FIRST MAN (2018)

October 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Every junior high student learns that Neil Armstrong spoke those words when he became the first person to walk on the moon’s surface in 1969. So while his words are etched into our minds and the televised visuals of the historic event are seared into our corneas, most of us know little of the man who is renowned as an American hero. Director Damien Chazelle (LA LA LAND, WHIPLASH) finds a way to personalize a man’s story without sacrificing the corresponding grandiose theatre and immense danger.

Kicking off with one of the most intense cinematic sequences ever, the film puts us inside the cockpit of a test flight with Armstrong in 1961 as he bounces off the atmosphere and rockets towards near certain death. This opening makes the statement that this is no ordinary man, and this is no ordinary movie … and we are now prepared to hold on tight! Based on James R Hansen’s book, the only biography Armstrong authorized, the script from Oscar winner Josh Singer (SPOTLIGHT) expertly balances the test pilot/astronaut portion with the character study/personality of the man. Intensity is on display throughout – whether in a capsule or during family time.

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, and the story tracks him from 1961 through that famous moment in 1969. What we see is a man who was first an engineer, and then a pilot. A man whose intellect and nerve allowed him to be part of the second group of pilots selected for NASA’s astronaut program in 1962. The first group was the Mercury Seven. He was also a man emotionally devastated by the death of his young daughter Karen (from a brain tumor) and the numerous deaths of friends and associates in the space program. The film clearly shows how he was impacted.

Proving true JFK’s proclamation that the driving force wasn’t that it was easy, but rather that it was quite hard (and dangerous), we glimpse some of the inner workings of NASA, and what becomes clear that the space program was high stakes gambling filled with huge risks – all for a space race against the Russians that was motivated by ego and national pride. Daily danger was part of the job, as was the claustrophobia that comes with sitting in tin can space capsules being monitored by computers far less powerful than the cell phone you are likely using to read this.  Armstrong’s claustrophobia somehow seemed less apparent during his flights than during press conferences or sitting at the kitchen table with his family – providing even more insight into the man.

Claire Foy (“The Crown”) plays Janet Armstrong, the strong-for-the-kids while suffering-in- (mostly) silence homemaker wife. Ms. Foy does a nice job of conveying the emotional turmoil that goes with being an astronaut’s wife, and having no one to share the uncertainty and worry with. Jason Clarke plays Ed White, the first American to walk in space (Gemini 4) and Armstrong’s neighbor and close friend. Olivia Hamilton plays his wife Pat, while Kyle Chandler plays Deke Slayton, and Corey Stoll offers up a not so complimentary portrayal of Buzz Aldrin. Other familiar faces in the cast include Shea Whigham as Gus Grissom, Christopher Abbott as Dave Scott, Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks in APOLLO 13), Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith, Brian D’Arcy James, and Leon Bridges.

Meticulous attention to details of the era include kids that actually ask to go play outdoors (and aren’t overly impressed with astronaut dads). The sound design and set designs are phenomenal and complement the outstanding cinematography of Linus Sandgren (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND). The abundance of close-ups allow for an intimacy that makes the awe-inspiring space sequences even more breath-taking. Actual historic space audio is used whenever possible, and director Chazelle doesn’t shy away from showing us the “other side” of the space program: Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon”, writer Kurt Vonnegut publically questioning the program, and many citizens wondering why so much money is being spent on rockets while there were so many other areas (including Vietnam) in need of attention.

The humor is often quite sly, including a scene where his competitive applicants shrug off Armstrong as only a “Civilian”, unaware of his remarkable service and record in the Korean War as a Navy Fighter Pilot. Gosling’s quietly intense portrayal of Armstrong could be termed constrained, but it’s quite fitting given his subject. Composer Justin Hurwitz (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) delivers and unusual but fitting score, and we can’t help but realize this would make a terrific trilogy bookended by THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) and APOLLO 13 (1995). Chazelle presents a fitting bio of a true American hero (and yes, we can see the flag on the moon), while also giving us a look at the harrowing process of putting folks into space. It’s on us to decide if it’s worth it, but leaves no doubt that President Kennedy was right … it is hard.

