Richard Dreyfuss Reaches For The Stars, But ‘Astronaut’ Doesn’t Quite Get Off The Ground

There’s no denying that Richard Dreyfuss is a talented actor, and he’s got the Oscar to prove it. Lately, though, it seems those talents have been squandered in a series of nondescript films with little box office potential. Maybe it’s just his age — at 71, there probably aren’t a lot of plum roles available for him anymore, but he clearly loves his work. And while his passion for acting often elevates his performances above the material he’s given, that won’t be enough to lift Astronaut out of a low orbit.

The film starts out feeling awfully reminiscent of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, except this movie’s golden ticket is a seat aboard the first commercial space flight and it’s the young boy pushing his old, ailing grandfather to enter, instead of the other way around. Along the way, though, the film pivots into something resembling Rain Man, as Dreyfuss’s character, Angus, becomes overly fixated on a geological anomaly that could doom the mission. Ultimately, it feels like a bait-and-switch move: The movie we wind up with is not the one we think we’re getting during the first reel.

Not helping matters is the script from Shelagh McLeod, a veteran actress making her feature film debut as a writer and director. Angus is the only character in the film who’s fully fleshed out; the others feel like one-dimensional stereotypes in service of Angus’s story. You’ve got the unconditionally supportive grandson, the overly worried daughter, the sternly disapproving son-in-law, and the rich entrepreneur who will stop at nothing in the race to become the first commercial player in space.

It’s a shame, really, because Angus is a compelling character. He’s a 75-year-old widower, and one of his greatest disappointments in life came when NASA denied his bid to become a mission specialist in the Space Shuttle program. So when Marcus (Colm Feore), the rich entrepreneur, sponsors an online contest for the last seat aboard his first space flight, Angus defies the rules and lies about his age to enter the contest. He’s a character defined by his obsessions — getting into space, holding on to the last vestiges of his wife’s life, and his life’s work, geology.

That final obsession propels the last half of the movie, as Angus becomes more and more focused on convincing Marcus and his associates that his maiden space voyage is a disaster waiting to happen. But the constant rock talk gets a little tiresome and tends to drag the film down. Angus’s journey ends in a way that is predictably telegraphed by the film, but still carries some emotional resonance. Not enough, though, to overcome the script’s deficiencies.

Ultimately, while this Astronaut wants to soar skyward, it doesn’t quite have the right equipment to get it into the stratosphere.

Astronaut is currently playing on VOD.

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Posted by Ari Coine

Pitt, DiCaprio, And Tarantino Tempt Fate In ‘Hollywood’

In a way, Quentin Tarantino is the Donald Trump of Hollywood — some people love him, some people loathe him, and some merely scratch their heads and mutter, “What the hell was that?” Meanwhile, Tarantino enthusiastically and unapologetically makes movies designed to please his base.

He’s at it again with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film loaded with classic Tarantino self-indulgence. It’s a movie that could easily lose an hour from its 2 hour, 45 minute running time and still work, but it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie.

We know Tarantino loves old Westerns, so he lingers on the movie-within-a-movie scenes. We know Tarantino loves violence, so there’s plenty of that. We know Tarantino loves to deconstruct the craft of making movies, so we get an 8-year-old girl meticulously breaking down the process of method acting. And we know Tarantino loves to decorate his substance with style, so there’s plenty on display here.

Set in 1969 Hollywood, the film is partially a love letter to that bygone era. Tarantino and his crew have painstakingly recreated the era’s look, from the clothing to the old Los Angeles bus stop signs. The set decoration, costuming, and cinematography are all brilliant, verging on breathtaking. They’ve even managed to capture the era’s sound, using snippets of real recordings from old L.A. Top 40 powerhouse KHJ-AM.

The movie’s performances are wonderful, led by its stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Both play characters who are on the down side of their career trajectories. DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is a former TV series star whose fortunes have waned to the point where he’s relegated to occasional guest roles, playing bad guys who are doomed to lose. But he’s got it good compared to Pitt’s Cliff Booth. He’s been Dalton’s personal stunt man for years, but with the roles drying up, he’s relegated to the thankless task of being Dalton’s personal assistant.

When Booth gets fired from Dalton’s latest project after a hilarious encounter with Bruce Lee, the movie splits into two threads: Dalton seeks validation as he struggles to deliver a good performance, while Booth winds up crossing paths with the infamous Manson family.

Those paths come back together on the night of the famous Sharon Tate murder, giving Tarantino the opportunity to wage one last bloody battle and rack up a body count before the credits roll.

