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!”

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

TBT: Almost Famous (2000)

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As Will Smith notes in Independence Day, it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings. And while I knew, deep down, there would not be any fat lady singing to indicate this feature had truly ended, I also knew there was no way I could stop doing these posts. It’s the longest-running feature on the blog! Fortunately I have, in my estimation, something kind of important to talk about to jumpstart the conversation about films from years past. And it is actually one I am lifting from this Top That! list I had posted a little while ago, which you can check out here. Okay. I think that’s enough links for one intro.

Today’s food for thought: Almost Famous.

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Following Stillwater since: September 22, 2000

[Netflix]

Even though it’s kind of a bummer, it really does make sense. Rock stars are cool and rock journalists are . . . not. I wonder what that says about film critics, about those who try hard to be included in the spotlight but never will — doomed to remain tantalizingly on the fading edge of the spotlight while trying their damnedest to understand that which they are covering for their stories in an effort to perhaps better understand themselves.

In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s turn-of-the-century (millennium, actually) film about a young aspiring journalist who stumbles into the industry only to haphazardly fall back out of it after following a fictitious rock band around the U.S. in an attempt to get his first cover story published, Crowe was confessing several things.

First, the obvious (and quite cliché): fame ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Patrick Fugit, billed as William Miller but clearly miming Cameron Crowe at age 15 when he himself was contributing articles to Rolling Stone magazine while still attending high school, learns this the hard way. When a rock critic he greatly admires sends him on his first professional assignment to cover headliner Black Sabbath, William inadvertently gets swept up in the experiences — many thrilling and others not so much — shared by the members of Stillwater with whom he forms a bond during their 1973 American tour.

Second, if Almost Famous was even close to an accurate rendering of some of his experiences, then writing about rock’n roll was the gig to get, despite bitterness frothing in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cautionary monologues bookending William’s adventure. “Don’t befriend the bands you meet . . . ” (whoops); “You will never be as cool as a rock’n roll celebrity. People like us, we’re not cool.” If the relationship between Crowe and Rolling Stone taught him anything, it’s how to write a great screenplay. Perhaps the transition into writing movies was less a stepping stone as it was inevitable, the precursor to actually being cool.

And of tertiary importance: if you were a die-hard rock fan, the 70s must have been a rough ride. Band leaders Russell (Billy Crudup) and Jeff (Jason Lee) take center stage in representing Stillwater on and off the tour bus, naturally, as the two lead guitarists. The pair exhibit varying levels of enthusiasm over having a journalist along for their tour as they have serious concerns about how their image may be affected when William (a.k.a. “the enemy”) publishes his story. Struggling to maintain relevance in an era of ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ and Dancing Queens the members are keen on steering William in the direction they wanted his writing to take them, which is to say, towards the limelight of bigger stages.

Almost Famous is uncanny in many ways but it truly excels in creating tension between personal and professional goal-setting. New band managers entering the fold add to Stillwater’s misery; an air of distrust and uncertainty surrounding the wide-eyed journalist’s intentions thickens as time passes. Then toss Stillwater groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, iconic) into the mix as Russell’s ex and the first to take an interest in William at the Black Sabbath concert, and suddenly the lives of rock journalist and professional rock band don’t seem so incongruous. It’s the warning Hoffman’s Lester Bangs was providing all along.

Crowe may have tapped into the zeitgeist of the 70s music scene, but he also struck a deeper chord. This was something of a personal journey for him and it would be a mistake to think, despite how good Patrick Fugit is — hell, how good any of the members of this sprawling ensemble are — Almost Famous served primarily as an actor’s showcase. This learning experience is tinged with pain, nostalgia, envy, regret, sorrow, elation. The cast sublimely navigate these emotions in a story that begs to be revisited time and again. For all of these reasons and more, Crowe’s fourth directorial effort has been rightfully regarded as a classic.

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4-5Recommendation: An almost perfect film experience, watch Almost Famous for the nostalgia, for the music (there are 50 credited songs used here), for the performances, for the Philip Seymour Hoffman performance (who was sick the entire time), for the plane scene, for Penny Lane — for all of it. If Almost Famous doesn’t appeal, music dramas are clearly not your cup of tea. And I guess, that’s cool too . . . 

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: A literal coming-of-age story: Patrick Fugit’s voice apparently broke (deepened) during the making of Almost Famous.

