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:


MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

November 23, 2016

manchester Greetings again from the darkness. Grief. When a loved one dies, we experience a sorrow that is impossible to define. It can take on many different looks through various stages. When Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) receives a phone call, he rushes back to his hometown, but arrives at the hospital too late to say goodbye to his big brother whose years-long battle with heart disease has ended abruptly. It’s at this point that we begin to realize there is more to Lee’s daily disquiet than we had realized in his early scenes as an apartment complex janitor.

This is director Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial effort (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) and in each, death plays a crucial role. Mr. Lonergan is also a renowned playwright and screenwriter (Gangs of New York, Analyze This, Analyze That), and here he displays an incredible feel for humor and sarcasm amidst the ominous presence of gloom.

If you aren’t yet scared off, you will be rewarded with one of the most outstanding films of the year, and one of the best ever on-screen portrayals of grief. Casey Affleck embodies Lee as the broken man – a tortured soul who doesn’t blame himself for the unspeakable tragedy that destroyed his life, yet neither can he forgive himself. As penance, he has basically dropped out of society and moved to Quincy, where he lives in a dumpy apartment simply trying to survive each day shoveling snow and fixing leaky faucets. It’s his way of not facing the present while avoiding the memories that haunt him in his hometown.

The death of big brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) forces Lee to return to Manchester and handle the endless details of arrangements. He then learns that Joe’s will states that Lee is to take over guardianship of 16 year old Patrick (Lucas Hedges). As we learn from flashbacks, Lee and Patrick long ago bonded as Uncle/Nephew. Things are much different now – not just for Lee, but also for Patrick. He’s a popular athlete, musician and high school lothario … seemingly unwilling to accept the change brought about by the death of his father, and the long ago abandonment by his unstable mom (Gretchen Mol).

The flashbacks serve as the reference as to how this family and these relationships reached this point in time. We also see the devastating event that crushed Lee’s soul and left him unrecognizable from the one time life of the party, and doting husband and father. It also explains his approach to his unwanted duties in finishing brother Bob’s job raising Patrick, and why much of the town treats Lee as a pariah.

In addition to the brilliant writing and wonderful cinematography (Jody Lee Lipes), it’s the highest level of acting that elevates this film to the level of extraordinary. Ms. Mol and Mr. Chandler are joined in the supporting cast by Matthew Broderick as Ms. Mol’s evangelical husband, CJ Wilson as Bob’s former friend and partner, and Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. It seems like we have watched Lucas Hedges grow up on screen through the years, and he really nails the surprisingly complex role of Patrick. As terrific as all of these actors are, it’s Affleck who redefines grief and sorrow and pain. In fact, the single scene towards the end when Affleck and Williams meet by happenstance, is so powerfully acted that it alone should garner nominations for each. It’s a gut-wrenching scene that tells us sometimes reconciliation is just not possible.

This is a heavy drama set in a cold environment with hard people – at least on the outside. It’s not the typical Boston blue collar drama, but rather more the psychology of being a man. There is enough humor to prevent the weight from being too much on viewers, and Lonergan pokes a bit of fun at the Massachusetts accent by tossing in arguments about Star Trek and sharks, and a scene about parking the car. The diverse music of Handel, Dylan, and Ella Fitzgerald somehow complements the mournful Lee … the Humpty Dumpty of Manchester – unable to be put back together again. It’s certainly one of the gems of the year.

watch the trailer:

 


CAROL (2015)

December 26, 2015

carol Greetings again from the darkness. When Patricia Highsmith first wrote her novel “The Price of Salt”, she had it published in 1952 under a pseudonym (Claire Morgan). This was a sign of the unforgiving social conventions of the era, which also play a key role in the story. At the time, no author would publically admit to writing a book about lesbian lovers, much less admit their participation in such an affair. Highsmith’s novel is the source material for director Todd Haynes’ bookend to his stellar 2002 film Far From Heaven. In that film, Dennis Quaid’s character struggles with his secret life as a gay man while married to Julianne Moore. In this new movie, Cate Blanchett is a married upper class socialite trying to deal with her true feelings for the opposite sex, while fighting to not lose custody of her young daughter.

Haynes has a real feel for attraction … what causes two people to be attracted to each other, and how do they handle it? He re-teams with cinematographer Ed Lachman to create yet another beautiful film with camera work, sets, costumes and a score (Carter Burwell) that complement the romance depicted by the two outstanding lead actresses: Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Rooney Mara (Therese). Ms. Blanchett is a 2-time Oscar winner (5 time nominee), and has become one of the few actors who make each of their films a must-see. She is a true force here as she sweeps into the captivating first sequence (a wonderful long take) and has her first interaction with wide-eyed shopgirl Therese as the two dance together through words and innuendo. It may be the best scene of the movie … at least up to the stunning final shot.

