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First Man (2018)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.

What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.

Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.

I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.

As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.

First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.

Nate;s Grade: B-

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Terminator: Genisys (2015)

If you’re a fan of James Cameron’s iconic Terminator franchise, you’ll probably want to hold onto something as you watch Terminator: Genisys, which hits “delete” on the franchise and starts from scratch with, we’ll call them, “mixed results.”

In the future, man and machine are at war with one another. Skynet went sentient and launched an arsenal of nuclear weapons to obliterate mankind. The human resistance is lead by John Connor (Jason Clarke) and his lieutenant Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney). The machines send back a T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and wipe out the human resistance. This part you know. Reese is sent back in time but during the process, John is attacked by a new Terminator and the world as we know it, past, present, and future is altered. When Reese arrives in 1984 L.A., he’s being chased by a T-1000 and Sarah is the one saving him. She’s been preparing for his arrival and training with her own aging T-800 model who saved her from a childhood attack (she calls him “Pops”). With new memories, Reese is determined that Skynet is now Genisys and Judgment Day is now in 2017. He and Sarah travel to 2017, meet back up with “Pops,” and are surprised to find a familiar face waiting for them with sinister intentions.

0037e99bfc78cd1c7a0f6a706700b830_c0-126-3000-1874_s561x327For a while there it seems like Genisys is going to become the Back to the Future II of the Terminator franchise, which could have been fun watching a different team of actors hiding on the peripheral while 80s Linda Hamilton was going about her day as a café waitress. In many ways, Genisys is akin to Jurassic World in the sense that it holds such nostalgic reverence for the source films. It repurposes the familiar catch phrases and even visually recreates several scenes that fans should recognize. However, that reverence has a limit because it isn’t too long before Genisys just chucks out the entire franchise canon and starts anew. Remember Judgment Day with Skynet? Now it’s… Judgment Day with Genisys. Okay, some things aren’t all that different. Discarding the established timeline of four movies, Genisys takes a path similar to the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films where it creates an alternate timeline that is not beholden to canon. One way of looking at this approach is that it frees you creatively. Another way of looking at it is that is abandons the stories that the fans enjoyed for decades. Neither approach is wrong; it just depends upon your personal perspective. The larger plot points of the Terminator franchise never captivated me; it’s all about preventing one very bad day that just keeps getting delayed. We’ve never had a story that takes place after Reese is set back in time. Genisys certainly has more surprises because of the new timeline; however, many of those surprises were spoiled by a cowardly marketing campaign that must have feared fan uproar. It’s not a bad idea if it didn’t casually destroy all the logic of the franchise.

Let’s just dive face-forward into the convoluted and troubling nature of the Genisys script. Needless to say, numerous spoilers of both the large and small variety follow.

There are certain storylines that are just never cleared up, the first amongst them is who is sending all these other Terminators back in time? We watch the T-800 model go to 1984, along with Reese, but Sarah informs us later that when she was a child a different T-1000 model attacked her family. Apparently Plan Kill John’s Mom was replaced with Kill John’s Grandmother and will likely soon be replaced with the even more surefire Kill John’s Great Grandmother. If we’re already sending Terminators even further back then why stop? Also, why can’t Skynet send more than one Terminator to the same time? Upon the point that Reese travels back in time, John is attacked by a Terminator Matt Smith (Doctor Who) and transformed into the human-machine villainous hybrid. We’re told this is a nexus point of time that is such a turning point that it’s altered the timeline. But why? It happens AFTER Reese is sent back in time, so why does it affect anything in the preceding past? How does this even, which happens again after Reese is propelled back in time, eliminate the entire established Terminator canon? Likewise, this Reese has a separate timeline so why would he have new memories? He never existed in this new timeline so the fact that he remembers new things doesn’t make sense.

Terminator-Genesys-tiene-nuevo-trailer-703x345This brings us to the centerpiece of logical fallacy, which is killer robot John Connor. I was never really that invested in his character to care that much that he was turned into the film’s bad guy. What I do care about is that Genisys just completely gives up in this moment. If he was just trying to stop Sarah and Reese from stopping Skynet/Genisys, that would be one thing, but John 2.0 is actively trying to kill his parents … before he is conceived. When it comes to time travel, we can accept some degree of suspension of disbelief with plot holes (more of those to come in just a bit), but John wiping out the reason for his existence is just too much. He half-heartedly explains his theory that they’re holdovers from another timeline, so they can just do as they like with no greater repercussions to their own pasts. Maybe, but there’s not two Sarah Connors in this timeline, so killing your mom is still going to negate all your evil robot business, son. With that the very drive of the main antagonist is compromised. With every new attempt to kill mommy and daddy, the film reminds you how this cannot work.