***On a personal note, I attended the first year of Edward H White Middle School in San Antonio, and his widow Pat White came to the Grand Opening. I vividly remember what a classy lady she was and how proud she was of her husband.

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

BLEED FOR THIS (2016)

November 17, 2016

bleed-for-this Greetings again from the darkness. You may be excused if you believe there have been enough boxing movies recently. Just last year, we saw Creed and Southpaw – both critically acclaimed and featured significant screen time inside the ropes. Writer/director Ben Younger returns with his first movie since 2005 (Prime) and teams up with screenwriter Angelo Pizzo to present the “based on a true story” of Rhode Island’s own Vinny Pazienza.

Mr. Pizzo is known for his work on inspirational sports films like Hoosiers, Rudy, The Game of Their Lives, and My All-American; so the fascinating and true story of Paz is right in his wheelhouse. See, The Pazmanian Devil (his nickname) was a terrific fighter, and is even more famous for his medically-defying comeback after a horrific car accident. The doctors doubted he would ever walk again, and offered Vinny no hope at all of ever fighting again.

Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now) plays Vinny Pazienza and obviously trained very hard to get in tip top shape. His boxing skills are well suited to the training sequences but must be creatively edited for the scenes in the ring. This is especially obvious when clips of the real Paz are inserted. Beyond that, Teller softens the overblown machismo of Pazienza and the boxing world. He captures the single-minded commitment of Pazienza, while making him a bit more likeable than the real man came off in interviews.

Aaron Eckhart is excellent as Pazienza’s (and Mike Tyson’s former) trainer, Kevin Rooney. It’s puzzling how Eckhart’s name ever came up for the role of a balding, pudgy, alcoholic who believes he’s been put out to pasture … but Eckhart and Teller together produce some wonderful scenes. Other support work comes from Ciaran Hinds and an underutilized Katey Sagal as Vinny’s dad and mom, and Ted Levine and Jordan Gelber as boxing promoters Lou and Dan Duva.

The comeback was as improbable as it was inspirational, and the decision to go with the Halo (metal brace that screws into the skull) over the neck fusion surgery could easily be categorized as foolish rather than courageous. But much of the story revolves around the internal make-up and competitive drive that made Vinny the man and the boxer that we see.

The film has more in common with The Fighter than either of the movies mentioned in the first paragraph, but it’s even more character study than boxing movie. This proud, driven, egotistical local from Providence held world titles at three different weight classes, refusing to be limited by the opinions of others. Rather than end with a classically Hollywood shot of victorious Paz celebrating in the ring, the film ends with an odd interview centered on his debate against the phrase “it’s not that easy”. It’s a stance that makes us question whether he ever learned the lessons of gamble vs risk. Mostly though, we marvel and agree that he’s a guy who deserves to be on a box of Wheaties.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY (2014)

September 21, 2014

eleanor rigby Greetings again from the darkness. It’s tough and probably unfair to write about a film project when key pieces remain unseen. Writer/Director Ned Benson‘s brilliant first take on the story was released at Toronto Film Festival in two perspectives: “Him” and “Her“. A massive re-edit produced “Them“, this version for theatrical release. As you might expect, knowledge that more exists … and in probably a more effective story telling format … renders us a bit frustrated with the blended version. Still, there is plenty here to warrant a look.

This viewer’s frustration stems mostly from the long and winding road we travel understanding something tragic has caused the split between El (the titular Eleanor Rigby) and Conor, but only being teased with details. We are offered a brief glimpse of their happy times, but never get to know them as a happy couple. Instead, Conor is shown trying to re-assemble the pieces, while El tries to move on to a different puzzle altogether.

While the story unfolds in teeth-grinding fashion, it doesn’t offset the powerful emotion and personal intensity brought to the screen by both James McAvoy (Conor) and Jessica Chastain (El). Mr. McAvoy has quietly evolved into one of the more interesting actors working, while Ms. Chastain proves herself to be among the best each time she crawls inside a role and makes it her own. We feel for each of them, before we even really know them at all.

