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Schultz reviews: “Ad Astra,” “Downton Abbey” and “Rambo: Last Blood”

Schultz reviews: “Ad Astra,” “Downton Abbey” and “Rambo: Last Blood”

Carl Schultz

“Ad Astra” Distributed by 20th Century-Fox Pictures, 124 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Sept. 20:

In the new “Ad Astra” — it’s a Latin term which translates into “to the stars” — when a cosmic energy phenomenon called “the surge” causes widespread catastrophe on Earth, brooding, emotionally-disconnected United States Space Command Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is set up by his superiors on a mission to lure his long-lost astronaut dad out of interstellar hiding.

Officially listed as missing and presumed dead, McBride’s dad, the legendary Space Command hero Colonel Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), was sent with his crew on an exploratory deep space mission decades earlier to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The Space Command now theorizes the elder McBride is alive and alone . . . and somehow responsible for the surge.

Released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures through their 20th Century-Fox subsidiary, “Ad Astra” turns out to be a fairly agreeable big budget science fiction drama. Possibly the picture is especially comfortable because it seems to be cobbled together from parts of earlier pictures. Mostly, it’s a combination of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Apocalypse Now,” with Disney’s own 1979 science fiction feature “The Black Hole” and a few other familiar classics thrown in for seasoning.

Just so viewers who enjoy a little action with their metaphysical theorizing can also feel at home, there’s even a car chase scene included in the picture during the younger McBride’s brief visit to the moon. Since the moon of the near future has only overland trails instead of paved roads, the car chase scene is somewhat reminiscent of 1939's “Stagecoach,” with passenger Pitt as the movie’s hero taking the reins to execute a couple of nifty maneuvers while simultaneously blasting away at the bad guys with a laser pistol. It’s an exciting scene, however silly and improbable.

Finally Pitt arrives at his destination near Neptune and confronts the Colonel Kurtz of “Ad Astra” — his absentee dad, played by the bearded Tommy Lee Jones. Spouting the same brand of Texas-twangy pretzel logic he practically invented in “Men and Black,” we learn nothing new from the senior McBride than other than from which side of the family junior McBride inherited his flat, humorless personality. And since both Pitt and Jones are photographed during the climactic scenes in intimate, almost loving closeup, we also learn where Pitt got his tired, baggy eyes.

Besides all that, “Ad Astra” contains a nice electronic music score courtesy of Max Richter, and lovely photography by the Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, which includes eye-popping if fake-looking shots of planets and space, and some spectacular blast-offs and pinpoint landings of enormous manned spaceships that look like they’ve been crafted from leftover parts from the old Saturn V moon rockets. Apparently those babies can defy physics, corner like they’re on rails, and stop on a dime. What more could anyone ask?

For added verisimilitude to contemporary global society, firearms have unfortunately made it into outer space, although their use in the cosmos begs the question of whether they wouldn’t ignite the oxygen-enriched atmosphere of the interior of a spaceship. Sci-fi purists will also note that the astrophysics in “Ad Astra” are a little sketchy, with people figuring out telemetry by taking rough aim and slingshotting their spacecraft around the universe or surfing through the cosmos on shock waves from an atomic blast, even over distances of billions of miles.

Written by Ethan Gross and James Grey and directed by Grey, “Ad Astra” is receiving strong reviews from critics, including an approval rating of 82% from Rotten Tomatoes and 80% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore, however, assigned the picture a disappointing grade of B-minus. Released to 3,450 theaters across the United States and Canada, the picture was projected to earn up to $20 million in box office dollars during its first weekend in release, and finished the time period with a little over $19.2 million, unexpectedly taking only the second place spot in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten, behind the new “Downton Abbey.”

“Ad Astra” is rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images and brief strong language.

“Downton Abbey” Distributed by Focus Features, 122 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Sept. 13:

Based on the popular and critically-acclaimed television series which ran from 2011 to 2016 on the ITV network in the United Kingdom and PBS stations in the United States, “Downton Abbey” is a continuation of the story of the Crawley family, the wealthy owners of a large estate in the English countryside during the early years of the 20th Century, and their household staff of domestic servants.

