Tag Archives: unpopular opinions

Ad Astra, or: Why Don’t I Like James Gray Movies More?

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

James Gray is having a moment. His 25-year career as a writer-director encompasses seven movies, many well-reviewed and almost all underseen, but despite the ever-shrinking audience for critically acclaimed art movies or even just movies made for adults uninterested in superheroes, despite one of his best-loved movies getting the Harvey Weinstein spiteful-shelving treatment, Gray is getting more movies made now than ever. Ad Astra is his latest, arriving just two and a half years after The Lost City of Z, with $80 million worth of big-studio backing from Fox, movie-star backing from Brad Pitt, and a 3,400-screen release—easily the widest in his filmography, which has just one other movie that played more than 1,000 screens (We Own the Night, which came out 12 years ago). A recent New Yorker profile goes deep, and glowing, on his methods, his work, and the cultish adoration it’s attracted. It’s enough to make a Gray skeptic feel downright heretical.

This is absurd, of course; by most measures, Gray remains an underdog, as even some of his fans have anticipated, mock-gleefully, the bafflement with which general audiences will greet Ad Astra, which is a space adventure movie, yes, but a very James Gray one, in which a taciturn Brad Pitt searches the outer reaches of the cosmos for his presumed-dead astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones). The adventuring is quixotic and melancholy, like it was in Gray’s The Lost City of Z, though not all of its touchstones are as lofty as the oft-cited Apocalypse Now. Gray’s portrayal of the moon, sort of a commercially accessible weigh station with an Applebee’s and bands of moon pirates, owes a debt (consciously or not) to the moon-set episode of Futurama. The casting of Jones and also Donald Sutherland brings to mind Space Cowboys (which, I must stress, rules). Where the movie earns its 2001 and Apocalypse Now comparisons are the visuals, which are often stunning: never overdesigned or fussy, often spare and evocative, the complicated mechanics of space travel simplified and sometimes abstracted. The moon is depicted almost entirely in gray, black, and splashes of gold. Color-bathed corridors are both gorgeous and oppressive. Space has been depicted as beautiful and lonely before, but Ad Astra makes it feel scary, solitary, and otherworldly even in comparison to other space movies. It’s like am unsettling dream someone had after watching Gravity.

In other words: How the hell did I not like this movie more?

This happens almost every time I watch a James Gray picture: The distinct sense that what’s on screen has been well-crafted, that the subject matter appeals to me in theory, that the actors are performing with grace and subtlety, and that it is not really working for me on an emotional or narrative level. (Though Lost City of Z comes closer than most.) In Ad Astra, almost everyone speaks in hushed, even tones; their souls ache, but no one seems especially fussed about the possible destruction of Earth, which is why Pitt’s spaceman is sent to find his dad in the first place. Our glimpse into his psyche isn’t a glimpse at all—blurry faces are a recurring visual motif—but an eavesdropping on his thoughts via some sub-Malickian narration, the kind of explanatory muck that drops line about the sins of the father being revisited upon the son about an hour after you’ve said to yourself, got it, this is a sins-of-the-father type of thing.

There’s been some speculation that the narration was added during the movie’s apparently extended post-production process, maybe against Gray’s objections. If it’s either his original work or his patchwork solution to executive concerns, it’s both baffling and consistent with his weaknesses; writing has never been his strong suit. In a movie like Two Lovers, the stilted dialogue feels, at least, of a piece with his characters’ struggles to communicate, and maybe that’s always supposed to be the case. Certainly a level of clumsy formality in speech has been accepted as a stylistic tic for the likes of M. Night Shyamalan, Woody Allen, countless others. But those filmmakers usually get dinged for their clunkiness; Gray seems immune, even though he often makes what amounts to extraordinarily talky silent movies.

Granted, I tend to think too much emphasis is placed on writing in movies, especially dialogue. There are filmmakers who can create their own distinctive music out of it—Quentin Tarantino, Noah Baumbach, Leslye Headland, Wes Anderson—and outside of that realm, it doesn’t much matter to me if James Cameron gets a little dorky or Joe Swanberg leaves his actors in charge of it. But it’s not just Gray’s ponderous obviousness that gets me. It’s the way that he self-consciously toys with familiar narratives, making adventure movies about loneliness or melodramas with the veneer of history or romances where romance solves nothing. Again, it all sounds pretty great in theory, but it often robs his movies of momentum, especially when it becomes clear where they’re going early on.

We Own the Night, his cops-and-crooks thriller, plays like an outline of a satisfying crime picture. The Immigrant, with Marion Cotillard as a Polish immigrant in 1920s Manhattan, put its star through a simulacra of suffering not so far removed from an Oscar hopeful. In Ad Astra, we’re meant to feel for the alienation and disappointment of the Pitt character, and his failed marriage to a non-character played by Liv Tyler, seen mostly looking sad and making her exit. Maybe this is concise, visual storytelling—or maybe it’s an astronaut-family cliché played out with a barely-written character.

