Tag Archives: James Gray

Ad Astra

Space is a lonely place. Cold, dark, and endless, it is described as the final frontier for good reason. Still, for as long as mankind has understood that the stars are bright balls of gas billions and billions of miles away, we have dreamed of exploring the darkness, and solving the many mysteries that must be there, waiting to be found.

MV5BYmFmMDA1ZTUtMmNlOS00ODc3LTkxYWEtMTA0OWM4MDQxMjEzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjg2NjQwMDQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) has dedicated his life to space exploration. For better or worse, Roy has also spent his life living in his father’s shadow.  Roy’s dad, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), was a legendary astronaut best known for disappearing somewhere near Neptune while searching for extraterrestrial life.  Roy never really knew his dad, so when he learns his father may not be as dead as was previously assumed, he’s not exactly jumping for joy.  Though to be fair, Roy has clearly never jumped for joy in his life. He’s detached, completely closed off from everyone around him, dedicated only to the missions he’s given, and his next mission is to try to make contact with his long-absent dad, who is now believed to pose a threat to all life on Earth.

The audience gets to accompany Roy on his journey, but of course we provide no company to him. Roy is alone, and while he mostly seems not to mind (indeed, he is really more comfortable in the solitude), Ad Astra weighed heavily on me. The mystery of space has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and accordingly I have dragged Jay to more sci-fi films than can be counted. Of those countless films, Ad Astra is the first to ask me to examine my curiosity and ask what, exactly am I looking for? What is it about space that draws our dreams away from our home and into the endless void?

There are no easy answers in Ad Astra, and plenty of time to think about the many big questions raised by writers James Gray (who also directed) and Ethan Gross. Space is very quiet, and Roy’s journey is a satisfingly slow one. The journey feels even all the more important because of the slow pace. It becomes more an emotional, and even spiritual, journey than a spatial one, and an exploration of what really matters to us, both individually and as a species.  And it’s a wonderful trip.

The Lost City of Z

Percy Fawcett is a hard-working man but promotion eludes him due to his “unfortunate choice of ancestors.” This provides the desperate motivation in him agreeing on a mapping “adventure” deep in the Amazonian jungle. If disease doesn’t kill him, the hostile “savages” are likely to, but to restore his family name and support his family, off he goes…never to return.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) was a real British explorer who did get sent to the Amazon. While surveying there he believed he found a previously unknown, unfathomed advanced civilization. Back home he is ridiculed by his peers, but he’s obsessed, not just with a potentially huge discovery, but with proving himself. His fire is lit, his wife (Sienna Miller) supports him and his aide de camp (Robert Pattinson) enables him until one day he just disappears into the jungle.

Shooting a movie in an honest to blog jungle is difficult and uncomfortable. Director James Gray asked Francis Ford Coppola (who did the same for Apocalypse Now) for advice, and he was told “Don’t go”, which, incidentally, is the same thing Roger Corman told Coppola. Nobody listens, but it’s probably solid advice. If you do disregard it and trek to the steamiest of locations, make sure you don’t plan to film digitally. Gray was shooting 35mm thankfully, as the humidity shut down all the laptops and would have done the same to digital cameras. The actors and crew withstood and great deal of hardship – was it worth it?

The Lost City of Z (it’s pronounced Zed, you filthy Americans) has a meandering pace that reminds me of the epic adventure movies of 50 years ago or more. I can’t justify its runtime (141 minutes!) and I know exactly what I would have left on the cutting room floor, but I do love lots about the movie. I love the complexity that Hunnam brings to the role. I love the subtlety and the refusal to exploit that Gray insists upon. I love the authenticity of the script, the honest portrayal of sacrifice, the bold ambition of the story. There aren’t exactly a lot of surprises to be had. It’s about finding oneself while literally losing oneself. But there’s a lot to enjoy along the way. The jungle itself plays a stunning role; tip of the old safari hat to cinematographer Darius Khondji who captured things no CGI could hope to emulate.