REVIEW: “First Man”

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As “La La Land” showed us Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle have a pretty strong actor/director chemistry. They attempt to tap into it once again with “First Man”, a biopic of the late Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. The film has received critical acclaim throughout the festival circuit but also faced a bit of undeserved controversy over the decision to not show the iconic planting of the American flag on the moon’s surface.

The film is an adaptation of James Hanson’s 2005 biography “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong”. Clint Eastwood was the first to show interest in making the movie, planning to both produce and direct the film for Warner Bros. But it soon fell into ‘development hell’ before being resuscitated by Universal and Dreamworks. Screenwriter Josh Singer (who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Spotlight”) writes the script with Chazelle directing. Talk about an exciting combination.

 

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“First Man” comes at Neil Armstrong’s life from an interesting angle. It covers roughly 8 years, from his time as a NASA test pilot to his historic Apollo 11 moon landing. But the film’s main focus is on the man himself and it views most things through a very personal lens. And even though we get a look into Armstrong’s life, by the end of the film he remains a bit of an enigma although an intensely sympathetic one. I loved that about the movie.

I’ve always found there to be a dryness to Ryan Gosling’s acting and it’s the material that often dictates the effectiveness of his performances. He turns out to be a perfect fit for Neil Armstrong, portrayed here as a humble man of few words who feels as distant and unexplored as the space outside our atmosphere. Gosling’s consistent restraint only adds to his character’s complexity. It’s through Chazelle’s camera (often in tight closeups of Gosling’s face) that we get clues to what Armstrong is feeling. Meaningful subtleties in Gosling’s expressions portray grief, fear, determination, even exhilaration.

Chazelle has shown a fascination with the idea of obsession. In “Whiplash” it was with drumming. In “La La Land” is was with jazz. Armstrong’s obsession is with his work but it’s rooted in something deeper. Very early in the film Neil and his wife Janet (a terrific Claire Foy) lose their 2-year-old daughter Karen to cancer. That shadow looms over the entire film as Neil buries himself in his work to keep from dealing with his loss. It’s what drives his determination.

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At the same time it adds an undeserved burden on Janet. A huge chunk of the film looks at the domestic side of Armstrong’s life. These scenes are far more than emotional filler. They show us the flip-side of Neil’s sorrow-fueled obsession. Foy is nothing short of superb here – showing Janet as supportive of her husband but slowly losing patience with his detachment. At the same time she lives under the constant fear that her husband could die on any given day.

In one of my favorite choices, Chazelle shoots the space sequences almost exclusively from the astronaut’s perspectives, avoiding the grand effects-driven spectacles we might expect. These scenes are sensory experiences, relying on movement, sound, and a camera that is mostly inside the tight confined cockpits with the astronauts. These scenes are intensely claustrophobic and relay the sense of tension and danger.

Look no further than the incredible opening sequence. During a test flight Neil finds his X-15 “bouncing off the earth’s atmosphere” before bursting back through and landing in the Mojave Desert. It’s a pulse-pounding scene of roaring engines, whirling gauges and fiercely vibrating metal. The mix of sound and close-quartered cameras is a good primer for the bigger sequences to come.

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Of course one of those scenes the film’s big finale. In one of the biggest non-spoiler spoilers Neil Armstrong does indeed walk on the moon. The brilliant final 20 minutes features the same stressful ferocity but also a striking use of silence. The scene is the closest the film comes to giving us an emotional release and offers new meaning to Neil’s iconic first steps on the moon. Chazelle doesn’t romanticize these moments. They are intimate and personal which I believe invalidates the entire flag “controversy”. But for those still unconvinced, we do get shots of the flag on the moon and in numerous other places around the movie.

While Gosling and Foy are the stars there is a wonderful supporting cast that help fill out their story – Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Ciarán Hinds and a host of other recognizable faces and good performances.

There are so many other things I love about “First Man”. I love Chazelle faithful Justin Hurwitz’s score which truly came alive after a second viewing. I love that the film doesn’t feel the need to hold our hand and explain every detail of the science or technology. I love that this reluctant hero is portrayed as a human being and not a pop culture icon. I love its apolitical focus which seems consistent with the astronauts who isolated themselves from the culture to focus on their missions. But most of all I love that it makes its own rules when it comes to storytelling. This is what happens when a biopic doesn’t cater to formula or expectations. The results are magnificent.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Café Society”

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With each year comes a few certainties – taxes, a new model iPhone, a Woody Allen movie. For decades now the 80 year-old Allen has maintained his ‘movie-a-year’ formula with varying degrees of success. His films have shown signs of evolving from tightly wound, exploratory character studies to more free-flowing, nostalgia-soaked wanderings. How it plays with audiences is always up for grabs.