At its core, this is a pretty simple romance of two opposite worlds colliding at a time when their attraction was just not tolerated. 1950’s social conventions, being what they were, meant Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler) could use her sexual preferences as evidence of immorality in his fight to gain sole custody of their daughter. Cinematically, it’s much more about style. Carol is a beautiful mink-wearing work of art, while Therese is seeking her place in the world, while trying to make sense of her feelings. Every scene drips with style … the cars, the clothes, the restaurants; even cigarettes become a fashion accessory between the fingers of Carol.

Carol and Therese take a road trip, and it’s not until Iowa that the relationship is consummated – a scene that finds neither actress shying away from the moment. Fittingly, this occurs in a motel located in Waterloo … leaving little doubt the turn this story will take.

Supporting work is provided by Sarah Paulson (“American Horror Story”) as Carol’s friend and ex-lover, Jake Lacey (“The Office”) as Therese’s would-be suitor, John Magaro (The Big Short) as her friend and supporter, and Cory Michael Smith (“Gotham”) as a double-life salesman. But this show belongs to Blanchett and Mara. They are terrific together – capturing the unspoken, subtle gestures required by the repressive era they find themselves.  Mara’s character is difficult to describe, but most intriguing to watch and absolutely vital to the message.

Phyllis Nagy adapted Ms. Highsmith’s novel (which was re-published in 1990 under her own name), and her care for the material is clear. Todd Haynes then worked his magic with the look of the film, and the two lead actresses deliver a clinic in nuance and dealing with oppression. As it plays, the strength of the film is with the internal struggles faced by the two lead characters. It leaves us to wonder if the film might have been more powerful had it delved a bit deeper into what the characters would have faced from the outside world.

watch the trailer:

 


THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

December 28, 2013

wolf Greetings again from the darkness. A brilliant and expertly made film that is excruciatingly painful to watch, yet impossible to look away. That would be my one line review. Of course, that line could be followed by a 10 page essay, to which I won’t subject you. How to do justice to this extraordinary three hours of excess and debauchery? How to give due credit the craftsmanship of director Martin Scorcese? How to acknowledge the pure physicality and kinetic energy of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance? How to heap praise on a project so lacking in morality and decency? There are no easy answers to these four questions, but there is plenty to discuss.

Let’s be clear. This is a vulgar film telling the disgusting story of a crude and egotistical scam artist who defrauded many innocent people. Jordan Belfort’s autobiography serves as the source material for the screenplay from Terrence Winter (“The Sopranos”, “Boardwalk Empire“). Leonardo DiCaprio (in his fifth collaboration with Martin Scorcese) portrays Belfort as the talented stock broker who soaks up lessons from both his mentor and the real world stock market crash of 1987. That Black Monday led him right into the world of penny stocks and huge commissions. Those commissions and his stunning sales skills take him right into a world that rivals that of Caligula or Fellini’s Satyricon. This is certainly DiCaprio’s most free and limitless performance to date … it’s also his most comedic.

wolf5 Sex. Drugs. Rock and Roll. Sorry, that’s not enough for Belfort. He is also driven by money, greed, power and the need to take advantage of the weak. I lost count, but surely Belfort displays more than seven deadly sins. Everything is extreme. Nothing in moderation. Belfort is both smart and stupid. He is the worst of human nature, and when combined with his charisma, becomes very dangerous. Watching him give his invigorating and over-the-top pep talks to the team recalls the cult evangelists we have seen over the years. His religion is money and winning … never accepting “no”. His followers eat it up.

While most of the movie is pedal to the metal, there are two exceptional scenes that really stood out. When a young, eager, new to Wall Street Belfort has lunch with his mentor (played by Matthew McConaughey), we sense him soaking up the lessons … we see the wheels turning to a new way of thinking. McConaughey is in top form here. The other standout scene takes place aboard Belfort’s yacht as he interacts with the FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler. This agent is the closest thing to a moral barometer the movie allows and their dance of dialogue and acting is pure cinematic magic.

wolf6 Jonah Hill as Belfort’s business partner is his physical opposite, and possibly even less morally-centered than Belfort. He is also extremely funny in a demented way. Three very talented film directors have supporting roles. Rob Reiner (in a rare acting gig) plays Belfort’s bombastic dad and firm accountant. Jon Favreau is the high priced attorney fighting off the SEC and FBI. Spike Jonze plays the boiler room manager who first schools Belfort on penny stocks, and sets the wheels in motion. There is also a very sexy, funny performance from Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife.

