For some reason, lots of reviews like to tell you everything that happens in a movie. Not sure why, unless it’s to prove the reviewer really, really watched. Spoiler alert: not going to do that when discussing Brad Pitt’s two new films, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Ad Astra. But I will talk about Pitt.
Once (official site here), directed by Quentin Tarantino, has been in theaters for a little while, and Ad Astra (official site here), directed by James Gray (who also co-wrote, with Ethan Gross), lands on Friday, Sept. 20, around the nation.
The much-discussed Once is an alternate-reality meditation on how a turn of fate or the actions of one man could have altered terrible events — in this case, the Manson Family killings — and how two very different men can be fast friends. Ad Astra is a meditation on fathers and sons, against the backdrop of a not-too-distant future in solar-system space travel.
In Hollywood parlance, Once would be Helter Skelter meets Sliding Doors; and Ad Astra would be Apocalypse Now meets 2001: A Space Odyssey. (If you haven’t seen any of those, I’m sure they’re available somewhere.)
On the surface, the two movies have little in common, except Brad Pitt and the name Cliff. In Once, set in 1969 Los Angeles, Pitt plays aging (but still ripped) Hollywood stuntman Cliff Booth, who’s besties with a fading Western TV star, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. In Ad Astra, he plays astronaut Roy McBride, son of wayward space explorer Cliff McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).
This is probably a coincidence; just one of the strange Hollywood synchronicities.
Anyway, the third thing that the movies have in common is that they’re examinations of manhood. In an age where, if women do what men do, it’s considered progressive; but if men do what men do, it’s considered toxic; this has gotten a lot of attention — more, probably, than it would have if we weren’t so tangled up in knots over the topic.
In Once, we see a great portrayal of solid, loyal male friendship — at least on Cliff’s part. After recently binge-watching Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan, I’ve concluded Cliff is the kind of guy who would be (and is, in the movie) a pack leader. He exudes calm assertiveness, with an easy, friendly demeanor that shifts when needed into steely no-nonsense and even into controlled violence. He only uses necessary force, and he’s a man who, though imperfect, has a clear sense of right and wrong.
Millan would also approve of Cliff’s relationship with his pitbull, whom he makes wait patiently for food and who is trained to respond instantly to a single gesture or finger-snap. A man who can manage his dog without a leash or force can probably manage his own life.
Cliff’s pal, Rick, is a tangled, neurotic mix of bravado and insecurity. In other words, he’s an actor. He’s the kind of guy who’d probably let his Chihuahua, if he had one, drag him down the street. But Cliff stands by him, offering loyalty without neediness, and support and counsel without being an enabler.
It was a pleasure to watch Pitt as Cliff negotiating the twists and turns of the story without turning into a mindlessly brutal human version of the Terminator or a wisecracking cynic — which happens way too often these days in movies. He’s just a grown man who’s comfortable with himself, who has physical and moral courage, along with a sense of humor. Such a relief.
In Ad Astra, Pitt as Roy is a different creature. Underneath a controlled and physically brave exterior, he’s got great emotional chasms. His father abandoned the family to become a space hero, culminating in a mission to Neptune in search of alien life. That mission apparently went horribly wrong, and the repercussions are threatening life on Earth. So, Roy is sent off to set things right.
One lovely thing about this movie is the presence of faith. There’s a prayer to St. Christopher at the beginning of a mission, and Christian prayers are said after the death of a spaceship crewmember. There are some larger themes about God and our place in the universe, and the importance of human connection (especially to Roy’s estranged wife, played nearly mutely by the lovely Liv Tyler).
Prior to seeing the movie, I sat through some panels with NASA astronauts and engineers (weighted toward women, as often happens in our “you go, girl” world) talking about future manned missions to the Moon and Mars. Both places feature prominently in Ad Astra, with the Moon as a tense international battlefield, and Mars as a desolate place where you probably wouldn’t want to vacation.
I’m a sucker for all this stuff, but ultimately, Ad Astra, as movies do, plays a bit fast and loose with the realities of space travel, even if it’s only in our solar system. I do, though, appreciate this kind of near-future space movie, because it takes away all the Star Trek and Star Wars whiz-bang-ness and reminds us of just how tiny and fragile humans are in the unimaginable vastness of deep space.
I enjoyed Once more than Ad Astra, because it was more solid storytelling and (surprisingly, being Tarantino) less pretentious. Ad Astra had lofty goals but doesn’t quite bring it all together in the end. But, if you’re a Brad Pitt fan, he’s great in both. I’ve always admired how he, as a man blessed with good looks that have aged well, could have skated on that for his entire career. But, even early on, he took on challenging roles like Seven, Fight Club and even Snatch. He didn’t have to, but he did, and he’s fun to watch.
So, I guess I’m a Brad Pitt fan. If you want a clever, two-fisted alternate-reality fantasy, try Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. If you want a spacey, somewhat ambiguous but beautifully shot space saga, try Ad Astra.
I suspect, though, that both will get crushed at the boxoffice this weekend by the velvet-upholstered British juggernaut that is Downton Abbey. Click here for a preview; more on that later.
(Incidentally, I was right.)
Images: Twentieth Century Fox, Regency Enterprises; Sony Pictures
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