Tom Augustine reviews the weekend in film.
There's no doubt that a lot of eyes will be closely observing the box-office performance of Ad Astra (dir. James Gray, Rated M) as it opens this weekend. The Brad Pitt-starring space odyssey is that rare beast in the modern cineplex - an adult, original drama working at a blockbuster budget while still resolutely retaining a director's vision. Apart from a few really big names - your Scorseses, Tarantinos or Nolans - common thinking seems to be that these kinds of films aren't profitable anymore without some sort of pre-established intellectual property attached.
As depressing a thought as this is, it's why it is all the more significant that Ad Astra is totally wonderful. A meditative, intimate father-son drama set against the most expansive backdrop imaginable - the vast void of uncharted space - Ad Astra anchors itself around a fascinatingly restrained performance from Pitt (his second remarkable turn of 2019) as an astronaut sent travelling to the far reaches of space in search of his father (Tommy Lee Jones, who's not in enough films these days), who may hold the key to preventing a disaster that threatens humankind.
Part classical space adventure, part Apocalypse Now-esque freefall into the heart of darkness, part solemn meditation on the loneliness and interiority of space, the film is directed with typical invention and muscularity by James Gray (The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant), one of the most profoundly under-rated film-makers of our time. It is so welcome to see a film like this on as big a screen as possible, with a film-maker relishing the chance to utilise his expanded canvas to pack every scene and frame with style, fluidity, motion and colour.
It's action sequences and space events are filmed at a fascinating mid-point between the stress-inducing realism of Gravity and First Man and the expressionistic, dreamlike mood of space-set thinkers like Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey (with just a dash of the more pulpy, even goofy set-pieces of trashier influences). Gray's films explore fascinating themes of disappointment, fatherhood, and of the sublime mystery of the universe. If you see one film this weekend, make it this one. RATING: Five stars.
A brutal, grim tragedy disguised as a pulpy actioner, the immediate comparison point for some audiences while watching Rambo: Last Blood (dir. Adrian Grunberg, rated R18), will undoubtedly be another bleak denouement for a beloved franchise character - Logan.
There are indeed superficial similarities between the two - the Western-flecked influences, the warm, grimy cinematography, and a grimly committed central performance (here Sylvester Stallone, reprising the classic John Rambo character). Perhaps a better comparison point, though, would be John Wayne Western The Searchers, both centring on a drifter, loner hero setting out to rescue an innocent from the hands of questionably depicted minority groups. Although Rambo: Last Blood never comes close to reaching the giddy heights of that film, I found it to be a surprisingly watchable, even engrossing dramatic film in its early stretches, earning its cathartic grand guignol of vengeful bloodletting by film's end and then some. Rambo has always paled to Stallone's other great role - Rocky Balboa - but this one proves there's life in the old boy yet. RATING: Three and a half stars.
Lastly, while initially seeming a risky proposition, I found Good Boys (dir. Gene Stupnitsky, Rated R13) to be an amiably cheeky, enjoyable little confection. From the producers of modern comedy staple Superbad, this film follows along in much the same vein as that film - the twist? Our heroes are 11-year-old boys.
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An appreciably small-stakes crisis plays out between three outcast boys invited to an exclusive "kissing party" by the cool kids, leading to plenty of hi-jinks amusingly built around the boys' inability to grasp the adult implications of their actions. It's breezy, well-acted, good for a few belly laughs, and with just a hint of a message about the painful process of growing up and trying to maintain those passionate friendships of childhood.
RATING: Three and a half stars.