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

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

Gone Girl

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Release: Friday, October 3, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Gillian Flynn

Directed by: David Fincher

Not to be confused with the Ben Affleck-directed Gone Baby Gone from 2007, Gone Girl is yet another exceptionally entertaining thriller from David Fincher, a director guilty of association . . . with rock-solid filmmaking, that is.

I don’t know why that would be confusing, but for some reason lately I have been having trouble untangling the two names. Since seeing the recent adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel I have also come into the understanding that the film experience is merely half the picture; that reading what Flynn is able to elucidate in greater detail in print is somehow more compelling than the visual spectacle of Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike operating at extremely high levels.

Right now it feels as though I’m trying to compare a giant to a goliath. Whatever it is about the novel that makes it so great I can’t exactly attest to but I know what I saw in this film and I understand the anticipation for Gone Girl has been unlike many other films this year, save for the latest Hunger Games installment and the upcoming Chris Nolan spectacular. What I also know is that Big Bat Ben has been able to explain his dry, bland style of acting a little better to me in recent years, perhaps speaking up a bit louder with this role. Stepping in front of the cameras rather than remaining behind them in the midst of a hot streak as director, Affleck plays Nick Dunne, husband to Amy (Pike) and soon-to-be pariah of the national media in the wake of his wife’s strange disappearance.

On the day of the Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary, Nick comes home to find an open front door, some smashed glass on the floor and a house devoid of that breeze of blonde hair. As far as appearances are concerned, she’s gone. A husband in immediate panic begins the search for his dearly beloved on solid ground, recruiting locals to help in a missing persons rescue effort. Sure footing and stable ground are soon lost, though, as his cooperation with Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and her partner (Patrick Fugit) is overcome with an awkwardness that’s difficult to put a finger on.

The first of many pressing questions that naturally arises is one of a judgment upon his character. Is he having this much difficulty processing his current reality, or is there something more to him that we ought to be afraid of? As the story unfolds, we are forced into questioning far more than his character.

David Fincher — excuse me, Gillian Flynn — is fascinated with subtlety. Flynn knows that in this world, under these circumstances, it’s not necessarily what you say that gets you into trouble, it can also be what you don’t say. Physical gestures speak volumes. A side long glance can mean one thing, a weird stutter something else. There should be a code word for how ingenious Flynn’s screenplay really is.

As the circumstances and evidence begin to pile up against Mr. Dunne, Nick’s behavior only increases in bizarreness. From our point of view, a more forgiving one than that of media pundit Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) — a woman who makes Nancy Grace seem pleasant by comparison — the severity of the situation is running him ragged. How one is supposed to handle themselves in the public eye in these situations, I don’t know. This is merely one question Fincher and Flynn in tandem aim at getting to the bottom of.

In the hands of others, Gone Girl does have the potential to become an unwieldy, even pretentious machine. It isn’t enough to simply peg contemporary (televised) media as something of a gladiatorial arena in which the individuals being examined are paraded out in front of the masses only to be slaughtered on live television in the form of brutal interviews. No, it’s the institution of marriage and how we act as a society — at least, as society pertains to American culture — that also comes under fire. Under Fincher’s direction and in Flynn’s mind, the two go hand-in-hand. What better way to link the frenzied collective’s desire to revert back to Salem Witch trial tendencies in the face of such confronting aberration. A husband who has not only seemed to have made his wife vanish into thin air also admits to have cheated on her beforehand? That’s not good. That’s actually really not good.

Gone Girl is extremely ambitious, but never does it overreach. It’s as entertaining as it is perplexing and disturbing. It’s also surprisingly witty. Affleck’s reactions to certain situations, while may not be appropriate, often conjure up some laughs that feel earned rather than forced upon the scene. There’s nothing humorous about a loved one going missing. But of a film that manages to reflect the fine details of how we as people are able to judge so quickly without knowing the full story, the entertainment value skyrockets. It’s a police procedural, murder mystery and a dark comedy all rolled into one. What a beautiful matrimony.

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4-5Recommendation: Gone Girl appears to be one of the first truly great films of the fall season. Readers of the book have been singing the film’s praises already for its authentication. Not a surprise when the novelist also penned the script but there are often times when that transition is not so naturally made. Here it’s clear there is natural harmony. I at times get ancy with films running over two hours (his 2007 crime drama Zodiac is a good example, despite its strong narrative) but here I hated the fact I was watching the end credits already. I wanted more. I think Mr. Fincher has a tendency to do that.

Rated: R

Running Time: 145 mins.

Quoted: “I’m so much happier now that I’m dead.”

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