responding to Dani’s emails and that her parents not answering their phone. She did a great job of depicting insecurity and panic.

Looking for support, she calls her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), but gets little relief from her fears, because of the tone tenor of his voice while attempting to support her tells a different story. We understand that he’s disengaged and tired of her insecurities.

When Dani learns her sister has killed herself and her parents, Christian does what he can to support her, but we all know, he’s doing it out of guilt and now barely cares about any future with Dani.

Christian likes hanging out with his friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper), Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), and Mark (Will Poulter) who are encouraging him to find another girlfriend because Dani’s too clingy.

These set-up scenes are excellent and made me wonder where this story was headed.

During a group conversation with his buddies, Christian reluctantly tells his friends that he’s invited Dani on their group trip to Sweden to meet Pelle’s family and experience the Midsommar celebration.

The reluctance and inability of Christian to communicate with Dani, and with his friends about Dani, is part of the slow burn that develops in Dani that is key to actions later in the film.

Heading into Pelle’s communal family compound, the audience notices the welcoming nature of this group, but also there’s a hint of darkness in the interactions between the outsiders and the communal group.

Then the story really starts to dive into weirdness. Along with another outside couple, Connie and Simon (Ellora Torchia and Archie Madekwe respectively), we get a sense that these outsiders were brought here for another reason (hence the reference to “Get Out”).

There are overtly graphic deaths that are meant to be honorable in their execution as this commune believes that at age 72 you’ve served and it’s time to leave. When I say overtly graphic, I mean this. They are not easy to watch and not for the faint of heart.

But this is just part of the weirdness of this story, and by the time it is clear what is going on, the story was both comical and poorly conceived.

Pugh was strong. Her ability to be needy, vulnerable, and edgy was very good. Reynor was excellent at being a guilt-ridden boyfriend. Harper was one of the more clearly defined characters and brought a saneness to this story. Poulter is always good at being the goofy, slightly outrageous, obnoxious character. In this film, he carries on this role. Blomgren was outstanding as the commune member who gently supports Dani through her transition. Madekwe was sufficiently outraged bordering on too much at the demonstration of the deaths of two older people. Torchia was good in her minor role as Simon’s finance. Ari Aster wrote the screenplay and directed this film. The story felt overly complicated and seemed to get confused with itself. For instance, there is this scene when Pelle says this event only happens every ninety years, but what part is annual and what part is every ninety years? When do the other old people pass, annually? What parts are every ninety years, and what parts are annual? I didn’t understand the meaning of talking about this ninety-year sacred event. There were moments in which the direction was clearly impactful and engaging, while other sections pushed the story more than required to make the point or that the parts didn’t quite make sense.

Overall: This film was too long and uneven its storytelling.

The Souvenir

First Hit: A languid slow-paced film that bordered on torturous to watch.

This is either a good film about how a bad relationship can screw up your life, or it’s a bad film about how long the audience can watch someone live with their poor choices.

After seeing this film, I decided to peek at what some other reviewers said about this film. I’m surprised at how many reviewers liked this film when, while watching it, I wanted to get up and leave at least three times.

I believe I understood the point of the film; when someone is in love, that love can seep into, and drastically affect, every part of their life. My issue is why did this supposedly smart woman stay with this drug-laden man.

Here we have Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a budding young filmmaker, being allowed to become a student in a prestigious film school. The scenes during class sessions are mostly long and uninformative, unlike the underlying philosophy espoused by the instructors. This film wouldn’t have passed the instructor’s criteria.

At one point after Julie explains her film’s subject, the interviewers state that it is usually better to make a film about topics the director has some experience and knowledge about. It’s obvious Julie knew little or nothing about her subject of a boy losing a parent they love.

Julie’s family is wealthy. Her mom Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) and father live life well on a large English country estate. But the scenes where Julie asks for money are incredibly disheartening and remind me of someone entitled and never really having worked for a living.

Julie meets an older man, Anthony (Tom Burke), who is supposed to be a diplomat, but we never really know for whom or what. He doesn’t want to be questioned about anything. This set-up allows him far too much freedom to not share where he goes and what he’s doing. The reality is that he’s addicted to heroin and when he’s out he out scoring drugs.