Given the effectiveness of his more genre-y moments—the superb rain-soaked car-chase in We Own the Night; a shoot-out with moon pirates in Ad Astra—his insistence on paring his stories down to a kind of quietly masculine anguish feels perverse. Despite the real possibility for audience puzzlement, Ad Astra is one of his more accessible movies, because it does deliver some spooky, otherworldly space-travel suspense, chased with that sense of crushing loneliness. I’m not sorry I saw it and may well watch it again at some point. But everything Gray observes in the movie feels like a foregone conclusion, maybe because so much of it, whether we’re watching Pitt grapple with his dad’s remoteness or maybe commit de facto serial murder, proceeds with a kind of dully declarative evenness. I’m told he’s interrogating notions of masculinity, but mostly he seems to be making it kind of boring. I spend a lot of time during Gray’s movies wondering if there’s a reference I’m not getting.

Filmmakers like Tarantino have been charged with an inability to see beyond that frame of (movie) reference—of constructing an alternate reality super-saturated with movie-world ephemera and little resemblance to reality as we know it. But I’ve never felt especially puzzled by Tarantino’s references, or smothered by that referential quality; his movies are easy enough to take at face value, and too engaging for me to wonder if he’s “really” just cribbing moments from other movies that did it first (I tend to doubt it—and even if he is, that’s so much harder than it looks). Maybe that’s because Tarantino plays more to the cheap seats; maybe the cheap seats is where I hang out, wondering what’s the big deal about with the unshowy grace of James Gray.

I have similar feelings about Todd Haynes, another filmmakers who does pastiche-riffing with obviously encyclopedic film knowledge. But I can recognize a few times when I’ve found Haynes’ work genuinely touching; I may not adore the restraint of Carol, but it has a tactility that bursts through its immaculate restraint—that tension between its lush beauty and its rougher 16mm grain.

In my less charitable moments, I think that a lot of critics tend to prize restraint sometimes to the point of treating it as an end unto itself. I wouldn’t suggest that’s what’s going on with the notion that James Gray has delivered any masterpieces, let alone as many as three or four in a row; obviously there’s a resonance about his work that touches people, and more than anything, I’m continually disappointed when it doesn’t reach me. I would suggest, though, that he’s uncommonly talented in convincing at least part of the audience that his symbols and images and references mean more because the movies around them are so unadorned. That’s what I see in between the gorgeous compositions and evocative moods and well-wrought performances: an extended tribute to, not interrogation of, the value of impeccably sourced masculine restraint.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Creed II and the Rocky Series

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

The Rocky series was unexpectedly revived in 2015 with the release of Ryan Coogler’s terrific movie Creed, which was followed last month by the sequel Creed II. Nathaniel, a lifelong Rocky fan, and Jesse, a relative newbie, both saw the new Creed movie and got together to discuss the latest sequel and how it fits into the Rocky series in general, as well as the often-confounding career of one Mr. Sylvester Stallone. Our Rocky podcast has several FLAMING HOT TAKES, including our weirdly mutual opinion of certain internet-beloved Rocky sequels as well as certain universally reviled Rocky sequels.

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

The Best Disney Songs: Our Beloved Outliers

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Our recent list of the twenty best Disney songs wasn’t without its controversy and heartbreak – or anyway, we all voted for songs that didn’t make it on the list. But there’s a particular specialness to the outliers – the songs that only one person apiece voted for on their list, often very high on that list, and that no one else included. Here, before we get to our Disney songs podcast, I’ve asked some of our contributors to defend their orphan choices for the best Disney songs.
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The Top 20 Disney Songs of All Time (So Far)

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

For so many of us, before we become self-styled experts in whatever kinds of pop music we like best, there are Disney songs. They’re inescapable, nearly; who among you, readers, cannot name or hum or sing or belt out at least one, if not half a dozen? With the current Disney cartoon Moana scoring rave reviews and mega box office as it completes the company’s re-embrace of its musical heritage, we thought it would be fun to establish a Disney Song Canon – the competition Moana‘s strong set of tunes faces as they hope to achieve immortality in the Disney songbook, which I believe is located somewhere inside the Disney Vault, possibly on the shelf above all of the Black Cauldron merch.

Of course, Disney music is not limited to animated features, and so neither was this list: live action releases from Disney (though generally not Touchstone or Hollywood Pictures) were fair game, along with theme park songs and any applicable Disney Afternoon theme songs. Songs from subsidiaries such as Pixar, Marvel Studios, Muppet Studios, and Lucasfilm were not eligible, because those entities’ existences predated Disney, as much as Pixar movies are now identified with the Disney brand.