Other superb work comes from a sterling supporting cast that includes screen vets William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Viola Davis and Ciaran Hinds; as well as Bill Hader, Jess Weixler and Nina Arianda. That’s seven characters (plus the two leads) of which we yearn to learn more. Ms. Davis is especially effective in her all too brief appearance as a professor cutting El very little slack. And Mr. Hurt delivers a terrific monologue that strikes a chord.

So all of these wonderful pieces make for an spell-binding what-if that possibly gets answered in the dual-perspective version. The coldness and lack of understanding in the first 45 minutes can’t offset the emotion and sadness that each character feels. Rumor has it that “Him” and “Her” will get their release this year, and if so, I’ll be there in an attempt to complete both puzzles.

watch the trailer:

 


CLOSED CIRCUIT (2013)

September 7, 2013

closed circuit1 Greetings again from the darkness. I try to spend very little time re-hashing movies that deliver very little … I prefer to move on to the next one with a clear head. This one frustrated me because it could have – even should have – been so much more.

Director John Crowley was responsible for the very entertaining Michael Caine film Is Anybody There? and writer Steven Knight penned three scripts that I very much enjoyed: Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, and Amazing Grace. The cast is very talented with Eric Bana, Jim Broadbent, Ciaran Hinds, and … well … also Rebecca Hall and Julia Stiles. So why does it feel so empty?

closed circuit3 The movie begins with a horrible act of terrorism – a suicide bomb in London that we view through a grid of 12 closed circuit screens. You would be incorrect if you think there is a payoff for frantically scanning all screens looking for clues. This device is nothing more than a reminder (over and over again) that we are constantly being monitored while in public.

The ensuing trial provides a peek at the British legal system, but the most interesting sub-plot … the young son of the accused terrorist … is minimized in favor of the generic romance between two legal defense attorneys (Bana and Hall). Additionally, Ciaran Hinds’ character is simply too easy to read and Ann-Marie Duff is totally miscast. My favorite moments were the all-too-rare exquisite verbal diatribes from the great Jim Broadbent.

Chalk this one up as a forgettable would-be/should-be political legal thriller that just doesn’t thrill. It’s of little comfort to know that I was probably being watched on the theatre security cameras as I longed for something worth watching on the screen.  They may be watching, but you shouldn’t.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have an ongoing wager with your friends that you must see every Eric Bana movie

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your political and legal thrillers to actually have some thrills and not concentrate on some absurd secret romance that everyone knows about

watch the trailer (just don’t be fooled):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktiMVKeA9QM

 


OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS – Live Action and Animated (2011)

February 15, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. Every year I mention how the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas presents one of my favorite movie events … the Oscar nominated short films. Three hours of quality filmmaking! It’s also a reminder of just how frustrating it is that so few people actually get to see these interesting short films.  Why aren’t they screened periodically throughout the year in association with major film releases?  Pixar manages to do this successfully, so it only makes sense that others could follow suit.  With all of that being said, I must regrettably report that this year’s batch didn’t light the fire for me the way past years have.  The quality of the filmmaking was present, but the creative storytelling fell a bit short.

Below is my recap by category, and in order of preference:

LIVE ACTION

 THE SHORE (Ireland) directed by Terry George.  This one is probably the most mainstream/accessible because it tells a story that is easily relatable.  Ciaran Hinds stars as a man returning home to Ireland after 25 years.  He has his grown daughter (Kerry Condon) in tow, and she is much more anxious than he to reassemble the pieces of his past. As he reconnects with his former best friend and fiancé, we learn they have each harbored secrets and guilt since last they saw each other.  Watching how it plays out is actually quite touching, and includes some humorous moments as well.

TUBA ATLANTIC (Norway) directed by Hallvar Witzo.  Our lead character is an elderly man who has been told by his doctor that he has six days to live.  He is then visited by a self-described Angel of Death – a teenage girl volunteering to spend time with him, and help him through the stages of dying.  Their time together involves her causing him to lose one of his six days thanks to sleeping pills.  She also joins in on his personal vendetta against the local sea gulls, who clearly have been a menace for years. We also see the giant tuba that brings him some peace.