Like much of Tarantino’s work, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood delivers laughs in intentionally unlikely places, while sucking you in emotionally to the plights of the movie’s heroes and anti-heroes. Of course, Tarantino does it in a bloated, sometimes verbose way, but the net result is a beautifully shot, beautifully acted work that threatens to wear out its welcome, but never quite does.

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Posted by Ari Coine



‘Armstrong’ Documentary: Real-Life Glimpses Of The Man Behind The Moon Mission

One of my best friends in high school was the grandson of former NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden. When NASA decided to rename the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in honor of Neil Armstrong in 2014, I asked my friend how he felt about losing the name. He replied with no hesitation: If it took somebody as amazing as Neil Armstrong to replace his grandfather’s name, that was a huge honor.

Such is the way Armstrong is revered as a true American hero.

With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing only a day away, Armstrong’s signature accomplishment has once again put him in the spotlight. While the new documentary Armstrong certainly doesn’t shy away from the historic event, it does strive to place it in the context of a man whose life was extraordinary in many ways.

Armstrong’s life story is told in full, starting with his childhood in Wapakoneta, Ohio. (Ironically enough, among the establishing shots of modern-day Wapakoneta is a glimpse of the town’s cinema. On the marquee? The recent Armstrong biopic First Man.) Through archival interview clips with his parents, we learn how young Neil was fascinated with airplanes and aspired to be an aircraft designer.

That introduction sets the tone for the entire documentary. We get glimpses into Armstrong’s life from the people who knew him best — family members, friends, and colleagues — along with plenty of candid home movies, NASA footage, and old television broadcasts. Armstrong even contributes his own words, narrated here by one of Hollywood’s space pioneers, Harrison Ford.

Most of the documentary focuses on establishing the Apollo 11 moonwalk as a pivotal moment in Armstrong’s life, but not as a singular defining moment. Rather than branding Armstrong a hero because he walked on the moon, it shows us that Armstrong was chosen for the moonwalk because he was already a hero.

He had handled himself in exemplary fashion as a pilot during the Korean War, as one of the courageous X-15 test pilots, and during a difficult Gemini 8 mission that could have ended in tragedy if not for his actions. In one particularly telling moment, former Apollo flight director Gerry Griffin reveals that Buzz Aldrin was initially suggested as the first man on the moon, but he vetoed the idea because he saw Armstrong as a steadier, more dependable representative of the mission — not just before and during the flight, but afterward. Griffin knew the historical responsibility that would come with being the man to take that “one small step,” and he was convinced Armstrong was the right man for the job.

Obviously, the lunar landing changed Armstrong’s life forever, and the rest of the film paints Armstrong as a reluctant celebrity who, after retiring from the space program, tried to resume a normal life but could never quite outrun the demands of his historic achievement. Indeed, when his friend, former Taft Broadcasting President/CEO Charlie Mechem, asked him to serve on the company’s board of directors, Mechem tells us how Armstrong grilled him for two hours about what his role would be. Armstrong, he recalls, wanted to make sure he was not being chosen solely because of the star power — or, in this case, moon power — attached to his name.

Armstrong’s life was one filled with extraordinary moments, a mix of great triumphs and great tragedies, and these moments are painted vividly in the film. The stories are told well, the NASA mission footage is spectacular, and the candid films are wonderfully revealing of the private personality behind the public persona. The Armstrong family was heavily involved in the project — indeed, Neil’s son and granddaughter collaborated on the song that plays over the closing credits — and it is easy to see why they wanted this film to stand as a non-dramatized counterpoint to First Man. Given his aversion to the spotlight in his later years, Armstrong may have been embarrassed by a movie with all of the Hollywood trimmings. Armstrong serves as a fact-based, low-glitz alternative that probably tells the story in the manner its subject would have preferred.

Armstrong is now available on VOD.

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Posted by Ari Coine

‘Lion King’ Update Dazzles With Its Visual Details

Though its characters certainly look realistic, it would be a mistake to call the newly reimagined The Lion King a “live-action version” of the 1994 Disney classic (as some have done), when it’s really just a different form of animation. But most people will just be calling it “spectacular.”

The Lion King was arguably the high point of Disney’s ’90s renaissance, so director Jon Favreau and his crew didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. They just made it a shinier wheel. The story and characters are essentially unchanged from the original, but they’re painted on an entirely new canvas. And it’s the canvas that’s the real star of the movie.

