Indie Focus: Exploring new edges in ‘Ad Astra’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

This upcoming Wednesday marks the opening night of Beyond Fest, the most highly attended genre festival in the U.S. and an essential part of the movie year in Los Angeles, with delirious audiences taking in a wide array of wild fare.

The fest opens with a double bill of Richard Stanley’s “Color Out of Space” and Adam Egypt Mortimer’s “Daniel Isn’t Real.” Other new titles include the West Coast premieres of Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” and Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite.” Craig Brewer’s “Dolemite Is My Name,” a biopic of Rudy Ray Moore starring Eddie Murphy, will be paired with the original 1975 “Dolemite.” Eric Notarnicola’s “Mister America,” starring Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, will have its world premiere.


Retrospective screenings will include Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” with Stone, stars Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis and producer Don Murphy all scheduled to attend. Director Karyn Kusama and actress Megan Fox will be at a screening of “Jennifer’s Body.” Actor Tom Atkins will appear with a triple feature of “The Fog,” “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” and “Night of the Creeps.” And actor Elliott Gould will attend a screening of Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye.”

We will have more screening events and Q&As soon. For updates, go to

Brad Pitt stars in 'Ad Astra.'
Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra.”
(Francois Duhamel / 20th Century Fox)

‘Ad Astra’

Directed and co-written by James Gray, “Ad Astra” stars Brad Pitt as an astronaut sent into deep space on a top-secret mission in search of his father, a celebrated astronaut who may be sending destructive electromagnetic pulses back to Earth. The film has a rarefied mixture of austere storytelling, sincere performances and a dazzling sense of scale and spectacle.

Justin Chang called the film “somber, stirring, ridiculous and just shy of sublime” in his review for The Times. “And at a time when blockbusters for thinking adults are themselves on the verge of extinction, it is hard not to appreciate the unusual rhythms and nuances Gray brings to this story, or his consistent skill at finding his own time-honored themes in the material… You leave ‘Ad Astra’ feeling dazzled and befuddled, moved and frustrated, and perhaps wishing that its maker had cast his own preoccupations aside and taken a deeper, headier plunge into the void.”

I previously spoke to Gray and Pitt about the long struggle to get the story to the screen. Another story will soon publish about how Gray and his collaborators created the world of the movie. As Gray said: “That’s ultimately the ambition, which was to be a little bit subversive, to bring a kind of emotionality, a tenderness, an intimacy, a darkness and a light into what is usually a very kind of cold genre … And we were trying to do both the interiority and the exteriority of the character and the situation. We were trying to really do both.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “For the most part, the film’s heaviness is a virtue, even when its director, James Gray, slips into grandiosity. It’s also welcome, given how many American movies embrace the trivial as a commercial imperative … Visually austere and narratively clotted, ‘Ad Astra’ tends to work best in isolated scenes rather than in the aggregate.”

At Time, Stephanie Zacharek said that “it’s Pitt who must carry most of the movie, and he makes Roy’s particular brand of self-torture effortlessly believable: It’s not the weight of the world he’s got on his shoulders, it’s the weight of space, and that’s got to be heavier. Pitt seems to be growing more weathered, and more beautiful, with each role … And he helps guide ‘Ad Astra’ to a landing you don’t quite expect; the movie ends in a place of self-forgiveness that feels earned. Late in the film, Roy rounds his way to the movie’s most poetic line: ‘We’re all we’ve got.’ At last, he’s gotten the message. People who need people aren’t the luckiest people in the world. They’re the only ones.”

Michelle Dockery stars as Lady Mary Talbot, Robert James-Collier as Thomas Barrow, Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham and Allen Leech as Tom Branson in "Downton Abbey."
(Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features)

‘Downton Abbey’

Directed by Michael Engler and written by Julian Fellowes, “Downton Abbey” is a big-screen adaptation of the wildly popular television show, with some 20 actors returning for the movie. Set in 1927, the story concerns King George V and Queen Mary coming to spend one night in the sprawling British country house of the show’s title, setting off a storm of activity with the aristocrats upstairs and their servants down below.

Reviewing for The Times, Kenneth Turan wrote that “Downton Abbey” is “in a class of its own in terms of the influence it’s had on the overall culture, doing everything from upping the value of Art Deco jewelry to increasing employment opportunities for butlers and the consumption of sherry. Really. The show, and the film that continues its story, have been able to accomplish this because the beautifully mounted, period-correct world that’s been created is devilishly difficult to resist.”

The Times’ Mary McNamara wrote about revisiting the characters from the show with the movie. “Watching it is less like a return to the series, which, like all good television, knew how to parcel out plot, tend character and resist closure whenever it could, and more like a visit to a fully immersive exhibition. Here they all are, once again, the people you love in their wonderful clothes, dishing eggs from the warming trays and chopping carrots in their aprons while they engage in dialogue that assures you they will never change, not really, nor will Downton in all its splendor and drawing room adventure.”

For The Times, Emily Zemler spoke to actor Archie Leech about his expanded role in the movie. His reaction: “When I first read it, I kept going back going, ‘Am I actually doing all of that?’ I was really surprised at all of that — I really was. I’m very grateful to Julian for giving me the opportunity.”

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote about how he liked the movie in spite of himself. “I left the screening room feeling a bit chagrined about my teariness, about the warm sense of longing haloed around my heart. I shouldn’t be that much of a sap, not for something like this, but my principles proved no match for ‘Downton Abbey’s’ gentle assault. I know the culture it adores was only good for a very few people, and awfully bad for countless others. I’m aware that any veneration of dynastic wealth is to be carefully scrutinized if not rejected outright. But all that tea and manners has a perversely soothing effect. Escaping into something not right is nonetheless still an escape from all our current wrong.”

Argentina captain Diego Maradona holds the World Cup trophy while being carried on his teammates' shoulders.
(Bob Thomas / Getty Images)

‘Diego Maradona’

Directed by Asif Kapadia, the documentary “Diego Maradona” tells the story of the rise and fall of the Argentine soccer star, who rose from poverty to a world of international celebrity. As with his earlier films “Senna” and “Amy,” Kapadia relies on archival footage to tell the story.

For The Times, Robert Abele wrote that “the sneaky thing about ‘Diego Maradona’ is that even as it charts league fortunes, momentous goals and plenty of its curly-haired, boyish-faced subject’s furious and focused ball-control skills (including that defender-evading World Cup stunner against England), it’s not a game-technique movie. It’s a fame-technique movie, measured in crowd roars, off-field revelry, media run-ins, and fan scrums as dizzying accoutrements to success, but also — when Maradona succumbed to scandals surrounding women, an unclaimed son from an affair, cocaine, loyalty and powerful mob friends — in how those same trappings can suddenly turn vicious, and a hero’s fall can go shockingly unsupported.”

Kenneth Turan spoke to Kapadia when the film premiered at Cannes earlier this year. As the filmmaker said of his subject, “How can you be treated like a god and not go crazy?”

For IndieWire, Eric Kohn wrote, “Kapadia realizes that while soccer buffs may know about the key moments in Maradona’s career — his World Cup victory, his elevation to sainthood in Naples and an eventual drug-fueled collapse — the dramatic arc wouldn’t work if the final chapter were taken for granted. Instead, the movie follows Maradona from his bumpy start in Naples through his second wave of confidence as if assembling the ‘Rocky’ of soccer movies. That is, at least until it turns into the ‘Scarface’ of soccer movies in its devastating final act.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter: @IndieFocus.