Right off the bat, I want to say something that I think most people can agree on about this movie: Joaquin Phoenix is undoubtedly the best part of it. He is one of the best actors of this generation, and in Joker, he is able to give the character of Arthur Fleck a lot more depth than a weaker actor would be able to. Credit is to be given to the script of course, which despite some issues with pacing and inopportune humor, manages to tackle some of the issues that give rise to the Joker in a good enough way. Joker is a good movie, much better than we could have gotten if Jared Leto’s Joker had gotten his solo movie, but there is also probably an alternate universe where we got an even better version of this movie. But seeing that we live in this universe and not that one, I think it’s safe to say that what we did get can be appreciated for it’s strengths, even if we can recognize it’s obvious weaknesses. Masterpiece this is not, but neither is it a terrible flop.
To the stars. That is the given translation of the phrase “Ad Astra“, from which the movie takes it’s name. It’s an appropriate title for a film so committed to its journey through the stars, and to its journey into Roy McBride’s (Brad Pitt’s character) inner psyche (and by extension the inner psyche of mankind itself). I knew essentially nothing going into this, and what I ended up getting was a surprisingly poignant look at mankind’s search for purpose, and how we attempt to use space to reflect on and pursue this goal. As someone who loves space and space travel, I’m obviously more inclined to look positively on a movie that both reflects on the near future of space travel, and on how it will (or won’t) affect us as a species. Even putting that aside, Ad Astra is an absolute gem, a clear passion project for everyone involved that comes out in full force through the well-written script, perfect pacing, and the haunting soundtrack by Max Richter. More than all of that though, it does one of the best things that I think any movie can really do: use a larger theme to explore very personal and very down-to-earth issues. It’s simple to do in concept, but difficult to pull off well. Most films get bogged down in the base plot that they fail to establish a greater purpose or deeper meaning behind the narrative, and while that’s totally fine for a lot of different genres, I think that films like Ad Astra could in the future look to it as a source of inspiration and an example of how to do these things correctly.
“Sometimes, I burn down greenhouses." A line uttered by one of the primary characters of Burning, a line that at the moment seems strange, brought on by an evening of wine and weed, an admission of a small, victim-less crime. But as the film progresses, it haunts both us and the main character, it begins to unfold into multiple potential meanings, a metaphor that potentially references something heinous, a veiled confession of a dark crime. Burning as a film is just like this statement, it sits with you, it simmers, it seems to meander until the pieces start to come together, and the grand, unspoken narrative begins to subtly reveal itself. 2 and a half hours long with not a minute wasted is quite an accomplishment, one that I’ve been seeing more and more lately with films such as this that take the time to establish character and atmosphere, respecting the audience to come along on the journey and to pay attention to everything that’s going on. The pace is slow, but this grants it the ability to be steady, never quite relenting in the pressure that continues to build under the surface. The end result is both a narrative and visual masterpiece, never tripping up or leaning into tired cliches even once, never giving in to the temptation to be lazy. It is expertly and tightly constructed, and it is one of the best films released last year.
Been a hot minute, hasn’t it? Took a bit of a break from this creative endeavor, due to life events, work pressures, and other semi-creative endeavors. But I want to make sure I return to this. There were some fantastic movies that came out in the last few months of 2018 that I didn’t get a chance to write about, so perhaps here I’ll be able to gush about how much I enjoyed them.
When setting expectations for a movie, it’s important to note what it seems to emphasize. What is the movie about, not just it’s setting or it’s plot, but what does it focus on? What does the movie find important over everything else? In First Man, we can find our answer in it’s title. This is not a movie about the moon landing, this is not a movie about the space program. This is not a movie about science, or history, or America, or any of that. This movie is about the man himself, Neil Armstrong. This is a movie that seeks to understand the man who first set foot on a world beyond Earth, and what personal motivations brought him there. In this sense the movie is a great success, never painting Neil as a dramatic figure or making him more exciting than he was. This attempts to truly paint a portrait of the man himself, and by doing so so in such a minimalist fashion, it is probably more accurate to reality than most movie-going audiences are expecting when they go to a film like this one.