“Café Society” is Allen’s 47th picture and you could say it’s about a lot of nothing. We nose in on the lives of a handful of people, listen to their conversations, witness their quirks, watch their unfolding relationships. That’s basically it. But there are things to glean from these seemingly insignificant interactions. Saying it’s about ‘nothing’ is a little strong, but no one will ever call it deep or profound.

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The story is set in the 1930’s and its centerpiece is a young man named Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg). He’s the youngest son of a Jewish family from the Bronx who wants no part of his dad’s jewelry business. So he packs his bags and heads to the star-studded wonderland of Hollywood.  Once there he seeks out his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a pompous and powerful movie star agent. Phil gives him a menial job and introduces him to his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Bobby instantly falls for her.

Eisenberg and Stewart have a sparkling chemistry and Allen wisely milks it for much of the film’s first half. Their sprightly, youthful banter as they tour local movie palaces and quaint coffee shops is infectious. But it wouldn’t be a Woody Allen movie without some sort of weird relationship contortion which in this case leads to a pivot back to New York for the second half of the film.

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Sprinkled in among the chronicles of Bobby and Vonnie are short scenes highlighting his family. Some are dinner table conversations between his parents (wonderfully played by Jeanne Berlin and Ken Stott). There is a reoccurring neighbor issue with his sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her high-strung intellectual husband (Stephen Kunken). And there are the antics of his gangster older brother Ben (Corey Stoll). The injections of the scenes can be a bit jarring, but I liked the characters and enjoyed their screen time.

Allen’s film wallows in nostalgia which is actually a strength. The set designs and costumes scream 1930’s authenticity. In the Hollywood segment we get numerous fun Golden Age name drops – Paul muni, Rudolph Valentino, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, just to name a few. And the New York social scene of the time bubbles with pomp and energy in the second half.

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And you can’t talk about “Café Society” without mentioning the cinematography. The film was exquisitely shot by the great Vittorio Storaro. Film buffs may remember his first American film being “Apocalypse Now”. This is Allen’s first film shot digitally and Vittorio Utilizes every ounce of the technology. It’s filled with gorgeous framing and vibrant colors that burst from the screen. It falls right in line with Allen’s recent emphasis on visually capturing location and time.

Perhaps “Café Society” strolls at its own pace and perhaps Woody Allen is in cruise control with his latter films. Still I had a lot of fun with this one. He once again drew me into his time capsule, caught me up in the nostalgia of the era, and surrounded me with characters who I simply enjoyed following. I certainly can’t defend this as some deep, layered character study. But I can call it a well-made and well acted piece of entertainment that I would say easily falls into the ‘good’ category of Woody Allen pictures.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Ant-Man”

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Marvel’s cinematic universe has become a powerful presense at the box office. This has allowed Marvel Studios (and owner Disney) to branch out into what could be more obscure territories for moviegoers other than comic book fans. We saw it first in the insanely successful “Guardians of the Galaxy” – a film about a fringe group of characters within Marvel’s comic book mythology. “Guardians” was a decent film that struck a major chord with audiences grossing over $750 million. “Ant-Man” falls into a similar category – a Marvel character lesser known to the masses brought to the big screen on the backs of the other films and their successes.

One of my big questions going in was whether or not this character and story was worthy of the big screen solo treatment or is this simply Marvel showing off their powerful box office muscles? That is a tough question to answer especially considering Marvel took an insane amount of liberties with the source material. The story we end up with only features snippets of content and characters from the comics. Taking liberties and telling a unique story isn’t a bad thing. But with “Ant-Man” I left the theater thinking that the better story was the one left behind in the comics – the one Marvel chose not to tell.

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“Ant-Man” had its share of development problems mainly in the form of writer and director Edgar Wright’s departure. A number of other directors turned down offers to helm the film until Peyton Reed eventually took the reins. Perhaps this contributes to the film’s shaky foundation and overall lack of identity. There are times when “Ant-Man” feels fresh and a bit experimental within its genre, but it never sees these things through. Instead it embraces some of the same cliches and story contraptions that we have seen numerous times.

