First Man

Release: Friday, October 12, 2018

→IMAX

Written by: Josh Singer

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

While First Man is only a small step into a different genre for director Damien Chazelle, the way he tells the story of the Moon landing may well represent a giant leap for fans of his previous, more emotionally-driven work. The historical reenactment is uncharted territory for the maker of dream-chasing dramas Whiplash and La La Land, yet the obsessive, single-minded pursuit of a goal makes it feel thematically akin. Told from the point of view of Neil Alden Armstrong, First Man offers an almost purely physical, visceral adventure. Strap in and hold on for dear life.

For the first time since Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk I left a movie exhilarated and fulfilled but also a little jelly-legged . . . and A LOT concerned about the state of my ears and the quality of service they would henceforth be able to provide. I guess what I am saying is that the movie gets loud, but that’s underselling it. In intermittent yet unforgettable bursts First Man comes close to overwhelming the unsuspecting moviegoer with its sonic power. All that style isn’t just for show, though Oscar surely will come a-knockin’ on Chazelle’s door next February. By way of audial and visual disorientation he creates an immersive experience that makes us feel our vulnerability, our loneliness and limitations on the final frontier.

It’s apparent from the stunning opening scene that Chazelle intends for us to feel this one in our bones rather than our hearts. A brutal tussle between Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his X-15 rocket plane which keeps bouncing off Earth’s atmosphere sets the stage for the challenges to be faced later. This early chaos provides a formal introduction to the physicality of First Man, while reaffirming the mythology around the actual man. How he survives this ordeal is a feat in and of itself. Once back on terra firma the deconstruction of that mythology begins. Guided through seven tumultuous years leading up to the mission itself, we gain privileged access to Armstrong’s domestic life — that which became all but sealed off completely to the public after the Moon landing — as well as a better understanding of events that paved the way for an American victory in the space race.

In First Man there isn’t a lot of love being thrown around, whether it’s Armstrong’s awkwardness around his family when it comes to saying goodbye, or the way the public has come to view NASA and its affinity for spending money and costing lives. Working through the troubleshooting days of the Gemini program (1964 – ’66) before moving on to the more technologically advanced but still flawed Apollo missions, First Man has less time for romanticizing and fantasizing. The stakes couldn’t have been higher, and America needed to know: how many astronauts are expendable in the interest of getting one over the Russians? All the while Gosling’s traditionally Gosling-y performance doesn’t allow us to get particularly attached to his character. All of these factors contribute to a rather disconcerting experience as we never get very comfortable on Earth, never mind in a coffin built out of aluminum and traveling at 17,000 miles an hour.

The film isn’t without its moments of raw emotion. An early scene depicts the tragic loss of two-year-old daughter Karen to cancer, and for a brief moment Neil Armstrong is in shambles. Logic and reason have completely failed him. Claire Foy is excellent as wife Janet, who becomes the closest thing we get to an audience surrogate while her husband grieves in his own way by burying himself in math and physics homework. But even her tough exterior sustains serious damage as time goes on and both NASA and Neil’s lack of openness with her as well as their two sons becomes ever more a source of frustration. Our feelings more often than not align with hers.

Elsewhere, Armstrong’s aloofness is noticed by fellow Apollo hopefuls Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) who each befriend him to a certain extent but are never quite able to crack the code of really getting to know him. His fears, his doubts. His favorite men’s magazine. His aspirations beyond walking on Earth’s lonely satellite. (As an aside, several of the astronauts from the Apollo missions went on to pursue political careers, but Armstrong went the other way, withdrawing from public life and even refusing to autograph items when he learned his signatures were being forged and that those forgeries were being sold all over the globe.) Stoll is a bit more fun as the extroverted Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon — the inventor of the Moon bounce, if you will — though he hardly inhabits the man in the way Gosling does.

Adapted from the book by James R. Hansen, First Man is a story of ambition delivered in blunt fashion. It isn’t a sexy, glamorous tale of fame or even nobility. This isn’t a story about a nation claiming its stake on a distant, lifeless rock. Nor is it about mankind advancing itself, despite what was said when boot met Lunar soil. This is an account of what it cost one man, one civilian, to get to the Moon. And the physical stresses, while pronounced in the film, are only a part of the deal. Often Linus Sandgren’s camera harries the subject rather than deifying or celebrating him. Certain angles rob the guy of personal space while tracking shots of him heading towards some vehicle or other give the impression of the paparazzi in constant pursuit. Neil’s always on the move, busy with something, and inquiring cameras need to know.

First Man is certainly not the film a lot of people will be expecting, be it the distance put between the audience and the astronaut or the scenes Chazelle chooses to depict (or not depict). Flag planting or no flag planting, this feels like the story that should have been told. It feels like a privilege to have experienced it.

