First Man

Firstman

Can the landing of the first man on the moon be… anticlimactic? In First Man, it almost is.

For a couple of reasons. We know how it turns out. The video is iconic. The “small step/giant leap” quote is ingrained into our beings.

But mainly, First Man delivers tension, suspense and the threat of peril in the life and career of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) well before the moon landing. By the time Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are ready to moonwalk, the film has already presented the stoic Armstrong in situations that put him through intense physical and emotional challenges.

Yes, the moon landing is First Man’s money shot. And, yes, there’s a tingle that comes when the lunar vehicle is looking for a landing spot. But what precedes that event is what makes the movie another winner from director Damien Chazelle of La La Land and Whiplash fame.

The real life Armstrong was not as outgoing as other U.S. astronauts. Shepard, Glenn, Aldrin, Cooper and others were more visible via media. Armstrong, though not a recluse, did not seem to savor the limelight.

Gosling is excellent in his portrayal of a man who generally keeps his emotions in check. I’d argue that it’s harder to portray this kind of individual convincingly than to play more flamboyant types.

First Man shows Armstrong as a family man dealing with crises at home as well as a space pioneer applying his knowledge and talents to his job. His wife Janet (Claire Foy) provides needed support but also confronts him just before the moon mission, demanding he talk to his sons about the danger and risk ahead.

As other space films have shown, there is friendly competition among astronauts but a special camaraderie also exists. Armstrong’s grief when fellow spacemen-to-be suffer bad fates is deeply felt.

The soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz complements the visuals and the action beautifully.

The story of the Neil Armstrong you never knew (unless you read the book that First Man is based on) adds meaningful context to recollections of the space race and that singular accomplishment America achieved one Sunday evening in July 1969.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Old Man And The Gun

Redford

The Old Man And The Gun has all those classic indy film elements: quirky characters, quirky plot, a few slow periods where little happens, a mediocre song and a general low budget look.

But this one also has Robert Redford! He may have lost some speed on his fastball, but he still cuts an impressive figure on a movie screen. And he is fun to watch in this one. (Redford just turned 82 in August, FYI.)

Forrest Tucker (Redford) was a real life bank robber. (Not to be confused with the “F Troop” actor.) For Tucker, robbing banks is a bit of a sport. He’s polite to bank staff (and to the authorities who arrest him), not like the fearsome trigger-happy criminals often seen in films and on TV.

As he flees the film’s opening heist, Tucker stops to help a woman whose truck is broken down on the side of the road. He invites her to join him for a bite. So begins his relationship with Jewel (Sissy Spacek). She is charmed and they begin to get together often for apparently non-carnal reasons.

Casey Affleck mumbles his way through his role as Dallas police detective John Hunt. After the feds take over the pursuit of Tucker, Hunt sniffs out Tucker’s backstory, which features a life of crime and incarceration. Also in the cast are Tucker’s sometime accomplices played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits.

For a movie about a bank robber, with car chases and other tense situations, The Old Man And The Gun is relatively light entertainment. Redford’s smiles and chuckles play a big part in softening the feel of the film.

David Lowery is the movie’s writer/director. He did an interesting crime drama I enjoyed (also featuring Affleck’s mumbles) in 2013 with the puzzling title Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Supposedly this is to be Redford’s last movie. But, as with many music acts who’ve had farewell tours and then later reappeared on stage, there’s a Bond title that applies here: Never Say Never Again. Whether he returns to the screen again or doesn’t, it’s good to have one of one of filmdom’s greats back in a starring role right now.

 

A Star Is Born (2018)

A Star Is Born

The surprising thing about the new A Star Is Born is how fresh it feels. It is a thrice-told tale, but this version does not scream: “retread.” The film’s stars and (especially) its music energize the storytelling and make A Star Is Born truly satisfying.

Even moviegoers who have zero familiarity with the previous iterations of this plot can guess early on where it’s going. Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a big rock star with booze and pill addictions. Ally (Lady Gaga) is a food service employee who sings for kicks in the gay bar where Maine just happens to stop in for a drink.

He gives her a leg up into the music biz and, as they fall in love, their careers move in separate directions: one up, one down.

If you had doubts that Lady Gaga could handle the female lead, well, those doubts were mistaken. She has two killer musical numbers that bookend the film and several other songs in the film, including duets with Cooper. And… her acting beyond the music is solid. This film marks the birth of her movie stardom.

Cooper is an Oscar-winning actor but his musical chops are also impressive. He wears many hats here: he directed the film and is one of three credited screenwriters. His speaking voice in the film is deeper than in his prior films. It accurately sounds like that of a man who has been a lifelong boozer.

