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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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

#OscarsQuiteUnpredictable

oscars-snafu

Steve Harvey reaching out to Warren Beatty after he was involved in what has got to be the most embarrassing SNAFU in Oscars history — and possibly of the actor’s career — strikes me as humorous for some reason. I know it isn’t funny, but what if there really is some support group for this sort of thing? Victims of Award Ceremony Gaffes Anonymous, does that exist?

Look, I’m not here to point fingers and perpetuate the blame game because, well, I feel as though a sufficient pall has been cast over Barry Jenkins’ legitimate victory and Jimmy Kimmel’s first Oscars hosting gig. Poor guy. It’s not like he was the greatest host ever — the highlight of his night is without a doubt his manipulating the pit orchestra in order to rush Matt Damon off stage as he was presenting, which was amusing but not good enough to make me stop missing Billy Crystal.

But Kimmel’s night was going really well and for it to end in such a bizarre and awkward way, it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. Or just assume that M. Night Shyamalan had played a part. And we all know that while it was probably the decent thing to do to try and divert the awkwardness away from the presenters (does anyone know what country Faye Dunaway is now living in by the way?) and towards himself, we also know this was not his fault. A scheme like this would be too complex for Jimmy Kimmel to mastermind, anyway. Besides, I don’t feel bad for the talk show host in the way I feel bad for La La Land.

ryan-gosling-snubbedI suppose the good that came out of this “custody battle” — besides the fact that one of the most deserving films in recent memory actually took home top honors — was that we got to know a little bit more about La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz. It’s almost unreasonable how composed he was. How gracious in defeat he was. How sincerely his congratulations were offered to his competitors. I think there’s something we can all learn from the way he (and others) handled their situation.

I rated the two films differently but truth be told, and given everything that happened on Sunday, I think I would have been alright if the honor were shared between both films. That’s where the Academy really screwed things up. (Okay, I guess I am going to have to do a little scapegoating here.) Sure, PwC has taken the heat and rightfully so, but even if there were not enough trophies to go around on stage, I don’t know how you can allow for something like this to happen.

And it’s not like ties haven’t happened before, because they have. Six times actually. Six times a producer or director or cast member was spared the humiliation of being cut-off mid-acceptance speech because they hadn’t, in fact, any right to be making it. Of course, the way the 89th Academy Awards ended feels like a first. This wasn’t an example of indecision or voter fraud. This was an unprecedented production fiasco that unfolded in real time. To further troll the Academy and PwC, I’m really not sure if there could have been any protocol for this. And I really doubt there will be a ‘next time,’ so there probably never will be.

With the elephant in the room having been addressed, allow me to breakdown the categories that I featured in my preview post:

Best Picture (Winner: Moonlight) 

What I predicted: La La Land

If I had it my way: Moonlight

Well, the cast and crew of La La Land certainly went skipping up on stage because for a fleeting moment, as I had predicted, life for them was but a dream. But oh man, how fleeting that feeling was . . .

On the bright side, Moonlight becomes just the second LGBTQ-related film ever, behind Midnight Cowboy in 1970, to win Best Picture. And it is the first time in Oscars history a film with an all-black cast has won the award. Just let that sink in for a second.

Directing (Winner: Damien Chazelle, La La Land)

What I predicted: Damien Chazelle

If I had it my way: Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special

No real surprise here. The art that lives within the 32-year-old director is undoubtedly unique and profound. For him to go from directing a film like Whiplash to La La Land in the span of three years is, well, the guys at Consequence of Sound said it best: it’s just baffling.

Actor in a Leading Role (Winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea)

What I predicted: Casey Affleck

If I had it my way: Casey Affleck

Amazing. To go from being the architect of your own potential destruction to Oscar-winner in the span of a few months is about as crazy as #EnvelopeGate. When a sexual harassment scandal reared its ugly head once again in the lead-up the Oscars, it seemed Ben Affleck’s younger, smaller and generally awkward brother had the odds stacked against him. Not to trivialize the troubling story that has been following the actor for some time, but his work in Manchester By the Sea deserved the win. It is almost enough to make us forget that hey, Oscar winners ain’t saints. I said ‘almost.’

Actress in a Leading Role (Winner: Emma Stone, La La Land)

What I predicted: Emma Stone

If I had it my way: Amy Adams, Arrival

Emma Stone, you need not worry if I’m doubting the legitimacy of your win. Your work in the movie speaks for itself. Your ‘Audition’ scene took my breath away, and I never quite got it back. I’m so glad Leo didn’t have any trouble with his presentation, because the Oscar absolutely went to the right person this year. Emma Stone has further cemented herself as one of the most meteoric stars of her generation. Jennifer Lawrence, watch your back.

