Tommy Lee Jones

Ad Astra

22/09/19

Imagine, if you will, that in Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard’s journey takes him not upriver to the dark heart of Vietnam, but out across the cosmos, to the Moon, Mars and ultimately Neptune – and you’ll have the essence of Ad Astra, a story about a son’s hazardous search for his lost father.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut famed for his self-control. In the film’s hair-raising opening sequence, he survives a terrifying near-death experience without so much as a discernible rise in his heart rate. But, capable though he undoubtedly is, that reserve has cost him his relationship with Eve (a barely glimpsed Liv Tyler), and he still suffers from the loss of his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneering space explorer last seen approaching Neptune and long presumed dead.

But, when a series of catastrophic power surges threatens the very existence of the universe, evidence emerges that Clifford might still be very much alive out there and, what’s more, he may have caused those power surges. Roy is given a thankless mission: to head out to Jupiter to reunite with his father and, if he can, to save the world from destruction (so no pressure there).

Director James Gray (who helmed the much-underrated Lost City of Z) has created a fascinating and original slice of science fiction. The film somehow manages to balance ravishing planet-scapes and nail-biting action set-pieces with slower, more cerebral stretches, concentrating on Roy’s internal conflict as that legendary self-control starts to break down. It’s a long journey and an eventful one, taking in a colonised moon with branches of Virgin Atlantic and Starbucks, an eerily silent space-buggy chase and, best of all, a sequence where Roy has to make a forced entry onto a spaceship, seconds before it blasts off from its launch pad.

As his quest progresses, he is increasingly confronted with a terrible realisation – that his long-missed father might not be quite the hero that Roy has always believed him to be. Pitt does an extraordinary job in the lead role, managing to emote so much from behind a permanently impassive mask; it’s probably a career-best performance from him and one that may well get a nod at next year’s Oscars.

That said, Ad Astra is surely destined to be a marmite movie. Those who turn up expecting a rollicking space adventure are in for a severe disappointment. Those seeking something more meaningful, however, are likely to have a very good time with this, particularly those who opt for the eyepopping majesty of an IMAX screening

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Jason Bourne

Unknown

30/07/16

The Bourne franchise has been through some interesting twists and turns since its inception in 2002. Created by director, Doug Limon, the first instalment was successful enough to engender two assured sequels, both directed by Paul Greengrass, at which point its influence could be seen in several other films, most notably in Casino Royale, where the Bond series could almost have been accused of plagiarising Greengrass’s frantic, shakey-cam style. When Matt Damon and Greengrass both announced they’d had enough, The Bourne Legacy attempted to fill the gap with Jeremy Renner stepping into the lead role, but it failed to do the kind of numbers that the previous films had achieved and many people thought that it had run its course.

Now, despite all their protestations, Damon and Greengrass are back at the helm and the big question on everyone’s lips is ‘can they pull it off a third time?’

The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ There may not be much depth to these films but they do grip like a steel vice as they race relentlessly from one chase to another, while all the supporting characters gleefully double cross each other at every opportunity. This is kinetic cinema at its most compelling. It puts you right in the driver’s seat and it’s an enthralling, exciting ride.

When we first meet Jason in this adventure, he’s been reduced to illegal boxing to make ends meet, something he does with his customary mixture of skill and melancholy – but when Nicky Parsons (Julia Styles) comes back into his life, it soon becomes evident that Bourne is not yet finished with Treadstone and it is not finished with him. Reptillian CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) is still pulling the strings and now he has ambitious new recruit Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) to help him engineer the capture of his most elusive enemy. He also has The Asset (Vincent Cassel) hiding behind every corner with a high-powered rifle, ready to blow Bourne’s brains across the screen should he try to evade the elaborate traps that have been set for him by the powers-that-be. And just to add a touch of contemporary relevance, there’s a Mark Zuckerberg-like entrepreneur (Riz Ahmed) who’s multi-billion dollar social network empire has, it appears, been built on rather dodgy foundations.

Stir it all together with a selection of pulverising car chases, brutal punch ups and vicious shoot-outs and we have another pulse pounding instalment of one of the most successful franchises in film history. If you liked the other films, you’ll enjoy this one. You might argue that Jason Bourne offers nothing new to the established formula but when it’s put together as brilliantly as this, you’ll get no complaints from me.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Homesman

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22/11/14

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for a decent western, but in this day and age they are rare beasts indeed and they seldom draw much attention from the media (the honourable exception being the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, a strong Oscar contender back in 2011.) Veteran actor Tommy Lee Jones has co-written and directed this downbeat story, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout and while it’s occasionally rather bleak, there’s nonetheless plenty here to enjoy, even if the movie doesn’t really deserve the ‘feminist western’ tag it’s been er… saddled with. Yes, there’s a strong female central character, but there are also three women who have been driven mad by their inability to cope with life in the wilderness, whilst their respective husbands seem to be getting along just fine – so while it might be considered feminist in the sense that it centres on a woman’s story, it’s hardly a tale of empowerment.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a spinster, hacking out a living for herself as a homesteader in the brutal environs of Nebraska territory at some unspecified point in the 1800s. Because she’s supposedly ‘as plain as a tin pail’ she’s struggling to find a husband for herself in an era where such a failure is considered shameful. This is one point where the film doesn’t really convince. Swank is terrific in the role, but there’s no way anyone could consider her plain, despite the costume department putting her in some of the ugliest costumes in cinematic history. Cuddy is a devout and determined woman and when she hears that three local wives have (for a variety of reasons) lost their minds, she undertakes the hazardous job of driving them back East to civilisation, a trip that will take five weeks or more. When she chances on George Briggs (Lee Jones) sitting on a horse with a rope around his neck, she offers to save his life if he will promise to help her with the (unspecified) task and he hastily agrees, little realising what he’s taking on. Lee Jones is a delight as the scowling, curmudgeonly George, a man with a shady past and a tendency to go off the rails when he’s had a few drinks. If the film is reminiscent of any other, it’s The African Queen and the pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Humphry Bogart.

As I said, there’s much to admire here. Great central performances, superb cameos from the likes of Meryl Streep and Hailee Steinfeld (though James Spaders’ turn as a duplicitous Irish hotel owner, features a very dodgy accent indeed) and a genuinely shocking surprise in the film’s final third. But a sequence where Briggs burns down Spader’s hotel (and everyone in it) seems somehow over the top, given the minor provocation he’s received. (Perhaps it was the accent?) At the end of the day, The Homesman is an entertaining film, that falls short of perfection in a few respects, but is still worth your consideration.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney