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: “Blade Runner 2049”

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Green-lighting “Blade Runner 2049” could be considered one of the gutsiest movie moves in recent years. Ridley Scott’s 1982 original landed with mixed reactions both from critics and moviegoers. It’s unique and unconventional approach to practically everything pushed many viewers away and it failed to bring in the money Warner Brothers was banking on. Yet over time perceptions have changed and the film is widely regarded as a science fiction classic.

Now, 39 year later, along comes “Blade Runner 2049” and you could say it has followed the same path as its predecessor. While critics weren’t as divided, audiences didn’t come out for it and the movie fell well short of what it needed at the box office to break even. Yet just like the ’82 film, it wouldn’t be a stretch to expect a re-evaluation over time and a greater appreciation for what “2049” is doing.

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Talks of a “Blade Runner” sequel had been ongoing for years with names like Christopher Nolan and a returning Ridley Scott attached. Denis Villeneuve eventually signed on to direct and with him came long-time collaborator and top-tier cinematographer Roger Deakins (fourteen Oscar nominations without a win and counting). What quickly became obvious was Villeneuve’s intention to keep certain things very close to the original. The look, the tone, even the deliberate storytelling all hearken back to Scott’s picture.

Ryan Gosling plays K, a Blade Runner for the LAPD. In case you need a refresher, Blade Runners are tasked with hunting down and “retiring” bioengineered humans known as replicants. K’s superior Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) puts him on the trail of a rogue replicant of interest (Dave Bautista) who needs to be put down. In his encounter with his target K discovers evidence of a child born possibly from two replicants. Joshi believes this startling knowledge that replicants can reproduce could start a war so she orders K to hunt down the child and erase any evidence of its existence.

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The devilish Tyrell Corporation from the first film is no more and the even more nefarious Wallace Corporation has risen to take its place. It’s ran by a mannered, milky-eyed Jared Leto who has also learned of the miracle child’s possible existence. And as you can probably guess, he wants it for his own reasons. He sends his personal strong-arm Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to tail Agent K and capture the child for the company.

The writing team of Hampton Francher (co-writer of the original film) and Michael Green (who contributed to four 2017 screenplays) wisely steer clear of altering the “Blade Runner” formula. Much like its predecessor, 2049 is a methodically structured puzzle, solved through slow but persistent drips of revelation. Surrounding that central mystery is a visually jaw-dropping world – a consistent evocation of the original film’s unforgettable aesthetic. Production designer Dennis Gassner deserves a ton of credit for visualizing such a stimulating dystopia, from the exquisitely dank and dreary Los Angeles to the glowing orange hue of the sandy and barren Las Vegas. Then Deakins elegantly shoots the world in a way that amplifies the moody sci-fi/neo-noir vibe and immerses the audience.

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Gosling (known for often acting in a perpetual state of lethargy) is a perfect fit for his role. K is a character hungry to feel and there is a surprising emotional resonance in Gosling’s portrayal. K is a tragic figure, mutually disliked or dismissed by both humans and replicants. He attempts to fill that void with a holographic companion called Joi (Ana de Armas). But ultimately it’s his mission to hunt down the child that puts the pieces together for him. One of those pieces is a returning Harrison Ford who brings an unexpected subtlety and nuance to the now older and wiser Rick Deckard.

“Blade Runner 2049” isn’t the first movie to pose the question ‘What does it mean to be human?’ Ridley Scott has long been fascinated with variations of that question and Villeneuve’s movie is no different. It’s an idea that lies under the surface of “2049” and its entire two hours and forty-five minute runtime. It is a bit long which certainly contributed to the lower box office. And viewers attuned to more action-packed rhythms have undoubtedly had a hard time with the picture. That’s a shame. “2049” has more to say, has more visual ingenuity and takes more risks than the bulk of the genre films we get today.

So for now it appears the gutsy call hasn’t paid off. But I can’t help but believe that over time “2049” will be reassessed by many who dismissed it and I can honestly see it someday being heralded as a new science fiction classic just like its predecessor. Sure, those are bold words but some people were saying the same thing in 1982.

