Brad Pitt and the film ‘Ad Astra’

The science fiction movie Ad Astra (2019)  hit theaters in the United States three weekends ago with minimal fanfare. The cinematic look in paying homage to space movies past does it credit for visually resembling some of the better cinema in the space film genre. While I appreciate the touch of space tourism of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the multi-dimensional imagery that accompanied Interstellar (2014), this film lands somewhere closer to First Man (2018) as far as storytelling success.

Ad Astra 2 - Ruth Negga as Helen Lantos, left, and Brad Pitt as Roy McBride(Ruth Negga as Helen Lantos, left, and Brad Pitt as Roy McBride in the film Ad Astra).

Brad Pitt stars as astronaut Roy McBride, who takes a space quest across the solar system in search of his father. H. Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is the father who seeks intelligent life towards the limits of the navigable solar system in a hypothetical near term reality. Ruth Negga plays Helen Lantos, a character whose life story in inextricably intertwined with both McBrides.

Ad Astra 3 - Tommy Lee Jones as H. Clifford McBride(Tommy Lee Jones as H. Clifford McBride in the film Ad Astra).

Donald Sutherland plays Thomas Pruitt, a former astronaut. H. Clifford McBride reportedly had some harsh history with H. Clifford, and it was in part his task to escort Roy from the Earth to the moon to Mars for a crucial mission to save the fate of the world. Pruitt’s character is important for informing the emotional relevance of the back story of the McBrides.

Ad Astra 4 - Donald Sutherland as Thomas Pruitt(Donald Sutherland as Thomas Pruitt in the film Ad Astra).

James Gray co-wrote and directed the film Ad Astra. The physical takes of offering insight into the colonization of the moon and Mars as a means for getting to the outer solar system makes for some solar system engineering. The resource combat and the science experiments that were parts of the film, combined with the notion of space tourism, really interested my inner nerd.

Ad Astra 5 - Director and co-writer James Gray(James Gray directed and co-wrote the film Ad Astra).

Parts of the larger story, and the means of getting sense out of this story, were not the best I’ve seen in the genre of spaceflight related science fiction. The panache of a father son story did not bear the intrigue of a book by Ray Bradbury or a movie by Christopher Nolan. Most movies with spaceflight in the concept are possible points of interest for me. Unless you simply need a Brad Pitt fix, my recommendation is to wait for the DVD or streaming service to see this film. My grade for the film Ad Astra is 3.25-stars on a scale of one-to-five.

Matt – Saturday, October 12, 2019


Joaquin Phoenix and the film ‘Joker’

The film Joker (2019) works. Joaquin Phoenix starring in a gritty, physically demanding, emotional gut punch of a role as Arthur Fleck demands your attention. While given credible support in roles supporting him, make no mistake that Joaquin Phoenix as star of this character study surpasses the critical appreciation granted Christian Bale for Batman Begins (2005). While in the conversation, it is hard for me to say Phoenix’ Joker surpasses that of Heath Ledger from The Dark Knight (2008).

Joker 2 - Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck(Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in the film Joker).

While thinking quite highly of the film Joker and the role Joaquin Phoenix played, this commentary is largely intended to keep the story of the experience to myself. Robert De Niro starring in a role reminiscent of Johnny Carson‘s The Tonight Show brings credibility to a sense of time and place in setting to a time of the maybe the 1970’s with the fictional city of Gotham standing in for New York City.

Joker 3 - Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin(Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin in the film Joker).

Arthur Fleck faced the gritty hardship of experiencing the difficult sides of a life that lacked stability, a future, and other elements that brought the Joker, as a character and villain, into conflict with the character Batman we know through the myth of the comic books, the multiple television series, and the multiple movie franchises. Arthur’s relationship with Penny Fleck, as portrayed by Frances Conroy, is given appropriate treatment in Joker.

Joker 5 - Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck(Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother, in the film Joker).

Further, critical roles were given convincing voice in giving the role of Arthur Fleck an escalating series of events, each deepening Fleck into his culmination as sociopath Joker. Bringing Gotham with him in parallel offers a tangible sense of what guides the Batman we see on the reverse side of the coin. Those leveling criticism of this film as juvenile, bleak, clichéd, derivative or not angry enough miss a large point that this was a character study. Part of what made the slow burn of Quention Tarantino‘s film Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019) film work made Joker also work.

Joker 7 - Joaquin Phoenix with director and co-screenwriter Todd Phillips(Joaquin Phoenix with director and co-screenwriter Todd Phillips from the film Joker).