Funny man Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a smart man with a good heart who sometimes makes dumb decisions. We first meet him as he is being released from prison after serving a sentence for a non-violent burglary. His incarceration has driven a deeper wedge between him and his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer). She refuses to allow him to see their daughter Cassie until he gets his life together. This is tough pill for Scott to swallow especially considering how Cassie idolizes her father.

Now enter Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) who the movie has as a physicist who lost control of his company to an ambitious former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Since gaining control of Pym Industries, Cross has been trying to replicate Pym’s shrinking technology. But knowing the dangers of the formula in the wrong hands, Pym refuses to give it up causing all sorts of animosity between him and Cross. After Cross’ nefarious intent is revealed, Pym and his estranged daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) recruit Scott to help them stop Cross before he can unleash his evil plans.

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“Ant-Man” is definitely a mixed bag but its strong points are obvious. First, the story plays out on a much smaller scale which is something I appreciated. Yes, there are serious worldwide implications, but this is a superhero story which fits nicely within its smaller group of characters. There is no impending global doom or ominous cataclysmic event. In fact portions of the film play out like a corporate thriller while other portions play out like a heist film. I liked these elements and I was surprised by them. I was also surprised by how well Rudd fit into the character. The writing doesn’t always help him out, but overall he is good. I particularly liked Corey Stoll who managed to make a pretty one-dimensional character entertaining.

I also enjoyed the special effects which bounce back and forth between action-packed and playfully silly. In fact, some of the film’s best humor can be found in some of the visual effects sequences. It’s also worth noting that while the film is loaded with CGI, it’s not your standard big explosions and massive devastation. We get some of that but overall the effects serve different purposes which was refreshing. There is also a cool cameo and several other neat references which ground the film in Marvel’s greater cinematic universe.

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Unfortunately the movie’s strong points can’t overcome its problems. With all of the things the story does differently early on, ultimately it devolves into your standard, cliché-ridden fare. The redemption angle and typical origin story felt way too familiar and predictable. I also wasn’t blown away by its hit-or-miss humor. There were times when the movie is funny (Michael Pena is cast for no other purpose but to be a constant joke). Other times the humor fell flat and didn’t feel the slightest bit original. And perhaps my biggest issue was with the villain. On several occasions Marvel has struggled to give us an intense, engaging villain. Just look at “Guardians” for a glaring example. Darren Cross is pretty terrible. Now matter how good Corey Stoll is, his character’s actions simply don’t match his motivations. He is so poorly developed and we are basically given a few small lines of dialogue that are supposed to explain his reasoning. It just doesn’t work.

“Ant-Man” is an easy movie to digest. It dabbles in promising areas and has its share of fun scenes and cool visual effects. But it also squanders a lot of its potential by traveling down well-worn and overused paths. In the end this isn’t a Marvel film that I’ll find myself visiting again and it makes me skeptical of how they will use these characters in the future. I guess this is a case where I simply can’t shake the comic book fanboy within me. I still feel an Ant-Man film focused on a young Hank Pym and his wife Janet would be much better and more interesting than what we get here. But I guess we will never know.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “Non-Stop”

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Almost overnight Liam Neeson became today’s Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Whether he is tracking Albanian human traffickers across Europe or fighting Alaskan grey wolves with shards of glass attached to his fists, the 61 year old Neeson has not only embraced his action stardom but he’s really good at it. But this really shouldn’t surprise anyone. A brief scan of Neeson’s filmography shows that he is a versatile actor who has never been a stranger to action roles.

He shows it again by giving us another March action thriller called “Non-Stop”. The film is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra who also worked with Neeson on the 2011 film “Unknown”. This time around he is 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean in a passenger plane and facing one Neeson-sized threat. “Non-Stop” is a huge step up from the star’s last action outing “Taken 2”. It’s a fun throwback picture that uses many of the same plot devices which service the story well despite the perfunctory impression they leave.

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Neeson plays Bill Marks, a United States Federal Air Marshall who boards a non-stop flight from New York to London. We learn several things about him early on. He is an alcoholic who clearly has some emotional baggage. He also has a fear of flying (particularly takeoffs) which is a liability considering his occupation. The film also uses the familiar method of giving us brief glimpses of the major players in the film as they wait to board the aircraft – passengers, pilots, flight attendants. It’s cleverly executed here and it had me cautiously and suspiciously examining every face I was shown.