Your usual SportsAlcohol buddies Marisa, Jesse, Nathaniel, Sara, and Maggie were joined by self-taught Disney experts Jonathan Lill, Rayme Shore, Bayard Templeton, and Jennifer Vega, compiling lists of our favorites and synthesizing them into a single Top 20. We’ll be back later this week with a podcast where we talk a little more about our choices and their movies. But for now, enjoy this ultra-definitive, well-considered list. These are the Disney songs that feel like magic to us.
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The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Hot Takes on the Pop Music Canon

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Welcome to the internet! We have hot takes here. SportsAlcohol.com has plenty of contrary and bizarre opinions to go around, and for this podcast we focused on albums from the pop music canon. Rob, Sara, Marisa, and Jesse got together to chat about which albums they think are secretly inferior to other, less acclaimed albums by the same artist. It’s a simple formula that generates hot take after hot take! Here are just some of the artists we cover in this trim 40-minute session:

The Beatles!
Bruce Springsteen!
U2!
The Stone Roses!
Radiohead!
Sleater-Kinney!
Simon & Garfunkel!
Coldplay for some reason!
Liz Phair!

AND MORE!

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll become infuriated with our hotness.

How To Listen

We are now up to SIX (6) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

Best Songs of the 90s: Lonely at the Top

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

In the process of putting together our list of the best songs of the 90s, certain brave people made certain brave tastes known. These list-makers might not have known they were committing an act of bravery at the time, but no fewer than seven of our 22 participants submitted #1 votes – choices for the single best song of 1990-1999 – that no one else in the poll voted for at all. Some were from artists whose other works were recognized; others were from artists whose works were roundly ignored in any form. I so admire this kind of free-thinking that I asked these people to write a little about their particularly distinct choices. Below are the responses I received. (And for the record, six of my personal 40 received no other votes from anyone else.)
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The SportsAlcohol.com Mini-Podcast: True Detective Season 2

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Well, the long national nightmare that was True Detective Season 2 is now over. But some of your friends at SportsAlcohol.com didn’t really consider it a nightmare. Actually, we have some pretty positive things to say, as well as some constructive criticism. So investigate one of the internet’s hottest takes as we do an uncharacteristically quick post-mortem on the second season of the show people love to hate for some reason. Marisa, Jesse, and Nathaniel are on hand to discuss the high fashions, low morals, confusing storytelling, and Strong Female Characters of True Detective Season 2. Spoilers abound, for the finale and the rest of the season!

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  • You can download the mp3 of this episode directly here.
  • You can listen in the player below.

The Ten Best Weezer Songs of the Past Decade

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Weezer is the Star Wars prequels of rock and roll: objects of loathing born from young love, recipients of vitriol presumed to be deserved and, beyond the affection of a few die hard nutcases, universal. This is hyperbolic, of course: a rock band “no one” likes can no more survive for decades than a movie series “everyone” hates can gross $300 million domestic every time out. But it’s inarguable that Weezer has, like the Star Wars prequels I so enjoy, disappointed a lot of people, and unlike Attack of the Clones, I would not give any of Weezer’s albums of the past decade three and a half stars out of four for the sheer enjoyability of the good stuff.

Also unlike Star Wars, which had three-year gaps (at least in terms of movies) for opinions to percolate (and, I think, sometimes nervously reverse themselves into scorn), Weezer has absorbed these negative reactions via not scarcity, but abundance. The band came back in 2001 after nearly five years of inactivity, and they haven’t been away for so long since. Though their 2005 nadir Make Believe was bookended by three-year breaks, they’ve also had major productivity spurts, most notably in the 2008-2010 period where they released three studio albums and one cast-off collection in less than four years.

Conventional wisdom says these records mostly just upped the ante on how bad Weezer could let down its dwindling fanbase, and true that none of these records or what I’d call “good,” though a few flirt with “pretty good” or “OK.” But as the band prepares to release its umpteenth for-real-this-time return to form, Everything Will Be Alright in the End (out tomorrow), it’s worth noting that the past decade of Weezer has not yielded nonstop dross. In fact, there are some pretty great Weezer songs adrift in the seas of mediocrity, waiting for attentive, non-angry listeners to rescue them. This is what I intend to do here. I’m limiting this to a list of the Ten Best Weezer Songs of the Past Decade and, as such, not including their post-comeback records, 2001’s Green Album or 2002’s Maladroit — because those albums are, as a whole, good. Not great like the first two, but good enough to listen to without much skipping – really, the best halves of Green and Maladroit could combine to form a record nearly as good as Blue or Pinkerton. And the songs that follow, well, they could probably form a record nearly as good as that one. Maybe some of the poptimism afforded derivative Top 40 songs might (in a Weezer-friendly rockist fashion) be applied to your old pals from ’94.
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