I’ll see you on the dark side of the Moon

Recommendation: First Man uses a typically enigmatic Ryan Gosling performance to create an altogether lonelier feeling historical drama. In retrospect, the release comes at an odd time. Next summer will be the 50th anniversary of the Lunar landing, so I’m not sure why First Man is coming out right now. Not that a few months makes that much of a difference, when you have a dishearteningly large percentage of the public believing A) we never went or B) the whole thing was a colossal waste of time. Fair enough, I guess. Those with a more open-mind, however, are strongly encouraged to experience First Man in IMAX. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “What are the chances you’re not coming back? Those kids, they don’t have a father anymore! So you’re gonna sit the boys down, and prepare them for the fact that you might never come home!”

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Gold

gold-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 27, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Patrick Massett; John Zinman

Directed by: Stephen Gaghan

The prospect of finding cinematic gold in a true story directed by “the guy who wrote Traffic” and starring the winsome (and also Oscar-winning) Matthew McConaughey seems a sure thing. Unfortunately their first team-up proves how elusive success really can be.

Stephen Gaghan loosely bases his film on a 1993 gold mining scandal involving the Canadian Bre-X Minerals company who claimed to have discovered a massive gold deposit in the Indonesian rainforest, the liquidated value of which was thought to be nearly immeasurable. What was found was later proven to be false gold of course, and the company subsequently found guilty of defrauding investors out of billions.

Gold changes names and dates to avoid legal trouble but it also largely avoids excavating any entertainment value out of the situation. While its star fervently takes to the task of portraying another wily, good-natured yet deeply flawed opportunist, this meandering mess of a story doesn’t do nearly enough to match the conviction of its lead character and the spirited performance of the actor.

McConaughey, channeling some of his Wolf of Wall Street charisma, plays Kenny Wells, an earnest gold prospector who finds himself way out of his depth when he steps out of the Borneo jungle and onto Wall Street, where he takes his father (Craig T. Nelson)’s company public after allegedly tapping into “the largest gold mine of the decade.” All throughout a balding, comically uglified McConaughey insists it is not about money, but rather the joy of discovering that very thing his father and his father’s father dedicated their lives to, the very resource to which Kenny and his geologist buddy Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez) dedicated a fun/malaria-infested summer at the equator.

The film is divided into two major slogs. The first slog is spent in the jungle as Kenny and Michael battle bad weather, brutal labor conditions (which lead to labor strikes), and increasing pressure from the outside to deliver. The second follows in the aftermath of the discovery and half-heartedly addresses the various political, social and personal implications and complications of accumulating wealth and notoriety. It also introduces a thoroughly forgettable subplot reminding us for the umpteenth time of how brutal and cold Wall Street can be.

I can’t help but feel Gaghan is operating in the wrong capacity as a director. Though the man has several directing credits on his résumé, there’s a reason most people only ever associate his name with Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning film about heroin distribution. Traffic‘s screenplay was nothing short of brilliant. And he’s probably been told that ad nauseam so I’m a little surprised he chose not to take a similar approach to a story dealing ostensibly with the way gold fever — and McConaughey gets it pretty badly — can evolve into an addiction. How it can change, corrupt, maybe even damn a person. Gold didn’t need to be so serious, but it desperately lacks weight and importance.

Gaghan’s fourth directorial outing isn’t a poorly made product, per se, but it’s painfully obvious and worse, uninvolving. The McConaughey faithful head into theaters hoping to find gold but end up leaving with nothing more than a lump of bauxite in their hands.

yayyyyyy

2-5Recommendation: Disappointing David O’Russell knock-off strands another great Matthew McConaughey performance in a sea of mediocre drama. Very little about this predictable, tired trajectory has the impact the writers and the director were no doubt looking for. For what it’s worth, McConaughey and Ramírez make for a fairly entertaining duo. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “We got a goldmine . . . ? We got a goldmine!!!” 

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Café Society

'Cafe Society' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 15, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Woody Allen

Directed by: Woody Allen

I think I’ve cashed in the last of my goodwill towards all things Woody Allen by checking out Café Society, yet another movie about New York, being Jewish and being young, dumb and hopelessly lovesick. The weight of Allen’s neuroticism has become crushing in the present tense. The novelty of his vaguely pervy sentimentality wore off years ago, and while we may find ourselves surrounded by familiar scenery here, the days of Manhattan and Annie Hall have all but disappeared in the rearview.

