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

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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.

 

Battle Of The Sexes

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In 1973, Billie Jean King faced off against Bobby Riggs in a tennis match in Houston’s Astrodome. King was near the top of her game. Riggs was over the hill but still playing. The film story of their match (and events leading up to it) is a drama/comedy with a huge splash of 70’s nostalgia.

The main reason to see Battle of the Sexes is Steve Carell’s performance as Bobby Riggs. He’s hilarious but also a bit pitiful and tragic.

Emma Stone is strong as King, fighting hard to get attention for women’s tennis while resetting her sexual identity.

Battle of the Sexes is being sold as a movie about the tennis match and the boost the contest gave to women’s sports. Which it is.

But it is also King’s coming out story, which is not a prominent part of the film’s trailers and other marketing. Is Hollywood afraid to promote that aspect of the film? Brokeback Mountain was twelve years ago.

Husband/wife director duo Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris neatly weave audio and video from the actual ABC broadcast of the event with the hyperbolic commentary of Howard Cosell. The clothing and hairstyles of the era—and the presence of cigarettes—are accurately recreated by the movie’s design crews.

The film’s supporting cast includes: Andrea Riseborough as BJK’s partner Marilyn Barnett. Jessica McNamee as nasty King rival Margaret Court. Fred Armisen as Riggs’s supplier of vitamins and supplements. Sarah Silverman as a chainsmoking womens tennis promoter. Elizabeth Shue as Riggs wife. And Bill Pullman as former tennis great Jack Kramer.

Battle of the Sexes is not a typical melodramatic sports movie a la Rocky, Rudy, etc. There’s melodrama, yes, but also a good dose of fun, mainly from Carell.

Could any of today’s top female tennis players beat one of today’s top men’s players? Hard to say, but it’s doubtful. Maybe one could score a win against an old guy. Would America tune in to watch Serena versus McEnroe? Would you? Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Logan Lucky

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If you could stand a bit of fun escapism right about now, here’s Steven Soderbergh to the rescue!

Logan Lucky is like his films Ocean’s Eleven (and Twelve and Thirteen), but different. Danny Ocean’s caper crews were slick and smart. The Logan brothers and their co-conspirators are West Virginia rednecks who do not appear to be all that bright.

The Logans are definitely not lucky. Jimmy (Channing Tatum) suffered a football injury back in the day and his resulting limp gets him fired from a construction job at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (“Liability” issues he’s told.) His brother Clyde (Adam Driver) lost half his left arm in Mideast fighting and tends bar.

Together they devise a scheme to steal a huge amount of money from the NASCAR track during the Memorial Day weekend race.

The caper is crafty, but the characters and cast members who populate those roles are the real charm here. Like Max Chilblain (Sean MacFarlane), a wealthy, obnoxious, egomaniacal NASCAR sponsor. Prison warden Burns (Dwight Yoakam) is the type of administrator who doesn’t like to acknowledge problems. There’s Jimmy’s ex (Katie Holmes) who has remarried rich and shares custody of their daughter. Also in the cast are Hillary Swank, Katherine Waterston and Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough.

But the big casting story is Daniel Craig with bleached hair as explosives expert Joe Bang. When recruited for the job, he points out to the Logans that he is “in-car-cer-ated.” But the Logans have a workaround for that small problem. The usually taciturn Craig appears to enjoy letting loose in the role.

Logan Lucky is full of fun and funny surprises, which I won’t ruin here. As with his Ocean’s flicks, director Soderbergh keeps the action moving fast which lets certain less plausible plot elements zip quickly by. The end result is a satisfying two-hour break from real life, something many of us are in great need of.

 

 

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

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A pleasant mix of whimsy and peril, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them takes elements from the Harry Potter saga and places them in a new setting with new characters. This latest movie from the mind of J.K. Rowling—she wrote and co-produced the film—has a mostly adult cast and is set on our side of the Atlantic in the mid 1920s.