Todd Phillips directed Joker. Scott Silver joined Phillips with screenwriting credits. My feeling of this movie, following my first viewing on Sunday of opening weekend, is that the film deserves the 4.0-stars on a scale of one-to-five that I am granting it. The audience score (91% favorable) rather than the score of critics (69% favorable) from Rotten Tomatoes on Sunday evening at roughly 10:30 PM Eastern Time, is more in line with my experience.

Matt – Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Sam Kean and the book ‘The Bastard Brigade’

I recently stumbled upon a non-fiction book that reads like a high stakes thriller with the fate of the world in the balance. The catch is that the story that Sam Kean tells really happened. The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb tells the stories of scientist Boris Pash, Nobel laureate physicist Werner Heisenberg, physicist Enrico Fermi and a host of others in the World War II race to be first in making the weapon of all weapons, the atomic bomb.

The Bastard Brigade 5 Colonel Boris Pash, left, and Joe Kennedy Jr.(Colonel Boris Pash, left, and Joe Kennedy Jr. were featured in The Bastard Brigade by Sam Kean).

Colonel Boris Pash led an effort to combat and foil the atomic energy ambitions of Nazi Germany as part of the Allied Powers and the Manhattan Project during the World War II. Werner Heisenberg was perhaps the most capable German scientist capable of leading the Germans to the atomic bomb, though blunders of a personal and political nature hampered Heisenberg during much of the war years. Secondary tales of US President John F. Kennedy‘s older brother, Joe Kennedy Jr. seeking military glory to match that of the future president regaled the stories filling the pages of The Bastard Brigade.

The Bastard Brigade 4 - Warner Heisenberg(Werner Heisenberg was featured in The Bastard Brigade by Sam Kean).

Similarly entertaining yet more effective in his actions as a spy for the Allied war effort against a German atomic bomb, at least in comparison to Joe Kennedy Jr., was Moe Berg. The major league catcher and Princeton graduate was fluent in seven languages and with an acquaintance with others and work in the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor of the modern Central Intelligence Agency. Whereas one of the narratives of Kennedy and Berg involved ambition and esteem building, the narrative of the other involved a stubborn streak that succeeded in an extravagant yet resourceful means of seeing the world.

The Bastard Brigade 3 - Moe Berg(Moe Berg was featured in The Bastard Brigade by Sam Kean).

Samuel Goudsmit led the Manhattan Project‘s plans to expose and neutralize the German atomic weapon progress. Robert Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie Groves had roles for the Allies whereas Wernher von Braun contributed rocketry experience that, in part, scared the leaders of the Manhattan Project into building an espionage apparatus against the Germans.

The Bastard Brigade 6 - Samuel Goudsmit(Samuel Goudsmit was featured in The Bastard Brigade by Sam Kean).

The stories of the scientific near misses, radiation exposure and downright wacky careers of French physical chemists Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie came to life in the pages of The Bastard Brigade. The discovery of new radioactive isotopes prepared artificially, and the similar acclaim Marie Curie received made for fascinating reading if not significant parallels to the Joliot-Curies.

The Bastard Brigade 7 - Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie(Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie were featured in The Bastard Brigade by Sam Kean).

Science writer Sam Kean has written Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us, among other books including The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb. The eccentric tales of the folks who inhabited these pages feel like they drawn with the depth and understanding of characters in a work of fiction. In delivering truth, I valued the accomplished achieved in The Bastard Brigade.

The Bastard Brigade 2 - Sam Kean(Sam Kean wrote The Bastard Brigade).

My overall ranking of the book shares a feeling that the book educated and entertained me. For that, know that my ranking of the book is 4.0-stars on a scale of one-to-five.

Matt – Saturday, October 05, 2019

Michael Jackson and the album ‘Thriller’

There perhaps isn’t an album that says October or perhaps autumn to me more than Michael Jackson‘s album Thriller. A post-disco album characterized with elements of pop, rock and funk, this collaboration with Quincy Jones as producer is ranked as the 20th Greatest Album of all time by a May, 2012 Rolling Stone article. An April 2019 Business Insider article posits Thriller as the second best selling album in the United States while an Official Charts ranking from the same month puts Thriller as the sixth best selling in the United Kingdom. Thriller, an unquestionably popular album, won eight Grammy Awards.

Thriller 2(The album cover from Michael Jackson‘s Thriller).