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

REVIEW: “The Place Beyond the Pines”

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The title may make it sound like a high-minded ethereal exercise, but “The Place Beyond the Pines” is actually an ambitious movie that is one part cautionary tale and one part complex family drama. The film reunites its star Ryan Gosling with director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance who previously worked together on “Blue Valentine”. This is certainly a different kind of movie with many more layers and a much broader vision. That doesn’t always equal a better movie but in this case Cianfrance definitely takes a step up and his new film almost reaches the lofty heights it aims for.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” can basically be broken down into three parts. First we meet a motorcycle stunt performer named Luke Glanton (Gosling). He’s a tattooed, chain-smoking loner who goes town to town with a traveling carnival. During an annual stop in upstate New York Luke learns he has fathered a child with a local waitress named Romina (Eva Mendes). He decides to quit the carnival and stick around hoping to take care of son, but with no money or job that becomes difficult. He strikes up a friendship with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) a local mechanic with an affection for robbing banks. A few bad choices later and Luke finds himself in a pretty tough spot.

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Luke’s story connects to that of a young local police officer named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). The second part of the film focuses on Avery after he is injured in the line of duty. He struggles with the actions that led to his injury and the “hero” tag that he has been given. As he recovers he fights to stay connected to his wife and young son. He also faces a battle between his moral conscious and some shady goings-on by his friends on the police force.

The third part of the film jumps ahead 15 years but to tell anything else about it would be doing a disservice to the viewer. Suffice it to say this is a film about two men, two families, two fathers, and two sons whose lives are veritably intertwined. The three segments each have their own unique tone and feel to them yet the connection between all three is always there. This was a bold approach to storytelling and I certainly can appreciate Cianfrance’s ambition. But the risk would only work if all three segments were equally good and unfortunately that’s not the case.

My favorite of the three “chapters” (for lack of a better word) was the first one which focused on Gosling’s character. This was a good surprise for me because unlike many people I’m not sold on him as an actor. We get a lot of his normal routine here – brooding, emotionless stares, and a lot of mumbling. But it actually fits a lot better with this character and Gosling does throw in a few variations that we rarely get from him. The story is compelling and features a gritty realism. I loved Mendelsohn here and Mendes is very good as well.

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I also liked the second act which focused on Bradley Cooper’s character. It’s drastically different but deeply connected to what we’ve already seen. The contrasts in the lives of these two men are jarring yet there are similarities which I will let you sort out for yourselves. It’s during this chapter that the film does begin to slow down a bit but it still maintains a strong dramatic pull. But the final act tries to be a little too clever and the contrivances that are employed are all too obvious. There are parts of the final third that do work but as a whole the story becomes less interesting and it’s here that I began to feel the trudge of the movie’s 140 minute running time.

So what do I make of “The Place Beyond the Pines”? Ultimately it was a better movie than I anticipated but not one that fully meets its own high expectations. The camerawork is fantastic and the performances are solid across the board. Also, I never begrudge a filmmaker from making bold choices, but I don’t feel Cianfrance quite knew when to pull back the reins. In the end the film felt a little too cocky and indulgent for its own good. While that brought the movie down a bit it certainly didn’t undo the good qualities that we see particularly in the first two acts.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Only God Forgives”

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I’m one of the few people who didn’t fall in love with the film “Drive”. Director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling garnered a ton of critical praise for their 2011 crime drama. While I liked the movie, overall I felt it was lightweight with very little underneath its stylized surface. Well let me say “Drive” has nothing on Refn and Gosling’s latest collaboration “Only God Forgives”. This film takes all of “Drive’s” missteps and amplifies them x10. Even worse, it doesn’t have a strong Albert Brooks-like performances to save it from its hollow and lifeless end result.

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THE EVER-PRESENT STARE…

The film is set in Bangkok where Gosling’s character Julian runs a kickboxing promotion which is a front for a drug dealing operation he runs with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). But Julian’s main job is staring. That’s all he does for 99% of the movie. Much like in “Drive”, Gosling gives another bland, poker-faced performance that never shows a hint of emotion. It’s frustratingly cold and dry – something Refn clearly has a fondness for. For me it grows old and it doesn’t add an ounce of depth to the character. Get used to them because Gosling’s eye-rolling blank stares and emotionless demeanor are ever-present regardless of the situation.

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Get used to this stare from Gosling. It never goes away.

Not to be outdone, Vithaya Pansringarm plays the corrupt police Lieutenant Chang who has Billy killed after he rapes and murders a woman. Chang is brutal, has a god-complex, slow walks like a zombie in a trance, and has a weird fascination with singing in nightclubs. Sounds like a well-rounded chap doesn’t he? I know Refn was shooting for some unique stylistic approach to the Chang character but quite honestly I started laughing whenever he would show up. He is in a constant state of slow motion and he has this one single expression throughout the film. He comes across as a stiff cardboard cutout that will occasionally commit acts of graphic violence.

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See? Still staring.