Once the plane is over the Atlantic Bill gets a phone text on his secure federal line threatening to kill someone onboard every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred to a bank account. At first he tries to decipher whether or not it’s a hoax, but he quickly finds out that the threat is real. With one person dead, 20 minutes until another person dies, and no way to quickly land while over the ocean, Bill has try and get control over the perilous and deadly situation.

As you can tell this is obviously pretty absurd stuff, but that doesn’t stop it from being a highly entertaining ride. Neeson gives his usual stout and sturdy performance but here he is also quite vulnerable. We do get those patented scenes where he breaks noses and snaps necks, but he also brings out the panic, perplexity, and brokenness which the story includes as part of the character. Julianne Moore plays a passenger he meets on the plane as does Corey Stoll in an entirely different role than his Hemingway from “Midnight in Paris”. Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery and recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o play flight attendants although Nyong’o is relegated to a very small part.

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“Non-Stop” throws a few jabs at a number of subjects including the news media’s over anxiousness to tell a story despite its inaccuracy and various post-911 attitudes about flying and people in general. Some work better than others. The movie does take a few preposterous turns and the final revelation, while satisfying for me, was a bit goofy and requires the audience to refrain from asking some very obvious questions. On the flipside it was always casting doubt on my suspicions and I never figured out what was going on until the final reveal.

Will “Non-Stop” make anyone’s Best of 2014 list? I highly doubt it. But it is an example of a very fun and entertaining action thriller that allows the audience to just sit back and play along. It helps to have such a strong anchor as Neeson. He is comfortable with these roles and when given good material he can provide us with a really good escape. While “Non-Stop” has some obvious flaws it is an easy movie to recommend and it’s one I wouldn’t mind seeing again. Now lets see what Neeson has in store for us next.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Midnight in Paris”

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Without a doubt the romantic comedy is one of the weaker movie genres and has been for years. But sometimes we get a special gem that reminds us of just how fun these types of movies can be. “Midnight in Paris”, written and directed by Woody Allen, is a crash course in the art of making a romantic comedy. It is loaded with heart and feeling and doesn’t trudge down the same path as so many failed films of this genre. It’s a movie that captures the magic of it’s location and the inner workings of it’s characters. It’s clever and unique while maintaining a true romantic feel and sense of humor.

“Midnight in Paris” opens with a picturesque three-minute montage focusing on the beauty of Paris, France. It gracefully moves from one exquisitely framed shot to another, showing us historical landmarks, museums, cafes, and more all set to the lovely “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere”. It elegantly sets up the city of Paris as not only a central character in the film, but an enchanting and magical force whose influence is seen throughout the picture. In many ways Woody Allen is celebrating Paris. He wants us to love the city and appreciate the mystique of it’s rich history just as much as his main character does. Allen’s desire works. I was instantly grabbed and found myself totally lost in what I was seeing on the screen.

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While Paris is at the heart of the story, the main character is Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a hack Hollywood screenwriter who is visiting the city with his fiancée and her parents. Gil loves everything about Paris and to this day regrets his decision not to move there when he had a chance several years ago. He feels he was meant for more than writing screenplays but he struggles with confidence. He doesn’t feel comfortable in today’s world and believes he would be a better fit in the 1920s. His fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) is a spoiled momma’s girl who spends more time insulting Gil than supporting him. There is clearly a disconnect between the two. He loves Paris and she doesn’t. He’s working on a novel that he thinks will change his career and she thinks he’s wasting his time. He enjoys the small details in life while she would rather milk it for it’s benefits.

While in Paris they run into Paul (Michael Sheen), Inez’s old friend and self-proclaimed expert on everything from art to French culture to fine wines. Inez seems infatuated with Paul’s knowledge regardless of how many facts he gets wrong in his efforts to impress everyone. Needing to get away, Gil takes off on a late night walk. After getting lost, he is picked up by a group of partiers in an old classic car who magically transport him back to 1920s Paris. Here he meets many of his literary and artistic heroes such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, and Stein. He also meets the lovely Adriana (played wonderfully by Marion Cotillard) who he grows more attracted to with each midnight visit.