Daddy issues play a role in this A Star Is Born. Maine’s dad—also a heavy drinker—died when Jackson was 13. His older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) helped raise him, got him into performing and still works to keep the younger brother in line. Their relationship is not just brotherly but also a bit father/son.

Ally’s dad Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay) points out that talent alone is not enough to be successful in showbiz, that looks matter. He says this to soften her disappointment as her musical aspirations stall. But when Maine offers her the chance to join him on tour, her dad encourages to go for it.

Along with the inspired casting of Clay, director Cooper brings Dave Chappelle to the role of Maine’s old chum who rescues him after a binge.

Sometimes the early positive buzz on a movie, often fueled by those who attend the late summer film festivals, fizzles when the movie finally appears on local screens. A Star Is Born (2018) lives up to the buzz. Strong box office is a sure bet. And this may become one that gets repeat viewings.

 

Minions

Minions is more cute than funny. Despite its quick-moving story and a handful of memorable human characters, Minions is tailor-made for the younger crowd. Little kids should love it. For adult filmgoers, it’s a definite maybe.

In the two Despicable Me movies, the minions were amusing support players; here the capsule-shaped yellow creatures are the film’s centerpiece. When a TV sitcom sidekick gets a show of his/her own, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Are the minions strong enough to carry the movie? I say yes, but it’s borderline.

The film opens with the evolution of their species. The minions seek their life’s mission: to serve the worst villains they can find. The list includes a T-Rex, Dracula, Napoleon, etc. When minion life becomes boring, three minions (Kevin, Stewart and Bob) set out to find new villains to serve.

They come ashore in 1968 New York City where a billboard touts one of America’s real life political villains. But the yellow trio hitches a ride to Villain Con in Orlando with Walter and Madge Nelson (Michael Keaton and Allison Janney) and their kids. At the con, they meet up with Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), touted as the first female super villain, and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm).

When she drafts them to do her bidding, they join her in England where she conspires to take the crown from Elizabeth. After a series of wacky activities, the Queen gets her crown back and (with an assist from the other minions who’ve joined them in London) the trio emerge as heroes.

Because of its 60s setting, the soundtrack includes classic tunes from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Turtles, The Kinks and The Who. An appropriate salute to the minions’ pigmentation is Donovan’s Mellow Yellow. (The minions hum the opening Universal fanfare… which would’ve seemed clever if the Barden Bellas hadn’t just done it better in Pitch Perfect 2.)

Minions ranks a notch below the two Despicable Me movies, but should draw huge audiences because of the love for the predecessors. AND because of heavy marketing—(get your Minions Happy Meal!)—aimed at that youthful target. Sometimes an animated film has just as much adult appeal as kid appeal, if not more. That’s not the case with Minions.

Hot Pursuit

 

Hot Pursuit is a disappointment. It’s not funny. Just minutes into the show, it becomes obvious that the film, which is essentially one extended chase scene, is going nowhere.

Policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) and drug lord wife Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara) are travel mates in this would-be madcap comedy. Like last year’s Tammy, the set up is okay, the stars are likable, but the movie, ultimately, is a failure.

Cooper is assigned to escort Riva to Dallas where her drug lord husband is set to testify against a former partner. But the pickup is botched when gangs burst in with guns blazing. Cooper and Riva escape and take to the road in a classic Cadillac convertible, the first of several vehicles they’ll use to get to their destination.

Witherspoon, despite being raised in Nashville, speaks with a southern accent that sounds inauthentic. Vergara, brings little beyond her Modern Family TV persona to her role. Neither excels at physical comedy. Hot Pursuit is a mess.

Who gets the blame? Director Anne Fletcher delivered another bad road trip movie The Guilt Trip (with Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand) in 2012. The writers David Feeney and John Quaintance are veterans of (mostly failed) TV sitcoms. With the exceptions of comedians Jim Gaffigan and Mike Birbiglia in small roles, the supporting cast has no real charm.

Witherspoon and Vergara have producer and executive producer credits, so they are among the culprits.

I’ll concede there are a handful of chuckles, but if you want big laughs you won’t find them here. (Even the outtakes that are shown during closing credits are not funny.) Do not pursue.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

 

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a ton of fun! It’s action-packed and full of surprises. It moves at a frantic pace and never slows down until its final postscript. Like last year’s Lego Movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a better movie than we usually get in February.

Harry Hart (Colin Firth) aka Galahad is the dapper, well-dressed ops director of the secret spy organization that works out of a men’s clothing store in London. The versatile Firth is, as the British say, “spot on” in this role.

Following the death of a colleague in a 1997 mission, he gives a medallion and contact information to the man’s young son Eggy. Years later, now in his early 20s, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) needs help getting out of a jam and calls Galahad who takes care of the situation. When Kingsman agent Lancelot (Jack Davenport) is killed in action, Galahad recruits Eggsy to try out for a position. The competition is tough and Eggsy works hard to succeed.