My words don’t do justice to the manic existence and frenzied scenes of sex, profanity and drug use. The black comedy mixed in prevents this from being the bleak portrayal that it could have been, but don’t underestimate the depths to which the characters will stoop to get what they want. This one makes a similarly themed American Hustle look like a Disney flick. Consider yourself warned … and don’t think you can just turn away from the screen.

**NOTE: the soundtrack is quite diverse and complements the pace of the film.  The musical director is Robbie Robertson, who was part of The Band when Martin Scorcese directed The Last Waltz

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iszwuX1AK6A

 


THE SPECTACULAR NOW (2013)

August 16, 2013

spectacular1 Greetings again from the darkness. Coming-of-age teen dramas with a comedic flair that speak to that tumultuous period of life are rarely worthy of discussion. The exceptions hover film greatness: Rebel Without a Cause, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, The Breakfast Club, and Say Anything … Along comes young director James Ponsoldt and his adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel. While not perfect and falling just short of the level of those classics, it is nonetheless a welcome addition and quite interesting.

It’s tempting to call Sutter (played by up-and-comer Miles Teller) a happy-go-lucky kid. He’s the frat boy type – quick with a quip, smooth with the parents and girls, and the envy of the masses. However, that term would be misapplied to a kid who not only is never without his flask, but also gives them as gifts. He uses his wit and booze to dull spectacular2the pain of his aimless existence. We see his lackadaisical efforts at completing a college admission form, and it’s used as a plot device to track Sutter’s progression/maturation through the film.

Brie Larson is terrific as Sutter’s perfect match … right up until she decides that his philosophy of living in the now (even spectacularly) doesn’t leave hope for much of a future. After an extreme night of drinking and partying, Sutter gets awakened while laying in a neighbor’s front yard. Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) is bookworm Aimee Finicky, who recognizes the popular Sutter, even though he has no idea who she is. Slowly, the two connect on a level previously unknown to either … some good, some not so wise (just like real teenagers).

spectacular3 This couple of opposites learn much from each other, and soon enough, Sutter is confronting his long last father (Kyle Chandler). No real surprises what he discovers, but it’s a life lesson that must be learned. Sutter seeks more from his remaining family – a big sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who escaped the grind, and a workaholic mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) doing her best to provide hope for Sutter.

The script is co-written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber who also wrote (500) Days of Summer. John Hughes and Cameron Crowe proved they could present teen dilemmas in an entertaining way, and this one follows the same structure. This is a dialogue-heavy story as Sutter and Aimee struggle alone and together to figure out life’s next steps.

I will say that for the first few minutes of the movie, I found Sutter to be the kind of guy that I would typically have no interest in. Tip of the cap to the filmmakers and Miles Teller for turning that around. It should also be noted that Shailene Woodley is so naturally affecting, that her character never comes across as anything but sincere. Given the state of today’s mainstream coming of age stories, this one definitely deserves a look and could gather some attention come awards time.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a smart, mostly believable (Shailene Woodley would never go unnoticed in a high school) story about coming to terms with yourself at age 18 (we’ve all been there!)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: teen movies with raunchy comedy are the only teen movies you want to see (there seems to be an endless supply)

watch the trailer:

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

 

 


BROKEN CITY (2013)

January 20, 2013

broken Greetings again from the darkness. The best Political crime dramas are complex films with multiple intersecting sub-plots, filled with stylish mis-direction and intense wordplay and back-stabbing between good guys and bad. What doesn’t work is “obvious”. Especially obvious to the point where the audience is way ahead of the earnest, but clumsy protagonist. Luckily for director Allen Hughes (working solo without his twin brother Albert for the first time), he has stacked the film with a wonderful cast which makes it somewhat entertaining despite its major flaws.

Mark Wahlberg plays (what else?) a streetwise guy/cop/detective who tries to do the right thing but always seems to end up with the short straw. Russell Crowe is in fine form (though a bit too tan) as the megalomaniac NYC mayor who plays dirty, but knows how to sell his stuff to the people … even as he schemes to do great wrong. Their paths cross twice and broken3neither time turns out so great for Wahlberg.