More than any of the voice actors’ work, more than any of the animators’ work, I found myself most impressed with the breathtaking landscapes filmed by Favreau and his MVP, famed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. These stunning shots, filmed in Kenya, provide a superior backdrop for the animators, who respond with top-notch work of their own. Clearly, countless hours have been spent studying the biomechanics of these jungle animals and their rippling, sinewy muscles, because there are times when it’s easy to wonder whether these animals are real or animated.

This heightened realism means the fights and stampedes are a lot more intense than the original, and even the emotional impact of Mufasa’s death is greater when you see young Simba nestle himself into his father’s still-warm body, his face showing carefully nuanced anguish, rather than old-style cartoon sadness.

Having voiced Mufasa in the original, James Earl Jones and his classy baritone return to provide a tangible link between the old and new versions, and his presence here is welcome. Among the new voices, Seth Rogen is the standout as Pumbaa, the malodorous warthog. Beyoncé brings a lot more sass to the grown-up Nala than in the original movie, but she also provides one of the film’s rare missteps — her melisma-laden performance of Can You Feel The Love Tonight? is far too over-the-top compared to her duet partner, Donald Glover’s. There’s no denying Beyoncé’s talents as a singer, but her vocal acrobatics throw the duet’s balance jarringly out of whack.

(The film’s other holdover songs, mostly produced by Pharrell Williams, have been pretty faithfully updated. A new Beyoncé track, Spirit, is nice but not as memorable as the original songs, and another new addition — a new Elton John song that plays over the end credits — finds the Rocketman rocker sounding surprisingly spry at age 72.)

As with the other recent Disney remakes, there have been a few updates to bring the films in step with today’s culture. In addition to Nala being a much more feisty and ferocious female than the 1994 version, Rogen’s Pumbaa has a made-for-social media moment when he proudly stands up to body-shaming bullies.

Knowing that the current crop of Disney do-overs are inevitably judged against their predecessors, it feels like Favreau has gone out of his way to pay homage to the original, as some of its most iconic shots have been painstakingly reproduced here. But again, with the story remaining the same, the key difference here is the cinematography and animation. And while the original certainly has that old-school Disney animation charm, this new version is absolutely spectacular in its realism. It’s clearly the best of the Disney remakes so far, and this new version will likely stand beside the original as a classic.

The Lions King opens in theaters tomorrow.

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Posted by Ari Coine


‘Sea of Shadows’ Review: Riveting Documentary Spotlights Endangered Vaquita Porpoise

Directed by Richard Ladkani (The Ivory Game), Sea of Shadows is a riveting documentary that, while providing much needed information about an endangered species, is also an immersive storytelling experience.

There are only 15 vaquita porpoises that survive on this world, and they reside near the Sea of Cortez. Fisherman have cast their nets into the surrounding ocean to catch totoaba, a fish whose swim bladders are valuable in the Chinese market. These nets end up catching other marine life in the area, including the vaquita. Every person in this totoaba chain are grabbing a profit, and it is imperative to put an end to this criminal operation.

Journalist Carlos Loret De Mola and Earth League International head Andrea Crosta are just two of the individuals who are determined to expose these traffickers. The documentary also spotlights the efforts of Dr. Cynthia Smith’s efforts to create a Laquita program that will ensure their safety and gradually increase their numbers. A non-profit organization called Sea Shepherd also add to these efforts, as they patrol the oceans to grab these illegal fishermen’s nets, placing their own lives in harm’s way.

These are just a few elements that are part of Sea of Shadows, and Ladkani could have easily made this a talking head documentary and still make it a worthwhile and informative viewing experience. Instead, he places his camera and crew right in the thick of the action, as we witness the efforts to save a vaquita as well as follow Crosta’s undercover mission to gain valuable intel from one of the traffickers. During the documentary’s final chapter we have a bird’s eye look at a riot that seemingly turned dangerous at a moment’s notice, and Ladkani was there to capture the moment.

It’s difficult to blend propulsive, arrestingly shot narratives while also providing audience members with intriguing information, but Sea of Shadows excels in both aspects. It’s a must see documentary from National Geographic, and one of the best films of this year.

Sea of Shadows, executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, opens nationwide July 12.

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Posted by: Greg Srisavasdi

‘Far From Home,’ Spider-Man Takes A Truly Twisted European Vacation

I already know what the next Spider-Man movie will be called: Spider-Man: Home For Christmas.

Homecoming took Peter Parker on a domestic trip, and misadventure followed. Far From Home takes him all across Europe, and more misadventures follow.

So, extrapolating from the National Lampoon model, it’s Vacation, European Vacation, and then Christmas Vacation.

Think about it — you’ve never seen Clark Griswold and Spider-Man in the same room together!