And speaking of violence, there is a lot of it in “Only God Forgives”. The movie becomes a story of revenge one-upmanship especially when Julian’s wacko mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up to avenge her first born. Thomas is a fine actress but she gets mauled by this lurid over-the-top character she plays. Her men kill one of Chang’s men then he kills one of hers in some gruesome fashion. Rinse and repeat. Refn splatters blood on walls, sprays blood out of gaping wounds, makes us watch an unsettling torture scene, etc. etc. etc. I’m not one that is automatically put off by scenes of graphic violence but none of these felt as if they served a purpose. I figure Refn had something he was trying to say but it never resonated with me.

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Seen this look before? Yep, it’s the stare…

While Refn may not like strong narratives, deeper characters, or good dialogue he certainly loves mood lighting, long hallways, and gaudy wallpaper. We get a ton of that stuff in “Only God Forgives”. It’s the ultimate example of style over substance. I found the whole exercise to be a pretentious and self-aware mess. I will say that Refn does show hints of brilliance when it comes to framing shots. He also can build tension in a scene when he is able to restrain himself. But those attributes can’t save this film from its dullness and overindulgence. Some will see it as a beautiful piece of stylistic cinema. Personally, I see it quite differently.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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By the way, still staring…

REVIEW: “Drive”

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The opening scene of “Drive” is a slick and stylistic introduction to what the rest of the film aims to be – a tense yet deliberate car driving action picture. The opening scene happens to be one of the film’s best and its one of the few scenes that could be called memorable. But that’s not saying “Drive” is a bad movie. It has several things going for it. But underneath the crafty and stylish surface lies a fairly simple and conventional action film. From its lead character to the story development, everything moves along at a pretty measured pace with a straightforward narrative. Yet in the end I never connected with it like many others have.

Ryan Gosling plays a movie stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway wheelman for an assortment of shady characters. He’s only refered to as “the driver” or “the kid”. Gosling’s dialogue is sparse and he is required to reveal his character mainly through expressions and actions. We never get any background information on him and his character really isn’t fleshed out all that well. But in a way I liked that. I liked drawing my own conclusions based on his associations, occasional turns towards violence, and his compassion for Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbor from his apartment building with whom he begins a relationship. Their relationship consists of several scenes of the two looking and grinning at each other along with the occasional afternoon drive. Irene is raising her young son while her husband is away in prison and the driver is instantly attached to them both.

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Mood lighting + a toothpick = The Goz

Their growing relationship hits a speed bump when her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison. Standard genuinely wants to turn his life around but some old debts make that a little hard. The driver agrees to help Standard mainly due to his affection for Irene and her son. Albert Brooks is good as mob guy Bernie Rose who, along with his partner Nino (Ron Perlman), are tied into Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a garage owner who supplies the driver with getaway jobs. Brooks’ character is the prototypical mob “bad guy” but with his own idiosyncrasies. He provides some fantastic scenes but unfortunately he all but disappears through the middle of the film. That’s a shame because I would love to see him get a little more screen time.

As I mentioned, “Drive” and its story are pretty straightforward. There’s not much that broadsides you nor is there anything that calls for your extra attention. There’s nothing especially unique and there aren’t any big surprises with the exception of a couple of brutally violent scenes that can be quite jarring. Speaking of the violence, it’s implementation into the movie is actually quite strange. The more graphic scenes of violence tend to involve lower level characters but what should be the more important scenes seem to be depicted through shadows, quick cut-aways, or far off camera shots. I feel this was obviously a stylistic choice but I found it more puzzling than engaging.

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A look we see about 150 times in “Drive”

Speaking of style, “Drive” looks fantastic. Director Nicolas Winding Refn cleverly uses light and camera angles to give the picture its own unique look. The driving scenes from inside the car look great with Refn transitioning from one camera angle to another with an artistic flare. And yet with all he’s trying to do, he never loses control of his camera whether in a high-speed car chase or a conversation at the dinner table. I also loved his use of sound. Many times he cuts the music and just let’s the natural sound effects carry the scene. “Drive” is just an all-around technically impressive picture.

While it seems I’ve been a little hard on “Drive” and it’s almost run-of-the-mill action movie storyline, I was drawn to many things in the picture. The opening scene does an amazing job grabbing its audience and immediately getting them involved. And while the story may lack a real feel of originality, I see it more as an homage to not only several particular films but to a specific style of movies. I also found myself interested and invested throughout. I think the performances are uniformly strong. Gosling is given the most restrictions but he manages to do a nice job. Carey Mulligan is wonderful as always and Brooks, Cranston, and Isaac are particularly good. Like I said, there’s plenty to like about “Drive”.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS