The Aeronauts is a movie about a lofty and dangerous hot-air balloon mission, and it takes a while to realize just how short this epic adventure is going to be. Early in the 1862-set film, weather scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) is preparing his balloon for departure as a large crowd watches expectantly — and his pilot, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), arrives to even more fanfare, riding the roof of a carriage, wearing a colorful dress, and leaping into a series of cartwheels. Amelia insists that they take off with a flourish of fireworks, a surprise airborne mutt, and other assorted gimmicks. It feels like they’re about to launch into space, and when they do slip the surely bonds of Earth, the crowd goes wild. The thing is, the duo doesn’t pack an overnight bag, because this adventure is less than two hours long. The movie’s runtime itself is also over and out in well under two hours, but, disappointingly, its mission is not depicted in real time. Director Tom Harper, for some reason, feels obligated to circle back and explain what motivates the characters to get into a hot-air balloon, intercutting origin stories with aerial action.
Jones’ character in particular is a product of the historical fiction-level liberties taken with the movie’s real-life source material (but she’s also the more compelling of the two, playing a hot-shot with no-nonsense charm, that’s only more enhanced more by the fact that it’s a part that usually is played by men). The balloon trip itself is a composite of several such fact-finding missions, and while James Glaisher was a real scientist, Amelia Wren is fabricated. It’s easy to imagine people taking umbrage with panderingly making a female character to put in the narrative, instead of just telling one of the already-existing female-lead adventure stories. (But at the same time, this movie has pretty much come-and-gone with little talk.) Characterizing what Redmayne and share as “chemistry” would be an oversell, but there is a dorky romance to their scenic bickering. As the movie strays from biopic respectability and the swelling of an inspirational score, the better it works. There’s a lifeboat-like intimacy to the setting, for which Harper alternates clear, beautiful skyscapes and closer, more shallow focus as the altitude climbs and the temperature drops. Throw the great set piece that Jones has late in the film, and on the whole, The Aeronauts is a pretty good small-scale adventure movie when it focuses on being that.
Everywhere else, the film is pretty dull — the unceasing flashbacks providing multiple instances where telling might have been preferable to showing. Restricting backstory to what Glaisher and Wren discuss in the balloon’s basket could have a bitt hackneyed, but at least it would reduce the odds of other characters say things like, “You can’t just fly away from your problems!” Once in a while, the cuts out of the balloon and into a tedious TV movie work on a basic, suspense-goosing level, providing little commercial-style act breaks. Majority of the time, they’re an accidental throwback to a more innocent time, when audiences wouldn’t think wistfully of checking their phones during the dull bits. Yes, the occasional thrill and striking sky vista is there, but a majority of The Aeronauts delivers dull, uninspired formula, keeping the drama grounded, making it never able to truly fly.
Echo in the Canyon
The delights that can come from Echo in the Canyon are the delectable details its subjects impart. Tom Petty notes that the Beach Boys’ influential album Pet Sounds was considered to be responsible for Sgt. Pepper; Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas remembers Brian Wilson’s living room, a piano planted on the sand-covered floor as he wrote Pet Sounds; David Crosby reveals why he was kicked out of the Byrds; and the narrator, singer-songwriter Jakob Dylan, coaxes Stephen Stills to tell an embarrassing story about sneaking out the back when the police broke up one of the Laurel Canyon house parties where the performers tried out their music and inspired each other’s work and got high all at the same time.
The film, directed by Andrew Slater, centers on the 2015 50th-anniversary concert that payed tribute to the music of Laurel Canyon and featured artists of the next generation, including, Dylan, Cat Power, Beck and Norah Jones. We cut back and forth between the concert and Dylan’s interviews with the music legends of the Canyon, and while the concert is nice, it still occasionally feels like a bit of a vanity project. But when the film focuses on the interviews and the (too few) snippets of the original clips and the present day recordings and interviews of the legends, Echo in the Canyon glides with a honeyed ease. Though some of the vanity in Echo in the Canyon can be a bit much, but when it lets the music speak and finds the savory details in its subjects, it glides just right.
Little Joe is a cautionary tale, one about a mother who’s too busy with work to notice that her son has been infected by an evil plant — a plant she designed, named after and brought home as a gift. (The other commentary, on people’s reliance on prescription drugs, is evident within minutes.) Actually, that description makes the movie sound far more bizarre and compelling than it is. Austrian cowriter-director Jessica Hausner has taken an austere approach to her sci-fi horror film, both visually and tonally, which is an intriguing choice in contrast with its wild core idea. But it ultimately results in a cold, unsatisfying experience, and yearning for Hausner and cowriter Géraldine Bajard to have said something as bold as the film’s color palette (the production design by Katharina Wöppermann is quite good, especially those bright-green cafeteria chairs). The aforementioned plants themselves — which lead scientist Alice (Emily Beecham) affectionalty names Little Joe after her own human boy (Kit Connor) — are an explosion of crimson, with soft tendrils that seem to dance as their buds open. It’s as if they’re shyly saying hello, or subtly trying to enslave you.
In theory, Alice and her team intend for these to be “mood-lifting, anti-depressant happy plants.” So yeah, the message about the dangers of seeking shortcuts to wellbeing is mightily clear, to the point of landing as flat as a pancake. But what’s really happening is that the plants that Alice has developed emits a pollen that initially elicits a sneeze, followed by total devotion. The people inhaling it don’t behave all that differently. Rather, they seem weirdly like placid zombies (get it! we’re back on to commentary on our reliance on pharmaceuticals). The plant’s effects on another scientists’ emotional support dog, who’s normally sweet and playful (and who’s fate is evident miles away), also attempts to create an underlying tension. But then the Japanese-inspired score — heavy on strings and drums, mixed with a high-pitch whistle and the surreal sound of dogs barking — provides an even more obvious jolt. It’s the film’s most bold stylistic choice, one that’s initially startling but eventually overbearing. Little Joe never ventures anywhere near full-on terror mode, but its aesthetics can be pleasing enough. But it also steadily builds to nowhere, resulting in a collective shrug — and maybe another sneeze. It’s commentary evident and fully “gotten” in the opening minutes, Little Joe offers some great aesthetics (specifically production design) but sadly its continually on-the-nose commentaries become overwhelming.