There are other less egregious plot holes but they still can be irksome. How about the fact that Sarah and Reese jump forward to 2017 to thwart Genisys, failing to give birth to John in 1984? He won’t be born yet to lead the human resistance against the machines, which kind of means just by jumping forward in time and delaying Johns birth, the machines have sort of won. When Sarah and Reese travel to 2017 in order to stop the launch of Genisys, why do they travel to within 24 hours of its launch? That’s pretty poor time management. And why hasn’t “Pops” been doing more to prepare for Sarah’s return. He spends thirty years working construction and building the offices of Cyberdine, but couldn’t he also have been sabotaging the company or at least the building? And if John Connor knew his parents were coming to 2017, why didn’t he do more to set up Genisys to withstand their counter attacks? Couldn’t he have had Genisys go online like the day before they arrived in 2017? If you know when they’re going to show up then you have no excuse to fall victim to people you otherwise could be trapping. Also, Skynet realizes that their real problem for never besting the humans is a branding issue? Did changing the name to Genisys really need to be part of the masterstroke? Why is everyone so excited for what is a glorified app that connects people’s electronic devices?

Much can be forgiven in action and comedy movies if they just go about doing their job and entertaining you, but Genisys can only do so much in that department. The action sequences are fairly mundane with the occasional impressive stunt. The problem is we’ve seen these sequences too many times and in other movies and Genisys brings precious little of its own action invention to the big screen. Until the third act, the movie is a series of chases and escapes. The best sequence is likely the hospital brawl between the T-800 and Robo-John as they wantonly destroy every wall within prime smashing distance. I know many in the fan community do not look favorably upon Terminator 3, and it admittedly has the lamest villain of the entire franchise, but the action sequences were memorable and developed organically and were nicely conceived. With Genisys, the action is too rote and familiar. It is competent but for me I found the action sequences to be too underwhelming in design and execution to forgive the film’s other sins.

I also can’t help but think that all three of the main actors were miscast for their parts. Emilia Clarke can do great things and showcases her range as a strong authority figure on HBO’s Game of Thrones. With the role of Sarah Connor, Clarke does a lot of running and barking but she can’t shake our memories of Hamilton. The part doesn’t play to Emilia’s strengths as an actress. Courtney can be a good actor (as seen in the first season of Starz’s Spartacus) but rarely does he prove this to be the case in films. I enjoyed his cavalier bully in Divergent, but he’s mostly a vacant presence in Genisys, gaping at all the changes. Then there’s the other Clarke who too has proven himself a capable and intimidating actor in films like Zero Dark Thirty. When he’s menacing he comes across as, dare I say it, too sincere, and when he’s meant to be inspiring he comes across as too phony. Are the performances the fault of the actors, the director (Alan Taylor), or the screenwriters (Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier) who gave them such little to do?

landscape-1436118757-terminator-time-travel-theoriesThe film’s MVP is Schwarzenegger. I wasn’t expecting the 68-year-old former Governor of California to contribute this much to the film. I figured Arnie would be a small player and played for comic relief. He keeps asking if Sarah and Reese have “mated” since it’s their destiny. He is certainly played for welcomed comic relief but he’s also the fourth most important character in this reboot. He has a father/daughter bond with Sarah and it produces the closest thing to an emotion in the movie. There’s an ongoing joke that he’s “old but not obsolete” and it could be the tagline for the next Expendables film. With all the time travel tomfoolery, it was easier for me to believe the reason they throw out to explain why the Terminator is aging: it’s living tissue so it ages. Done. I’m fine with that. The older Arnold vs. younger Arnold fight is the major highlight of Genisys and a testament to how much better the de-aging CGI has gotten since the waxy young Professor X and Magneto in 2006’s The Last Stand.

Much like its ongoing star, the Terminator franchise is old but not obsolete, and even a disappointing movie reminds us just how much life can come from this series. It’s got a sense of fun that entertained me enough for one viewing. The characters and action sequences and iconic in our pop-culture, which makes erasing them from a new movie plot problematic. If you strip everyone’s fond memories of the first two Terminators and start over, what’s left? You can repeat some of the more memorable scenes (the Hollywood adage of “same but different”) but this does little other than make you remember how much you preferred it the first time (see: Star Trek Into Darkness). I wish Genisys had been more risky because so much of it feels far too safe, from the average action sequences, to the boring characters, to the ho-hum conclusion meant to set up a new trilogy of movies in this brave new non-Skynet world. I haven’t watched Terminator: Salvation in many years but I’m curious to see it again if for no other purpose than to determine which is the least of the Terminator films.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

dawn_of_apes_teaser_posterAnyone else think the titles of these Apes prequels should be retroactively switched? Coming off the heels of the surprisingly excellent flick Rise of the Planet of the Apes, those damn dirty apes are back with another summer blockbuster that’s just as mature, engrossing, emotionally resonant, and visually remarkable. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place ten years after the events of the previous entry, with mankind devastated by the “Simian Flu,” the same bug that has kick-started the evolution of the primates. Caesar (Andy Serkis in motion capture) is leading a fairly conservative life; he has a home, a family, a wife, and a community he’s trying to build. Then a group of humans wander into their territory needing access to the remains of a dam for a power supply. The apes do not trust the humans, but Caesar accepts their terms, looking to avoid war. However, fear, resentment, and hate fester on both sides, and it’s not long before it’s apes vs. humans and you witness one of the greatest things your eyeballs will ever see – an ape firing two machine guns while riding a horse. Plot-wise, this film is more a bridge to a larger conflict between the two factions. The human characters (including Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman) are given short shrift. And that’s fine because the movie belongs to the apes; they are the stars rightfully. Half of this movie is in subtitles for ape sign language. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) dwells in the moments other blockbusters don’t have time for. He lingers in the shadows, with silences, and we slowly integrate into the world of the apes and their own power dynamics. The all-out action of the third act doesn’t feel like a natural fit for the thoughtful movie that has played out until that point. The visual effects are again top-notch and the motion capture tech captures a stunning range of human emotions that you can witness play out across the CGI creations. Toby Kebbell (Wrath of the Titans) portrays Koba, the more hawkish member of the ape tribe, and he is just as good as Serkis, which is saying a lot. I’d still call Rise a better overall film, but Dawn is a more than worthy follow-up that reminds audiences what great storytelling can achieve with the right people behind the scenes.