Although he’s always dressed nicely, he never pays for anything, and watching Julie ever reaching for her purse made me ill. His arrogance and air of superiority were not attractive, and I don’t know what Julie saw in him. These scenes were often followed up by another plea, by Julie, for money from her mom. When he robs Julie’s apartment, the act was only believable from an addicts point of view. Her response was almost benign.

I never saw or felt much chemistry between Julie and Anthony and saw no reason for them being together, except he needed her money to pay for his habit. Just like when two of her film friends come over for dinner, and the man says to Julie when Anthony leaves the room; I don’t understand you two, how do you handle him being drugged all the time? Julie has no response and the shock on her face would make you believe she will pursue this with Anthony, but she doesn’t, she just goes along for the ride.

There are long scenes where nothing happens and no setup too long, languid scenes to gain insight into the characters, let alone the film. The multiple shots of the four trees with a voice-over worked once, but that’s it.

Byrne has an attractive and unusual look, like her mom, but her actions in this role seemed juxtaposed to what I sense to be an intelligent person. This is either poor acting or weak script and direction. Burke was an excellent addict, and his behavior of using his system of excuses was typical addict oriented. Swinton was superb as Julie’s mom. Being her real mom probably helped. Joanna Hogg wrote and directed this film.

Overall: Despite reviews saying that Joanna is in charge of her craft, I can only say this film was uninteresting and forgetful.

The Intruder

First Hit: A day after watching this movie, I’ve forgotten almost everything about it.

A good film has you remember something about it, the next day, next week, next month, and next year. This film barely made it to the next day. A movie like “Wait Until Dark,” which might be categorized as the same genre, is still is with me today, and I saw it in 1967.

The idea of this film is; a couple decides to buy a country home in Napa Valley, fix it up, and hopefully raise a family in their new home. The house they fall in love with is owned by a man who claims his wife died about two years ago from cancer and it’s time for him to move on and live in Florida with his daughter. But, with any good horror mystery, there is a wrinkle in the idyllic story.

Here we have Annie and Scott Russell (Megan Good and Michael Ealy respectively), having had success, wanting to move from a condo in San Francisco to a home in Napa Valley. The home Annie falls in love with is owned by Charlie Peck (Dennis Quaid).

The faults started early for me. The looks and quick switches in attitude by Peck made him a creepy suspect too soon. He didn’t sell the story of his wife dying of cancer well enough. That is what disappointed me about this film. It telegraphed too loud and too early the player's positions in this film.

Annie, on her part, was too trusting too early and in apparent situations where caution would be the by-word, she wasn’t. Scott was on edge too early as well. His mistrust and skittishness seemed a little too fabricated.

Anyway, after buying the house, Peck keeps showing up at Russell’s home, mowing the lawn, yelling at people installing a security system, and trying to be helpful. He isn’t, and the creepiness oozes from his eyes and a fake smile.

The story unfolds as one might imagine, but the over crafting from the beginning led to an apparent predictable ending. Additionally, I live in the San Francisco Bay area I’m surprised that Scott, as a high-level advertising executive, would consider making a daily commute from Napa to San Francisco. It might have been better if they had moved to Mill Valley, Fairfax, or other Marin County areas, than Napa. I couldn’t get around the commute as being something viable.

Ealy was OK as Scott. However, his suspicions were telegraphed too early in the film. Good was acceptable as Annie. Her naivety towards Peck by not seeing his obvious behavior flaws was not believable. As a for instance, note the scene when she invites him in to share the pizza he delivers to her, dumb. Quaid overacted the part, but I did think his evil grin was well done. He sort of had a “Chuckie” look to him. Joseph Sikora as Scott’s close friend Mike was reasonable in his role as up and coming young, robust and rich guy. Alvina August was acceptable as Mike’s girlfriend who put up with Mike’s posturing. David Loughery wrote a good script, but it was the direction by Deon Taylor that failed to make the story memorable. He didn’t get much out of his actors and sided on overacting to make this film.

Overall: This film is totally forgettable and not worth seeing.