This review offers links to the nine songs of the albums while offering highlights for how this album made Michael Jackson the King of Pop after the album’s release. Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin is the opening song of the album, as well as the fourth song released as a single from the album. Keeping with the disco feel of Jackson‘s album Off the Wall, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin addresses rumors started by strangers attempting to prompt a fight in a time before the world had a notion of social media or the Internet as we know it today.

The song Baby Be Mine scores as the second song on the album with synthesizer, drums, trumpet, flugelhorn and other horn arrangements that is perhaps the most musically produced song of the album. The song itself is the first romantic song of the album aimed at winning a girl that Michael Jackson as singer fancies.

Thriller 6(Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson sang on The Girl Is Mine).

The Girl Is Mine (a duet with Paul McCartney) returns to the notion of romantic and boyish dreams of love with a rhythm and blues sensibility. The song feels like two school boys both taken with a girl and being diplomatic and logical about how they feel and wish to carry on.

Thriller 3(Michael Jackson in the video for the 14-minute video and movie for the song Thriller).

Thriller was a song, an album, and an almost 14-minute combination movie and video directed by John Landis and featuring a voice-over by Vincent Price. The song itself ends side one of the vinyl pressing of the Thriller album. Michael Jackson becomes a zombie in the video portrayal of the movie and song, which in part really launched the successful part of MTV as a network for music on television. The red jacket worn by Jackson in the video, as well as the dance, became two iconic and memorable items to come from the video that was on heavy rotation with the network.

Thriller 5(Eddie Van Halen and Michael Jackson both were instrumental in the song Beat It).

Beat It opens side two of the vinyl pressing of the album and perhaps is the most Rock and Roll song on the album. Featuring a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen, the video features Michael Jackson reconciling two gangsters, who he encourages to leave (or beat it) through the power of music and dance.

Thriller 4(Michael Jackson in the video for the song Billie Jean).

The second single released from Thriller was Billie Jean, a song that in certain ways expressed the interpersonal worries that would land in Jackson‘s later music. The song itself describe a woman, Billie Jean, who claims that the Michael is the father of her newborn son. As the singer and narrator of the song, Jackson denies being the father. There has been much talk that the baseline for Billie Jean was taken from the Daryl Hall & John Oates song I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).

After producer Quincy Jones had reportedly heard a demo of the song Human Nature through Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro, the song came to the Thriller album’s creative brain trust to become the nighttime song of desire that we know today. The song relies heavily on synthesizer and percussion with lyrics of lust, what I take as distrust of the underlying feelings, and the awareness and liking she has for his interest.

Thriller7(Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones in happier days before disagreements between Jackson‘s estate and Jones following Michael’s death).

P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) is an upbeat, bridge song leading to the album conclusion. Perhaps the most funk and disco song on the album, P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) invites dancing and energy that reportedly resonated with Jackson in the recording studio. In this Rolling Stone article, Jackson said “I love ‘Pretty Young Thing…I liked the ‘code’ in the lyrics, and ‘tenderoni’ and ‘sugar fly’ were fun rock & roll-type words that you couldn’t find in the dictionary.”

Thriller concludes with The Lady in My Life, a somber song of the closeness of intimacy of male and female love. A song in a style of rhythm & blues and borderline funk, the song continues a theme begun with Baby Be Mine and The Girl Is Mine that carries through Human Nature and P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing). The lyrics offer suggestions of a fantasized love that are feelings based and, as far as this subject matter goes, clean and honorable. The uplift of this message is clear, and brings about a high yet mellow feel in concluding a popular and successful album.

There you have what in many ways is and was a truly pop and popular album. I grew up in the MTV era where I was young enough to get the popularity of Michael Jackson while not being old enough to see him in concert. There are definitely more hits than misses on this album, whatever your default album preference.

Matt – Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Ray Bradbury and the book ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’

In Act 4, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare‘s Macbeth, one of the witches makes the statement “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.” Such was a partial inspiration for the sequel to Ray Bradbury‘s summer love affair with the end of boyish innocence in Dandelion Wine and Green Town, Illinois.  The sequel, set in the same small town of Green Town, is Bradbury’s fall love affair with the end of boyish innocence in the book Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Something Wicked This Way Comes 2(Ray Bradbury wrote Dandelion Wine and its sequel, Something Wicked This Way Comes).

While connected by author, small town, and boys on the cusp of a fleeting boyhood about to give way to an adulthood where childish ways will give way to burgeoning notions of mysterious, more adult ways, Ray Bradbury had crafted in 1962 a dark, nightmarish tale of a traveling carnival come to the Illinois of Bradbury’s childhood to offer a notion of living forever.