The fantasy turn of Allen’s story did feel a bit out of the blue at first but it didn’t take long before I was enthralled with what I was seeing. Gil’s golden age is recreated flawlessly from the music and atmosphere to the careful attention to detail. I loved seeing these authors, painters, composers, and filmmakers of old fleshed out through some fantastic performances. Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill are absolutely brilliant as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. I also loved Marcial Di Fonzo Bo as Picasso and Adrien Brody as Dali, both in smaller but fun roles. And then there’s Corey Stoll as Hemingway who steals many of the scenes he’s in. The supporting cast is such a wonderful ingredient to the film’s charm.

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But in terms of acting it’s Owen Wilson that really blew me away. In many ways he plays a character that really fits him. We’ve seen elements of this performance in other roles of his but here everything is perfectly measured and controlled. Even though Woody Allen has stated he gave Wilson a lot of room to work, it’s clear that Allen has a solid influence on his performance. I’ve been really lukewarm concerning most of Wilson’s past work but he really, really impressed me here. He dials it back a bit and never allows his performance to drown out the material.

“Midnight in Paris” does call for the audience to just buy into it’s fantasy angle and if you struggle with that you may struggle with this picture. It also turns out to be fairly predictable in places. But these small gripes do nothing to kill the magic of this picture for me. This is certainly a love letter to Paris, but it’s also a lesson on living in the present. Allen reminds us that the golden age so many long for isn’t that different from where we are now. It’s a beautiful film both visually and structurally and it moves along at an almost poetic pace. Better yet, “Midnight in Paris” is a film that gives us hope for a struggling genre. I love this movie.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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THE THROWDOWN: “Annie Hall” vs. “Midnight in Paris”

Wednesday is Throwdown day at Keith & the Movies. It’s when we take two movie subjects, pit them against each other, and see who’s left standing. Each Wednesday we’ll look at actors, actresses, movies, genres, scenes, and more. I’ll make a case for each and then see how they stand up one-on-one. And it’s not just my opinion that counts. I’ll share my take and then open up the polls to you. Visit each week for a new Throwdown. Vote each week to decide the true winner!

*Last week Schwarzenegger (53%) out-muscled Stallone (47%) in our action icon Throwdown*

This week we move about as far away from the previous week as humanly possible. It’s old Woody versus new Woody in a Woody Allen Throwdown! When you see a Woody Allen film you know it’s a Woody Allen film. Yet in some ways his approach to filmmaking has changed over the past few years. So I thought it would be fun to pit what many view as a romantic comedy masterpiece in “Annie Hall” against Allen’s more recent and widely popular “Midnight in Paris”. These movies are wildly different yet each look and feel like a Woody Allen picture. So enough of the buildup. It’s old Woody Allen against new Woody Allen. It’s New York against Paris. It’s the Throwdown and your votes decide the winner.

“ANNIE HALL” VS. “MIDNIGHT IN PARIS”

In 1977, Woody Allen released “Annie Hall”, a movie that some have called the quintessential romantic comedy. Allen’s quick wit is never more evident than in the lightning fast and razor-sharp dialogue from the script he wrote about an eccentric New Yorker and his quirky perception of love and relationships. Diane Keaton won an Oscar for her role as Annie, a woman who ended her relationship with Allen’s character a year earlier. Allen spends the film lamenting his lost relationship and then moving on with his life. But can he ever really get Annie out of his mind? “Annie Hall” received three other Oscars including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. While I’m on record as saying I’m not the biggest fan of “Annie Hall”, it’s a movie that is loved by many.

In 2011, Woody Allen’s European tour stopped in The City of Light, Paris, France. “Midnight in Paris” is Allen’s love letter to the city, its beauty, and its history. Owen Wilson is fantastic as Gil Pender, a hack writer who believes he was meant to live in Paris during the 1920s. Allen shows us the magic of the city now and takes us back to the days of Hemingway, Picasso, and the Fitzgeralds. It features an incredible supporting cast highlighted by Tom Hiddleston and Corey Stoll as well as beautiful cinematography in some if Paris’ most glorious locations. This is a step outside of the box for Allen. More importantly, it’s a wonderfully romantic film that gives the most lovely look at one of the world’s greatest city. Allen won an Oscar for the screenplay and I can say without hesitation he certainly deserved it.

So is it Allen’s Best Picture winner “Annie Hall” or his love letter to the City of Light “Midnight in Paris”? I’ve got a clear favorite between the two. Do you? Your votes decide the winner. Click below and vote NOW!