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: “La La Land”

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With 2014’s “Whiplash” Damien Chazelle cemented his place among the most promising up-and-coming filmmakers. After its release few could question the 31 year-old’s deep and sincere affection for music. His affection is made even clearer with his latest film, the bold, audacious, and utterly delightful “La La Land”. It kind of makes sense he is jazz drummer himself.

Hype can be a tricky thing. It certainly spawned a ton of enthusiasm for “La La Land” which is interesting since it was destined to resonate with some while disappointing others. I was somewhere in the middle straddling the fence between nostalgic curiosity and skepticism. But regardless of where you stand, no one can deny this was an ambitious and gutsy undertaking especially in today’s movie culture.

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“La La Land” is Chazelle’s tribute to the classic MGM musicals and the profound cinematic voices they once shared. At the same time I was surprised to find an oddly bewildering modern flavor making this much more than a simple nostalgia piece. It’s just as much an ode to those who leave their comforts in pursuit of their artistic dreams. In one of the film’s key songs, Emma Stone’s character Mia describes it like this “Here’s to the ones who dream. Foolish, as they may seem.”

Here’s the funny thing – the scene I’ve heard praised the loudest is the one I’m the most mixed on. It’s the opening sequence, a spontaneous musical number on a clogged Los Angeles freeway ramp. I actually like the spontaneity. It’s as if Chazelle is setting the parameters for the audience and wiping the table of any uncertainty. It’s a bold and confident opening choice which I appreciate. I do love the the song “Another Day of Sun” and we get variations of it throughout the film. I didn’t quite go for the messy mish-mash of dance styles. The true highlight of the scene is how it’s shot – in a long flowing take that weaves in and out of stalled traffic and energetic dancers. It’s something to behold.

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The scene leads to the first meeting between two struggling artists, Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Mia dreams of being an actress but working in a studio lot’s coffee shop is as close as she has come. Sebastian is stuck playing piano in dingy bars but dreams of opening his own traditional jazz club in LA. Their first meeting is…less than cordial, but they keep crossing paths almost as if fate has something in store for them. Some snappy dance numbers and one spark of romance later and Chazelle has all of his pieces in place.

The further “La La Land” goes the more it resembles the classic musicals it draws from. The vibrant colors, dazzling spectacle, catchy tunes, Mandy Moore’s snappy, choreography – it all hearkens back to MGM’s heyday. At the same time I can’t overstate how fresh and original this feels. Chazelle quite literally revitalizes a forgotten genre and injects it with new energy. And if that weren’t enough he also tells a charming love story that’s maintains a plausibility within this dreamy world. It’s also unexpectedly bittersweet and laced with the perfect dosage of melancholy.

And then there is Chazelle’s Fred and Ginger. This is Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s third film together. Performance-wise Stone is the standout. It’s a performance rich with feeling and sincerity. It also doesn’t hurt that song and dance have been a part of her life since childhood. You can tell. But she also adds a surprising amount of weight to the dramatic moments which is key to them working so well. It’s a lovely well-rounded performance.

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Gosling is another story. Let me be clear, he’s not “bad” here, but it is yet another performance plagued by the same Gosling problem. Pulling emotion from him is like getting the last bit of juice from an orange. You squeeze as hard as you can but you only get drops. Gosling gives merely drops of feeling even during his dance numbers. It seems as if the character is written with Gosling’s limitations in mind which saves him a bit, but just a touch more charisma would have been nice. To be fair Gosling has his moments especially when he flashes his dry sense of humor.

Chazelle has a lot to juggle which makes his achievement with “La La Land” that much more impressive. I hate to incorporate such an overused adjective but ‘magical’ is a perfectly fitting description. As it started I felt oddly out of place, but soon I was swept away by the the dazzling, joyous, smile-inducing production. My skepticism quickly gave way to exhilaration. Now I’m not naive enough to say everyone will share my reaction. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I left the theater in an unusually happy state and “La La Land” has been dancing in the back of my mind ever since.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS4.5 STARS