Directed by Broadway veteran Michael Engler from a screenplay by series creator Julian Fellowes and featuring the performances of actors Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Dame Maggie Smith and most of the cast of the television series, “Downton Abbey” depicts a hectic week in the adventures of the Crawleys and their staff: Household patriarch Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, has just learned that King George and Queen Mary will be staying overnight at the estate during an official state visit to the Yorkshire countryside.

Although the household anticipates the visit with enormous pride and eagerness, the official palace servants soon arrive to inform the Crawleys and their staff that their domestic services are unnecessary — the Royal Staff will make the necessary preparations for the monarchs’ visit, and maintain their home during their stay, including the meals. When asking the haughty palace butler — or rather “the King’s Page of the Backstairs” — how he can assist during the Royal visit, one member of the Crawley’s staff is flatly advised, “I would like you to find a good book and read it until we leave.”

As the Crawley family and their servants are pitted in genteel resistance to the interference of the Royal Staff, an assassin arrives in the town with plans to murder the King, a thief among the monarchs’ servants makes off with some of the family’s heirlooms, a family member begins an innocent romance with a member of the Queen’s staff, and an inheritance issue threatens the family’s interrelationships, and even the future of Downton Abbey itself.

“Downton Abbey” is satisfying in the way a Swiss watch is satisfying, or a well-played string quartet, or a finely-crafted instrument — it’s a movie crafted by artisans working at the top of their form. In a lot of ways, “Downton Abbey” is a movie the viewer admires more than enjoys . . . although being about 1927 British aristocracy, some of the characters of course get away with saying the most outrageously rude and bitchy things to each other in the most polite tones possible. For this reason alone, your spouse’s mom will likely want to see the picture twice.

If the picture has a fault, it’s in presuming that certain of its audience knows more than it does about the long-running television series. With its cast of a dozen or so interrelated characters, “Downton Abbey” might need some deciphering even to casual fans or PBS viewers. And with all its marchionesses, dowagers and ladies-in-waiting, a basic primer of British class distinctions or even a glossary of terms would be helpful also, especially for those viewers who know little more about the pecking order of British royalty than the rule that three jacks beats two kings.

Still, “Downton Abbey” turns out to be an unusually comforting movie, especially during a troubled and uncertain times, when superheroes, spaceships, spies and soldiers-of-fortune mostly command our attention at the box office. Since the picture takes place in 1927, we have the additional assurance of knowing that despite a world war and dozens of other global conflicts which followed, the Earth hasn’t blown up yet, and has survived more of less intact at least into the 21st Century.

“Downton Abbey” depicts with some accuracy an era and place where people behaved and interacted with each other with a sense of honor and respect — lived their lives, performed their duties, completed their responsibilities and achieved their objectives because they were proud of themselves and their work and wanted to excel, instead of grudgingly, only when they were asked, and only well enough to get by. Knowing that the same sense of pride and craftsmanship contributed to the production of this excellent motion picture only adds to the pleasure of seeing it all unfold onscreen.

“Downton Abbey” is receiving glowing reviews, including an approval rating of 85% from Rotten Tomatoes and 64% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes notes that the picture “distills many of the ingredients that made the show an enduring favorite, welcoming viewers back for a fittingly resplendent homecoming.” Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore also assign the picture a grade of A.

Opening in 3,076 theaters across the United States and Canada. “Downton Abbey” was originally projected to earn up to $25 million in box office dollars during its opening weekend. But projections were adjusted upward after the picture earned nearly $14 million during its first day alone. “Downton Abbey” finished its opening weekend with $31 million in box office earnings, easily capturing the first place spot in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten over the opening “Ad Astra” in second place and the execrable “Rambo: Last Blood” in third.

“Downton Abbey” is rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material and language.

