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 Nice Guys

The Nice Guys is not a direct descendant of the Lethal Weapon movies but it might be a first cousin. And it’s a casual acquaintance of Boogie Nights.

Some of my favorite movies are L.A. detective stories, including a few bad ones. The Nice Guys is a good one. Set in 1977 with a cool 70’s soundtrack, the film features title characters who are not quite as hardened as most other L.A. movie detectives.

Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a bumbling, hard-drinking single father. His precocious and cute 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) is the brains of the family (and the better driver).

Jackson Healy (a pudgier-than-usual Russell Crowe) is an enforcer who comes calling to damage Holland but goes on to partner with him as they work to solve a caper.

The film opens with a young boy checking out a babe named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) in a girlie mag when a car slams through his house. He sees the real life version of the foldout babe, tossed from the car and partially unclothed. She dies, setting the plot in motion.

Another babe, Amelia (Margaret Qualley) is trying to escape from a number of people who would silence her quest to end smog in L.A. One of those people is her mother Judith (Kim Basinger), a federal agent supposedly trying to bust the auto industry for violating EPA regs.

(The 62-year-old Basinger won an Oscar for her work with Crowe in another period piece film set in the same town, 1997’s L.A. Confidential. Her latest performance doesn’t make nearly as strong an impression.)

The Nice Guys’ plot is clever but the main reason to see the film is the newly-hatched partnership between Holland and Healy. There’s verbal and physical humor. My favorite bit involves Holland in a bathroom stall trying to manage his newspaper, his gun, his cigarette, the stall’s door and his pants at the same time. It’s a classic piece of business. A couple of the large scale tumbles Holland takes end with lucky landings.

Shane Black wrote and directed The Nice Guys. He wrote the first Lethal Weapon movie and is credited with creating those characters. He also wrote and directed Iron Man 3.

Gosling and Crowe are two of our most charismatic actors. Their onscreen chemistry is not quite a home run, but there’s enough going on here to suggest those two characters might be worth another go-around. It’s not a “must see” movie, but it’s a lot of fun! (With a healthy dose of violence, car crashes, explosions and all that other action film stuff.)

The Big Short

The Big Short is one of the more clever, creative and different films to come down the mainstream movie track in a long time. It contains one of the year’s best acting performances. It is, unfortunately, a failure.

Why? Because it is too cute. Because it tries to explain arcane financial information in silly ways. Because it attempts to assign white hats and black hats where many hats should be gray. Because, ultimately, it is hard to cheer for these few winners when there were so many losers.

We all know what happened in 2007-2008. Okay, we don’t know exactly what happened but we know how the nation’s economic collapse affected each of us individually. The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’s book, tries to tell part of that story with humor.

Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is a Deutsche Bank employee on Wall Street who serves as narrator, occasionally turning directly to the camera in the middle of a scene to share a point of exposition. He drips smugness.

Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a California doctor who leads an investment group. Burry, a man with tons of nervous energy (the real life Burry has Asperger’s), guesses that the housing market will collapse in ’07 when many subprime mortgages are scheduled to adjust significantly higher. He makes huge bets (using his investors’ money) that the mortgage banking industry will suffer defaults on home loans. Bale’s performance as this quirky but self-assured gambler is among his best.

Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) is part of a New York-based investment consortium which receives much of its funding from Morgan Stanley, a major Wall Street institution. Baum has a strong moral compass. He is concerned about right and wrong, yet he proceeds with betting against the banks—including Morgan Stanley.

Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) is a Boulder-based investor who wants to get in on “shorting” the mortgage market but his capitalization is too low. With help from Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former banker who has cashed out and retired, he gets in on the action.

Director Adam McKay (who co-wrote) includes clever quick montages of timely images to reflect the times. They include a Britney Spears clip to represent 2000 and a 1st generation iPhone to indicate 2007. The segments with Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez (alongside a real economist) attempting to simplify some of the complexity of finance are funny. Are they informative? A little.

McKay gets an “A” for ambition and a gold star for trying to relate the stories in Lewis’s book in a lighthearted manner. But The Big Short fails to accomplish its mission. I am betting against it.

The Place Beyond The Pines

Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper have just one scene together in The Place Beyond the Pines, but it’s the pivotal scene of the movie. In a film full of interesting and well-developed characters, theirs are the ones the movie is built around. A film with strong performances from two of our best young actors is one that must be seen.

These two men are both basically good guys who each face moral dilemmas. Gosling plays a guy who rides stunt motorcycles in a carnival. He reluctantly becomes a bank robber. Cooper goes from law school to the police force where he encounters that bank robber.

The story’s good, but the main reason to see The Place Beyond the Pines is to meet all these people. In addition to Gosling’s Luke and Cooper’s Avery, Eva Mendes is Romina, a Latino who bears Luke’s son after a quick hookup. This is a non-glam role for her and she inhabits it well. Ben Mendelsohn plays Robin, a local guy who gives Luke a place to stay. Robin is also the guy who points Luke toward robbing banks.

Poor Ray Liotta. Whenever you see him in a movie, you know something bad is going to go down. He plays a crooked cop. Strong character actor Bruce Greenwood plays the local D.A. The two young actors who play the sons, Dane DeHaan as Luke’s son, Jason, and Emory Cohen as Avery’s son, AJ, also bring good acting chops to the movie.

Avery is conflicted about his being proclaimed a hero cop after his incident with Luke, but eventually he milks it and moves into politics. Suddenly, the movie jumps ahead 15 years to the relationship between the teen sons of the two men. The “third act,” as some have called this part of the movie, reveals more about Avery, as well as the boys. It provides a fitting conclusion to the narrative.