It’s not that I have ignored that unwritten rule of avoiding a film you know you’re not going to like from the word ‘go;’ I have for the most part enjoyed spending time in Allen’s hyper-self-conscious little fantasies but it’s apparent now that fantasy is all the man is and will ever be about, be it his directorial touch or his shady real-life persona. Semantics, really. Some just leave it at ‘pervert’ or ‘creep’ and if I ended up feeling uncomfortable for Kristen Stewart that must mean I agree to some extent with those labels as well. I mean, it’s Kristen Stewart.

I am, however, disappointed I ignored a personal rule: Stay away from anything Woody Allen that looks suspect, regardless of whom he has talked into working with him. The problem with Café Society isn’t one of objective quality. The film is stunning to behold, set in two of America’s most famous cities and lensed with a certain verve you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Vittorio Storaro’s seductive soft focus and brilliant color palette perpetuate Allen’s love for The Big Apple and the effervescent glow makes Los Angeles look like a place we would all like to live someday. That’s an impressive feat.

The cast is equally effective in seducing: beyond the gimmick of casting Adventureland‘s stoned-in-love Jesse Eisenberg and the aforementioned Stewart, we get a stuffy Steve Carell as an obnoxious L.A. agent named Phil Stern. He so happens to be the uncle of Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) who is looking to get his foot in the door in 1930s Hollywood. Corey Stoll plays Bobby’s brother Ben, a New York gangster with an affinity for burying his enemies in fresh concrete (that’s actually pretty funny). Blake Lively is lovely as Veronica, Bobby’s bride-to-be, while Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin revel in their roles as the quintessentially bickering, old-country Jewish couple. Oy vey, they’re so cliché.

There’s little to complain about when it comes to the film’s technical aspects. Instead Café Society‘s simple themes — finding a partner who will complement you in every aspect of life; being unable to escape your past — suffers from having lived a life thrice. There’s nothing to experience here that you haven’t in countless entries into Allen’s extensive filmography, which is to say that we have probably seen this movie in various incarnations no fewer than 20 times. No filmmaker can be that prolific and that consistently groundbreaking. Not even visionaries like Georges Méliès, who belongs to that oh-so-prestigious club of directors with 200+ titles to their name.

I know, I know. It’s a little extreme to be associating a pioneer like Méliès with someone like Allen but bear with me. The point is, his harping on budding romance has become passé and his creative funk continues in this latest excuse to pad a résumé. Eisenberg is a fresh-faced youngster in Hollywood who has taken up an off-the-cuff offer from his uncle to do odd jobs for him in exchange for the opportunity to make valuable connections. Along the way he falls for the cute secretary, Vonnie (Stewart) and is smitten by her lack of pretense. Trouble is, she’s currently seeing another, much older man and things are both serious and seriously complicated.

Heartbroken and disillusioned, he heads back to New York where he helps his older thug brother run a high-class nightclub that attracts many a wealthy douchebag politician and various nameless sycophants. It is here Bobby is introduced to Lively’s Veronica, with whom he casually jokes about having the same name as his ex. Well, joking is a strong word in a Woody Allen movie. It’s more like, he lusts after her because of the similarity. They soon marry and even have a child. But is life with Veronica (Vonnie 2.0) everything Bobby wants? The past comes back to haunt him when Vonnie 1.0 stumbles into his club one random evening. Of all the night clubs on all the city blocks in Manhattan, why did she have to choose this one?

Very little of Café Society feels like it’s designed to burrow in the longterm memory.  This is particularly offensive when we’ve had stronger characters and more compelling plot lines to follow in Allen’s back catalogue alone. Modern Allen is a flaccid Allen. He seems to get off on repeating himself. ‘Café Society’ is both a term used to describe the crowds that gather at various trendy clubs as well as the name of a specific club started up by Barney Josephson in 1938 in the New York neighborhood of Greenwich Village, today infamous for being one of the most expensive places to live in the States.

There’s one other theme apparent, an age-old lamenting over how people change over time. I can’t get into the nitty-gritty of that without ruining the movie for those still waiting to take this all in, but suffice it to say I find that talking point ironic. The more things change the more they stay the same. It’s certainly true of a director who mistakes quantity for quality. There’s very little romantic about doing the same things over and over again for decades.

Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell in 'Cafe Society'

Recommendation: Tedious fluff piece. Café Society represents more of the same from Woody Allen: annoying characters complaining about their love lives all while trying to find an inspiration for changing themselves for the better. I can’t say this movie is generic but it probably will be for those who have an appreciation for earlier Allen. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart prove they do have good chemistry together though, so at least there is that. And the movie is an absolute delight from a visual standpoint. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy director.”

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Black Mass

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Mark Mallouk; Jez Butterworth

Directed by: Scott Cooper

In Scott Cooper’s third film, Johnny Depp is one bad man. How bad? Bad enough to make the stench of his Charlie Mortdecai finally drift away, sure. But now another question is bugging me: what does he do after this? How long does Irish-American thug James “Whitey” Bulger define Depp?

I suppose only until the next ill-advised project comes along, but I shouldn’t get ahead of myself too quickly. We ought to bask at least a little longer in this moment. His recent disasters notwithstanding, one thing hasn’t really changed about the actor: he is talented. The problem has been one of motivation; a preference for taking easy money instead of actually working for it. As much as that annoys me, I’d rather it be that than the man simply getting a case of the yips. (Do performance artists get the yips?) The talent didn’t disappear, it just went into hibernation . . . for several years. Now it re-emerges, volatile, unpredictable and explosive as he assumes the profile of one of the most notorious crime lords in American history.

Over the course of a short two hours — particularly short given the film’s slow-burn approach — Black Mass builds a damning case against not only Bulger and his reputation amongst both friends and enemies, but against the FBI. For obvious reasons the criminal activity is alarming, but there’s something just as unnerving about the ineptitude of the prominent law officials who fail for so long to gain the upper hand. In explaining just why that was the case, Black Mass becomes as seedy as the city it skulks around in, feeding bleak and ominous cinematography to viewers who, in all likelihood, are more curious as to how Depp fares than how his character does.

The film ratchets up the tension tracking the rise and fall of a tenuous relationship, rarely offering respite. Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up together on the streets, with Connolly being something of an admirer of the notoriously ruthless criminal. That’s sort of how he’s talked into becoming an informant as a way to eliminate the Italian contingent of the Winter Hill Gang, who have been encroaching on Bulger’s South Boston territory. Conducting ‘business’ with Bulger is the kind of stunt that proves to be a hard sell for Connolly to make to his peers and especially his boss, Special Agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon). Bulger has, of course, a few protective barriers that make his arrest nigh on impossible. His brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the mayor of Boston while Whitey’s reputation around town provides the movie its quota of visceral, sudden deaths that are brutally staged and extremely well-timed.

Despite the few who are stupid enough to doubt or defy Whitey, Black Mass isn’t quite as physical as you might expect; it works best as a psychological drama involving a slew of characters that are as difficult to trust as their own unrepentantly hateful attitudes are to justify. Reminiscent of Cooper’s previous effort, Out of the Furnace, is a brilliant, character-driven screenplay that paints a portrait of organized crime and corruption that has infiltrated all levels of society. David Harbour is in as Connolly’s partner-in-crime(solving) John Morris, while Bacon handles Special Agent McGuire with aplomb . . . and a semi-ridiculous Boston accent. Notable criminal personalities are brought to life by the likes of Jesse Plemons (as Kevin Weeks), Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown, and Bill Camp, all of which add tremendous depth to this portrait of a Boston all but overrun by violent criminal activity.

Indeed, Depp is not on his own here, even if his is the worst in a bunch of very bad seeds, and even if his presence will be the only one we’ll feel for a long time after leaving the theater. Cooper’s ensemble cast — including a reprieve for Dakota Johnson in the form of Bulger’s longtime girlfriend Lindsay and a random appearance from Adam Scott as a peripheral FBI agent — are largely to thank for the film’s inglorious depiction of corrupt and criminal ways of thinking. That Black Mass has such a stacked cast — another similarity to his 2013 blue-collar drama — means the admittedly pedestrian narrative has more room to breathe. These characters are intimidating in their own ways, distinguishing a story that we’ve seen redressed over and again by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma, even Michael Mann’s Public Enemies in which Depp portrayed another infamous gangster.

This film doesn’t quite glorify the lifestyle of Scorsese’s mean streets but if I’m even suggesting that kind of comparison (without feeling overly dramatic doing so), Cooper is clearly doing something right. Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s screenplay paints broad strokes, and there are several plot strands that disappear at a moment’s notice as we cover the roughly 10-year period in which Whitey rose to prominence. Even if it does leave a few questions unanswered, Black Mass remains unencumbered by a lack of meticulousness because it ultimately succeeds in provoking dread and fear. An evil empire was allowed to flourish under the FBI, and that part is more fucked up than anything.

In fewer words, Black Mass tries to stand out, whereas Johnny Depp actually does.

Recommendation: In a welcomed return to form for Captain Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp, Black Mass offers an acting showcase for everyone involved. Fact-based story takes us on a harrowing journey through the rough streets of south Boston of the ’70s and ’80s and while some parts could have benefitted from expansion, on the whole this is a story well worth paying to see on the big screen. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “You were just saying? ‘Just saying’ gets people sent away. ‘Just saying’ got me a nine-year stretch in Alcatraz, you understand? So, ‘just saying’ can get you buried real quick.”