As for the rest of the cast, Barry Pepper is miscast as Crowe’s mayoral opponent; Jeffrey Wright is intriguing as the Police Commissioner seemingly playing both sides against the middle; Catherine Zeta-Jones is Crowe’s most unhappy and disloyal wife; Kyle Chandler plays Pepper’s campaign manager (and evidently more); and Griffin Dunne is a rich Crowe supporter and knee deep in the evil scheme. Also interesting is Alona Tai as Wahlberg’s wise-cracking and bright-eyed assistant.

broken2 While no details will be spilled here, there is a fun exchange during the debate between Crowe and Pepper, and well, the movie is just at its best when Crowe is on screen. Wahlberg’s character is pretty much the same he has played a dozen times prior, but it seems the real issue is with first time screenwriter Brian Tucker. He is just overrun with ideas and because of that, most go undeveloped. A script clean-up from a screen veteran could have turned this one around. Still, if you have seen all the Oscar nominated films and are looking for a watchable January release, you could do worse. Just try not to think too much!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are caught up on the December rush on late 2012 releases OR you want to see another fine Russell Crowe performance

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you get frustrated when a “smart” thriller isn’t so smart

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3HgYu1atOo

 


ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

January 5, 2013

zero Greetings again from the darkness. Kathryn Bigelow entered the realm of elite directors when her war thriller The Hurt Locker exploded onto the Oscar scene a few years ago. Once again she proves why the critics adore her, and the movie going masses stay away. She is an expert filmmaker, a brilliant technician, though not much into the whole entertainment scene.

We always try to label films and this one doesn’t quite fit as thriller or action, or even war genre. It’s really a tense, procedural drama focusing on the behind-the-scenes CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, it’s mostly the story of one obsessed CIA agent’s research and un-wavering pursuit of the one most responsible for the tragic events of 9-11-01 (as well as many others).

zero4 The film started out as a story of the nearly decade long pursuit and the failure to find him. Everything, including the movie, changed on May 2, 2011 when Navy SEAL Team Six pulled off the daring and historic mission to kill bin Laden. The book “No Easy Day” by Mark Owen (pseudonym for real life SEAL Matt Bissonnette) was released and many of the details became public. Bigelow and her writer Mark Boal (former journalist) went even deeper into research mode and now the film has instigated Congressional hearings in regards to some of the scenes.

Bigelow presents this as old school, hard core males vs the intellectual, instinctive and brazen Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. In the book, she is referred to as “Jen”, but her name matters not. What’s important is her laser-like focus for almost 10 years, despite the numerous attempts by her superiors to ignore her theories.

zero3 Much of the film deals with the group meetings and presentations to CIA mid-managers, who either don’t trust her or refuse to put their own careers on the line. Maya remains relentless. She finally gets a audience with CIA Director Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini) and introduces herself as “the M*****F****R who found this place, sir”. This comes across as confident, not disrespectful.

Bigelow and Boal refuse the temptation of providing any real backstory or personal life on these characters. We do learn that Maya was recruited right out of high school, so we can assume she wasn’t a typical 18 year old. The only thought of a romantic interlude is quickly shot down by Maya proclaiming (in so many words), she’s not that kind of girl.

zero5 Most of the men in the film are presented as near Neanderthals. Jason Clarke is the old school field agent who has mastered the use of torture, water-boarding and humiliation to gain information from detainees. The “60 Minutes” clip of Obama saying that America will no longer utilize torture is one of the few tips to national politics that the film offers up. The only other politics are those played by station chief Kyle Chandler, who is protective of his job, and Mark Strong, who seems relatively helpless without the support of his superiors. All the while Maya keeps pushing and pounding for action.

The Langley desk jockeys vs actual Field work provides a distinctive line in the sand between the two worlds, and emphasizes just how easy it is to make a mistake in judgment. What if we had been wrong on the location of bin Laden? What if the “fortress” had belonged to a drug dealer instead and the SEAL team had invaded a private home within the boundaries of our supposed ally zero2Pakistan? Jessica Chastain is believable and tough in her role, and Jason Clarke dominates the screen in his early scenes. Other fine support work comes courtesy of Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau, and Jennifer Ehle. When we finally get to the strategy session for the mission, we meet SEAL’s played by Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton. The 25 minutes or so dedicated to the helicopter mission are filmed as if we are wearing the same night-vision goggles worn by the brave souls storming the castle. It’s a very impressive sequence.

If you enjoy the details of a procedural drama, then you will find much to like here … knowing the ultimate outcome doesn’t affect the suspense one bit. However, if you seek an entertaining respite from your daily grind, this one will offer no assistance … despite another excellent and minimalistic mood score from Alexadre Desplat.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you get a kick out of the details involved in a CIA procedural OR you enjoy expert filmmaking, regardless of entertainment value OR you need further proof that Jessica Chastain is a major star OR you want to see Mark Strong’s best impersonation of Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: it’s still too soon after the actual event OR you can’t stomach the thought of torturing detainees

watch the trailer:

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