Something Wicked This Way Comes 3(Beware the free ride in Ray Bradbury‘s sequel to Dandelion Wine, namely Something Wicked This Way Comes).

Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, slightly older and of no real connection to Douglas Spaulding or the people of Dandelion Wine. The connection is more thematic continuation of feeling, place, and sensibility. Will and Jim in Something Wicked This Way Comes face and irresistible and trickery-based pull that shows the semblance of immortality, the wicked thing that billows up with fantastic, poetic imagery, feeling and language is the of Mr. Dark.

Something Wicked This Way Comes 4(Root for the connection of father and son in Ray Bradbury‘s sequel to Dandelion Wine, namely Something Wicked This Way Comes).

Charles Halloway, Will’s 54-year-old father, brings his own secret wishes to be younger to investing in the relationship of he and Will, and worrying that his, Charles’, age has been a wedge between father and son. Has the father been too old to relate to his son? Has the father been aloof in ways that have stunted the health and well-being of the son? Is Dad strong and brave enough to come to the rescue? These and the nature of relationship’s with Will’s own mother, and neighbor Miss Foley, are teased out in the singular narrative of who survives the harrowing evil of the carnival one week before Halloween.

Something Wicked This Way Comes 5(Something Wicked This Way Comes was a “major novel” by Ray Bradbury, as suggested by the cover of this edition).

In Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury offers nostalgia of his childhood and the period before he had grown up and lost the innocence that childhood once held. Taking inspiration from an event in his childhood, the book offers warmth, nostalgia, and a touch of a growing, singular menace that grows stronger and more intriguing simply for promising a mystery whose understanding and resolution is just beyond the understanding of the narrator. This motif, or theme-building and continuation, is largely the point that is artfully conveyed in this book. For this, and in the accomplishment of precisely what the book aimed to be, I grant the work 4.0-stars on a scale of one-to-five.

Matt – Saturday, September 28, 2019

Steve Carrell and the Robert Zemeckis film ‘Welcome to Marwen’

The story was of a man struggling with PTSD who turned to creating a fictional village as a means of easing his pain following a physical attack that took his memory and his confidence. Based on the underlying true story and documentary Marwencol (2010), the holiday flop Welcome to Marwen (2018) offers a sweet if uneven sharing of one man’s use of imagination in an almost boyish attempt to return to himself.

Welcome to Marwen 2 - Steve Carell as Mark Hogancamp & Cap'n Hogie(Steve Carrell as as Mark Hogancamp in the film Welcome to Marwen).

Steve Carrell stars in Welcome to Marwen as the real life inspiration for the movie, Mark Hogancamp. We are introduced from the beginning of the film into Hogancamp‘s coping mechanism of having built an imaginary Belgium city he initially calls Marwen. The imaginary stories Hoganamp sets there occur during World War II. Hogancamp and gains the aid of a defending set of women who save the day for the movie’s star in many miniature stories that see the ladies either rescue Hogancamp, or see Hogancamp‘s emotional needs met in some way by the ladies there who enact some fashion of roles meant to serve the struggling Hogancamp.

Welcome to Marwen 3 - LToR - Leslie Mann, Leslie Zemeckis, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, and Gwendoline Christie(From left to right, Janelle Monáe as GI Julie, Leslie Zemeckis as Suzette, Leslie Mann as Nicol, Eiza González as Carlala, Merritt Wever as Roberta and Gwendoline Christie as Anna in the film Welcome to Marwen).

Janelle Monáe as GI Julie, Leslie Zemeckis as Suzette, Leslie Mann as Nicol, Eiza González as Carlala, Merritt Wever as Roberta and Gwendoline Christie as Anna are the women who populate the fictional city of Marwen. Stefanie von Pfetten as Wendy, one of the namesakes of the made-up city name of Marwen with Mark Hogancamp himself, is given a naming right to the imaginary town that Mark Hogancamp has created owing to the fact that she found Mark after he was brutally beaten in a hate crime that caused the man’s PTSD. Roberta is one of the stronger, more enabling forces for Hogancamp through much of the film, though his recognition of this develops slowly over the course of the film.

Welcome to Marwen 4 - Leslie Mann, left, and Steve Carell(Leslie Mann as Nicol, left, and Steve Carell as Mark Hogancamp & Cap’n Hogie in the film Welcome to Marwen).