“Rambo: Last Blood” Distributed by Lionsgate Pictures, 89 Minutes, Rated R, Released Sept. 20:

It’s tough to imagine a movie patron who’s starved enough for entertainment to enjoy the new “Rambo: Last Blood,” let alone be enlightened, informed, amused or inspired by it. Even the staunchest political conservative or most loyal supporter of the NRA will have to admit that there’s some awfully sick and degrading stuff going on in this picture.

Originally introduced in the low budget 1982 picture “First Blood” — one of a small handful of compelling little action dramas Sylvester Stallone made in the wake of the 1976 megahit “Rocky” — John Rambo is an Army veteran, a Special Forces Green Beret traumatized by his experiences during the Vietnam War.

Maintaining a meditative Zen existence as an aimless drifter following his discharge from the military, Rambo employs his special combat skills only in self-defense . . . or to fight against oppression, corruption and any foreign entity which threatens the American way of life.

The Rambo pictures have always followed a fairly narrow and invariable formula: Each spends its first hour or so placing our hero into the most degrading and painful situations imaginable, and the final half hour blasting his way out, killing in astonishingly brutal and sadistic fashions anybody on either side who tries to stand in his way. Anyone who’s seen any of the three increasingly outlandish sequels to the original “First Blood” knows to expect a heaping dose of violence porn in a Rambo picture, leavened with a goodly portion of revenge porn.

“Rambo: Last Blood” takes the formula to a new level . . . and it’s not a high one. Plainly modeled on elements from 2004’s “Man on Fire” and 2009’s “Taken,” in “Rambo: Last Blood” we find Rambo training horses on this late father’s Arizona ranch. Living with a matronly housekeeper and raising her personable and intelligent teenage daughter Gabrielle as his niece, the former soldier has at last achieved at least a measure of emotional tranquility. When his niece compliments him on adopting a less-violent philosophy, Rambo corrects her: “I haven’t changed — I’m just trying to keep a lid on it.”

But there’s trouble a-brewing in the House of Rambo: Young Gabrielle, long troubled by her fatherless heritage, is expressing an interest in locating and meeting her biological dad, an irresponsible, drug-addled twerp who deserted his wife and daughter years ago. Gabrielle’s provocative former friend and classmate, now living across the border in Mexico, has located and befriended Gabrielle’s real father. And Gabrielle wants to travel there to meet him, maybe ask some questions about his peculiar notions of parental responsibility.

While both Rambo and Gabrielle’s mother strongly oppose a reconciliation between Gabrielle and her dad, the parental attraction is strong: Gabrielle steals off across the Mexican border and hooks up with her old classmate. In short order, the young American is kidnapped by an especially noxious strain of human vermin and sold into slavery in the sex traffic trade. And when Uncle Rambo learns of Gabrielle’s disappearance, he takes the lid off and begins to wage war and spread mayhem as only he knows how.

While no reference is ever made to a particular political affiliation, the deck of cards is plainly stacked in this manipulative, sadistic and reactionary picture: Non-Americans are bad guys, the US/Mexico border wall is flimsy and ineffectual, and there are a lot of very bad hombres on the southern side of it. Stallone’s final speech in the picture, or at least the parts the viewer can decipher without subtitles from the star’s customary rumbly-mumbly Sly-speak, could’ve been quoted from the text of a small-hours tweet from you-know-who.

Filled with bigotry, violence, carnage, an obscene body count and plot holes you can drive a Sherman tank through, “Rambo: Last Blood” is sadistic, inflammatory garbage, the kind of picture you’d expect to see playing midnight matinees in a decrepit old Times Square grind-house. The final 20 minutes especially will make you feel as if you’ve served a stretch in the septic tank of a slaughterhouse. If “Rambo: Last Blood” is your idea of wholesome entertainment, you might want to consider taking a long look in the mirror.

Written by Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick and directed by frequent Mel Gibson collaborator Adrian Grunberg, “Rambo: Last Blood” is rated R for strong, graphic violence, grisly images, drug use and language.

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