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:

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THE CATCHER WAS A SPY (2018)

June 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. World War II. Baseball. Spies. A true story. Assemble all those pieces and you have Morris “Moe” Berg. Director Ben Lewin (THE SESSIONS, 2012) brings the fascinating story to the big screen with Robert Rodat’s (Oscar nominated for SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) screenplay adapted from the 1994 biography “The Catcher was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg” written by Nicholas Dawidoff. This is neither your typical spy movie nor your typical baseball movie.

Background information is provided by pre-movie title cards: in 1938 German scientists split the atom for the first time, ushering in the nuclear age; renowned German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1932 Nobel Prize winner) was charged with building an atom bomb; the United States responded by sending a baseball player to assassinate him. It’s 1944 Zurich and two men exchange uncomfortable glances across a dimly lit room.

We then flashback 8 years to see Moe Berg utilizing his gut instincts to survive as a veteran journeyman catcher for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. We later learn his sixth sense is not limited to the baseball diamond, and is used in situations much more important than whether a baserunner is stealing a base. Growing up Jewish, Berg had always been somewhat of an outsider, admitting, “I don’t fit in.” In baseball, they called him a walking enigma. Educated at Princeton, Columbia and Sorbonne in Paris, Berg spoke several languages, had a ‘fake’ wife, was a regular on quiz shows, and was constantly followed by insinuations of homosexuality … though he only admitted to being good at keeping secrets.

Berg’s is a truly fascinating story, but unfortunately Paul Rudd is a bit overmatched in the lead role. He just doesn’t quite have the dramatic acting chops to convey the intellectual depth of the man. However, the rest of the cast is stellar: Paul Giamatti (as Samuel Goudsmit), Connie Nielsen, Mark Strong (Heisenberg), Sienna Miller, Hiroyuki Sanada, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels (as William J Donovan), Tom Wilkinson (as Paul Scherrer), Giancarlo Giannini (a 50+ year career), and Shea Whigham (as Joe Cronin). Many of these are little more than cameos, and the choppy feel of the film’s flow prevents us from ever really connecting to characters.

An extended battle scene volleys from intense and well-filmed to slightly comical as Mr. Giamatti is forced to run and dodge bullets. The look, tone and color palette of the film is quite similar to Spielberg’s BRIDGE OF SPIES (another true story), though this current one pales in comparison, as director Lewin presents it as a “will he won’t he kill the guy?” scenario. Berg’s story is likely more suited to documentary treatment, as his time with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS, later the CIA), resulted in his being awarded the Medal of Freedom. Upon his death in 1972, Newsweek’s headline read “3rd String Catcher, 1st String Spy”.

watch the trailer:

 


KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

March 25, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. I enjoy creature movies. Even as a kid I enjoyed creature movies (as distinguished from monster movies, which I’m also fond of). From the classics to the (very) low budget ones on late night TV to the fear-mongering from Japan … I enjoy them all. Of course the most fascinating of the bunch is King Kong, and this version arrives 84 years after the still magnificent 1933 version from Merian C Cooper and featuring Fay Wray.

This time there is no shootout on The Empire State Building, and the connection between Kong and the girl is limited to a few knowing glances. Most of the film takes place on Kong’s island … one he shares with some other creatures (not rodents) of unusual size. Unlike Spielberg in Jaws, who teased us for half the movie before finally revealing the shark, we get a glimpse of the imposing Kong very early on.

The cast is the best yet for a creature feature. John Goodman and Corey Hawkins play scientists/conspiracy theorists; Tom Hiddleston plays the world’s only mercenary with perfect hair and skin; Brie Larson is a self-described anti-war photographer; while Samuel L Jackson, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Toby Kebbell play military men on their last mission at the end of the Vietnam War. The most colorful character is played by John C Riley – an eccentric WWII survivor who has been living on the island since 1944.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts directs this version, and his resume of The Kings of Summer and mostly TV work begs the question of how the heck did he get this gig? Fortunately he has cinematographer Larry Fong alongside, and his significant big action picture experience is obvious in the breath-taking helicopter scene (as well as many others). It’s impossible not to notice the extreme love shown to Apocalypse Now and even Jurassic Park. Some of the shots and tone seem as if pulled directly from those films … even moreso than the original King Kong. We even get Samuel L Jackson recycling his “hold onto your butts” line.

There is plenty here to satisfy us lovers of creature features, though this version certainly lacks the emotional impact of Fay Wray and Naomi Watts connecting with Kong … not much Beauty, but plenty of Beast. It’s certainly recommended that you stay for the post-credits scene that sets the stage for 2020.

watch the trailer:

 


KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016)

March 19, 2016

knight of cups Greetings again from the darkness. Some are calling this the third segment of a Terrence Malick trilogy – in conjunction with The Tree of Life (2011) and To The Wonder (2012). While the first of these three movies is considered an artful thought-inducing commentary on parenting and growing up, the third might just prove director Malick is the ultimate prankster … or maybe this is his grand social experiment to see just how far he can push his viewers.

Let’s start with the positive elements, as that won’t take long. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is an eight time Oscar nominee and three time winner (The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity), and has been the Director of Photography on these three Malick movies. He is a master with the camera, and truly creates art whether he is shooting nature, an isolated figure, or even the convoluted party scene in this latest. All three films are beautiful to look at … which doesn’t necessarily translate to being a pleasure to watch. OK, that’s the end of the good stuff.

The movie title, as well as the chapter titles flashed during the film, originates from Tarot cards. Unfortunately, the in-film titles seem to have little (or no) connection to the scenes that follow, nor those that precede. My guess is that Malick was playing truth or dare, and his opponent dared him to include Tarot cards in his next film … a worthy challenge for any director.

If you are looking for a story or anything approaching coherency or character development, Mr. Malick would have you believe that the trite tradition of beginning/middle/end is dead, and its replacement is a mosaic of barely related fragments with no need for such frivolity as conversation. Sure, the characters move their lips, but mostly what’s heard is whispered narration and mood music.

If somehow you aren’t yet excited to rush out to the theatre, perhaps you may be enticed by the random stream of empty or nearly empty buildings, odd angles of Los Angeles architecture, Christian Bale roaming the rocky desert, Las Vegas (just because), lots of fancy swimming pools, and family members apparently arguing (without us hearing most of their words, of course).

Here is what we know. Christian Bale plays a screenwriter apparently experiencing some type of writer’s block. While blocked, he reflects on his life and the six women with whom he had relationships (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas). We know nothing of his character’s writing ability, but it’s obvious he has been successful in attracting beautiful women to his bed – and then, like most guys, screwing things up beyond repair. Bale’s character also has an angry (and perhaps ill) brother (Wes Bentley) and an angry (and perhaps ill) father (Brian Dennehy). At times, they are all angry together and angry at each other, and it’s apparently over the suicide of the youngest brother/son … though we are never clear on who blames who, or if they all blame each other and themselves.

To be sure, Terrence Malick is the only director making movies like this. His films attract the best actors working … even though no script exists. He may be the painter who paints like no other painter, and thereby appeals to the smallest possible audience. What I do know is that I counted 32 fellow movie goers walk out of the theatre during the movie, not to return. It’s possible the popcorn was somehow tainted, but more likely they value their time on Earth.

It’s certainly possible that my mental capacity falls substantially short of what’s required to comprehend the metaphysical Malick message. Or perhaps the project is as pretentious as it seems. Or perhaps I’m just not in on the joke. There is one line from the film that does make a point, “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself”. Perhaps Malick is providing a service to those of us who suffer through this movie … if only we knew to what we were being bound.

Oh, and what’s with the helicopters?

watch the trailer … try muting the sound and closing your eyes for the full experience.

 


LILA & EVE (2015)

July 16, 2015

Lila & Eve Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the era of angry cinematic women, and this time we get Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez as mothers who go on a rampage of violence to gain vengeance for the murders of their sons. In 1991 Thelma & Louise tried to teach abusive and pig-headed men a lesson, and now Lila & Eve face off against neighborhood gangbangers.

Director Charles Stone III is best known for Drumline (2002) and Mr 3000 (2004) and this high-stress thriller seems a departure for him, though he compensates with a talented cast. In addition to Ms. Davis and Ms. Lopez, we get detectives played by Shea Whigham and Andre Royo, and Michole Briana White as the leader of the support group.

Stories of vigilantism always skirt the line between gritty and far-fetched, and unfortunately this one leans a bit too far the wrong way. Watching these two women so easily track down their targets and then so effortlessly ‘take care of business’ is head-shaking when combined with the tricky plot twist. The side story focusing on the support group was actually the most interesting, as it provides a glimpse of the grieving process and psychological effects experienced by mothers of murdered sons. Even this part flies off the rails towards the end of the movie – though it was with the best intentions.

Jennifer Lopez at least seems to take some delight in her character … a role much less restrictive than that of Viola Davis, who is forced to play it straight and angry (and she is very adept at this). Mothers seeking vengeance is a cause I can support, but not more can be said about this film as the first rule of Fight Club …

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


NON-STOP (2014)

March 2, 2014

non-stop Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood is a true believer in the theory that imitation is the greatest form of flattery. The constant attempts to capture the same lightning bolt in the same bottle would be kind of funny, if not so frustrating for us movie-goers. Liam Neeson’s surprise hit with 2008’s Taken spawned not just a sequel, but now two movies from director Jaume Collet-Serra – this one and the disappointing Unknown. Oh well, it’s easy money for Neeson and it’s not the worst early year release.

It’s been 20 years since Liam Neeson’s Oscar nominated performance in Schindler’s List. Rather than a great actor, he might best be described as a familiar screen presence … a guy we can somehow relate to most of the time. Well, at least until he unleashes his particular set of skills … this time in an airplane lavatory! The set up for this thriller is quite promising. Neeson plays an alcoholic US Air Marshal looking and sounding quite beaten down by life in the first few minutes. Once on his flight, he receives a text informing him that someone onboard will be killed every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred into an account. It’s a combination hijacking, extortion, whodunnit murder mystery and blackmail story. Unfortunately the three first time screenwriters (one of whom “wrote” for the WWE) botch every possible twist and turn. With a plane full of suspects, we play right along with Neeson as he begins the process to narrow down. We’ve enjoyed the claustrophobic approach to movie thrillers before in such movies as Flight, Air Force One, Flightplan and even Phone Booth.