Nate’s Grade: A-

White House Down (2013)

white-house-down-poster2Director Roland Emmerich, the maestro of the dumb fun blockbuster, is never going to get the credit he deserves but the man is something of a mad genius when it comes to putting together spectacle-rich, low-calorie but still satisfying summer entertainment. Take White House Down, the second of 2013’s Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movies. It’s really more of a buddy film contained to that famous structure. It’s not a smart blockbuster by any means but it makes up for any and all flaws with its sheer overpowering sense of fun. Stuff gets blown up real good, the action is brisk, and there are satisfying payoffs for story elements that felt like they were, at first glance, merely thrown together. You may walk away surprised at how much you’re enjoying the comedic interplay between Secret Service agent Channing Tatum and president Jamie Foxx. Plus it’s fun to see the president in on the action instead of merely as a hostage, like the earlier Olympus Has Fallen. In direct comparison, I’d have to say White House Down is the better of the two movies, both in payoff and action. It’s nice to have a movie that’s just fun to watch, that goes about its blockbuster business with precision, supplying a few decent twists, and giving us heroes worth rooting for and action sequences that are well developed and that matter no matter how ridiculous. Emmerich movies are blissfully free of self-serious malarkey, though his weakest hit, 2004’s Day After Tomorrow, got a bit preachy. His movies know what they are and know the demands of an audience. What I needed this summer was a movie designed to make me cheer the impossible. White House Down is a romp.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Lawless (2012)

The bootlegging drama Lawless certainly has all the right elements to be an enjoyable movie. It’s by the men who gave us the great noir-Western The Proposition (director John Hillcoat, writer Nick Cave), it’s got a star-studded cast, plenty of bloody action, and a handsomely recreated production of the Prohibition era. But as I watched the Bondurant boys struggle against those who would like to put them in jail and/or murder them, I kept noticing something odd. I wasn’t that engaged. There was plenty of life-and-death drama, but why wasn’t I involved in the story more? Lawless feels like a series of scenes rather than a movie. Even when the plot changes it doesn’t feel like the movie is advancing. Even when things are more desperate it doesn’t feel like the momentum is building. The characters are somewhat sluggish as well, Shia LaBeouf as the scared youngest brother, Tom Hardy as the grumbly big brother who talks like his mouth is full of molasses. Jessica Chastain as the abused Good Woman who opens herself up to our Strong Hurting Man. Then you got a plot with a mobster (Gary Oldman) that weirdly climaxes with an hour left in the movie. He’s ignored for the remainder. Then there’s Guy Pearce as a colorfully fiendish and foppish special deputy that terrorizes the town. I am a Pearce fan but this guy is acting like he’s in his own weirder personal movie; it’s the kind of stuff Marlon Brando did. I appreciated that Lawless kept things gritty and bloody for realism, but I kept finding moments that ripped me out, namely the indestructible nature of Tom Hardy. Seriously, this guy has to be the Terminator. When he miraculously survives yet another seemingly fatal injury, all you can do is laugh. Lawless is passable entertainment but with its pedigree this should have been better.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Public Enemies (2009)

Considering the talent in front of and behind the camera, it’s hard not to describe Public Enemies as anything but a letdown. This Depression-era gangster film is heavy on period details and very tight-fisted when it comes to characterization. You’d think given 140 minutes and the natural charisma of Johnny Depp that an audience would come to some kind of understanding with notorious bank robber John Dillinger. Nope. The characters remain perfunctory the entire time, pushed into conflicts by a brisk pace that manages to squeeze in three bank robberies, two prison breaks, and many police shootouts. Because the movie barely takes time to breathe, the love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, a dead ringer for pop singer Katy Perry) is never credible, the tension never feels palpable, and director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) seems overly smitten with his distracting high def digital photography. You never really feel any sense of danger or interest. The characters on screen feel like strangers even after 140 minutes. Depp makes the movie more tolerable than it would be without his presence. Mann, one of three credited screenwriters, seems to assume the audience is well versed in Dillinger history and so he skips over plenty of fertile territory. Public Enemies certainly hums with plenty of polish but it comes across as mostly mundane due to such flimsy character work. It’s a collection of good scenes that fail to make up a satisfying whole.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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