You don’t have to be familiar with the Potter universe to enjoy FBAWTFT, although it has numerous references to Potter people and things. The film introduces a new character, briefly glimpsed in a Johnny Depp cameo, who will surely provide darkness and evil in Beasts’ sequels. (Four more movies are planned.)

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a British wizard who arrives by ship in New York. In a classic switcheroo, his magical suitcase full of beasts gets mixed up with that of aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Newt also meets fellow wizards Tina (Katherine Waterston) and her roommate Queenie (Alison Sudol). A hat tip to Dan Fogler as Jacob—It’s a role that could’ve seen him go full Oliver Hardy but he keeps it in check.

Tina is not highly regarded by the U.S. wizards organization, led by Seraphina (Carmen Ejogo) and enforcer Graves (Colin Ferrell). The wizarding group keeps a close eye on Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) who has a group of adopted children and preaches against witches and wizards. One of her flock is Credence (Ezra Miller), a troubled young man with dark secret and an awful haircut.

FBAWTFT has a bit of sexual tension bubbling under between Newt and Tina and especially between Jacob and Queenie, given Queenie’s mindreading ability. But everything is squeaky PG-13 clean.

The beasts? Yes, they are fantastic. Many are derivative, possessing the look of certain prehistoric bird/reptile creatures, as well as other beings witnessed previously in sci-fi movies. My favorite wizard world freaks are those seen in the speakeasy scene where a diminuitive bartender serves Jacob a drink called giggle water. He drinks it and he giggles.

Will Fantastic Beasts satisfy Potter fans now that that tale has concluded? Most likely yes, but it’s a different flavor of wizardry and magic. Like the Potter films, Beasts’ pace is breakneck, heavy with plot and characters. But Newt and crew lack the pure charm Harry and his gang possessed. A different flavor, to be sure, but tasty enough to succeed.

Sully

When the real-life Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed that jet in the Hudson River in January 2009, it was an amazing “feel good” story. He became a hero. Not only was he a capable pilot, he was also a nice guy.

He’s portrayed in Sully by Tom Hanks, a capable actor who also seems to be a nice guy.

Yes, there was drama in the actual incident, but apparently not quite enough for director Clint Eastwood to build a movie around. The story needs… conflict! An essential ingredient for many narratives, the conflict in Sully seems contrived.

While America was enjoying the happy outcome of the emergency landing and Sully was becoming a media darling, that nasty ol’ NTSB had its doubts that the river landing was necessary. The three members of the National Transportation Safety Board played by Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan question Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) about their decision-making.

In informal meetings and in an official hearing, the NTSB team suggests that Sully could’ve made it back to LaGuardia or to Teterboro airport in New Jersey. They even produce flight simulations showing that they could have safely touched down at either airport. Sully cites the human element as the key factor in his choice.

The depictions of the river landing are realistic and provide the meat of the movie. Because of the incident’s happy ending, the film provides a reminder of the tension of the evacuation and rescue effort.

Sully’s concern is for his passengers as they make it safely from the plane and after all have been taken from the river to various locations. In a sweet segment during the closing credits, the real-life Sully and his wife visit with passengers from the flight. Laura Linney plays Mrs. Sullenberger in the film. Her role is small but effective.

Are Sully, its star and its director Oscar-nomination-worthy? Those, I think, will be borderline calls, based on the competitive field. Because Sully was a reserved, medium-key individual, Tom Hanks gives a medium-key performance. Even last year’s role in Bridge of Spies offered more opportunities for Hanks to display his acting chops.

Sully relives the events of that day in 2009 without major stylistic flourishes. This solid film should give American audiences a moment to be proud of and should rekindle the nation’s appreciation for this hero pilot.

The Shallows

Man versus shark. Or, in this case, woman versus shark. Yes, you’ll think of Jaws, but The Shallows is different. As with Jaws, the chills and tingles come early and often.

Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) is a 20-something med school student from Texas. She is also a talented surfer. She is dropped off at an out-of-the-way beach in Mexico. It’s the beach that her late mother visited when she became pregnant with Nancy.

In the water, she chats with a couple of locals on their boards. They ride waves together. After the locals head in for the day, Nancy senses something is amiss. An injured whale floats nearby, victim of an attack by an enormous great white shark.

It is not a spoiler to reveal that the shark attacks Nancy. She survives and takes refuge atop the whale. Later she manages to move to a nearby rock, just a few hundred yards from shore. Here she uses her jewelry to close her leg wound in a scene that’s not for the squeamish.

Those of us who saw Jaws 41 summers ago knew—due to reams of advance publicity for the film—that Spielberg’s shark was a dummy. The shark in The Shallows (who gets significant screen time) appears more real.

Nancy spends the night on the rock, along with a bloodstained bird that managed to escape the shark. When the two locals return to surf the next day, she tries to warn them away but their outcome is not a happy one.

As she prepares to spend a second night on the rock with the shark nearby and the tide rising, she plots her next moves that might ensure her survival.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who directed the 2014 suspense thriller Non-Stop and last year’s Run All Night) keeps the tension level at a simmer between moments of terror. Prepare to jump a few times during the film’s compact 85-minute runtime.

Blake Lively does an admirable job of communicating her upset/horror of the situation without overplaying the role. She’s not the only human character in The Shallows, but it’s her film to win or lose and she wins.

 

 

 

 

Hail, Caesar!

In 1951, movies are huge. Their stars are big. Their colors are bright, if not garish. Television has not yet become a national obsession. In Los Angeles, Capitol Studios fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) loves his job even if his days and nights are spent putting out fires.

In Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers sprinkle their new film with fully realized scenes like those that electrified the movies Hollywood made in the postwar, pre-TV era. It’s a trick comparable to the addition of compelling music performances to brighten up a melancholy story in their most recent film, 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Music also spiced up their 2000 release Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? It worked then and it works now.

Among the films in production at Capital in the day-and-a-half that Hail, Caesar! takes place is a film called “Hail, Caesar” starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Whitlock is kidnapped after a spiked drink he chugs in a scene knocks him unconscious. A missing star is just one of Mannix’s problems.

DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johanssen) stars in a swimming pool scene that recalls Esther Williams movies. Mannix works to make sure news of Moran’s out-of-wedlock child is kept quiet.

Director Laurence Larentz (Ralph Fiennes) pouts when Mannix forces him to cast handsome young cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in a sophisticated society film.

When Mannix seeks approval from a panel of clergymen for the script for “Hail, Caesar” and its depiction of Christ, they protest.

Twin sister gossip columnists (and bitter rivals) Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) threaten to write stories damaging to Mannix’s stars.

When Mannix drops in on an editor (Frances McDormand) and asks her to show him some footage, she nearly chokes when her scarf gets caught in the film.

A cushy job offer Mannix receives from Lockheed presents a chance to move into a more stable industry and spend more time with his family. Will he take it?

Among the film’s best scenes is a dance number featuring Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), channeling Gene Kelly. Gurney sings and he and three other guys dance on tabletops. They lament that where they’re going there will be no dames. Near the end of the scene, the performance takes an unexpected turn.

Another features Mannix setting Whitlock straight with a bit of physical discipline.

Hail, Caesar! is a movie I enjoy greatly. The Coen brothers present a whacked-out story with damaged characters and several juicy 50s-era “movie within a movie” scenes. Brolin is excellent. Clooney gets to indulge in some ridiculous overacting. And Swinton continues to be one of the most versatile actors around.

As can be said about almost any Coens film, Hail, Caesar! may not be everybody’s cup of tea. You may walk out muttering WTFs. But you may also be delighted. It’s worth a shot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bridge of Spies

With the pedigree Bridge of Spies possesses, it’s no surprise that this is solid filmmaking. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by the Coen brothers (with Matt Charman). Starring Tom Hanks.