When the film’s villain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is introduced, he is apparently a good guy, an environmental warrior. But his method for saving the planet involves eliminating much of the world’s human population. He scores good will by giving the entire world free wi-fi and internet—but there’s an evil motive to his generosity.

Galahad consults with Kingsman chief Arthur (Michael Caine) who suggests Galahad learn more about Valentine. At their first meeting, the dinner scene is a classic. (I’m tempted to share more, but… alas, no spoiler from me.)

K:TSS recalls early James Bond films, but in a more appreciative fashion than the Austin Powers movies did. As Q does in the Bond films, Galahad introduces Eggsy to amazing spy devices. Villain Valentine has an impressive mountaintop lair, complete with an airplane landing strip in a cave. And there’s the promise of a sexual payoff for the story’s hero, a la 007.

Kingsman: The Secret Service contains numerous memorable and bloody fight scenes. They are cartoonish and, in many case, quite funny. Director Matthew Vaughn (who also directed X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass and Stardust) has created a film that looks good and has plenty of clever bits. Like the woman with the lethal Oscar Pistorius prosthetic feet, the exploding opening credits and the high-speed chase scene where the car being chased travels in reverse.

Kingsman: The Secret Service delivers the goods. I like it a lot.

 

 

The Drop

 

Bob Saganowski (Tom Hardy) is one of my favorite movie characters of 2014. He’s a bartender at Cousin Marv’s in the new film The Drop, a crime drama set in an Archie Bunker sort of neighborhood in Brooklyn. Marv, the bar’s former owner who still runs the place, is played by James Gandofini in his final film performance.

The bar is a place for money drops of ill-gotten gains. Various criminals throughout an evening hand over envelopes filled with cash. The cash is dropped into a safe. The story is kick started with an armed robbery of the bar.

Bob is a seemingly simple man. His life consists of tending bar, accepting the cash drops and going each day to mass, where he never takes communion. Bob’s rescue of an abused dog from a garbage can leads to his friendship with and attraction to Nadia (Noomi Rapace).

Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a small-time local hood who tells Bob the dog is his and makes threats against Bob and the dog. Deeds is in cahoots with Marv to pull an inside job and take all the money to be dropped at the bar on Super Bowl Sunday—a huge day for bookies.

Another key player is police detective Torres (John Ortiz) who investigates the first robbery and recognizes Bob from the daily mass. Torres appears to know what is going on with each of the characters, but chooses to let things happen.

The Drop is filled with strong performances from the actors playing each of the main characters. But it is Tom Hardy as Bob who soars. With his odd version of a Brooklyn accent and his slow, deliberate manner, Bob is revealed to have more going on than is initially obvious. Expect Hardy to be mentioned during awards season for his work here.

The script is by Dennis Lehane who wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone. Belgian Michael Roskam directed. The story here is good, but it’s the characters—and the actors filling those roles—who provide the best reason to see and appreciate The Drop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men is a movie that could’ve been made any time in the last 50 years. It has an old-timey feel to it. The film is rated PG-13 for war violence and smoking, but except for a couple of exclamations of “holy s—,” there’s nothing in the script that might offend.

Based on a true story, this tale has Frank Stokes (George Clooney) gathering a team of art lovers to go into the rapidly cooling World War II European war zone and save classic works of art from the Germans. It’s a war movie complete with peril and death, but it lacks that gritty feel of the more hardcore war films.

The Monuments Men are James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). After they arrive in Europe, they add Dimitri Leonidas (Sam Epstein).

They begin their mission after D-Day when the Allies have the Germans on the run. Granger goes to just-liberated Paris where he tracks down Claire (Cate Blanchett) who provides vital info regarding certain works that were taken. After spending time working with him, she transforms from cold fish to would-be seductress.

Jeffries goes to Bruges, Belgium to protect a Michelangelo sculpture from Nazi capture. Campbell and Savitz encamp near the Battle of the Bulge in a sequence reminiscent of M*A*S*H. Garfield and Clermont go to the frontlines.

As the Monuments Men begin to recover these purloined art treasures, competition to regain the works heats up versus… the Russians! Our guys know that if the Ruskies—officially Allies versus Hitler—get to the paintings first, they will claim them for Mother Russia. The situation becomes tense, even after the Germans have surrendered.

In addition to starring, George Clooney directed and co-wrote The Monuments Men. It’s a vanity piece. He looks good. Rarely does he have even one hair of his 40’s-era haircut out of place. (He even gives his dad Nick a cameo.)

