THE FAREWELL (PG) Four stars

The art of self-deception is convincing yourself that everything is going to be just peachy when, patently, it's not.

Few of us truly master the tentative tightrope walk between denial and self-protection, and that certainly applies to the beautifully sketched characters in Lulu Wang's poignant comedy drama about a family reunion in the shadow of terminal illness.

Drawn from the writer-director's personal experience - an opening title card pithily declares the film is "based on an actual lie" - The Farewell sensitively navigates a swell of conflicting emotions.

Wang treads carefully, eschewing brazen tear-jerking with a deeply satisfying amalgamation of wry humour and raw, heartfelt disclosure to loosen the knots of tension between different generations of her on-screen clan.

Tugs of war between east and west, tradition and modernity provide plentiful food for thought as comic whirlwind Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) delivers a terrific dramatic performance as a doting granddaughter, who struggles to conceal her feelings as she returns to China after more than 20 years.

"It's... different," she tells an inquisitive hotel receptionist, who imagines America as a distant promised land.

The same could be said of Wang's film, which repeatedly refuses to take an easy or conventional path to tear-stained catharsis.

Chinese American aspiring writer Billi Wang (Awkwafina) lives in New York and is two months in arrears on the rent as she pursues a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship to further her literary ambitions.

During a regular visit to her father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and mother Jian (Diana Lin) in Manhattan for dinner, Billi learns that beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) in China has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.

In keeping with tradition, the family has withheld the results from Nai Nai.

She is blissfully unaware that she has three months to live, perhaps less.

The Wang clan intends to gather in Changchun under the false pretence of the hastily arranged wedding of Billi's cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), who have been dating for three months.

"You can't go. You can't hide your emotions," Jian tells her distraught daughter.

Billi flatly disobeys and arrives unannounced at Nai Nai's apartment in the midst of feverish preparations for the sham nuptials.

Assured by a local doctor that ignorance is bliss - "It's a good lie" - Billi wrestles with her conscience as the elderly matriarch's condition worsens.

The Farewell is an intensely moving love letter to the ties that bind, distinguished by terrific performances from the ensemble cast including twinkly-eyed scene-stealer Shuzhen.

Wang's script is elegantly crafted to flesh out a vast array of family members and her sparing use of broad comedy (an accident-prone sitting for wedding photos is a treat) keeps her film the right side of mawkish and manipulative.

The copious tears that fall are honestly earned.

AD ASTRA (12A) Four stars

Brad Pitt blasts into space and delivers an out-of-this-world lead performance as an astronaut with deep-rooted daddy issues in director James Gray's sci-fi thriller.

Ad Astra hard-wires the visceral thrills of Gravity and the existential angst of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a near-future setting that slingshots from Earth to Neptune via the dark side of the Moon.

It's a curious juxtaposition and the script, co-written by Gray and Ethan Gross, struggles to find a smooth trajectory between edge-of-seat excitement and soul-searching, which is writ large in a superfluous voiceover that often verbalises what is achingly evident on Pitt's face.

Those classical handsome features ripple with emotion in close-up and Pitt excels at conveying turmoil beneath his gung-ho trailblazer's placid surface with an expertly timed twitch or downwards glance.

It's a meaty, complex role and the Oklahoma-born actor is mesmerising in every scene before his internal monologue interrupts the chilling silence in space, where no-one is supposed to be able to hear you primal scream.

Female characters are perfunctory.

Liv Tyler barely registers as Pitt's estranged earthbound wife and Ruth Negga has limited screen time as a director of operations on a Martian outpost, who flouts authority to propel the film towards its next set piece.

Celebrated astronaut Major Roy McBride (Pitt) hopes to further mankind's knowledge of the universe as part of the team on the International Space Antenna.

He prides himself on remaining cool and detached under pressure - famously, Roy's closely monitored pulse never exceeds 80 bpm.

A series of devastating electrical storms, christened The Surge, results in more than 43,000 deaths.

General Rivas (John Ortiz) summons Roy to an urgent confidential meeting.

Scientists at SpaceCom have traced the source of The Surge to Neptune, close to the last known location of Roy's father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared almost 30 years ago.

Roy is instructed to travel undercover to Neptune via Mars to learn if Clifford is alive and releasing anti-matter aboard his missing ship to create the electrical storms.

One of Clifford's old comrades, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), accompanies Roy on the perilous top-secret mission.

"We have to hold out the possibility that your father may be hiding from us," Pruitt confides to Roy as they venture into the inky void.

Ad Astra, which translates as "to the stars", quickens pulses with bravura action sequences including a lunar buggy chase and a memorable encounter with carnivorous gravity-defying baboons.

Pitt shines brighter than the slick special effects and his dazzling turn holds our interest when the script threatens to slip into a black hole of ponderous navel-gazing in the final third.

The clarity that Roy (and director Gray) seek remain tantalising out of everyone's grasp.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD (18) Three stars

Sylvester Stallone reprises his role as a former Green Beret haunted by the spectre of Vietnam in a fifth and final instalment of the franchise, which began in 1982 with First Blood based on the book by David Morrell.

Co-written by Matt Cirulnick and Stallone, Rambo: Last Blood finds John Rambo (Stallone) at peace with his demons, helping good friend Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) to raise her granddaughter Gabriela (Yvette Monreal) as if the girl was his own flesh and blood.

Gabriela learns that her biological father is in Mexico and she disobeys John and Maria to travel across the border in search of her old man.

She never returns, drugged and held hostage by a violent cartel spearheaded by siblings Hugo (Sergio Peris Mencheta) and Victor Martinez (Oscar Jaenada).

Rambo solemnly vows to rescue Gabriela and he teams up with tenacious reporter Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega) to undermine the Martinez operation without compromising Gabriela's safety.

Calling upon his combat skills from almost 40 years ago, Rambo prepares for one final battle to protect the people he loves.

THE KITCHEN (15) Three stars

Three wives make their mark on the criminal underworld in 1978 Hell's Kitchen in a tough-talking crime drama written and directed by Andrea Berloff, which is based on the Vertigo comic book miniseries of the same title.

Jimmy Brennan (Brian d'Arcy James), Kevin O'Carroll (James Badge Dale) and Rob Walsh (Jeremy Bobb) operate on the wrong side of the law in New York as members of the Irish mob, which is controlled behind the scenes by Kevin's mother Helen (Margo Martindale).

FBI agents Silvers (Common) and Martinez (EJ Bonilla) are in the right place at the right time and arrest Jimmy, Kevin and Rob during a convenience store theft.

The men are sentenced to three years behind bars.

In the absence of their husbands, Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O'Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) struggle to make ends meet under new mob boss, Little Jackie Quinn (Myk Watford).

The women spy an opening to undercut Jackie's protection racket in the neighbourhood.

They hire two enforcers, Duffy (John Sharian) and Burns (Brian Tarantina), and Jackie reacts violently to the brazen challenge to his authority.