Filled with memorable scenes depicting the times and specific events of the Cold War era, Bridge of Spies is an “inspired by true events” tale of the competition and distrust between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

James Donovan (Hanks) is an attorney in New York chosen in 1957 by his boss Thomas Watters (Alan Alda) to represent Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) who is charged by the U.S. with espionage. Watters and Donovan presume he’s guilty, but agree to provide competent counsel. When the verdict is conviction, Donovan privately lobbies the judge against a death sentence for Abel, suggesting that the spy may be of greater value to U.S. interests if he is kept alive.

A few years later, after U.S. U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austen Stowell) is shot down over the U.S.S.R. and taken prisoner, the U.S. offers to swap Abel for Powers. Donovan is chosen to make the deal.

In East Berlin, shortly after the wall has been erected, Donovan overplays his hand, leading to the story’s tense climax on the real-life Glienicke Bridge.

The events and people in the story are real. The details of the story may be subject to what David Letterman referred to as “writer’s embellishment,” which frequently happens in retellings of history.

The late 50s/early 60s time period is recalled in Bridge of Spies with vintage cars, men wearing hats, lots of smoking, women only in supportive work positions and school kids being taught to duck and cover.

Tom Hanks helps cement his reputation as a bastion of American honesty and fairness, as well as a respected hero. Hanks has been compared to Jimmy Stewart, who generally played good guys who represented American values to moviegoers. Hanks’ Bridge of Spies role is meatier than a typical Stewart role.

Bridge of Spies clocks in around 2:20 but the story never drags. Even the delays in negotiating the prisoner swap only add to the narrative. Yes, Spielberg has made flashier movies, but Bridge of Spies is excellent, entertaining storytelling.

The Martian

Is there such a thing as too much comic relief? Yes, and The Martian is plagued by it.

The Martian has a heck of a story. A NASA mission to Mars chooses to begin its journey home to Earth hurriedly as a giant storm stirs on the red planet. One of the astronauts, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is blown away by the high winds and left for dead as the others blast off for home.

But, wait! Watney’s not quite dead. He heads back into the Mars mission habitat the next day and evaluates his chances of surviving until the next NASA Mars mission occurs. He constructs an indoor potato farm to provide an ongoing food source and makes other accommodations to stay alive.

Meanwhile, the NASA crew in Houston (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Donald Glover and others) eulogizes Watney but soon realizes that he is still alive. Watney manages to communicate, crudely at first, with the crew back on Earth.

As the other members of the departed Mars crew (including Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena and Kate Mara) hurdle through space on the long journey home, they learn that Watney is alive and that he does not blame them for abandoning him.

Will Watney stay alive? Will NASA rescue him? Will NASA send him food and supplies? Will NASA move up the next scheduled MARS mission? How will Mark Watney’s story end? The tension builds. But each time it begins to crescendo, here comes the comic relief.

The funny stuff IS amusing. But it lightens the mood a bit too much, in my opinion. (This was an issue with 2013’s Gravity where George Clooney’s jokey character seemed more like the real-life Clooney than a believable astronaut. In 2000’s Cast Away, a similarly stranded Tom Hanks had some lighter moments—notably with a volleyball—but the underlying peril level was maintained throughout his ordeal.)

The Martian looks great, particularly in 3D. It is directed by one of our best directors, Ridley Scott. Matt Damon, as usual, is solid in the title role. The script is by Drew Goddard from the popular novel by Andy Weir. (That’s the one that started in 2011 with the author sharing one chapter at a time online, followed by a Kindle version, followed by publication in hardcover last year.)

The Martian comes close to being a home run, but doesn’t quite clear the fence. It’s a solid three-bagger, however, and that is not a bad thing. (Baseball is on our minds these days here in St. Louis.)