Leslie Mann as Nicol moves in across the street from Hogancamp during the movie, and immediately captures his interest. Nicol offers friendship and a background in nursing, wherein those forces combine into an insightful offering of support and friendship that Hogancamp misconstrues in his way as affection. In later changing the name of the fictional town of Marwen to Marwencol, it is the significance Nicol had for him in both overcoming his trauma and a personal demon, represented by Deja Thoris, as portrayed by Diane Kruger, that really proves meaningful for the film.

Welcome to Marwen 6 - Robert Zameckis(Robert Zemeckis directed the film Welcome to Marwen).

The movie Welcome to Marwen was not received well by critics or audiences at its release, as indicated by the review on Rotten Tomatoes. Plot elements reminiscent of past Robert Zemeckis films, including Back to the Future Part II (1989), provided levity that could not raise feelings for a movie released in third week of December. A summer release may have helped that. I further think the movie was a bit too mature for the intended audience, meaning it would perhaps best land with young teenagers rather than the tweenagers and their parents for which this movie was better suited. Given all this, I rate Welcome to Marwen at 3.25-stars on a scale of one-to-five.

Matt – Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Daniel H. Pink and the book ‘When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing’

The idea of acting at the appropriate (or inappropriate) moment is a popular one in romance novels, comedic movies, sitcoms, or simply resonate with many of us as one of the truisms of life. In his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel H. Pink takes a look not so much into the narrative structure of timing communication properly for romantic or humorous effect. Instead, Pink gives us scientific context for constructing our daily lives and understanding ways to engineer social interactions for optimal effect.

When The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing 2(When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing author Daniel H. Pink).

An early and consistent basis for much of the insight offered in When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing is Daniel Pink‘s point that people experience the common sense daily notions of a peak, a trough, and a rebound. When people experience the high energy, low energy, and again the high energy points of the day, Pink articulates, should align to the type of work that you do. When your energy levels are high, it makes sense to focus on logical, spatial type work as these intelligence types are mostly keenly expressed and experienced at the time of the day. During the lower energy times, there is advantage to focusing on creative, social, or more interpersonal pursuits.

When The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing 5(When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing gives us a sense for when to get into specific types of activities for optimal effect).

The notion of human chronotype as offered by Daniel H. Pink in When offers three types of ways people experience time. The three types offered are people who are morning oriented, evening oriented, and those experiencing time somewhere between the two extremes. The terms Pink offers for this are larks, owls, or third birds. While indicating some correlation to different categories among kids, late teens, after teens, those 50 and over, and those 65 and over, gender generally aligns to the different categories until aging into the 65 and over group. Ladies tend to be more larks, or morning people, whereas gentlemen tend more toward night owls. Pink calls out the Mason Curry book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. In offering a parallel to a central insight, Pink noted that many artists roughly experienced life as rebound then trough then peak or peak then trough then rebound. Pink says to figure out your pattern, schedule your work appropriately, and protect your peaks.

When The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing 3(When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing author Daniel H. Pink).

Pink offers a work context for his time by saying the most effective leadership point that folks at work can encourage is allowing or compelling lunch away from work. As a person decides where to go and how to recharge away from work, alertness and mental function benefit. Conversely, staying at your desk and spending time on social media has the opposite effect. Further suggestions in a 10-20 minute afternoon nap having a positive cognitive, mood, and performance benefit. Movement, walking, and hydration breaks also help.

When The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing 4(When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing author Daniel H. Pink).

Separately from the work advice, Pink also offers insight into research for how best to construct learning in education focused on the needs of kids rather than the needs of adults who care for kids. Similar insights there are offered. Offering yet another and third context, Pink offers three questions for synchronicity and efficacy in groups:

  •Do we have a clear boss, whether a standard or boss, who engenders respect, whose role is unambiguous, and to whom everyone can direct their initial focus?

  •Are we fostering a sense of belonging that enriches individual identity, deepens affiliation, and allows everyone to synchronize to the tribe?

  •Are we activating the uplift, feeling good and doing good, that is necessary for a group to succeed?

Bringing things together, the book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink does an effective job of offering insights into methods for understanding your daily notion of timing into rebound then trough then peak or peak then trough then rebound, as well as lark, owl or third birds. Know and protect your peaks, says Pink, in offering applications in the working world, the educational world, and then in moving from individual to community pursuits. If the notion for being deliberate in the application of these points is relevant for you, then When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink is the book for you. I rate the book at 3.75-stars on a scale of on a scale of one-to-five.

Matt – Saturday, September 21, 2019