Ad Astra
July 16th, 2022

Ad Astra

Please join Cultivate Cinema Circle as we screen six films in space. Next up is James Gray’s Oscar-nominated (Best Achievement in Sound Mixing) film Ad Astra [2019].

Event Sponsors:

Venue Information:

Downtown Central Library Auditorium
1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo, NY 14203
(Enter from Clinton Street between Oak and Washington Streets)
716-858-8900 •
COVID protocol will be followed.

TrailerSynopsisDirector BioLinks

Brad Pitt gives a powerful performance in this, “absolutely enthralling” (Rolling Stone), sci-fi thriller set in space. When a mysterious life-threatening event strikes Earth, astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) goes on a dangerous mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.


  • Venice Film Festival – 2019
  • Academy Awards – 2020 – Nominee: Best Sound Mixing

“What I’m after, making a film, is the most exact transcript of my most intimate impressions of behavior.”

Courtesy of TCM:

Writer-director James Gray made his mark on the independent film world with a number of acclaimed dramas that explored his interest in human behavior; in particular, loyalty among families, tribes and lovers. Gray was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his first feature, “Little Odessa” (1994), and from that film’s gritty setting in Brooklyn’s Russian Mafia underworld, he went into the seedy New York club scene for “We Own The Night” (2007), starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg. When Gray boldly moved away from crime dramas towards romance with “Two Lovers” (2009), more accolades were forthcoming, proving that the filmmaker was skilled enough to create absorbing, emotionally complex characters that were not necessarily packing heat.

Gray was born in New York City in 1969 and raised in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a painter, but that all changed when he saw “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and “Raging Bull” (1980), and was inspired by how filmmaking could combine multiple forms of art into one work. He became a movie junkie, often skipping school to visit art houses in a quest to learn all he could about American and European film history. Despite his less-than-stellar attendance record, Gray maintained his academics enough to get accepted into the prestigious University of Southern California Film School, where he delved deeper into film theory. He graduated with a BFA in Film in 1991. That year, his short film, “Cowboys and Angels,” showcased a promising filmmaker and helped him secure an agent and his first bit of industry attention.

He made his feature film debut with the 1994 indie “Little Odessa,” about an icy hit man (Tim Roth) for the Russian Mafia who returns to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn for a quick kill and finds himself getting drawn back into family relationships, including with his ailing mother (Vanessa Redgrave), estranged father (Maximillian Schell), and the younger brother (Edward Furlong) who idolizes him. An impressive first film that achieved a solemn, thoughtful tone and offered excellent performances, “Little Odessa” won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, the Critics Award at the Deauville Film Festival, and Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay.

In 1998, Gray began shooting his follow-up, “The Yards” (2000), based on a screenplay he wrote about the politics and corruption involved in the New York City transit system. When Gray was growing up, his father was an electronic parts manufacturer who was a supplier to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and his stories of the shady deal-making and violence involved inspired Gray’s storyline. Set in a subway train yard in Queens, “The Yards” made its debut at Cannes in 2000 and starred Mark Wahlberg as an ex-con looking for honest work who joins his uncle (James Caan) in what turns out to be the dangerous and dishonest business. The film only received limited release, but it cemented Gray’s gelling reputation as a visual, detail-oriented director who elicited top-notch performances from his cast, which in this case included Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron and Ellen Burstyn.

Seedy New York underworlds and the pitfalls of family businesses continued to provide inspiration for writer-director Gray, who next hit theaters in 2007 with “We Own The Night.” Gray paired two of his favorite actors, Wahlberg and Phoenix, to play brothers on opposite sides of the law who agree to join forces to avenge the death of their father (Robert Duvall). The crime drama was one of the most commercially popular films on Gray’s resume, but for his next project he made a decision to put aside the guns and murder that usually factored into his plots and make a film about love and desire. The creative leap re-invigorated his critical standing, and Gray earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Director for “Two Lovers” (2009), which starred Joaquin Phoenix as an unstable man drawn to two very different women – Gwyneth Paltrow as a lawyer who carries on an affair with her married boss, and Vinessa Shaw as a more stable option whose father will bring him into their family business if the pair marries.