Actor in a Supporting Role (Winner: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight)

What I predicted: Mahershala Ali

If I had it my way: Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

I love that in an era where Muslims are feeling more and more persecuted and marginalized in this country, one has just taken home Oscar gold. It feels something close to poetic justice, even if other artists this year have indeed suffered the effects of an unprecedented travel ban. I was introduced to Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Remy Danton in Netflix’s brilliant political drama House of Cards. I was impressed right away. In Moonlight, his turn as an empathetic drug dealer who exerts major influence on the young Chiron early in the narrative, is enough to break your heart. But in ways you might not expect. It’s a stunning supporting turn, and a big part of the reason I thought Moonlight was able to reach some other psychic level that La La Land just couldn’t.

stinkeye

Actress in a Supporting Role (Winner: Viola Davis, Fences)

What I predicted: Viola Davis

If I had it my way: Viola Davis

Viola Davis was one of the only true locks for the evening, the other being the winner of Best Documentary Feature (congratulations to Ezra Edelman and O.J.: Made in America for a well-deserved but, yes, very inevitable win). So while I didn’t exactly jump for joy when Davis won, I was nonetheless psyched for the woman. The Oscar win identifies her as the first black actress to complete the Triple Crown of Acting. She has officially taken home an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony Award for her scintillating work as beleaguered housewife Rose Maxson.

Animated Feature (Winner: Zootopia

What I predicted: Zootopia

If I had it my way: Moana

Blah. Zootopia was good I guess, but this is becoming one of those movies where, the more I hear about it, the more I’m feeling disdain for it. Studio animations have this unprecedented burden of becoming message movies these days, so I guess that’s what the Academy was looking for this year. How many heavy, controversial issues can you jam into one colorful little narrative? That’s the competition. Me, personally? I would have taken anything over the contrived kumbaya of this Disney “classic.” Even The Red Turtle, whatever the hell that is.

Cinematography (Winner: Linus Sandgren, La La Land)

What I predicted: Linus Sandgren

If I had it my way: Emmanuel Lubezki, Knight of Cups

So you could look at the Best Picture fiasco two different ways. You could feel terrible that La La Land lost in the manner that they did, or you could look at them as being a production that simply missed out on lucky #7. Yeah, they were involved in one of the most egregious mix-ups in an event of this magnitude but they also walked away with SIX OTHER TROPHIES. Inarguably one of the categories they absolutely had in the bag was this one. Linus Sandgren’s ability to capture Los Angeles in a classically romantic, old-fashioned way while reminding the viewer that they are experiencing events in the present tense is truly astonishing. La La Land is a technicolor dream sequence executed to perfection. The iconic Griffith Observatory has rarely looked so good before.

Costume Design (Winner: Colleen Atwood, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them)

What I predicted: Colleen Atwood

If I had it my way: Timothy Everest and Sammy Sheldon Differ, Assassin’s Creed

For a film that I actually never bothered to see I was really pleased with the final result. Though I really didn’t see any of the other nominees challenging the fantastic (sorry) and ornate wardrobe drummed up by the costume designer of such classics as The Silence of the Lambs and Edward Scissorhands.

Production Design (Winner: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, La La Land)

What I predicted: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco

If I had it my way: Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte, Arrival

I conclude my wrap-up with another fairly predictable result and La La Land‘s first Oscar win of the night. I could make the case for Arrival‘s ability to craft iconic imagery out of simpler elements being more impressive than what the Wascos (a husband-and-wife duo who worked on such films as Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction) were able to achieve. After all, the latter were afforded the unique and historic architecture and landscape of metropolitan L.A., while Arrival‘s production design team were tasked with making the rural pastures of Montana seem eerie. But, call it what it is: La La Land is a gorgeously rendered production whose heart and soul is owed to more than just the infectious lead performances and a few jazz numbers.


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Moonlight

moonlight-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Barry Jenkins

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

There’s a moment late in Barry Jenkins’ new film featuring a blown-out Naomie Harris desperate for a cigarette, in the way a recovering crack-addict is desperate for a cigarette. Her violently trembling hands fail her, prompting the assistance of her son, for whom she has spent a lifetime erecting an emotional and psychological prison due to her abusive, drug-induced behavior. He lights the tip, mom takes the first blissful drag. The moment seems pretty innocuous in the grand scheme of things but this I promise you: I will never forget this scene. Never.

