Ad Astra

American auteur James Gray has combined the calm, grand spectacle of 2001, the essential plot structure of Apocalypse Now, and, possibly, the best bits of his therapy sessions to create Ad Astra, a slow-burn “hard” sci-fi thriller that is by turns captivating, mesmerizing and infuriating. The journey is rather awesome but the destination is unworthy.

Brad Pitt plays the coolest astronaut ever – literally; his BPM have never risen above 80, even during emergencies. That’s partly his legacy: his dad is the boldest astronaut ever, having travelled further from earth than any other. Now dad may be gone a little wonky out there in deep deep deep space, and his son needs to travel the solar river into his own heart of darkness, and convince Dad not to destroy humankind.

The effects, slow and quiet, are a wonder, and Pitt, quiet and introspective, holds the screen. Three truly unexpected action sequences provide intriguingly strange jolts to the action. The production design is inspired (Mars particularly). But the denouement is self-parodically on the nose. Go for the rockets, which are great, rather than the existentialism, which is contrived.

The Big Short

image****1/2 (out of five)

Assured, brash, loud and very, very funny, The Big Short makes thrilling entertainment out of indescribably complicated financial shenanigans using any means necessary – such as offering up Margot Robbie in a bubble-bath, by having a voice-over announce chirpily, “To explain it to you, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.”

It’s that kind of irreverence that keeps this story of louts in suits powering ahead. Despite being loaded with lingo, drenched in jargon, it’s the most energetic movie outside of Fury Road this year. The cast, of course, help: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and particularly theatre luminary Jeremy Strong all know how to serve dialogue straight and hard towards the base line. The voice-over comes from Jared Vennett, played by Ryan Gosling, himself no slouch in the machine-gun delivery department, and Brad Pitt takes a small but luxuriant role as a billionaire with a green streak. They’re all excellent.

Most impressively, director Adam McKay juggles our sympathies as well as he does the machinations of the convoluted (true) story. These guys are all essentially jerks but they’re juxtaposed against (mainly unseen) much bigger jerks, emerging as (dubiously) loveable underdogs. Michael Lewis wrote the book on which McKay and Charles Randolph’s zippy screenplay is based; he was the guy who wrote Moneyball, which was turned into a film that tonally echoes this one. Just like you didn’t need to know your fastball from your highball to enjoy that terrific film, so too The Big Short lets you in even if you can’t tell your Collateralised Debt Obligations from your Credit Default Swaps. Don’t miss it.