Critics applauded “Two Lovers,” though unfortunately the film’s promotional efforts were overshadowed by bizarre appearances by Phoenix, including a severely bearded, bloated and dazed guest spot in David Letterman’s interview chair. While the appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman” (CBS, 1993- ) was a hot YouTube selection, the odd antics failed to do justice to the film. When Phoenix went on to announce his retirement from acting to pursue a rap career, “Two Lovers” became his swan song, and an impressive achievement to go out on. Gray also made a marked change at the time, opting to finally leaving his Brooklyn-set stories behind in favor of South America. He scripted “The Lost City of Z” (2010), based on the actual story of an early 20th century explorer who was obsessed with finding unknown civilizations in the Amazon jungle before eventually going mad. Gray’s biggest budget outing to date partnered him with co-producer Brad Pitt, who also starred.


  • Ad Astra (2019)
  • The Lost City of Z (2016)
  • The Immigrant (2013)
  • Two Lovers (2008)
  • We Own the Night (2007)
  • The Yards (1999)
  • Little Odessa (1994)
  • Cowboys and Angels (1993)

Here is a curated selection of links for additional insight/information:

  • Cultivate Cinema Circle info-sheet – link
  • “In Ad Astra, Gray travels far afield to reach far within himself; the movie is something like his own refraction of a Terrence Malick film, a conjuring of deep subjectivity in deep space. In some essential ways, Gray, escaping from the confines of familiar earthbound realism, goes aesthetically further than he has ever gone before. A basic problem for filmmakers to overcome in space movies is the demand of exposition. The required world-building of a movie about hypothetical lives in the imaginary future would seem to work at cross purposes to Gray’s usual method, which is to take the recognizable and infuse it, from the start, with a personal and distinctive tone. It turns out, though, that Ad Astra stands the world-building on its head, with ingenious touches that render the strange familiar and the implausible obvious—only to then fracture those instant new commonplaces with psychological turmoil. The canniness of Gray’s procedure is matched by the boldness, even the recklessness, of the extremes to which he pushes it—along with his characters, his story, his emotions, and his techniques. The result is to turn Ad Astra into an instant classic of intimate cinema—one that requires massive machinery and complex methods to create a cinematic simplicity that, for all the greatness of his earlier films, had eluded him until now.” – Richard Brody, The New Yorker [2019] – link
  • “As science fiction, Ad Astra is less Gravity, more gravitas, freighted down with furrowed-brow earnestness. The title comes from the Latin phrase ‘Per ardua ad astra’, ‘Through struggle to the stars’, and there’s no shortage of ardua here, for hero or viewer. This crazily ambitious film, sometimes successful but never less than mesmerically odd, seems an unlikely departure for the usually pragmatic, earthbound American director of The YardsTwo Lovers, and The Immigrant—although one might would have said the same for Gray’s daringly old-fashioned jungle exploration yarn The Lost City of Z…This is the ultimate drama of male angst, in the lineage of all those Hollywood movies, inescapable in the ’80s and ’90s, about boys growing up troubled because Dad missed their big ball game. As for Roy’s mother, we learn she fell ill because of her husband’s absence but we don’t even glimpse her or learn her name. And as the son repeats the flaws of the father, Roy’s wife Eve (Liv Tyler)—seen only as a phantasmal memory and as a face on a phone screen—reproaches him for his absence. Tyler’s occasional hazy floatings in and out of sight makes it clear how much Gray also owes to Solaris—not Tarkovsky’s, but the underrated Steven Soderbergh version.” – Jonathan Romney, Film Comment [2019] – link
  • “In some ways, Ad Astra does continue Gray’s upward trajectory. There’s the celestial grandeur of Max Richter’s irreplaceable score – music that somehow sounds like the motion of planets in orbit, or the singing of stars across the lens-flared light years of Hoyte van Hoytema’s majestic cinematography. There are single shots in which the sheer spectacle of sound and image is breathtaking, like an opening hatch reflected in two helmet visors that look like a pair of eyes in which the pupils are dilating in wonder. There is a consistent, voluptuous elegance to the filmmaking here that surpasses anything Gray, never an inelegant director, has achieved before. But if the expansion of the setting – the story, co-written by Gray and Ethan Gross, takes place on Earth, the moon, Mars, Neptune and in a series of spacecraft and stations in between – might have been hoped to prompt an expansion of his beautiful last film’s philosophies, there it stumbles. The gracefulness of the craft throws into relief the clumsiness of the dialogue, and the silkiness of the sensorial experience sits tonally at odds with the sometimes deranged side quests and adventures into which this otherwise very serious-minded film occasionally, alarmingly diverts.” – Jessica Kiang, Sight & Sound [2019] – link

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