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Ant-Man

ant_man_ver2

Release: Friday, July 17, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Edgar Wright; Joe Cornish; Adam McKay; Paul Rudd

Directed by: Peyton Reed

Well, it’s official. After watching this, stepping on ants for me is a thing of the past. Stepping on ants is murder.

If someone were to ask me what would be the strangest superhero for Marvel Studios to base a movie around, Ant-man would be the last thing I would have suggested. Then again, I’m likely not the best person to ask such a question, as my ignorance when it comes to everything comic book-related borders on embarrassing. Until it was announced last year that they were casting the role of Scott Lang/Ant-man, I had no idea that this was actually a thing.

When Paul Rudd was confirmed, suddenly I became antsy to see it. (Do we need to start tallying all of these awful puns?)

Edgar Wright’s . . . er, sorry, Peyton Reed’s Ant-man, the final film in the MCU’s Phase Two, is ultimately a successful new addition because the star of the film — a high-tech suit designed by former S.H.I.E.L.D. member Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) — represents one of the riskier propositions Marvel has had to sell relative newcomers to the superhero genre in some time. Let’s be honest, for every Marvel geek in attendance there is likely to be at least three who aren’t quite as attuned.

Everyone of course will continue basking in the glory of the Avengers’ camaraderie, pondering the likelihood of another stand-alone Hulk movie, eagerly anticipating the return of Chris Pratt’s Starlord. The popularity contest was won even before Tony Stark came on the scene in 2008. Basing a film around a piece of tech that can shrink a man to the size of an insect, enabling him to gain strength in the process, well   . . . that’s a difficult pitch. Similar to Guardians of the Galaxy, obscurity actually works in Ant-man‘s favor.

Unlike Guardians, Ant-man isn’t quite as dynamic or willing to take risks with its principals. That’s mostly because the main character itself is riskier than Gamora and Groot put together. (His name is Ant-man for Pete’s sake.) Neither film has a particularly inventive story to offer — it’s either save the galaxy or save the world from villains who equal one another in their villainous ineptitude. The former, however, did have spectacular visual effects and a cast of characters that remain vivid today. Conversely, Ant-man isn’t so interested in characters as it is in the environment, taking a magnifying glass to the mundanity that surrounds us in our everyday lives. Bathtubs, briefcases, children’s rooms and playsets become wild, vast expanses that play host to all sorts of adventure and exhilaration.

Déjà vu: Ant-man is an origin story. It operates, somewhat uninspired, as a redemption arc for a con-man wanting to do right by his young daughter. Despite the fact he has an electrical engineering background, Scott Lang has made a life out of cat burglary, robbing people without using violence. As such he has lost privileges with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and daughter, after having served one too many prison sentences. When “one last robbery” leads Scott to discover a kind of jumpsuit in the heavily-protected cellar of an eccentric old man, he is faced with the opportunity to save more than just his reputation as an absentee dad and husband. Old habits die even harder when they are vital to the plot.

A sinister development within Pym Technologies sees Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Hank’s former protégé, on the brink of harnessing the same power he had discovered, and has plans on unleashing it upon the world. Reed, whose previous directing credits are a little more than questionable, doesn’t rely on groundbreaking storytelling techniques, epic action setpieces nor particularly memorable performances to effect a highly entertaining, mischievous little outing that completely ignores its once-disastrous potential. Ants are hardly anyone’s favorite creature (sorry if they are yours) but in his film, ants become the good guys. I feel like that’s a feat in and of itself. We even get an education on their various classifications.

So, no. No I’m not stepping on any more ants. Even if this film had potential to become slightly more explosive I personally got a lot out of this exercise, other than realizing Paul Rudd can pretty much do anything he wants. Ants aren’t soulless, they aren’t the harbingers of ruined picnics I once thought them to be. Sure, they might be pests who always seem to find a way into your house but the next time I see a string of soldier ants strutting their stuff from one hole in the wall to the other, it might be best to assume they are reporting for duty.

Recommendation: Ant-man works as a genuinely entertaining (and genuinely harmless) bit of sci-fi action, though it will exist on the fringe in terms of Marvel’s most memorable outings. Its best attributes come in the form of a reliable Paul Rudd and some impressive visual effects which end up doing much of the film’s heavy lifting as the story shifts between points of view. Even if this character has eluded you until now, you should check it out and see what all the ant-icipation was about.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “It’s very rare you get invited back to the same place you robbed from.”

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