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.

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LA LA LAND (2016)

December 10, 2016

la-la-land Greetings again from the darkness. Is this a nostalgic throwback to the movie musicals of Stanley Donen and Fred Astaire, or is it a contemporary film designed to revitalize the movie musical genre in an era dominated by superheroes and sci-fi? However you might choose to label writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash (2014), it’s clearly one of the best and most entertaining movies of the year.

While the opening credits are still rolling (“Presented in CinemaScope” being the first gag), the film kicks off with its only large scale (think Busby Berkeley on a L.A. freeway rather than in a swimming pool) musical production, “Another Day of Sun”. It’s also the first of 3 less-than-warm-and-fuzzy “meetings” between the two lead characters before they finally click.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling light up the screen with the same incredible chemistry they displayed in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011). Mia (Ms. Stone) is a struggling actress-wannabe working behind the counter at the Warner Brothers studio coffee shop. Sebastian (Mr. Gosling) is a pianist committed to the traditions of jazz music … even as he toils in a club playing mainstream tunes for folks who aren’t even listening.

As their relationship develops, we are treated to a tap dance number in the Mulholland Drive moonlight. Soon, Sebastian (either a brooding Gene Kelly or a dancing James Dean) is forced to make a choice between finding a way to open his own jazz club or compromising his integrity by making lots of money joining a “hot” band (led by John Legend), while Mia is focusing on auditions and her writing (which leads to a disastrous one-woman show).

Director Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren create a look in line with Singin’ in the Rain, but a tone more suited to A Star is Born. There is no shortage of romance and music, but it’s equally balanced with melancholy, foolish dreams, and shattered hopes. While it’s an homage to old Hollywood, Los Angeles and movie musicals, it seems to gracefully swing between past and present – and reality and fantasy.

Mia has a bedroom wall mural of Ingrid Bergman, while Sebastian treasures his piano stool that once belonged to Hoagy Carmichael … two more examples of past and present intertwined. Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling possess solid (not exceptional) singing voices, which aids in having the songs tell their story. Ms. Stone is quite a talent, and especially stands out in her audition scenes … we feel her pouring her heart out to casting agents who may or may not even be paying attention. It’s remarkable work from her.

Supporting work is provided by Rosemarie DeWitt (as Sebastian’s sister), JK Simmons (as a club owner and Sebastian’s boss), Finn Wittrock (as Mia’s boyfriend) and Damon Gupton. Also in supporting roles would be the Griffith Observatory (after a Rebel Without a Cause viewing), the Los Angeles scene, and the Warner Brothers lot.

The “What Could Have Been” ending sequence is top notch filmmaking in all aspects, and perfectly caps a movie that drips with nostalgia … while also being touching, funny, and downright fun. Watching this film is much like going through the ups and downs of a relationship, and rather than a fairy tale, it’s a painful jab at “the one who got away”. It deserves to be seen on the big screen – enjoy the full palette of colors and the full spectrum of emotions (love and heartbreak, frustration, anger, and utter joy). This is one to tell your friends about … don’t wait for them to tell you.

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WHIPLASH (2014)

October 26, 2014

whiplash Greetings again from the darkness. The pursuit of greatness is not always pretty. No matter if your dream is athletics, dancing, music or some other; you can be sure hard work and sacrifice will be part of your routine. You will likely have a mentor, teacher or coach whose job is to cultivate your skills while pushing you to new limits. This film questions whether the best approach is intimidation or society’s current preferred method of nurturing.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a first year student at an elite Manhattan music conservatory. Andrew dreams of being a great jazz drummer in the vein of Buddy Rich. When offered a rare shot at the top jazz orchestra, Andrew quickly discovers the conductor is a breed unlike anything he has ever encountered. The best movie comparison I can offer for JK Simmons’ portrayal of Terence Fletcher is R Lee Ermey’s Drill Instructor in Full Metal Jacket. This is no warm-hearted Mr Holland’s Opus. Fletcher bullies, intimidates, humiliates and uses every imaginable form of verbal abuse to push his musicians, and especially young Andrew, to reach for greater heights.

Andrew and Fletcher go head to head through the entire movie, with Fletcher’s mental torment turning this into a psychological thriller … albeit with tremendous music. We witness Andrew shut out all pieces of a personal life, and even take on some of Fletcher’s less desirable traits. Andrew’s diner break-up with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) is much shorter, but just as cold as the infamous opening scene in The Social Network. At a small dinner party, Andrew loses some of the sweetness he inherited from his dad (Paul Reiser), and unloads some Fletcherisms on some unsuspecting family friends.

Writer/Director Damien Chazelle has turned his Sundance award-winning short film into a fascinatingly brutal message movie that begs for discussion and debate. The open-ended approach is brilliant, though I found myself initially upset at the missing clean wrap that Hollywood so often provides. What price greatness? Is comeuppance a reward? Are mentors cruel to be kind? For the past few years, I have been proclaiming that Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) is the next John Cusack. Perhaps that bar is too low. Teller just gets better with each film. His relentless energy draws us in, and we find ourselves in his corner … even though this time, he’s not the greatest guy himself. Still, as strong as Teller is, the film is owned by JK Simmons. Most think of him as the dad in Juno, or the ever-present insurance spokesman on TV, but he previously flashed his bad side as the white supremacist in “Oz“. Even that, doesn’t prepare us for Simmons’ powerhouse performance … just enough humanity to heighten his psychological torturing of musicians.

You should see this one for Simmons’ performance. Or see it for the up-and-coming Teller. Enjoy the terrific music, especially Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. See it for the talking points about teachers, society and personal greatness. See it for any or all these reasons – just don’t tell director Damien Chazelle “good job“.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see JK Simmons in a likely contender for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar OR you have been waiting for someone to prove a drum solo can actually be worthy of your attention

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have no interest in exploring what is involved in attaining greatness, regardless of the talent or skill

watch the trailer: