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Film reviews: Ad Astra — Pitt’s just out of this world

Mission
accomplished:
The film is a
showcase for
Brad Pitt’s acting

THE BIG RELEASE

Ad Astra

(12) ★★★★✩

THERE comes a time in a Hollywood A-lister’s career when they feel the need to pop on a space helmet and grapple with the meaning of existence in extreme, Oscar-baiting close-up. Last year it was Ryan Gosling’s turn in First Man. This year, Brad Pitt bests him by agonising about his daddy issues not just on the moon but a few billion light years further away, on Neptune.

Ad Astra’s title card informs us that we are in ‘the near future’, a ‘time of hope and conflict’ — but if you go into this expecting blockbuster-scale space wars, you’ll be frustrated. The ‘conflict’ here, you see, takes place within the wounded soul of astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt, looking at least a decade younger than his 55 years).

On the surface, and judging by his pulse rate throughout the spectacular opening action set piece, Roy is steady as they come. The cracks only start to appear when the US government sends him into space on a top-secret mission to find his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a long-lost space explorer obsessed with locating life elsewhere in the universe, who abandoned Roy when he was a boy. Could Clifford still be alive out there and causing the power surges that threaten to destroy Earth?

Director James Gray is a master craftsman known for intense, character-driven dramas. The zero-gravity fights are amazing but it’s the contours and flickers of Pitt’s face that make the most impact.

This is a career-best turn from Pitt, with the film a self-produced showcase for his acting. There are fun bit parts for the likes of Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga and Natasha Lyonne but Pitt dominates. You may feel Roy’s crisis doesn’t quite justify the epic journey it takes but you’ll certainly feel transported. Essentially, Ad Astra is Apocalypse Now in space, a slow, spectacular and hypnotic watch well worth shelling out for in a swish cinema with monster seats and awesome sound.

The Verdict

A career-besting Brad Pitt solves the meaning of life. In space

The Kitchen

(15) ★★★✩✩

Packing a killer concept (Goodfellas for girls) and a trio of bankable female stars (Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss), this zeitgeist mafia movie has all the right ingredients. Combining them, though, proves a bit of a kitchen nightmare.

NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen, 1978. Three gangsters’ wives are left to fend for themselves when the mobsters are banged up. All have suffered abuse but now they’re taking over. All three leads are strong and the script crackles with stirring girl-power lines from writer-turned-director Andrea Berloff. Still, her attempt to mix shockingly dark, gritty violence with bouncy comedy leaves a bitter aftertaste.

The Farewell

(PG) ★★★★

A grandmother is terminally ill but her family lie to her, saying she’s fine. It’s a dark premise but Lulu Wang’s film is a surprisingly light, witty drama. Based on ‘an actual lie’, it’s also inspired by Wang’s own experiences, and is filled with warmth and the moral complexity of this duplicity, which is apparently common in China.

Struggling writer Billi (Awkwafina) is a New Yorker who returns to the family home in China with mixed feelings about the story that’s been spun to her ‘Nai Nai’ (an excellent Zhao Shuzhen). Her poor cousin has been roped into marrying his girlfriend as an excuse for a reunion so everyone can see Nai Nai before she dies, and a comical wedding ensues.

Immigrant in-jokes abound but this isn’t a niche film, it’s a crowd-pleaser that’s been a box-office hit in the US. Not every scene works but it’s an enjoyable watch and Awkwafina — usually the comic sidekick — is a revelation in a central role. ANNA SMITH