Talk about laidback and low key. I knew by the trailers that Clint Eastwood’s The Mule wasn’t going to be an outright thriller or anything intense despite the subject matter but I really appreciated how wistful, elegiac and at ease with itself this film was. Eastwood is knocking at 90’s door and is still spry as a sprite, once again taking both acting and directing duties in the story of Earl Stone, an elderly horticulturalist turned drug mule for the Mexican cartel. Earl is an egocentric social butterfly who could never seem to find time for his family or put them before his needs. His wife (Dianne Wiest) resents him, his daughter (Alison Eastwood) full on abhors him for missing her wedding. Only his granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga keeps getting more fantastic with each new role) holds out hope and still welcomes him with open arms. He’s all but broke when his garden centre is foreclosed upon, until a chance meeting puts him in touch with underworld operatives and before he knows it he’s ferrying lump sums of narcotics across the states for very dangerous people. This character fascinated me because even when he gets this extremely lucrative opportunity that allows him to partly buy his way back into his family’s life, he doesn’t understand or ignores the fact that if they knew where he got all this money from he’d be more in the doghouse with them than when he started off. This is essentially a story about a guy who never took responsibility, who never took life seriously enough to have a proper legacy until he gets an eleventh hour chance to do so. There’s a workaholic DEA agent played excellently by Bradley Cooper and they share a few chance encounters that capture the essence of this story nicely. They’re two men on opposite ends of the law and very different places in their life who are nonetheless able to share a few moments, enlighten each other’s perspectives and be all the wiser because of it. I loved this story because it ably showed how even in one’s twilight years when one is *still* making mistakes, it’s not too late to reconcile or turn it all around. Great film.
James Gray’s Ad Astra. It’s difficult for me to get my thoughts out on this one while still dodging spoilers but here goes. This was kind of a disappointment for me, not because it’s a particularly weak or mediocre film but rather it was something wholly different from what I was expecting. That too isn’t necessarily a cardinal sin but when your trailers and marketing campaign suggest one thing and your film blatantly does another, that’s a problem. In any case this wasn’t the ‘reach for the stars’ mysterious, ponderous SciFi epic that I got the impression of off the bat, but perhaps that’s just me.
Brad Pitt gives a grounded, meditative, cleared eyed performance as Roy McBride, earth’s most accomplished astronaut save for his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones), who has taken up residence somewhere near the rings of Neptune and caused quite a bit of trouble in a decades long campaign to contact extraterrestrial life. So begins Roy’s voyage out past the moon, Mars and towards the edge of our solar system to locate his dad’s research project, put a stop to the havoc it’s causing and set to rest the personal turmoil raging inside him, which is my fancy way of saying considerable daddy issues. There’s many diversions and they’re all handled nicely including an attack from vicious baboons in swooping zero gravity, a politically fuelled mutiny aboard a transport craft and a moon rover chase that feels comfortingly like Mad Max. Others provide supporting talent including Donald Sutherland as his dad’s ex pal hired to babysit part of his journey until that arc is cut disappointingly short. Liv Tyler is wasted on the thankless wife role that has no depth or vibrancy beyond looking worried, while Ruth Negga, Loren Dean and John Ortiz fare better as others he meets along the way.
So where does this falter? There’s a type of science fiction film that expands outward as characters explore their universe and reach for the great unknown while also feeling inward, finding themes of love, relationships and intimacy through something so grand as a journey into space. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris are probably the best example of this. This one ultimately fails at that, or at least going all the way and achieving something as profound as the examples I’ve given. Many elements work, including Pitt’s impressively centred, soulful performance, a beautifully atmospheric original score by Max Richter, stunning visuals and clever world building (somehow the fact that Virgin Atlantic does commercial flights to the moon in the future seems hilariously on point). But there’s an absent nature to the overall arc that can’t be overlooked. It’s sadly ironic that a film whose title translates to ‘To The Stars’ falls so, so far short of actually reaching them. You take this trip with Roy, experience everything he does and just when the penultimate moment approaches and you prepare for some soul nourishing pay off… your grasp closes on emptiness, and what’s worse is that was what Gray was actually intending, in a way. I get what he was going for and appreciate the effort this is the wrong film to pull a stunt like that with. Didn’t work for me overall.