Seriously, though, there is a real thread that ties Peter Parker and Clark Griswold together: Both are earnest men who are trying to connect in a meaningful way with the people they love, yet fate (sometimes driven by bad planning or bad decisions) threatens to destroy those relationships.Of course, Griswold never had to save the world, so that’s where the comparison ends.

The emotional storyline of Spider-Man: Far From Home finds Peter Parker embarking on his most ambitious quest yet — to win the heart of MJ. After falling for a girl from the wrong family tree in Homecoming, Parker now realizes that his real connection is with MJ, and he’s got a six-point plan to win her over during a school trip to Europe. And he’s going to do it without the help of Spider-Man. In fact, he consciously avoids packing his suit for the trip.

Once the school group lands in Venice, however, it becomes clear that this will be no ordinary vacation, as a water monster rises from the Venetian canals. Donning an opera mask, Parker springs into action but soon finds he’s not alone — there’s a new superhero in town, Mysterio, who subdues the monster and temporarily ends the threat.

It turns out that Nick Fury has been tracking a series of incidents involving the Elementals, creatures made up of fire, water, earth, and air. Mysterio enters the picture because he is really Quentin Beck, a traveler from a parallel Earth that was destroyed by these creatures, and he has figured out how they can be defeated. After the water monster is defeated, only the fire monster remains, and they learn its target is Prague. All Parker wants to do, though, is rejoin his classmates, travel to Paris, and get on with his MJ plan. (After all, Fury has Mysterio on his side, and he seems perfectly capable of winning the battle.) Fury wants the extra manpower, though, so he arranges an impromptu “upgrade” for the school trip that will take them to Prague just in time for its annual Carnevale Praha and put Parker right in the middle of the action.

After an epic battle of fire and fury, Mysterio risks all to defeat the last Elemental, and Parker — already insecure and uncertain about his superhero status — decides that Mysterio is a more logical successor to Iron Man atop the Avengers food chain.

Wait, what? That requires a little bit of explanation. See, before his death in “Avengers: Endgame,” Tony Stark had given considerable thought to his succession plan, and he’d decided that young Parker would be a worthy heir. (Why Stark put such a Parker-centric plan into place after he was snapped out of existence at the end of “Infinity War” is a question for another time. For now, we’ll just go with it.) So Stark bequeathed to Parker his latest, greatest, and seemingly last piece of tech: the EDITH (an acronym for “Even Dead, I’m The Hero”) sunglasses, the ultimate security and weaponry system.

It’s only after Parker passes the EDITH glasses to Mysterio that he discovers that Quentin Beck is no superhero — he’s a tech genius and former Stark employee who, spurned by his old boss for being too unstable, seeks revenge. So it turns out the battle against the Elementals was, in reality, a clever ruse to convince Parker to give up EDITH’s power.

So now, Parker has to correct what he now realizes was a horrible mistake — essentially giving up the ability to rule the world to a liar and a madman.

And, since Beck is also a master of holographic illusion, the movie enters serious “Inception” territory as Spider-Man moves through layer after layer of false realities in his quest to reach Beck. Of course, once the battle becomes personal — Beck targets Parker’s friends, including his beloved MJ — that’s when the infamous Spidey-sense (now playfully renamed the “Peter tingle”) kicks in and allows him to save the day.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a movie that doesn’t want you to leave the edge of your seat. There’s plenty of action, but also enough deception to keep you wondering where the film will go next. (Even if you’re a fan of the comic books and know Mysterio’s really a bad guy, the movie messes with your head just enough to feel Peter Parker’s pain when the treachery is finally revealed.)

And then, just when you think things have been resolved — including, yes, the relationship between Peter and MJ — the movie hits you with even more disorienting bombshells just before the credits roll… and during… and after.

Visually, the movie is a feast for the eyes. The European locations create a beautiful natural backdrop for the action, while the film’s effects (especially during the false reality scenes) are absolutely eye-popping.

And the performances are excellent. As his stature in the Marvel Universe grows, Tom Holland’s Parker/Spider-Man is truly conflicted, and you feel every bit of that conflict. As Peck/Mysterio, Jake Gyllenhaal is pitch-perfect in his coordinated transition from savior to scoundrel. And Samuel L. Jackson, as usual, is the man. The rest of the cast, including Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, Zendaya’s MJ, and Parker’s other classmates, are all holdovers from Homecoming and benefit from having been part of the same crew before.

Yes, Spider-Man: Far From Home is a Marvel superhero movie. But it also accomplishes the superhuman trick of feeling like something more. (And it has us looking forward to the Christmas movie.)

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Posted Ari Coine