Quite frankly, it’s one of many such scenes buried in Moonlight, a by turns brutal and beautiful drama inspired by a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. I will never forget that title.

Nor will I ever forget what it has inspired. This is the story of Chiron, by all accounts a normal kid born into some less-than-ideal circumstances in the rough suburbs of Miami. I couldn’t help but weep for him, even when he ultimately becomes something that probably doesn’t want or need my pity. As he endures psychological cruelty at the hands of his mother Paula (Harris, in one of the year’s most stunning supporting turns), and physical torment from his peers who interpret his quiet demeanor as weakness, he also finds himself grappling with his own identity vis-à-vis his sexuality.

The narrative is presented in an inventive three-act structure that details significant events in his life. Chiron is portrayed by different actors in each segment, ranging in age from 8-ish to twenty-something. Each chapter is given a different label (you should bookmark that term) that corresponds to the way the character is referred to in these eras. Nicknames like ‘Little’ and ‘Black’ not only function as reference points in terms of where we are in the narrative but such descriptors reinforce Jenkins’ theory that people are far too complex to be summed up by a simple word or name. These segments also bear their own unique cinematic style, most notably in the way color plays a role in advancing the film’s themes. Blue accents subtly shift while the camera remains fixated squarely upon the flesh and blood of its subject.

Epic saga has the feel of Richard Linklater’s 12-year experimental project Boyhood but whereas that film relied on the literal, actual growth of its main character, Jenkins hires actors who ingeniously play out different phases of life all the while working toward building a congruous portrait of a gay African-American male. Throughout the journey we are challenged to redefine the labels we have, in some way or another, established for ourselves and for others. Moonlight implores us to embrace not only all that makes a person a person, but that which makes a man a man.

While each actor is absolutely committed to the same cause, all three bring a different side of the character to the forefront. From young Chiron’s hesitation to engage with others — most notably a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) — as demonstrated by newcomer Alex R. Hibbert (who plays Chiron in the first segment, ‘Little’), to the seething anger that has accumulated in the teen form (Ashton Sanders), to the post-juvie gangster Chiron “becomes” (now played by Trevante Rhodes) we are afforded a unique perspective on multiple cause-and-effect relationships, be they of parental or environmental influence. The trio of performances complement the moody tableau in such a way that the entire experience manifests as visual poetry.

But unlike poetry, much of the film’s significance is derived from what is literal. Jenkins’ screenplay is more often than not deceptively simple. The genius lies in how he rarely, if ever, resorts to techniques that provide instant gratification. There are no big showy moments that tell us how we should feel. We just feel. More perceptive viewers will be able to sense where all of this is heading before the first chapter even concludes, but it won’t be long before others come to understand that, as is often the case in reality, this person has been conditioned to become something he deep down inside really is not. Rhodes is perhaps the most notable performer not named Naomie Harris, as he is charged with presenting the cumulative effect these external influences have had on his life, and thus the most complex version of the character. Much of Rhodes’ performance is informed by façade — in this case that of a thug.

Beyond well-balanced performances and the sublime yet subtly artistic manner in which the story is presented, Moonlight strikes a tone that is remarkably compassionate. Were it not for the abuse he endures, this would be something of a romantic affair. Perhaps it still is, in some heartbreaking way. Large chunks of the film play out in almost complete silence, the absence of speech substituted by a cerebral score that often tells us more about what’s going on inside Chiron’s head than anything he says or does.

Other factors contribute to Jenkins’ unique vision — a leisurely but consistent pace, motifs like visits to the beach and Juan’s drug-dealing, the running commentary on the relationship between socioeconomics and race, homosexuality as a prominent theme — but the one thing I’ll always return to is the mother-son dynamic. ‘Little’ deftly sums it up as he begins to open up to Juan: “I hate her.” ‘Parent’ is not a label that currently applies to this reviewer, but the sentiment still nearly broke me. But more than anything it moved me — not so much as a lover of cinema, but rather as a human being. What a movie.

naomi-harris-in-moonlight

5-0Recommendation: Heartbreaking drama will doubtless appeal to lovers of cinema as well as those searching for something that’s “a little different.” If your experience with Naomie Harris has been limited to her Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig-era Bond films, wow. Have you got a surprise in store for you. Breathtaking work from the Londoner. Breathtaking work from a director I had never heard of before this. The wait was well worth it. It would have been worth the three-hour round-trip drive I almost embarked on in a desperate attempt to see the picture weeks ago. Then my local AMC picked it up. Thank goodness it did. (And guess what else it just got? Loving! Yay!) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “You’re the only man who ever touched me.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com