The movie is set in Schenectady, NY. The town name is Mohawk for “place beyond the pines.” According to web postings, the names of the Schenectady streets, banks, TV stations and newspaper are the actual names. The police uniforms are supposedly the exact ones worn by Schenectady cops. The story, though, is pure fiction.

The Place Beyond The Pines is among the year’s best, so far. It’s harder for a March release (April, in St. Louis) to get award nominations than, say, a November release. But good writing, excellent acting and a well-assembled movie should lead to year-end accolades. I recommend it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gangster Squad

With classic elements galore, Gangster Squad delivers the goods. Sean Penn turns in a killer performance as a boxer turned mob boss in mid-20th century Los Angeles. His character is almost cartoonish, like a Dick Tracy bad guy. Josh Brolin, as leader of the secret Squad, is not unlike Dick Tracy, with a Tess Trueheart type wife.

With a hint of the colors of retouched picture postcards and the requisite armada of late 40’s automobiles, Gangster Squad is drenched in nostalgia. The wardrobes (including men in hats), the red lipstick, the smoking, comments about WW II, the music all do a nice job of capturing the era. Josh Brolin’s opening and closing narrations echo another staple of this genre.

Penn’s character Mickey Cohen controls not only vice but also the majority of police and political leaders in metro LA. Nick Nolte, looking healthier than in his other recent roles, is the LAPD chief (not been bought off by Cohen) who anoints Brolin’s character John O’Mara as leader of a secret gangster squad.

O’Mara recruits a team of cops to shut down Cohen and his operations. Ryan Gosling is a cool LAPD detective named Jerry Wooters who successfully hits on Cohen’s babe, Grace Faraday, played by Emma Stone. He eases his way into the squad and becomes a vital team member.

The squad operates almost like the Mission Impossible teams of prior movies and TV shows. They even have a tech guy, played by the nerdy Giovanni Ribisi, who plants a microphone in Cohen’s digs and listens in from a remote shack.

The Gangster Squad and Cohen’s crooks trade punches throughout the film until the last round, when the knockout blow is finally delivered.

Gangster Squad is an entertainingly violent movie that’s not quite a classic, but has all the LA period piece cops and robbers stuff. One quibble is the casting of Emma Stone as the babe. A more mature, less innocent looking actress may have been more effective in the role.

Word is that the movie was originally slated for a September, 2012, release. But because of its violent content (and one particular sequence) was retooled and held back after the Aurora, Colorado shootings. Nonetheless, Gangster Squad is action-packed with great characters, a strong cast and a good story. I’m already looking forward to seeing it again.

“Drive”—/Drive It Home (from Redbox, etc.)/

“Drive,” one of my favorites of 2011, has just been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. Here is my review, originally posted back in September. Sadly, “Drive” received ZERO Oscar acting nominations and its director was NOT nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. I think the movie has the elements of a classic. I know I look forward to seeing it again. I recommend it. Read on…

The movies I like best are the ones that feature three things. First, a good story. Second, compelling characters. Third, an interesting way of presenting that story.

“Drive” has all three elements. Ryan Gosling plays a guy who loves to drive. He’s a garage mechanic/movie stunt driver by day and a getaway car driver by night. He befriends his neighbor, played by Carey Mulligan and, later, does a favor for her husband.

The favor? Driving for a simple stickup. But things go bad, people get shot and Gosling’s driver gets involved with some very mean people who want to kill him.

Among the movie’s compelling characters is Bryan Cranston as Gosling’s boss at the garage. Cranston deserves a supporting actor nomination for his grizzled, limping, tragic, chronic victim type.

Albert Brooks is likely to be considered for a best supporting nom as well for his sleazy ex-movie producer turned hood.

Is Gosling Oscar-worthy in “Drive?”  Yes, but buzz is stronger for his work in “Ides of March” coming in three weeks.

The main reason this movie soars is its direction. Beautifully shot, gracefully paced. With a soundtrack that constantly surprises and entertains.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn won Best Director at Cannes this spring. He’s certain to be nominated for all the directing awards in the US this winter. His direction is stylish. There are tinges of Tarantino, but without the smirk.

Is “Drive” a classic? Maybe. It’s a movie that will, I believe, achieve cult status and will still be relevant decades from now. Rated “R.”

“Drive” May Be a Classic

The movies I like best are the ones that feature three things. First, a good story. Second, compelling characters. Third, an interesting way of presenting that story.

“Drive” has all three elements. Ryan Gosling plays a guy who loves to drive. He’s a garage mechanic/movie stunt driver by day and a getaway car driver by night. He befriends his neighbor, played by Carey Mulligan and, later, does a favor for her husband.

The favor? Driving for a simple stickup. But things go bad, people get shot and Gosling’s driver gets involved with some very mean people who want to kill him.

Among the movie’s compelling characters is Bryan Cranston as Gosling’s boss at the garage. Cranston deserves a supporting actor nomination for his grizzled, limping, tragic, chronic victim type.

Albert Brooks is likely to be considered for a best supporting nom as well for his sleazy ex-movie producer turned hood.

Is Gosling Oscar-worthy in “Drive?”  Yes, but buzz is stronger for his work in “Ides of March” coming in three weeks.

The main reason this movie soars is its direction. Beautifully shot, gracefully paced. With a soundtrack that constantly surprises and entertains.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn won Best Director at Cannes this spring. He’s certain to be nominated for all the directing awards in the US this winter. His direction is stylish. There are tinges of Tarantino, but without the smirk.

Is “Drive” a classic? Maybe. It’s a movie that will, I believe, achieve cult status and will still be relevant decades from now. Rated “R.”