The Monuments Men is a decent, but not great, movie. Give Clooney credit for telling a story that’s not been told before. As mentioned above, this is not a gritty war film. So, for those who didn’t care for the language and the gore of Saving Private Ryan (which coincidentally had Damon in the title role), The Monuments Men may be the perfect war movie for you.

Captain Phillips

I agree with the blurb on the TV spots—Captain Phillips IS one of 2013’s best films. Tom Hanks turns in his usual strong portrayal, but it’s the guys who play the Somali pirates who help give the film its realism.

Captain Phillips has the three elements that make a good movie: a compelling story, compelling characters and an interesting way of telling of that story.

Captain Phillips is based on a true story, though some of the actual crew members claim that they didn’t get the love they deserved and blame the real-life Captain Phillips. Also: a movie, even one based on real events, takes liberties with characters, timelines and minor details in its storytelling.

Having issued those disclaimers, I can assure you that Captain Phillips sometimes feels like TV news coverage. (Although, unlike many films based on recent real-life occurrences, we do not see clips of TV news reports of the incident.) With many handheld camera shots, plus scenes filmed in close quarters, Captain Phillips has an air of reality that many similar films do not have.

Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a regular guy from Vermont who happens to have a job as a sea captain. As the film opens, we see him riding to the airport with his wife (Catherine Keener) who sends him off to his next trip. He runs a cargo vessel that has to sail in open waters near Somalia. Hanks has great range as an actor, but playing everyman is his sweet spot.

Admirably, director Paul Greengrass also shares the Somali pirates’ backstory. He shows them gathering on the beach, choosing a team and constructing a longer ladder to enable them to board large vessels. During their takeover of the ship and all that follows, the audience comes to know these guys and their motivations. They are not sympathetic characters, but they are not just a bunch of faceless thugs.

Native Somali Barkhad Abdi (now a U.S. resident) plays Muse, the rail-thin leader of the pirate takeover. His machine gun allows him to display some swagger, but his cool helps him calm dissension within his gang of four. Could this unknown be 2013’s version of Quvenzhané Wallis, last year’s awards season darling?

Although you as a moviegoer know in advance that Phillips made it out alive, as with Titanic and Apollo 13, discovering the outcome is not the reason to see Captain Phillips. It’s the journey that each of the characters takes that keeps the tension building right up to the film’s climax. Also, it’s rather cool to see the way U.S. military involvement in the event is depicted.

Sometimes a big star promotes a movie with maximum gusto to generate a decent opening weekend, before ticket buyers figure out that it is not a very good movie. Hanks has been flogging Captain Phillips like crazy in recent weeks. In this case, it is not to salvage a mediocre film but to generate long-term box office. The guess here is that Captain Phillips will have “legs” and that Tom Hanks is in line to get a large percentage of those ticket sales.

In mid-summer, I had only a couple of films on my 2013 “must see” list. Happily, the list has grown in recent weeks. My latest “must see” movie is Captain Phillips.

 

 

Enough Said

Here is an excellent movie for grownups. Two extremely likeable characters fall in love in a movie that has a message for all couples.

Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a divorced woman who goes to a party at the urging of her unhappily married friend Sarah (Toni Collette). At the party, Eva meets Albert (James Gandolfini), a divorced man. Eva also meets Marianne (Catherine Keener) who becomes a massage client and, in short order, a friend and confidante.

Albert and Eva go out on a date. Neither expects anything special, but they enjoy each other’s company and soon are sleeping over. They have one big thing in common: both have daughters who are about to finish high school and go away to college. This circumstance requires that they interact with their exes.

The message for couples in Enough Said is not to let little things become deal breakers. Those of us who’ve been married for a while know that both partners have to tolerate their mates’ imperfections. For instance, dirty underwear left on the bedroom floor may be an annoyance but not grounds for divorce. On the other hand, when one partner is aware of his/her annoying behavior and makes zero effort to change, that can be a problem.

Eva has scenes with Sarah and her husband Will (Ben Falcone). They nitpick and bicker but manage to stay together.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is totally charming as Eva. She frequently flashes the great smile that her often snarky Elaine (on Seinfeld) shared minimally or, often, sarcastically.

James Gandolfini is just a big, sweet teddy bear as Albert. I had a melancholy feeling watching Enough Said because I knew that it was one of his last roles before his sudden death last June. His performances during the past year in Zero Dark Thirty, Not Fade Away and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone showed promise of a hugely successful post-Sopranos film career. Sadly, that will not happen.

Let me offer a huge hat tip to the woman who wrote and directed Enough Said, Nicole Holofcener. Her dialogue is clever, funny and believable. Her directing is efficient and never overbearing. Honestly, the only thing I dislike about Enough Said is its rather generic title.

If you’re looking for a movie for grownups without violence and peril, escape to the movie house to check out Enough Said.