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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QUEEN OF EARTH (2015)

August 25, 2015

queen of earth Greetings again from the darkness. Friendship doesn’t just happen. It requires constant maintenance along with give and take from both sides. When a long time friendship between Catherine and Virginia devolves into a passive-aggressive game of emotional “tag, you’re it”, the result is an unusual psychological expose’ on self-indulgence and grieving.

Writer/director Alex Ross Perry follows up his critically acclaimed Listen Up Philip with a glimpse into the complexities of friendship between two women who seem mostly clueless to both their world of privilege, and their not-so-subtle narcissism. Both Catherine and Virginia have experienced personal tragedies at different times, and their friendship has basically crumbled due to the responses of each woman towards the other.

A startling opening scene serves up a very emotional Elisabeth Moss (Catherine) as she and her boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) argue their way through an ugly break-up due to his infidelity on the heels of the suicide of Catherine’s dad and mentor. The rest of the movie covers the week (each day marked by a scripted placard) that Catherine spends with her best friend at Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter) family lake house. Flashbacks cover the previous year’s visit under much different circumstances, but it’s the intimate … and often quite uncomfortable … moments between the two women that provides the crux of the film.

Director Perry focuses a great deal of attention on the faces of Catherine and Virginia – many of these are extreme close-ups that leave thoughts unspoken, yet quite clear to the viewer. There are elements of 1970’s schlock horror films … but not in a bad way. The music, atmosphere and camera angles have a certain retro feel, but the tension between the two friends is palpable and timeless.

Perry’s script and the performances of Moss and Waterston tap into that nasty bit of human nature that makes us believe our problems are much worse than anyone else’s. Building on that, the animosity felt when our friends aren’t “there for us” in times of trauma, can lead to a dangerous slope that affects judgment and mental stability. Watching Catherine and Virginia go at it has elements of truth and dread.

Patrick Fugit appears in a few scenes as Virginia’s neighbor, and his sole purpose seems to be to torment Catherine – at least that’s how she sees it. The juxtaposition of the two visits (separated by one year) makes for some very interesting character observations, and helps us understand the delusions and bitterness. It’s an interesting and stylish little film that doesn’t so much entertain as spur introspection.

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GONE GIRL (2014)

October 5, 2014

gone girl Greetings again from the darkness. One of the benefits of seeing so many movies is the ability to readily ascertain whether the appeal is to specific movie-goers (teens, romantics, et al), to mass audiences, or perhaps only to film critics and cinephiles. The downside is that when one of the rare mass appeal thrillers hits theatres, my enjoyment of the twists and surprises tends to suffer. Such is the case with director David Fincher‘s version of Gillian Flynn‘s best-selling novel.

Whether or not you are a devotee of Ms. Flynn’s novel, you are likely to find guilty pleasure in this pulpy, neo-noir thriller featuring Ben Affleck as the man who may or may not have killed his missing wife (Rosamund Pike). This is less “whodunit” and more “did he do it?”, at least for the first half. When Nick (Affleck) returns home to discover his wife (Pike) is missing, we hear Amy’s voice guiding us through her journal as we go from blossoming romance to crumbling marriage. Nick’s perspective is derived from his work with the detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) and conversations with his sister (Carrie Coon).

This story-telling structure is beautifully executed, and when combined with director Fincher’s fascination with the dark side of people (The Social Network, Zodiac, Se7en, Fight Club), and the terrific camera work and lighting, we witness elevated   technical filmmaking. Watch how Fincher uses lighting and shadows to change the tone of the film as the noose tightens on Affleck’s character.

Much has been made of the critically acclaimed performances of Affleck and Pike, so I’d prefer to focus on a couple of others. Carrie Coon steals every scene as Nick’s twin sister Margot. She is the moral compass of the film, and gives the absolute best performance. Kim Dickens provides the necessary screen presence and wry humor to prevent the stereotypical detective role from emerging. This is a real person working a complicated case. Also of note is Missi Pyle‘s obnoxious Nancy Grace style TV reporter clearly attempting to build ratings by guiding the sheep (everything we hate about the media, but continues to draw big ratings). Lastly, and most surprising, Tyler Perry‘s slick and slimy headline-grabbing defense attorney provides a punch when the film needs it.

The second half of the film transitions from mystery to anatomy of a scheme, and features one of the most brutal and bloody on screen murders you will ever see. It also provides more excellent support work from Lola Kirke and Brad Holbrook as a couple of trailer park opportunists, and Scoot McNairy and Neil Patrick Harris (against type) as Amy’s former lovers.

The wicked fun in this movie is derived mostly from the misdirection and personalities of Nick and Amy. It’s nice to see a female lead character with some real scene-chewing, even though I believe many actresses would have been better picks. When I hear talk that it could be best movie of the year, I certainly hope that’s off base. This one is at the level of other mainstream thrillers such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, and it’s not difficult to imagine Michael Douglas in the lead, were this 1988. Adding to the fun is the satire and social commentary … especially on the current trend of media speculation in place or reporting. So enjoy the twists and ask yourself just how much you really know about your spouse.

***NOTE: for those who read the book, this would be considered a faithful adaptation … unlike some of the early rumors led us to believe

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you enjoy your thrillers with a dose of social commentary OR you want a glimpse of the new Batman body in progress.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  an exceptionally gruesome and bloody murder scene is something you prefer to avoid

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WE BOUGHT A ZOO

December 12, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Cameron Crowe has finally emerged from his cocoon – 7 years after the abysmal Elizabethtown. Yes, he has had a couple of projects in that time, notably the Pearl Jam documentary, but he has avoided anything related to his dramatic film roots of which produced Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. This time he delivers a feel good, family appropriate, sentimental crowd-pleaser that should play very well to the holiday crowd.

Please know I do not use “sentimental” as a derogatory term. Sure there are moments where the actions and dialogue seem contrived and manipulative, but some of the best crowd-pleasers throughout Hollywood history have these same traits. This film is based on a true story and uses Benjamin Mee‘s autobiographical book as the basic source material. The real Mee family and their zoo, are stationed in England, not southern California as Crowe presents them. What I can tell you is that this version of the Mee family and the zoo staff is interesting and entertaining, even if you just have to let go and allow yourself to be guided through.

 Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee and the story picks up after his wife dies. He soon quits his job and moves his two kids to the country so they can work through their grief and start fresh. His teenage son Dylan is played with blazing anger by the talented Colin Ford. The precocious 7 year old daughter is played by scene-stealer Maggie Elizabeth Jones. This family experiences the realities of struggling with their pain and difficulties in communicating.

 As for the zoo, it is in major disrepair and in danger of closing if it doesn’t pass its pending inspection. Benjamin works with the rag-tag staff, including head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), to bring the facility up to code and nurse the sick animals back to health. As the zoo is rehabbed, so are the individuals. No surprise there.

The main conflict in the story comes from the hard-headedness of Benjamin and Dylan, as they ignore their inability to communicate and connect as father and son. A couple of their scenes together are the best in the film for acting and realistic dialogue. At the same time, Kelly acts as a quasi-love interest for Benjamin, while Lily (Elle Fanning) uses puppy love to help Dylan through his misery. That sub-plot is where Crowe missed a real chance. Ms. Fanning is one of the top young actresses working today and her contributions here are limited to that luminescent smile.

 The wild cast of supporting actors includes wise-cracking Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin’s brother, JB Smoove as the Realtor, Peter Riegert as Mee’s editor, Patrick Fugit (from Almost Famous) as the guy with a monkey on his shoulder, Angus Macfadyen as the colorful zoo maintenance man, and John Michael Higgins as the snooty zoo inspector who knowingly holds their future in his smarmy hand.

As always, Crowe uses music better than most any other director. This includes his use of score and soundtrack to compliment a scene or drive the setting and mood. What really makes this film work is Matt Damon. His character is the heart of the film and the soul of the family. His performance is strong enough to prevent the film from lapsing into pure sap and makes us care for him, his family and this zoo. Don’t expect some cutting edge, independent sulk fest. Just accept the movie for what it is … a feel good story delivered for the holidays.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can enjoy a sentimental family journey based on a true story – especially if some pretty cool animals are included!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you subscribe to the “conflict in every scene” theory of story-telling.

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