For whatever reason, this plane never feels cramped and the tight spaces only come into play with the aforementioned lavatory fight scene, and even that seems like the most spacious airplane restroom in the history of aviation. Even the multiple drop-dead deadlines aren’t really played for full effect, and the decent supporting cast isn’t given much to do, save for looking suspiciously at Neeson.

Julianne Moore co-stars, but mostly her role consists of disbelieving stares and a tilt of the head. Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”) gets a few juicy scenes, as does the always interesting Scoot McNairy. Unfortunately, Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o, Shea Whigham, Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”), and Nate Parker have little to do, and the absolute wasting of Anson Mount is a crime.

If you are skittish about flying, there is no reason to see this one, though the convoluted motive and lackluster reveal might help you forget the story takes place on an international flight. The one thing we do learn is that Liam Neeson can take a fire extinguisher to the head and bounce right back up without a mark. Let’s add that to his particular set of skills, while we less-than-anxiously await yet another collaboration between Neeson and this director coming in 2015.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have the late winter cabin fever blues and are in desperate need of a movie to get the blood pumping.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are hoping to get a jump on next year’s Oscar season.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiHDJ19A3dk


AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

December 21, 2013

american1 Greetings again from the darkness. Over the years, there have been some very entertaining con artist films, and they range from outright comedy (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) to cheeky (The Sting) to dramatic (The Grifters). My personal favorite is David Mamet’s House of Games, a very quiet and subtle look at the con. The stylistic opposite of Mamet’s gem is the latest from director David O Russell. It’s like comparing Duke Ellington to Donna Summer – both of which are featured on this soundtrack.

For the past few months, I have said that this film’s trailer is one of the best I have ever seen. The energy and visuals were enthralling and have had me anxiously awaiting a chance to see the film. So please understand when I say that american2the movie does not quite match the expectations, it’s not really a criticism … more of a tip of the cap to the marketing efforts. This is one showy, flamboyant, often frenetic wild ride that is also a bit messy and sometimes even clunky.

Hair, clothes, cars, music … the best and worst of the 1970’s … are on full display. Christian Bale sets a new standard for worst (and most elaborate and labor-intensive) comb-over in film history. Bradley Cooper’s perm wins the contest for tightest curls over Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks. Jeremy Renner’s pompadour would make any rockabilly performer envious. And let’s not forget the women. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence provide a steady stream of flowing and floppy locks that would keep any shampoo or blow dryer american3company in business. The soundtrack, usually coordinated to story events, also includes Steely Dan, Jeff Lynne, Elton John and many others.

Director Russell’s most recent films include The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. He is obviously infatuated with odd characters who are slightly off center from society. What better topic than con artists so desperate to be liked that they spend all effort trying to rip off the gullible types? Now mix that trait with the overly ambitious persona of Bradley Cooper’s FBI Agent and the US Attorney played by Alessandro Nivola, and you have a collision of worlds that results in a fictionalized account of the ABSCAM events of the late 70’s and early 80’s. I say fictionalized because the film starts with a banner that states “Some of this actually happened”. What did or what didn’t really doesn’t matter here.

Who is playing whom? What is real and what is part of the con? Those are the questions that we as viewers ask, and oddly enough, these are the same questions the key characters ask. If they can’t tell, we certainly have little chance.

american4 This one is all about the characters. Mr. Bale (40 lbs heavier) bears no resemblance to Batman, or even Bruce Wayne. He embodies the falsely confident con man. Cooper is a bit over-hyped in his role, while Adams is at her best in a role that is the film’s most diverse. The real explosion comes every time Jennifer Lawrence is on screen. Not only do things blow up in her kitchen, but she jolts the film in each of her scenes. Some may be tired of Ms. Lawrence’s recent success, but as a film lover, I put her screen presence very near that of Marilyn Monroe. She grabs our attention and squeezes like a vise. That’s talent that very few possess.

Supporting work that should be noted includes Louis CK as Cooper’s reluctant supervisor, Michael Pena as a fake sheik (can they do that?), Jack Huston and Shea Whigham (both from “Boardwalk Empire“), and the great and rarely seen Anthony Zerbe (one of the all time TV villains). There is also a high profile cameo that seems right in line with Russell’s adoration of Scorcese’s Goodfellas.

If you are looking for a film to analyze and dissect, you will be most disappointed in this one. If you are looking for a fun, wildly visual and very entertaining retro film, this one should fit the bill. Just keep your hand on your wallet and don’t be one of the suckers.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are up for a wildly entertaining movie OR you want to see some of the craziest hairstyles packed into a single movie

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: scary hairstyles, bizarre characters and exemplary acting aren’t enough to distract you from an inconsistent script

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST7a1aK_lG0