TIME FREAK (USA) directed by Andrew Bowler. One of the two characters has invented a time travel machine for the purpose of realizing his dream of visiting ancient Rome. Instead of visiting Caesar, he jumps off-track due to his inability to get over the minutae of life.  We also get the best Oceanography reference since “Seinfeld”.

PENTECOST (Ireland) directed by Peter McDaniel. We are dropped into 1977 Ireland as a young alter boy makes a critical mistake during mass.  His punishment forces him to miss his beloved futbol team’s big game. Given a second chance, we witness quite a funny pep talk by the local priest.  The sports analogy is impossible to miss, but the young man proves he may be a bit more hard-headed than first thought.

RAJU (Germany) directed by Max Zahle. A young couple travel to India to adopt an orphan boy. What they soon discover is that they are mere bit players in a human trafficking scam.  We see how differently the two people react and how self-interest can sometimes cloud one’s judgment.

ANIMATION

 THE FANTASTIC FLYING BOOKS OF MR MORRIS LESSMORE (USA) directed by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg. Despite a title that is impossible to remember, this little film was my favorite of the day. In a pretty creative way, it touts the impact that books can have on our lives. It has a tribute to Hurricane Katrina and The Wizard of Oz while it reminds us of the role books can play in providing hopes and dreams.  Humpty Dumpty and Pop Goes the Weasel both play a key role as we see books spring to life, and bring color to the world of kids and adults.

LA LUNA (USA) directed by Enrico Casarosa. This category wouldn’t be complete without the latest gem from Pixar. We see a young boy being introduced to a most unusual family business run by his father and grandfather. His real challenge is finding a way to keep them happy while still making his own mark. He succeeds in very dramatic fashion.

A MORNING STROLL (UK) directed by Grant Orchard. A NYC street scene plays out in three widely different eras: 1959, 2009, 2059.  The twist here is we see a chicken doing the same thing in all 3 time periods, while the people he confronts, and the environment, shift each time.

DIMANCHE / SUNDAY (Canada) directed by Patrick Doyon. A boy is searching for something interesting to do while his family carries on with their Sunday visit.  Things involved include a house-rattling train, 3 crows that mimic the old men, a “mounted” bear and a bunny rabbit.

WILD LIFE (Canada) directed by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby. An English gentleman settles into a simple cabin in the harsh Alberta frontier in 1909.  His letters home paint a rosier picture than what reality dishes. The film compares his plight to that of a comet, replete with burnout.


THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012)

February 4, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The quest for quality horror films is a never-ending project. Since low budget fright fests are the easiest way to make money in Hollywood, most take shortcuts that leave us feeling cheated. This remake of a 1989 British TV horror film actually has wonderful production design … the Gothic mansion is a sight to behold. Unfortunately, the shortcut here was a story that offers little substance, despite being based on Susan Hill‘s novel.

Daniel Radcliffe (yes, Harry Potter himself) plays a young, widowed solicitor named Arthur Kipps, who is still grief stricken, and now on the verge of losing his job. He is given one last chance to prove his mettle to the firm by going to a remote village to settle the affairs of recently deceased client. His young son (Misha Handley) and his nanny are to meet him in the village a few days later.

 The local townspeople clearly don’t want him there and are constantly trying to shoo him back to London. Of course, no one ever bothers to tell him why they are frightened and why they are so angry with him for going to the old house. This mansion is a work of art. It has the necessary creep factor to star in a real horror film. The furnishings and fixtures and decor are really the star of the movie. In fact, the DVD should include a segment on the antique mechanical toys.  It’s not giving away anything to say that every time Radcliffe sees this mysterious woman in black, something bad happens in the village.  The mystery is solved easily enough as we read along while Radcliffe organizes the letters.

The annoying thing about the film is that whenever we get a chill-inducing moment like a shadow in the background or a figure passing by a mirror, it is immediately followed up by a cheap parlor trick involving a sonic blast of music and an ear-piercing scream. It’s as if the director (James Watkins) is convinced movie goers are too ignorant to know when to be scared.  His solution: provide clues to say “Scream now!” Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer add a touch of class to the film as Mr.and Mrs. Daily, who recently lost their son. Mr. Daily has found solace in the bottle, while Mrs. Daily teeters on the brink of insanity. My theory that no film featuring Mr. Hinds can be all bad is tested here, and Ms. McTeer was seen recently as the best thing about the Albert Nobbs film.

 On a positive note, this is a nice transition movie for Daniel Radcliffe. He has quite a career challenge as he tries to break loose of the Harry Potter clamp. He succeeds here with quite a different physical appearance, though he really has little to do but alternate between a distantly forlorn look and peering cautiously around dark corners. A couple of interesting notes: the boy playing his son is Radcliffe’s real life godson; and the actor who played Radcliffe’s role in the 1989 original is Adrian Rawlins, who played Harry Potter’s father in those movies.

By the way, how long until Daniel Radcliffe realizes he should just steer clear of train stations?

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are desperately seeking a horror film that isn’t a slasher … even if it’s not very good OR you are anxious to see Daniel Radcliffe first real step towards a film career outside of “Harry Potter” OR you just want to see a beautifully creepy haunted house

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a classic horror story in the vein of Poe OR you have had your fill of cheap tricks designed with no purpose other than to cause viewers to jump

watch the trailer:


TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

December 20, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the best-selling 1974 John LeCarre’ spy novel, opinions on this movie will cover the full spectrum. Many will find it painfully slow and frustrating, if not impossible to follow. Others will be thrilled with the subtle clues and reality-based exchanges between British spies in the early 70’s. This is no James Bond thriller with exploding yachts, world class fist fights and bikini-clad women. Rather, it’s a peek at what real life spies do … huddle in soundproof rooms and exchange information through stunted conversation where just shy of enough is said.

 John LeCarre’ actually worked for the British Secret Service prior to becoming an author (also wrote The Constant Gardener and The Russia House). He based this novel around the discovery of a traitor, which remains the biggest scandal in the history of British intelligence. This story covers some of that and even more. We see how trust and loyalty are so crucial, yet none of these men ever fully trusts the fellow agent sitting next to him. Very little is spoken, but much is communicated through a nod, raised eye brow, a slight cock of the head, or even the adjustment of one’s spectacles. Cigarettes and scotch are the common ground from which discussions spring.

 Swedish Director Tomas Alfredson delivered the exceptional vampire drama Let the Right One In a couple of years ago. Mr. Alfredson has a distinctive feel for the look of a film, and atmospheric is a word that fits this movie, as well as his earlier one. The tone, color and texture is key to this world, and we are immersed in blues and grays. His camera work is unique and wondrous as he massages the small, confined spaces and allow us to pick up the gestures of all involved.

 The cast is a group of wonderfully talented (mostly) men: Mark Strong, John Hurt (Control), Toby Jones (Tinker), Colin Firth (Tailor), Ciaran Hinds (Soldier), David Dencik (Poor Man)and Stephen Graham. Especially enjoyable are Tom Hardy as a rogue agent who breaks the “mole” theory wide open, Benedict Cumberbatch as the youngest agent, and of course, Gary Oldman as George Smiley. Oldman’s performance will awe many and bore a few. This is a man trained to say only what must be said. You can see the resolve in his eyes. These still waters run VERY deep. Some will compare him to the performance of Sir Alec Guiness in the BBC production, and both are terrific and strong (though different).

While a rousing recommendation would be nice, it’s just not in the cards. This movie will have a very specific audience … those who thrive on mental jigsaw puzzles and are inspired by juggling an endless stream of characters and possible plots. If that describes you, then get in line on opening day.

note: John LeCarre’ has a quick cameo during the Christmas party flashback

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are the type who likes to play six chess matches at a time OR your addiction to spy novels leans towards the most realistic of the genre, rather than the most action-packed

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the Bond movies are your preference in spy thrillers OR needing a scorecard to keep track of the players ruins a game for you

watch the trailer: